The Ivory Beast

a Mahboob Chaudri story

They were waiting for him at the gate which separated ASU from the outside world. A natoor he knew only slightly raised the thin wooden barrier for him, and then Tom Sanders was pumping his hand and Dolly Miller had wrapped her arms around him and planted a warm kiss full on his lips.

Mahboob Chaudri was mortified. He had never been kissed by a white woman before, had never been kissed on the lips by anyone other than his beloved wife Shazia.

"Oh, dearie me," he said. "I — "

"You leave go of him, now, Dolly," said Sanders, slapping the girl’s shoulder lightly. "Cain’t you see you’re embarrassin’ the man?"

Miller laughed and released him. "Jeez, it’s good to see you again, Mahboob! What’s it been, a couple months?"

"It has, indeed," the Pakistani agreed, straightening his tie and arranging his peaked black cap more firmly on his head. "And how have you been enjoying your stay in Bahrain, my friends?"

"We haven’t had much time for enjoyment," Miller frowned. "They’ve been keeping us pretty busy lately, with all this fuss there’s been in the Gulf."

"C’mon, Dolly, it ain’t been that bad." The boy’s sudden grin lit up his coal-black face like fireworks on the night of Eid al-Fitr. "We was out on one of them fishin’ dhows last Friday, caught us some dynamite hamour. And I got some fine pictures in that little village where they make the pottery, what’s it called again?"

"A’ali," Miller supplied. "But you better save the travelog for later, boy, we’re late enough as it is." She clasped Chaudri’s arm in both her hands and tugged him deeper into the territory of the Administrative Support Unit.

"Where is it we are going?" the little policeman wondered. "My superiors told me only that I was expected here at two in the afternoon."

"Administration Building," Tom Sanders replied, bubbling with an inner excitement Chaudri had never seen in him before. "Cap’n’s got somethin’ to tell you."

• • •

"Officer Chaudri," Captain Craft rose to greet him, "it’s a pleasure to see you again. How’s that head of yours?"

Chaudri smiled ruefully as he shook the captain’s hand, remembering the painful lump Owais Gujarit’s red plastic water jug had raised.

"Completely healed, sir," he said. "Your doctor’s ministrations were most effective."

"Glad to hear it." Craft settled his lanky frame in the leather swivel chair behind his cluttered desk and waved his visitor to an armchair. Miller and Sanders remained standing on either side of the office doorway. "Officer, I know you’re a busy man. Let me get right to it and tell you why I asked for you today. The US Navy’s still grateful to you for uncovering the identity of our rumrunner last spring, and we’ve finally thought of something we can do to express our gratitude."

Chaudri raised a hand in protest, but the captain went on before he could speak.

"Now, I’ve talked with your Deputy Director over there at the Manama Directorate, and he tells me you’ve got a month off coming up, is that correct?"

"Yes, sir, in seven weeks and four days I am leaving for Pakistan."

Craft pursed his lips. "Looking forward to it, are you?"

"Oh, most definitely, sir! It has been three years since my last home leave, three years since I have seen my wife and children."

"Well, Officer, our fleet flagship, the Coronado, has a show-the-flag run to Karachi scheduled for the middle of next month, and your Deputy Director’s agreed to move your leave up a bit so you can ride along with the ship."

Chaudri gaped at him. "I — I am most thankfu1 for your generosity," he said, "but I have already been provided with an airplane ticket for my roundtrip flight. That is one of the benefits of my position with the — "

"Don’t you get it, Mahboob?" Dolly Miller burst out, then winced in pain as Sanders edged toward her and dug an elbow in her ribs. "Oh, jeez, sorry, sir."

A corner of Craft’s mouth turned up. "That’s quite all right, sailor. Please continue."

"Thank you, sir. Don’t you see, Mahboob? If you ride home on the ship, you can cash in that ticket they gave you, and put the money towards that house of yours in Jong — damn, I never can get that name right."

"Jhang-Maghiana," the Pakistani said softly.

"Check. I bet you could get four, five hundred dollars for it, don’t you think?"

Chaudri moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue The ticket, he knew, was worth almost five hundred dinars, not dollars — more than 20,000 rupees at the current rate of exchange. And with 20,000 rupees added to what he had already managed to save from his salary, he would finally have enough to make the down payment on the bungalow he yeamed to build for his family in Shazia’s native village.

"But the voyage," he said. "It will take several days to reach Karachi by sea, and I have only one month for my leave. That means I would — "

"No, you wouldn’t," Tom Sanders interrupted eagerly. "The Cap’n done arranged all that. They’re gonna give you a couple extra days, so you won’t lose any time with your folks. It’s all set up, Mahboob. The Cap’n got it all took care of."

Chaudri regarded the beaming expressions on his young friends’ faces, then turned to their commanding officer. "I — I am overwhelmed," he stammered. "I am most absolutely grateful, Captain. I pray to Allah that I may be worthy of this honor."

"Does that mean you accept, then, Officer?"

"Accept? Oh, dearie me, yes! Yes, indeed!"

"Very well," said Captain Craft with a smile.

• • •

"Sure wish we were going with you," said Miller wistfully, as the Pakistani guard at the entrance to Mina Sulman harbor scrutinized the photograph on her ID card.

"It saddens me to go without you," Chaudri replied. "I had hoped to be able to show you my city, and to introduce you to my family. And you should be going. You and Tom were as responsible for the capture of the ASU smuggler as I."

"That’s as may be," Sanders shrugged. "But you know how shorthanded we been on post since Adelson and Leavitt PCS’d, Dolly. Just ain’t no way they could spare us right now."

Chaudri took back his own identity card from the gate guard and murmured a thank-you. "What is this PCS?" he asked.

Sanders shifted the olive-drab van into gear and drove on. "Permanent Change of Station. Military talk."

"Beats me why they can’t just say ‘move,’" Dolly complained. "You come in the service they practically make you learn a whole new language. Seems like they’ve always got to come up with some fancy way to say the simplest damn things."

"She’s right," nodded Sanders. "My favorite’s POV, for Privately-Owned Vee-hickle. Back home we jes’ say c-a-r and that’s plenty good enough for us po’ black trash."

They swung around a corrugated tin warehouse, and an enormous off-white troop transport loomed into view.

"There she is," Sanders announced. "The USS Coronado."

Chaudri was perplexed. "I was thinking that all of your naval vessels were painted gray," he said.

"Most of ‘em are," Dolly Miller confirmed. "The Coronado’s the flagship, though, so they want her to stand out from the crowd."

"We call her the Ivory Beast," said Sanders proudly. "The Ivory Beast of the Middle East."

• • •

The black letters stenciled above the breast pocket of the young bosun’s mate’s chambray workshirt spelled Jensen, but when the boy stooped to take charge of Mahboob Chaudri’s cardboard suitcase and overnight grip, the little policeman saw a different name engraved on the thin strip of metal wrapped around his cheerful escort’s tanned right wrist.

"Shall I be calling you Jensen," Chaudri asked, "or Jakovac?" The name on the silvery band was unfamiliar to him and he guessed at its pronunciation, accenting the middle syllable.

"Sir?" The youth’s brow furrowed, then cleared as he nodded down at his wrist. "Oh, you mean that? This way, sir." He set off briskly along the main deck, and Chaudri had to hurry to keep up with him. "No, sir, my name’s Jensen, okay. This here’s a POW bracelet, I’ve had it on since I was a kid. I don’t even hardly notice it any more."

"And what does it signify?"

"Well, sir, that’s the name of an American soldier who fought in Vietnam, and underneath it is the date he was reported missing in action."

Chaudri eyed the weathered engraving as they walked. "S/SGT," he read aloud. "That is military talk, then?"

"Staff Sergeant, sir. Staff Sergeant John Jakovac, missing since May 29, 1967." Jensen stressed the first syllable of the soldier’s name. "It’s a long time. He’s probably dead, I guess, but, when I put this on, back in the fifth grade, I promised I’d wear it till they found out for sure what happened to him. He’s still officially listed as missing, so I still wear the bracelet."

"You are most dedicated," said Mahboob Chaudri. "I admire that, Mr. Jensen."

The boy ducked his head. "Thank you, sir. I just do what I think is right."

They passed through an arched metal hatchway to the interior of the ship, and found themselves in a large mess hall where more than a hundred sailors in workshirts and bell-bottomed dungarees sat at long tables with trays of food before them. Heads turned and the buzz of conversation abated at the sight of the Pakistani in the strange olive-green uniform, but the allures of lunch and gossip quickly reasserted themselves.

"It’s just up this ladder, sir. Watch your head." Jensen led the way up a steep flight of narrow metal steps, Chaudri’s heavy old suitcase seemingly weightless in his left hand, the overnight bag a feather in his right.

At the top of the stairs, a gleaming brass plaque announced: Welcome to Officers’ Country. Jensen strode down a long corridor punctuated on both sides by framed sketches of American warships and tall doorways hung with floor-length gray curtains instead of doors.

"You’ll be in here, sir." He swept a curtain to one side and waved Chaudri in ahead of him.

The cubicle was small and colorless, tightly packed with a set of bunk beds, two identical wooden writing desks and chairs, and a pair of metal lockers flanking a single sink and mirror. Sheets, a rough woolen blanket and a feather pillow lay neatly folded at the foot of each of the beds, and plain white towels hung from a chromium bar beneath the sink.

"Sorry it’s so tiny, sir." Jensen lifted the larger of Chaudri’s bags onto the top bunk, then swung the handgrip up beside it. "You’re pretty lucky, though: most of the officers have to double up, but you’ve got this compartment all to yourself this trip. At least you’ll have some privacy."

"I am quite content," said Chaudri. "My room at the police barracks in Juffair is three times this size, but I am sharing it with five other men."

The young sailor glanced around the room, switched on the overhead fan, scuffed a foot on the immaculate floor. "Well, I guess I’d best be getting back down, then. Oh, gosh, almost forgot: officers’ head’s down the passageway, first hatch on the port side."

"Officers’ head?" Chaudri echoed. "First hatch? The port side?"

Jensen grimaced apologetically. "Bathroom and shower, sir. They’re down the hall, first door on your left."

• • •

"So tell me, mahsool, what’s your verdict?"

Mahboob Chaudri looked up from his plate. "Sir?"

"The food," Captain Dave Buck elaborated. He was a ruddy Southerner with half a century under his ample belt, more than two decades of it in the Navy. "How are you enjoying your meal?"

The Pakistani worked his knife and fork and took another bite. The chicken was dry and bland and coated with a greasy breading. The green beans were overcooked and tasteless, the mashed potatoes lumpy. "Most excellent," he said, chewing bravely.

Captain Buck’s hearty laughter led the explosion of glee which greeted this statement Even the sober Lieutenant-Commander Meacham — who had been introduced as the captain’s second-in-command and the Coronado’s Executive Officer, or XO — was visibly amused.

"You don’t have to be polite," the bearded man across from Chaudri grinned. Like the captain and XO, like all 22 of the officers in the room, he was dressed in a simple khaki uniform; the oak leaf and single acorn on his collar identified him as the ship’s doctor, the nametag pinned to his breast pocket gave his last name as Steen.

Lieutenant (JG) William Kundo, sitting next to the doctor, agreed loudly. "We all know it’s garbage," he boomed, pushing away his plate and reaching for his pipe. "First night out and a guest on board, you’d think we could dish him up some decent chow."

"There’s nothing wrong with the food," said Meacham, a cadaverous black man whose 18 years at sea had turned his skin to deep-lined leather. "It’s that damn Crockett, that’s the problem."

"Crockett?" said Chaudri.

"Seaman Apprentice Crockett, our temporary chef."

"To use the term extremely loosely." Kundo shook his head sadly and struck a match. "Our regular cookie’s been confined to sick bay for, what is it, a week now?"

"Six days," said the doctor. "And it’ll be a couple more before I let him out of quarantine."

"Can you believe it," the captain sighed, "the kid’s 24 years old and he’s got the dadburned chicken pox."

"He’s got the chicken pox and I’ve got indigestion," Kundo groused. "I’ll bet they never had to put up with this sort of bull on a pirate ship."

A chorus of groans went up.

"Don’t get Kundo started on his pirate ships," warned the XO. "We’ll be here all night."

Doctor Steen coughed into his fist. "Ah, tell me, mahsool," he said diplomatically, "what sort of food would you recommend we try while we’re in Karachi?"

Chaudri welcomed the opportunity to sing his homeland’s praises. "My country has many wonderful dishes," he said. "There are curries, baryanis, masalas, chicken tikka...."

A steward in an immaculate white mess jacket brought around a steaming carafe of coffee, and the tension lifted.

• • •

The next day, the Coronado’s first full day at sea, was uneventful. Lt. (JG) Kundo, a jack-of-all-trades whose varied duties included public relations, took Mahboob Chaudri on an extended tour of the ship, from the sweltering depths of the engine room to the air-conditioned comfort of the radar room, where the sole illumination was provided by the pale-green glow of the vigilant screens.

The only sour note was the continued grumbling about the meals in the Officers’ Mess, but even that problem was resolved at last when, after a dinner of soggy pink meatloaf, Doctor Steen stroked his grey-flecked beard and announced that the popular Seaman 2nd Peterson’s condition had improved to the point that he would be permitted to return to duty in the morning.

At breakfast time, thanks to Pete, the omelets were fluffy, the toast unburnt, and it was with a full and contented stomach that Mahboob Chaudri folded his arms on the main deck aft rail and watched the Coronado’s frothy wake glitter with reflected sunlight.

It was just after eight, and the sun hung low in a clear blue sky not yet written on by clouds. It would soon turn hot and muggy, Chaudri knew, but at this hour the air was still pleasantly cool.

For a day and two nights they had steamed slowly to the east, and now they approached the narrow funnel of the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian coastline, already visible two miles to the north, would draw closer as they rounded the Ras Masandam peninsula. To the south, where at present there was only the endless cobalt mystery of the sea, the United Arab Emirates would come briefly into view, then melt into the desert sands of Oman.

Chaudri cupped a hand above his eyes and gazed westward. Far beyond the black speck which punctuated the distant horizon lay the tiny Bahraini archipelago, his adopted home. He turned, and rested his back against the rail. Far ahead, far beyond the Strait and the Gulf of Oman, deep into the Arabian Sea, lay his past and his future: Pakistan, Karachi, his wife and children.

But between the little policeman and his family rose the enormous superstructure of the USS Coronado, with its flat-black main mast and yardarms and radars and whip antennas, and the imposing off-white of its helo hangar and stacks and flying bridge.

"The Ivory Beast," Chaudri murmured. "The Ivory Beast of the Middle East."

The Coronado, with all its sophisticated weaponry, was a powerful beast indeed. But was it powerful enough to keep the peace throughout its vast domain? Was it strong enough for that?

For there was another beast at large in the Gulf, Chaudri thought, a beast with many millions of heads and claws: the angry green beast of fanatic Islamic fundamentalism.

To the north, the brown hills of Iran were quiet, but their soft serenity was deceptive. Behind those hills, a government gone mad was busy planning strategies for its painful war with Iraq. The war had dragged on for years, had cost many thousands of lives, and there were no signs that it was any closer to a resolution now than it had ever been before.

Chaudri peered westward once again. The black speck on the horizon was growing larger.

At the far end of the Gulf, where Iran and Iraq shared a common border, the battle raged. And why? Because the madmen on one side of that imaginary line — that line which appeared so clearly on maps and globes, but which had in truth no more substance than a desert mirage—had forgotten the Messenger’s commandment to live in peace and brotherhood with the madmen on its other side.

No, Chaudri realized, the distant spot of black was not getting bigger. It was coming closer. And it was not black, he saw now, it was gray. Haze gray.

Battleship gray.

"Merea rabba!" he exclaimed in horror. It was a warship, and it was closing on them with frightening speed.

The urgent cry of a siren scattered his thoughts.

"General quarters! General quarters!" A dozen loudspeakers screamed the alarm. "Man your battle stations!"

Instantly, the giant ship was alive with activity. A thousand sailors jumped to their positions, whipped the protective tarpaulins from torpedo tubes, clambered up the turrets of the 5mm guns to arm them and swing their barrels astern toward the rapidly-approaching cruiser.

Mahboob Chaudri raced forward, his heart pounding, and scrambled up two steep ladders to the bridge.
He found Captain Buck and the XO out on the deck behind it, each with a pair of field glasses raised to his eyes.

"Captain, sir," Chaudri wheezed, pressing a hand to his breast. "What is happening? Whose ship is that?"

"Don’t know yet. If it’s Iranians and they’re looking for a fight, we could have a nasty little incident on our hands here."

"Can you make out the colors of their flag, sir?"

"Just barely. Three stripes, I think. Green, white and red. Dammit, that is Iran, isn't it?"

Chaudri gripped his arm. "Those are Iran’s colors," he said urgently. "But is that the order they are in, sir: green, white and red from top to bottom?"

"What the — ?" Buck glared at his passenger. "What difference does it — "

"Please, sir," Chaudri insisted. "Please look again!"

A moment passed. Then the captain nodded slowly and lifted his binoculars.

"White, red and green," he said tightly, "with a vertical red stripe nearest the flagpole."

Chaudri closed his eyes and sighed, and released the offficer’s sleeve. "Oman," he whispered. "The Iranian flag is green, white and red, with a yellow lion centered in the middle stripe."

Captain Buck breathed deeply. "Are you sure about that, mahsool?""

"Oh, yes, sir. Oh, dearie me, most certainly yes. I assure you, that is the flag of Oman."

The captain stared out at the sleek gray vessel, now close enough to make out its dark-skinned crew with the naked eye. He licked his dry lips absently. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead.

Then he made his decision, stepped through a hatchway onto the bridge and grabbed up a microphone and stabbed the red button on its side.

"Now hear this," he said, and the ship’s loudspeakers took his voice and turned it into thunder. "Secure from general quarters. Secure from general quarters."

Continue to Part 2.