:: Article

Auckland Bob

By Kris Saknussemm.

Bob and I were drinking. Of course we were drinking – heavily – back when he was alive (although I still drink with him now) – and I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that he’s playing records on his own jukebox on a back island in the Philippines or cooking up some decadent French coconut cream based dish on a crumbling vanilla plantation in Mauritius. Body never found, man abroad, I say.

Bob and I had nothing in common on the surface other than liking to drink. He was twenty years older, twice my size, and had resources I could only imagine – then, and now. Two planes, a helicopter, an arsenal, and a Thai wife. But we both had theories. We didn’t just solve the problems of the world while drinking, we created new ones, to keep things interesting.

“If you’re not up to mischief, then why the hell are you here?” he’d say.

On behalf of my theoretically dead friend, let me recommend that concept to you.

He’d have added to that advice – “If you’re here to help people, make sure you do – and that they’re the right people – and a good portion of those are animals.”

Not what you’d expect to hear from a guy who could fish for marlin from an airplane.

Think about that for a moment. Marlin fishing from a single-engine aircraft.

Do you know how low to the water (and we’re talking the open ocean) you have to fly to do that? How slow? And how quickly slow can become stall and crash?

There are also only certain ways to learn how to disassemble and reassemble an M-16 at sipping speed – or how to land a Bell JetRanger on top of an outhouse. (I said an outhouse, as in a dunny.) Fortunately, there is select group who can do the former. Very, very few can do the latter. And only a disturbingly elite set can do both.

The idea about the buffalo came to me in what I feel now was a flash of genuine inspiration – although of course it’s always possible the drink had something to do with it. I once asked my pit boss friend in Las Vegas if he could spot a loser at a glance, and he said, “Anyone in here twice.” That’s sort of the way I feel now about people who drink rum, and Auckland Bob and I drank a lot of rum.

We particularly liked drinking at the Smuggler’s Inn in Madang in Papua New Guinea. I’d been trying to be an anthropologist in Vanuatu – and then either had a profound revelation or a psychotic episode on the black volcanic sand of Sulphur Bay on the island of Tanna, which then precipitated a strategic retreat to the Solomon Islands and an acute outbreak of debauchery involving a stacked but slovenly wife of an Air Pacific pilot. Naturally that had to end and I headed back to PNG, where I remembered I’d left my magic typewriter. Most would say it wasn’t really magical, but it’s what I’d typed the book that almost got me committed on and I wanted it back. Auckland Bob happened to be one who flew me, and that would be the beginning of our conspiracy. You don’t really have friendships with people like Bob.

For reasons that aren’t clear to me now, I decided I had a future leading dive tours into the butterfly fish swarming bellies of sunken World War II fighter planes, and Bob proved to be one of the few pilots I could find who was willing and able to fly low enough on island hopping ventures to not upset the blood nitrogen levels of my clients, and to give them the value for money that my bar bills and expensive vagrancies with native women entailed.

Auckland Bob wasn’t called Auckland Bob because he was from there. He was actually from the South Island of New Zealand and had some Maori in him – a big rugby player frame. He called me The Worrier because I once expressed some mild anxiety about a palm plantation we were about to experience a little too locally for my taste on take-off from Wewak (where the typewriter had been left in the infested palm mat shack that passed for my residence). Once you got a handle from Bob, nothing would shake it.

He got his because he missed his flight to Auckland one morning – as the senior pilot. Like most reputable airlines, Air New Zealand rather frowns on captains just not showing up, and then making up some ridiculous story about a return attack of malaria. I’ve had malaria, Ross River Fever and Dengue Fever. If you know anything about them, you know they can come back on you. But Bob couldn’t pull off that kind of lie. He never perspired and while he could tell a great foolish story, he couldn’t say anything but the truth. He wasn’t deep into the rum then for obvious reasons and just looked too damn healthy. So, instead of flying for them, he was given his walking papers.

I don’t honestly think he minded much. He had a house in Sydney to sell and had done work of an unspecified kind in South Africa. He was one of that tribe who simply don’t fit into suburban normality. The jungle is the right place for those folk – and Bob scored himself a rather nice section outside Lae, with just enough acreage to grow some coffee to hide his dope crop. Thai wife, twenty guns (plus a flamethrower), a couple of planes and a helicopter – smoked Players international cut and had a basement full of scuba tanks – that sort of guy. He was pretty good with the spear gun on the bush rats too.

So, we were drinking in Madang. Bob liked the bar there. We’d fly in and land on what had been an old cricket pitch. I’d say, “Tree, Bob. Tree. Trees.” And he’d say, “You’re worrying. You’re a worrier.”

Of course there was no one to cut us off at the bar. No rules except whether you could land on the field and clear the coconut palms on take off. “Tree, Bob.” In that intense tropical heat when locals would slink past with an arrow shot tree kangaroo over their shoulders, and given all the rum we consumed, many things seemed possible that probably shouldn’t have. So, the idea of airlifting a buffalo didn’t have that prudent level of difficulty and contraindication as it might’ve elsewhere.

Basically, Bob and I were drinking…when I chanced to see an article in the paper about a dubious game reserve in the Northern Territory in Australia that had a buffalo that they could no longer afford to keep. Now that part of Australia has buffalo, and they’re tourist attractions and also animals for hunting. But what I’m talking about here was a proper African water buffalo – only it was in Australia – and we were drinking.

We were drinking in the jungle on the north side of Papua New Guinea in fact. I said something simple like, “Your place could use a water buffalo.” (Bob did have something like a swamp on his property, a rifle shot down from the house – what was called a wallow.) It was just an offhand remark – but it had that luminosity of the impossible that instantly spoke to Bob, and so of course I got excited too. This buffalo was being given away. Free to good home. All it required was transport.

Now technically speaking, flying into Australia (or any country for that matter) means filing an official flight plan, customs, quarantine. There are some annoying issues about air space and national sovereignty. There’s a lot of legal hoo-haw about smuggling, refugees, disease control. And there are more than a few military jets in and around Darwin, with some people who know how to fly them.

But Bob didn’t get with that program. What he saw was whether he could clear the trees. What were the logistics of airlifting a buffalo? How much Av-gas would be needed? How low would we need to fly?

You see where this is going don’t you? Notice that word “we.” That’s what you have to be careful about. Do you know how big an African water buffalo actually is? Do you know how concerned they get dangling in the air?

To even reach Port Moresby on the other side of the island of New Guinea meant crossing at least three of the most treacherous air traffic mountain ranges in the world. You’re constantly passing through cloud and rain in even the dry season. If you’ve ever gone skydiving, you may well know what heat rush is – and the turbulence it can cause. The wreckage of light aircraft litters the jungle in that weird part of the world and gets overgrown with vines. To then fuel up in Moresby for a run across some of the bluest water on the planet – so blue in fact it burns your eyes – to breach all international law and risk arrest, confiscation of property, internment in some sweltering holding facility while corrupt lawyers get called – to land in a mess of mangroves east of Darwin in a blast furnace wind…

The next time you say to yourself, “It can’t be done,” – whatever you’re doing…I want you to picture a very large and needy water buffalo skimming along low over the Torres Strait. If you go to a map, it looks like it’s just over the water from New Guinea. It’s not in a small plane, believe me. And only someone who really knows what they’re doing can fly on the dive line the whole way.

Then how do you land with a buffalo suspended from your plane? People who can work that sort of stuff out need to be listened to and we need a hell of a lot more of them. That sad old mangy buffalo got a ride to never forget and lived happily in Bob’s wallow for years. Bob called him Woody and hand fed him flowers.

Think something can’t be done? All you really need to do is clear the trees. You don’t in fact require permission for much of anything. Just some heart and skill – and maybe some rum. And if you find someone as crazy as you could be, that helps too.

You can bring a water buffalo safely across blue water. It’s the real worriers you have to worry about.

I think about that often, whenever I start to doubt what can be done. I’m not talking about what should be done – we worry about that too much of the time. I’m talking about brute possibility. Like having a picnic in a volcano.

One day Bob and I were drinking. He was still alive then, and he was talking. He liked to talk, especially when we were drinking and he was still alive. A gecko fell from the ceiling fan, and he did the right thing and ate it – that’s just what you do there – and then he did the more important right thing of ordering some more drink.

Then he said out of the blue, “Why don’t we do barbecue tours in the volcano? Anyone can land a helicopter in there. I think I can set down the Otter. And you gotta be able to take off, or that’s it.”

The volcano he was referring to is in Raboul, the major town on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago, just north of New Guinea – a smoking belching tit of pure deep earth magma violence. Its name is Tavurvur, and along with its twin cone Vulcan, a massive explosive blast killed 507 people in 1937 and buried the entire town and surrounding mangrove swamps in ash. (The volcano has since erupted as recently as 2009.) The idea of even flying through the huge sulphur plume is intense enough. What helicopter pilot would even think of setting down on what was only a little while ago molten lava? The rising heat would play havoc with a rotary blade aircraft a hundred feet in. A twin-engine aircraft? Madness beyond measure. Ludicrous.

But I have to admit, I was in a plane that Bob set down in seriously 150 feet in weeping rain outside Mt. Hagen in the Highlands when we flew in for the big Singsing. It didn’t feel good when we went in, but he got it done. He landed like you’d take a stolen car into a four-wheel slide (something I know a bit more about). No margin for error. I’d have been struggling to park a bulldozer on that slope we came to, and he just laid it down like a toy on a very wet hill. If every big man were that gentle, there’d be no woman wanting.

So when someone like that says to you let’s fly into a volcano – and one of the most beautiful and terrible volcanoes in the world – you actually find yourself listening. Bob always paid for more than his share of the drinks. His Thai wife made tom yum soup like you wouldn’t believe – if your balls were swollen with fever, she’d heal you up straight. She openly bowed to Bob, and yet would also tell him off like a chainsaw let loose. Paunchy, red faced, disgraced Air New Zealand pilot, hiding out in the islands. God only knows what he did to buy that property. He could take a helicopter straight up – no forward vector. He’d smuggled guns I know in the Bougainville conflict. And he grew major dope in the back of his coffee fields. He’d wave back at Indonesian gunships.

You don’t ask someone you’re drinking with in the tropics where they get their money. But you do listen to their insane ideas.

Bob and I never launched our tourist scheme, but that bastard did indeed get us all too close to that volcano. I talked him out of the Otter, that was just a lot of drink and foolishness of course – but he set down the Bell JetRanger in a place and a way only someone with hardcore military intelligence training could do. (Always keep some space to wonder why someone has a Bell JetRanger, and how they can possibly afford one.) I cooked red emperor, coral trout, turtle and squid, with some coconut curry his wife made. We made it happen on the edge of Hell itself. Volcanoes are female things. And you need a very cold beer or ten just to look down the barrel.

Have a Google on that volcano and see for yourself – and know that PNG isn’t so free and easy that there isn’t a military presence to control air space and keep people from doing just what we did.

Some crazy ideas should just stay that. But every once in a while, you need to listen to the volcano divers. Some have the goods, and if you’ve been around, you’ll know them. There’s a serious art to landing a helicopter on a fragile inclined slope – let alone in a volcanic crater with gas fumes rising. I’d spear fished some of our lunch myself and wisely applied his wife’s recipes. There will never be a meal like that one. And no praise will ever mean more than Bob’s simple, “I think you’ve lifted your game.”

You only get a very few volcano divers in your life. Suit up and load the rifle if they invite you. (Do you know why they call it the shotgun seat? Because not many are really very good with a rifle.)

You cook squid hot and fast by the way, and turtle barely at all.

The asshole later shoved me out of a plane at 50 feet over a reef in New Ireland. Said it would be good for me. He was right. Always a great confidence move when the pilot gets up and heaves the cargo out. Then flying in through heavy mist over the Finnistere Mountains, he once said, “You fly. You’ve watched me.”

Yes, I did, Bob. Dirty miserable drunken father of fate. I did watch. I had to keep my eyes on you.

They say some people die.

Auckland Bob disappeared en route from Lae to Honiara in the Solomon Islands in a brand new plane. No trace of the wreckage. No Mayday.

A seasoned fixed wing and helicopter pilot who could teach many military fly boys a great deal – and I suspect that was where he really learned what he could do. Do I think he died? In a clear sky? Bob had no respect for even full-on tropical cyclones. He just didn’t believe in them.

Do you know what a twin-engine plane looks like when it hits the water? Only into water – and still the sound is incredible, as the metal crumples like a paper bird. If the angle is hard enough, there’s not even an afterblast of fuel tank. Fiery explosions are for the movies. Planes don’t die that way. And I’m not sure people do at all.

In any case, you have to wonder how a pilot who could land a DC-10 on a high tide beach if he had to, could vanish without the slightest hint of ravaged fuselage or wing. Not one word to the authorities or any other planes. No distress call to yachts or the coast guard. It’s not like it’s empty open ocean there – there are people around on that water as there have been for nearly 30,000 years. That’s how they live. I don’t think Bob intended for one minute to land in Honiara. He had another destination in mind, for reasons of his own- and I’ll bet you money he found it.

Give up your fear and the supposed certainty that isn’t yours to have. As Bob once said, “No one really dies. A bar’s open somewhere. What are you worried about?”

Here’s to ya, Bob. And a round for the house, wherever the sunset gun finds you. I suspect you were the one who fired it. In my own way, I’m still coming in steep – just the way you taught me – or tried to. I’m not worrying as much now.


Kris Saknussemm is the author of the acclaimed novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House will bring out his third novel in March 2011. He has won First Prize in the Boston Review Short Fiction Contest (chosen by C. Michael Curtis) and the River Styx Short Fiction Contest, and has received the Fiction Collective 2 for Innovative Writing. His shorter work has also appeared beside such world greats as Bukowski, Burroughs, Atwater and Marquez in places like Playboy, Nerve.com, The Hudson Review, The Southwest Review, New Letters, Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, Gargoyle, The Hawaii Review, South Carolina Review and ZYZZYVA, amongst 300 others in fifteen countries, including some of the world’s largest circulation dailies.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 24th, 2010.