Monkey Business

by Walter "Jorgy" Jorgensen

Italicized comments by Capt. John Bilotta, editor of the newsletter

When Dr. Jonas Salk came up with the vaccine for prevention of polio, the world rejoiced at the prospect of being liberated from this ancient scourge. Also a mad scramble developed catching the monkeys needed to make the vaccine.

The monkeys were an essential part of the production chain of events. The monkeys did not survive the process. A never-ending supply of monkeys was needed. The rhesus monkey was the unlucky one, and there were monkey hunters going "bananas" at the prospects of cashing in on this milestone in medical history, Seaboard did a lot of business with wild animal hunters in India and Pakistan and it was only natural that we soon fell in with the monkey business. This traffic started in '49 or '50 in the DC-4 days and continued on well into the Connie days. It might have been as late as '60 or '65; over 15 years! How many million monkeys made the trip, I don't know. It all came to a halt when the vaccine was successfully synthesized. No more monkeys in the works!

A monkey trip was a great adventure into the unknown in the DC-4 days. What follows is a recounting of one such DC-4 trip as I remember it.

After crew rest at Frankfurt, we expected to head back home. Not so. We were ordered to pick up monkeys in Karachi, Pakistan and we were on our way with an empty airplane, some spare parts and two animal handlers. These handlers had a tough, dirty, thankless job and didn't get paid very well. Our first stop was Beirut, Lebanon. This was before all the Middle-East fireworks and Beirut was a first-class stopover. We fueled up and had what would be our last cooked meal for the days that it would take to get back to Beirut.

From here on out, it would be a wheel of cheese, bottled water and canned ham, plus all the fruit we could lay our hands on. Also, the best French bread east of Paris. In fact, all the food was French influenced - just great. We had long since learned the hard way that Beirut was the cut-off point so far as food went. We carried enough with us in the hopes of getting back to civilization before things ran out. For emergency backup, we had some dry stores that were the butt of many a joke. We had some cans of Campbell's condensed green pea soup that had logged more crossings than some of us would make in a lifetime!

We left beautiful Beirut by the sea and continued on our way. We avoided Iraq and Iran, staying in Saudi Arabian air space. Thence across the Arabian Sea to Karachi. The airplane hummed along without problems. It was a long haul. Careful fuel management was our biggest preoccupation at that moment.

When we arrived at Karachi, the heat and humidity were just about unbearable. What I remember is looking out across some mud flats at a thick matting of jungle. I also remember the scent of burning punks to cover the stink of some foul stench. We were met by our monkey hunter who explained that there was a delay. The monkeys were being kept some where inland out of sight and would not be ready to ship (in cages) until the following day. There was some trouble with the local priests over the shipping of the monkeys. It seems that their religion taught that individuals, after death, returned in other life forms, (for example, as monkeys). To ship them away to the States was unthinkable. How this problem was resolved, I do not know, but in the end we received the priests' good wishes of a safe journey.

British Petroleum fueled us up and we had to pay cash "on the barrel head" right there on the ramp. Who ever heard of Seaboard in Pakistan? By the way, it was a large airport probably left over from the war and we were the only movement that I could see. We were not to leave the airport. Our paperwork was a "Permit to Enter" issued by the Pakistani Legation in Frankfurt. Immigration Control took all our passports and we were directed to bed down in the Airport Hotel. The "Hotel" turned out to be some tarpaper shacks left behind by the British Army; heavy tarpaper over a wooden slat framework. Crude plastic screening battened over the tarpaper formed windows for light and air. The "Hotel" manager demanded 10 bucks apiece from us. Cash up front, dollars only! This at a time when we were crabbing to have the per diem raised to 7 dollars a day!

The 10 bucks entitled us to the pick of some moldy, sweat-stained mattress pads and folding wooden army canvas cots. We set these up next door in a kind of dormitory. And that is the way it was until the monkeys arrived the next day. We had to stay put and our cheese, bottled water canned ham and French bread sure hit the spot. Something strange was happening outside the airport. People were starting to gather and just stand silently in front of the high iron railings surrounding the airport. Towards afternoon, there must have been 10,000 people standing out there. Standing silently. Not saying a word. Not moving. Not doing anything.

The monkey man arrived and said that we had better be prepared for a quick departure once the plane was loaded, because although he had pacified the priests, he had no way of knowing if the priests could pacify all those believers out there that some relative of theirs was not being spirited off.

We preflighted the bird and warmed her up. All was in readiness. Suddenly the trucks with the monkeys arrived. We checked out of our "Hotel" and got ready to go. An impasse developed. The immigrations man did not want to give up the passports. He started talking about writing a letter to determine if our permit to enter was valid. He knew we were in a sweat to get out. Next, he offered to change the local currency for dollars. The local currency was worthless and everybody knew it. An exchange rate was agreed on and we bought a bunch of rupees for dollars. At the same moment, the immigrations man discovered that our "Permit to Enter" was indeed valid. He could see no reason to hold us longer. We got our passports and scuttled back out to the airplane as quick as possible.

It seemed that the tone at the fences was changing. People were murmuring, growing louder each passing minute. Finally, the last of the crates were loaded and tied down. The loaders outside made it look like there were more to be loaded. We fired up 2 engines. The trucks pulled away and we taxied out on 2 and started the other 2 while going hell-bent for the runway. The check list was rattled off and away we went. All I could think of was that horde coming thru the fences and making a grease spot out of some non-believers out there on the ramp.

Now, the stench and the brown liquid "sweat" started dripping down off the ceiling. No way to stop the drip. We just had to sit there and soak up the stink. The DC-4 had a hatch in the rear bulkhead, plus an external hatch cover that we removed on later monkey flights. In flight, a suction was created something like a giant vacuum cleaner. The improved airflow saved a lot of monkeys and cut down on the drip up in the cockpit. The 2 animal handlers lived in the cabin with the monkeys for the entire trip. They cleaned, fed and watered the whole way and as I say, I don't know how they were paid but it seems they were docked pay above a certain number lost. The stench was so bad that these guys hit the bottle real hard. It was the only way they could "immunize" themselves, so they said. I don't know about immunization, but I can say for sure these guys were preserved in alcohol!

At Beirut, they laughed when we tried to exchange the rupees back to dollars or anything else. The money changers told us they were more or less worthless outside of Pakistan and the only thing to do with them was to give them to the next crew and buy a brass tray or something. No hard-headed moneychanger would give a nickel for a bundle of the stuff. In the end the company made good our loss.

Going into a terminal to eat on a return monkey trip, the crew would always find they had cleared a wide swath around themselves in the restaurant. People would simply rise up with a strange look on their faces and move as far away as they could get or even leave the restaurant.

We were what Seaboard called a "multiple crew." Enough people up front to go the whole route without a crew rest or crew change. These were grueling flights. A multiple crew on a monkey flight was even more jammed up because nobody wanted to go aft.

It took at least two showers with strong soap to become presentable. But, even after that you would still think you could smell it a week later.

After a good run with all the standard fuel stops such as Rome, Shannon, and Gander, we were at last nearing New York. In those days, the airport was called Idlewild. We had a solid undercast. You couldn't see anything but clouds below. The captain told me to warn the animal handlers that we would soon be landing and for them to make sure everything was shipshape back there for inspection by the Dept. of Agriculture and the Medical inspectors. This was the signal for the handlers to get everything as clean as possible and above all to get rid of any dead monkeys.

The dry cleaner would only take in my cleaning when he was ready to throw out an old, well used, batch of dry-cleaning fluid.

A dead monkey found on landing by the Agriculture man or the Health man meant an automatic quarantine. The aircraft could not be unloaded, the crew released or the airplane released until an autopsy determined cause of death. This might take some time and was to be avoided, if possible. Hence, the in-flight furious "housecleaning" near the end of every trip. This was usually done over water. This day however, our handlers were well into their cups and things went slower than usual. Towards the end of the cleanup, we were no longer over water, but over Long Island headed west for Idlewild. Our handlers found a dead monkey in one of the cages. They tossed the body overboard, not realizing we were over land. We landed at Idlewild and had an uneventful clearance with a clean bill of health. Our part of the journey was done.

Even years after their last flight, an old "monkey airplane" could be detected when ever you were down wind from one.

The following day I was catching up on the news, reading Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. I spotted a blurb about a strange incident that had taken place yesterday out in Sayville, Long Island. It seems a housewife who was busy doing the family laundry, received the fright of her life. She had just hung out a batch of laundry on the clothes line and was returning with a second batch. There hanging on her clothes line twisted up in her bed sheets, eyes popping, mouth agape as if gasping for air, was what appeared to be an E.T. monster from outer space. Of course the police were called and the space monster was found to be a dead monkey. It was put down as some kind of a sick prank by some neighborhood youths. We never let on any different.

Originally published in SPAR newsletter, June, 1997

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