A few weeks ago I traveled in time, but not quite the way my characters do in my novel Future Past. I took a jet to Fort Collins Colorado to meet with a group of about twenty faculty and family members from an all-but-forgotten program that Colorado State University ran during the 1960’s.
The last time I’d seen these people was in 1967, in the month of May. I was ten years old when war came to Nigeria. The warning came at three AM for expatriate women and children to have one bag each and be on the van for a 6 AM departure from our quiet bungalows, headed for the city of Port Harcourt and evacuation back to the States.
After the declaration that Biafra was seceding from Nigeria, after all the negotiations, the little scares, the bloodshed that occasionally touched our servants’ families, or in our case, stained my father’s floor mat when he smuggled refugees, our turn to run had arrived. The men were told to remain, so there would be enough room for the women and children in the first wave of evacuation. Some weeks later they finally received orders to get themselves to safety.
Our time-travel crew met at a retirement home in Fort Collins, in a bright room with tables and chairs. Wonderful to see so many of the people who shared the compounds at Umudike and Enugu in 1967. Some faces I recognized – many of the faculty and graduate students who had gone to Nigeria to teach. I did a double-take on meeting Danny, for I remember him as a little mischievous boy of five years of age with yellow dandelion hair, and now he’s in his fifties, with glasses and long hair held in order with a brow-band. He’s a lot taller, too.
Joe M came over. He was using a walker for he’s now 94 years old, and he wanted to park it against the wall so he could move about freely. He immediately told daughter and myself that my father had saved his life twice during the evacuation from Biafra.
It seems that when the expatriate men received the order to evacuate, Joe tried to get his Volkswagen out of Biafra stuffed to the windows with all the goods he and his wife Enid imagined might be useful to their daughter Lynn in her new married life in Northern Nigeria. A run-away marriage, I guess, to a Scandanavian whose family lived far from Biafra in the North of Nigeria, who spoke Hausa fluently.
Joe told us that when my father Fred and he travelled together in the Volkswagen van to cross the borders into Nigeria from Biafra, Federal soldiers grew suspicious and started to act like they were going to shoot him at one station, because they found a compass in his glove compartment. Things heated up, then a junior officer came into the room, saw Fred and greeted him with delight, asked what the trouble was and gave Joe and Fred a pass written in Hausa to get them through the next few roadblocks.
A day or so later, on the road, the Volkwagen got stuck in a huge line of traffic at another checkpoint. Some hours into this, during which the line moved perhaps three car lengths, an army vehicle came along and pulled them out of line for special interrogation. Again, things went sour, progressing to very sour and Joe said that he honestly thought he’d never be released. Then a similar thing happened but this time it was a colonel who came in, recognized Fred and embraced him with delight, took Joe and Fred out of the interrogators’ hands and whisked them off to lunch at the officers’ mess. Joe’s head was reeling.
Joe summed up his story by saying that he thinks even to this day that without Fred, he’d still be in Nigeria, either in a hidden prison camp or in a grave under a palm tree. Fred never told us these stories of the evacuation. I remember how my father always liked spending time with the Nigerian servants and students, and how my mother scolded him to come in and eat supper instead of chatting. I guess Fred got the last laugh.
I am writing too long so I’d better stop. On the flight back home daughter expressed delight to have met these people out of the past. She said they stood larger than life, as though the experience of being caught up in the transformations of a foreign nation had marked them all for life, made them face the fact that there would never again be an ordinary life for them. That none of them could ever claim that they didn’t matter, that their lives held no significance, because they had been in one of the myriad tides of history and left some kind of mark.