By David Flin
In the last article in this series, I referenced the grey African parrot, Coco, the most famous of all the guests of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I’m fairly certain that a lot of the stories that could be told about that particular time and place would fail the plausibility test.
Real life has the advantage over fiction in that fiction has to be somewhat plausible. Real life is not so constrained. It was the case that in Beirut during this period that the sane went crazy and the insane became the sane ones.
That was literally true. At one stage during the civil war, a mental health hospital was shelled repeatedly, and snipers took pot-shots at the people trying to get clear. No-one knows why the hospital was a target and I doubt anyone will ever know. It was, and it was just one more obscenity in an obscene situation. The doctors, nurses, and orderlies panicked. They couldn’t cope with the situation. By contrast, the patients remained calm and helped the staff get away, carrying those who had been wounded.
That’s just the way it is when militias and similar impose their own version of law and order. Anyone who ever thinks otherwise really does not have a clue.
I digress. The intention of this series of articles is to try and give a flavour of what such situations are like, not to rail about the fact that they are like that.
Sanity is not something many people retain for long. I could mention the ridiculous high-stakes poker that was played. As far as I could tell, there was a game constantly going on for three months, with people coming in and dropping out, but the game continuing. To give you an idea of how high-stakes it was, a pot would often contain more than a year’s pay for me. Under such circumstances, you learn to either take the game very seriously indeed, or not play.
I digress. I mentioned Coco in my previous article, and how he was able to imitate remarkably accurately the sound of an incoming artillery shell, causing much humour. Coco achieved legendary status, much more so than any of the humans there (with the possible exception of David Cornwell). Over the years, Coco was involved in many acts of humour.
On one occasion, the question of Coco’s gender arose. No-one knew how you told with a parrot. That wasn’t an area of expertise anyone was familiar with. What the price of drugs were, where you could acquire large volumes of firearms, knowing how to hide large sums of money about your person without it being found in a search; those were commonplace skills. Telling what the gender of a parrot was, not so much.
After a few days, it became a point of some heated debate. Remarkably, it became the subject of wagers. Given that Coco was the only African grey parrot in the city, it all seemed very theoretical, but I suspect that people were somewhat on edge. A news reporter had been murdered in the street outside the previous week.
There was one sure-fire way of telling that everyone understood. Female parrots lay eggs. Male parrots don’t. Of course, failure to lay an egg was no evidence either way, but laying an egg would be proof Coco was female. It is left as an exercise for the reader to evaluate how likely a single parrot was to lay an egg, male or female, without divine intervention.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when, a few days later, an egg was found in Coco’s cage. It must have been a miracle. It was an enormous egg, not much smaller than Coco. According to those who had wagered Coco was female, this made it doubly a miracle. According to those who had bet on Coco being male, this made it suspicious.
Far be it from me to suggest that fowl play was involved.
It had been noted that eggs had featured heavily in the menu over the previous few days. It had also been noted that Coco’s egg was suspiciously the same colour of standard chicken eggs, with a somewhat mottled effect.
Closer inspection revealed that the egg was surprisingly heavy. It was about the size of a fist. Had it been a genuine egg, poor Coco would have suffered.
It turned out that someone had carefully stuck egg shells onto a metal ball to create the appearance of an egg. Closer inspection revealed that this ball was, in fact, a grenade.
Naturally, it wasn’t a dummy. Dummy grenades were hard to come by, and were in remarkably high demand. They were useful for training. After all, you don’t want seven-year-old children training with real grenades. Seven-year-old children can only be trusted with real grenades when they’ve been trained.
Have I mentioned that the whole business was an obscenity?
I digress. No-one confessed to the crime of gluing egg shell fragments to the outside of a grenade. It was a very good job. They’d managed to get the right shape, and the surface was smooth. It looked like an egg. It was something of a work of art. It would have been wrong to destroy it.
It was left in the cage. That would have been an end to the matter, a little joke from a group of people who weren’t entirely sane. That would have been an end to the matter, had Coco not decided to take matters into his (or her, as the case might be) hands. Or beak.
Coco did not approve of the egg. She (or he, as the case might be) got annoyed and started attacking the egg with his (or her) beak. This was considered mildly amusing.
It became more amusing when Coco started attacking the firing mechanism. The M61 has a secure pin, with added safety features developed from unfortunate incidents during the Vietnam War.
It became a little less amusing when Coco started to succeed in removing the pin. Or more amusing, depending on your point of view and degree of insanity. I have since been assured that this is not possible. I suspect that whoever made the assurances aren’t familiar with how strong parrot beaks can be.
Someone (and it wasn’t me, I hasten to add) decided that it would probably be wise to remove the object from Coco’s cage before something unfortunate happened. The level of humour rose when Coco started attacking the person trying to remove the egg from his/her cage. Blood was drawn.
Laughter reached unprecedented level when the grenade was removed from the cage. It was observed that although the grenade was on the outside of the cage, the pin was on the inside. Roughly half of the people present were worried and took cover energetically. Roughly have were now nearly helpless with laughter, especially as the gentleman holding the grenade wasn’t sure what to do with it.
The M61 grenade had been designed with the jungles of Vietnam in mind, where branches and foliage can catch and remove a pin from a grenade. The M61 has a secondary locking device, a strap, that needs to be removed.
So that knowledgeable half of those present assumed.
Gentle reader, imagine the laughter when the person holding the grenade, on being informed about the secondary locking mechanism, remarked that this one didn’t have one.
Discussion turned to the subject of how much one could sell this particular grenade for. This was not appreciated by the man holding it, who would have preferred people turn their attention to his predicament.
Fortunately, the staff knew of an empty guest room. At the cost of considerable damage to the interior of the room, the problem was resolved. The cost of repair was added to the laundry bill of all present.
I still don’t know whether Coco was male or female.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages