Round the Bend: Pages 64 through 70
ROUND the BEND
Nevil Shute, 1951
```(annotated and with added blue highlights by al-Brunardot)
We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
JAMES ELROY FLECKER
IT WAS thirteen years since I had seen Connie and a lot had happened in that time, but I knew him at once. I said, "Connie Shaklin! You remember me—on Cobham's circus? Tom Cutter."
He pushed back the net, got out, and shook me by the hand. He was leaner than I remembered him, especially in the face. In some ways he looked more Chinese than ever, but alongside a Chinese you could see he wasn't one. He was too tall, too aquiline. His Russian mother was responsible for that. He was a striking-looking man; he reminded me of something, but for a time I couldn't think of what it was.
He said, "Tom! What are you doing now? Last time I heard was years ago. You were still at Airservice then."
I offered him a cigarette, but he said he didn't smoke. I lit it and sat down on the charpoy. "I left them last year," I said. "I'm on my own now."
"Still in aircraft?"
"Yes. I'm operating in the Persian Gulf. I came down here on a charter job."
I was terribly glad to see Connie again. He was a part of my youth, part of the fine time you have before you have to take
responsibilities. Presently, as you go through your life, you undertake so many duties that you haven't time for making new, close friendships any more; you've got too much to do. For the remainder of your life you have to make do with the friends you gathered in in your short youth, and for me, Connie was about the only one I ever had. I started getting serious pretty early in my life, I suppose.
I told him all about my charter service in the Gulf as I stripped my few clothes off and stretched out on the bed. In return he told me what he had been doing. From Cobham's circus he had gone to California; he had got a job with the Lockheed Company in their service and repair department and he had stayed with them for six years or so. Then the war had come, in 1939. He was a British subject, of course, and England was at war; he felt it was his duty to serve although he had queer ideas about fighting, and so he went north over the border to Edmonton and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as an engine fitter.
"Were you in aircrew?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I think that it is wrong to kill," he said simply. "I told them that when I volunteered for the R.C.A.F. I told them also that if one could not kill in time of war, one ought to work very hard. I had the American ground engineer's certificates, of course, for Lockheed and Pratt and Whitney stuff, and they were glad to have me for a fitter on the ground."
He had spent the whole of the war in Canada working at various aerodromes in connection with the Empire training scheme and, later, on some cold weather research projects at Trenton. He had sat for the Canadian ground engineer's licences at the end of the war and had got the lot without difficulty, and at the beginning of 1946 he had gone out to Bangkok and had worked for a time as a ground engineer with Siamese Airways.
I opened my eyes at that. Siamese Airways is the national airline of Siam and, I thought, staffed exclusively by Asiatics. "What on earth made you go there?" I asked.
"Karma," he said smiling. I didn't understand him, but his old magic was upon me once again and I didn't interrupt; he knew so much more than I did. "I went back home to San Diego for a few months and worked at the Flying Club, but I couldn't
settle there. I didn't really like America, and I wanted to know more, much more, about the Lord Guatama and the Four Noble Truths. I wanted to hear people talk about the Buddhist faith who really knew something—not the sort of people you find in Los Angeles. And presently I found I had to go to Bangkok to find out about all that. There was no alternative except the bughouse."
I grinned. This was the same old Connie, different to anybody else that I had ever met. He had been good for me when I was a callow and an ignorant youth; he was good for me now. I said, "Were you able to get into Siamese Airways?" And then I said, perhaps a little thoughtlessly, "I thought they were all Asiatics."
He smiled. "Well, what do you call me?"
"You're British," I said, wondering.
"I was born in Penang," he replied. "My father was a full Chinese. My mother was a Russian who got out in 1917, at the time of the Revolution. I speak Cantonese, and a little Mandarin. I spell my name in two parts now that I'm out here, Shak Lin, like my father did. I'm an Asiatic."
"Not a proper one," I said loyally.
He grinned. "Proper enough to get a job with Siamese Airways. I think they were very glad to get me; I got to Bangkok just as they were starting up. They bought a lot of disposals Dakotas and had them converted in Hong Kong. I was with them up till about four months ago."
"What are you doing now?" I asked.
He said, "I'm with Dwight Schafter."
"Who's Dwight Schafter?"
"Don't you know about him?"
I shook my head. "No."
"He's a gun-runner," said Connie. "He flies arms into the Indonesian Republicans, or he did. The Dutch have got him now, here in Batavia."
"You're working for him?"
"Well I'm muggered," I said in wonder.
As we lay there on our beds in the hot afternoon he told me
about Dwight Schafter. Dwight was an American, a soldier of fortune by profession. Wherever there is trouble in the world the
Dwights of all nations foregather. There are not very many of them, thirty or forty perhaps, and they are all supremely competent men because the others have been killed.
Dwight had spent some years in Central and South America, and he had flown for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He had been flying for the Chinese against the Japanese in 1938 and 1939, and he had come into the United States Army Air Force via Major Chennault's Flying Tigers. He delivered two or three disposals B-25's from America to the warring Israelites in Palestine just after the war, but by the middle of 1946 he was back in the East, flying loads of sub-machine guns from the Philippines to Indonesia for the benefit of brown men fighting the Dutch.
At that time there was considerable sympathy in South East Asia for the Indonesians in their struggle against the Dutch. In Indo-China the Viet-Minh forces were engaged in a similar rebellion against French rule. In Siam there was sympathy with the Asiatics in both cases, though it would probably be quite wrong to suggest that the Siamese Government connived at gunrunning. It would probably be quite right to say that when strange freight aircraft turned up at Don Muang aerodrome outside Bangkok with thin stories of journeys to improbable places, the Siamese Government saw no reason to initiate officious and unnecessary investigations.
Dwight Schafter was a small, quick, dark-haired man from Indiana. He turned up at Don Muang one day flying a brand new Cornell Carrier. The Carrier was a great big American freight aeroplane in the same class as the British Plymouth Tramp; it was powered by two Pratt and Whitney engines of about seventeen hundred horsepower each, and it was very completely equipped. It cost about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in the States; quite an aeroplane.
Dwight Schafter said that he was starting an air service with it from Saigon in Indo-China to Manila in the Philippines. He did not explain what he intended to carry between these cities in this expensive freight aircraft, and no one bothered to ask him. He was known at Don Muang. He had a Dakota which turned up from time to time for servicing by Siamese Airways, and he had always
paid his bills with cash on the nail, usually small cubical gold ingots, of which he seemed to have an inexhaustible supply.
He wanted the Carrier serviced with a routine engine check. He said that there were no licensed ground engineers in Saigon, which at that time may or may not have been true; conditions in Indo-China were certainly very disturbed. In any case, he brought the aircraft into Don Muang to be checked over, and Connie Shaklin was put on the job with two Chinese ground engineers to help him. There was about two days' work to be done.
When Connie told me this, I had not, at that time, seen him at work. I can now say that he was the most thorough and careful engineer that I have ever met. He was quick enough in doing a job, but he would never take the slightest thing on chance; in consequence he added to his work far more than another man would have thought necessary. Dwight Schafter was clearly very much impressed, because on the evening of the second day, when they were in the cockpit together at the conclusion of an engine test run, he said,
"Say, Shak Lin, why don't you leave this outfit, 'n come and work for me? I'll need somebody like you to help me run this baby." He caressed the bakelite control wheel of the Carrier.
Connie stared out over the wide brown stretches of the airfield, glowing golden in the evening light, to the dim blue line of the hills up to the north. "Where are you based?" he asked. "Where would the job be?"
"I run from the Philippines to Saigon," said Schafter carefully. "But the job's not there. I've got a private strip way out in the country, where we do the maintenance. It's very quiet there, of course—no Europeans nearer than a hundred miles. But that won't worry you, because you speak Chinese."
"I speak Canton," said Connie. "Does that go at your strip?"
He nodded. "The people that you'd come in contact with understand Canton. Not the peasants, but you wouldn't have to worry about those." He paused. "It's very isolated, but the job will probably be over in six months. Give you eight hundred American dollars a month, and transportation back here to Bangkok."
Eight hundred dollars a month is at the rate of £2500 a year, a high wage for a ground engineer even in the East. In all his
later life, I never knew Connie to take the least interest in money. He always earned a good salary because he was first class at his job, but he lived on the Asiatic standard. I know that he had no money at the time of his death; I think he gave it all away. While he worked for me he preferred to be paid in cash each month. I don't think he had a bank account at all.
It certainly wasn't for money, then, that he left Siamese Airways and went to work for Dwight Schafter. I know now that he had been in close touch with the ecclesiastics of Buddhism while he was working in Bangkok, and he spoke once of his horoscope. My own belief is that he felt the need to go out into the wilderness for a few months, to get away from the crowd for a time to meditate on what he had learned of Buddhism. That is a possible explanation, and it certainly fits in with the life that Dwight Schafter offered him, a time of long periods of inactivity while Dwight was away flying, with only Asiatics for his company, upon the abandoned airstrip at Damrey Phong.
He had no illusions about the job. "I maintain aircraft," he said, there in the beautifully finished cockpit of the Carrier, with the long rows of black-faced instruments in front of him below the windscreen. "I take no part in wars. I would not fly with you to any foreign country to deliver any load."
"You don't have to do that," said Schafter, looking at him curiously. "I don't want you for an air crew. I've got a C-47 and I've got this baby, and I guess there's plenty for you to do keeping those two in the air. I want somebody that I can trust to stay back at the strip and keep the maintenance of the one ship going while I'm away with the other. I think I can trust you. What do you say?"
He said, Yes. He left Siamese Airways a week later. Dwight Schafter reappeared at Don Muang in a Dakota with a brown man called Monsieur Seriot as his co-pilot, and Connie got into it with his small luggage, contained in an old parachute pack and a tool chest. The Dakota cleared for Prachaub in Siam and flew towards the sea and down the coast of Cambodia into Indo-China. Two hours later they landed on the strip at Damrey Phong.
Damrey Phong lies on the river Kos about fifteen miles from the coast. It is about a hundred miles from the Siamese border,
and about a hundred and eighty miles as the crow flies from Saigon. It is a small Asiatic village of palm thatch houses, the homes of a purely rural community. Superimposed on this was the civilization of the airstrip, built for strategic purposes during the war. There were two houses built of wood in European style, and a store building; there had been a hangar, but the roof had fallen in with neglect and the remains of the wooden building were rapidly disintegrating. There was a wharf to which small coasting motor vessels could come up the river, and here there was a petrol store with a good stock of fuel and oil in drums. The Cornell Carrier was parked beside the strip.
The place was in territory held by the Viet-Minh forces in rebellion against the French, and the pattern of the operations was soon explained to Connie. The loads carried up till that time had been exclusively trench mortars, sub-machine guns, and small arms. They came from somewhere in the Philippines, he thought the island of Negros. The Dakota would fly there across the China Sea once every two or three days, a flight of twelve or thirteen hundred miles. It would return to Damrey Phong loaded with these arms, all of which were ex-American Army weapons, mostly in poor condition owing to neglect since the war. Consignments of ammunition arrived in the same way from time to time.
About half of these weapons and ammunition were sold to the Viet-Minh forces, but the supply was greater than they could pay for or recondition. The loads not required remained in the Dakota while it was refuelled, and it then took off again for some destination in Indonesia. This flight was made direct, but the empty Dakota frequently returned to the home airstrip via Bangkok to pick up any stores or spare parts that might be required.
Connie gathered that it was a very profitable trade.
Whoever financed it, indeed, found it so profitable that he was able to plough back profits into the business. Wherever the arms came from, there was larger stuff than sub-machine guns going for scrap price. There were anti-tank guns, bazookas, and seventy-five millimetre field guns, and ammunition for them, too, neglected and rusty maybe, but still capable of being put to use. These guns were worth their weight in silver to the Indonesians, and since the gold and silver mines of Bencoolen and Madoen were both in rebel