What enormities can occur in a tiny moment. Catastrophes or miracles, irrevocable in either case. Lives lost or saved, depending on uninformed decisions made in the blink of an eye. To make the wrong choice could bring unendurable consequences.
Benghazi is a hellhole, but His Majesty King Idris makes it his residence, largely because it is his tribal home, and also for the very good reason that the citizens of Tripoli would kill him if they ever got the chance. There are no good neighborhoods in Benghazi, but the grimy hotel where I found lodging seemed to be in one of the worst. The room was decrepit and filthy, but it was available, and I took it. The rickety door to my room had no lock, and when I retired for the night, I jammed the back of the room’s only chair under the doorknob. The bed had no linens, and I lay down on the mattress in my clothes stale with sweat, with my Beretta, magazine full and a round in the chamber, at my side.
My only reason for being there was an aborted attempt to return stateside after I finished my 18-month contract at Wheelus Air Base. I had flown from Tripoli to Benghazi. I had intended to continue to Alexandria, and from there take a steamer to Istanbul. But the eruption of the Suez crisis meant I would have to return to Tripoli and find another way home. I had wanted to see some more of the Mediterranean on my way out, but it had become a bad time to be a tourist.
By whatever route I was going to get out of the country, I had had my fill of Libya and would be glad to be done with it. Even before Suez, the pan-Arabists were stirring up trouble and making life uncomfortable for the foreigners. The mob that ran howling through the streets of Tripoli the evening before I departed had all of the Americans hiding in our rooms at the Hotel del Mehari. Mohammed, the head waiter of the dining room, helpfully told us in the morning that the mob had gone to burn down the British embassy, but, having seen the defenses the British had put up, decided to burn the French embassy instead. Mohammed loves to tell a good story, and sometimes his stories are true.
Eager as I was to see the American Midwest again, I still found myself looking forward to a second chance to say goodbye to my colleagues. Especially Rita, the Colonel’s able secretary, whose “other duties as assigned” included remembering the combinations to the Colonel’s safes for him, and charming information out of the Italian gun-runners who came to drink too much in the del Mehari’s bar.
But before enjoying the unforeseen reunion, I was compelled to spend a miserable, sleepless night on a bare mattress in Benghazi.
It was nearly dawn, and a dim light seeped into the room through the window slats, when I heard the dreaded, inevitable rattle of the doorknob being turned. I rolled off the bed away from the door. I held my gun aimed at the door, waiting to see whether the intruder would persist or move on to another target.
Now, I had never fired a gun in anger, even in the service. I had thought myself capable, but now I felt profound sorrow at being put to the test.
The man outside my door pushed it against the chair, gently at first, then with increasing force. The chair finally fell aside and the door flew open, and I knew I would shoot the man the instant he entered the room. Anyone in the world would do the same, I told myself.
Anyone in the world would have fired that gun.
But I didn’t. The doorway was empty for a moment after the door opened so suddenly. When a figure did appear, it was just a boy. He may have been twelve or thirteen years old. He was probably the hostler’s son, and he was bringing me my morning tea on a brass platter. He never saw the gun, for I set it on the floor as I stood up. If he thought it unusual for the guests to be hiding behind their beds, he didn’t show it. If he noticed the trembling of my limbs, he didn’t show that either.
I pulled out my billfold and pressed a quarter-pound note into the boy’s hand. I think he had never held so much money. He thanked me profusely, bowing as he backed out of the room.
And sitting on the bed I thanked Providence, or whatever God watched over that horrid room, that I had not murdered the child. The glass shook as I raised it to my lips and drops of hot tea splashed on my lap, but never have I tasted a drink so delicious.
Carl Steiger lives in Washington State, and aspires to be a polymath, although he lacks the time to accomplish that goal.