Tag: dad

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; he’d have been in his late twenties 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):

Quote of the Day: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”


Anglo-Flemish School, Arthur, Prince of Wales (Granard portrait) -004.jpgNo, that’s not actually the quote of the day. It’s just a line from one of my favorite poems. The actual quote of the day for today, September 20, 2020, is:

“Of all losses, time is the most irrecuperable for it can never be redeemed.”–King Henry VIII

I have no idea if Henry VIII ever actually uttered those words. They’re included as a quote from Henry to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in an episode of the TV series The Tudors, and that’s close enough for gubmint work right now. Because it’s certainly true, isn’t it? I mean, which of us hasn’t, at some point in our lives, spent an inordinate amount of time on something; a job, a project, a relationship, a hobby, something, anything and somewhere along the way recognized what an utter bloody waste of time it is and has been? And then (at least if you’re me), who hasn’t spent even more time regretting, second-guessing, and trying to put things right before giving ourselves a metaphorical slap upside the head and moving on?

What do I owe you, dad?: A Letter


Dear Dad, 

We don’t talk much about feelings. Well, that’s actually not fair, I don’t talk much about feelings. That’s not on you, you’ve always been the person to cry at weddings and say ‘I love you’ with no hesitation, I guess I just turned out a little different. Doesn’t Stephen always say I was perfect to move to England because I’m so absolutely emotionless and taciturn? I do, though. Love you. A lot. A ‘I would kill for one of those bone crushing hugs at Logan Arrivals Gate E’ lot. 

‘He Hasn’t Got Any Underwear on Underneath Those Robes!’: Why Anecdotes Matter


Historians are often taught to begin their analysis by focusing on the big picture, the meta-narrative that spans decades and defines careers. But I think that the more mundane flotsam and jetsam of life have similar worth in explaining epochs, important lives, and the texture of history itself. It’s also still the Christmas season (at least until I have to fly back to England on the 18th) and after facing the terrifying milestone of turning 20, I’m in the mood for nostalgia. So indulge me, in telling a very Christmas-y story. 

My Dad grew up in a devout Baptist family and while he has strayed somewhat in terms of attendance and even denominational loyalty, he did come out of that upbringing with a deep suspicion of Catholicism. This made his choice to marry a Catholic girl from the next town over particularly perplexing. In due time, he had two daughters and allowed his wife, my mother, to raise us as Catholics, if only because he had no feasible alternative (having fallen away from the local Baptist community) and was adamant that we be raised to believe in something.

Memories: The Red Jacket


My dad was born on December 5, 1920. Dad loved wearing red; shirts, sweaters, pants, hats, and for the last decade or so of his life, a bright red windbreaker jacket. Me, not so much. In fact, I have always disliked wearing red. The closest I’d come was my blue Boston Red Sox cap with its red B.

Shortly after dad passed in 2014, my sister and I got together to go through his things. When we came across the red windbreaker I impulsively told her, “I’ll take it.” It was the only piece of his clothing I kept.

300: A Man, a Horse, and a Missionary Woman


The events related here took place a little over seventy years ago. They tell the story of a man and his horse. Together. Alone in the bush. The man, very ill. And afraid. The horse, very tired. He was probably afraid, too. And they tell the story of the extraordinarily brave woman who saved them both.

Some of you will recognize it as the récit d’enfance of Gagara Yasin, at the time a 29-year-old newly-minted colonial officer, the “lowest form of animal life” in the British administration of Sokoto Province in Northern Nigeria. He’d arrived in country the previous Spring, and had spent several months learning the ropes while his resolve, and his ability to think on his feet, were tested on a few small assignments (collecting the cattle tax from the nomadic Fulani farmers, investigating a case of witchcraft in Giro, delivering a baby in Bakin Turu). Finally, he was set (somewhat) free on his own, as a “Touring Officer,” a sort of roving junior Justice of the Peace, in and around Yelwa.

And so our story begins with our hero setting out on his first excursion, to reconnoiter the territory, and to meet the natives.

Quote of the Day: Fear God. Honor the King.


When my father, who was quite a colorful character, died in 2007, he was the subject of several obituaries in the UK. This one, from the local newspaper, is my favorite because it’s the most personal and tells the most stories. Most of them referred to a verse from 1 Peter 2:17, which Dad, who considered himself an old-fashioned High Tory, was fond of quoting: “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the King.”

Dad had a vast reservoir of sayings and quotations that could serve as a road map to his life. When one apposite to a particular occasion didn’t spring into his mind, I have a strong suspicion he simply made one up (you couldn’t tell). And over the source of an eventful life, he even became the subject of a few himself. A great many of Dad’s favorite touchstones are not suitable for rendition here, but all of them–including his regimental motto, Loyauté M’Oblige and the mock-Latin “illegitimi non carborundum”–speak to his sense of honor, his sense of self, his sense of purpose, his determination, and his sense that he was put on this earth to serve others besides himself.

Growing up in Dad’s shadow was sometimes tough. Learning from him and applying some of his lessons has sometimes been even tougher. But no-one, as far as I’m aware, has ever found himself less of a man or woman by emulating Dad. So, “little by little,” (another one, from an almost unreadable Victorian children’s book about a young and inherently noble boy who falls into folly and wickedness until he reconnects with God) his children do their best.

Carpe Diem!


I was very lucky for my first 54 years to find myself in the orbit of a man who lived life with more zeal than anyone I’ve ever known. Those of you who’ve read some of my posts will probably guess I’m speaking of my Dad, and you’re right! Please bear with me while I recount, in short form, some stories, a few of which I’ve told here before, that explain what I mean:

He was born on March 6, 1919, the fifth of six boisterous and energetic children, in Birmingham, England. Although not considered “intellectually gifted,” he was very bright and threw himself into his studies (the ones that interested him, at least) with gusto. One of his interests was play-acting, and he memorized yards and yards of Shakespeare, as he appeared at first in bit-roles, and then as major characters in school productions. But his pièce de résistance was his role as the Pirate King in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. At some point during his “I am a Pirate King” song, he flung his cloak open with great abandon, knocking all the footlights into the orchestra pit, injuring several musicians, and bringing down the curtain for the performance.

Then there was the time he and a couple of Army buddies found themselves in St. Peter’s Basilica, having marched into Rome with Mark Clark and his army in June of 1944. I suppose Dad’s ‘command presence,’ which he took with him everywhere he went for his entire life, must have been recognized by the Swiss Guard in their fancy dress, and the the three of them, as soon as they were spotted, were immediately whisked up a flight of stairs and into an unscheduled private audience with the Holy Father, who gave them each a rosary and engaged with them in a charming visit.

But Always As Friends


My Nigeria, the one that died on January 15, 1966, celebrated its independence from British rule 58 years ago today, on October 1, 1960. I was six years old. We stayed in country for another three years, with Dad working for the Nigerian government, charged with cleaning up tribal rivalries and corruption in the ancient Emirate of Kano.

You may never have heard of the ancient walled city of Kano. If it’s at all familiar to you, it’s probably because it was featured in one of the first news stories in which the use of underage and intellectually compromised female suicide bombers came to the attention of the Western world, as they blew themselves, and dozens of others, up in Kano Market.

I loved Kano Market. My heart broke for it then, and breaks for it now. For my friends For the stalls. For the vendors. For the lepers. For the Berbers. For the goats. For the camels. For the indigo wells (OK, so sue me. I’m a crafter and a dyer.) For the smells (well, perhaps not for the smells). But especially, it breaks for the vulnerable victims of the bastards who prevail. For now. I pray that it is just “for now.”

The King’s Shilling


The events recounted below are true, and took place in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria, in the Summer of 1947. The author was a young, newly arrived, civil servant in the British Colonial Service, recently separated from active duty in Italy and North Africa as a Major in the British Army. The gentleman in the photo to the right is a former slave, and the iron rings he is holding were his manacles. The term “The King’s Shilling” is used facetiously in this story: it is generally used to refer to the payment of one shilling to military recruits (and sometimes reluctant ones) in the United Kingdom between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

One morning Mallam Muhammadu Azare presented himself and announced that a girl was outside urgently asking to see me, as she was anxious to be officially manumitted from slavery. I must confess that at first I thought he was pulling my leg! Recourse to the legal books on the office shelf and a somewhat more careful inquiry of my mentor, convinced me, however, that this was not the case.

In the early 1900s, when Sir Frederick Lugard, began the process of replacing Sir George Goldie’s loose administrative system in Northern Nigeria with a formal British Protectorate, the issue that loomed largest (almost to the exclusion of all else) was the question of what he called “domestic slavery,” that is, the fact that most (if not all) of the domestic retainers of the Sultan and his Emirs (as well as of minor chiefs and many office holders too) were either people who had been born into slavery or who had actually been enslaved by capture.

To Dad on Father’s Day


Every Father’s Day for the last 40-odd years (ever since I moved out of the house) I would call my dad on Father’s Day and wish him a happy Father’s Day; even when we both still lived in Ann Arbor and I was going over later in the day to see him. Over the last few years he would try to call me first to wish me a happy Father’s Day; ater all, I had three sons, and dad thought I had done a great job raising them. We might chat a while about how things were going, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was in Texas and he was in Michigan and long distance charges were a thing.

Since 2002, when I moved back to the Houston area from Palestine, TX and cell phones and national plans made long-distance charges obsolete, I called him every Saturday morning and we reviewed the events of the week. Not the big national events. The small ones in our lives and the lives of our family.

Haven’t Got a Gift for Dad Yet? Here’s What Not to Get:


The Man Hanger: This is a clothes-hanger… but for men. It’s “Bent by hand from industrial-grade rebar,” and costs $25 per hanger. For those emergencies where Dad finds his “manly attire too much for wimpy regular hangers.” Yes, some regular hangers are wimpy. Others are not and will take up less space in your closet than rebar. And they don’t cost $25 a pop. If Dad is planning to hang a side of beef in the closet, he might appreciate a rebar hanger for Father’s Day. But otherwise, all this gift tells Dad is that he failed to teach you the value of a buck.

$200 Smart Socks with Matching Anklet: Yes, smart socks are a thing. The most annoying thing you’ll ever own, given the tendency of socks to file for divorce in the laundry. Many women have trouble keeping their socks from divorcing, and not to gender stereotype or anything, but men are usually worse at this than women. In all likelihood, all a gift of “smart socks” does is waste a serious chunk of change on annoying the “lucky” father who receives them. Now you’ve gone beyond, “Dad didn’t teach me the value of a buck” to “Annoying Daddy is worth at least 200 bucks to me.”

Mandles: You might think “mandles” is short for man-handles, and thus an adorable nickname for the love-handles on your favorite father, but it’s not. No, it’s short for man-candles. That is, scented candles marketed especially to men. ManCave (“Finally, candles for men!”) Candles is one such brand. There may be others lurking out there. Although scented candles are a stereotypically feminine item (really, incredibly feminine), there’s nothing wrong with a guy liking them. There is something wrong with thinking guys’ masculinity is so fragile it will be shattered by owning a candle not specifically marketed toward manly men of the male persuasion.

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Updates to my previous conversations: Dad:  home since mid-June, he’s doing well.  I think he’s had a wake-up call, and realizes ‘cheating’ on food by mouth can’t happen anymore.  We celebrated his 83rd birthday 8/2.  He had cataract surgery 8/4 on his right eye, and it’s now 20/30 vision.  His left eye gets done 8/18, […]

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Warning:  please don’t read if you have queasy stomachs. At the hospital:  Dad going to ICU after having stomach pumped out (has achalasia) and new feeding tube put in, aspirant pneumonia distinct possibility, called family, sitting in parking lot trying to face eating lunch (still diabetic), sister can’t get in touch with her husband.  Fine […]

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