GUS

After receiving my B.A. degree from Stanford in spring 1965, I lived with my mother and father for several months while I waited for September, when it would be time to head east to graduate school at Harvard, to begin work toward a Ph.D.in History. At that time my parents were living in Alameda, on the southeast side of San Francisco Bay, with my sister, who had just graduated from high school, in an apartment near a long sandy beach that looked out onto San Francisco Bay. In late August I took a bus over to the Cal campus in Berkeley and tacked three-by-five cards to every bulletin board I could find, saying I was looking for a lift to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had no car. For a few days there was no response and I started to worry. Then I got a phone call from someone who said his name was Gus. He explained that he had just received his bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Stanford and had been staying in Berkeley for the summer with friends. Incredibly, we realized, we had been classmates at Stanford but had never met each other there. Further, he explained, he was getting ready to begin work toward his Ph.D. at MIT. The price he proposed to charge me for sharing expenses on the drive east was fair and I liked the tone of his voice, so I didn’t question him further. We agreed on a departure date. On the appointed morning, as my father and I waited on the sidewalk with my luggage, Gus arrived, got out of his little white Chevrolet Corvair, and introduced himself with hearty handshakes and a large smile. His full name was Augustus Ogunbameru, he volunteered, and he was from Nigeria. There was some quick eye contact between my father and me. We both sensed that Gus was authentic. And I found myself interested in the prospect of driving across my native land with a visitor from Africa. We loaded the luggage, I said goodbye to my father, and Gus and I headed east. It took about two hours on the freeway to drive from the Bay Area to Sacramento. During that time, Gus and I talked mostly about our families. He explained that he was from a small town — which you could also call a big village – north of Lagos.

Northern Nigeria mountains and plains
Northern Nigeria mountains and plains
Wase_Rock
Nigerian village roadway

He had several sisters. His father was a local magistrate who owned a small farm. His mother kept the household and did odd jobs to provide extra income. Some of the details of Gus’s family life were especially interesting. For example, when I happened to remember a funny story about my family that involved a crowded bathroom and brushing our teeth, Gus told me that most Nigerians had no need for toothbrushes. There was a certain plant that grew everywhere in Nigeria, a reedy grass. You broke off a piece and scratched all of your teeth and your gums with it. It was sour. The taste was hard to endure. But the effect was medicinal, and Nigerians almost never had dental problems unless they drank Coca Cola. Shortly after we passed through Sacramento and were again in an agricultural area, Gus said he had forgotten to tell me about a detour he wanted to make. He had first come to America as a high school student, through the sponsorship of American missionaries, who had invited him to stay with a host family that lived on a farm north of Sacramento. The family’s children were all grown up now, but the farmer and his wife were still there. Gus had promised to stop in and say hello. He might also be saying goodbye, depending on whether he returned to Nigeria after MIT. We were soon at the farmhouse. It was a gray, weathered, wooden structure that looked like it had been built around 1900. The style was hodgepodge Victorian. Eucalyptus and willow trees clustered around the house providing shade and a windbreak. There were dairy cattle in the big white barn nearby. The farmer and his wife, who could have been models for the painting “American Gothic,” greeted us warmly and were in tears to see Gus again. We had lunch with them in their big kitchen, enjoying the fresh bread and ham served on old, heavy china. The couple explained that the house was now too big for them, but they couldn’t bear to leave. We said goodbye to Gus’s friends and drove back down to Sacramento and got onto the big highway that would take us east. We made our way up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, progressed over the summit and past the Lake Tahoe area, and crossed into Nevada. Gradually the highway began to descend downward. The thick evergreen forest, the granite outcroppings, and the Alpine features of the landscape began to disappear. Now the ground was drier, the soil was often red or gray, and there were fewer trees. By the time we neared Reno, the sun was down and the city night was a jumble of flashing signs advertising a hundred ways to gamble. Just east of Reno, too tired to drive another mile, we checked into a motel, ate dinner, and went to our room to retire.

Reno at night
Reno at night

Gus and I knew a great deal about each other by now, and had plenty of grounds for mutual trust. But there is something unavoidably disorienting about the first night of sleeping in a strange room with someone you have only just met. I felt an animal-like need to reassure myself that I would not be in danger if I went to sleep now. I also felt an upsurge of the racism that is latent in all Americans, no matter how open-minded they try to be. Although I had had black and Asian friends while growing up in Berkeley, I had never slept alone in a room with an African man before. And I suspected that Gus, from his point of view, was silently sorting through his feelings, which were probably the obverse of mine. Our situation was like the early scene in Moby Dick, where the American wanderer Ishmael and the dark skinned sailor Queeg Queeg find themselves sharing the same room at an inn and must work together to reconcile their mutual foreignness. It is interesting, in this respect, that, as we were preparing to turn the lights out, we were in a conversation about government. Something subconscious was probably going on. Government is a tool people use to get along with each other. Government is also discussable in the abstract. A conversation about government can be a muted way of addressing more primal aspects of getting along. I don’t remember what I said to Gus about American government that evening, but I do recall his description of socialism. He said that he believed socialism was the right kind of government for Nigeria and for most parts of Africa. Socialism provided a way to get big projects done, and it also harnessed the tribalism of Africa in a positive way by putting workers from different regions together in camps, group housing, and other arrangements where they could develop a collective unity based on a shared desire to get the job done. The key to cooperation was very simple. The first day you all found yourselves together, the leader of your project gave a short speech. The speech concluded, “You don’t have to love the other guy. Just don’t hurt him.”

East-West desert highway in Nevada
East-West desert highway in Nevada

The next morning we headed east from Reno across the Nevada desert. On the way Gus related an interesting story. I was telling him how the open sky and flatness of our surroundings made me remember what a vast country America is, and how many visitors from Europe have been surprised by the largeness. Gus digested my observation. Then he said, “But, you know, my part of the world is rather vast, also. Most Americans don’t know that. I realized the fact a few years ago. The Nigerian Ambassador invited me and some other students to go on a goodwill tour of California with him. One of the places we visited was Disneyland. Have you been there?” I said that I had. “Well,” Gus continued, “then you know how it’s divided into big sections, and one of the sections is Adventureland, and they have a ride you can take there, on the African Riverboat. Well, we all got on board, and the whole ride lasted a little less than an hour, and in that time we passed by fake hippos, we saw plastic flamingoes, we were attacked by mechanical crocodiles, the riverboat left the jungle and passed by a desert with snakes, and then we came to the savannah where there were lions chasing zebras and impalas, and some rubber giraffes peeked at us from behind trees, and somewhere in all of that we saw mountains that looked like Kilimanjaro, and of course there were fierce Watusi with spears, and those shields they have, with the faces painted on the front. And then, finally, we had gone full circle and were back at the dock, and we were all standing there and the guide asked my Ambassador, ‘Sir, did you enjoy the ride?” And my friend the Ambassador answered, “It was fun, and I thank you. But, you know, Africa is a very big place. We do have all of those things you showed us on the boat. But, actually, they’re rather far apart.”

Jungle Cruise entrance, Disneyland
Jungle Cruise entrance, Disneyland
Menacing plastic tribesmen, Disneyland Jungle Cruise
Menacing plastic tribesmen, Disneyland Jungle Cruise

We stopped in Salt Lake City for lunch, and then pulled into a gas station to refill our tank in preparation for the long, uphill climb east of the city, into the Rocky Mountains. At that point, fate was kind to us. In an ominous voice, the filling station attendant said, “You’d better get a new tire. I make a habit of checking travelers’ tires before they continue east. Your right front tire has a blister the size of a baseball. If you don’t change the tire, it will blow up on a sharp turn and you’ll flip into a canyon.” We bought the new tire.

Salt Lake City looking toward Rocky Mountains
Salt Lake City looking toward Rocky Mountains

On that second day of the trip, Gus and I worked out an interesting division of labor. We had already agreed that, to go as many miles as possible before stopping at a motel, one of us would nap in the car while the other was at the wheel. Early on the second night, however, as we were entering Wyoming, Gus told me he noticed I was squinting a bit, and that he had observed the same thing the evening before. “My night vision is better than yours,” he declared. “For the rest of the trip, we will time things so that I am the one driving after sundown. In Africa we don’t have as many lights as you do. I’m the one who should be taking care of us when it’s dark.”

The Interstate Highway connecting Wyoming and Nebraska
The Interstate Highway connecting Wyoming and Nebraska

We proceeded east. We were about a hundred miles west of Chicago when Gus asked, “Would you mind coming with me to Kalamazoo?” The name of the city has an odd ring to it, even for an American, who might recall the old Glenn Miller song, “I’ve got a gal in Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo.” The word sounded even more unusual when Gus pronounced it. In his Nigerian accent, the vowels were extra-long, each consonant seemed to be followed by a swallow, the letter “m” was hummed, and the last syllable of the word sounded as if it was the description of an old single-engine prop plane taking off. “Khah-lhah-mhah-zhoooo…” was what Gus said. “Kalamazoo is in Michigan,” I answered. “You didn’t tell me you wanted to go to Michigan.” “I went to college there,” Gus volunteered. This information was new. I realized that I had not bothered to ask Gus if he had studied anywhere as an undergraduate before transferring to Stanford. I shrugged. “Once we’re through Chicago, we can just turn north,” Gus said. “Don’t worry,” he added, “we can stay overnight when we get there, and the detour will only add half a day to our trip.” I shrugged again. “I want to see my old girlfriend,” Gus said. I laughed. “OK,” I said.

Western Michigan University campus
Western Michigan University campus

Not too many hours later, after checking into a motel in Kalamazoo, Gus and I were sitting in the nearly empty cafeteria of the student union building on the campus of Western Michigan State University. The time was around 8 p.m. A group of about seven American undergraduates was sitting a few tables away. All wore blue blazers with some kind of insignia on the upper left pocket. I guessed that the students were members of some kind of service club – “Future Business Leaders of America” or some such thing. That seemed to be the kind of activity given priority at the school, judging from the look of other students I had seen on the way to the cafeteria. We were at our table in the dining hall for about ten minutes when Gus’s girl friend appeared. He had phoned her from a gas station before we got to town. She was beautiful, and I was stunned by her brightly patterned Nigerian dress and headscarf. Several American women of her age were with her. She introduced them to us and explained that they were members of her sorority. All of us chatted for a while. Then Gus pulled the keys of his car out of his pocket and handed them to me with a big smile. “See you later,” he said to me. We all laughed and I excused myself and was happy to get back to the motel for some sleep. I have no idea when Gus came back. He was in our room the next morning, looking happy, when I woke up. We headed south from Kalamazoo and continued east. A day and a half later, we reached Boston late at night and made our way through the maze of old streets to Cambridge. Here we stayed overnight with several of Gus’s African friends who were already at MIT. The next day, Gus drove me to my graduate student dormitory at Harvard and we said goodbye.

MIT, main building
MIT, main building

I assumed that I probably would not see Gus again. But then, incredibly, in 2005, almost forty years after we had first met, I ran across him at a party in Boston. We gave each other a big hug and talked about the years since we had last been together. I was married by then and had a son. Gus was also married, with two children. In the early 1970s, he explained, he had obtained his Ph.D. in Chemistry from MIT and then returned to Nigeria to start a business in hopes of aiding in the economic development of his country. But then after several years of coping with governmental corruption, he returned to Boston and began a career as an environmental officer for the Massachusetts state government. We talked for half an hour or so and then went our separate ways. That, truly, was the last I ever saw of Gus, with whom I had shared a ride so many years before.

University building, Nigeria
University building, Nigeria

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