More than twenty-four hours after the bombing of the airfield north of Suez, it was apparent that our two captors had been abandoned at their post. They seldom ventured beyond the threshold of the dock house at the foot of the pier. One was taller and thin and had a tuft of black hair sprouting form the middle of his receding hairline. The other was compact and wide. Their heads frequently appeared like hand puppets in the small rectangle window that overlooked the pier. I began to call them Bert and Ernie. The rest of the Neko II crew immediately picked up on the nicknames.
Sven, our cook, began preparing our meals on a grill mounted on the side rail of our main deck to keep the lower decks from getting any hotter in the stagnant air.
“Would you give me a hand and lift that lamb up here?” Sven asked. “I’m a little hung over. I had a little too much to drink last night. Or maybe I didn’t have enough. Ha! I can’t remember.”
His problem wasn’t his hangover. He couldn’t bend over to lift the skewered lamb because he had been self-medicating his hangover with nips of Ouzo all morning and into the afternoon. The white-haired chef, whose ruddy Norwegian skin was splotched form decades of sun and wind exposure, was the oldest man aboard Neko II. The Captain called him Sven, but that wasn’t his real name. An unintelligible tattoo on his wrinkly right forearm told of past military service.
Now he served at the mercy of the Captain because no restaurant would endure his alcoholism. Not once did I ever see him fully clear-eyed sober. His predilection to consume large quantities of booze was only exceeded by his heroic skills in the galley.
He never failed to please the crew with gourmet entrees sensationally seasoned with a concoction of local spices. His cooking was instinctual, never measuring ingredients, or using thermometers or timers. He could feel when his oven was the perfect temperature and his nose told him when the food was done.
All afternoon Sven kept the steaming marinated lamb turning over a hot grill while continuing to drown last night’s hangover. This activity was of great interest to Bert and Ernie. I saw them take turns watching Sven at the grill through their rectangle window.
On a whim I wrapped some meat, rice, pita bread, and a couple bottles of Hillas lager in a dishcloth to take to them. As I neared the dock house, they exited the small building brandishing with AK-47s and yelling in Arabic.
I opened the linen enough to show them the food. They looked relieved. They motioned their guns towards the dock house. I entered and sat cross-legged on a cushion near the center of the floor and opened the blanket.
Thick earthen walls kept the room cooler than any cabin on our captive boat. Bert and Ernie leaned their rifles against the wall and sat with me. Each grabbed a bottle of beer and helped themselves to long swigs. They were all smiles. Ernie repeatedly patted me on the back as they devoured the food and Bert saluted me with his half-empty bottle.
I tried to make polite conversation using the hand gestures and facial expressions I had practices in markets throughout the Mediterranean. There was not much that could be communicated, but the silence was unnerving. I pointed at the meat and nodded. “The food is good, no?” They smiled and nodded their approval.
I held up a sweating bottle and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. They understood.
Then I spoke the only word I knew that I thought they could make out: a name.
“Ibrahim?” And I showed my teeth like a horse.
Bert and Ernie laughed wildly, immediately recognizing the pilot and interpreter we had hired to guide us through the canal. I laughed with them.
Then I said his name again and held up my palms up with a quizzical look as though to say, “Where is he?”
They stopped laughing. Bert’s expression darkened. He drew his finger across his neck.
Ernie nodded. He grabbed the AK-47 beside him, put the weapon to his shoulder and mimed shooting someone. His face was calm. His eyes were cold; the color of anthracite.
He put his gun back down. “Takool, takool,” he urged. I ate with them.
I left the dock house with two new friends and a sick feeling in my stomach. Piest met me when I boarded the boat. “The Captain wants to see you,” was all he said. I reported to the wheelhouse.
“What was that stunt about?”
I felt like a school boy in the principal’s office.
“You could have been killed. Hell, you could have gotten us killed. It doesn’t take much to provoke one of these jittery morons to open fire.”
“I think they executed Ibrahim.”
The Captain sat in silence, accepting what I had said.
“What have they got in that shack of theirs?”
“It’s one room. They’re sleeping on a couple of mats laid out against the back wall. There’s a desk and chair, and a file cabinet behind it. Their radio transceiver is on the desk. It’s old, like World War II equipment. That’s about it.”
“Two AK-47s. I didn’t see any others, anyway.”
The Captain ignited a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
“We’ve picked up a BBC broadcast. The Israelis have overrun Gaza, Khan Yunis. They’re pushing through northern Sinai toward El-Arish. They’ve blown through El-Quseima. There’s a major battle underway at Abu-Ageila. The Israelis have seized Al Kuntillah.”
The Captain waived his hand over the map on his desk toward towns and cities I had never heard of. The picture was clear: the front lines were being pushed across Sinai, straight towards where we were held at Suez.
“If the Israelis decide to take Suez, they will bomb this port like Pearl Harbor. We have got to get out of here. Soon.”
I nodded blankly. We were sitting ducks in front of an Israeli juggernaut. If we couldn’t escape we’d be wiped out.
“It won’t be easy,” the Captain continued. “Those AK-47s aren’t for show. Worse, that radio. One message . . . We can barely outrun a canoe. We couldn’t get away from one of their patrol boats.
“The Egyptians might manage a counter attack. Something to slow the Israeli tanks down. If not, we’ve got to get out of here tomorrow night – at the latest. Since you are now buddy-buddy with Bert and Ernie, that makes you point man.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, knowing exactly what he was going to say.
“It means when push comes to shove I want you to put a bullet between each of their eyes. Capiscé?”