It was Just another yellow day of my first Springtime in the Sahara. Spring was something the local citizens knew little about other than Haboob season kicked in and the dust storms would annoy us until November.
Larry came home promptly at 1:30 from his day at the office and announced that Chevron’s DC8 needed maintenance. A couple of the Air Wing fellows were flying her up to a facility in Malta, and any dependents could fly for free but had to commit to a 2 week or more stay-over, so how woud I like to have a little vacation! He encouraged me to take our children, three year old Stevie, and Rebecca who was nearing six. She would have her birthday in Malta! It sounded like fun, and images of the Maltese Falcon flew through my mind so we went. I didn’t know at the time the movie was about Casablanca. Wrong country.
Connie came along with her 2 year old son and 5 year old daughter. She and her husband were the very first couple to welcome our family to Khartoum by inviting us to dinner at their home. The meal was particularly memorable to me because we were served a roast chicken the size of a dove with no seasoning, and a mess of grey matter that she said was millet. It tasted like parakeet food and got trapped between my teeth.
Still, Connie and I hatched a plan to share expenses in a flat – expats can be real cheapskates. They never know how long they will be posted and want to claim as much of the sumptuous expatriate earnings as possible. Our housing plan was done in before we set foot on Malta. This was to be the last plan we made together.
Connie’s daughter Gretchen was a dear little girl, but the little fellow was a spoiled brat. Sean was a few months younger than Stevie and still nursing. He wasn’t housebroken, instead he was being reared as a free-range child who could not speak English and certainly had not been taught The Polites. Sean was a smelly, demanding two year old.
Everyone brought snacks and drinks for the eight hour trip, as there were no flight attendants and amenities on a DC8 maintenance flight. My children each had lunch boxes with water, cheese slices, crackers and a small apple tucked inside. I also brought color books, reading books and some toys to keep them entertained. They were aware that they would not be allowed to wander through the plane unattended: they were to stay buckled in their seats unless they had to use the toilet.
I opened up our small chest of drinks and snacks at the same time Connie, who was seated across the aisle from us, unloaded her suitcase from the rack above her. She too had apples, plus a jar of peanut butter, and a knife, a sharp knife.
I watched uneasily as she sat down, suitcase on her lap, and sliced her apples and I prayed we would have no turbulence. Connie carefully spread a measure of peanut butter on each apple slice then handed them to her children along with a small Sippy cup of lemonade each, clearly a plan with flaws: lemonade plus small children on a flight.
Gretchen sat quietly in the window seat looking out, a peanut butter-apple slice between her teeth. She suddenly sneezed. The apple slice fell from her mouth, bounced off the window and skidded to the floor peanut-butter-side down. When she tried to pick it up, she slipped on the smeared peanut butter and fell down. She rose just as Sean, who was sipping lemonade, bent over to see what the commotion was. Her head bumped his Sippy cup hard and the cup split his lip.
Sean yowled a bloody scream, and threw his Sippy cup his big sister, splattering Gretchen, himself, his mother and the two grey haired women seated in front of them. Sticky sweet lemonade was in their hair and dripping down the backs of their necks . They turned to each other and spoke quietly. One lady quietly got up and went to the restroom and returned shortly with a pile of wet towels, some of which she shared with Connie and me, then joined her friend who had claimed two seats near the cockpit for their own clean up party.
Sean began screaming for his TeeTee. My kids were horrified. They had never heard of a walking child nursing: they had been cup-trained as soon as they could sit in their high-chairs. They never used bottles, and were totally on their own by six months.
Connie calmly picked Screaming Sean up in her arms, shooed Gretchen to the aisle seat and plopped down into the window seat with her squirming, bawling man-child. Sean pulled her shirt up so he could have his TeeTee. Five minutes later he was done feeding and proceeded to squirm and scream until his mother put him down. Apparently Connie expected her 5 year old Gretchen to contain Screaming Sean while TeeTee was carefully put away.
Of course, Sean had other ideas: he bit his sister’s knee, snatched her Sippy cup from her hand and headed down the aisle toward the cockpit at which time the captain announced that all families must move to the far rear of the airplane “as a convenience to the children with easy access to the lavatories.”
Within a few hours we stopped over in Cairo to fuel up and endure a bug-spraying, in case we had live critters coming up from Khartoum where the only insects I’d seen was a terrible Blister Bug and one huge cockroach that jumped out of our shipment from the States. This desert is not a hospitable place for any kind of life.
As the team walked throough, we all covered our faces as best we could. We were not allowed to leave the plane and had no idea of what chemical (if any) was being sprayed. And one of the uniformed bug sprayers saw Rebecca, who often passed for an Arab child with her long dark hair and big bown eyes.
“Wat iz you Fazzer name?” he asked my daughter. Before I could speak, a young woman sitting in back of us said “Tell him DADDY!”
I got her message, the message about security when travelling in foreign countries with small children. The white slave traffic remains alive and well, certainly not restricted to Caucasians. Over the next several years we were continually reminded by good citizens in Tunesia, Greece, Turkey, Thailand and other countries to mind our children.
I took it a step further and refused to allow them to have “personalized” possessions, which was a big fad in the 1980s. I didn’t want their names to go public. And I continued the rule after we returned to the States.
We exited the plane at Malta International Airport and caught a cabbie who recommended that we take a visit to Hagar Qim. It was an interesting and ancient destination and the children could safely get a little exercise. At that point, 1982, the exact age of the ancient temple complex was not known and estimated to be older than Stonehenge. Subsequent research dates Hagar Qim to 3200 – 3600 BC. In 1982 we were told quite factually that it was an ancient temple built to honor The Earth Mother, however I find no mention of this in current research. I will continue to believe it because I llike the concept of a female deity.
After Hagar Qim we intended to get a snack somewhere, but the boy Sean had soiled his pants, and Connie forgot to bring clean diapers. It ruined any thought of food for everyone, especially our poor driver.
I exited the taxi as soon as we arrived in Valetta, and told Connie that I thought it would be much better for us to make separate accommodations, that my children weren’t accustomed to being around young children. She looked blankly at me and I realized both girls and the boys were the same age.
We bid adieu and never saw each other until the return flight two weeks later. And we sat a comfortable distance apart.