On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Forger and Grave Robber
He never thought of himself as evil, crooked or even shady, but the Footloose Forester definitely does have a few skeletons in his closet. The thought of his forgeries taxed his memory back to the first time that he forged the signature of a friend to an application to take the College Board exams. He was 17, and he wanted the friend to try for college and shoot for a scholarship. Both of them came from poor families, but since the future Footloose Forester knew that Adam Luteran was smarter than he was, he encouraged Adam to go with him to Drew University where the College Board exams were scheduled to take place. Since the application cost $20 and Adam didn’t come up with money, Footloose Forester paid for Adam’s application and then forged his signature to the bottom of the form, then mailed it in. At test time, Adam didn’t show up and never did go to college.
The boldest act of forgery took place in the city of Dacca, Bangladesh when that country was still known as East Pakistan. All foreigners leaving Pakistan were required to surrender the currency declaration forms that they filled out when entering the country, but Footloose Forester didn’t obtain one when he last entered Pakistan on a bus through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan. Customs officials at the mountain pass border didn’t even have any on hand but were probably too embarrassed to admit it, so inadvertently they set into motion an unplanned act of forgery that would take about 10 months to unfold.
On the flight from Lahore, in West Pakistan, to Dacca in East Pakistan and flying entirely over the 1000 mile stretch of Indian territory below, the Footloose Forester reached into the seat-back pouch of the seat in front of him and came out with a blank Pakistani currency declaration form--the form he had requested some ten months prior. Into his suitcase it went! Later that night he filled in all the blanks, less the official signatures and required government stamp of officialdom. The next day, when we travelers bound for Nepal from Dacca checked in with the local police for exit formalities, the Footloose Forester happened to have the now-filled-in currency declaration form at the ready, in his travel case. When the police officer excused himself to go to another room, the forger-to-be promptly got up from his chair and took a likely looking official rubber stamp from behind his desk, pressed it into an ink pad, and stamped his currency declaration form in an appropriate “for official use only” place. Then, after choosing a likely name, he signed Abdul Rhaman in the space reserved for official use only. The following day as the plane for Kathmandu was about to leave, the customs authorities were still not going to permit the Footloose Forester to leave Pakistan until he came up with the (bogus) currency declaration form that he had reluctantly tucked into the very bottom of his bag, awaiting their response to his stalling. His “What if he didn’t have one?” gambit didn’t work. No deal; no form, no departure! So, another act of forgery and deception was about to enter into his memory banks. He reached in to pull out a crumpled form and presented it to the impatient customs agent, who shooed him toward the awaiting plane.
The grave-robbing episode took place in Cape Verde. As the one-year anniversary of the passing of fellow-contractor Phil Coolidge came up, the Footloose Forester volunteered to coordinate a memorial ceremony at the gravesite in a walled cemetery where Phil was buried. The Cape Verdeans so loved Phil that they petitioned his family in the United States to have him buried among their own loved ones. His family agreed shortly after he died, but asked that a bronze plaque be attached to his headstone, and arranged to have a suitable inscription crafted in Massachusetts, where they lived.
The plaque was shipped to Cape Verde less than a month before the anniversary date, but it was handed over to someone in the US Embassy a few days before the memorial ceremony. The Footloose Forester had planned to have it attached to the headstone as part of the ceremony, with one of four bronze nails being driven in by each of his selected best friends and co-workers. Unfortunately, an Embassy driver was instructed to take the plaque to the cemetery the day before the ceremony. He attached the plaque to the headstone and left before the caretaker locked the gated, walled cemetery for the evening, as was Cape Verdean custom.
When Footloose Forester inquired at the Embassy regarding final details before the ceremony, he was alarmed to hear that the plaque had already been attached. He immediately got into his pick-up like truck and headed for the cemetery, planning his next move on the way.
When he got there, the gate was already locked for the night. So he drove his truck to the far side of the long, 12-foot high wall and parked beneath the only tree that grew near enough and tall enough to allow him to reach the top of the wall. In fact, there were only three or four small trees anywhere near the outer walls of the cemetery, but none was possible to climb. This one, however, was inside the walls and its branches extended beyond the wall. Footloose Forester, then and there, had one of his many spiritual experiences in life; and knew that he could and would get on the roof of his truck, climb that tree and get into the locked cemetery.
With a tool inside his clothing, he mounted the truck, jumped for a tree branch, and scaled the tree. When he got to the top of the wall, he climbed down the tree on the other side. He then proceeded to remove the plaque from the gravestone of Phil Coolidge. He hid the plaque and claw hammer, re-climbed the tree and dropped unto the roof of his truck from the top of the wall.
The following day, he was sure to be the first person through the now unlocked gate. He recovered the plaque and grave robber tools and hid them from sight. Then, at the appointed hour for the ceremony, Footloose Forester stood at the side of the gravestone; delivered a brief, somber eulogy in Portuguese for Phil Coolidge, then asked best friends and workers to come forward and drive the bronze nails into the corners of the plaque that he had loosely re-attached a few hours earlier.
The gravesite of Phil Coolidge is marked with the yellow stick pin
With the new information in Google Earth naming the road leading to that cemetery near Tarrafal, Cape Verde, the Footloose Forester was able to re-visit, by satellite photo, the site where Phil Coolidge is buried. The tree he climbed is still there, some 20 years later; and as he focused on the crown of the tree on the outside of the wall, he also re-lived that day in 1984 when he became a grave robber.
The Prosopis tree he climbed is encircled with a red line
About the author
Wow!! This is another amazing slice of an amazing journey. I'm reading your book as these stories were put into a very unique chronology. I can see why you feel that after all of this it would be a waste of it wasn't published.
Thanks for the encouragement, Tom. Some of the spiritual episodes keep reminding me that life offers us choices; and we must make the decisions on our own.