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The smoke that thunders, p.1
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       The Smoke That Thunders, p.1

           Nathan Bassett
The Smoke That Thunders


  a novel

  by Nathan Bassett

  Copyright 2010 Nathan Bassett

  The Smoke That Thunders is a work of fiction and all characters or fictional, any resemblance to individuals dead or alive is not intended. Occasional events and accounts portrayed are based on actual events and reports but have been embellished.


  January 21, 1977

  Peter looked at his watch. “Fifty-four minutes. Damn near an hour since they told us to sit here. What’s going on? Wait, wait, wait. They always tell us to wait.”

  Chad opened his eyes. He muttered, “You should be used to it by now.” He closed his eyes and folded his arms.

  Peter felt his chest stiffen. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs and then exhaled slowly. He began to draw another breath when a voice called out, “Mr. McKnight? Mr. Daley?”

  The two Americans sprang to their feet.

  A diminutive bald man, in khaki shorts, motioned them to come forward, barking “This way!”

  With a brisk stride, he led them through an impressive mahogany-paneled room, reminiscent of the great estate homes in Europe. He ushered them into a glassed-in area in the far corner of the huge room and told them to take a seat. It was an auspicious office, the opulent nest of some high-grade official convinced of his own self-importance. They had always dealt with non-caring, nonverbal peons behind glass-partitioned counters; this was something new.

  Peter leaned over and whispered to Chad, “What the hell is this about?”

  Chad shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing. Just relax.”

  Through the glass wall, they watched workers, all of them White, hustling back and forth between crowded rows of cluttered office desks.

  Chad nudged Peter with his elbow. “Look at those guys in their khaki shorts. Only in Africa. You know they go home in pith helmets?”

  Peter nodded, showing no emotion. His eyes remained fixed on the slow-moving fans hung from two massive beams supporting the thirty-foot ceiling in the stately hall. His thoughts wandered back to that first day in South Africa: both excitement and anxiety had rushed through his veins as they drove down the highway away from Jan Smuts Airport. He had leaned his head out the car window, allowing his hair to blow wildly as his nostrils and lungs caught the air of this foreign world – air so different in its smell, texture, and feel. Africa had welcomed him, embraced him that morning.

  Chad interrupted Peter’s wandering thoughts. “Odds they kick us out of the country today? I put it at 95 percent.”

  “At least,” Peter responded, still staring at the whirling blades moving slowly and methodically. He then looked at Chad and said, “I still don’t know about this Rhodesia plan. I just don’t know.”

  Chad rolled his eyes. “Don’t keep going on about that. It is a great plan. It will work just fine.” He leaned toward Peter and said, “Go back to the States if you want. That’d be fine with me.”

  Peter shook his head resolutely, but his voice quavered. “No. I am not going home. I’ll do what I have to do.” The thought of going to Rhodesia did not appeal to either one of them, though for Peter, the growing possibility of a month in a war-torn country was a terrifying proposition.

  Twenty minutes later, a stout, well-weathered gentleman dressed in a three-piece gray suit, burst through the door. A brash black-and-red striped tie drew attention to his bulging, wrinkled neck. In his right fist, he clutched copies of their visas, their temporary permits, and the denials and appeals for extensions. Under his left arm, he held a bulky, tattered folder.

  Surely, nothing to do with us, Peter thought.

  With his elbow, the man flipped a switch next to the door; a fan above his desk awakened, causing piles of disorganized papers on the desktop to rustle. He declared authority as he sat down in his worn leather chair and postured himself as a feared dictator would. He tossed the bulky folder down with a thud, silencing whispering loose papers. Their futures lay in this man’s hands; Peter assumed the glint in the man’s eyes declared he had already made his decision.

  The man looked brashly through the papers he held. He then shoved them under the tattered folder. Glowering at the nervous Americans feigning confidence, he spoke, “Why is it you are here in South Africa? Eh? Why are you loafing around this country?” He fired his words out in a thick Afrikaans accent; his tone did not seek answers as much as make accusations.

  Chad offered a polite smile and stated, “We’re staying with a friend. He is South African. He invited us over.”

  “Where have you been staying since you arrived in South Africa?” This was said slowly, yet even more accusing.

  Peter stammered, “We’ve been staying with our friend in … in Vanderbijlpark.”

  “And? Where else have you been? Tell me!” The Afrikaner’s sharp glare rested on Peter, then Chad.

  “We took a trip to Kruger and a few other places. That’s about it.” Chad’s smile disappeared.

  “Where else? Where else have you been in my country?”

  The pair glanced at one another. Chad held his breath and pulled in his lower lip.

  Peter knew his friend’s rage was beginning to boil. Peter fought his own instinct to run, to disappear, to shut down, but he knew he had to be the one to speak. He responded in a fading mumble, “We spent time with some friends … different places … a little time in Johannesburg now and then. A few trips around, here and there. Mainly in Vanderbijlpark though. We stay there.”

  The man leaned back in his chair; it creaked and moaned as if it was irritated by his weight. With a slight curl in his lip, he asked, “Have you been working?”

  Peter’s stomach tightened and his head began to spin. He shook his head, as Chad indignantly said, “No.”

  “Then tell me, how do you support yourselves?”

  Peter attempted to raise his voice. It crackled and faded, barely allowing his words to surface. “With money we earned back home.”

  Sweat began to ooze from the creases imprinted on this important man’s forehead. “Have you worked in this country? Have you been working here, in South Africa?”

  In unison, they replied. “No!”

  “Have you worked here?” His anger began to seethe, bolstering his already intimidating tone.

  “No! We-have-not-worked-here,” Chad pronounced each word with care.

  From the thick folder, the official pulled out a newspaper clipping from a township’s local newspaper.

  Their eyes grew wide as their jaws drooped. The two looked at one another; Peter knew Chad’s thoughts mirrored his: How’d he get that? Why does he care about what we’ve been doing? It was a photograph of the two foreigners playing soccer with a group of young African children. The caption read, ‘Two Americans, Peter McKnight and Chet Day, assist a Johannesburg church’s outreach in Sharpeville.’

  “We weren’t work—” Peter’s throat constricted, causing his voice to tremble. The next syllable refused to come out.

  Chad stepped in. “We weren’t working. We were just volunteers there. They didn’t pay us anything, and it was only for one day anyway. It’s no big deal.”

  The man pulled out a second news clipping, from The West Rand Times. He snarled, “And this?”

  It was a picture of the two with a group of White children at a youth camp near Krugersdorp.

  Chad’s response was now subdued. “We were just helping, volunteering. It was only for a couple of weeks at some summer church camps. That’s why we applied for work permits ages ago, but it was just for volunteering anyway, not working. Nobody paid us a cent.”

  The man pulled out a third picture of Peter playing soccer with young Africans in Soweto. He he
ld it up and said nothing. Peter was certain the man’s eyes were going to burst into flames.

  Peter mumbled, “We were never paid. We applied for—”

  “Ag nee. I do not care! All this is work, and it is all illegal. You are here on holiday permits. You are not here on work permits.” The man pulled a handkerchief from his jacket and wiped his forehead. “You have violated your visas and South Africa’s trust. You have broken our laws.” Disgust and intimidation reverberated through the Afrikaner’s declaration.

  My God! They are going to put us in jail! Peter communicated his fear in a furtive glance toward Chad.

  “Why are you here?”

  “We did some church things, just helping out, but mainly it’s just been a holiday,” Peter said apologetically.

  Chad added, “It’s been a chance to see a different country.”

  “Why are you here?” Spit spewed from his mouth like venom from a cobra.

  The young men remained silent.

  The gentleman stood up. He bent over his desk and supported himself with his short, thick arms; his blue eyes were piercing, and his white skin glowed with a rosy hue. He said, “We have more and more of you young upstarts coming into our country, coming here thinking they can bring their communist garbage, thinking they know better, thinking they will save the Kaffirs. You arrogant Americans! You goddamn self-righteous Americans! You think you can save the world. You do not understand this country! You do not understand our people!” After a slow breath, he spoke slowly, with finality. “You are trouble. You are not welcome in South Africa. You are to leave this country today, and you shall never return to South Africa. Thank you, gentlemen.” He stamped their papers, opened the door, and pointed across the beautiful great hall to the way out.

  The two hurried across the mammoth room, down a short corridor, and out a side door into the cool breeze of a summer morning.

  “Oh my God!” Peter let out, desperately trying to expel his built-up tension. “Oh my God! We’ve been kicked out, persona non grata.”

  Chad responded, “That son of bitch has thrown us out for good. They think we’re damn communists. Communists! That’s your fault, Peter. You had to drag me to that damn township. You had to go to Soweto and let some dumb ass take your picture. You’ve made it impossible for either one of us to ever come back here!”

  “God, shut up. Shut it! It’s not my fault they’re so freakin paranoid.”


  They walked down the steps that wind through the sprawling tiered gardens in front of parliament buildings that overlook Pretoria. Jacaranda trees bursting with bright blue blooms dotted the landscape. Thousands of meticulously placed King Proteas, aloes, and rose geraniums welcomed them with soothing scents, while exotic birds greeted them with songs they had never heard before. Simon sat on a wooden bench, eating a sandwich and holding a flask of tea between his legs. They were glad to see their friend, relieved to hear his English South African accent—more soothing, more understandable, more understanding than the Dutch-related Afrikaans with its abrupt, guttural, staccato speech pattern, which can seem intrusive to the foreign ear.

  Simon set his flask on the ground, folded his arms, and fixed his gaze on the city’s distant skyline as they related the worse than expected news. They would indeed have to leave the country ... immediately. No, they could never come back. They were now branded as persona non grata.

  “They think we’re communists, Simon. They think we’re damn communists!”

  As Chad said this, Peter looked away, knowing Chad would be staring straight at him. Peter mouthed some words, but his tightened lungs did not allow him enough air to project his own frustrations. He continued to take deep breaths, trying to slow down his heart rate and satisfy his starving lungs.

  Simon sat pensively, allowing his two friends to calm themselves. Finally, he let out a prolonged and heavy breath and slowly said, “Let me see what I can do. Dad has a favor or two I can call in. If … if I can find the right person to talk to. Let me see. I should have gone with you two. I knew I should have. Never mind. Let me see if I can find … just let me see what I can do to fix this.” Simon took the papers stamped ‘persona non grata’ and walked slowly but resolutely toward the grand mahogany hall.


  With the crescendo of their tension waning, Peter and Chad talked again about the plan. “Surely we could go somewhere else, anywhere but Rhodesia,” Peter moaned.

  “So let’s head to Australia. They say the sheilas are wild and wonderful there, mate,” Chad said with exaggerated Australian accent.

  Peter was subdued in his fantasy. “I’ve always wanted to spend some time in England. There’s lots of history to get lost in there, really Old World stuff.”

  Both knew there were only two options: They would go to Rhodesia or return home. Neither was ready to go back to America. South Africa had much more in store for them; they did not want to be anywhere else. If going to Rhodesia meant they might have the opportunity to return, then that is what they would do. However, if Simon did not turn this around, if he could not get the persona non grata rescinded, it would be a guaranteed long, arduous trip back to the States.


  An hour later, which felt like three or four, Simon returned. “Some good fortune indeed! I found that official who knows my father. I was able to vouch for you two, and I made a solemn promise that you are not the sort to stir up any trouble. Do you understand that, Peter?”

  Peter nodded, avoiding eye contact with Simon.

  “He agreed to repeal the persona non grata. You should be able to return. Let’s get going. You’ve got to catch the next flight to Bulawayo.”

  Rhodesia it was. Peter’s heart quickened; going to a war-torn country was not an adventure he had bargained for. Chad let out a shout of relief and satisfaction; he would be able to return to South Africa, where he knew his destiny lay.


  They went straight to Jan Smuts Airport in Simon’s 1972 faded red Ford Cortina. Their flight arrived at Bulawayo Airport at three forty-five p.m. Near a kiosk selling fresh fruit, flowers, and newspapers, they located Richard’s number in a tattered phonebook.

  Chad made the call. “We’re friends of Simon … Yes … Oh, he’s fine … Yes, indeed he is. Well, we’ve had to make a sudden trip to Rhodesia. We hate to impose, but Simon thought perhaps you could, uh, help us out? Yes … if it is possible. We don’t want to put you out … Oh, that would be cool! Great! … Thank you. Yes … Okay. Thank you so much.”

  “So what’d he say?” Peter asked.

  “It’s cool. We need to get the bus into Bulawayo, to the Ma … Mapoo … Mpopoma Train Station. He said to wait in the parking lot. They’re … I think he said about an hour or so away.”

  The bus arrived at the train station in half an hour. They found a bench near the car park and waited.

  Shortly after five, a car slowed, and a woman leaned her head out the window and asked, “Are you two mates of Simon’s?”

  They nodded.

  The car stopped, and the couple got out.

  They greeted the two travelers with comforting friendliness, but also with a keen sense of urgency. The man spoke quickly as he offered rushed handshakes. “I’m Richard. This is my wife Amanda. Such a pleasure to meet you! I’m afraid we must hurry on. It shall be getting dark very soon.”

  Richard opened the trunk of his car, pulled a rifle out, and handed it to Amanda. He tossed their luggage into what he called ‘the boot.’ As they got into the car, Amanda cocked the rifle and placed the butt on the top of the front seat and the barrel on the dashboard. She carefully wrapped her arm around the rifle, placed her finger on the trigger guard and, in a very matter-of-fact manner, stated, “We’re ready. Let’s roll.” She looked to the back seat and calmly said, “The terrs, they prefer to come out at night, but we should be just fine.”

  The two in the back seat looked at each other and mouthed the words, “What the hell are we doing


  SEPTEMBER 1974 - AUGUST 1976


  Worlds Apart

  Peter McKnight finished the dreaded task: All his earthly belongings were back in place, freed from their summer hibernation. He looked around his ten-by-fifteen room. A small, but adequate eight-track stereo system rested on a tiny refrigerator beneath the window, and his modest collection of eight-track tapes were stacked neatly beside the fridge. Last year’s textbooks, lined neatly from tallest to shortest, gave an air of intelligence to the small bookshelf above the bed. A picture of his family – mom, dad, and two sisters standing on the south rim of the Grand Canyon – sat on a small desk and drew out a smile as he glanced at it. On the wall above the headboard was a lone poster, a stunning view of the skyline of Beirut, Lebanon; the scene always evoked a tinge of jealousy. He smoothed the multicolored Mexican serape blanket covering his bed. Smiling, he said to himself, Feels good to be back in Norman, back on campus. The University of Oklahoma felt like home.


  Peter pulled his room door shut, locked it, and started walking down the corridor in his habitual turtle-like pace. He counted loose change as he walked, making sure he had enough for a Coke and a bag of chips from the vending machines in the lobby. As he looked up, he caught a glimpse of someone. Shit! Who’s that guy?

  They exchanged a fleeting glance, but neither gave the other acknowledgment. This was unusual in Oklahoma, where everyone at least pretends to be friendly. Their eyes had barely connected, but that was enough. As he continued down the hallway, Peter heard the click of an unlocking door – the one opposite his.

  First impressions are everything; they say that the first minute gets you the job. In that surreptitious glance, that first impression, Peter knew this guy: disgustingly clean cut, smartly dressed in shorts meant to display his muscle-hardened bronzed legs; the collar of his pink polo shirt turned up. And then there was that obnoxious wavy blond hair and those oversized sideburns, drawing attention to a face just rugged enough to reflect manliness, yet boyish enough to suggest a mischievous streak. A face shallow and coquettish bleached blondes drool over. I hate frat boys, Peter thought.

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