by Tola Adenle

Before I take one step into this essay, there are some facts that are necessary to put things in better perspective, especially for the younger readers. In 1980/81, a round-trip first class ticket on Swissair from Lagos to the United States cost under fifteen hundred naira while a brand new Volkswagen Beetle cost under five thousand naira, insurance added. An office clerk who earned one hundred and twenty naira (N120) monthly bought an umbrella from her one month’s pay back then and had enough to last her the entire month, even if on a disciplined regime. The three facts stated above were not “as told” to me. Our office bought the Beetle for a staff member while the young lady who bought the umbrella back then also worked in our office and she lamented to me not too long ago how she was able to afford an umbrella out of her meager pay twenty-something years ago but was finding it difficult deducting five hundred naira to buy another umbrella from ten thousand monthly.

This essay is not about the run-away worthlessness of the Nigerian currency but the above anecdotes have to be brought in to let readers know that the incident that is narrated next is not ‘experience dropping’. A graduate in a paid employment with no access to stealing as is common these days could save an economy airfare to England from one year’s pay. We had two graduate members of staff who bought used vehicles from their savings; each earned under eight hundred naira a month during that same period. A First Class ticket will always be a big deal; it was in the early Eighties but it was do-able for a class that has long since disappeared from the Nigerian economic tapestry.

On a beautiful Spring afternoon at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in 1981, I was waiting to be attended to at the Swissair First Class counter when I saw an acquaintance. X was always full of life and his usual sunny disposition was as infectious as the Spring day outside the airport lounge. Wherever he went, people felt the sunshine that he seemed to take along on his life’s journey. It did not take any time for me to notice him, therefore. He greeted me breezily in his special Americana: “Hei, girl, where are you off to?” I told him I was on my way to Nigeria. “Me, too,” he replied before I could ask him the same question, and added – not for effect but in his usual can-do attitude, “but I’m traveling on the Concorde; I hope I’m not yet late!” “The last call for boarding was announced just as I got in line,” I stated. Of course X ignored me and went to the British Airways desk. He came back and confirmed what I had told him. “There are probably extra seats on this flight; why don’t you join us?” I asked. He was resolute in his decision to “have the experience of a lifetime” as he put it. “No, Tola, I’ll go back home (he lived in New York) and take tomorrow’s flight.”

As the entire waiting Business and First Class passengers gazed at him, X walked away with a swagger that seems to belong to mortals with absolute confidence in their destinies even if they are mere work-a-days. That was the last time we saw because he died not too long after. Even though we never saw after that memorable JFK encounter which I will always remember him by, I knew he did fly on the Concorde that next day.

As the Supersonic Transportation (SST), better known as the Concorde flew for the last time commercially this October, my mind went more than fleetingly to many things: the very transient nature of life, the need to live one’s life as best as one can while keeping in mind that what one leaves behind is the good deeds to others, the need to seize the time and, of course, the fact that I did not get to travel on the Concorde.

I first saw the big bird sitting like the product of the Japanese art of origami – no, it could not be an actual plane – at JFK in 1979 or so. We were waiting for a flight when this otherworldly apparition glided towards us, towards its parking berth right outside where we sat. Although I have read that the Russians were the first to fly a commercial SST in 1968, it was the Anglo-French product (1969) that captured the world’s imagination and attention, and I do not know what happened to the Russian plane. Looked at from the side, it was an artist’s perfectly-folded paper plane that sprung to life. Its nose – unlike that of the earlier fascinating 747 that resembled a dolphin’s nose – looked more like a sleek elegant and thin cone just like its very streamlined and narrow body. The thick glass walls prevented me from experiencing the noise which has been described as many times that of regular jets.

It would take almost fifteen years before I would watch the bird land in all its conservationists’ nightmarish glory, though still exceedingly beautiful, at Las Vegas Airport in the Nineties. Vegas was not a Concorde stop but the Administrators of McCarran Airport are always looking for something special to add value to the city and the special stop was arranged in ’91 or thereabout. Its arrival had been in the news for days and the airport is located right in the heart of town protected by high wire fence that allow interested aviation buffs to stay within a hundred yards or so from where most planes usually touched the ground first. I did not want to miss the occasion of the landing and I parked my car at Vegas main post office right across from the runway and walked across the major road separating the post office from the airport where I found myself in the midst of a groupie! Each held his ham radio closely to the ears, trying to listen to cockpit discussions of planes that were approaching.

We heard the noise before any of us saw the Concorde, and my, what a rumble! I understood then why people who lived in the path of its take-off which I understand is even noisier than the landing, had long prayed for its cancellation. Last week, as it flew out of JFK for the last time, the frustrations of people who had fought to see the end of the Concord were expressed in the words of a former state representative who live in the take-off path: “It is beautiful but we still do not want it.” Many described the horrors that its take-off every morning meant: rattling furniture, falling ceiling tiles, dishes in China cabinets that had to be tied down and a little boy stuck his fingers in his ears while grimacing when asked his reactions every morning when the Concorde departed. My tour of the interior, unlike my late acquaintance though, was courtesy the television that showed the partying atmosphere that lasted the entire three and a half hour flight from Kennedy to London. Then, as back in Vegas, I had goose bumps as the bird landed, more in sadness than in the joy I felt in Vegas more than ten years ago.

There is nothing new in the saying that I offer here that we must always seize the time to do the things that make us happiest and, especially the things that would benefit others even when the ‘others’ may not know we have helped them. In a country like Nigeria where the wealth of the country is in the hands of a very few, there are zillions of things that we can do to help others; things that do not need millions of naira before they touch the lives of the millions who live in poverty. It costs nothing, for example, to encourage people to send their children to go to school and costs very little to send that eight, nine or ten-year old “house girl” to school even if there would be nobody to thank us for it. Even elementary education is better than no education and if she’s still with you after elementary school, why not send her to high school? You would be a happier person for doing so. Or adopt a child – not as live-in but through sponsoring the education from primary through secondary school. For the cost of iro/buba “hand-cut lace”, you can get that poor woman you buy peppers from at the market an eye operation before she goes blind. I am sure we all know the zillions of little and big things – whichever we can do to make the world, nay, Nigeria a better place.

THE COMET ON SUNDAY, November 2003



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