Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fred: Back in the Day

Fred pouring some in-air Hennessy

A colleague from his days in Ethiopia discovered this telling photograph of Our Beloved Fred, clearly at ease as they flew over the arid terrain they were charged with mapping.  I'm guessing this was snapped at the *end* of a long hot day of topographical fun and games...

The Ethiopia-United States Mapping Mission, also known as the Ethi-U.S. Mapping Mission, was an operation undertaken by the United States Army during the 1960s to provide up-to-date topographic map coverage of the entire country of Ethiopia. The soldiers who conducted the mapping operations on the ground during that time used the latest surveying and mapping techniques and were exposed to many hardships and dangers, but they completed their mission near the end of the decade. The maps that were created still serve as the base maps for the country of Ethiopia and are presently being updated and maintained by the Ethiopian Mapping Authority.
Fred loved the country so much that at the end of his famously difficult tour of duty (he suffered several severe bouts of Hennessy Elbow) -- he stuck around for a number of years as an advising civilian.  Today, we honor Ethiopia by sponsoring kids through ChildFund International.

an after hours edit:  i haven't told fred that the picture is posted here... i hope it's okay by him, as there is something about it -- yes, beyond his inclusion in it -- that is likeable.  he said they called the plane "the vomit comet," as it's time was mostly spent landing and taking off, with little level air cruising in between.  we had an interesting conversation a few minutes ago.  he was unaware that the map making mission was listed on wikipedia -- fred is precisely the type of person who does not google himself or the events of his life, thankyouverymuch, as he was there and remembers it all well.  still, i wanted his reaction to the characterization of "the men" of the mission as... well, cowboys and adventurers: 

The topographic surveyors and their aviation support pilots and crew served on field parties that endured sweltering heat in this Sub Saharan region of Africa. They also struggled to subsist in remote areas of the country that included jungles, deserts, dense bush, mountains and swamps that harbored deadly snakes, crocodiles, lions, leopards, hyenas, hippos, cape buffalo, elephants, wild dogs, dangerous bees and ants, aggressive tribes of baboons and sometimes hostile natives, not to mention any number of malignant diseases. In addition, these troops and their support personnel were frequently required to conduct their operations in active war zones along the Somalia and Sudan borders, where brutal wars and indiscriminate killing had been going on for years, [2] and the area of the country that is now Eritrea, where the Eritrean Liberation Front was engaged in armed struggle with imperial Ethiopian forces. [3]

even before he started answering, my mind filled with the memory of his stories, and the realization of how long it has been since he shared any of them.  i realized i was hungry for those tales, often funny, often underplaying the role of danger, always light on the emotional and physical toll he sometimes paid.

most engaging were stories of the other men, their drinking, their drinking and driving (somehow not so bad a thing when you are a bunch of guys in a truck streaking across the uncharted desert), and the inevitable stories of conflict with career military types, not to mention military rules, in general. 

largely, though, they were left to their own wild devices, with the occasional big brass dropping in to praise their isolated work.  uniforms were unheard of, and it sounds like the only schedule they respected was a sketch of one that allowed for the mapping to get done according to flight schedules and the unrelenting rules of daylight and the permission of the weather.

they swam in the same watering holes as hippos, not knowing hippos were at all dangerous.  they managed to crash the truck (it must have been a series of trucks) in that wide, empty expanse of desert, by running into some barrier that i cannot remember.  i guess steering was optional.

when queried about the cognac, fred allowed as to never being "without a crate."

they loved "boonies," and i still get upset at hearing how their pet baby boonie disappeared from the end of his tether one night, with the assistance of a leopard.  then i get upset at the thought of a leopard near my sleeping fred!

he stares into space and lapses into a monotone when he tells of having to retrieve the body of a peace corps volunteer... from the inside of a crocodile.

that same tone relates stories of crashes -- of trucks, of planes, of helicopters.

a smile toys with his lovely lush lower lip when he thinks of the beautiful ethiopian woman he loved and lived with, for a while.

another smile appears when he falls back into the memory of that camaraderie of men, and when he thinks of the country, of the people, of the mornings when the lions of haile selassie, that lion of judah, walked by his tent.

cowboy, adventurer, friend, scientist, lover, and moralist -- all...


  1. Topographers. The real heroes.

  2. Damn straight!

    He has great stories about the applications of advanced modern topographical methods to ancient landmarks that the native nomads have relied on, without losing track of a'one-of-'em, for centuries...

    He does have qualms about the potential uses and abuses of their maps. Their patronage being the military, and all. But then he gets a twinkle in his eye, recalling the wild beauty of sand storms and shifting dunes...

  3. Lucky man to have such good work!

    When I started working on geography books for teens nine years ago, I wasn't interested in maps at all. But that's because I didn't know how to read them... same as not knowing how to read a novel. Now I see the stories in topography--a ribbon of green running through a swatch of beige paper, for instance, means life along its shores. And quite likely crocodiles! (Depending, of course.)

    I have my fingers crossed for your ketamine news...
    "Glaucoma, doctor? Never heard of it."


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