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Young America
September 30, 1942, p 8
Airbase, by Howard Fast


Sam bought the camels and set out across the desert ... He had never ridden a camel before.

By Howard Fast

THIS is the story of Sam Warren, who is 22 years old and a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Engineers detachment — and of course Sam Warren is not his real name.

This happened a while back when things were bad in North Africa. The British needed planes very desperately in Egypt and it was decided, abruptly, to fly American bombers straight through. That is, down to Brazil, across the Atlantic to Africa, and over the body of Africa to Egypt. It happened overnight — a super-urgent rush job for our Air Force Ferry Command, as it was then called .

A certain general — let's call him Craig — had more things to do in a shorter space of time than ever before in his life. One of them was to establish three air bases and repair stations in a part of Africa that had hardly been explored. He picked up a phone and told "Engineers" to send over three boys with courage and brains; then he phoned "Transport'; and told them to fuel one of the big ships; then he called "Supply."

When the boys had reported, he said: "Here's the job. You'll be on a transport in fifteen minutes. Pretty soon each of you will be set down in a different part of Africa. Each of you will set up an air base, supply and repair station, with a reserve of ten thousand gallons of gas. You're going alone because we can spare only a single transport, and supplies take space.

"Here's a map for each of you. Somewhere near the cross I've marked, you'll set up your base. You'll be backed by the unlimited credit of the U.S. Government. How you're going to do the job, I don't know — that's up to you."

They saluted and went out. General Craig was a very busy man; 24 hours later, he had forgotten them. And three days later, Sam Warren was standing in a meadow in Africa.

*   *   *

The nearest point of civilization was 350 miles away. Across the meadow, a lion roared defiance at him. In a clump of trees, monkeys chattered and screamed. Sam Warren had never been out of Massachusetts before the war. He had food for six months, an express rifle, a Colt revolver, a shotgun, five thousand dollars in cash, and the credit of the U.S.A. behind him. All he had to do was build an air base.

"Where do I start?" Sam asked.

He started by eating two cans of sardines, a box of crackers and a can of condensed milk. Then he took the Colt and the rifle and walked into the jungle. Four miles from the meadow, he found a village of pygmies.

He couldn't speak their tongue, nor they his, but he invented a sort of sign language and stayed with them for three days. He was amazed to find them nice people, who wanted neither to kill him nor to eat him. In fact, the only thing they wanted was his wrist watch — a gift from his mother when he graduated from high school — and three times a day the chief pleaded for it. Afterwards, Sam said he made the deal in pig-Latin; in any case he did make a deal. The chief got the watch, and Sam got 200 naked pygmies to cut a trail 65 miles through the jungle to where, according to the map, a tribe of Ethiopians should be.

These tribesmen were not as nice as the pygmies. They didn't like white men, and Sam had to use his Colt. After he had put a bullet through the chief's kneecap, they were open to reason — and to the 500 American dollars Sam gave them. They supplied Sam with 20 carriers who took him into the desert to a place where — again according to his map — a certain oasis should be.

The map was wrong. Their water ran out; Sam had to keep the carriers going at the point of his gun; and he himself was near dead of thirst when he finally found the oasis. There was an Arab chieftain there, a gracious old gentleman who spoke a little French. Desperately, Sam recalled enough high-school French to tell the Arab he wanted camels, a great many, and was prepared to pay $200 for each.

At the sound of American dollars, the chieftain pricked up his ears. At the price, his eyes began to glow.

"A hundred camels?" he suggested. "Is that all you can get?"

"A thousand?"

"Is that all?"

The chieftain smiled broadly and embraced Sam, then roared Arabic at everyone within hearing. He embraced Sam again and invited him to a feast, but the American had no time to spare. There were 18 camels at the oasis; Sam bought them for cash, ordered 2,000 more and set out across the desert for a railhead some 200 miles away.

He had never seen nor ridden a camel before, and afterwards he said that trip to the railhead was the worst and most painful part of the job. When he got there, he found the railhead included one cast-iron shanty under a blazing sun, one old freight car and one English telegraph operator.

Sam woke up the telegraph operator, introduced himself and showed his credentials and his unlimited credit of the U.S.A. He added he would like to order a few things by telegraph.

The operator blinked and took out his pad. "Shoot."

"Ten thousand gallons of gas," Sam began, "in a thousand ten-gallon tins. Five thousand feet of whatever lumber you have in these parts. Twenty carpenters of any color or nationality. All the canned food your line connects with. A thousand bags of—"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" the operator interrupted. "You're dreaming. How will you get those things into the back country?"

"Camel," Sam said calmly.

"Man, there aren't enough camels in Africa!"

"Did you ever hear of paying two hundred dollars for one?"

"Can't say that I did."

"Neither did I," Sam smiled. "I guessed. Maybe I guessed high, but maybe I'll have all the camels I want. We're fighting a war and we're kind of earnest about it."

*   *   *

Thirty-nine days had passed since General Craig had called the three boys into his office. Not much thought had been lavished on them. There were so many other things to do. But now a great Flying Fortress was roaring over Africa, the pilot worriedly looking for an airport that should be there according to his map — but not according to anything reasonable.

Then, as the landscape turned from jungle to park-like forest, the pilot saw a broad meadow. In the meadow were runways, buildings, supply sheds, hangars. Over all, the American flag flew.

He brought down his plane in a mass of shouting natives. He got out, his crew clambering after him, and was greeted by a single white man, a calm-faced young man of 22.

"You're Lieutenant Warren," the pilot said. He was only 21 himself, and so not too surprised at the situation.

"Right."

"Had a tough time of things?"

"Not too tough," Sam Warren grinned. "Not much excitement. As a matter of fact," he said, "I'd much rather be flying that crate of yours."

THE END


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