Cat Tales - stories from my 8 lives

I feel I'm on life number 8 out my 9 cat lives. My eight lives started with my humble beginnings in Minnesota and continue to my current retirement. Here they are:

Number One -Life on the Farm

Number Two - College Days

Number Three - Working in Africa

Number Four-Failing in Business

Number Five - Grant maker

Number Six - Teacher

Number Seven - Teacher Mentor

Number Eight – Retired to the Thai jungle and bought an elephant

Number Nine – The Best Is Yet To Come!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Life Number 3 - The Coup

Pop.... pop.... pop!  The sound woke me out of a deep, much needed sleep. I blinked my eyes and shook my head. One lone street light, shining through a tiny slit in the floor to ceiling curtains, provided a little illumination to the otherwise dark room. Pop, pop, pop came the sound again. I was tired and in no mood for this very unwelcome interruption to my beauty sleep.

After an exhaustively long flight from Sierra Leone, I'd arrived in Nairobi earlier that day. I'd been traveling in Africa for several months as part of my job with Freedom From Hunger Foundation. Arriving in Kenya, I was bone weary tired from all my travels. All I wanted now was to sleep. I glanced over at the clock next to my bed. It was just a few minutes before midnight. Oh brother.... this noise was not what I needed right now.

My mind went back to earlier that day when I'd checked into the Boulevard Hotel, where I was now staying. Lugging my suitcase, I had wearily climbed the short stairs to my second floor room. Opening the door, I had been utterly amazed to see that the entire outside wall of my room was glass! Placing my suitcase on the bed, I had looked out at the cars and buses that were slowly snaking their way through Kenyatta Avenue's late afternoon rush hour traffic. Given the location of the hotel near the city center, and the fascinating view through the sliding glass balcony door, I thought to myself.... this place is great!

My thoughts were interrupted by another series of ….Pop, pop, pop sounds. Was I imagining it, or did these small gunfire sounds I was hearing, seem a little closer this time? My slightly befuddled brain conjured up the best answer it could, given the midnight hour. No doubt, someone was trying to rob the casino located just up the hill from where I was staying. Cops and robbers fighting it out in one of Nairobi's gambling casinos. Go back to sleep. It will be over soon.

I rolled over in my bed for the umpteenth time, pulling yet another pillow over my head, trying to block the sound that was continuing to interrupt my sleep.

Then, the pop, pop, pop sound of the small arms fire that I'd been hearing for the last hour or so, was replaced by a new, more ominous sound. The rapid sound of... ta...tata....ta... sliced the night air menacingly. My brain, still clouded by hours of difficult travel, thought it knew the sound, but could not identify it for sure. A brief silence followed the initial outburst. The silence of the night was broken by a much louder explosion filling the air, as a more intense ta..ta.ta....ta.ta.ta.t.a.ta...ta.... rang out. This latest sound jolted me upright in bed. My brain had cleared. Now it knew. The ta.ta.ta... sound was coming from machine gun fire. The stark reality of what was going on hit me like freight train.... a coup d'etat was taking place and I was staying in a hotel that appeared to be part of the battlefield.

There I lay immobilized in my bed, keenly listening to the unrelenting sounds of the ever increasing gunfire. What had started out earlier as a faint noise some distance away, was, with each passing minute, growing louder and louder. The heavy gunfire was inching its way closer and closer to my hotel. Other than a few hunting trips when I was growing up in Minnesota, I'd never experienced gun fire. Now I was surrounded by it.

The longer I lay motionless in my bed listening to the frightening gunfire, the faster my fear and anxiety grew. Automatically I reached over and picked up the phone. As I lifted it to my ear, I thought to myself, who am I going to call... who? I was not sure. The phone was dead. No tone greeted my ear. That's when my heart started beating more rapidly. I was alone, it was the middle of the night, and I was in a hotel that was under siege.

A noise came from the hallway. Silently sliding out of bed, I tip toed to the door and slowly opened it. I could see other guests peering out of their rooms too. A few ventured to walk a short distance down the hall, looking bewildered, confused. All the faces were searching for the answer that seemed to be on everyone's lips.... “What's going on?” A sudden blast of machine gun fire, sent everyone sprinting back to their rooms, slamming the door and sliding deadbolts into place.

After scampering back into my own room and securing my own door, I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled to my bed. I didn't dare, however, get back into my bed. The fear of bullets piercing the glass patio door, wounding or striking me dead, had me glued, face down, to the floor. I lay there for a long while. Reaching up, I pulled the pillow and a blanket off my bed. Laying flat on the hard floor, I tried to make myself as comfortable as I could, as the sound of gunfire intensified all around the hotel. In the darkness, my anxiety filled mind began fabricating all sorts of dark thoughts.

The series of loud, ear shattering gunshots, rang out from inside the hotel. My heart raced as I realized that the outside battle had violently moved inside the hotel. So overwhelming was this sudden turn in events, that my immediate thoughts scared me. Who had been killed, or who lay dying, in a pool of blood, on the first floor? More terrifying, however, was my next thought.... Am I next? Will the gun men decide to go door-to-door in the hotel and kill all of us, execution style?

A deadly silence immediately followed the harsh gunshots that had filled the hotel. So close was my room to the shots, I thought I could smell traces of the deadly acid gun smoke filtering up to my room. I lay motionless on the hard unyielding floor, afraid to breath for fear my executioners might take note. A sense of dread had taken over my entire body as I realized my next breath, might very well be my last. My possible execution, within the next few minutes, seemed all to imminent.

My mind raced as it tried to make sense out of the world it had suddenly been thrust into. I wondered to myself what I should do if my would be executioners came knocking on my door, or what would happen if they started shooting their way in? Blasting down my door?

Instinctively, I knew I had to try something, anything to protect myself. Slowly I rolled over onto my stomach and slithered out of the bedroom and into the bathroom. Reaching up, I locked the bathroom door and quickly climbed into the bathtub. If, I thought to myself, someone tries to shoot their way into my room, maybe the metal tub will protect me from their bullets. At least initially. Once they found me hiding in the bathtub, who knew what would happen. I tried, unsuccessfully, to block those unnerving thoughts.

A virtual flood of morbid thoughts cascaded through my exhausted brain, as I lay shivering in the cold bathtub. My ears strained to hear the slightest sound. My mind had shifted into overtime, projecting what might come next. I could not rid my mind of the thought that soon, the inevitable knocks, followed by execution style gunfire, would start at the doors further down the hall, and then slowly, methodically, work their way to my room. Every sound took on incredible significance. My perceptions of what might be happening, became my reality.

My lungs began to ache as I unconsciously held my breath too long, withholding the life giving oxygen my body demanded. The muscles in my back began to twitch as my shoulder blades cried out against the pain of the metal bathtub. All the while, I thought it was just a matter of time before the gunfire I'd heard downstairs, would make its way to my room. Whether I'd be shot right there in the bathroom, I was not sure. I was certain, however, that I would not see the morning sun. I would be dead long before the sun came up.

As the time slowly passed, my neck muscles started to scream at me. Laying unnaturally bunched up in the cold bathtub had forced my head into a strange, uncomfortable angle. My knees ached, as for too long I had been unable to stretch my legs straight. My legs had gone numb, due to the lack of circulation. I could no longer even wiggle my toes. It was as if the bathtub had become an instrument of torture for my whole body. With so little space to maneuver myself within the tub, my options to ease the various pains I was feeling, were neigh onto none. My nerves were raw, waiting for the knock and the inevitable deadly gunfire that would follow.

In spite of the physical anguish induced by the cold metal, I laid in the unforgiving tub for more than an hour . Then, through the tiny bathroom window, I heard some hushed voices. Listening intently, I could hear doors opening and the muffled shuffling of feet. The noise didn't sound like gunmen.... rather more like hotel guests.

Cautiously I climbed out of the bathtub, unlocked the bathroom door and moved to the bedroom door. Putting my ear firmly against the door, I picked up bits of the conversations. The guests, it seemed, were all trying to figure out what was going on. Quietly, I joined them.

Check this out!” motioned one of the guests. “What do you think is going on out there?” Many of us pushed our way into the guest's room and stared out at the strange drama unfolding directly in front of us. The packed city buses, loaded with early morning commuters, were being abruptly stopped by rifle toting men in military fatigues. Those unfortunate souls on the buses were being herded off single file, hands over their heads, and at gun point forced to walk down into the ditch on the other side of the road. With the sounds of continuous gunfire, our only assumption was that these unfortunate individuals were being taken off the bus, forced into the ditch and being shot, point blank. Mass executions appeared to be going on. Our fears of executions were further reinforced by the sight of an adult male corps, laying face down in the hotel's parking lot, not far from the hotel's main entrance.

The morning hours ticked by with glacial speed, as the sounds of gun fire could be heard eliminating from all parts of the city. I tuned my battery operated short wave radio to the local Kenyan station with hopes of getting some news. The radio station, located just a half a block from my hotel, was sending out a message that a successful coup had taken place. The air force had taken control of the government, therein ousting those who had been in power. With limited communication in Africa, whoever controlled the airwaves, controlled the government. The sound of continuous deadly gunfire, added little credence to the radio's message that all was under control. Fear filled the eyes of everyone in the hotel.

The morning drug on. Then a little before 10 o'clock, I noted a large number of soldiers congregating just up the road from my hotel. In crouched positions and rifles at the ready, the soldiers appeared to be slowly moving toward the radio station. Suddenly, as if on cue, a massive volley of gunfire violently erupted from machine guns, rifles, and what sounded like tanks. The hotel, was in the middle of a major battle. Within second, the air was so filled with the smoke of ammunition fire, that visibility dropped to near zero. I again fell to the floor as I slithered back into the safety of my bathroom.

The battle for control of the radio station raged for nearly an hour. Other than on T.V., or in the movies, I had never witnessed such a massive use of fire power. The sound of the battle went on and on and on with no let up as each side plummeted the other with light and heavy artillery. The sound was deafening. Each side knew this was the battle that would ultimately decide which side would control the government. As the battled raged, I could do nothing, other than lay on the bathroom floor, listening to the intense battle and wonder about the outcome.

The actual location of the hotel, in the middle of the battle, suddenly became my immediate concern. What if the losing side in the battle for the radio station, whichever side that was, decided to retreat into the hotel and hold us all as hostages? There had been mummers of this possibility earlier in the day, but until now I didn't think it would happen. Now..... I was not so sure.

Almost as quickly as it had started, the gunfire around the radio station ended. Although sporadic gunfire could still be heard, the battle for the radio station appeared to have ended. But in whose favor? Who was in control? The radio station had stopped broadcasting its less than reassuring message that everything was under control. The airwaves were silent.

An unnerving, eerie silence descended on the entire city. The silence continued into the late afternoon. As nightfall approached, the disconcerting silence only intensified. The day's earlier sense of uncertainty over what was happening and who was in control, was now replaced by a more chilling apprehension of what the cover of darkness would bring.

The sun set, darkness enveloped the city, and fear reigned supreme. Rumors ran ramped through the hotel staff and guests. Some speculated that indeed a renegade group of soldiers had taken over the government, but no one knew who they were or what their next steps might be. Reports of suspected mass killings were voiced in hushed tones. The fear of possible, brutal night time raids, hung heavy in the air. Everyone thought that tonight would bring the savage human slaughter, that the day had been afraid to witness. Like everyone else in the hotel, these rumor only fed my worst nightmarish fears. I was hyperventilating. I felt I might be having a heart attack. My eyes nervously darted, seeking a place I might dive into, should a massacre start.

Many guests asked to leave the hotel. Go where? How? The bustling city of Nairobi had ground to a standstill. The airport was closed. All shops throughout the city remained locked. The streets were empty. People were huddled, behind locked doors in the homes. Nothing, other than military vehicles, moved on the streets. There were blackouts in many parts of the city, as power had been cut. The city had gone through a day of hell, and the night now held the promise of more turbulence, more upheaval, more death.

At 8 o'clock that evening, the people of Kenya exhaled a collective, if not tentative sigh of relief. President Moi came on the radio station and announced that the coup by some members of the air force had been foiled. Gun fire still erupted throughout the city the next couple of days, but by week's end, a shaky country began taking on the semblance of normalcy.

Post Script: Following the attempted coup, the military presence throughout Nairobi was noticeably elevated. The radio station, the site of the largest battle of the coup, was now surrounded by soldiers. On the street in front of the radio station, foot soldiers were positioned every ten feet. It seemed a heavily armed armada now protected the country's one source of communicating with its people.

So why was it that just two days after the attempted coup with all the gut wrenching fear this horrible event had invoked within me, that I felt the need to walk past all these soldiers to get to my office? The whole city remained shut down. So what did I think I would accomplish in my office?

I don't know. Maybe I was just feeling some cabin fever and needed to get out and walk! So to get from my hotel, to the city center, I had to walk by hundreds of grim faced, rifle toting, tense looking soldiers. Not only walk past them, but walk past them with both hands high in the air.... and in one of my hands... my passport!

One would have thought that walking past a heavily armed gauntlet of soldiers, would have been enough of a deterrent all by itself. No it wasn't. I marched right past them, and onto my office only to find it all locked up. Nothing I could do but walk back.

Did I learn from this experience and leave good enough alone? No.....!

The next day, I repeated my trek, past the stern looking soldiers, passport high overhead, as I marched off to my office. I was almost to my office when, for the second time in the last couple of days, I thought I was going to die.

As I came around a corner, it just so happened that a Kenyan soldier, rifle drawn, also came around the same corner from the opposite direction at exactly the same time as I. We almost collided right there on the spot. The soldier however, reacted immediately by swiftly dropping to one knee, and thrusting the long cold barrel of his rifle right into my chest, pointing it directly at my heart. Re actively, my hands flew high over my head! There we stood, he with his rifle pointed at me and me with my hands reaching the sky. The soldier appeared to speak no English and I spoke no Swahili.

With some of the coup leaders still in hiding, the Kenya army was actively conducting their reconnaissance to find these individuals. It seemed that I had accidentally stumbled into one of these soldiers.

I stammered something totally unintelligible, even to me, as the soldier's cold eyes searched my face. I stood there on a near totally deserted street trembling with fear. With lightening speed, the realization hit me that I was very lucky to still be alive. The soldier could have fatally shot me the moment we nearly collided. As I looked at the eyes that held me in their stare, I wondered what the solder was thinking. Was shooting me still an option? Bead of sweat formed on my brow as my heart hammered in my chest. It felt like an eternity before the soldier nodded his head ever so slightly, indicating that I should go back the way I'd come. With my heart still in the soldier's cross hairs, I slowly turned and walked back to my hotel, where I stayed ….... for a very long time.

Post-Post Scrip: I learned, only after the horrible event had ended, that the people herded off the bus the morning of the coup, were not massacred, as so many of the hotel guests thought. Rather, they were kept in a secure area, while the coup followers commandeered the buses.

The gunfire in the hotel, did not kill anyone. Rather, the cash registered was the victim or the early morning shots.

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