The last leg of any journey into Our Little Patch of Jungle, Nigeria was by way of Pro-Puddle-Jumper (name changed to
protect the innocent throw off any strayCarcharodon legalii who happen to drift by my blog), which meant it was also the first leg out of Home.
So, there we were. Flying into Africa for the first time.
I probably should have been a bit concerned as we were loading on board, and my father (a licensed pilot) stopped in the cabin and looked about with a raised eyebrow — but I was young and this was a fantastic little plane!
The pilots sat up front behind a thin partition (Select Grade banana crate, as it turned out) with a little curtain (appropriated from a shower in a Port Harcourt hotel, complete with mildew) that could be slid back-and-forth to allow the pilots to do Pilot Stuff.
On the right side of the plane there was a row of two seats, then an aisle and a series of single seats against the left wall of the cabin. I, of course, got to sit in one of the single-seats with my knees right up against the bulkhead (… ineapples, Prod. Of Nige …), until about halfway through the take-off trundle.
When the pilots stopped right dead square in the middle of the Lagos runway, came back into the cabin and moved everyone around, redistributing weight.
Dad wound up in my seat, and I had to sit in the back next to Mom. This was, as it turned out, a fortuitous move, but it irritated the hell out of me at the time.
The take-off was nothing special, and the flight — other than being bumpier than hell — was pretty routine. Until we were about twenty minutes out of our destination.
My father was chatting with the pilots, when he suddenly stopped and cocked his head. He listened for a second, then leaned forward and rapped gently on the instrument panel with a knuckle, causing a light bulb to fall out of its socket onto the floor.
Dad picked up the tiny bulb, contemplated it for a moment, regarded the pilots, then leaned forward and twisted it into its socket.
The light bulb immediately lit up, and I’m here to tell you it was one of the brightest, most-intense shades of Oh-[Deleted] Red that I’ve ever seen.
The co-pilot immediately looked at Dad and held a finger to his lips, while his other hand unscrewed the bulb from the socket, “It’s okay,” he murmured in a sotto voce tone that swept throughout the entire cabin, “Happens all the time. When the light comes on, we’ve usually got enough pressure for another 15 minutes or so.”
Meanwhile, the pilot is gingerly shaking the yoke. “Bob,” he whispers.
“Got some sodding fungus or other around here that noshes on the rubber seals something fierce.”
“Bob,” hisses the pilot, taking a firm grip on the yoke.
“We call the home office and tell them about it, they say there ain’t no such plant, and we’re just fibbing to cover poor maintenance.”
Dad is looking at the white knuckles of the pilot.
“I sez to the home office: ‘It ain’t a plant, it’s a fungus. They’s two different things’, but no-oooo…”
“Robert!” snarls the pilot. Dad reaches up, points two fingers at his eyes, then points — most firmly — in the direction of the pilot.
“What?” says the co-pilot, then he gets a look at the expression on the face of the pilot, “Oh, bugger!”
Things got — really fast.
The co-pilot practically exploded in his seat, arms and straps flying about, then starts digging in the shelf behind his head, flinging magazines (of an adult nature) and various other sundries, until he comes up with a gallon bottle of rot-gut gin.
He then sprints the five steps of the aisle, murmuring, “Nothing’s wrong lads. Everything’s perfectly okay. Just a bit of a bump in the road, that’s all.”
I assume he was talking to Chris and I, but I’ve never really been certain. Meanwhile, Dad has leaped into his empty seat, and has both hands on the yoke.
Anyhoo, the co-pilot yanks open a small hatch in the floor, reaches inside and fiddles with bits, then says to my mother, “Listen, love. Would you be a duck and reach under your seat? There should be a tool-bag, ah! Would you find me a spanner, then?”
Mom pulls a wrench out of the tool-bag and hands it to him. He reaches inside the hatch and makes unscrewing motions, then pours a good dollop of gin into the hatch. Pauses, then pours another dollop down his own throat, coughs explosively, and pours another measure into the hatch.
The pour, pause, pour, cough, pour pattern continues for a bit, then the pilot gives a whoop and a fist appears around the banana crate partition, thumb pointing up. The co-pilot dumps another bit of gin into the system, then holds his hand out to my mother.
Mom digs around in the tool-kit and comes up with a … mostly … tubular object in a particularly violent shade of purple. She looks at the co-pilot, eyebrow raised.
“Nah, nah,” says that worthy, unperturbed, “That’s oil system. We need hydraulics. Smaller, should be green.”
Mom digs around some more, finds a similar object in acid green and passes it along. It disappears into the hatch.
“Mallet.” A wooden mallet is located, passed to the co-pilot, who proceeds to bash away enthusiastically inside the hatch.
“Gaffer tape.” Half the roll disappears inside the hatch, then Bob shuts the hatch with a satisfied air, dusts off his hands and makes his way back up the aisle to the cock-pit, ruffling Chris’s hair on the way.
At the cockpit, he extracts two cigarettes from a pack, puts them in his mouth, lights them and passes one to the pilot, offering the other to Dad.
Dad murmurs that he’s a pipe smoker and offers the seat to the co-pilot.
“No, no,” says the pilot. “You stay there. Bob will be in the back, pumping the gear down. Now, when we get to the aerodrome, there is a highway that crosses the landing strip. Probably some bloody cows, too. We’ll come in low, so that the lazy bastard at the gates will wake up and close off the highway. The lower, the better. That way we don’t have any autos making problems, and the plane scares off the bloody cows. Then we come back, and we land. All okay?”
Dad blinks at the pilot, looks at Bob who nods happily, thinks for a moment, and sighs, “Give me that cigarette.”
Five minutes later, in front of a cattle herder who was shaking his fist at us and screaming imprecations as his herd stampeded into the jungle, we set down at the International Aeroport pictured above, and taxied to a picture-perfect stop next to the corrugated-tin control tower — also pictured above.
The co-pilot grinned at my mother, opened the door, lowered it to form the stairsteps for leaving the aeroplane, then jumped to the bottom of the steps. Tipping his hat, he gallantly held out a hand for Mom, “Welcome to Africa!”
The door/steps fell off the hinges, landing in the West African clay with a certain authoritative thud.
“Bugger!”, yelped Bob, “Didn’t we fix that?!”
Dad grinned at Mom, jumped to the turf, turned around and lifted her down.
And that was my introduction to Africa. God, I miss that place sometimes.