Car Nicobar must be one of the remotest places on the face of this earth. It is on the same latitude as Ceylon but south of the Andaman Islands. On this island of impenetrable jungle, a mere ten miles wide and almost lost in the Indian Ocean, the RAF [quoteright]maintained a radio navigational
beacon. We were twelve men. Twelve because that’s the absolute minimum needed to run an RAF station. Car Nicobar is a thousand miles northwest of Singapore, our parent base. We had no normal radios - there were no broadcasts to pick up. We communicated with the civilized world by Morse code.
We twelve were carefully picked. Hopefully we were stable individuals, resourceful in adversity, and easy to get along with. I was one of the two Radio Mechanics. Bill Woodman was the other. He now lives in Sydney, Australia, and to this day we correspond regularly.
Every Wednesday an RAF DC 3 supply plane left Singapore and landed seven hours later on the airstrip; an airstrip that the Japanese had built in their ambition to invade India by sea. The DC 3 brought food, supplies, beer, books, and films. It also brought our replacements if we weakened and fell victim to our situation. A special plane was rushed up the time a cook went crazy and attacked a native with a meat cleaver. We had to secure him whilst the C.O. mounted guard with his revolver, the only weapon on the island.
Car Nicobar specialized in heat, humidity, insects, and snakes. There were natives but we never mixed socially; a dark skinned, suspicious Christian missionary from India saw to that. There was nothing else. It was the ultimate distillation of loneliness and boredom. The maximum tour of duty was three months. If you felt you couldn’t take it any more you simply told the C.O. You went back on the next plane without question. Your replacement had already been picked from among the seven RAF stations on Singapore Island.
On this occasion, the door of the DC 3 opened and out came Corporal Ginger Burley, our replacement medical orderly. The establishment didn’t run to a doctor. Ginger was our new nurse, surgeon, consultant, and locum tenens.
A corporal was unusual recognition of our importance. Maybe they couldn’t find anyone else. Maybe he had volunteered. I do know he had only just arrived in Singapore. I can imagine the interview.
“Well now, Burley, welcome to the Far East. Do stand at ease, there’s a good chap.”A glance at the accompanying file folder.
“Hmm, really. You know we could do with somebody of your calibre at this place on the map here. Chaps up there are in a bit of a spot. Wouldn’t care to volunteer would you? Just a temporary posting while we sort things out. You can always come back here if you don’t like it.”
On Car Nicobar, Ginger Burley at once became Doc Burley. Doc was a very nice fellow and quite competent. The original nickname Ginger came from his red hair, sandy moustache and white skin. Being new to the tropics he went about on his first day without his bush jacket, got badly sunburned, and raised the most horrible blisters all over his back. They were an inch high, up to two inches across, full of fluid and as tight as a drum. There was nothing anyone could do for his discomfort.
Within a couple of days the blisters burst and the fluid soaked into his jacket. When he woke up next morning there were large holes in the back. The rats had eaten the back of his jacket out.
That night, we showed Doc to his charp (from the Hindi charpoy: bed) with the pole at the head to support the mandatory mosquito net. We showed him how to spread the edge of the net around the mattress and tuck it underneath, leaving a place to get in. And, when once inside, how to tuck in the last part. We retired to our own beds and tucked ourselves in for the night.
There was a blood-curdling scream from Doc. He was fighting to escape the clutches of the unfamiliar net, the edges of which were pinned down by his own weight. We watched him burst free as if from the gates of hell and retreat in stark terror as white as a sheet.
On close examination we found a hairy black tarantula about the size of a man’s fist. On this, his first night, Doc had lain back, looked up,. and saw the revolting thing coming down the pole towards him inside the canopy.
He explained that all his life he had been terrified of anything, which crept, crawled, or slithered. We looked at each other: who would shake his shoes out in the morning before he reached for them?
We checked Doc’s bed and persuaded him to try it again. After lights out the only sound came from the insects. We had things on Car Nicobar - I don’t know what to call them - which flew around at night. They resembled green grasshoppers but their bodies were four to six inches long, almost an inch thick, and they had wings. If trapped inside, they would wait until lights out and then slowly drone about like helicopters, crashing into the sides of our corrugated hut. It didn’t seem to hurt them. A minute later they’d crash into the other side. A moment’s peace and then they’d crash into the end of the hut.
Someone would curse, disentangle himself from his bed, put the light on, swat the offending monster and hurl the body out into the night. Until then sleep was difficult. We evicted one such intruder and explained the disturbance to Doc. As we lay there we wondered who was going to tell him about the snakes.
Doc’s plane brought us a rare treat: apples from Tasmania. We all got two. Doc was especially pleased and told us how, back in England, he always left an apple on his night table so he could bite into it when he woke up in the morning. He put one of his apples beside his bed.
When Doc woke up next morning he reached for his apple only to find a core with some odd teeth marks. He thought one of us had done it. But it was the rats who had eaten Doc’s apple.
The next day we gave Doc a pair of Wellington boots, RAF issue. We diffidently pointed out that they were necessary to protect our ankles from the kraits, and showed him one. He paled at the sight. We hastened to explain that since they were smaller than us they almost always slithered away.
What we hesitated to explain was that kraits are deaf. Kraits are also extremely venomous, even though quite small. True they run away. But only if they sense you coming through the vibrations of your footfall. God help you if you brush past one asleep in the sun on a leaf among the foliage. A rescue plane could get you to a doctor within fifteen hours. It wasn’t enough time.
We didn’t swim in the jungle ponds, with their tangled roots and filthy stagnant water, because of the leeches. Besides, they were breeding grounds for anopheles mosquitoes carrying two or three wicked forms of malaria.
Swimming in the sea was risky. Waves as high as houses at times. Are you afraid of snakes? What do you do, run away? Very sensible of you. But what do you do when you’re in deep water and you find a coral snake sizing you up? Swim? Not fast enough I’m afraid. With luck he’ll go elsewhere, moving faster than any Olympic swimmer, leaving you treading water. A coral snake is the same size as a krait: half an inch thick, thirty odd inches long, with alternating black and white half inch bands. Plus a rounded and flattened tail just like a Spitfire, for high speed propulsion. A coral snake is probably worse than a krait however, it can’t open its jaws very wide, so you watch out for the loose skin between your thumb and your forefinger.
Going to lunch one day, Doc pointed in amazement. There was one of our land crabs, another Car Nicobar specialty. Our camp was nowhere near the sea and it was a novel sight for Doc. The shell of a land crab is eight or nine inches across, quite dry, and coral pink in colour. It sounds strange, but they clatter and rattle as they move. They tend not to scuttle away on your approach as do marine crabs. They don’t seem to be afraid of anything. We were careful of land crabs. We would sometimes see a native pick up a krait by the tail and with one swift movement crack it like a whip. And then laugh. The same natives kept away from land crabs. They didn’t laugh at land crabs.
Before we could stop him Doc walked up to the land crab and poked it. Fortunately, he poked it with a stick, not his finger or his foot. The crab reached out to meet the stick, grasped it with crushing force in one big claw, and snapped it.
Car Nicobar has monitor lizards ten feet long, unknown to the Smithsonian Institute. There’s a Ph.D. waiting for some naturalist. The Komodo dragons of the Lesser Sunda Islands, east of Java, were unknown until 1912. Ours were also carnivorous and lived on the wild pigs. One of them crossed a jungle trail in front of me one day, dragging its great long tail. Like a freight train, at a railroad crossing, it seemed to go on forever.
One dark night after supper, Doc suddenly had to go to the privy, afflicted with Gyppy Tummy from the unfamiliar food. The privy was up a short narrow path through the jungle. The first night we gave him a flashlight and showed him the way. The privy was six feet square containing a wooden one holer. There was no electricity. When the door closed it was perfectly dark inside.
Doc put the flashlight on the wooden boards beside the hole, dropped his shorts and sat down. The flashlight fell off the seat, crashed on the floor, rolled away out of reach and went out.
Jungle nighttime darkness is never quiet. There is always at least the noise of crickets, a steady chirp in the second octave above middle C. Doc heard nothing from camp living quarters. Our conversations were smothered in the nameless whispers and rustles of the surrounding foliage and creepers. In the distance a wild pig crashed through the undergrowth squealing in apparent panic. Doc was enveloped in tangible blackness. Doc was alone with his phobias.
The flying things crashed into the privy walls. Doc’s skin crawled. He stared around, but was unable even to see the walls of the privy. He couldn’t tell if this noise or that noise was inside the privy or outside. His ears could give no direction to the sounds.
Sitting there alone, Doc became aware of a rustle. He swiveled his head trying to get a fix on it. It eluded him. There it was again. At times close by, distant at other times. Drops of sweat fell steadily from his chin. His eyebrows saturated and couldn’t handle the flood. Trickles went into his eyes, stinging and blinding him. He squeezed his eyelids shut. The blackness lit up with dancing lights and shooting stars. Another rustle. He wiped his eyes desperately. He blinked and looked about in vain. He had no idea where the flashlight was. The hairs on his arms prickled. Globules rolled down his arms and filled up the spaces between his fingers with warm, sticky sweat.
The noise was close by. It was inside the privy. Doc was sure of it but he couldn’t locate it and he couldn’t identify it. He stood up and crouched for his trousers. As he left the hole the noise grew louder. Then stopped. Doc froze, half bent, and listened.
There it was again. This time behind him. All his life Doc had known the menace of soft sounds in the dark. Very carefully, so as not to make a noise, he reached for the shorts around his ankles and groped for his Ronson cigarette lighter. Not that pocket. This one? His shorts were crumpled around his shoes. Irregular folds of crumpled pockets are not made for hands trembling in fear. Where were the openings? His fingers desperately pulled, fumbled and poked.
At last! The lighter! He turned toward the seat. His feet, snared in the shorts, shuffled round as quietly as possible. He began to fear that his slippery fingers would lose the lighter. Very, very carefully, holding the lighter out in front of him, hardly breathing and afraid of what he might see, he pressed the catch.
It sparked. To his immense relief the flame revealed nothing. Just the walls, flickering shadows, and the seat with the round black hole. But then a movement and an ominous hiss.
Up from out of the hole, attracted by the light and evidently very angry, came the stained and steaming head of a cobra with hood flared wide. The black glistening tongue flicked in and out. The eyes fixed on Doc and the head began to sway from side to side.
Doc screamed and dropped the lighter. In abject terror he found the door, wrenched it open, and fell down the step. He got up and tried to run but the shorts were still round his ankles and he sprawled on the path. He freed himself and fled back to his hut. As we sat talking he crashed through the door, gasping and sobbing.
Doc went back to Singapore on the next flight out. A nice fellow. We were sorry to see him go.
PAUL GREGSON, a quiet and unassuming bon vivant of international reputation, actually lived through the events he relates. A man of checkered past, if not indeed herringbone.
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