Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Driving a Truck on a Runway

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After leaving the army, for many years I did not tell people that I had ever been in service. But as time passed, I realised that that too was a part of my life and started to talk about it. In the late 1990s, twenty years out of uniform, I realised there were young friends who had never known of my background and were stunned to hear that I was ex-army. Everyone always noted, ‘But you’re so unlike army.’

And I would tell them that was the very reason, I did not get along.

There is a story that I never told until the last school reunion when its protagonist had shortly before passed away. Today I have a tweet from Dr Aamer Iqbal (@DrAamer) asking if I had narrated a certain antic about driving a truck on a runway. That’s a great story from my ‘criminal’ past and I think it needs a re-telling.

The year was 1974 (or was it ’75?) when I had either not been promoted captain or had just been demoted back to lieutenant. My regiment 67 (SP) Light Anti Aircraft went practice firing at the Khudai ranges near Muzaffargarh and I was deputed as liaison officer at Rafiqui Air Base, Shorkot from where the F-86 Sabres took off with the sleeve we were supposed to shoot to kingdom come.

I, who had always chaffed at everyone always breathing down my neck in Kharian, was suddenly independent and my own master. Here I was with a Dodge three-quarter ton truck (Korean War vintage), radio equipment, two wireless operators and a driver and with no bloody body to tell me what I ‘should’ have done or be doing.

On the second day at Shorkot, I got it into my head that I should check what I can clock on the Dodge’s speedometer. And so, leaving my crew with the wireless, I drove to one end of the runway. There I turned around, just as they do with aircraft, sat their revving the ancient engine, again like they do with aircraft, and then let the clutch out imagining myself a World War 2 fighter pilot in a Focke Wulf 190. Through the gears I raced, the engine roaring for all it was worth until, in top gear and about midway down the runway, I was cruising at a grand seventy miles per hour. I thought that was not good enough.

At the far end of the runway, I turned around and repeated the action hoping to top eighty. It did not work and again at the other end I turned the Dodge around for yet another run. This time I was about half way down the runway when, through the wind screaming in my ears, I heard sirens. In the rear view mirror I espied two Air Provost jeeps drawing up behind me, with a sergeant madly semaphoring for me to pull over.

When we stopped, the man came over and seeing me, a lieutenant, saluted smartly, ‘Sir, the base commander sends his regards.’ In military parlance, a senior sending his salaam meant more often than not a bollocking. With one jeep leading and other behind me as if I was going to break off and flee, we drove to the offices. Now, damned if I knew until then who the base commander was, but as the sergeant escorted me to the office, I was immensely pleased to read the name ‘Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry’.

No problem, I thought to myself as the door was opened for me to march in. I did, halted in front of the desk and threw my smartest salute to a man I had admired when he visited the school in October 1965. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Tall and slim, thick chevron moustache, handsome tanned face with dark swept back hair, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was visiting his alma mater after winning laurels for his service to the country as a fighter pilot. And one conferred with the coveted Sitara e Jurat, too. ‘Cecil Chaudhry’, the whisper had screamed through the corridors of St Anthony’s High School and there were eight hundred wide-eyed boys agog and keen to shake the hand of their hero.

Now, here in Shorkot on a crisp October morning ten years after that event was one of those very boys hauled in for a bollocking. The base commander sat erect, peak cap on his head and hands folded neatly in front on the desk. Clearly, he was ready to blast the idiot lieutenant to the dark side of hell.

‘Sir, I too am from St Anthony’s!’ I called out PMA style even before Cecil could let loose. There was a moment of silence in which the only audible sound was Cecil’s exhalation. ‘Oye, tumhara dimagh kharab ho gaya hai?’

Asking me if I was crazy in Urdu meant the storm had passed. It had passed because I too was from St Anthony’s High School, Lahore. Cecil took off his cap, placed it neatly on the side, ran a hand over his hair and pointing to the chair across from him said, ‘Sit down here, you idiot.’

He asked me about my years in school and my career in the army. I had him guffawing when I narrated how I was faring in uniform. When he was ready to dismiss me, Cecil added, almost in by the way sort of manner that my crazy jape on the runway had kept three F-6 aircraft from landing.

We said our good-byes and just before I ducked out of the door, Cecil called out, ‘You try that again, and I’ll have you thrown in the quarter guard.’


Time flew and sometime about 2002, I met Cecil again at the home of the good Philip and Priscilla Lall in Lahore. I asked him if he remembered the foolish lieutenant who drove a truck on the Shorkot runway. He thought hard and said he vaguely remembered ‘some idiot pongo’ doing some crazy stuff like that. I said it was I. Cecil threw his head back and let out a huge laugh.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

18 Comments:

At December 4, 2013 at 8:36 AM, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat said...

I was visualizing the whole scenario. Lol... Respected Cecil Chaudhry was my father's senior... I remember visiting his house in Falcon Enclave , then again I had a chance of working under his supervision , when he was in BOD of Punjab education... What a gentleman he was!

 
At December 4, 2013 at 9:09 AM, Blogger Jalal Hameed said...

Being from air defence, I have had several such encounters with PAF provost for crossing the runway - but driving on the runway must have been a real experience.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 9:47 AM, Anonymous Rashid Javed (AA Gunner) said...

LOL. Only AA Gunners will understand the gravity of this 'adventure.' But honestly speaking you were left off easy. You did deserve high jump.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:04 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Mahwish, Cecil was one great icon. A good and true man. After our reconnect, I never addressed him as sir, only as Cecil and, of course, the Urdu aap. His greatness that he was comfortable with it. His death was like a personal loss even though we hardly ever met.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:07 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Jalal Hameed, sir, there was a time when 23 year-old Lts would pull such idiotic capers. I was saddened some years ago at a regimental reunion I discovered the youngsters to be only concerned with some crap called Officers Efficiency Index. They went only by the book. And they did not even read in their spare time. What a dull subaltern's life it must be now.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:33 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rashid, I suppose we AA gunners were a different breed as compared to real gunners. But now, things have changed, Subalterns from my regiment are so strait-jacketed and career oriented, it seem service is no longer fun.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:37 AM, Blogger Hassan S Hakeem said...

I have done that many time without an encounter with Air Provost as there is none on the WWII air strip near gujrat.
Sir it is always a delight to read your work.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Done prove that AA Gunners are all undisciplined lot.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:51 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hassan, thank you very much. Coordinates of Gujrat airstrip please? There might be some ruined buildings or wrecked vehicles to make a story.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:51 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, ill disciplined once made better soldiers.

 
At December 4, 2013 at 10:54 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, ill disciplined once made better soldiers.

 
At December 5, 2013 at 9:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my husband was sent 2 army 2 show him discipline sadly army failed he won.brilliant piece lad :-)

 
At December 5, 2013 at 10:12 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

So glad you approve, Bibi!

 
At January 15, 2015 at 3:29 PM, Anonymous Infantryman said...

I thought you gunners were supposed to be KLM...

 
At January 16, 2015 at 12:30 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Infantryman, I opted for infantry, Punjab. Would have perhaps been better off in AC, as Gen Javed Alam Khan maintains to this day, but ended up in Air Defense. So I, for one, cannot be KLM! And you can see that from my work!!!

 
At January 19, 2015 at 3:03 PM, Blogger Noble Tufail said...

When u break the rules (not in criminal sense) u r my hero. That shows courage of exploring and doing things differently.

 
At January 19, 2015 at 3:08 PM, Blogger Noble Tufail said...

Breaking the rules (not in criminal sense) puts u in top tear of men. The men who carry courage of exploring and doing things differently. Ur wandering spirit still keeps u in mountains and valleys :)

 
At April 28, 2016 at 3:12 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

That's a very American sort of thing, Noble Tufail. As we saw in old war movies. I suppose I was a bit unconventional in that way.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days