Messenger: A Sequel to Lost Horizon
By Frank DeMarco
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, admirable representative of his people, a man upon whom hatred has no hold.
of all mankind,
reason to be bitter,
the Dalai Lama lives serene.
And to Danny Lliteras, author of the Llewellen trilogy:
In The Heart of Things
Into the Ashes, and
Half Hidden by Twilight,
who encouraged and prodded me by word, example, and friendship.
And to the memory of my brother Joe, 1949‑1979.
Part One. In A Quiet Place
Chapter One. Chance
Chapter Two. The Monastery
Chapter Three. Introductions
Chapter Four. Realities
Chapter Five. Preparation
Chapter Six. Escape
Part Two. Another World
Chapter Seven. Experience
Chapter Eight. The Monkey
Part Three. Messenger
Chapter Nine. Corbin
Chapter Ten. Interrogation
Chapter Eleven. Isolation
Chapter Twelve. Adjustment
Chapter Thirteen. Responsibilities
Chapter Fourteen. Messenger
Part One : In A Quiet Place
Chapter One. Chance
At the time, I thought in terms of accidents and coincidences and meaningless chances. So for a long time I took the results of my flight as I had always taken the events of my life, good or bad: as something that had inexplicably happened, something to be managed as best I could without thinking much about what it meant. I never worried much about meaning with a capital “M”: All the Meaning I knew was that things happened. I had neither the time nor the training nor energy enough to look beyond appearances, and anyway I was only 26. How many people worry about Meaning at age 26? Only the long months that became years changed my perspective. To use one of my favorite analogies, the river of my life moved out of rapids into a calm, steady flow, and gradually dropped the silt that my turbulence had carried. As the silt dropped to the bottom, I began to see clearly for the first time.
All of which is a fancy way of saying that gradually I came to accept the fact that too much coincidence can only amount to meaning.
To confine the argument to its simplest terms, consider merely the geography involved. Tibet is about as big as the United States east of the Mississippi, more or less. How long are the odds against landing near any one particular house in all that territory? Particularly if, instead of however many people live east of the Mississippi these days (100 million? More?) the same amount of territory has only a few million people scattered within it. And then suppose that the only way to get you into that spot is to have you sent up in an airplane over some particularly inaccessible territory because suddenly there’s a war on. And then, on top of all those unlikelihoods, suppose that just when you’re more or less over the right place, something inexplicable happens. . . . You get the idea. It’s the kind of business that tends to shake your belief in Chance.
In the Fall of 1962 Red China, which had occupied Tibet a dozen years before, suddenly used that territory to launch an invasion of India. Only three years before, the Chinese had put down a revolt in Tibet, in the course of which the Dalai Lama had fled the country. Did this sudden attack promise further Chinese moves southwestward? They sent me up to see what I could see.
“They” in this case means the U.S. Air Force: In 1962 I was a 26‑year‑old Air Force Captain stationed at Peshawar, Pakistan. I was one of several trained to fly the still very hush‑hush, if notorious, U‑2.
[I wonder: Will any but historians even remember the U‑2? It’s all ancient history by now: the reconnaissance flights out of Peshawar over the Soviet Union, the uncompleted mission of Francis Gary Powers in the Spring of 1960, the disruption of the Paris summit conference, all that? But it was big news, once, and certainly it changed my life.]
Well anyway, at that time we were still operating U‑2s out of Peshawar (although officially we were out of that business), and here was a mission pretty nearly ideally suited for that particular plane. The U‑2 was a spyplane, none better. Designed for high‑altitude reconnaissance. Built like a sailplane (a glider) with enormous wings on a small fuselage.
When Francis Gary Powers had been shot down, deep in Russian territory, two and a half years earlier, he’d been hit, we were told, by a new type of missile with greater range. But we also heard the contradictory rumor that the only reason he was hit was because he had for some reason flamed out — lost power. In either case, we were pretty sure that the Chinese wouldn’t have anything capable of shooting me down. Also we had hopes, and reason to believe, that the training of the Chinese radar operators wasn’t always what it should be. With great good luck I might pass undetected, and even if I were seen (so my briefing officer reassured me) they ought to be unable to hit me.
The Chinese had launched invasions in two places. Were these attacks merely designed to pressure the Indians into making border concessions, or were they the forerunner of a full‑dress intervention, as in Korea and Tibet in 1950? Given enough information on supply trains, road improvements, observable troop placements, etc., intelligence thought they could make a pretty good estimate of Chinese intentions. A series of overflights could get that information. So they loaded up my camera, and one fine morning before dawn in the autumn of 1962 they sent me up on a trip that was supposed to carry me from Peshawar right over the roof of the world: over India’s Jammu and Kashmir, over the Karakorums into Sinkiang to check out the main road running into India from Kashgar (though I was to go nowhere near Kashgar), then east along the road toward Keriya and into Tibet, checking out things along its main road (Gartok and Gyangtse particularly), then east to the area around Lhasa, then to the Salween . . . .
But I never got even as far as Gartok.
I was pretty sure then and I’m entirely sure now that the Chinese never got me on their radar. Either they didn’t have the equipment or they weren’t using it, or their operators weren’t well‑trained — or maybe they saw me as a blip where there couldn’t be a blip and so ignored me. Whatever the reason, I never saw the Chinese Air Force, and I can’t believe they wouldn’t have scrambled at least one or two fighters, if only to see how close they could come on the off‑chance of a lucky shot if I made an error of judgment or the plane malfunctioned.
I went up from Peshawar about an hour before dawn and crossed over Jammu and Kashmir provinces in darkness, not by accident. (India and Pakistan were still bitter enemies at the time, with Jammu and Kashmir disputed territory, arbitrarily divided between them along the cease‑fire line of their 1947 war. Though Pakistan was a U.S. ally, my superiors had no wish to alienate neutral India, particularly since China’s attack had presumably served to discredit India’s anti‑American, pro‑communist foreign minister, V.K. Krishna Menon.) Of course, darkness is no defense against radar: I wonder, now, if the Indians did see me on my way. Even if they did, they were not very likely to want to warn their adversary of an impending violation of Chinese airspace.
At any rate, by the dawn’s early light I was beyond the white Karakorums, streaking almost silently toward Moji and Guma, my built‑in cameras busily whirring away, shooting some terrific scenery, which is all that bit of country is, from Peshawar right up to the Kashgar road at the edge of the Takla Mahan desert. First there is hilly country, then mountains, then higher mountains, then the glacier‑covered Karakorum mountains, and then more mountains, and then more mountains on the Chinese side.
But I’m not going to indulge in picture‑painting beyond remembering what a terrific clear morning it was — blue‑black cloudless sky, all that corrugated scenery passing below, absolute silence except for the subdued howl of the engine.
I followed my flight plan down the road from Jammu and Kashmir as close to Guma as I was supposed to get, and then eastward, flying parallel and south of the road past Moji and Khotan, cameras working steadily. When I saw the Yurang Qash river below I turned toward its source, brought myself over more glaciers, and then I was flying over Tibet.
But not for long.
I was a trained pilot, good enough to be entrusted with a sensitive mission in an airplane whose recent notoriety assured widespread publicity if it got into the news again. That airplane was well‑maintained by professionals who knew that the life of a friend, or anyway of a colleague, depended on how well they did their jobs. Given the sensitivity of this particular mission, I have little doubt that the bird received particularly careful attention. Naturally, I had done a pre‑flight inspection. All the gauges indicated everything normal.
So why, all of a sudden, did I completely lose power? Within the frame of reference I then lived in, no reason was to be found.
But it happened, and when such things happen your immediate impulse is not to say, “This can’t be happening so it isn’t happening.” Instead, you say, “Oh my God, now what?” — and you try to figure our what to do. If you’re driving down the road and your car’s motor quits, you don’t spend time telling yourself “I just had the car checked over and nothing was wrong so it can’t be stalled,” you get off the road and put the hood up.
Which is difficult to do when you’re 55,000 feet above ground level.
Elementary pilot training: Aviate, navigate, communicate. Regain or retain control. Find a place to land and do your checklists and your restart procedures. Finally, if necessary, send out a Mayday and bring it in.
Well, the ship was under control; skip to number two. Find a reasonable place to land. What you are supposed to do is find a good place and then circle over that place as you lose altitude. What you aren’t supposed to do is put off finding a place to land, hoping for a better place just out of sight. But there sure wasn’t a whole lot to choose from down there — particularly from a vertical distance of 55,000 feet! So for quite a while I just let it glide while I frantically flipped switches and tried everything I could think of to get that flame re‑lit.
Now as it happens, gliding is what the U‑2 does best. As a matter of fact, it was designed as a sailplane specifically to allow pilots to prolong its 2,200‑mile cruising range by shutting off the engine and gliding. So to hope to be able to re‑start was reasonable, particularly given the great height I was starting from. When I flamed out I was close to the U‑2’s 70,000‑foot ceiling, which left me 55,000 feet or so to fall before I’d begin to get hemmed in by terrain.
And that is what I kept telling myself, all the way down. Another minute and I’ll do something that will get a response. A little lower and whatever’s frozen up will thaw and let the engine whisper itself back to life. A little more thinking and I’ll come up with a bright idea that will work. And all the while I fed myself these little confidence‑builders, down I came. I came down gradually, extremely gradually, but down I came. There came a moment, as the peaks below slowly rose to meet me, when I began to need to devote at least some of my attention to not flying into something. Imperceptibly, the air I sailed through was no longer an ocean, but a sea surrounded by an archipelago. Gradually it became a series of bays and lagoons separating peninsulas. Finally it became a river, and I found myself sinking down between narrowing shores. But still I gave my navigation no more attention than was needed to keep off the rocks. My full attention went to trying to regain power.
When I finally gave up hope that I could get the engine lighted again, I realized that I had delayed looking for a landing spot perhaps too long. I was very low; an end could not be long delayed. No matter how recklessly close I steered to the rocks beside and beneath, I could find no updraft to buy me a little more time. Too early in the morning.
I had to decide quickly: Ride it in, or eject?
I couldn’t see even a hundred‑foot stretch that was anything like smooth or level. Everything was great jagged boulders and upended rock. There wouldn’t be any soft landings. But I was already too low to eject, probably: Parachutes need a certain amount of falling‑room to slow you down. Drop from too low and you might as well just jump out without one and hope to land on your feet. Besides, ejections are tricky. It isn’t like the days of fabric‑covered biplanes, when all you did was climb out and drop off. Instead, the cockpit you sat in was mounted above a rocket. If you had to bail out, you moved the canopy out of the way (if you could!) and then fired off the rocket. With luck you got a great kick in the pants and it kicked you out of the plane — away from the tail surfaces — the parachute opened and you went from there. But if your luck was bad. . . . We’d all heard stories of malfunctioning ejection rockets firing slightly wrong and shearing off somebody’s arm for them on the edge of the cockpit. Ejection beat certain death, but didn’t necessarily beat a hard landing. The decision was left to the pilot’s judgment.
Not much to choose. The ground below was such an unbelievably bad place to land, being the side of a mountain: jagged, tumbled, boulder‑strewn. But then I saw something a little further on — and here is where I began to see the inadequacy of words like luck, and the extraordinary extent to which we are guided (when we are not officiously overriding that guidance) by something beyond our conscious selves.
From the moment I had flamed out, I had concentrated my conscious mind strictly on getting the engine restarted. Since I had no intention of landing if I could possibly avoid it, I merely — unconsciously — prolonged my descent as the mountain ranges rose to meet me, steering away from immediate hazards without making any attempt to steer a particular course. By the time I had lost enough altitude to be forced to maneuver between mountain walls, my position was the end result of drift and — and what? Unconscious guidance?
Certainly everything I had done was logically defensible. What reaction could be more natural, more automatic? Nobody in the situation I was in was going to come in one minute sooner, or ten feet higher up in the mountains, than he had to. Nobody, slipping down into the lower atmosphere, would pay as much attention to steering as he would to figuring out how to re‑ignite his engine. It was all perfectly natural. But the end result was that in the middle of that twisted frozen wilderness of unrelieved rock that now hemmed me in on both sides, I looked directly ahead and saw a haze where there should have been no haze, and my heart leaped as I thought, incredulously, “Heated air! A thermal!”
Did I care what caused a thermal current so early in the morning, so high in the Himalayas? I did not, and I did not waste any time speculating, either. A thermal current, if I could get to it, could mean life. Sailplane pilots use them all the time, even tiny thermals like the ones caused by little patches of black asphalt: parking lots, say, or country roads. If I could nose into that updraft — whatever was causing it — I could gain a few dozen feet, circle back into it, gain a few more, and keep it up for maybe several thousand feet. Obviously I couldn’t regain enough to get me out of the mountains, and I could hardly expect a convenient trail of thermals to lead me home, but one thermal would buy me time, and who could say that at any moment my engine might not re‑light?
I’m tempted to wonder what would have happened if I’d reached it. How long would I have circled and circled, trying to restart my engine? I’d have had to come down before dark, at the latest, no matter what the ground looked like. But I suppose I would have seen the valley and headed in, so maybe it would have ended up more or less the same. Of course, it’s possible that I might have finally gotten the engine to fire, in which case I’d have gone happily on my way, breathing a sigh of relief.
But wondering “what if” is a relic of another way of thinking that sees life as chance and coincidence and hairbreadth escapes.
Anyway, I tried hard to reach the thermal, but I didn’t have even a hint of air current to work with: The day was as still, even for early morning, as I have ever seen it. All I could do was watch the ground come rapidly up to meet me, while the haze was still miles ahead. Finally I had to admit that no miracle was going to allow me to reach that current, and I started looking around seriously for a place to set down. I was far beyond looking for a “best” place; I was settling for the least worst.
And at very nearly the last minute I found it: a place some avalanche had swept clean of at least the largest outcroppings. It wasn’t level, of course — I couldn’t expect that — but it might not kill me immediately. I was down to my last few score feet of altitude and nothing else offered. It was a yes/no situation, and what choice did I have? I ran through my emergency landing checklist, shutting down electrical power. [This would have been the time for a Mayday, but not this mission.] The U‑2’s detachable wing‑supporting wheels had been dropped in Peshawar, as soon as I’d become airborne. The only undercarriage left were nose‑ and tail‑wheels, so I was in effect coming in “wheels up.” Just as well. That much less sticking out to snag something and flip me over.
I cut the fuel switches, brought the ship around into its final circle, and flared it in.
It wasn’t the best emergency landing ever made, but it didn’t last too long, it didn’t kill me or break any bones, even, and the fuel tanks didn’t ignite and wrap me in flames. Any and all of which might easily have happened. It could have been a lot worse.
For a long few seconds I sat numb, dazed from a Ricky Ricardo sequence that bongoed my helmeted head back and forth against the side and front of the cockpit. But then I remembered the fuel tanks, and I scrambled to force the canopy back, get out of my harness, and make my way, on legs that seemed to have turned a little wobbly, out of the plane and out among the rock a little distance away. When I figured I’d gone far enough, I sat down and took a good look at the wreck that had been a flying machine three or four minutes before.
It looked, as we used to say, a little second‑hand. The tail‑wheels had been ripped away. The undercarriage from just aft of the cockpit was battered and broken up, the thin metal crumpled like so much tinfoil. The left wing was sheared off 20 feet or so from the tip; most of the right wing (60 feet or so), though still attached, was tortured almost shapeless. The tail surfaces were twisted a good 30 degrees out of true. Looking at it, I shook my head in disbelief. The cockpit had been protected, even though everything aft was a wreck.
A good landing is one you can walk away from.
After a bit I remembered that the fact that I’d been able to get out and run to safety didn’t demonstrate that I hadn’t broken anything, wasn’t bleeding, etc. So I checked myself out as well as I could without taking off my flight suit and exposing myself to the early‑morning high‑altitude November cold. I found nothing broken, nothing bleeding.
Later I realized that I was probably in a mild state of shock, sitting on that rock ledge waiting for flames or an explosion. Neither came, but after a while my mind started functioning a little better, reminding me that although I was alive for the moment, I did have a problem or two to begin working on.
Standard operating procedure after a crash is to stay with the airplane, rather than rushing off hoping to reach safety. The theory is that wrecked airplanes are a lot easier to spot from the air than footsore, half‑dead, arm‑waving aviators.
But my case didn’t seen to fit the rules, for the same reason that had stopped me from sending out a distress signal. In the first and most obvious place, the people likely to “rescue” me I didn’t care to be rescued by. That attitude may seem impossibly idealistic — give me liberty or give me death — but at 26 it came naturally. I decided easily I’d rather die in the mountains than under interrogation, or in a prison cell.
Besides, I needed merely to absorb the appalling immensity around me. In the clear early morning air, I could see many miles of mountains and valley. In all that extensive mountainscape, not a tree, not a bush, hardly a blade of grass. Not only no sign of civilization, no sign of human life. Who — even the Chinese Air Force — looking down on all that immensity, would be able to find one dot of an individual and his crumpled airplane? No, the fact was clear: The only chance I’d have would be whatever chance I’d make for myself. Since I didn’t care to stay and be captured, or (more likely) stay and die unnoticed, there wasn’t any alternative but to start walking.
Walk all the way back to Peshawar?
Well, to India, anyway. Jammu and Kashmir couldn’t be more than — 100? 120? — miles to the west. Say 150 miles, at the outside. In level country, with minimal provisions, three to 10 days, depending on how well I walked and where exactly I started from. Without provisions, in this broken terrain, with the Chinese Air Force and ground forces to consider. . .?
But what choice did I have?
By the time I had worked all this out — my mind was working extraordinarily slowly — I was reasonably sure that the U‑2 didn’t intend to scatter itself and me all over the landscape in delayed reaction to the trauma it had just suffered, so I proceeded back to see what I could find that might be useful on a little jaunt through the countryside.
I didn’t find much. Most of the useful things were in the pockets of my flight suit: sheath knife, a big bar of concentrated chocolate, salt tablets. Water, though not much of it. I did unclip the first‑aid kit and distribute its contents in two zipper pockets, though I had a feeling I’d soon begrudge the extra weight. I took my oxygen mask, of course. The emergency flares I left, after trying unsuccessfully to imagine a situation in which they’d be useful.
Then, as I thought I was ready to start, the first breath of wind began to rise, and I suddenly remembered that I was overlooking the question of what I was going to do when the nighttime temperature plunged. My flight suit would help a bit, as would my parachute, which I could make into a sort of sleeping bag. But on this exposed rock, I’d freeze. If not the first night, the second, or the third.
Mentally I retraced the route that had brought me to that place, looking for terrain that promised snow I could burrow into, or dirt. Then I remembered that I’d arrived by way of China, and in fact had no idea at all of the lay of the land between India and the rocky ledge I stood on. The only guarantee was that it would be impossible terrain, the most forbidding north of Antarctica. And with that, I about lost my courage, appalled by the slimness of my chances.
Then came intervention.
I suppose you could make a plausible argument for coincidence again, or could say it was the natural mental leap to make, starting from the awareness of cold. I don’t care to argue the point. The fact is, until the wind began to rise, my only thought had been of walking west for as long as my strength held out. In the back of my mind was the enormous difficulty I’d have getting past the guards at the border; still, I thought, I could deal with only one thing at a time, and clearly the first thing to do was to be on my way. But that wind threw my mental gears into neutral. For a long moment I stood, not only irresolute but unthinking. And into that mental gap a small thought — an urge, rather — inserted itself. It told me, “Go toward the warmth.” I had suddenly remembered the thermal current I’d been anxiously making for, not half an hour earlier.
Needless to say, that made no sense at all. Even assuming that the thermal did signal some kind of heat source — a fair assumption — I had no way to judge what that source might be. A stratum of black rock that absorbed heat and threw it back? Not likely, this early in the day. Volcanic activity, maybe? What difference did it make? I needed water, food, and progress toward freedom, and while I couldn’t see any prospect of the first two anywhere, the third clearly enough lay to the west, while the source of that thermal lay farther east, or east by southeast.
Suppose I found the heat‑source and it proved suitable to warm myself on? So what? What would I have gained? One night’s warmth?
No, it didn’t begin to make sense. I set my mind on the west, and actually took a few steps in that direction before slowing down and coming to a halt. A voice within was crying insistently that I must make for the warmth. I started walking again, ignoring the voice, striding step, step, step westward, trying to concentrate on the terrain ahead, watching where I placed my feet, very much aware that a sprained ankle would end the play. Again, this time after a few hundred feet of progress, the internal clamor brought me to a halt.
Looking back from the perspective of all these years later, I realize that my life was saved at this point by two aviators (one dead) whose books I’d read as a teenager. For at that self‑divided moment, I doubt I’d have found the courage to follow that inner voice if I hadn’t found an argument to use against my arrogantly rational intellect. At 26, the product of an Air Force education and my parents’ attitude toward life, and the attitude I saw all around me in society, I was accustomed to following reason, or what passed for reason, rather than instinct. What could not be logically demonstrated did not exist, or at least was not a trustworthy guide. To blindly follow a hunch in the face of reason would have struck me as a variety of betrayal. Without arguments, I’m fairly confident that I would have continued obstinately walking westward, in which case I’d now be dead many, many years. But again, this is a useless “what‑if” argument.
My life was saved because I listened to the inner voice. I listened because I suddenly remembered two things I had read half a dozen years before. So, clearly, I got off the Tibetan altiplano in November, 1962, because a high‑school boy read two books on aviation. And since those two books were only beads on a string of books he devoured, it would be equally true to say that my life was saved because I developed a love of aviation and of reading. So was my life saved by that high‑school boy? By those who taught him to read? By Charles Lindbergh and Antoine de St. Exupery?
When you have to cast the net so widely, isn’t it simpler and just as accurate to say that my life was saved by the pattern of my life? And doesn’t that amount to saying (since that pattern was certainly not determined by me) that it was saved by life itself, or by the source of life? So it seems to me.
As I stood undecided on the side of a mountain in Tibet in 1962, overruling instinct with reason, I remembered Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and Antoine de St. Exupery a decade later. Two memories popped up, unbidden by me, and tipped the balance, reminding me from other men’s personal experience that not everything that can be trusted is found in science and logic.
Lindbergh in May, 1927, at night, over the North Atlantic, out of his mind with fatigue and the need for sleep, seeing visions, no longer sure what was real and what was hallucination. All night (he said later in The Spirit of St. Louis) his cockpit was crowded with other presences, spirits who told him things. But when his conscious mind regained control with the coming of day, the presences faded away.
Sure — except that after a day and a night of semi‑conscious dead reckoning, he reached Ireland within three miles of his intended landfall. He wasn’t prepared to attribute the result to luck, or to skill. It was obvious to him that more was involved.
St. Exupery, lost in the North African desert after a nighttime crash landing. His logical mind, which knew more or less where he must be, told him to walk eastward. But his instinct, which he could not find strength to ignore, to fight, or to overwhelm, sent him walking northwestward. Even as he walked, he was convinced that he was walking deeper into the Sinai Desert. Still he walked. At more or less the last moment, he was rescued — and learned that (due to an unsuspected headwind) his airplane had crashed hundreds of miles west of where he’d thought he was. If he’d followed logic, he’d have been lost. Instead, he had followed an inexplicable certainty, and had been saved.
He had been saved, to write a book that would be read by a teen‑age boy. Saved, to save my life some 30 years later. The strength of my own inner voice had brought me to a standstill, but the memory of what had happened to the two aviators tipped the balance. Reluctantly, still not believing that what I was doing was anything more than delayed‑action suicide, I retraced my steps to the plane, swatted it half‑heartedly on the nose as I went by, and started walking toward the haze of heat I’d seen a few minutes before I’d run out of time.
No point in saying much about my little hike. No chance of losing my way, with the valley having narrowed to little more than a mile wide at the level I was at. No need to climb up, no reason to climb down, so I followed an imaginary contour line. No sign of human habitation to steer toward (or avoid); no vegetation to consider; not even any particularly difficult or advantageous terrain to traverse. Nothing to do but hike, being careful not to turn an ankle or risk a fall. Find a sustainable pace and stick to it. One foot, then another. Keep moving toward the source of warmth, whatever it might turn out to be. Use oxygen whenever the alternative seemed to be inability to continue, but remember that it is more precious than gold.
And so I trudged all day toward the east, unable to see any haze or source of haze, telling myself that by continuing on I must come to the source.
If I had had a sidearm, there might have been an argument with tragic consequences. As it was, I raised my hands and did as I was told.
I don’t suppose I need to apologize for my lack of alertness. I’d gradually sunk, as I walked and walked, into almost a semi‑conscious state. I’d been walking all day, I was hungry, I was tired, I was cold. Also, I had every reason to assume I was alone in that empty country.
With darkness coming, perhaps in a few hours I would have welcomed even Red Chinese soldiers bringing the promise of years in prison. But I can’t say that I welcomed the sudden sound — coming straight out of hours of isolation and silence — of a shell being jacked into a rifle chamber.
My reaction (amusingly, from this safe distance) was entirely divided. The sudden, very familiar sound reached right down into my instincts, bypassing my brain entirely. The first thing I knew, by the time my mind returned from wherever it had been wandering, I was lying prone, flattened down on the rocks, trying to present a smaller target. Seeing this, my mind listened again to the sound I’d heard, and scoffed: “Not a shell being jacked into a chamber, of course, not out here. Sounded extraordinarily like that, I’ll give you that, but certainly not that.”
And so I was starting to climb wearily back to my feet when I saw the man and his rifle. The rifle was aimed at my stomach.
I froze, one knee and hand on the ground, for all the world as if I were getting ready to scrimmage. Then, as I moved to stand up, I heard him jack another shell into its chamber. Except that you can’t jack two shells into the same chamber, and anyway he hadn’t moved. In another delayed‑reaction sequence, I realized that the sound (echoed off the walls around us) had come from behind. I very slowly turned my head, to see another rifle trained on me, the rifleman standing perhaps 200 feet away, a few feet higher than the contour I’d been following. I must have walked right past wherever he had been hiding.
I put up my hands and watched the second man make his way down to me. What choice did I have?
Of course, I expected the worst. Downed in Red territory, coming off a spy mission, American. . . .
The men were Tibetan, I supposed. At least they didn’t look like Chinese, and certainly weren’t Westerners. Both were young, both were calm and confident. Well (I thought), at least they didn’t look like they had itchy trigger‑fingers. One small point intruded and offered an absurd comfort: On neither fur hats nor coats could I see red stars, nor any military markings whatsoever. But logically I knew they had to be Reds.
They made no attempt to search me, but fell in behind me and motioned me to continue on in the way I had been going. They followed—thus, I thought, leaving the position unguarded. (I later learned that other sentries remained, two of whom began quickly to retrace my steps as far as they could before nightfall.)
We proceeded only a few hundred feet before I rounded a bend and saw the valley laid out before me, a great space several miles long and perhaps a mile wide at its widest, a mile below the level of the surrounding plateau, looking like it had been punched down by God’s own chisel. At the bottom of the valley — incredible sight after a day of unrelieved brown and grey — I could see living green. Above, as I looked to the far horizon, there was the haze of warmth and moisture I’d seen so long ago, so short a time ago.
The way led down, and my guards made it clear by gestures that we would travel it, quickly, before sunset, roped together like mountaineers.
Was I in a position to object? I let them rope me, one before me, one following, wondering if the ropes I saw were always left in the little overhang from which they’d been taken; wondering what they proposed to do if I objected; wondering how well they could manage the descent with rifles slung across their backs; wondering if I should try to grab one of the rifles and turn the tables; wondering what in the world I would do if I succeeded. Since I’d have to descend anyway, I decided to bide my time.
Well, we made the descent uneventfully, though the sunlight faded fast. The warmth increased as we descended until, about halfway down, I had to unzip my flight suit partway and they had to shed their heavy fur overcoats. The heat grew more intense until, at the valley floor, it resembled Biloxi, Mississippi, in the summertime, which was pretty astonishing given the altitude and season, not to mention the contrast with my long day’s chill experience.
To my surprise, they did not unrope us: The valley floor was not the end of our journey. It being full night now, my guides — guards — lit torches, and on we went for another mile or so, threading our way through dense vegetation that I couldn’t in the darkness identify: something under cultivation, though, that was clear enough. Then we were climbing again, a long climb, not nearly as difficult as the descent we had made, but longer. We climbed and climbed until we were back in coolness, then in cold that made me zip up my flight suit again, cold that put them back into their overcoats.
I was tired, by this time; dead tired. I tried to ask them to go slower, or halt for a rest, but they paid no attention to my gesturing. The lead man pulled, the one behind prodded, and the trussed animal in the middle — namely me, as Daisy Mae used to say — was forced to stay on his feet and keep pace. Self‑rationed whiffs of oxygen were about all that kept me on my feet.
Unfamiliar journeys always seem to take forever, and this one was traveled by torchlight, at forced pace, with silent companions, at the end of a long day of walking which had followed a crash landing at the end of a flight over enemy territory. If all that hadn’t been enough, I’d been up since 3 a.m. The climb went on and on, and I stumbled through it like a blind mule treading corn.
When finally we stopped — they stopped — and they unroped us, the effect was peculiar. It was as though we’d gone for a hike for the hell of it, and had stopped completely at random. The place where we were was nothing but a level spot on the trail. The little circles of torchlight showed me exactly what they’d been showing me since our climb started: rock on one side, emptiness on the other. We were perched on the side of the mountain, on a trail that was none too wide, none too obvious. We had already followed the trail forever, apparently toward no goal in particular. Weariness overcame discretion. I determined to sit, regardless. I sat, letting my head sag between my knees, half‑expecting a blow from a rifle butt. Instead, I heard them exchange a few words, then one put his hand on my shoulder, speaking urgently but at least not barking orders. When I looked up at him, he pointed upwards, a little to the side of the trail leading up. I shook my head wearily. I knew I’d have to give in, but every second off my feet was worth fighting for. He spoke again, even more urgently than before, pointing to the path and flicking his fingers upward. But — having finally stopped — I felt like I could never start again.
I expect that they wouldn’t have put up with that for too long: soon enough they’d have pulled me to my feet and encouraged me along. But they were saved that inhospitable effort. The gibbous moon came up suddenly over the horizon, and in its light I suddenly could see what the guards had been pointing to, beyond the circles of light their torches provided.
Standing there, what did I see? An immediate impression of bulk, of solidity. Several buildings, all connected — or else one building, built in increments over time. The faintest impression of color, unverifiable in the pale moonlight. A sense of impermanence, arising perhaps from the fact that the buildings perched so near to so sheer and catastrophic a drop.
I must not forget, as I am tempted to, that overwhelming every other impression was an unmixed astonishment. Dragging myself down and then up mountain trails, roped like a horse and helpless as a bunny, I’d had no energy for speculation about where we were going. Probably I would have guessed at a sentry’s shelter: an army tent, perhaps. Some temporary structure of metal or plastic or canvas. And on the valley floor. Certainly not stone buildings, and certainly not halfway up a mountain.
Yes, certainly astonishment came first.
But hard on the heels of astonishment came bewilderment. And apprehension was not absent.
My guides gave me little time to gather impressions. As soon as they saw my eyes widen, they helped me to my feet and half‑pulled, half‑prodded me onward. Within three minutes of the time I first saw the buildings, I was standing inside the entrance to the first of them, a small room lit by an oil lamp on a table. There one of my guards unslung his rifle, leaned it against a corner, and disappeared through a doorway.
The other took off his fur hat but stood holding his own rifle, quietly watching me. Watching, I suppose, for any sign that I was going to grab for the one his companion had left. But I was a long way from having ideas like that: I was tired and apprehensive and a long way from home, and I knew the difference between reality and a TV western. Instead of making a play for the rifle, I looked around the little room.
Reception room, I figured. I didn’t know what else it would be good for. Smallish, maybe 6 by 10, with a few stick chairs for furniture and two walls’ worth of hooks, mostly in use, for coats and hats.
At first, expecting my vanished guide to come bounding back with someone in authority, I paced up and back. But I quickly tired of this, and the long minutes in which nothing happened soon lulled me out of the alertness my new surroundings had revived in me. I eased myself down into one of their chairs. The room was little warmer than the outside, though the absence of wind was a comfort.
My guard did not sit down, nor change positions from the spread‑legged, flat‑footed stance he’d assumed when he took off his hat. His alertness reminded me, as if I needed a reminder in surroundings so strange, that I was a prisoner whose fate was perhaps even at the moment being decided.
But tension can be sustained in the absence of incident only so long and no longer. As one minute followed another, I began to lose the struggle for consciousness. The chair felt so good after a day’s hard walking. The room seemed so human—so welcoming, almost—after the mountainside’s vast indifference. The day had started so early and had gone on so long. . . .
I fell asleep where I sat.
Of all the experiences life commonly provides, I can’t think of any more disorienting than being awakened out of a sound sleep only recently entered. I could have used 10 hours’ sleep. I got perhaps 20 minutes’ worth.
My alarm clock proved to be a man, apparently in his mid‑50s, surprisingly enough a Westerner: that is, a white man.
“Sonny,” he was saying, shaking my shoulder, “sonny, can you wake up? Sonny?”
I don’t know where I’d been, but it was somewhere far. I struggled, for a moment, to place this man’s voice and face among the gallery of officers at Peshawar or Eglin or Keesler. By the time I realized that I couldn’t do it, I was awake.
“Sonny, I know you’re tired, but you have got to wake up.”
I shook myself, feeling how slow my movements were. “Okay, okay. I’m awake now.”
“Here, have some tea, it’ll wake you up a little. Warm you some, too.” Behind him I saw another man, an Oriental, with a tray on which was a teapot and a cup.
Warmth and liquid: Either sensation would have been welcome singly. Together they were irresistible. I had two cups in quick succession, burning my tongue in the process, while the man looked on benevolently. “Come on, now,” he said as I reached out for another, “let’s go where we can get more comfortable.” With that, he picked up the tea tray and led me through the door.
I was still half‑asleep: I didn’t have the mental energy to keep track of the passages we traversed. By the third or fourth doorway, I was hopelessly confused, and probably couldn’t have found my way back to the entry. I figured there was a good chance we were heading for the interrogation chamber.
We stopped in what seemed at first to be a small room with four easy chairs, illumined by an oil lamp hanging from a wall. A second look showed me that it wasn’t a separate room at all, but one alcove of many that formed a much larger room. A third look showed me that the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with books. Interrogation chamber? We were in a library! I laughed, and laughed again at the surprise on my companion’s face.
“Sorry,” I said, laughing again. It was an effort to stop.
“Have a seat, there, sonny,” he said, and I wasted no time doing so. He put the tray on the table and poured us each a cup. “You probably got plenty of questions, and I’ll be glad to answer ‘em, but I figure you could use a night’s sleep first, am I right?”
I yawned. “You are. I’m dead on my feet. Can you give me some idea where I’ve wound up?”
“Sure, I’ll give you the whole story before you’re a day older, don’t worry. But if you don’t mind, we got a couple of other pieces of business to get through. First off, my name’s Henry Barnard.” In retrospect, I remember him watching me intently, to see if the name meant anything to me. But maybe that’s just memory‑tacked‑on‑after‑the‑fact.
“George Chiari,” I said, and — somewhat absurdly — we leaned toward each other from the chairs we sat in, and shook hands.
“George Chiari,” he said slowly, meditatively. “Eye‑talian, is it? Glad to know you, George. Where are you from?”
“Southern New Jersey. You?”
“Ohio, little town called Yellow Springs, not so far from Dayton.”
“Been there,” I said promptly. “Wright‑Patterson.”
He looked at me blankly.
“The Air Force Base.”
“Oh, sure,” he said vaguely. “Well, now, George, before we let you get your beauty sleep, we got to know something about what to expect next. You didn’t come all this way into the hills walking, so I expect you were in an airplane, and that means you crashed it somewhere.”
My thoughts went something like this: He’s a kindly looking man, and a fellow American. But he could be a front for the Chinese. Pretty nearly has to be. Or is that too suspicious? Too much suspicion can mislead just as much as too much credulity. But go slow.
“For what it’s worth,” Mr. Barnard said casually, “the two that brought you in weren’t the only two watching the passes. Already, there’s two more headed back the way you came, to see what they can see.”
Of course they would find the U‑2. “Well, I flew in, sure,” I said.
“Chinese bring you down?”
I couldn’t see any reason not to answer that one. “No, nothing like that. I just flamed out.”
“You what? Oh, your engine stopped ticking over?”
“Uh — right. I don’t know why, either. I was a long way up and I had a long time to get it going again, but no luck.”
Mr. Barnard smiled at me, smiling with just the corners of his mouth. “Maybe you and me got different ideas about luck. Seems to me you could have come down in a lot worse places.”
“Speaking of which,” I said slowly, “tell me about this place. I’ve got sense enough to know I’m in trouble, and I’m not going to do any talking about my mission, but I would like to know what I’m up against.”
Mr. Barnard sat back, absorbing that. “You think this place is run by China.” He sat there thinking. “I reckon it would look like that to you. You figure you’re over enemy country, anything underneath has got to be someplace you’d just as soon be someplace else. And we’re down here, surrounded by enemy country ourselves, and we figure anything comes down on us has pretty near got to be more of the same. So now you and me, we got to convince each other we’re both that lucky. How do you suppose we can do that?”
I sipped some tea and tried to decide what I thought. “Well,” I said, “even if I was with the Chinese, you couldn’t do much about it, could you? But you want to figure me out this minute. It makes me wonder what your hurry is.”
He shook his head decisively. “Suppose you are, there ain’t any hurry: our goose is cooked. But if you ain’t, it makes a difference if you were followed or not.”
“If nobody’s looking for you, it’s worth our time to cover your tracks completely; we’ll get your airplane off the ground and out of sight, so it won’t be sitting there for somebody to stumble on. But if they are liable to keep looking till they find something, we got to leave it there and take our chances. We want ‘em to stop looking just as soon as possible, and hope they don’t find us before they find your airplane. Course, they won’t find a body to go with the plane: That ain’t going to help any.”
“You’re telling me the Chinese don’t know about this place, after however long they’ve been in Tibet? A dozen years?”
“I imagine they got other things to do than look under every rock in the whole country,” he said quietly. “If they had any idea there was anybody here, I reckon they could find us quick enough — but if they figure there ain’t anybody here, and they don’t hear any different, and they don’t have any special reason to come looking, why should they find us?” He stabbed a finger at me. “Even in the States, there has got to be odd corners here and there where folks could live for years and never be found out; places wild enough, and off the beaten track enough. And if the folks living there had reason to want not to be found, they could do things to improve their chances: camouflage the tops of their buildings, be careful with their fires, you know. And even if somebody started looking, think how many years it would take to search every square mile of Alaska, say. Or British Columbia.”
“I suppose,” I said, bemused. “But in 12 years, not even one airplane?”
“I didn’t say that, exactly. All I said was that they don’t seem to have found us yet.“
It was late and I was tired. Finally I took his word for things. After all, clearly they were there, and if they’d been working with the Chinese, they would have had no reason to pretend otherwise. Certainly I was in their power. I told him I hadn’t seen another airplane all day, and had seen no sign that I’d been spotted by anyone.
By the time I got through answering his questions — including questions I couldn’t answer very well, like the hazards to watch out for in disassembling wrecked U‑2s (by whom? and with what tools?) — I was again falling asleep. When Mr. Barnard led me to a tiny room (a monk’s cell, had I known it), I was more than ready to take off my boots, lie down on the hard cot, cover myself with blankets, and cease to make the tremendous effort required to hold myself awake. I’d started the day in Peshawar. I’d flown, crashed, hiked, climbed down and up and answered questions. Curiosity and apprehension were no match for exhaustion.