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waiting the storm out


Gilligan 2000

©02 Levite

[ Inspired by and dedicated to the Desk's Day Job Co-workers. no none are named Gilligan ]

     "I think we should turn back." And then. "Oh hell."
     Those were the last words our pilot ever said.

     It started on a working vacation. I had flown from the resort to a small island to go reef diving for a day. Then some storms came up and the entire island shut down.
     The small airstrip closed down and the controller went home. Then during a break in the storm the pilot said we could probably get out if we wanted to go.
     He looked around the small, cramped, and uncomfortable room. It was called the 'passenger lounge' but it looked more like a waiting room in a low budget dentist's office. There were a several people waiting on flights. Two older couples, a US navy officer on leave with his younger brother, a hostess that worked for the charter company, and a few others of the college spring break types.
     "You're sure you can make it?" I asked the pilot.
     "Yeah. Once we get airborne, we'll fly between the storms to whichever airport is in the clear. I've done it before."
     It sounded good to me. And I did not want to be stuck here with a tropical storm on its way. I nodded. "I'll go for it if anybody else does."
     It was about an even split of those waiting to try it.
     We took everything we could and loaded it into the twelve-passenger plane. The pilot tried to find somebody to tell we were leaving, but the office was locked and closed. Just before we took off a van came up from the hotel and the others took it and left. Now it seemed we were committed to it.
     The sky was bright blue above and to the west, where we were going. But to either side dark clouds mounted heavenward in thick towers.
     "OK. Lets do it." The pilot said and started the engines.
     We taxied away from the building and were soon flying.
     There were storm clouds on both sides of us and behind. but ahead, clear blue sky and sparkling water. Things couldn't look better for our three hour island hop.
     "I'm flying a little more to the south than normal to avoid those thunderheads." The pilot said. "It'll add maybe another hour to the flight."
     We all nodded and watched the Caribbean roll by.

     But then about an hour later...
     "I'm going to try to climb over that one." The pilot said.
     "It's too choppy. I'm going to turn back south."
     The clouds were all around us now. And the turbulence was getting worse.
     "I'm going to drop out of this and see where we are. I can't get a good GPS with all this lightning interference."
     He muttered something about being way off course.
     "I think we should turn back." And then. "Oh hell."
     The entire cabin lit up.
     We never heard the thunder, but the static electricity was jumping from us to the plane and back and ... Then that smell of burned hair and flesh and a thin gray smoke filled the cabin.
     The plane started to spin down out of control, the motors sputtered and died. All the cabin lights were off.
     The off-duty hostess scrambled into the cockpit and shook the pilot.
     "Oh my God." She said.
     He wasn't dead. Yet.
     She said he blinked several times, and reached for the control stick with what was left of his hands. Then, with an effort worthy of a first century Christian Saint, he bellied the plane in on a thin strip of white sand as huge raindrops began to splatter against the plane.
     Then the pilot collapsed.
     We got him out of the plane and began CPR under the relative shelter of the wing, but he was gone. A couple of the others had been frantically dialing on their phones. But that was useless.
     "The storm is interfering with the signal." Debby said hopefully.
     All we could do was nod.

     We couldn't stand to be in the plane, but the storm got worse and worse, finally we had no choice. We covered the pilot's body in a blanket from the plane and retreated into the passenger cabin.
     As what I took to calling 'the tempest' raged outside we speculated about where we were and how long it would be before we were rescued.
     I sat in the copilot's seat and tried to work the radio. It was useless. It seemed the cockpit had taken a direct hit by lightning. Some of the instruments were actually melted in their panels. Nothing would even come on.
     "Well?" The older man asked me leaning into the cockpit.
     "It's toast. I'm surprised he lived long enough to land after this."
     "Lucky for us he did."
     I nodded and looked out. "It's letting up. We need to see if there's anything around here."
     The naval officer looked at his brother then at us. "Chad can climb that tree and take a look."
     "Let's let the rain slack up a little."
     I opened the door a little. From here there wasn't really anything to see.

     During the storm we had introduced ourselves to each other.
     The naval officer was Lieutenant John Fowler. His younger brother Chad was fifteen years his junior. He was planning on following his brother into the Navy and was down here with him to get some bluewater diving experience.
     Mr. and Mrs. Simmons were retired, twice. From twenty-five years in corporate America they had retired and gone into part time consulting. Which turned into full time consulting. Ten years later, they retired again, and became Snowbirds heading south on Halloween every year.
     "We just got down here. Hurricane season is Supposed to be over." He said looking out at the storm.
     "Somebody forgot to tell the Atlantic." Chad joked.
     Nobody else laughed.
     Debby Gaylord was the stewardess. "Hostess." She corrected me. But she wasn't just a hostess. She was also a model that had appeared in ads for several of the resorts in the islands. Usually in a swimsuit, she smiled, but sometimes without it as well. "You wouldn't believe how much they will pay me to lay on the beach naked and smile for an hour."
     "Quite a bit I imagine." I said slowly. Just thinking about it gave me a headache.
     Cheryl Bennington had come down here to get away from her ex-fiancÚ. He had gotten a case of cold feet two weeks before the wedding and called it off. "This was going to be our honeymoon, he gave me the tickets to surprise me for Valentine's Day. I'm glad I kept them." She grinned. She had cashed in what she could of his half of the tickets and went on her honeymoon trip without the groom. And she said she had been having a blast. "Up till now."
     "We're not that bad are we?" Lieutenant Fowler smiled warmly. "Although sometimes my wife has other opinions."
     We all denied that anybody would think he was anything other than a terrific guy.
     The laughter was a bit thin, but it lightened the mood in the cabin quite a bit.
     I introduced myself as Bruce, and that I was between teaching jobs and trying to earn my stripes as a travel writer.
     Mr. Simmons grinned at me, "So what kind of travel article are you going to get out of this?"
     I shrugged. "I'll keep some notes and when we get back to the hotel, I'll see."
     Debby made me promise to spell her name right.

     Finally the rain and wind let up enough that we could go out and see what we could see.
     There wasn't much to see.
     Chad took his brother's binoculars and climbed two different trees and then we all walked up a hill he said was about a mile away.
     From there we could see most of what he saw from his bird's eye view.
     The island was shaped kinda like a chicken leg and not a whole lot bigger. And from our view on the hill, it was a deserted chicken leg as well.
     "Please, call me either John or Buck... This doesn't look like a naval base."
     "Buck?" Mr. Simmons asked.
     "My nickname at the academy. It's stuck with me."
     "Then Buck it is."
     He nodded. "Thanks. See what you think that is over there."
     I took the glasses and tried to focus on a dark shape in some trees not far from the beach on the other side of the island. "A building I guess."
     We all took turns and agreed that it looked like some sort of structure.
     But it was getting too late to start an expedition now. The sun was sinking into the horizon and the clouds were beginning to threaten more rain again.
     We got back to the plane without getting too wet. Then we spent a miserable night listening to the wind howl.
     To break it up we tried to ignore the reality that the pilot had died, and talked about various TV shows and pretended we were on one.
     We had almost convinced ourselves that we were on a hidden camera reality TV show and discussed complex strategies to vote each other off then split the prize money once we were all out of here.
     If it came up at all, the consensus was that once the storm had passed it wouldn't be more than a day or two before somebody came looking for us.
     When the wind quit shaking the plane we tried to get some sleep. Only to wake up to another thunderclap or the violent rocking of the plane in the wind.

     Blue skis and hunger.
     That's what we woke up to.
     Almost as one we got out several phones and tried to call out again. All the exercise proved was that nobody had built a cel tower on the island overnight.
     The hurricane and its bastard children thunderstorms were now just a line of clouds on the northern horizon. There were trees down up and down the beach, and the plane had actually been shifted further down the beach toward the surf.
     The first order of business was a solemn one.
     We buried the pilot using our hands and some sticks to make a grave above the high water line.
     The duty of saying a few meaningful words fell to me.
     I thanked the Lord for his skill and dedication in saving us even after he had sustained injuries that would take his life. I asked for eternal rest for him, and comfort for his family. Then I asked the Lord to deliver us. We all bowed our heads and the Lieutenant saluted the fallen. But then there was nothing else to do.

     The service had damped our appetite, but that didn't last long.
     We dug through our luggage and found odds and ends, mostly snacks. And got what was left out of the plane's storage of, well, more snacks.
     Somebody mentioned that on the TV shows they end up eating rats and bugs. Put that way, candy bars and caramel popcorn wasn't all that bad.
     We talked about it and decided we needed to get everything we could off the plane since it wasn't above the high water mark for the next incoming tide. Finally admitting that it might more than 'a day or two' before we were rescued.
     Which brought up shelter.
     Which brought us back to the possible building on the other side of the island.
     Working together we stripped the plane of everything and anything of any possible use.

     The one thing we hadn't talked about was how long we really might be here.
     We covered the luggage and supplies with a small tarp from the luggage compartment, then tried to figure out how to best go explore the building.
     We had slowly convinced ourselves that the structure was an abandoned military installation complete with radio and electric generator. And it would all be in working order. Ten minutes after kicking the door in Buck would be on the radio to the Coast Guard.
     Buck, Chad, Debby (who spoke Spanish in case we raised somebody else's Coast Guard), and I got elected to go. The Simmonses and Cheryl would stay to watch the stuff and keep a lookout for a search plane.
     The walk was a lot further than it looked.
     There was no path through the jungle. There was no break from the oppressive humidity. Nothing. We slogged along in single file. The three men taking turns, by some unspoken rule, beating the brush ahead back with a stick to clear what we loosely called a path.
     And so we reached the building just after noon.

     It may have been a military outpost once upon a time. Or maybe not.
     But what it was now was... a dump.
     Overgrown, roofless, and empty.
     We found a few items around that might come in handy. The most useful being a rusty ax-head on a rotten handle stuck in a bug eaten log. Then we decided to go back instead of spending the night here.
     The trip back was a little quicker. But a lot hungrier.
     "Water." I said at one rest break after double checking my empty diet cola can.
     "We don't have any Bruce."
     "No. Listen."
     Everybody held their breath.
     We could hear a trickle of water.
     We cleared the brush like we were demonically possessed.
     A small stream was splashing over some rocks under a tangle of sticker bushes.
     We started to worry about it being safe to drink. Then decided to chance it and take some back in our empty pop cans to the others.
     It tasted good. And fresh. But not cool like we expected.
     Chad and I discussed coming back later and looking for its source and where it came out on the beach.
     We drank a great deal more than we probably should have, then we filled everything we could and walked doubletime back to the plane.

     "We tried to stop it." Mr. Simmons said when we got back.
     The tide had come in. And the plane was being slowly washed out to sea. They had tied it off with the cords and straps they had to a nearby tree. But all that was doing was pulling the tree out of the sandy soil by the roots.
     "Maybe it's for the best. If somebody sees it, they'll know it crashed and come look for survivors." I said.
     "But it's our only shelter." Cheryl said almost crying.
     Everybody pulled together. We succeeded in breaking one strap, and pulling part of the tail off the plane. Which gave us an idea.
     With the tools we had, and an improvised handle on the axe head, we managed to get some sheet metal off the plane.
     Chad set to trying to de-wing it as well. He worked like a champion, but the best we could do was to pull sections of aluminum skin off of them.
     "OK. We build a shelter." Buck said.
     "Can't we use this to put a roof on the building you found?" Mrs. Simmons asked.
     We thought about it. Then agreed it could be done. Then we went to work to see if we could get some windows off the plane.
     We had the best luck with the windshields from the cockpit. They came out in one piece. Mostly.
     But then we had to deal with getting what we needed to the building.
     There was no way around it. We would have to either spend the night in the open, or in the plane which was now sitting with water almost up to the cabin door.
     Cheryl was going to spend the night in the plane if she had to swim to it.

     It didn't come to that. But late that night water was lapping at my seat.

     In the morning we had to face the prospect that we seriously needed food.
     "Covered." Chad said and ran through the surf with a lot of splashing.
     We looked at his brother wondering what was going on.
     "We set out some snares last night. I had no idea what we might catch, but there are animals on the island."
     "I'm not eating a rat." Debby said.
     "I'm almost that hungry." Mrs. Simmons said. "As long as I don't have to cook it."
     Chad was hollering and whistling from the edge of the forest so we all waded through knee-deep water to see what he had caught.
     They weren't exactly rats. But I wasn't sure of what they were. Something of a cross between a nutria and a squirrel. But they looked enough like a rat that Debby said she wasn't going to touch it.
     Before it was said and done we had five of the almost-rats and one funny looking rabbit.
     Buck started cleaning the critters while Chad got a fire going.
     I didn't want to cook them so I volunteered to go hunting for something to have with them. Debby said she'd come too since she wasn't going to eat a rat. Then the Simmonses said they'd help and we trekked into the forest on our shopping trip.

     Earlier we'd been right through the middle of it. But we hadn't been looking for food. Now I saw all sorts of things around that reminded me of an exotic produce section at a fancy grocery store.
     "How do we tell if it's poisonous or not?" Debby asked me.
     "Well. These I recognize." I held out a couple of over-ripe mangos. "Those are about two fifty apiece at the store I used to work at." I pointed to a couple of large gourds, "And those as well." Then I gestured to the top of a tree where several small monkeys were chattering and chewing on small bananas, "and their lunch I'll take a chance on."
     She agreed and we continued our excursion.
     Cattail hearts, mangos, barely ripe bananas, a couple of coconuts, and some other things complimented our dinner of almost-rats.
     Debby even broke down and tried the meat.
     "It doesn't taste like chicken. But it is a source of protein." Mr. Simmons summarized for us.
     We decided to spend tonight on the beach. Making the best beds we could, then set out for the building at first light.

     We built up the fire and posted watch and... passed our first night actually ON the island.

     The next high tide came and went. And the plane drifted a little further out. And, to our dismay. Into a little deeper water. Now the waves were breaking against the cabin windows and one wing was almost totally submerged.
     We told each other they would still see it.
     We used some of the aluminum to make a sign for anybody that would come onshore from around the wrecked plane. It said in Spanish and English where we were and even had a hand drawn map of the island indicating the old building. It was the best we could do.
     We had constructed a litter of sorts of and for the parts from the plane. Then we picked up everything we had salvaged, which wasn't much, and the luggage we had with us, which actually wasn't much either since most of us had been on a day trip. And set off.
     We went only as fast as the slowest people. And we stopped at the stream for a long break. And got to the decaying building late in the afternoon.
     We set to clearing it out enough that some of us, the women by that same unspoken rule, could sleep in it tonight. But once we got to cutting away the tangle of vines and tree limbs around the door, there wasn't much else there. In about hour we had the concrete block building totally bare of vegetation and were discussing the sleeping arrangements.
     While we were talking, Chad was exploring. He hollered for his brother, then the rest of us.
     "Look at this." He said pulling back the brush exposing a stairway down into a buried bunker.
     "That's more than sixty years old." I said recognizing the symbols and the language. "This was a Nazi base in World War Two."
     "No." Mr. Simmons said. "It can't be." He got close and looked at the crumbling inscription in the concrete. "Well. OK. Maybe it is."
     "I can't open the door. It's locked." Chad said.
     Buck looked at the door. Then he took the ax from me and banged at the rusted hinges a few times. The bottom one broke on the second impact. The top one took a few more hits. Then the door almost fell on Chad.
     The air inside was stale. And in a second a large group of bats careened out causing us all to duck.
     We got the two working flashlights we had and looked inside.
     When the Germans had pulled out, they hadn't taken everything.
     The interior of the bunker showed evidence of years of being a bat and other small animal haven. But there were some old tools and equipment that might still be useful in it.
     We promised each other to continue the exploration and ransacking in the morning.
     We cleared some more brush from around the door to our building and built a fire. I took first watch and the others sacked out.
     About halfway through my two hour watch Debby came out and went around the corner. I knew she was borrowing the 'lady's room' brush pile. When she was done she came back and sat across the fire from me.
     "Do you think we'll ever be rescued?"
     I sighed. "Well. Given the storm. I imagine they didn't figure out we were missing until last night or maybe even today. So they couldn't have started the search until earlier today. And we don't know how far off course we were when we went down.
     "You mean you guys don't know where we are?"
     "Not exactly. But Buck has a good idea." I saw her face in the firelight and quickly added. "There may be some old German maps in there. They might tell us exactly where we are."
     She sat silently for a minute. "I hope you're right."
     "We'll be rescued."
     She stayed up until the end of my watch. We really didn't talk, just watched the fire together.
     In the morning we cooked the almost-rats Chad had trapped overnight, and had another forest supplied buffet of fruits.
     Then we began going through the bunker while Buck and Chad started on the roof of our building.
     The old table was two inches or more deep in bat crap. But we carried it out anyway. Most of the stuff came off in dry slabs, but the table was far from clean. We decided to let the ocean clean it for us and carried it down to the water and let it soak for awhile, then we rubbed it with sand. Rinsed it again. And it looked almost useable.
     Some of the other things we found was a small selection of old hand tools, some of which had rotten handles or were rusted to where they crumbled at our touch. But we made do.
     Then later we discovered another bunker on the other side of our building.
     And it hadn't been used as a zoo for half a century.
     But it had been sealed for that long. It had to air out for almost an hour before we could stand to be inside for more than a minute or two.
     And I found several maps inside. They were in German and their accuracy was a little suspect because of some hand-made markings on them apparently drawing in other islands, but they were accurate enough for us.
     If our reading of the German was right, and it was our best guess, when we compared the old map to the plane's flight map, we were three hundred miles from where we thought we were.
     Debby took the news the hardest. "I knew we were too far off course..." She muttered several times.
     With the roof, such as it was, on the building, the table next to the fire, and a fifty year old German pot full of warm water to wash ourselves in, it was fairly easy to picture this place as a campsite.
     Once. Once we thought we heard an aircraft. But it was too far away and too faint to be sure.
     After that we set about building a signal tower on top of the hill and made sure we kept a fire burning at all times with some green stuff nearby to throw on to make smoke if needed.
     The 'tower' ended up being about six feet high. But it was stable. And gave you a good view of the island and the ocean on all sides. We had reinforced the floor of the thing and were in the process of carrying the steel door from the first bunker up there to put on it to build a signal fire on, but that got old in a hurry. We promised each other we'd do it tomorrow and took the rest of the day off to go swimming.

     We had danced around the issue since the second day.
     But now we were all beyond anything that could politely be called B.O.
     A couple of us had taken a break now and again to go swimming. And we had changed clothes a time or two. All except for Chad and Buck, they didn't have anything with them besides their wetsuits and what they had on.
     So we bit the bullet and built a fire on the beach, put the ancient German washtub on it and hauled freshwater to it from the stream. Then we used a trial size bottle of shampoo from the luggage and washed everybody's dirty clothes while we swam.
     Mr. Simmons was actually the last one to give into the madness and put his clothes in the pot and walk into the water. But he did it with more dignity than the rest of us.
     Cheryl even wondered aloud if her ex would even recognize her now. When she was helping us with the tower she had taken off her shirt and worked in her bra with the straps loose and was now tanned almost brown.
     I have to admit the women were very good sports about the whole thing. Even Mrs. Simmons had a laugh about it. But then we had to get back out of the ocean, rinse the clothes in fresh water, and hang them here, there and everywhere to dry.
     Later back at camp we cooked another bunch of the almost-rats and discussed the best way to build a fish trap.

     I had the late watch and was still trying to blink myself awake when Debby came out looking like she'd been crying.
     "I don't want to live here forever." She said as I held her and asked what was wrong.
     "We'll have the signal fire on the hill going tomorrow. After that. It won't be long. They have to be looking for us now."
     "How long will they look?"
     "Well. A long time probably. I owe that hotel a week's room rent. At those prices, I'm sure the manager is out looking for me if nobody else is. He wants his money." I smiled.
     She thought I was serious. Then she looked at me. "I'm serious." She said. "How long will they look?"
     "Maybe a week from when they get the report we're missing. So... Probably another three or four days." I looked into her eyes by the firelight. "We'll keep that fire burning night and day. We'll be rescued."

End Part 1

Continued in Island 2

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