Captain August Okpe, who hails from Ihiagwa, Owerri in Imo State was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
He enjoyed the privilege of academic and professional training at Government College Umuahia, Nigeria; The Central Officers School, Royal Canadian Air Force, Centralia, Ontario, Canada; The Royal Canadian Air Force Flight School, Penhold, Alberta, Canada; The Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Instructors School, Moose-Jaw, Saskatchewan; University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA. The United States Air Force Flight Safety Centre, Valdosta, Georgia; The Boeing Airplane Flight School, Seattle, Washington; The British Airways Flight School, Gatwick, UK; and Cranfield University, Bedfordforshire, UK.
Captain Okpe was part of the nucleus and, indeed, foundation member of the Nigerian Air Force which was established early 1963. But the NAF along with the country went through a serious upheaval in the Nigerian Crisis of 1966 that led to the flight of Easterners to the East and the subsequent establishment of the Eastern Command component of the Nigerian Armed Forces in Enugu, in Eastern Nigeria.
In addition to his appointment as the Chief Flight Safety Officer & Air Accident Investigator, NAF Headquarters, Captain Okpe operated a variety of aircraft for the NAF, the Eastern Command and later Biafra before and during the war. As the de facto Biafran Chief Pilot, he later commanded the Tactical Air Command that won world-wide acclaim in its attempt to tip the balance in the war, which the Biafran regime unfortunately could not sustain for too long. For that and other meritorious services in the course of his prosecution of the war through unconventional military aviation tactics, Biafra honoured him with all the national awards possible at the time including the prestigious Military Cross.
In consideration of Captain Okpe’s spectacular aerial campaigns and punitive missions (economic damage and strategic bombings of military installations) against Nigeria, the Military Tribunal set up by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria late 1970, understandably, did not recommend him to be recalled to the Armed Forces of post war Nigeria along with some of his peers.
Captain Okpe, however, has been granted a Presidential Pardon vide Government Notice Gazette No. 40 Vol. 90 of 18th May 2006, whereupon his dismissal from the Armed Forces of Nigeria got commuted to retirement with full benefits, rights and privileges with effect from 29th May 2000.
The Okpe family is very military to the core. Captain Okpe’s father fought in the World War II, while the Captain’s eldest son, August Okpe ll, is a much decorated US Army combatant officer of the Operation Desert Storm fame. His grand son, August Okpe lll, is expected to become a Sub-marine Commander some day !
After leaving the NAF, Captain Okpe went on to the civil flight schools in the UK and USA to convert to become a civil pilot whereupon he joined the Nigeria Airways where he was later appointed fleet Captain and, subsequently, the Chief Pilot in 1985.
By the time he retired from Nigeria Airways in June 1999 and later as Director and Specialist Air Accident Investigator for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Captain Okpe had flown as Captain or Instructor Pilot, in war and peace, a large number of the aircraft types the Western World had produced including but not limited to the T33, T37, DC3, F27 F28, B737, The Airbus A310-200 wide-body jet and the, Douglas DC-10-30, Jumbo Jet and had recorded over 15,000 hours of Military and Civil flight time to destinations domestic, regional or intercontinental as far afield to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North and South America, and Asia.
The Captain, in a well articulated synergy of Flight Operations and Corporate Affairs, optimized command and control in a multi-faceted aviation administration as a senior member of the airline management. Not surprisingly, therefore, he headed the Nigeria Airways Projects Implementation Task Force while also juggling with the additional responsibility as the Chairman Disciplinary Committee, Nigeria Airways.
A published poet and an ardent classicist, Captain Okpe, who is a widower with four grown children and grand children, is a member of quite a few professional bodies including IFALPAN (International Federation of Air Line Pilots and Navigators). He subscribes to a lot of charities (Veterans Welfare, The Legion, Global Foundation For Orphaned Children), enjoys tennis, classical music, the beaches and, when possible, quality socializing.
The Last Flight
A Pilot Remembers the Air force & the Biafran Air Attacks
by Captain August Okpe
The Last Flight
A Pilot Remembers the Air force & the Biafran Air Attacks
by Captain August Okpe
Published Mar 24, 2011
Genre: HISTORY / Military / Aviation & Space
THE BIAFRAN CHIEF PILOT BREAKS HIS SILENCE TO REVEAL ALL
A Nigerian Air Force aircraft executing military flight manoeuvres and violent aerobatics crashes over Ibadan, Nigeria and sets off unprecedented accusations, recriminations and suspicions of acts of sabotage, treachery and betrayal perpetrated by the German Air Force group in Nigeria.
A clutch of dissidents from across the Niger boards a Benin – Lagos flight and diverts it to land at Enugu airport in a quick well coordinated broad day light skyjack. It was the first violent airplane snatch in Nigeria.
A German Corporal, ignoring military protocol because of irreconcilable prejudice fails to salute a Nigerian Lieutenant thereby provoking intra-service hierarchical chaos in the German-run NAF.
These are but a few of the multitude of expose and revelations the author copiously chronicles in his THE LAST FLIGHT. Writing from the vantage position of being a part of the nucleus and foundation member of the Nigerian Air Force and later an active air combatant in the Nigeria-Biafra air-war, Captain August Okpe has given a robust and exciting account as well as some incredible perspectives of the political and military intrigues on both sides of the divide. He left nothing to the imagination in giving the account of the genesis and inception of the NAF while highlighting subsequent activities – the routine, the awesome or the spectacular, as the case may be - of the corporate body in its formative years right up till the beginning of hostilities. Then, he commences to treat the air-war most impressively.
Revealing facts and figures the world did not know of before have been painstakingly chronicled while pictures never seen before are also colourfully depicted.
- How were Nigerian military pilots trained in the USA, Canada, Germany, India and Ethiopia?
- Why would a German Corporal not salute a Nigerian Officer - a Lieutenant?
- Flight Safety, Corpses and Mink Coats!
- A full account of the first air disaster of the NAF in 1965!
- What role did NAF play in the coups of Jan 15 and July 1966?
- Did the Easterners take steps to stock up on arms in anticipation of the Nigerian attack? What is the connection between a professor cum Poet Laureate - Christopher Okigbo - and airplanes and weapons in the Nigerian Crisis?
- A full account of the first Skyjack in Nigeria. The dramatis personae and their reasons! And Photographs!
- The first Biafran Air Crash - victims, time and place!
- Full fledged account on how the Biafrans used helicopters to bomb the Nigerian front lines!
- NAF pilots and their exploits in the Nigeria-Biafra air war
- The exploits of the notorious B25 and B26 - their effect on Nigerian forces! And Photographs!
- A full and comprehensive account of Flight 101, the Biafran bomber that exploded over the Lagos metropolis - crew composition, armament, briefing, etc.
- Operation “Jefta” - the deliberate destruction of our (Biafran) airplanes to preclude their falling into Nigerian hands!
- A scorched Earth Programme which virtually called for wholesale suicide!
- Did the Portuguese Air Force Pilots fly for Biafra?
- Did Russian and Egyptian pilots fly with NAF during the war?
- Power play within the Biafran Air Force!
- The Last Flights!
- The last Biafran pilots to be shot down only two days before Biafra capitulated!
UNITED STATES AIR FORCE - FLIGHT SAFETY, CORPSES AND MINK COATS
“USAF 257, you are cleared to destination airport, Moody Air Base, Trenton 3 Departure via associated airways, Victor 198 to TAY, cleared as filed; squawk ALFA 4849 and expect flight level 230, ten minutes after departure.”
The foregoing was the Air Traffic Controller’s (ATC) transmission to my aircraft with the identification USAF 257 before departure from Mayport Municipal Airport back to our base, Moody Air Force Base. Major Mike Novak, USAF, was flying with me. Trenton 3 Departure was the designation of the Standard Instrument Departure type (the exit air corridor) to be followed by us to get to the “associated airways” while Victor 198 is a specific airway. TAY is an en route radio navigation beacon, which defines and forms part of the airway as well as serving as a clearance limit.
Our flight plan had earlier been submitted to Mayport Air Traffic Control stating our aircraft type, speed, altitude requested, fuel capacity, number of souls on board, destination, time to destination and quite a few other information required to be filed with ATC. So, “cleared as filed”, stated in the above text means that ATC had approved our details as contained in the flight plan lodged with it. “Squawk ALFA4849" meant that we should select A4849 on our on-board transponder. On the ATC radar screen this would desirably betray our identity separate from other aircraft to enhance control and separation in the lateral and vertical axes. It is quite easy to understand that we should expect to be cleared to climb to level 230 (23000feet) ten minutes after our departure.
Before I could read back the above clearance from the ATC, Major Novak responded almost too quickly. He apologized later saying that he wanted us to enjoy possible accelerated departure, hence his almost automatic reaction. In Novak’s view, controllers are forever at a psychological but friendly war with pilots. He explained that if a controller hears a pilot with a foreign accent he would more than likely relegate that pilot’s flight to inferior slots and not give it expedited sequencing, as if strangers are to be delayed. This, he said, happens not in intercontinental airports but more often in regional airports where, like in a village, parochial sentiments can surprisingly get in the way. If a foreigner has the patience to come all the way from wherever his country is to that airport, he had better have the patience to accept even the most outrageous delays.
According to Novak, the pilot with an accent would always be the one to be asked to wait forever at an intersection, while every other conceivable aircraft proceeds to the departure points without let or hindrance.
He concluded by adding that controllers constitute a mean coterie and the unusual pilot who sounds exotic would attract some measure of prejudice from them. Prejudice, he agreed, is irrational, but which pilot would query the rational or irrational attitude of an air traffic controller who usually has the last word?
Our departure via the air corridor as designated was expeditious all right, as of routine procedure rather than of Novak’s putative grandstanding. Before departure we had gone through the instrument charts and the standard maps utilized especially for visual flights. On the latter, Novak had pointed out the designated restricted airspace - Moody II - which is an intensive student training area. This is Moody AFB student’s play area.
We would not have to worry about that airspace today because we were on an instrument flight, meaning that our flight from Mayport to Moody Air Base was being conducted as per instrument flight rules whereby the pilots rely on the airplane instruments for navigation without recourse to the ground, horizon or environment, while radar controllers direct and monitor our vertical and longitudinal separation as we progressed within the clearance limits.
If we were on an ordinary visual flight we would have had to, as the term implies, depend exclusively on ground features and horizon as we exercised a good lookout while maintaining this separation.
Another special area on this visual chart was designated “Restricted Area - Low Flying Prohibited”. Novak said I should remind him to tell me what was happening there to warrant such a designation. Trust him to occasionally hold back a little slice of information, as if he would perhaps wield a little more influence over you by withholding or delaying the communication of it.
Major Mike Novak, the super cynical, sarcastic stereo-typical career military man-about-town is a strong subscriber to the time-worn belief that being married has no place in the armed services, and if the Air Force had meant for you to have a wife, it would have issued you with one.
Not surprisingly, Novak was not only unmarried but his colleagues quite often referred to him as the professional bachelor; and why not, when at forty-five he was still very much on the prowl and going about it with dedicated panache while equipped with a low slung wide wheel-based Italian sports car to complement. I was of the opinion that, judging by the way Novak roared on the road (never on the base!), he and his hot rod had no business being on the normal high way with normal cars. That car belonged to and should remain at the racing circuit, while Novak should be given a little more time to grow up. Unfortunately, being a good pilot, being well dressed and having a gift of the gab are the only qualifying criteria for maturity as far as he is concerned.
I had recently arrived from the University of Southern California and the huge Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia, was going to be the environment where I would do on-the-job training on flight safety and systems management, while my supervisor and mentor was the inimitable Major Novak. On the flight from Mayport, he was getting me to appreciate the finer points of the T-37 airplane as we carried out flight safety evaluations. The T-37 - a jet trainer almost like the Canadair CL41 - The Tutor became the standard trainer for the USAF in replacement of the T-28 propeller type.
I was enjoying being a young officer pilot on this beautiful Air Base, and I thought it was odd, but I had not yet come across any black pilots at Moody, and when I asked Novak about it, he said he would explain.
I thought he was postponing doomsday because of the embarrassment engendered in attempting to explain. I had to wait for the explanation while Novak exceeded himself in playing host to me as if it was his official responsibility to see to the most inconsequential needs, business or pleasure, of mine. He was good.
My OJT at Valdosta embraced the practice and administration of Aviation Safety and Major Novak was to guide me and hence the occasional flights we undertook in order to assess facilities and issue safety bulletins.
Novak tended to show contempt for Air Traffic Controllers and felt that they should be a lot more understanding of the pilots’ problems vis-à-vis flight safety. Because of this, he ended up playing pranks on them, at times pretty unnecessarily.
While taxiing from the ramp to the take off point at Mayport, Novak radioed the tower that he thought he saw two eagles flapping around half dead by the taxiway, perhaps, the victims of a collision (bird strike) with a landing airplane.
Mayport acknowledged and advised it was dispatching safety patrol to the spot to remove the carcasses to prevent the ingestion of those by jet engines to occasion foreign object damage. Five minutes into the flight Mayport radioed asking us to confirm that we did sight such birds at the point mentioned, because its patrol could not locate any. Novak confirmed adding that, if the birds were no longer there, Mayport could as well consider them as having resurrected and flown away, perhaps, like angels. The tower never talked back.
Novak enjoyed that controller’s discomfiture and in between radio transmissions to route controllers he quickly narrated a situation of extreme frustration suffered by another over-enthusiastic controller.
A busy airport, weather had been very poor and a considerable number of airplanes were stacked to high heavens in the hold. Consequently, departures were almost non-existent and pilots who had been given unbelievable slot times for departure, were getting impatient and so resorted to calling up Clearance Delivery in a haphazard manner in hopes of a lucky break to get an up-date on start-up time.
The controller, in a bid to establish radio discipline and to stem this cacophony of transmissions, made a general broadcast to all airplanes awaiting departure to desist from randomly requesting for an up-date, as a further delay of about two hours for all was anticipated unless a miracle happened.
A pilot in one of the airplanes on hearing this dismal prospect unguardedly transmitted “Bullshit!” over the radio. Notwithstanding the vulgarity conveyed, that transmission no doubt was a reflection of the frustration of not only that pilot but the rest of them seated patiently in their airplanes at the airport that awful day.
The controller, irate at this rude and unorthodox telephony retort, enquired of the airplanes,
“Who said ‘Bullshit’?” There was total silence.
The controller went on,
“Station that transmitted ‘Bullshit’, acknowledge.”
“TWA 599 confirm you said ‘Bullshit?” he demanded.
“Negative ‘Bullshit’ 599,” replied TWA 599.
“Pan Am 841 and Sabena 356 confirm transmitting ‘Bullshit’?”
“Negative ‘Bullshit” they responded respectively.
There was a pause after which he said, “Cowards!” and that was the controller’s last comment on the subject as he came to terms with the futility of the exercise of trying to pin that silly transmission on any one of the airplanes awaiting clearance. That he, in fact, went about repeating that disgusting expletive in his bid to nail the culprit made it the more ridiculous. He had to give up.
Novak told this story with much glee, as if the International Federation of Airline Pilots Association ought to award the offending pilot The Most Valued Member Certificate for daring to get a controller in such a state of fluster.
We had gone far in our descent as we approached Valdosta from the North East. The weather was very clear. Novak gestured towards our right, at about our 3 o’clock, in the jargon of aviators.
“You remember that airspace I was going to talk to you about. I mean the one designated ‘Restricted Area - Low Flying Prohibited’. Well, you’d think that it is a top-secret nuclear research centre. That is nothing but a mink farm.
Those minks are so sensitive to noise that the sound of low flying aircraft could disturb their libido and they would cease to procreate.
In fact, you could fly low over the White House and get away with it and you might even receive a wave from a slightly anxious President, but not over a mink farm.
“The farmers would sue the hell out of you and the Air Force for daring to disturb the sex life of the minks which provide those expensive furs that the rich and famous bitches like to drape their over-pampered torsos with.”
“Have you ever done any unauthorized low flying and for what reason?” I asked as he concluded that bit about the mink farm.
“My life is replete with misdeeds but not when it comes to the Air Force, the flying and the regulations,” he said with palpable sincerity. I respected him more for that.
As we were on short finals at Moody, the controller cleared us to land, adding that after landing we should expeditiously clear the active runway and the immediate taxi ways because an airplane having engine problems was coming in for an emergency landing. We complied and soon the stricken airplane, also a T-37 materialized and it looked as if its rate of descent was very steep.
It landed hard and veered off the centre line to the shoulder and came to rest. Smoke was visible from its port underside all right. The pilots, quick as a flash, were out of the airplane.
A helicopter carrying a spherical tank on a hoist was already hovering over the airplane even before fire trucks got there. The regular fire trucks put out the fire all right but the exciting part was the innovative fire-fighting helicopter positioned at a safe height and at the ready to release fire retardants contained in the high-tech sphere on its hoist. Another beauty of it was that, if a fire were to occur in an inaccessible area, the helicopter would quickly get over there and fight the fire from a hovering position while land based fire trucks, though raring for action, would be helplessly incapable of reaching the crash site soon enough.
The day had been eventful and Novak said we should top it up with a good night’s outing.
Valdosta had all the trappings of an Air Base town - a town with the usual bowling alleys, Army and Navy surplus stores, cocktail bars and of course the motels.
Since I was going to be very much around for the next few months I should get acquainted with the town, as I would be making the occasional forays to it from my bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ) in the base.
Novak drove us in his sports car to the Peacock Inn, which he vouched was the best. It did not take long for me to realize how come he adjudged it to be the best. A skimpily clad waitress gave Novak a hug and a kiss and wondered why he had not visited for sometime. After the exchange of pleasantries, she brought him his usual Bacardi Rum.
Meanwhile, in a centre cage, a topless go-go girl dancer was gyrating as if her waist was coupled to a universal joint mounted on ball bearings. It was impressive, but for how long was I going to continue blinking because of my eyes being irritated by the acrid tobacco smoke. I wondered what happened to the air expeller system of that joint and when I complained, Novak said I should be patient because everyone gets used to it. He was right. Part of Novak’s charm emanates from the casual manner with which he dispenses witticism and down-to-earth wisdom.
We settled down with our drinks and without further ado he asked:
“August, have you ever popped before?”
“I don’t understand,” I replied.
“Okay, dummy, I’ll put it into simpler English. Have you ever bailed out of a jet aircraft before?”
“No, never,” I said getting more interested.
“Well, you are looking at yours truly! And the campaign was my posting to the post-war Korea of 1957 when I was a very hot Lieutenant flying the almighty Sabre. It was plunk into water and for some reasons the flotation that was advertised did not happen the way it should. Soon I was becoming the sinker in the popular saying ‘hook, line and sinker! I had to quickly divest myself of all the trappings of flight on me and soon was swimming towards the shore. Momentarily I had a sense of freedom - an absurd one at that - until search and rescue showed up almost too quickly.”
I seized the opportunity when he paused:
“Precisely an absurd one as you say, because you ought to have felt more vulnerable especially since, as I understand, the area is notorious for sharks.”
“It was not so much,” he continued, “a sense of freedom arising from a diminished sense of danger or a false sense of security but more of that feeling you have when you have peeled off all clothing and you are soaking in a warm bath. That was why I said the search and rescue showed up almost too quickly, because it disturbed that temporary fun.
By the way, I am also a damn good swimmer - a natural for that matter. Do you swim very well?”
“I grew up near a river and when we were kids we used to jump into it from the bridge. There was nothing we did not do with that river,” I said.
“Lovely. With that river of yours you did, indeed, save yourself some future worry having to do with swimming ability. I totally agree with the Air Force system, which provides that all non-swimmer student pilots are taught how to swim as part of their curriculum. What a waste it is, that after spending an enormous amount of the tax payers money training you to control such a sophisticated machine and you necessarily had to bail out of this speeding bullet and the next thing you know you are up to your neck in water and you cannot move. You cannot move not because you broke your hands, or legs or spine. You cannot move because you cannot swim! Tough luck, because you are a sitting duck, I tell you.”
The live band had stopped playing and the noise level was down but was now replaced by the laughter of the crowd reacting to a comedian.
“Teaching pilots to swim also helps them to enhance their sense of spatial orientation,” I contributed.
“Swimming in water is like flying in the air and you can turn in any direction. They are exactly the same thing except for the higher density of the watery medium and the slower speed of the swimmer. That is why they recommend the trampoline exercises, which simulate flying so much that in some high bounces you wonder if you are ever going to land. The feeling is eerie. This bouncing, with the attendant slow destruction of momentum, is what the pilot needs to harden his balance organs. The ballerinas, who are into spins and fast turns, must have developed a measure of hardness in their balance organs and this accounts for why the dancers are not susceptible to dizziness, airsickness and vertigo, especially when in unusual attitudes.”
“August, damn it, you sound up to date, but let’s ‘close the hangar doors,” he cut in.
“Well, you started it and this officer is not to be seen lagging way behind his US colleague.”
“Granted, and since your reputation remains unimpeachable, shall we direct our attention to the matters at hand,” he said as his eyes trailed after a voluptuous beauty, a waitress who was walking away after having served the table close to us.
“Fine, but not until you tell me why there are no black pilots at Moody. Remember you said you’d tell me.”
“August, the first day you brought up the topic, you perhaps expected me to exclaim, ‘I thought you’d never ask!’ Well, you could see I didn’t. Because I believed you knew the answer which is quite obvious.”
“Honestly speaking,” I said, “I don’t know the reason. You can eliminate Norton Air Force Base in California because I had been there on occasions and I know their story. Remember, I came from Los Angeles. Does the Air Force lack black pilots?” I asked.
“Let’s look at it this way,” he continued.
“A black kid gets to spend a good part of his life growing up in a project* which he rightly identifies with poverty and privation. With time he nurtures a subconscious dislike for tall buildings and, of course, by further association, heights. Mark you, I mean dislike for, not fear, of heights. There is no way that fellow is going to choose flying as a career.”
He concluded as if he had just established an abstruse philosophical law and I could not help but get reminded of my flight instructor in Canada - Flying Officer G. T. Stanley.
How come I always end up with these airborne philosophers? Stanley had not merely postulated but in fact averred that Blacks came from outer space eons ago before Atlantis, and their colour is the consequence of their having passed through several radiation belts in their journeys. As additional consequence, Blacks subliminally (and in certain dreams, which the subject usually can’t recollect except by retrieval from the very abyss of the subconscious by psychoanalysis and hypnotism) engage in all manner of flight. Since I couldn’t get him to meet Stanley and challenge him, I had to confront Novak by first of all introducing a touch of condescension.
“I understand that black kids, who live on the projects you refer to, don’t like to fly kites because of the height at which kites soar.”
He looked at me either to congratulate me for catching on or to pass me up as a bad job because of my farcical skepticism.
“Clarify yourself,” he commanded, displaying all the assertiveness deserving of a Major of the USAF. That apart, I preferred to speculate that he was suspecting being smitten with his usual sword - sarcasm.
“We can make further startling deductions from the original premise. The white kids who also live on the project would get this Height syndrome; the kids, black or white, who don’t live on the project would be free from same; and according to an obscure philosopher I know (Stanley!), Blacks, supposedly superior beings from outer space, have, by the unusual dynamics of their nature in an earlier existence, a tendency to dream about flying, powered, unpowered or by sheer levitation. It is easy to see that the innate aspect (Stanley) would no doubt be in conflict with that established by nurture in the High Rise or Project Factor proposed by you, Novak. Mark you; I have only made an observation as far as the Air Force situation alone is concerned. I don’t know about the Naval and Army aviation cases not to talk of the Civil Aviation,” I concluded without failing to alert him to the fact that black or white kids brought up in any high rise synonymous with affluence would, if we are to go by his logic, profoundly appreciate this worthy and meaningful highness to become height fanatics and, of course, irrepressible lovers of flying.
“Boy, you are an irrepressible lover of talking,” he said, borrowing my last expression specifically to ridicule. “All I needed do was tease you with that bit of nonsense about blacks and flying and you go off on an elaborate discourse. That we have not got any black pilots on this base is an issue best left to statisticians, the USAF and the Pentagon. Nonetheless, I think the over-all black pilot population in the USAF is not totally representative, and I have been around long enough to know better. All the same only the Blacks with the benevolence and co-operation of the USAF can redress the short fall. Last point, you’d have to learn when to spot frivolity, so that you don’t get taken on a roller-coaster ride. By the way, I liked that bit about Blacks from outer space as stated by your what’s-his-name instructor.”
“Stanley,” I said.
“Yeah, Stanley. I liked that aspect in which your people whizzed around so much in space that your bodies even now haven’t quite cooled and come to rest and so you continue to fly even in your dreams!” he said, now chuckling happily.
Novak was fun without being, to use his expression, frivolous.
He was challenging without being threatening and he treated me not just as a junior officer but also as a colleague and brother while, at the same time, not compromising even in the most trivial official business.
The latest flight safety bulletin that came in had to do with the report on the investigation of the accident of a fighter jet. It had been determined that the pilot most probably trimmed the airplane totally nose-down while deliberately holding up the nose only to suddenly release the control to get what he expected to be an instantaneous change of direction as well as impressive aerobatics. He sort of got it all right, but it was a jack-knifing or a whiplash and sudden death. In fact, he could as well have tried wrapping the airplane around iron pylons with steam rollers because the sudden release of extensive aerofoil made possible by trims at maximum position, into high velocity airflow, virtually produced the same result as two solid state bodies impacting. The airplane’s control surfaces suffered immediate severe buckling and the resulting dynamics of the new configuration precluded a successful ejection.
Novak’s lesson here was directed at the sophistication and very high speed disposition of current advanced airplanes and their easy vulnerability to the occasional mishandling by the pilot. The laws of cause and effect not chance, coincidence or luck are what make aircraft function well or make them crash. It is not chance, coincidence or luck. Most unfortunately, everybody loves chance, coincidence and luck, and would prefer to discard cause and effect. He advised against a pilot teasing an airplane beyond its design limits to see what would happen. Something very unpleasant usually happens.
In contrasting current jets, which have got complexity and high-tech gimmickry as part of their design feature, with airplanes of yesteryears, he observed that ruggedness made vintage aircraft not so sensitive to a lot of mishandling, and they were almost difficult to crash. Why not, when the systems then were simplistic and the instrumentation was uncluttered and almost rudimentary such that the fuel gauge, for instance, was inscribed with only the letters E & F, i.e. E for EMPTY and F for FULL.
He observed with wry humour that even simplicity at times did not help flight safety, because a foreign student at take off roll ran out of fuel and fortuitously managed to come to a safe-stop in the bush after having over-run the runway.
Investigations revealed that his fuel tank was empty, and when this was pointed out to him, he swore that the fuel gauge probably was not working, after all, the pointer at start up was indicating E, meaning to his understanding ENOUGH and not EMPTY.
He also thought that F correspondingly meant FINISHED and not FULL.
Novak advised that we ignore the illustration, because it was a joke! Even then, I’d always wondered why his illustrations quite often had to do with a foreign student. I had the awful suspicion that he was mischievously referring to me.
Novak was beginning to feel that I had been working hard enough to deserve a reward of sorts, so I was not surprised when he announced almost officially that he was arranging an evening out. But I was surprised when he advised that we were not going to the Peacock Inn, his favourite. Instead he had asked a girl friend of his to bring a girl friend of hers to a foursome for the evening, and we initially were going to be at the officers’ mess followed by dinner at Luigi’s. I had heard him talk of Olympia, one of his girlfriends, but I had yet to meet her. That we would be staying at the officers mess and later at Luigi’s - two genteel locations - was eloquent testimony that Olympia, unlike his other girlfriends, commanded a little more respect and therefore was not one to be taken to a mere hamburger joint.
So, Novak had me set up for a blind date. But the trouble is, I grumbled to myself - a friend asks his girl friend to bring her girl friend and you end up with a monster on the so-called blind date.
We were seated at the bar, and Novak was into his second round of Bacardi Rum and telling more stories of aviation misdeeds of pilots, when our dates arrived, ushered in by one of the officers.
I did not have a description of Olympia, so I could not differentiate between the two girls except to quickly guess as they approached. In the end my guess was wrong. Junoesque Olympia, 25 years of age, no doubt, was a dish in the all-American glamour blonde way, but the girl she introduced as Marina, 23, was a tall smouldering beauty that reminds you of those classical paintings mounted on tinted or part frosted glass. The dewy eyed beauty had long raven black hair that framed a face as extraordinarily unusual as a Mayan goddess’s. She could have been Anglo-Saxon, Aztec Indian, Italian or a combination of all the three.
She wore a long black evening dress that somehow conveyed an air of unpretentious formality about her and, for some inexplicable reason, she appeared to me like someone who often wore black and was given to being comfortable in black.
“Mike, this must be August,” purred Olympia as she hugged Novak.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I, Daedalus would like to introduce the Icarus who will never crash”, said Novak expansively, his hand on my shoulder.
It was easy to see that he was at his best, playing my mentor and enjoying it. Olympia introduced Marina and when Marina said, ‘how do you do’ to me, it sounded like the voice of an older person even though there was a pleasant slight hum to it. Marina’s hand was cold, in fact, very cold and I remembered that it was said that cold hands mean a warm heart. Will Marina live up to the expectation of the old wives’ tale in my favour?
The ladies ordered Shirley Temple for drinks and after a brief while they excused themselves to go to the ladies’ room. I had long learnt that an excursion to the conveniences, purportedly to ease themselves is, for the women, a strategic social move rather than a reaction to the exigencies of the call of nature. As I reflected on this I got my mind fixated on that Marina. No doubt she looked so gracefully alien and exuded that much mystique that gave you a permanent feeling of both insecurity and inferiority. She was that rare type of person that none too deliberately conveys the impression that she cannot be possessed and would perhaps disappear into the thin air and never come back whenever she as much as leaves you to visit the ladies room. She appeared ultra-sophisticated and a bit detached, even in speech.
Nonetheless, I summed up all my observations to conclude generously in her favour that she had nothing but positive qualities best described as challenging. In effect, more attention needed to be devoted to her and that was a redeeming factor.
When the ladies came out, Olympia consulted Novak briefly after which he informed me that we were all heading to Marina’s home. Her parents had their wedding anniversary celebrations the day before and as such there was a lot of food - cold turkey, beef, cakes, scones, you name it, in the house and Marina had graciously invited us over.
I concluded immediately that that must be the outcome of the powder room conference.
But, what an anti-climax? What a surprise? Now, this exotic personage called Marina descends from her esoteric heights to chat and plan to indulge in mundane and homely matters. Blind dates no doubt are full of surprises. And the evening hadn’t quite started.
We all went out to the parking lot, boarded Marina’s brand new Ford Mustang to go to the BOQ (Bachelor Officers’ Quarters) to pick up Novak’s car. I joined him in the sports car and we drove after Marina. In the meantime, it was bye-bye to the officers’ mess and the proposed Luigi’s.
I must have suffered some kind of a warped perception of time in my brain during the drive, because it looked as if we took hours of fast driving on the secondary road off the highway to get there.
Novak said it took ten minutes, which I confirmed on our return journey.
The Campetellas, Marina’s parents, that is, lived in a big sprawling house on a very large estate distant from everywhere. In spite of the dark night, I could see far enough to recognize that huge trees were an integral part of the landscape, and since we approached the estate from the rear instead of from the front gate, I could only imagine the layout of the place, especially the arboreal arrangement. It must be breath taking in daylight.
We entered an expensively furnished large living room, which appeared to be Marina’s part of the house, judging by the uniqueness of the mementoes, souvenirs and bric-a-brac adorning the whole place; and if this much were only for Marina, then the whole complex must be a palace.
Novak started one of his hero stories as we settled down, while the girls busied themselves with bringing out all the goodies the house could offer. Since there was caviar as well as crab meat, I was beginning to wonder what the expression “left overs” actually meant.
The environment smelt of money - loads of it, but then I felt something inexplicably discordant with the opulent ambience. It was neither palpable nor perceptible by the normal senses but it disagreed with my psyche. Soon, I thought I felt the sprouting of goose pimples on my body and I tried to ignore the sensation as subjective; after all, goose pimples are only for the goose and I had an interesting evening ahead of me.
Whether I liked it or not, I had actually sprouted goose pimples and my mind told me that whatever was happening must be real and not imagined. My feelings, which may be called ESP never disappointed me but I had to squelch any nagging sources of presentiment if I was ever going to have any fun tonight. I therefore had to remain as physical as possible - nothing sophisticated.
Marina and her friend Olympia settled down now and asked us to help ourselves to all that was arranged on the table, buffet style.
“Marina, do you like mink coats”? I asked in a clumsy attempt to maintain a conversation with her and at the same time get that articulate Novak to shut up since other people ought to get a chance to talk. Truth, though, was that I was also beginning to picture divinely beautiful Marina’s frame decorated with hard to come by skin. But then judging by that much wealth portrayed by the environment alone, Marina should be expected to have foot mats fashioned from mink furs.
“Have you heard of any woman who doesn’t”? She replied.
“Thanks a lot anyway, because I thought you might have something against them,” I lied.
“Do I get a hint of your intention to get me one? Because if you do have such intentions after having met me barely an hour ago, it would go down on record as the fastest move or costliest gamble directed at an adult female by an enterprising adult male in the age old battle of the sexes,” she declared a little dramatically.
“No amount of mink thrown your way would do enough credit to compliment your graceful figure and perfect visage which, no doubt, are matched only by your generous disposition, seeing how you feed us orphans with the best of the house,”
I also orchestrated with a touch of honest flattery never mind that it was expressed in stilted terms. But the interesting part was Marina conversing a little more animatedly than was the case earlier.
“Hear! Hear!” Olympia applauded as she helped herself to some food.
“August, you had better keep up the pace, else we shall be chorusing: ‘What God hath joined together, let no mink...’ well, you know the rest of the story.”
“The rest of the story, to the best of my knowledge,” I continued, “and the truth is, that Mike was showing me a mink farm four days ago and I could not help but remember that the animals are so sensitive. They must be almost human. I also remember that that particular farm was near a lake. So I have been wondering why such a farm should be located near a lake where campers and vacationers would frequent and in due course disturb the very peace and quiet that have been secured at a high cost.”
“August”, Novak came alive from the moratorium I had indirectly imposed on him earlier, “those minks are strange creatures. Human traffic especially a normal one would not necessarily disturb them. They are more sensitive to sounds of a certain frequency range; of course, a hum or cyclic vibrations at close range do them incalculable harm. August, if the minks were to identify you and me as pilots and knew pilots were the jokers who operate a source of vibration noise, i.e. an airplane, which bothers them, they could lynch both of us,” he concluded, his voice conveying a note of mock warning.
“I would not be surprised” I continued, “if minks real or imagined were to feel that way about pilots because in Nigeria, dogs, for instance, are said to bark furiously at tribal types known to enjoy dog meat.
Dogs have more than their share of extra-sensory perception and when it comes to survival, this ESP gets to be hyper. Every so often, a dog displays unmitigated hostility by zeroing in on a particular individual, perhaps, the best-dressed gentleman in a gathering by barking uncontrollably at him. But then they say dogs only bark at wicked and or shabbily dressed people and so, how come this man of supposedly unquestioned virtue and excellent garb, who apparently has no immediate dishonourable intention and has no business with dog eating, is getting this rough deal from man’s best friend?”
“You tell us,” Novak said getting excited.
“Truth is, that the dog is actually barking at history now represented by this contemporary man. In effect, the hostility is directed at the man’s dog eating predecessors who have passed the vestigial scent of their feeding preference unto the man. The dog could actually sniff out the canine butchering propensity of the man’s forebears. A form of modified atavism I dare say.”
“Very intriguing, very exciting revelation. I am convinced,” said Olympia.
“Me too,” observed Marina, “only if it reveals to me how close I come to getting the mink coat. Trouble is if we continued in this line of talk, I might in the long run end up with a dog coat!”
“Left to me, animals and animal products must not feature in man’s food, dress items, or gear of any nature”, I continued ruthlessly and with sincerity, not so much to discourage Marina from expecting a mink coat from me as to condemn man’s unnecessary requirements and vanity which are nature-unfriendly.
“According to nutrition experts, animals and their products are toxic to the system. A rule of the thumb, they suggest, is to enjoy to the fullest such things that are within easy reach of your hands, namely - leaves, fruits and roots. Any potential meal that has a face or is of the type you have to run after (snail speed or hare speed) or fight to subdue before eating (flesh for instance) is bad for you. Preference for meat is a reminder of man’s cannibalistic past.”
“August, you sound hypocritical,” Novak said combatively and with comical disgust written all over his face.
“You’ve just had a bellyful of beef, turkey and things and now look who is talking. I suggest you go to the gents’ room, stick your fingers into your throat and disgorge all that you just ate. By so doing, you’d have some semblance of credibility left to go home with.”
“You get me wrong,” I pointed out. “I am talking of an ideal situation in which there’s a purposely designed global programme of gradual withdrawal leading to total abstinence from the use of animals to satisfy the whims and caprices of man. Let’s face it, how do you reconcile with a situation in which man goes to great lengths to pamper the mink, isolate it from noise, in fact generally treat it like a sick child at an ICU (intensive care unit), only to turn around to skin it for high monetary gains? Is it a programme of euthanasia designed by a perverted plutocrat? Time will come when you will be stoned if you as much as wore crocodile shoes or have mink, ermine or like furs on you.”
“August, what can I tell you?” said Novak getting up and, this time, with a slight look of boredom on his face. “If I told you to ‘close the hangar doors,’ I am automatically referring to you as either a vet or a fellow involved in animal husbandry but not an animal lover since you enjoy eating flesh.
You go ahead and ponder over that while I visit the gents.”
Olympia got up, took him by the hand and led him away while pretending that he was in a poor condition to go it alone whereas, in actuality, she was seizing that opportunity to be alone with him. I was left alone with Marina.
“A beautiful home you have here,” I said to her.
“Thanks, and would you like me to show you around?” she graciously volunteered.
We went from hall to hallways to suites to rooms. That was quite a mansion with rare paintings here and there. I had never been in a home like that and, Marina, very much in her right elements, made appropriate comments as we went on the tour.
Soon she excused herself, perhaps, to go to the ladies and I was, for the moment, left on my own to browse around when I came across an intriguing painting portraying Shakespeare’s Othello, the black Moor who strangled his white wife, Desdemona.
I was concentrating, caught up with the sheer magnetism of this work when suddenly,
“Seen somebody familiar?” Marina asked, obviously referring to Othello, a fellow Black, and definitely startling me by her sudden presence at my rear.
When and how she returned was a mystery, but I suspected that she had, by stealth or inexplicably otherwise, remained there longer than I was aware of, watching or admiring me while I admired Othello. Was she thinking?
“If you were to get involved with me, would you behave better than Othello, or would you soon be pleading ‘Mea Culpa?’”
The Campetellas probably had a thing about Blacks, it appeared, and I might jolly well be another collectible of theirs in the making. Her body was close to and lightly touching my back and at that proximity I got a faint whiff of her perfume - a confusing mixture of rare fragrances but with a touch of one vaguely familiar in the background. I tried unsuccessfully to remember that particular one weakly trying to mask a smell, albeit slight, but suggestive of that of a very elderly woman.
She moved on and I followed to continue our tour. As we walked through a high-ceilinged wide passage the sheer beauty of the velvet draperies, which I briefly touched to feel the rich texture at a point where two sections overlapped, beckoned me. The blinds parted just enough for me to see through ornate glass paneling into the next hall - a large downstairs affair, which even surpassed everything I had already seen. Displayed in overpowering splendour were heavy crystal encrusted chandeliers, richly ruffled cascading draperies, an altar, a lighted fountain, a fluorescent crucifix, massive candelabras, and an organ on a low pedestal, !!!!!!!!!!........... two caskets, one closed one open!
That gleaming open casket had a lady, a Caucasian, lying serenely in it. I knew she was probably dead, but the make-up on her face was so perfect that she could easily have been a society matron that dropped off to sleep before she could undress soon after returning from a formal party. But in spite of the make up, her paleness was obvious.
I whirled around and looked at Marina in disbelief and was about to ask her what was going on. She started to explain quickly but in a manner to suggest that the words were being forced out of her mouth:
“Yes, my father is a mortician; he runs the Funeral Home,” she stammered, her generous lips quivering a little and her eyes flashing and no longer very dusky while her lush lashes fluttered as in a reaction of embarrassment or fear or anger at discovery. Discovered doing what? My body once again sprouted the goose pimples.
“How come?” was all I managed to splutter, confused and not certain of the logic of my question.
“I’m sorry you did not see the neon sign, ‘Eternal Spring Funeral Home’ since we normally drive in or exit through the rear as we did when we came,” she said, sounding as if drained of energy at the sudden exposure while her state of anger or nervousness was further manifested through a betrayal by her body - she gave out an increased body scent along with that indescribable fragrance of hers. Suddenly she seemed to look much older and her face more ashen than her guest’s, the corpse, while her bosom heaved, rising and falling as of increased breathing usually associated with fear. Fear of what?
“But you and your parents live here also?” I asked her and would, in fact, have added ‘in this mansion and right across there under the same roof with your bedrooms, your kitchen, your food, a woman (and many like her who usually get carried in and out feet first) all dressed up in death, lies in an open coffin?’
I asked her in my mind like I was accusing her of a betrayal. As if she betrayed the living to consort with the dead and going about it with a smugness that futilely attempted to make the morbid look fashionable; unless, of course, she was also dead herself.
I don’t think I remember her answer but there were lots of questions I wanted to ask her, but what right did I have to query her, a total stranger whose only connection with me was that she was the friend of a friend? Why, for instance, did she not let me know during her well-orchestrated conducted tour that a large wing of the mansion served as a funeral home? She, instead, discretely avoided any tours to the sensitive area only for me to accidentally stumble upon it. Unless, of course, she was assuming that Olympia had earlier told Novak and, by association, me.
But the question I would have loved most to put across to her was: Why with all that money, the Campetellas did not elect to live some place else? Perhaps, I was being over sensitive and not too familiar with the contemporary American’s attitude to death. But we Africans have no misgivings about our physical concepts of the two states - the quick and the dead - and we believe that a strong line of demarcation separating the two must exist. There is no compromise whatsoever while our spiritual concepts of the two states continue to remain transcendent.
So my bloody mind quickly analysed the situation and came to the disturbing conclusion that the Campetellas did not choose to live someplace else, perhaps, because they made a pact with the dead or they had an affinity bordering on necrophilism. Otherwise how come they preferred or pretended to be running a funeral home in the middle of nowhere, far from everywhere.
Then I knew why, through extra-sensory provocation, my body sprouted the goose pimples, which I tried to psychologically inhibit without success. After all, it is not as if one could switch them off and on at will. Even then, at that very moment, I was still covered with the darned pimples and the difference between a goose and me was that I had no feathers.
Then I also knew why I found her very attractive in a strange and compelling way (evil is so attractive!) and her demeanor somehow subtly detached, never mind that she voluntarily invited us to her home where she made tremendous efforts at being a great hostess. Perhaps, I imagined, that much effort a spirit would make when trying to play human after having managed to cross the Stygian demarcation to the human state or dimension which forever continues to remain inaccessible to non-human entities.
Did she become angry, nervous or afraid simply because she was not prepared for the sudden exposure brought about by my discovery of the skeleton or rather the corpse in her closet? Did my innocent curiosity, prompting me to feel the texture of the drapes, expose and betray her realm of the dead and the living-dead? What was the content of the other casket - an undead entity going through a metamorphosis requiring the abysmal darkness and isolation, which only a firmly shut casket can provide? What about the basement? Are there more caskets with the usual contents?
Then I knew why I felt that the opulent surrounding was co-existing with an irredeemable antithesis of itself - like plethora juxtaposed with an insidiously pervasive nothingness; Cornucopia brimming with succulent-looking but inedible fruits; an expensive gift with a string of malignance attached to it; a promise without a future!
I thought the air felt still and heavier - perhaps the pall of the implacable assertiveness of death; and death in this setting, while maintaining its usually stony but enigmatic indifference, had contrived to surround itself with wealth, grandeur and, indeed, promises of more except there was no future.
An embarrassing silence of volumes unspoken went with us as we descended the elegantly marbled stairs to join Novak and Olympia both of whom were obviously in a passionate embrace. Novak was kissing her! I had a strong compulsion to shout at him to disentangle himself from that lady because she and her so-called friend were not human!
I did not find the voice, neither did I have absolute conviction nor, for that matter, an understanding of the unusual things taking place around me.
Somebody, I murmured to myself, is now reaping the wages of sin and that somebody is playboy Novak who has finally over-reached himself in his womanising gambit by unwittingly befriending a beautiful phantom who, quietly and conveniently, enlisted her friend, the attractive black-clad Medea, the ultimate femme fatale, to complete the circle of the spectre. And what with names like Olympia, Marina and ----------- there is no way those ladies aren’t from a different dimension. The meaning of Olympia is too well known while the name Marina derives from marine that pertains to the sea, and she could jolly well be the mermaid incarnate without the flippers. Otherwise, with a voice like hers she probably was echoing from the past while she was more than 500 years old if she was a day.
Novak and Olympia were obliged to stop their advanced smooching and do the decent thing by sitting properly, while I took a chair closer to him, as if I needed that proximity for comfort and protection. What I actually needed was a strong drink like his usual Bacardi Rum to calm me down but how could I know to trust that the drink would not be laced with formaldehyde and those types of tissue-preserving fluids which only embalmers and morticians are familiar with?
As I pondered over this new problem in my mind, including whether we were served human flesh as cold beef, Marina in her usual gossamer flow manner glided past to take the settee next to me. She looked forever enchantingly attractive while remaining ethereal in demeanour now suffused with an air of subdued haughtiness that effortlessly, albeit deceptively, asserted her pretended ignorance of the incident of crisis of horror which took place only a few minutes earlier. I saw painted all over her a facade so perfect as to totally obliterate the very significant recent history. I was beginning to wonder whether my shock encounter of the spooky kind ever took place.
At that close range, her perfume again floated across to assail my nostrils and this time, presto, old memories came flooding back to me to enable my recognition of that vaguely familiar scent in the background as none other than the melancholy-inducing fragrance of the flowers of the shrub, “Ijikara Agbara” (Midnight Rose) - a flowering evergreen which people in my area, Owerri, frequently planted as grave markers or as part of the clump of a coppice that defines a shrine. As kids, we used to enjoy collecting the Midnight Rose flowers because they were showy and attractive though with a smell suggestive of chloroform.
I remembered that, as we collected these flowers, elders berated us, either, depending on the source of our collection, that we were desecrating a grave or were in danger of incurring the wrath of an abominable oracle or an implacable deity.
‘Some great evening, indeed,’ I said to myself, ‘when I had to meet a lady who, as if having corpses and caskets as permanent features in her furnishing and decor were not bad enough, had to wear the essence of the Midnight Rose - the flowers of the grave marker shrub as perfume! And chloroform, for goodness sake, is used in anesthesia before the commencement of surgery to send people to sleep, at times, permanently!’
Having settled down, Marina asked Olympia something about some dresses (no doubt, funeral shrouds and black in colour, I imagined) after which she then directed her attention to me to suggest a drink or a nightcap for me. I declined both and would indeed have recommended her for a national award if only she had asked me to get out of her mansion with speed. At that point Novak was clowning, peering with exaggerated motions at his drink as if to say that he could not understand how come it was finishing so fast. That was just the situation for me to take advantage of. I suddenly got up, surprising even the calm and silky-smooth Marina, to announce that it was getting late and we were leaving. You did not care any more for social graces and manners if you found yourself in an environment in which you felt like a rare and prized animal that strayed into a taxidermist’s workshop. If the Campetella Estate Collection required a Black and a pilot - and yours truly happened to be the living embodiment of the two - Marina, by serendipity, had just hit pay dirt as she was about to have the two for the prize of one!
I had thus blackmailed Novak into getting up as well and when he did, I could not help but notice that he was looking flushed, no doubt, as a result of the night’s fun. Trailed by everyone else, Marina glided to the door to see us off, and in an unusually resonant voice that was less hoarse than earlier, asked Novak to bring me over again on Saturday. He promised with enthusiasm to do so and this provoked my murmuring and swearing in my breath, ‘Y - M - B - J!’ (You Must Be Joking!)
We had hardly entered the car to drive off when Novak asked:
“August, did I notice a strange attitude about you prior to our leaving the house? At least he noticed my state of discomfort!
“There was no problem, Mike, but didn’t it occur to you that it was getting rather late?” I lied.
“Baloney!” protested Mike. “What time do we usually leave the Peacock Inn - 3 a.m., 4 a.m.? - And now, suddenly, one o’clock a.m. with some of the most beautiful women in the world is a late affair. August, you make me feel almost convinced that your mother ought not to have allowed you to leave your crib in Nigeria and head for the US.”
We were on our way home and I was feeling angry with Novak for the stupid sarcasm that I thought disparaged me. But more serious was my disappointment at recognizing that part of him inclined to salaciousness.
How could he, the urbane sophisticate, allow his mind to be held captive by prurience such that he remained blinded and unable to detect the possible malign disposition of the two sirens? Then I exploded:
“I believe that was why you did not seek my opinion before you accepted the invitation to bring me over next Saturday! Well, don’t just make it only next Saturday, make it often enough and several other weekends in future so that I’d finally end up becoming her black Prince Consort dutifully and permanently remaining spell bound by her side while she presided over her estate of cadavers. You go to hell, Mike, and I am not coming with you since I am not quite ready to descend to the Underworld and play Mr. Hades to her alluring Miss Persephone. I am sure she is, right at this very moment, totally aware of what I am saying and thinking because I can’t put it past her not read minds, but I don’t give a hoot any more!”
Obviously taken aback, Novak hissed,
“What are you jabbering about?”
In all fairness, I had no right to be angry with him for being ignorant of the goings-on, especially of the caskets and contents. Either the ladies concealed that information from him or he did not care and for him not to notice through sensing, sleuthing or stumbling on them was a matter of individual variation or chance. I should not also fault him for accepting the invitation, after all, that was a part of his hosting interest designed to give me a good time, never mind that he was also going to enjoy himself, if not more than myself, since he was not necessarily going to stand idly by and do nothing but watch me have a ball.
Armed with these reconciliations in my mind, I told Novak what I saw and Marina’s reactions. I gave a graphic account specifically designed and coloured to generate awe and loathing in him and perhaps provoke a sprouting of goose pimples on him large enough to compare in size with pus-engorged boils.
In spite of my presuming that he was not previously aware of the existence of the so-called funeral home, I did not elicit the reaction expected. He was indifferent to the extent that he, in fact, could easily have said “so what?” but not in so many words as he whistled happily away back to the airbase. Or did he know about the whole thing and was just pretending?
Wait a minute; was it possible that Novak was the male member of an evil triumvirate? How come Olympia did not go back to the base with us at least to spend time with her boyfriend, Novak? Or was it likely that the two alluring witches preferred to be exclusively alone that night to console each other over an abortive recruitment? I wouldn’t really care so much for the beguiling women but if there was an iota of truth with respect to what I was suspecting, how was I going to trust to operate an aircraft with Major Novak sitting by my side or, worse still, sitting behind me as in the T-33 aircraft, a tandem type?
As we drove home I reflected on Marina’s apparently sincere statement to the effect that because we drove in through the rear gate, which is the normal practice at the estate, I did not see the neon sign boldly announcing ‘Eternal Spring Funeral Home’ If I had seen the sign, perhaps, the shock of sudden realisation would have been lessened and I would have been better prepared for what I saw. But then I would not have had the appetite for a belly-full of the meats and things we ate.
I felt I needed an urgent emetic on arrival at the base in order to vomit and rid my system of Marina’s evil meal and, as well, overcome my current depression arising from unwittingly becoming a cannibal. But what symptoms or health problems was I going to complain to the Base Medical Reception as the reason for the emergency without sounding ridiculous or, worse still, superstitious? ‘Doctor, I have just been the dinner guest of an evil lady of peerless beauty who, employing unfathomable guile, served me human flesh which I ignorantly consumed to result in my present state of discomfort. I’d like to be treated as a poison case and I’d wish to be induced in order to throw out every bit of the said meal as fast as is possible.’ But I had a measure of conviction that I did not eat human flesh if only my bloody mind would give me a breather.
I never went back to the Campetella (tends to remind me of Dracula) Estate or rather the Eternal Spring Funeral Home again even though Novak, who saw nothing wrong with our dating the ladies, funeral home or not, told me weeks later that Marina had been asking to see me. She had enquired after me through Olympia.
“Some spirits simply don’t give up, do they?” said a little voice in my mind.
But, while I tried to disabuse my mind of the complication that Olympia was probably her procurer or recruiter actively scouting for the most suitable candidates dead or living for the Campetella Estate for the purposes of whatever, I thought it was flattering that, corpses around her or not, a woman of such breathtaking beauty and breeding should be sending warm messages to me.
The information reinforced my flagging belief in her being real besides making me a little relieved, happy in the knowledge that Marina, after all, was not spirit, dehumanized or ghoulish. I concluded none too confidently that, after all, only the living inquire after the living especially the ones so preferred. Marina simply happened to be the beautiful daughter of the rich owner of a funeral home and her only fault was that the family shared the big sprawling estate with the father’s practice.
“Some cold comfort,” said the same little voice in my innermost mind. “So you are still in doubt? What about the manner she mysteriously showed up right behind you; what about her depressing fragrance - the essence of the flowers of the grave marker shrub; what about her mortuary cold hands and her ancient voice conflicting with her angelic face that was beginning to age and get pallid right before you; what about the fear or anger or whatever that was reflected in her eyes; what about...........? August, for God’s sake, give that attractive corpse or, if you prefer, that living-dead woman a wide berth!”
Project is an American term for a subsidized government housing project, which is the equivalent of the British Council housing system or the Jakande housing scheme in Lagos, Nigeria.
About the Author
Captain August Okpe
Captain August Okpe, who hails from Ihiagwa, Owerri in Imo State was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.