There were more this time. They shipped out twelve at a time. The helicopter ride was familiar. Once again it is in the middle of the night. After being underground so long, Ali had hoped for a day flight. It was too much to ask. They were still cloaked in secrecy, being kept under wraps from the rest of the country.
Still, it was good to be free of the confines of the underground Academy. Off in the distance, he could see the glow of small towns. Directly below, the lights of farms crawled across his field of view. Through the open door, he could smell the fresh air and feel it brushing his face as it made the circuit of the cabin. From the dark clumps of mountains he guessed that they were heading southwest following the Appalachians. His guess was right. Three hours of flight brought them back to Fort Bragg before the sun came up.
This time they weren't in basic training. They landed in the Special Forces training camp, an area off-limits for those in basic. The barracks and bunks were the same, the camaraderie was much different. Ali knew he'd have a tough time of it. After a fitful sleep during what remained of the night, reveille rolled him out at 05:00.
The day started off with an hour's calisthenics before breakfast. The forty-eight men and women in training were all from the Academy--familiar faces. There were seven women. Dina wasn't among them. All Ali could think about as he punched out fifty pushups was her. She kept working into his mind. Like the shock of hitting the ground after so long without training, he shook her off, tried to banish her. Breakfast helped.
A far cry from basic, breakfast was warm and friendly. Everyone was laughing and talking before they had to hit the field. The first two weeks were rough and physical. Months at the Academy had softened them all. Gradually, they built strength, worked into new technologies, and ancient, very basic, survival skills. The U.S. Army Field Manual 21-04 became their survival bible. The 1976 standby was revised after 9/11 and Iraqi Freedom to include information on Middle Eastern areas.
Captain Thomas was direct. "How resourceful you are will determine your survival. We will give you essential information and skills you need to survive under almost any condition known to man. However, there will always be instances where you will have to rely on your innate ability to overcome. Your survival, and the survival of this planet, depends upon it."
It was a profound statement. Ali tucked it away in a corner of his brain to be brought out when he needed it. For now, they were learning how to make fire. The old methods, using flint and steel, and rubbing wood, were not easy to master. Flint was hard to find in most localities, Ali studied hard the maps and geologic strata that showed where it could be found. Fortunately, other hard stones: Agate, carnelian, jade, bloodstone, chalcedony, quartz, and chert all worked well. The trick was finding and recognizing them. Still, he would need steel or iron, not another piece of flint, to make a spark. With a fire making kit, it was easy to light tinder with a single spark from flint. This was where char came in. Char was easily made from linen or cotton cloth, cooked in an airless can until it was charred. The surface of char was such that it would trap a spark and grow it into a flame, especially if there was wind. Many tinder materials, punk wood, moss, dried grass, and lichens could be made into char. These same materials were difficult to light if not charred.
Green wood could be found most places on earth. However, making fire from wood was no easy task. Unlike flint, where it was difficult to find the right pieces and his hands cramped and bruised from striking and gripping the pieces too hard, blisters appeared when Ali tried to spin a hand drill between his hands fast enough to create enough friction for fire. The trick was to use a green stick, and make it smooth enough, so that it wouldn't raise blisters. The base, where the green stick spun, needed to be made of dry wood with a notch where tinder could touch the heat of friction from rubbing the stick against the base. He tried the plough, where the stick was rubbed back and forth, the bow drill, and piston drill. The piston drill worked well, but it was hard to make. The bow drill worked best, but you needed good rope or rawhide for the bow.
All of these methods required dry tinder. In North Carolina, they found it in fire kits and dead standing trees on rainy days. Ripping the wet bark off revealed bone-dry punk wood underneath.
Using a piece of glass or plastic as a lens to focus sunlight was easier. But no method was foolproof, and getting a fire started could mean the difference between life and death. Other survival skills included learning what was edible and what was not. And finding water. While they learned techniques that were used the world over, Ali had to commit those used in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to memory.
The final test came quickly. Ten Moslem-Americans were chosen for a desert wilderness trial. Ali was among them. They left after dark. A helicopter took them to a local airbase, where a C-130 ferried them to an airbase in southwestern Arizona sometime just after midnight. From there, before morning, a helicopter dropped each one of them off in the desert, alone, to fend for themselves as long as they could. The brass didn't want any heroes, so each one was given a cell phone wristband fitted with GPS and a couple of monitors in case they passed out or became dehydrated. They were to call only in a dire emergency. The monitors would help determine their condition whether they called or not.
When they left the airbase, Ali looked carefully for landmarks that would help him find food and water and a way out. When they put the blindfolds on, he knew that wouldn't help. They were searched and given nothing but the cell phone and monitors, two granola bars, and all the water they could drink When it was Ali's turn, he stepped down on to the hardscrabble surface of a barren arroyo and took his blindfold off. The helicopter took off and he was alone. The blindfold made a nice kerchief. He stuffed it into an empty pocket to use later. Stumbling along in the dark, he curled up in a cleft in the arroyo bank and went to sleep. The anxiety and all-night trip had exhausted him.
It was mid morning and hot--too hot. Ali woke up sweating profusely. He had to get out of the sun. He got up and walked slowly toward the other side of the arroyo that faced what he expected was the west. He found a spot where overhanging rock sheltered a cleft that was shaded and crawled up into it. The rocks were cool and not too hard to lie on. He was still very tired, so he fell asleep easily. When he woke to a coyote's call, it was dark. The sky was filled with stars. It was cool. Cooler than he expected. Fortunately, a half moon enabled him to see. After eating a granola bar, he set out, following the arroyo in the direction he felt water would flow. If he had been close to mountains, he might have gone the other way. Small mountain streams tend to disappear and evaporate once they reach the desert floor.
Ali wished he hadn’t eaten the sweet granola bar. It made him thirsty. He walked deliberately and carefully. Even tripping on a rock out here could be his downfall. The night light was deceiving. He had to get used to it and the terrain. He listened for the night sounds--the call of the coyote, and the hooting of the owl. He heard none. He did hear occasional fluttering of wings overhead, a welcome sign of life in this desolate place. He did not know if they were birds or bats, but it didn't matter. With them here there would be food and water.
Following the arroyo downhill through the night, he covered three or four miles. He arrived at a small canyon just as he sensed the dawn. At the lowest point of the canyon, the walls were damp and Ali could sense water. The sand beneath his feet was soft and moist. It was easy for him to scoop it up with his hands. He hadn't dug six inches when his fingers felt cool water pouring into the hole. Testing it first with his tongue to make sure it wasn’t alkaline, he placed his kerchief over the hole and let the water seep up through it. He drank his fill like a dog, and then rolled back on his back in the sand reveling at his good fortune. There would be no helicopters coming to save him anytime soon.
Bright sun in his eyes and its heat on his chest woke him again. He scrambled to the shade of the other side of the canyon, found a soft sandy spot, and quickly fell asleep again. He woke to the heat of midday and the irritation of ants crawling around him. After he realized the ants hadn't bitten him, he began picking them up, one by one, and popping them into his mouth. He could feel each one struggle 4with its strong little feet against his tongue and taste its bitter flavor as this teeth crushed it, but this was the only food he'd eaten since been dropped off. A hundred of the nasty little buggers seemed less than a spoonful, but he ate until the line of ants stopped marching by him. His hunger was not diminished. The bitter aftertaste only exacerbated the growing pangs of hunger that ripped his stomach. Was he going to be lucky enough to find water, only to lose because he couldn’t find food?
Ali crossed the canyon and drank warm water from his little oasis before setting out to explore the canyon for food. He followed the shadowed eastern wall upward to avoid the direct heat of the sun. Where the arroyo entered the canyon, a small forest of cactus grew. There were three varieties, not unlike those Ali had seen in the Mojave. There was a long spindly one that grew to six or seven feet. Its spines were only at the joints, and not too bad to touch. Ali broke off a piece about a foot long, worked out the spines, and slipped it into his pocket. The second cactus looked like a prickly pear except its leaves were only about the size of silver dollars. The spines were hair like and nasty, so Ali had to break off a piece with two stones. Pulling some dry grass, he gingerly wrapped the piece in the grass and put it in his pocket. The last cactus was large, round, and covered with heavy white spines. They curved, so that he could put his hands on the weave of their hard, rock smooth surface. He placed his hands on the round top of a two footer, pushed forward, and it broke off about a foot below where he pushed. It was hollow inside, with white, almost liquid tissue surrounding the hollow. Ali tasted the liquid with his tongue; it was slightly sweet and refreshing. Cactus was good, the Field Manual had taught him that. No need for the Universal Edibility Test yet.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ali saw a snake crawling swiftly through the rocks to his right. He dropped the cactus and took off in pursuit. The snake was disappearing into a hole under a rock when he caught it by the tip of its tail. After he dragged the snake slowly from the grip of its hiding place, he tightened his grip on the six-footer's tail and gave it a crack like a bullwhip. There was an audible "crack!" that reverberated up and down the canyon as the snake's neck broke. True to its name, Ali figured the desert striped whipsnake would make good eating.
The fluttering sounds he heard the night before proved to be swallows. He wrapped the snake around him like a rope and tied it. He left the cacti where he had harvested them and begin to pick his way along the top of the canyon wall. Finding a cleft, he leaned over and looked, hanging onto a scrubby piece of brush as he lowered himself prone over the edge. There were three mud swallow's nests in reach. As he reached for the first one, a swallow flew out. He could hear the frantic chirping of baby chicks. As he reached for the second one, a swallow flew out of that one too. This time there was no chirping. He broke away the hard muddy edge of the perfectly round hole. He was rewarded with two tiny eggs. He plucked them carefully, one at a time, and placed them safely in a hollow on a rock next to where he was lying. There was no swallow in the third nest, but there were three eggs.
Having gathered enough food for the day, Ali retraced his steps, picked up the cacti, and returned to the canyon floor. He found a flat rock in full sun not far from his shaded resting place. He figured the temperature on the rock was about a hundred and thirty degrees. He placed the five eggs carefully on it. Ali then set about finding a sharp rock that he could use for cutting. He found what he was looking for among loose shale eroding from the canyon wall. Using two rocks, he chipped one with the other until he had a jagged, but sharp, edge.
Starting near the head where the whipsnake's neck was broken, Ali made a cut in the snake's skin and then slowly pulled its skin off. Knowing that he could use the skin, he placed it on a rock to dry, and began cutting the snake open along its belly. After he cut the intestinal tract out, he spread the snake out next to the eggs on the hot rock. He returned to the shade of the canyon wall. He then turned his attention to the cactus. The long one only had spines at the joints. By breaking the cactus off just before the Joint, Ali was able to get the tough, eight-inch long sections free from spines. Unfortunately, chewing on them only left him with a bitter aftertaste.
The barrel cactus was more promising. Scraping the hollow interior with his finger, precious drops of liquid appeared. Ali was able to hold it gingerly by its spines and drink the semisweet nectar. The pulp wasn't very tasty, but it helped stave of his hunger. It looked like he could hollow out the end of the cactus and make a cup for drinking. He carefully beat the fine spines away from the ear like lobes of the last cactus with his rock and began to chew on its tough skin. It didn't taste bad--just a little bitter and chewy.
It was time to check on the eggs. He walked gingerly to the rock they were cooking on. He could feel the heat through the soles of his army boots. He was so glad he had them. He checked the eggs with his fingers. They were hot. He wondered whether they were cooked through. His curiosity overcame caution and he cracked the first one. A tiny, feathery creature popped out. Ali almost gagged at the sight. The second egg proved better. When he cracked it he found a small cooked egg inside. He popped it into his mouth. The taste was pleasant and familiar. He could have used some salt and a bit more. Two of the other eggs provided that. The third also contained a chick. Ali thought about some way to eat them, and then thought better of it. He would leave them on the rock for the buzzards to find if the ants didn't get them first. His snake was cooking.
He chewed on three more cactus ears before returning to the snake. It wasn't fully cooked, but he ate it anyway. He felt sick and full when he was about a third through the hot, raw snake meat. He gathered up the rest of the snake and wrapped it in his shirt. He wasn't inclined to let the buzzards get his only food. The sun was high and it was getting very hot. He retreated to the shadowed crack in the canyon wall and went to sleep.
Ali woke to the feel of something crawling on his neck. He swatted it instinctively and felt it fall away. The sun had reached him again and he was very warm and sweaty. His stomach ached. As the sleep cleared from his eyes, he looked down to see what it was that had bothered him. It was a black spider, curled up in death. He poked it and turned it over. He was greeted with a red hourglass-shaped marking on its back—female black widow! He rubbed the dirty, sweaty spot on his neck where the spider had been. He didn’t think he’d been bitten. Just the creepy feeling that lingered on his neck.
Across the canyon, he saw movement. A wary coyote was lapping at the hole he had made for water. The coyote scurried away as he approached. He dug with his hands once again into the warm sand until the cool water flowed in. He drank his fill once more and then crawled up into the hole on that side of the canyon to sleep until nightfall. The thought of spiders kept him awake for some time.
Ali spent three days in the canyon. He depleted the reachable swallow’s nests and gathered up enough food for two or three days. A lizard he trapped under a rock supplemented the snake meat. He found agave and purslane to augment the cacti. He hollowed out three barrel cacti to hold water. It was awkward carrying them, tied with snakeskin around his neck, but necessary if he was going to travel in this desert. He decided to follow the arroyo downstream. He set out at sunset. There was a partial moon on the horizon, so when his eyes got adjusted to the dark he could see some distance as he stepped over boulders and avoided tripping on rocks as he went.
By morning, Ali found himself on a huge dry lake. He could barely see across it. With no cover in sight, he headed for what appeared to be distant hills wafting like a mirage about ten miles off. By noon, he was in the middle of the lake, it was scorching hot, and he was drinking too much of his water. The lake bottom was hard as rock so he couldn't dig a hole to crawl into. There was no place to lie down and get out of the sun. He just had to walk on. By late afternoon he was walking into the sun and fearing the worst. He tried to think of Dina to get his mind off his predicament. He had made the wrong move. He thought of the early settlers who made the wrong move and perished out here. He kept thinking of the helicopter coming to save him instead of making a safe place. Nearly delirious, he stumbled to a rocky outcropping by early evening. Too tired to go on, he rested in the shade of it from the murderous heat of the setting sun.
Something woke him after midnight. He was still sick from his struggle the day before and down to one-third of the water he started with, but he felt energized by his rest and had to do something or lose it all in this awful place. Taking a sip of water, he ate some rancid snake, and chewed on some cactus ears before he set out once again. The moon was brighter now and the way smoother, so he walked quickly, wasting no time. Just before sunup, he found another rocky outcropping and holed up there for the day.
Ali got some sleep and rest. Seeing what he thought were mountains in the distance, he headed that way in the evening. By dawn, he had found another small canyon with a trickle of water running into it at its head. He thankfully drank his fill and searched for food before resting. . He found six swallows' eggs and some cactus. He saw a lizard, but it scurried away before he could grab it. Three of the eggs were good. He savored them and chewed on some cactus before he went to sleep. Before dark, he decided to follow the water upstream. Climbing out of the canyon, Ali found himself once again in the desert, but the mountains seemed closer ahead. By morning, he was gaining altitude with each step. Feeling good, he decided to keep climbing. The dry wash he had been following became a small stream. Once again he drank his fill and headed upward until he could see the desert stretched out below him and the cactus gave way to sagebrush, cedar and pine. Hungry and tired, he found a bed of pine needles under a shady tree and fell asleep.
It was getting dark when he woke. He couldn't find anything to eat, so he swallowed his hunger and began climbing again. He startled a bird from its nest. Peeking in, Ali saw three speckled eggs. He immediately cracked them and let the raw egg slide down his tongue and throat. It was the best thing he ever tasted. Just the thought was enough to energize him to move on. The moon was nearly full now, and he needed it to help him climb in the rough terrain. By midnight he had come to a place where the stream widened into a pond. Curling up under a big tree, he felt the cool night breeze for the first-time since he began his awful journey. The sounds of frogs croaking accompanied his sleep.
Ali woke to the singing of birds and the dampness of the dew on his clothes. He was thirsty again and felt dirty, so dirty after so many days without water. After drinking his fill in the stream, he took off his boots, grungy stockings, and his wrist phone and waded in to began washing the grime off. Soon, he took of all his clothes and laid them on the bank. After he felt totally refreshed he waded over to the clothes and began washing them--pounding them on the rocks like he'd seen in movies from Pakistan. He couldn't help but notice the fish darting around the pond in the clear water and frogs jumping at the edge of the pond when he approached them. There was a good source of food here if he could only get to it. He hung his clothes to dry on a nearby tree branch and walked gingerly around on the pine needles and sharp rocks barefoot and naked looking for what he needed.
It wasn't long before he found it-- Marcasite. It was a rather large piece, shiny yellowish facets from an outcropping not fifty yards from the pond. Grabbing a loose rock, he struck it hard. Sparks flew. Filled with the luck of his find, he pounded on it with the rock until he broke off a hand-sized, manageable piece. Fifteen minutes of frantic pounding left him sweating and panting, but he had what he needed, a second piece to make sparks for a fire.
Everything was still damp with dew. However, under the shelter of a standing rotting pine tree, Ali found dried lichens and moss to go with the rotting wood chips. They were bone dry. Near the base it was wetter. Here he found grubs he popped into his mouth and swallowed whole. He gathered firewood and kindling to a level spot near the pond that had rocks he could use for cooking. After thirty minutes of striking sparks on the tinder, it was obvious that it wasn’t working. He was exhausted and sweating again. His fingers too tired to hold on. He was making sparks, but they were dissipating on the tinder without taking. He needed char. But how could he get char without fire? He lay down in the shade again and tried to think. A half hour later, he felt better. He put on his wet pants and boots without socks, and left the stream, heading uphill.
High on a ridge, some distance from his pond, Ali saw what he thought was a charred tree. He was right. He remembered that, in the Sierras, he had seen many high and lone trees struck by lightning. This was one of those. A few green pine needles on scraggly branches testified that it still clung to life, but a hollow at its base was completely burned out. The mid morning sun had dried the dew. His hands turned black as he broke off pieces of charred wood. All he had was his wet pockets, so he stuffed them full. In a few minutes he was back at the pond. Emptying his pockets on a flat rock, the gooey black soot was on everything. He took his pants off again, and washed the pockets out in the pond. By noon, the charred wood was dry. Ali pulverized the pieces until he had a pile of fine, black powder. Using dried moss as a bed, he covered it with the powder. He was ready to try again.
It took him about a minute to drop three hot sparks on the char bed. One seemed to be captured as a red, glowing ember in the black. Gently blowing on the ember caused it to grow until it ignited the moss. Ali quickly added more tinder and twigs of pine until he had a fire that would sustain itself. As he felt the heat of it in his face and the strong smell of burning pine pitch, elation came over him he hadn't felt for the long time. He almost started to cry he felt so happy.
Back at the pond, he caught a frog. Not knowing quite how to kill it, he finally held it down on a flat rock and hit it in the head with another. Using the sharp rock he had fashioned back in the canyon; he skinned and gutted the little critter. There wasn’t much left except the two hind legs after this process. Heating a flat rock by the fire, he dropped the remains of the carcass to cook and went after another frog. Five frogs later, Ali was savoring his first cooked food in three days. It tasted a bit fishy and needed salt, but it filled him up. Eating made him sleepy, so he put some more wood on the fire and curled up in the shade of a nearby tree to sleep. By late afternoon, he fed the fire again, put on his clothes, and began to search the area for more food.
There was evidence of animals in the area. He saw deer tracks, but did not know how he would get one. There were cattails on one end of the pond. He knew he could eat their starchy roots and stalks. He expected to find other bird nests and perhaps catch a chipmunk or groundhog. Ants and larvae from rotting logs were also a possibility, but he didn't relish the thought of eating more of them, cooked or not. As he gathered wood for the fire, he kept thinking about the fish. He'd have to give them a try.
When he returned to the camp, he stoked the fire once more and piled the wood he had gathered nearby. And then headed for the point where the stream flowed into the pond. Crawling carefully so as not to disturb the ground or leave his shadow on the water, he inched his way up to the rocks where the stream brought food to the fish of the pond. To his surprise, two large trout were swimming just inches below his face in the clear water near the rock. Slipping his hand into the water below the fish, he gradually moved his hand forward until he was right behind the tail of the nearest one. With one quick movement, he grabbed the trout by the tail and threw it on the bank. The trout was very lively and almost flipped its way back into the water before Ali could catch it and pin it to the ground. At about a pound and a half, the trout was the most food Ali he had seen since the snake. This time it would be fully cooked.
The fish was wonderful, even though there was no salt. He toasted the cattail roots, too, and found they went quite well with the fish. Ali stayed there for two more days. It was hard to keep the fire going, especially at night. He knew he would deplete the frogs and fish in the pond, and the easy to gather firewood. As he curled up that second night, he let the fire go out. Sometime in the dark, he heard deer come down to the pond to drink. Other creatures came and went too. It was comforting to know that he was not entirely alone.
The "Whoop,Whoop,Whoop, ...," of a helicopter overhead and the whine of its jet engines brought him to his senses. It could have been a dream, but Ali was startled awake, the morning sun glancing off the blades in a vertigo effect as the wake blew dust and pine needles around him in a whirlwind. "Rashid, prepare to board," blared from the loudspeaker.
Spurred into action, Ali grabbed his Marcasite and cutting rock, pulled on his shoes, and ran to the helicopter as it landed near the pond. Colonel Blair greeted him.
"Welcome aboard, Jaheed! Thought we'd pick you up. You outlasted all the others by two days. Iqbal was near death from dehydration. Al-Kaza has one of the worst sunburns I've seen. None of them were starving, but they sure were hungry. Most we picked up because of heat exhaustion. Their monitors were off the chart. Except for that fourth day, your monitors stayed normal. You traveled almost 75 miles to this range. Did you know you were only about 10 miles from a little town just over the ridge? We thought about letting you go, to see how you’d interact with locals, but it's just too risky. How in hell did you do it anyway?"
Ali felt good, but he didn't want to brag. "Well sir, aside from our training, I used what I've learned in the Boy Scouts and on outings we took to the Mojave and other places. Mostly, I just got lucky, finding water so easily, catching the snake and finding those swallow eggs."
"Sounds like you had quite an adventure. Let's save the details for the briefing. I'm sure the others will want to know how you did it. It was quite remarkable, and we're proud of you, Son."
Ali was a bit embarrassed, but it faded when the colonel shoved a hot hamburger into one hand and a cold Coke into the other. It tasted like the best meal he'd ever had. They followed the East slope of the Sierras to the secret destination in Nevada. It was wonderful to be on a daylight flight. Few saw them in the desert.