Artorius Castus


Posted in Uncategorized by Patrick Truax on May 13, 2008

For people who work in Embassies and Consulates, one of the most popular souvenir of one’s tour of duty is a Marine T-Shirt. Each detachment of Marines designs its own shirt, or cap, with some reference to the post, i.e., The Colosseum for the Rome Detachment, The Eiffel Tower for Paris, etc. The Marines sell these items to permanent assignees as well as visitors. The profits from the sale of the shirts is used by the Marines to fund the annual Marine Corps Ball, as close as possible to 10 November, the Marine Corps’ Birthday. Embassy staffs are invited as well as local American business persons.

Some folks are purists in that they will not wear a t-shirt from a place that they haven’t visited. Now that I’ve retired, I don’t get to add more to my collection. A lady I know brought me a polo shirt from the Detachment at Ashqabat, Turkmenestan. I DO wear that from time to time.

The coolest shirt I ever had was made of quality material. On the back was a map of Africa, with the legend “Africa Corps,” and the front displayed a charging bull elephant, with the logo of “U.S. Marine Security Guard Detachment, American Embassy, Lagos, Nigeria.” I guarded that shirt like it was gold.

A couple of years after the aqcuisition of that shirt, I was with a team of technicians on a swing through southern Africa. Oddly, these trips out of Washington usually happened in the dead of North America’s winters. We were going to be in Lusaka, Zambia, for a ten day rehab of the post communications center. We arrived in Lusaka from Nairobi, via Zambia Airways; it was not a bad flight. We were met by the local commo chief who arranged our transport to the Embassy compound visitors’ quarters. After stowing our bags, we went to the comm center to survey what we would need to be doing. Since it was now evening time on Friday, we repaired to the Marine House on the compound. The Marine Detachment was quartered in the house. They had a bar which also generated funds for the Birthday Ball. They served excellent Lion and Castle South African beer as well as Mosi, the local brew.

We worked ten to 12 hours a day, and finished the upgrade in six days, leaving us with four days to kill before moving on to Harare, Zimbabwe. I was working on the roof, running antenna cabling into the comm center. I had taken my beloved shirt off and laid it on some equipment. Bare-chested, I returned to the room below and put on some coveralls. Some crisis or other arose and in the confusion I forgot the shirt. We got the problem sorted out and by then it was getting dark so we called it a day. I figured I’d get the shirt the next day. I trusted these guys.

When we started work the next morning, I went up to fetch the shirt but it was nowhere to be found. Only Americans had access to the roof, so it couldn’t have been a local that walked off with it; it had to have been one of my teammates. I questioned all hands but nobody admitted to having seen my treasure. I suspected Larry, but didn’t say anything, lacking proof of his malfeasance. I felt certain that it would eventually turn up.

The local commo chief was a big game hunter at the weekends and knew several Professional Hunters and went out in the bush with them at every opportunity. The chief was good friends with two Zambian men. These guys were cousins. They had both been educated through O-Levels at a local Maryknoll school. One guy, Greg, was an electrician who worked for a local firm in Lusaka, and his cousin, Gordon, was, uh, an “unofficial wildlife management officer without portfolio,” AKA a poacher. Unlike his cousin, who lived in an apartment in Lusaka with his family, Gordon lived in a bungalow out in the bush, near the Kafue River, which fed into the mighty Zambesi. Gordon’s house had a generator to drive his appliances, a Datsun pickup truck, a 31′ boat with an outboard motor and any number of weapons.

The local chief, Dick, arranged for us to go with him and the cousins on a hunting and fishing trip near Gordon’s bungalow. There were six of us: Dick, Greg, Gordon, Larry, Sam and me. Sam was a former Marine and sweet-talked the Detachment NCOIC to loan us each an M-14 with enough ammo to take over the local government. The M-14s had been packed up for some time to be shipped back to the armory at Quantico but the paperwork had fallen through the cracks, and were in fact off the books. He also gave us several hundred rounds of 7.62 ammunition. All of us had served in the Armed Forces and were qualified on that weapon. They also loaned us plenty of camping equipment. Greg arranged for several pounds of South African cold cuts, local bread and several cases of Castle Beer.

On Saturday morning, we loaded all of our gear into and on top of Dick’s Toyota Land Cruiser and headed south to Gordon’s property. Lusaka sits at over 4200′ and the weather is quite pleasant year-round. We were headed due south and would be traveling from 4200′ to around 500′ and it got hotter and hotter the further south into the bush that we drove.

We arrived near Gordon’s not much after noon. It took us a while to set up camp. Gordon had a rondavel about a half mile from his bungalow and that was to be our campsite. We took our weapons and made a survey of the area. This was lion and leopard country and to go about unarmed was suicidal. A round from an M-14 may not stop a charging male but the contents of several magazines would.

We unloaded the truck at the rondavel just about cocktail time. The tents were set up inside the rondavel and we got a good fire going. Dick broke out the beer and the rum and the cold cuts and the war stories started. While sitting there, I noticed a rather large spider rappeling down from the thatched roof of the rondavel. Since it was getting on bedtime, I announced to the boys that there was no way I was going to stay in that rondavel with a spider big enough to carry me off. This announcement set off a round of hoots of derision, and my mates were heaping loads of personal abuse upon me, but I was adamant. After going into the bushes to answer a call of nature, I grabbed my weapon and crawled into the Land Cruiser’s back seat. In spite of the occasional roar of a lion, I managed to get about five solid hours of sleep.

We got up around 0700. Greg had gotten the coffee going and a couple of the guys were making sandwiches. I was too excited to eat. We were at the threshhold of a great adventure, one that most men could only dream of. After we policed up the rondavel, we loaded the beer and chow back in to the Land Cruiser and set off, with Greg driving and Gordon guiding. We’d been driving around for about an hour when Gordon pointed out a small herd of elephants around a watering hole. I remarked to Larry that I thought that the elephant was a noble beast and how neat it would be to have a Marine T-Shirt with a charging elephant on the front. Larry looked at me and smirked, and said nothing. Did I mention that I always thought that Larry was a weasel?

After noon, when it was at its hottest, Gordon guided his cousin to a spot in the shade of a baobob tree. He scanned the horizon using his East German binoculars and spotted a large male lion taking a nap under another tree about 200 yards away. Several of us raised our rifles and took aim at Leo, but Gordon put out his hand and told us not to fire. Odd coming from a professional poacher, Gordon didn’t think it was very sporting of us. To this day I regret not having blown that big cat away. That was a once in a lifetime chance. We drove around the veldt for the rest of the day, wondering at the sight of herds of zebras, wildebeests, gazelles and other animals; we passed by several ponds where we could see the evil crocodiles floating like dead logs. We were treated to a sight that most people only see on the National Geographic channel: two female lions had attacked a giraffe and the prey used its powerful legs and hooves to fend off the predators. Awsome. Absolutely awesome.

We got back to the rondavel again around cocktail time. We compared pictures on our digital cameras while Gordon opened the beers and passed around bags of potato chips before heading back to his bungalow and his family. We carried on shooting the breeze and drinking beer until about 2200 and then decided to hit the sack. The plan for tomorrow was to rise fairly early and load all of our weapons and fishing gear on to Gordon’s boat which was tied up on his small dock on the Kafue River, and go out to the mighty Zambesi to fish for tigerfish and vundu. Tigerfish are renowned in the area for being exceptional fighters, and the vundu is a bottom feeder, part of the catfish family and can grow to some exceptional size.

Before setting out, we all fired off several rounds of ammo into a grove of trees across the Kafue and felt secure about going back into the wilderness. Gordon came by in his pickup and parked it in the shade. He hopped into the boat, accepted a coke from his cousin, and fired the outboard up. We headed south for about a half mile before entering the mighty Zambesi. We headed east toward the Kariba Dam. We had no sooner got underway when Gordon noticed a boat on the northern shore, hard by some mangroves. Two Europeans were whaling on a young Zambian man was kneeling over one of the outboard motors on their boat. Gordon felt compelled to see if he could help and did a U-turn on the Zambesi and pulled alongside the stalled boat. The Europeans were Serbian businessmen and were really mad. They’d paid for a fishing trip and didn’t want to spend their fishing time sitting by the mangroves being eaten alive by the mosquitoes. Gordon asked what was going on. When the Serbians explained to him what had happened, Gordon joined in the whaling on the boy. He called him a “stupid munt,” a derisive name that the locals called each other. Gordon said that he’d take the stupid munt boy and the Europeans back to the dock and arrange for the boat to be repaired. In the meantime, he took us back to some very low lying islands in the Zambesi. We unloaded our weapons and some beer. Gordon said he’d be back in an hour or so.

We sat on the sand bar and watched the hippos in the river on the Zimbabwean side and saw some evil looking crocodiles skulking along the beach. We made sure that we were locked and loaded. We couldn’t even go for a swim as the current was very strong there and with the hippos and crocs, a swim would’ve been suicidal.

Eventually Gordon returned to pick us up and we went back out into the river to try our luck. A couple of the guys caught some vundu and released them back to the river. We weren’t far from the Zambian side when Larry hooked a tigerfish which really didn’t want to be landed. He led us on a merry chase. He headed up a creek and Gordon followed him with the boat. Larry was standing in the bow, determined to land this prize. Gordon was driving the boat, but he admitted that he’d never been up this bayou before and was going very slowly. The bayou was no more than 20′ across so there wasn’t a whole lot of room to maneuver. Larry was intnent on landing his prize when the boat hit a submerged tree stump. Larry fell forward into the water, which wasn’t deep at all but extremely dangerous. I got up to try to help the rat bastard when I saw the croc come into the water. Larry didn’t see him and was struggling to get back on the boat when the croc grabbed him by the leg and was attempting to drag him back to his den. Larry looked up at me, screaming “shoot this thing, get me out of here!” I looked down at him and said, “Larry, where’s my t-shirt?” He sputtered and screamed again, “shoot this thing, he’s going to kill me!” “Larry,” I said, “where’s my shirt?” “It’s rolled up in my boot in my room, now save my ass!’

Armed with that intel, I emptied a full mag into the saurian, and so did the rest of the guys. The water turned red and the croc released Larry and we pulled him aboard. Another croc came into the water and began to cannibalize the offending croc. It had done minimal damage to Larry. The animal chewed on his calf, but missed the saphenous artery; Larry would survive. We had a first aid kit on board and patched him up as well as we could. Next stop was an aid station staffed by Italian nursing sisters who did a lot more professional job than we ever could have. It took us some time to get back to our camp after that and then to break camp and load the truck.

It was dark when we got back to Lusaka. DIck had radioed ahead to alert the Embassy that we had a wounded man and needed a doctor to see to him. I got the key for Larry’s room from the Zambian guy in charge of the quarters. Sure enough, I found my shirt rolled up in Larry’s jungle boot. I hope he enjoyed his limited tenure as the owner of that shirt.


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