Here's a story from the vault. It's always been an oral narrative I've told to passengers in my cab when it seemed appropriate, but until now never written up. It concerns a certain rhinoceros with anger management issues. How could that have anything to do with driving a taxi in New York City? Read on.
First, some history...
I grew up in Levittown, New York, about a forty-five minute drive from Manhattan, where I was a student in a typical American high school. I graduated in 1967. It's common to look back at that time in your life as the "good old days", but not for me. I couldn't wait to get out of the place! It felt like prison to me. This was the '60s and the tumult of the era was weighing heavily upon me. The prospect of spending another four years in an academic environment, which is where most of the kids I knew were headed, had no appeal whatsoever. I wanted to get far away and "see the world". However, the idea of being drafted into the U.S. Army and being shipped far away into the world of the Viet Nam War also had no appeal. So the thing to do, at least if you were a white, middle-class American boy, was to get yourself into college. That was your ticket to stay out of the military, at least for a few years. It was called a "student deferment". So I needed to find a college that could serve both of these needs.
And find one I did in an offbeat school which had just recently been established not far from my hometown by the Society of Friends (the Quakers). It was called Friends World College. (Actually it was an "institute" when I enrolled in September of '67. It was so new at the time that it was still in the process of becoming accredited by the State of New York. When that occurred, about a year later, it could then officially be called a college.)
The basic idea of Friends World College was to create a learning experience in which students could grow into young adults with a "world view". For four years they would spend successive semesters living in different parts of the planet. This would not be sitting in classrooms, reading books, and taking exams. It would be an integration into the cultures in which they were living.
It was very loosely structured. There were no examinations or formal courses. The only real requirement was the keeping of a journal of one's thoughts and experiences. Seminars and field trips were offered mostly having to do with topics which were progressive in that era, such as ecology, civil rights, consumer cooperatives, regional development, universal suffrage, intentional communities, and socialism. Individual projects were encouraged and advisors were assigned to each student to offer guidance.
My first semester was spent at the North American campus (if you could call it that) on Long Island in a converted barracks leftover from a decommissioned Air Force Base named Mitchel Field. There were 37 kids in my class. We not only participated in student activities, but we shared work responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. So this was not just a school, really, but a community. Here I had finally found a group I could fit in with. Spirited, intelligent, socially conscious to the point of being willing to do something about it, adventurous, iconoclastic: these would all be apt descriptions of the kids there, and of the faculty, too. Plus we all traveled around in the preferred mode of hippie transportation in those days, the Volkswagen bus.
My second semester was spent in Kenya, in East Africa. Now this was "far away" indeed. Not only in distance, but in time. Kenya had only recently obtained independence from Great Britain and in 1968 was barely a nation state. Being there was like traveling back in a time machine to an era when people lived in tribes, subsisted from the land, had very little, if any, contact with the outside world, and needed to be aware at all times of the dangers posed to them by their own predators, the animals.
Our center was in the capital of the country, Nairobi. It had many of the basic things we took for granted back home such as buildings, electricity, running water, paved roads, telephones, a post office, and a hospital. But once you were just a little bit away from Nairobi, wow, were you ever in a different world. Some of the things that remain engraved in my memory are:
-- living among people who never in their lives owned a pair of shoes. Over the years the bottoms of their feet eventually became so calloused that they actually became their "shoes".
-- realizing that in the months I lived in Kenya not only had I never seen a tractor, I had never seen a horse-drawn or ox-drawn plow. What I did see were women bent at right angles tilling the soil by hand.
-- going on a field trip with a few other students which was led by Jesse, a young man employed at the center, who escorted us to the village where he'd grown up. We had to leave our VW bus behind and walk the last mile because there were no roads which led to the village, only trails. At one point along the way Jesse suddenly screamed "Get down!" and we all hit the dirt just as a mass of bees the size of a truck flew right over our heads. Damn! Continuing on, we were greeted effusively by villagers, some of whom bestowed presents upon us. We were only the second group of white people they had ever seen. (Jesse had brought students from the previous class to his village a few months earlier. They were the first.) We were graciously welcomed by Jesse's parents who served us a wonderful meal. The homes in their village were made by building a frame from sticks and filling in the gaps with cow manure. When it dries it hardens like clay and keeps the rain out. Should a big storm come and wash the homes away, the villagers simply build new ones.
-- the school rented a house in the village of Machakos. I stayed there for several weeks.
One day a long line of ants somehow entered the house, marched across the wooden floor, and exited on the other side of the place. The "soldier" ants formed two columns and remained stationary. In the lane they created, the "worker" ants, moving swiftly, carried small bits of food. This went on for about an hour and then quite suddenly they were all gone. Just passing through.
-- one of the few other places in Kenya which at that time could be called a city was Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, 273 miles from Nairobi. These two cities were connected by what was then the only paved road in the country (other than those within the cities themselves). Once while traveling in a car on this road with one of the faculty members we encountered some elephants standing right in the middle of it, blocking our way. We moved forward quite slowly but got a little too close to them. Suddenly one turned, raised his trunk, and started running toward us in a most unfriendly manner. Not wishing to dispute the point, the car was hastily thrown into reverse and we backed up until the elephant was satisfied we were far enough away from him. Then he went back to his buddies. We sat there for what felt like half an hour before they finally went on their way. We'll move when we damn well feel like it.
It was on this same road one day that six of us students -- none over the age of nineteen -- were making a journey from Nairobi to Mombasa in one of the VW buses. I don't remember why we were going to Mombasa but I do recall that we were in no rush to get there. It was to be an all-day trip but not an urgent one. We had some time to kill and to explore whatever might come our way. And what came our way was...
Tsavo (pronounced SAH-vo) is Kenya's largest National Park. It's an area set aside for animals to live in their natural habitat. No towns, no factories, no taxi garages. Just wide open land. If you're a human, you come with the understanding that you're in Animal Town.
Sometimes when I speak about places like Tsavo to people I feel a need to emphasize the size of these so-called "parks". This is not a theme park, like a Great Adventure or Disney's Animal Kingdom. These national parks are extraordinarily huge. Tsavo's land mass is 8,494 square miles (22,000 in kilometers). That's almost exactly the same size as the entire state of New Jersey in the U.S. and slightly larger than Wales in the U.K.
We'd been rolling along in the bus for a few hours since departing from Nairobi, just looking at the usual sights along the road. The landscape in this part of Africa is primarily flat, open plains, not heavily vegetated as you'd find in a rain forest or a jungle. Your field of view is usually relatively unobstructed, allowing sightings of things like baobab trees and herds of zebras and antelopes.
We came upon a sign telling us we were approaching an entrance to Tsavo National Park.
We stopped and pulled over to the side of the road. A quick tally was taken -- "Hey, wanna check out Tsavo?" -- and the consensus was a unanimous, "Sure, let's do it!"
So we approached the entrance where a gatekeeper was sitting in a little hut. After a brief conversation we paid him the entry fee of a few shillings, and he handed us a crude hand-drawn map which looked something like this:
Then he opened the gate and into Tsavo we drove.
The map was pretty much useless as it had no way of calculating the distances between things, no clues as to which animals might be found at any particular location, and no words of caution other than the standard "do not step out of your vehicle". The only thing that looked like it might be of interest (simply because of its name as there was no information about what could be found there) was the "lodge". And so, even though we had no idea how far away it was, we agreed:
"Let's go to the lodge!"
Our excursion began. We'd all been to at least one other park like Tsavo, so we already had an idea of what it would be like inside. The roads are all dirt, of course, and are just about wide enough for two vehicles to pass by in either direction. Sightings of gazelles, zebras, and elephants are common. (The elephants in Tsavo actually appear to be a reddish-brown color due to the volcanic soil they like to roll around in at a watering holes.)
It was also not unusual to see baboons, ostriches, water buffalos, giraffes and, with a little luck, lions.
After we drove about five miles we saw a little cluster of vehicles ahead, just a bit off the road. This is a sign that there is an unusual sighting to be had, so we went over to take a look. Sure enough there was a family of cheetahs hanging out in the grass. None of us had ever seen a cheetah before so this was special.
Well, that was interesting. We drove on -- probably, I would guess, for about another five miles for so, just following the line on the map. Suddenly, wait, stop the bus. A decision had to be made.
According to our little map we would eventually come to a place where two roads converged. If we wanted to get to the lodge we should follow the road to the left. But there was a problem. First, there were no signs on these roads. They didn't have names or numbers, they were just there. Secondly, the road which went to the left was not a wide one like the one we were on. It was merely a narrow, two-tire-track road. Was this the road to take? We couldn't be sure. But, what the hell? It went to the left, so...
...we took it.
It was a little bumpy, but passable. We continued along for a few miles, not seeing much of anything but birds and trees. No elephants, no zebras, nor any of the usual gang. And then, truly out of nowhere and without anyone even noticing that it was coming right at us -- we were charged by a rhinoceros!
It was running very fast, I'd say at about 30 miles per hour, and it "crossed our bow", so to speak, missing the front of the bus by only a few yards. Then it kept running in a straight line, kind of like a prehistoric cannonball, and disappeared from sight. One of the students, Sally Puleston, an avid photographer, was sitting in the front seat with a camera already perched on her knee and instinctively snapped it, getting this incredible shot:
|Photo by Sally Puleston McIntosh|
Yes, that's the actual rhino which charged us.
Along with laughter, our reactions were simultaneous yelps of "holy shit", "oh my God!", "whoa, man!" and whatever other expletives were common in 1968. Someone may have even blurted out "groovy!" It was like we'd been watching a movie and suddenly here's the scary part.
For some reason not feeling that the rhino was going to turn around and come after us again, we just continued along on our way -- to the lodge! -- and rather merrily. But after another two or three miles on this two-tire-track-excuse-for-a-road, a new dilemma suddenly presented itself: the road led into a stream and continued out on the other side.
What to do?
We got close enough to the stream to see that a) it was about twenty yards wide, b) it had a sandy bottom, and c) the water was about a foot deep.
Could the bus make it across the stream? Maybe. Maybe not.
What to do?
The decision-making process among six teenagers began.
The kid who'd been driving the bus thought we could make it across. His idea was to back up, pick up speed, and go for it, man! Three of the others agreed. It looked doable to them. Only myself and one other student, Mary Noland, had second thoughts.
Like, wait a minute:
-- our VW bus isn't an all-terrain vehicle, like a Land Rover. It's got small wheels and a tiny engine. It's not made for this kind of thing.
-- we don't know how soft the sandy bottom is. We may not be able to pick up enough traction to get across.
-- the sand may be camouflaging rocks or holes which could not only get the bus stuck but could damage it.
The others disagreed. The basic reasoning was still, "Oh, come on, we can make it!"
Voices began to rise. It went something like this:
-- Hang on, what if we DON'T make it??? We're on a road that's more like a trail than a real road. We haven't seen a single other vehicle since we've been on it. What if we get stuck in the stream and can't get the bus out? Who's gonna help us? What if we sit here for a day or two and nobody comes along? We only have enough food to last for today. Someone's gonna have to WALK back to the main road to get help. Who wants to volunteer to walk back to the main road? And remember, between here and the main road there's a RHINOCEROS which just ATTACKED us! A RHINOCEROS!
And if these weren't reasons enough, there was this:
-- look, we don't even know if we're on the right road to get to this lodge.
-- who cares about the damned lodge, anyway?
-- even if we make it across the stream now, we're going to have to do it again because we'll be coming back the same way. So it's twice we'll have to make it across the stream.
-- let's just get the hell out of here and hope we don't meet Mister Rhinoceros again.
Finally we all agreed.
We turned around and drove back to the main road. Luckily we did not see the rhino again and we arrived in Mombasa, if I recall, just before sunset.
Plus we got to live.
This "rhinoceros story" became one of the milestones in my memory for future reference. Years later it helped me conclude that, among many ways of categorizing types of people, you could say that:
1. There are people who can learn from observing the experiences of others. (foresight)
2. There are people who can't learn from observing the experiences of others but can learn from their own experiences. (hindsight)
3. And there are people who can't learn even from their own experiences. (no sight)
It also demonstrated to me that survival has a lot to do with the ability to simply confront what appears before you, to not be pretending it isn't there. This is not a movie you're in, it's life.
And it's helped me understand that there are people in this world who need danger to feel they are alive. If it isn't dangerous, it isn't fun. You meet people like that every once in a while.
Okay, let's fast forward ten years. It's 1978.
Now I am driving a taxi in New York City, an occupation that has recognizing danger as one of the requirements for doing the job for more than a week. (See my post "The Three Strikes and You're Out System" in this blog.)
One day I picked up a young man -- twenty-something, friendly, bright, talkative -- who was en route to JFK. That's about a forty-five minute ride, so it provided time for us to have a real conversation. I learned that he was from somewhere in the Midwest, had never been to New York before, and was impressed with the hustle and bustle of the city. He'd graduated from a college in Ohio, had a couple of jobs since then which he'd found pretty boring, was not married or in a relationship, and was now going out into the world "to make my fortune".
Interesting! It's not every day that somebody tells you he's off to make his fortune.
"Where are you going?"
"Lebanon? Why Lebanon?"
"They're having a civil war. I'm gonna sell arms and ammunition."
"Really! Who are you going to sell them to?"
"I don't know. I'll find out when I get there."
"Uh, have you been to Lebanon before?"
"So you have contacts over there?"
Oh my God, this was a guy who saw himself as some kind of character out of a movie: a Robin Hood, James Bond, or Lawrence of Arabia. But I saw him as someone who was about to go to great lengths to get himself killed. Apparently he had no idea what he could be getting himself into. He also had no considerations about the ethics of profiting from the sale of weapons to people who were trying to kill each other. It was all going to be a glorious adventure. And he'll be rich.
I thought I'd take a shot at changing his mind, as unlikely as that was being that here he was, already on his way to the airport. Nevertheless, I pulled the rhinoceros story out of my hat. When the subject of danger comes up in conversation, especially when it involves people who seem to have a blind spot in that area, if there's time and they're up for it, I will tell them the rhinoceros story.
So I said something along the lines of doing what he's planning on doing sounds intriguingly dangerous and I've got a great story about danger for you. It's kind of long, but do you want to hear it?
Of course he did, being that danger was his thing.
So I told him how this group of teenagers riding around in a VW bus in a game park in Kenya (I didn't mention its name) back in '68 had a close encounter with a rhinoceros and how obtuse we were to the danger we were in at the time. Just a rite of passage from adolescence, I said. I was trying to bring the story around to how maybe he should rethink what the danger of being an amateur arms dealer in an unknown country might be, but before I could get to that he interrupted me.
"Wow", he said, "that is so interesting that you should tell me this!"
"Just last year the mother of a friend of mine was on a safari in a game park in Kenya. She stepped out of the vehicle they were riding around in to take pictures and she was trampled to death by a rhinoceros!"
"Oh my God! Really?"
"Do you know the name of the park she was in?"
"Yeah," he said, "it's called Tsavo."
It may have been the same rhino.