The Pharaoh's Revenge

Ron Karpinski  ©1995


The door opened just a crack, and the secretary poked her head in the room.  Colonel Wunder paused in mid-sentence and looked up.  "Excuse me for interrupting, sir," she said, "but Mister Karpinski has a phone call from Egypt."

Colonel Wunder, Adjutant General of the U.S. Army's VII Corps in Stuttgart, Germany, turned to me.  A bewildered look told him I had no idea what the call might be about.  He leaned back and smiled. "Well, Ron," he said, "I guess you'd better take it."

*          *          *          *          *

In the front office, I picked up the receiver.  "Mister Karpinski speaking," I said.  The words echoed over the line.

A second later, a voice answered from another continent.  "Ron, Zach here."

Ah, it was my old pal, Captain Zach Doppel.  Zach had been in Egypt for five months, serving as administrative officer at the U.S. Embassy there.  I hadn't heard from him in a while.  "What's up, Zach?" I asked.

"Ron . . . Monday morning . . . Cairo . . . be there."

"Huh?  What are you talking about, Zach?   Say that again."

"Monday morning . . . March second . . . Cairo . . . be there."  Then he hung up.

Zach and I had an agreement.  Whenever one of us asked for a favor, he got it, no questions asked.  My friend must have been in some kind of trouble and needed help.

I looked at the calendar.  The date was Friday, February 27, 1981.  In order to reach Cairo by Monday morning, I had to get moving.

*          *          *          *          *

Major Charley Wray could not believe his ears.  "Let me get this straight, Ron," he said.  "You want a week off, starting tomorrow.  Isn't that pretty short notice, given all the work piled up around here?"

"Well, yes," I conceded, "normally, I plan my leave time further in advance; but, my buddy Zach needs me in Cairo on Monday morning.  I can't let him down."

"Why does he need you in Cairo?"  Charley asked.  I shrugged my shoulders.

"Okay, let's review," Charley sighed.  "Your friend calls on the phone and says he needs you in Cairo in three days.  Then, he hangs up.  Now, you want to just jump on the next plane and go?"

"Yes, now you've got it," I said.

*          *          *          *          *

Saturday morning, I drove to the huge Rhein Main Air Force Base in Frankfurt.  In all of Europe, Rhein Main had the best connections for free space-available flights.  Two hours after signing up, I had a seat on a C-141 cargo jet en route to Athens, Greece.

Once in Athens, I had hoped to catch another hop the rest of the way to Cairo; but, by the time we landed, all outgoing flights for that day had left.  The tiny air base had no rooms for the night, and no more flights were scheduled for the next three days.

Throwing my bags in a wall locker, I set out to kill a few hours on the town.  A bus line ran past the front gate of the base.  For fifty drachmas, one could ride to the end of the line.

The bus route ended at the main town square.  From there, one could walk to the bazaar, only a few hundred feet away.  Rows of rickety wood and canvas stalls leaned against one another, forming a deep maze.  Narrow isles bustled with vendors, local patrons, and tourists.

Silks of every hue hung from walls and ceilings, blowing gently in the late afternoon breeze.  Dozens of perfumes and burning incense joined into a single, overpowering scent.  Strange and exotic foods sizzled on open grills. 

Cackling, weather-beaten old peddlers in long white robes reached into the crush and grabbed passing tourists by the arm.  In broken English, one man claimed his silk to be the finest and rarest in the land.  Ahead, a shaft of light marked an exit, and I aimed for it.

On the outskirts of town, a narrow winding road led up the side of a hill.  Small whitewashed stone houses bordered both sides of the street.  At each bend, the road curved sharply to the right, and the grade grew steeper.  Up it went, like a spiral staircase.

At the crest, the road flattened and ended in a broad flagstone terrace fifty feet wide.  A low stone wall kept absent-minded tourists from falling over the edge.  Beyond the wall, the hill dropped away sharply, offering a breathtaking picture postcard view of the crowded city below.

In the distance, miniature houses hugged the rugged coastline.  Beyond that, the Mediterranean Sea stretched to infinity.  Deep blue-green waters formed the curve of the earth.

The sun hung in the air like a huge orange ball, barely touching the horizon.  Shards of light shimmered off the broad flat sea.  A small crowd watched, as the fiery orb sank into the water, inch by inch.  As day turned to darkness, I set off to find a place for the night.

Down on the beach, the air force officers' club had nice clean rooms for four dollars, with a dining room and bar on the premises.  After dinner and a drink, I fell asleep to the soft rhythm of the waves slapping the shore outside my window.

*          *          *          *          *

Breakfast the following morning introduced an adventure in rich black coffee, warm buttered bread, and fresh fruit.  A taxi ferried me to the local airport where a commercial flight to Cairo awaited.

Two hours later, the plane rolled to a stop on the tarmac.  Passengers filed down a portable stairway and walked to the terminal building.  Out front, a small crowd waited.

A tall dark-skinned man stood off to one side.  He wore long white robes and a tarboosh – a small dark felt cap.  Above his head, he held a placard bearing the name "Karpinski."

I approached and pointed up at the sign.  "I'm the one you're looking for," I said. 

"Ah good," he replied, "Mister Zach sent me.  Pleased to follow."  He turned and pushed his way through the crowd, and I hurried after him.

In the baggage claim area, we waited for workers to unload the plane.  As nice as this stranger had been to me, I felt uneasy.  Unable to think of anything to say, I stood with my hands in my pockets, staring around the room.  My mind raced with thoughts of the days to come.

At last, the conveyor belt moved at my feet, and a column of suitcases snaked into the room through a small opening in the wall.  Relieved at the sight of my old gray garment bag, I plucked it off the line.  The man then the way outside, where a U.S. Embassy Mercedes waited at the curb.  We hopped in the back seat, and the driver sped off toward downtown.

Of all the large cities in the world, Cairo stood out in one respect: the streets had no painted stripes separating lanes of traffic.  Drivers wishing to merge simply honked their horns and edged over.  Embassy drivers apparently had been given carte blanche.

The view out the back window revealed another aspect of Cairo: drivers did not give up their right-of-way easily.  Dented fenders adorned even newer cars, multiple crunches in some cases.  After one particularly close call, I covered my eyes.

*          *          *          *          *

When the car rolled to a stop in front of the Shepard Hotel, I opened my eyes again.  The hotel, fifteen stories high, sat right on the banks of the Nile River.  First class, all the way.

Large, white marble tiles covered the lobby floor; dark mahogany lined the walls.  Polished brass fittings held long red velvet runners in place.  Huge palm fronds sprang from clay pots, and massive round pillars reached to the high arched ceiling.  A wide, curved staircase led to the upper floors.

A bellboy led the way up to Zach's room on the twelfth floor.  Three sharp raps on the door brought movement inside.  The door swung open; but, instead of Zach, there stood a smiling John Stanley Phillips.

John had also received a cryptic call for help and flew in the day before from Fort Benning, Georgia.  As it turned out, there was no dire emergency.  Zach just felt lonely and needed a little companionship.  "Hey, no problem," I announced, "we'll all do Cairo together."

For the next couple of hours, the three of us sat at the table and caught up on old times.  Through the open window, muffled sounds drifted up from the hustle and bustle on the streets far below.

Before long, muffled sounds started coming from John's stomach.  A few minutes later, my own stomach chimed in.  Zach said we could eat in the hotel restaurant.

A rich aroma of freshly cooked King Crab lured us down the stairs and into the elegant main dining room.  Zach and his appetite were well-known regulars there.  When the maître d' saw Zach walk in with two friends, he blanched.

The main course that night also included a rice pilaf and long greasy string beans, washed down with an excellent local red wine.  After the third serving, however, our waiter no longer greeted us with a smile.  Other patrons began to point and stare.

*          *          *          *          *

Stepping out on the sidewalk for some fresh air, we took a stroll down the street.  Several old-fashioned horse drawn carriages stood by the curb.  Antique gas lamps flickered, soft shadows dancing across wide cracks in the concrete. 

To the left, the narrow street lay dark and empty; to the right, a tall brick wall hid an elegant villa from view.  Warm dry air brushed lightly against my cheek.

At the next corner, a basement night club advertised a belly dancing show.  Most in the audience were male and mid-eastern.  Ours were the only foreign faces in the crowd.

The first dancer wore a thin flowing costume, soft and colorful, trimmed in bright baubles and charms, with large gaudy bracelets halfway up her arms.  As she moved, silk billowed and swirled, revealing flashes of bare skin.  Almost as an afterthought, jeweled trinkets jingled in her wake. 

She took great pride in a series of intricate moves, sweeping across the floor, changing tempo with the music, sending ripples through the crowd.  Loud applause brought a smile to her face, an artist pleased with her work.  She exited, and a new dancer entered from the side.

Male ogling?  Not at all; rather, it seemed more like a contest in which each dancer tried to outdo the last.  Belly dancing is hard physical work, with fifteen or twenty minutes per round.  The rhythm proved spellbinding, as the whole room shook and swayed with each dance.

We rocked to the beat of the music and clapped with the other patrons, trying to figure out the meaning of each slight twist of the wrist or dip of the shoulder.  Much of it remained obscure, too subtle for our Western minds.  As the wriggling and jiggling reached a crescendo, my eyes were drawn to the central attraction.

How did she do that?  How did she make her tummy muscles bounce up and down and from side to side with such precision?  Slowly, she edged toward our table.

Looking me straight in the eye, she opened her arms wide and shivered with all her might.  When a woman shakes all she has at a man from less than eighteen inches away, it is the ultimate test of his manhood, somewhat like trying to standing upright in a gale. 

The noise became intense.  Sweat poured from my brow.  My collar grew tight, and a lump formed in my throat.  She smiled and turned it up a notch.  I must have fainted.

*          *          *          *          *

At the crack of dawn, John woke up deathly sick, with the worst case of dysentery in the history of mankind.  Big John Phillips, the toughest man alive, felled like a giant redwood tree.

Zach explained that tourists often became ill after a day or two in Cairo.  The local water or the food wreaked havoc in their systems.  Most people recovered within twenty-four hours.

Locals called it "The Pharaoh's Revenge," he said, in homage to an ancient king of Egypt buried nearby.  The Pharaoh, legend had it, exacted a heavy toll on all foreigners entering his sacred domain.  Zach had suffered through it himself, and he said my turn would come, as well.

When Zach and I decided to charter a felucca – a small Egyptian sailing boat – and cruise down the Nile, John would not be left behind.  So, for the better part of the morning, he sipped on a cocktail of Maalox, Pepto-Bismol, and Rolaids.  Around noon, he stabilized, more or less.  John pulled himself upright, draped an arm over each of our shoulders, and we dragged him out the door.

Once on the boat, John stretched out on a wooden plank under the shade of a canvas canopy . . . and moaned.  At one point, he propped himself up on an elbow and we took his photo to prove that he'd been on the Nile.  Then he collapsed again, flat on his back.

That became the routine.  At each new landmark, we propped John up, took his photo, and laid him back down again.  John moaned, and we moved on.

*          *          *          *          *

At breakfast the next morning, John ate three man-sized portions of ham and eggs, as well as a stack of pancakes.  Seeing Big John back to his normal self again made all seem right in the world.  On schedule, the Mercedes pulled up out front of the hotel, and we resumed our tour of Egypt.

In front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops at El Gizeh, a camel driver offered the pride of his herd for hire.  For a price, he would lead you by the reins on a short walk around the grounds.  Dickering over the price, John suggested a two-for-one deal.

Stroking his beard, the man eyed us from top to bottom and glanced over at his animal.  The smelly beast, a proud ship of the desert, looked down upon John and me with disdain.  It snorted, spat, and jerked its head, as if to say, "Sure, bring 'em on."

Camels kneel on all fours to let you board, and, when they stand up, they raise their back legs first.  Sitting on a camel when it stands up is one of life's great thrills.  Two men the size of John and me rising on the same camel is a sight to behold.

At first, it felt like the camel wanted to buck us over the far side of a nearby tour bus.  Then it raised its front legs, and the ride leveled off at about twenty feet above sea level.  After three or four tentative steps, the creature centered itself under the weight and staggered the rest of the way around the parking lot.  The proudest camel driver in all of Egypt held the reins.

Later, we rented horses and rode through the open desert.  Anyone who enjoyed the movie "Lawrence of Arabia" must try that.  With the pyramids in the background, one charges among endless towering sand dunes, braced against the hot, dry wind.

Suddenly, a tiny kiosk appeared on a remote hilltop.  At a small round table in the open air, we guzzled ice cold beer in long neck bottles.  Where the beer or the ice came from is anyone's guess.

Atop the small hill, we gazed across the desert.  In all directions, to the ends of the earth and beyond, sand covered the ground, and cloudless blue skies filled the heavens.  No one said a word.

*          *          *          *          *

On the ride back to the hotel, we chatted with our driver, a pleasant sort who liked to practice his English on Westerners.  The man, a devout Muslim, had three wives.  This intrigued John.

John leaned forward from the back seat and badgered the man with questions.  For one thing, John wanted to know how one man kept three wives, well, happy, and all at the same time; and, John wanted to know the details.  For example, how did one, you know, rotate among them?

To his credit, the man never gave in.  He just smiled and changed the subject, in a way drawing a line in the sand.  Certain aspects of his culture would remain forever beyond our grasp.

*          *          *          *          *

Zach and John were amazed.  For four long days, I had eaten from the same plates and drank from the same bottles as both of them; and, still, I had not caught the Pharaoh's Revenge.  Zach thought perhaps my stomach had a cast iron lining.

The end of the week approached, and our visit with Zach drew to a close.   John and I agreed to travel together by commercial air as far as Athens.  There, we would split up, each taking a space-available flight in a different direction.

Egyptian Airlines had a flight to Athens scheduled for Friday morning.  We booked two seats, got up with the crows, and drove to the airport.  After hurried goodbyes, Zach and the Mercedes sped off, vanishing in a trail of dust.

*          *          *          *          *

Inside the terminal, a large and angry crowd milled about.  An official announced that there had been a severe earthquake in Athens, and the airport there had been closed.  As a result, our flight would be diverted to Rome.

No one in the crowd, it appeared, had any interest in going to Rome, and that included John and me.  Any other time, Rome might have been okay, but our leaves were about to expire, and we had to get back to our respective bases.  Not only that, but Rome had no U.S. military presence and, hence, no space-available flight connections.

Scanning the room, we searched for allies among the other passengers.  Most were Arabic, with a few Caucasian faces sprinkled about.  Ever on the lookout for the perfect woman, John spotted her first.  Off to the side, a buxom young blonde, about twenty-five, stood crying on her mother's shoulder.

John had trained his whole life for that moment.  He walked over, introduced himself, and reassured both women that he would get to the bottom of things.  In the space of ten minutes, he gained their confidence so much that the teary-eyed girl shifted her cheek from Mama's shoulder over to his.

Her name was Jackie.  Bright, wide-eyed, and full of life, she met John's every desire; but, beauties like her rarely roam this earth alone.  By the time John met up with them, they already had steady boyfriends.

That turned out to be the case here, as well.  Returning to England, Jackie had just spent five months on the Red Sea, living in a tent with the man of her dreams.  He, she announced, was a captain in the British Royal Marines.

As she explained it, the marines had given her man a special leave of absence to study a rare bird native to the Red Sea region.  Seems he had earned a name for himself as a leading expert on the rare species.  Sounded British enough to us.

Jackie and her mother had met in Jerusalem and traveled to Cairo together by bus.  The girl cried because she might miss the next rendezvous with her beau.  Gallant John felt torn between handing Jackie safely into the arms of her man . . . or stealing her away from him.

A man on a mission, John wove his way through the crowd and stormed the Egyptian Airlines office.  Half an hour later, the throng parted and he reappeared.  In his outstretched hand, John held three tickets for an afternoon flight to Athens and a key to the VIP lounge.

*          *          *          *          *

Along the way, John had picked up two more companions.  The first newcomer introduced himself as Dave, a water pipe salesman from Texas.  Dave had arrived from the states two weeks before, but the airline had misplaced his baggage.  He had been trying to track it down ever since.  The airline promised that it would arrive today.

The second new face belonged to a Lebanese man named Mohammed.  Only a couple million of those wandered the streets of Cairo at the time.  This one claimed to be a chemical engineer living in Switzerland.  He looked suspicious.

As a group, we seemed an odd mix: two tall American army officers, one with his arm draped around a backpack toting blonde in tight blue jeans; a loud, obnoxious Texan; and a sly, furtive Lebanese.

*          *          *          *          *

The door to the VIP lounge swung open, and five attendants in white coats stepped forward.  They were quiet, efficient, and gracious.  The one in charge held a two-way radio in his hand.

We all sat down at one long table in front of a huge picture window that afforded a commanding view of the flight line.  Silver place settings decked a white linen table cloth.

Whatever we desired to eat or drink, the waiters provided.  Little Mohammed opened his wallet, bulging with notes, and offered to pay, but the men in the white coats would accept no money.

A plate of lamb chops in mint sauce?  As you wish, sir.  The head waiter whispered into his walkie-talkie; and, within minutes, a man wheeling a serving cart appeared in the doorway.

From nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, we ate, drank, and told stories.  Dave, the Texan, talked most.  One would expect that from a man who could sell water pipes to the Arabs.  Mohammed spoke the least, his beady black eyes darting about the room.  John passed the time pressed close up against Jackie, murmuring in her ear.

Then word arrived that our flight would board soon.  A special escort led the way across the tarmac.  From high atop a metal staircase, we took one last look at Cairo and then slipped inside the plane.

*          *          *          *          *

The two-hour flight to Athens passed without incident.  As the plane approached the landing strip, passengers gazed down at the ground, searching for signs of earthquake damage; but no one could see any.

Passport control, baggage check, and customs all went without a hitch.  Outside the terminal, John and I boarded a bus for downtown.  Settling into his seat, John looked out the window . . . and saw Jackie standing on the sidewalk.

She saw him, too.  Swinging a bulging backpack over her shoulder, she smiled, blew a kiss, and waived goodbye.  Then she turned on her heels and hiked off down the street.

John had flirted nonstop for twenty-four hours; and, in spite of his best efforts, Jackie revealed no address and no telephone number.  For a young woman who had at first seemed so helpless and naive, she took pretty good care of herself.

Every man has experienced what John felt at that moment: the sharp sting of another near-miss on the long and lonely highway of love.  The ride downtown passed in silence.

*          *          *          *          *

With an hour of daylight left, John decided that he would like to visit the Acropolis – the citadel high above Athens.  If we got lucky and caught flights out of the country that night, the chance would be lost; but, in order to see the Acropolis before darkness fell, we would literally have to run for it.

The city bus stopped at the edge of town, at the base of a small set of hills. We hopped off and trotted toward a path leading uphill.  The trail turned steep, but we made it all the way to the top, without stopping, in about twenty minutes.

Soaked with sweat and out of breath, we staggered into a wide clearing where ancient white marble columns lay broken and scattered at odd angles.  A few pillars still stood, their bleached forms in stark contrast with the vast blue sea beyond.

Dark clouds had begun to gather overhead.  An open archway framed the setting sun, sparks of burnt orange glinting off the marble edge.  One last look at the strange faded carvings in the stone, and we turned back down the path to the city below.

*          *          *          *          *

An hour after checking in at the air force base, John caught a flight to Rota, Spain.  From there, he would have no trouble hooking up with a connecting flight to the states.

We shook hands, said good bye, and promised to stay in touch.  John stepped through a set of double doors and disappeared.  The place felt suddenly quiet without him.

An airman behind the counter said they had a cargo plane heading for Frankfurt late the next day.  He thought I had a good chance of getting a seat on it.

*          *          *          *          *

The plane, a C-141, had been rigged for airborne training, a cold cavernous hulk with bare steel ribbing and webbed seats along the walls.  As we climbed aboard, each passenger received a blanket and a pair of ear plugs.  Three hours later, we landed in Frankfurt, numb from the waist down.

In the cold darkness, I searched through the long-term parking lot and located my car.  After a week of sitting idle, the motor came to life on the second turn of the key.

Shortly past midnight, I arrived back in Stuttgart and the bachelor officer quarters at Kelley Barracks.  Dropping my bags in the living room, I went straight to bed.  Within minutes, I lay sound asleep, dreaming of warm Cairo nights – and belly dancers.

*          *          *          *          *

The next morning, Sunday, I stood in the bathroom, preparing to shave.  Staring at myself in the mirror, I pondered what to do on this, the final day of my leave.  The issue resolved itself a few seconds later . . . when the Pharaoh finally struck.


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