Saturday, February 19, 2011

Land to the North - Chapter Three

(Blogger’s Note: This whole book is being uploaded one chapter at a time and will therefore be in reverse order when completed. For those who have not yet read it, the earlier chapters and the Prologue follows this. I leave it that way so that those loyal readers who have been following the story won’t have to scroll down to find the newest chapter... Yes, it might be a pain, but that’s just the way it is.)

Finding a pilot and a plane to rent turned out to be an easy task. After the war ended there were many men who still desired to fly and who had bought surplus aircraft from the American government. Any excuse to get into the sky for hire was good enough for them.

It was a little more difficult to find one who would fly toward the north pole. Aerodromes were few in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, but there were some. Our pilot, Randall J. Ramsey, who had shot down German airplanes and strafed German lines for the British was more than happy to take our five hundred dollar fee, plus expenses, our maps and camera, and fly over the frozen wastes and icy seas looking for the island that I sometimes thought of as mythical.

While Ramsey was in the north, having flown out a couple of days after we made our requests, Eric and I roamed downtown Kansas City searching for the equipment we would need for the expedition. Eric had arrived with a list of what he thought we would need and we spent a day in the library reading about the expeditions outfitted during the exploration of Africa. It gave us plenty of ideas.

Once that list was completed, we inventoried everything that Eric had brought. He had thought of rope, great coils of it, backpacks, knives and machetes, a high powered hunting rifle with plenty of ammunition, a Mauser broom handle pistol taken off a dead German officer, cartons of canned food, hand-held electric torches, shovels and axes. He was a little light on medical supplies but we remedied that easily. There was so much that forty men couldn’t have carried it all.

"Doesn’t matter," said Eric, crouching in the rear of the truck. "That’s what this vehicle is for. We drive as far as we can and then establish a base camp. We range out from there."

"Sounds good," I said. "We should add to the food supplies, we’ll need canteens and another weapon or two and ammo for me. Oh, and how about a short wave radio?"

"How would we power it?" asked Eric.

"Batteries. We wouldn’t have to us it all that much. Just in an emergency." 

"Yes," said Eric. "That’s something we should have."

He dropped from the rear of the truck and secured the flap. We hurried into the foyer of the nearest building, listening to the wind howl.

"I think we should delay our departure by two or three weeks," he said. "Let the weather have it’s last good blow."

I thought about that and nodded my agreement. I didn’t tell him that the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. We were heading into practically virgin territory. The map that Eric had given the pilot was marked with large white squares that warned "Topographical data incomplete or unavailable."

That was something that I just didn’t like and I imagined Ramsey liked it even less. When we went in, we’d have a better idea of what was there than Ramsey did, but then he was flying over it and could get out quickly if he had to. It made me think of the great expeditions to the Himalaya Mountains and the guides who led the parties up the slopes of the mountains. It seemed that someone always preceded the explorers.

Sara didn’t take the news with a great deal of aplomb. At first, she sat across from me, in one of the finest restaurants in Kansas City while a small band played quietly in the background. There was the clink of knives and forks against the fine china and muted conversation. There were white cloths on the table, a cut glass vase with a greenhouse flower as the center piece.

After we ordered, Sara waited, a half smile on her face. I knew that she was anticipating something and it wasn’t until later that I realized what it was. She thought I was going to ask her to marry me and I had been so caught up in planning the expedition that I hadn’t even thought about that.

When the wine came and the waiter left, having gone through the ritual of opening the bottle, allowing me to taste and accept the wine and then filling our glasses, I said, "I would like to propose a toast." I lifted my glass and said, with great enthusiasm, "To the North Pole!"

The fire went out of her eyes and her face paled. She set her glass on the table without drinking from it. She looked directly at me and asked, "What are you talking about?"

I felt a sudden panic. I thought that Sara would be supportive of the expedition, though sitting there I began to wonder why I thought that. Maybe I had believed that she would see the scientific contribution we would make. Maybe she would understand that this was something that would transcend our time and put me up there with Magellan and Columbus.

And suddenly I know that she wasn’t thinking in terms of scientific contributions. She was seeing her life collapse around her and she didn’t like it. The little things that she had ignored as I tried to talk to her about them were suddenly more important than she had thought.

Quietly, her voice icy and her words quite sharp and distinct, she said, "The North Pole." It was almost as if she had never heard the words before and that I had spoken a foreign language.

Feebly, I said, "Eric Jansen arrived here a few days ago. I introduced him to you, remember. We’ve been working up a plan to find the entrance to the Inner Earth. An entrance his father had seen."

"To the Inner Earth? The Inner Earth?" she said. "I told you that’s a myth and I thought we had finished with that nonsense weeks ago."

"Jansen has maps and descriptions from his father and grandfather. They’ve both seen it," I said, realizing that I didn’t sound convincing even to me.

"How much money is this going to cost you?" she asked, her voice still low but now dripping with sarcasm.

"Very little..."

"So an old Army buddy shows up and asks for money and you feel obligated to give it to him."

I was now on the defensive and unsure of how I’d gotten there. I didn’t like the feeling but said, "It’s not like that at all. I didn’t give him money and he didn’t ask. I contributed to the expedition. Money to hire a pilot and some for the supplies I’ll need when we push north, but I’ve given no money to Eric."

"Well, that makes it better. The mark doesn’t understand how the con works, but can tell me he’s given away no money."

I was surprised by her suggestion of a con. But I also knew that money wasn’t really the issue here.

She looked down at the table and fingered the silverware next to her plate. "So. When are you leaving and how long will you be gone?"

"Not long at all. A couple of weeks. We’re going to wait for the weather to warm up some more and I’ll be back by fall."

"A couple of weeks. Fall isn’t for months."

"I’ll be here until we leave. It’s not like I’m going off tomorrow."

"And what am I supposed to do all this time?"

"It’s really only a few weeks," I said. "It’s not as if we had anything planned."

"You’ve made that abundantly clear."

I realized what I had said and tried to recover. "I mean we haven’t planned..." But that wasn’t any better.

She stood up suddenly, tossed her napkin onto the center plate. She looked as if she was going to say something to me, but then just turned and fled.

I caught her at the front door where she was demanding a taxi. I touched her shoulder but she jerked away from me, refusing to turn around. The maitre ‘d was behind me, mumbling into a telephone while Sara stood facing the frosted windows, staring at the darkening street.

The one time I hoped the taxi would be slow was the one time that the driver broke the current land speed record. The maitre ‘d approached, glanced at me and said, "You cab is here, madam."

Without looking at me, she said, "Thank you." she slipped along the wall, keeping her back to me until she reached the door. With one hand on the knob, she hesitated. Without looking back, she said, "If you ever get over these childish adventures, you let me know. Until then, I don’t want to see you again."

She opened the door, letting in an icy blast of late winter air. She ran to the cab, climbed in and I saw her face at the rear window momentarily and then she was gone.

I went back into the main room, waved off the waiter and slowly drank what was left of the wine. When I finished the bottle, I staggered to the door and asked that someone find me a cab. Naturally, I had to wait thirty minutes.

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