Culture, Family, Family Matters

Happy Birthday, Dad: The “Gremlin in the Petrol Tank” Edition

One of the enduring memes (if we had had such a word to describe them at the time) of my childhood would have been my Dad’s invocation of the “gremlin in the petrol tank.”  He was prone to bring it up in any situation where something unexpected happened and a thing that was supposed to have taken a finite amount of time, or achieved a particular outcome, either disappointed in the first instance, or didn’t perform as advertised in the second.  Over time, we kids began to take it for granted.  “Oh, yeah.  There’s must be a gremlin in the petrol tank. No wonder it took so long.  No wonder it didn’t work.”  But, as we grew up, and as we demanded more in the way of Science! dare I say,  we began to doubt.  Was Dad simply saying this to cover up a defect in planning or execution?  Or was there, as Paul Harvey might have said, a “rest of the story?”  Dear readers, in Dad’s own words–on what would have been his 102nd birthday–here’s the “rest of the story,” told through the eyes of a young and vulnerable Dad. The events recounted here took place in 1947 or so, and he’d have been in his late twenties then, and hadn’t been in Nigeria very long.  (For the record, I have no knowledge of the “girl in Lincolnshire,” who appears in this tale rather like Coleridge’s “person from Porlock” and as far as I know, she is never mentioned again anywhere in Dad’s writings.  I’m just grateful she took herself off and left the field clear for my mother.  Otherwise there wouldn’t have been a me, and I wouldn’t have had such a Dad.  But here I am.  And without further ado, here he is, too):

“One day, I was out riding alone, trailing the course of the stream on which Zurmi was sited so that I always knew roughly where I was, when I heard a sort of whirring sound followed by a sharp thwack and found a poisoned arrow, still quivering, sticking out of the pommel of my (or rather the Waziri’s) saddle.

Who fired it, I did not know, and I did not propose to stay around to inquire. As it was, it was not more than a couple of inches from my fly buttons and if it had been the same higher, I should have been dead inside an hour, or if it had been the same lower, the Waziri’s horse would have succumbed.  When I told him about it, Mallam Muhammadu Azare merely said that it proved I bore a charmed life. This reputation stuck to me and later on had far-reaching consequences. [Brief–but inevitable–digression: A completely unexpected one of those  consequences, which occurred after Dad died, was a short piece by Mark Steyn in National Review’s Corner, where, in what Steyn called “a practical solution to big government,” he told the story of Dad’s intervention in the matter of the cannibal king who ate the local tax collector.]

My experience during the War had been that fear rarely strikes at the actual moment of danger, but occurs in its most devastating forms either in anticipation or–more often–in retrospect, when the realization of what might have happened really registers. So it was with me on this occasion.

That evening, after I had eaten, I was sitting in my deck-chair smoking my pipe, when it suddenly hit me and I found myself sobbing bitter tears. What was I doing here, in a foreign land, miles from anywhere or anyone, unable (almost) to talk with those people I did see, and utterly without solace or companionship?

When I was a boy we had an old, oaken, His Master’s Voice gramophone with a huge wooden horn. We also had a collection of patriotic records by Peter Dawson: Drake’s Drum; Yeomen of England; The Fishermen of England, etc. On the flip side of one, was The Dear Homeland, which chronicled the pangs of separation endured by an expatriate “far across the sea.” That night, I wallowed in its sentiment:

In the dear homeland far across the sea,
Did they wonder was I happy, did they dream of me?
Did they sometimes long just to clasp my hand,
Or perchance was I forgotten in the dear homeland?

At last, somewhat shamefacedly lest anyone should see me in such a state, I got up and wandered off, taking Dusty, my Airedale, with me. It was a quite glorious night, such as is only seen in Africa. The Southern Cross was low in the sky in one direction and Polaris, a bit higher, in the other. And in between, set in a cloudless heaven, there were thousands upon thousands of twinkling pinpoints of light. Myriad stars and Venus, Mars and constellations that even I could pick out. Cassiopeia, Orion, the Plough and Little Bear–and over all, a full moon. Those same stars and moon, I reflected were shining too at home. We were all under one roof!

Suddenly, I felt at peace. Africa had won. I could cope, and my pride dictated that the least I could do was give it a fair try. Nevertheless, I continued to write to a girl I knew in Lincolnshire and had she given me the slightest encouragement, I might well have packed it in then and there.  As it was, she never replied and it was several months later that a piece of her wedding cake arrived by post.

About three weeks after my epiphany, a message arrived by telegraph to Kaura Namoda (the railhead of the Gusau branch line), thence carried on foot, stuck in a cleft stick–to keep it free from sweat–telling me to move to Moriki and inspect the District Headquarters there and then pay off my carriers and return by train to Gusau, on a given date when I would be collected by the provincial truck and taken back to headquarters in Sokoto.

I finished up the inspection in Moriki and was then confronted with the conundrum of how to get back to Kaura Namoda, where I could pick up the train to Gusau. (The Waziri’s horse was no longer in the picture, as he and his groom had already set off home.)

I solved the puzzle by booking passages for myself and my staff in one of the “mammy wagons” that ply their trade, largely as did the ubiquitous common carriers in country districts in my childhood. This one, however, was slightly different.

To begin with, the driver was an Ibo, with very little English and even less Hausa. There were many like him in the Sabon Gari (New Town) of Gusau, which drew itinerant workers from all over Nigeria to its railway center.

NigerianNext, the highly decorated Bedford 3 tonner bought as a “flat” with a ramshackle wooden superstructure built on to it locally, appeared, to my unpracticed eye, as grossly overloaded. Mallam Muhammadu, however, all but said al Machiavelli, “né può essere, dove è grand disposizione grande difficultà” (“with great willingness there cannot be great difficulty”), and by then I had sufficient faith in his judgement to put my own fears to rest and to concur with his advice.  So I willingly climbed on board and hoped for the best.

We had barely done eight of the forty or so miles that we had to go before we ran out of petrol.  The lorry was unloaded, with everything being emptied out of it, starting with its passengers, until a 40-gallon drum of petrol was located and could be rolled over the edge of the backboard so that some fuel could be drawn off and the tank filled (or so I thought).

Three times this procedure was gone through before I asked the driver why he did not put more petrol in the tank when he stopped the first time. His answer completely flummoxed me “Noo Sah!” he said, emphatically, “Noo Sah! No can do! Small juju in tank ‘e done chop dem petrol plenti wan I go fillum!”

I did check, when we got to Kaura, and there was a crack in the side of the petrol tank and some signs of seepage from it. Doubtless, this was where the “small juju” had his habitation, and where he sat to drink the petrol!

The next day we caught the train to Gusau. Thence, as ordered, to Sokoto; me, my staff and Mallam Muhammadu via the provincial truck (which had a fully-functional, non-leaking, petrol tank) driven by Moman, the others with seats on one of the railway motor lorries that regularly ran between Gusau and Sokoto with goods and a few passengers carried in a modicum of comfort.”

One of the joys of the Internet is that I can revel in Dad’s memoirs and, at the same time, look up his references, bringing them to life and drawing him closer.  I think that two of the best uses of 21st-century technology are remembering and connecting.  Mr. Right was fond of noting that the members of his generation–he was born in 1938–were among the first who could see the panoply of their entire lives recapitulated in real-time audio and video before their very eyes.  (Much good it has done us, I sometimes think, given how prone we are to repeating the mistakes of the past, even when its mirror and its echoes thrust themselves before us every day.)

Unfortunately, the darker climes of the technological landscape in which we live are sometimes used by the stupid, the venal, the false, the desperate, the cynical, and the cruel to destroy, to defame, to gaslight, to grandstand, to manipulate, or–increasingly–to cancel. And much of Dad’s life, and his honor, vision and humanity, stemming as they did from his foundational beliefs in his God and his country, are ripe today for mockery, insult and cancellation.

Happy Birthday, Dad.  A part of me is glad you’re not here to see it.  Another part of me misses you every day.

And with that, remembrance and connection, for Dad, and for all of us sometimes wistful expats, whoever and wherever we may be:

I awoke once more, on my way I went
And my soul is overflowing with a deep content.
In the dear homeland far across the sea
They remember me, they miss me, and they pray for me.

Oh, how I hope that will always be true.


3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Dad: The “Gremlin in the Petrol Tank” Edition”

  1. Just got off the phone with Auntie Pat (98 in July, may she live forever, and the last surviving of Dad’s five siblings–second from right in the back row). As she always does, she sends greetings to my American friends and her thanks for the USA’s intervention in the War. She remembers.)

    I thought I’d test my theory, so I asked her about the His Master’s Voice gramophone (“Yes, it was one of the original ones”) and the Peter Dawson records. “Oh, yes. Lovely songs about Drake and British history. We had opera and music-hall songs too” I told her I’d found some of Dawson’s songs on the Internet, and would she like to hear some bits of them? She would! She didn’t remember Dear Homeland, but gleefully launched into “Drake is in his hammock/And a thousand miles away” with Peter when he got started.

    It was a wonderful moment.

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