My Dad is generally considered a safe pair of hands.
And rightly so.
After a lifetime spent in schools he has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous children (and one or two teachers) and remains to this day enthusiastic about Teaching. He enjoys being in the company of other people and is naturally inquisitive and quick-witted. He is fascinated by language and the links and connections that can be traced from one tongue to another. He will talk with anyone, especially if they speak a language other than English. He is brave and cool under pressure as demonstrated for instance as a younger man, in his climbing exploits and on the countless expeditions and treks he led or accompanied. As I have said before, I would have followed him (and still would) to the ends of the earth without once feeling the need to look up and check whether he knew where we were going. However, once or twice, on occasions which hold legendary status in family annals, his ‘superhero cape of invincibility’ has got caught in the revolving door of human frailty.
He won’t thank me for this, but I’m going to share two examples with you.
Once upon a time we had a Vauxhall Viva. (Now there’s a sentence I never guessed I’d find myself writing) Dreadful car. Looked a bit like a filing cabinet mounted onto a Wickes’ trolley. Me and my two brothers would sit in the back where, particularly on long car journeys we would pass the time by wrestling with each other. After which we would then wrestle with our own particular levels of travel sickness. A major cause of this, I was convinced were combustion fumes, which came up through the small exposed areas between the gear lever and handbrake. Even with the windows open, this petro-chemical fug persisted and was not eased by the clouds of tobacco smoke which billowed at regular intervals from the front of the car. My Dad was a heavy smoker (probably 40 a day) My Mum meanwhile, would have the odd one or two at the weekend, saint’s days, weddings, christenings etc.
That’s it! That’s the bloody thing.
Vauxhall Viva 90 ‘De-luxe Red’ (?) 1966
So we had this Vauxhall Viva. It began to cause us problems when one day it just stopped. On investigation, my Dad concluded it was a fault with the fuel pump. Every now and then the vehicle would begin to lose revs, splutter then stop.
My dad had it sorted, all he needed to do whenever it happened, was remove the pipe from the carb feed, get his mush around it and suck the reluctant fuel from the pipe, initiating flow then re-attach: in much the same way as you might syphon off fuel from a vehicle (Oh yes, if any of my dad’s escapades resulted in useful skills/knowledge we were quick to assimilate. Nothing was ever lost. For instance this little gem of practical know-how proved exceptionally popular among my mates when we wanted to see if we could drive the JCB on a nearby building site and needed fuel to accomplish our goal)
While My Dad performed his mechanical wizardry, we would sit in the car, waiting with an uncomfortable mixture of pity and eager anticipation of the “Yeeeuuck!” and spitting that followed and which signalled a mouthful of 4 star; but more importantly, that we would soon be on our way again.
We put up with this for about a month or so until one day my Dad decided, probably on the back of an outburst from my Mum, to do something about it.
My memory is clear, I can see the car parked on the driveway of our house, which incidentally had been inexplicably christened ‘El Genina’ by its previous owners. After some exhaustive research recently I managed to find out that this mysterious name carved into the substantial chunk of wood that to this day, hangs on the right hand, front of the house means ‘The Genina’
Just on the left here
It was getting cold and light was fading. Why my Dad was attempting the repair so late in the day I don’t know. What I do know is that immediately he hit a stumbling block.
I am probably imagining this, but it seemed in our house, there were never any spare batteries for any of the implements, tools or toys which required them. Consequently when he went to the garage to grab a torch he found none of them working. However, as he turned to leave, his eyes happened on a box of candles, from which he took one, then a box of Swan Vesta matches from the drawer in the kitchen. He then went out into the quickly fading afternoon light.
I guess by five minutes later I was warming my chilled hands on fairly robust flames which were licking their way out of the engine recess of the Vauxhall Viva on the drive outside our house.
‘Quick phone the Fire Brigade!’
Shouted my Dad, presumably to my Mum, because that’s exactly what she did. In fact, I’ve a sneaking suspicion she began dialling as soon as she realised that he had taken a candle with him. In the meantime we had the fire under control, smothering it until finally it was extinguished. Quick thinking.
The candle, as you may have predicted, although undoubtedly in its element on a table with half a dozen place settings, or to create a bit of atmosphere; on an altar with bread and wine, was not best suited to such close work of a mechanical nature. Or being in such a cramped space, where everything was liberally coated with petroleum, in air that hung heavy with fuel vapour.
Besides which, the bloody thing fell over before he had even started and went skittling down between the fuel pump and engine block.
‘What’s that? ….’ In the far distance, a siren.
‘Oh bloody hell it’s the Fire Brigade: Tell them it’s OK it’s all under control.’
Now I don’t know whether you are aware, but once the Fire Brigade log a call, they have to attend, regardless whether the emergency has been dealt with, and only when satisfied there is no further danger, can they return to the station. Sensible protocol, I have to admit. However, when you’ve got a fire tender, with the harsh noise of its diesel engine, (which they have left running, as they have the flashing blue lights:) its crew standing around on the pavement outside your house, and the whole neighbourhood out to watch the spectacle, you can’t help wishing they’d just disappear.
Much to our embarrassment, the whole Son et lumière experience not only continues, but it gets worse.
‘Can we have a word Sir?’ a couple of the senior fire officers take my Dad to one side. My guess is it is not to confirm his entry in this year’s ‘Fire Safety’ awards.
‘Oh shite, here’s another one. We’ll never live this down’
A Fire Engine: In case you have forgotten what they look like
A second tender pulls up, the growling beast blocking the road now, causing even more disturbance. Its crew leap down. They huddle with the remainder of crew one, and talk conspiratorially, the occasional guffaw (I assume at my Dad’s expense) punctuating the evening air. Blue lights flicker, radio crackles. After what seems like days, in a flash, the firemen leap in, engines rev and they are gone. Leaving a street full of twitching curtains and diesel fumes in their wake.
To this day my Dad has never mentioned what it was the firemen said to him about his ‘candle capers’
And I’ve never asked.
‘Phew! That was close’ he said, finally after they had gone, looking uncannily like Groucho Marx, an oily black smear across his
top lip, his eyebrows, black singed and shapeless. All that was missing was the cigar …..
…. Christmas that same year, or it might have been the one before, or the one after; it doesn’t really matter. He had the cigar. It was definitely Christmas, because that was the only time he ever smoked cigars, and it was usually when my uncle and family came over to visit. He always brought cigars and thus, sets the backdrop to our second tale.
In which my Dad is smoking a cigar.
I love the smell of cigar smoke. To me it is Christmas. I would watch intently as my uncle slowly and deliberately went through the ceremony of lighting up. (After first offering one to my Dad of course) To begin, he would prepare his ‘tools’: His cigar cutter – he favoured a guillotine type, with which he would remove the cap, which is the round piece of tobacco glued to the head to keep the wrapper together. The cap is added, during the hand-rolling process to keep it from unraveling and drying out. Matches – good quality; not paper matches or those on which the sulphur burned overlong.
Cigars are hygroscopic in nature. This means that they will, over time dry out when in a dry climate or absorb moisture in a humid one, and they continue to do so until their own moisture content matches that of the ambient climate around them. A damp cigar will not burn properly. It will be difficult to draw on. The smoke may become too dense leaving the smoker with a sour taste and a rank aroma. Never mind his companions. A dry cigar, meanwhile, will burn too hot. the combustion temperature will be too high and the smoke hot and acrid against the palate. Lost will be many of the subtle nuances of flavour; the smoke (and sometimes even the smoker) may become overly aggressive. So they had to be right. The cigar should not be too soft or squishy, it should only “give” a little. Neither should it be too dry or fragile. He would slowly roll the big Cuban between his thumb, index and forefingers, holding the cigar to his ear he would listen for the faint cracking sound which affirmed that it was in tip-top condition. Satisfied, he would then tap it and unwrap it … or was that the Terry’s Chocolate Orange? (I don’t know. I’m bloody making it up as I go along as usual.)
Anyway, whatever … It had a touch of class about it, back then in what was otherwise the cheap plastic/ K-Tel/ Watney’s Red Barrel/ Brentford Nylons mess known as ‘the early 1970s.’ The perfumed smoke spiralled and eddied around our front room and carried us off, away to exotic foreign climes. On return from which, us kids: me, my brothers and my cousins formed a disorderly queue to ‘have a drag’ which, of course was almost enough to make us throw up on the spot, but not before each of us in turn had gone through a palette of sickly greens and greys. ‘Subtle nuances of flavour’? I thought – or would have done if I had known what it meant. ‘ That’s awful’. Which is why I to this day, love the smell of cigar smoke … as long as someone else is smoking them.
Slowly roll between thumb, index and forefingers, listen for the faint cracking sound which affirms that it is in tip-top condition.
Then the Cretins descended upon us. The Cretins were a thoroughly disagreeable family from two doors down, who thought nothing about inviting themselves in and ransacking your house and spoiling whatever it was you were doing. Smart arse, whingeing, four-eyed, buck-toothed, no-neck little shit-cake bakers, they were all of them Gobshites, as we say in Old English. As I recall, there were three boys, possibly two of them twins. And a dopey sister. She was just as bad as the boys, only three weeks behind.
I remember being outside their house one time. The elder – Richard or maybe Nicholas was arguing with a younger brother over something minor and trivial, as the younger lad made to walk away, his sibling carefully and deliberately stuck out his foot to trip him over. Which he did, falling literally flat on his face. As he lifted his head up off the road (It was horrible really, but pure Tom and Jerry) and started that familiar deep inhalation which signalled an ear-curdling wail was on its way, I noticed to my horror that his two (new) front teeth were lying, snapped off like two pieces of chewing gum – fresh out of the pack on the tarmac before him
‘You bafftard’ he shouted after his vile brother, who was fast-disappearing into the distance.
My cousins looked nonplussed as the Cretins took over. It seemed they wanted to play ‘Top Dog!’ A simple enough game, it was one they had invented themselves and entailed each in turn going through a list of their Christmas presents in order to decide ‘Who got the best stuff’ and whoever did – usually one of them – was winner or ‘Top Dog!’
Some five minutes later, Nicholas or maybe Richard was duly announced ‘Top Dog!’ by none other than himself. At their insistence we moved on to another version of the game in which ‘other significant possessions’ acquired during the course of the year were examined in the same way. This was one step too far for our relatives, who at this at this point bailed out. Unfortunately, I for my part was not doing too well. My stuffed Jackdaw and birds’ egg collection had failed to ignite much interest. And while my signed photo of Barry Sheene was enough to raise a couple of eyebrows and reveal some buck teeth, it simply wasn’t in the same league as the sleek, formula 1 styled go cart, and Raleigh Chopper of the Cretins. However, the fishing tackle belonging to my brothers had a big impact. They demanded to see more.
In order to score the maximum visual effect, we decided to lay everything out in the front room so they might get a better view. This also meant that the handsome wicker fishing kreel (robust box or basket which serves to carry one’s gear, and once fishing, something sit upon.) could be emptied, fully inspected and admired.
Much in the style of a ‘table top’ jumble or car boot sale, all the items were presented on the carpet in their full glory. Reels, line, lead shot and ledgers, disgorger, bait tins, hooks, flies and spinners. Spinners! those ingenious devices of painted or enamelled metal or wood, designed so that when dragged through the water by the ‘reeling in’ action of the fisherman, they mimic the colouring, marking and most clever of all, the movement characteristics of small fish or water animals in order to catch a bigger fish.
Spinner. Looks great. We never caught anything with them.
‘Let us look’ screeched a Cretin and snatched the Spinner I happened to be holding, and which was tied to a line (and rod) ready to fish. ‘Wassis?’ He demanded, so I explained.
It was a close call, but in the end, there was no doubt: A Scalextric, Subbuteo (with floodlights) plus an Action Man with a German uniform. We had no chance. Richard or Nicholas was pronounced winner and immediately demanded his ‘prize’. What prize? There was a long pause, followed by that familiar deep inhalation which signalled an ear-curdling wail was on its way. ‘Oh your Prize …. Ahhhh, Now then ..’ I hesitated, then suddenly had a great idea. In keeping with smoking etiquette, my Dad and my Uncle had left long butts on their now-extinguished cigars. Of course it is deemed to be bad form’ to smoke the cigar so that it burns close to its head. Each still had a good four inches of ‘smokeable’ tobacco’ . I glanced at the remnants in ash trays on the table. My brothers seemed to have cottoned on. It didn’t take long to convince the Cretins that with their ‘prize’ they had struck smoking gold. With a handful of matches, they were packed off home with their ‘prize’, via the back of next door’s garage, where, (as we hoped) they ‘sparked up’ the cigar butts. Now they may have been experienced cigarette smokers, but they were unprepared for the searing, burning of their throats and lungs, when as we had instructed them, they drew the cigar smoke in as deep as they could and held it. Whereupon each of them in turn went through a palette of sickly greens and greys and threw up.
Of course you don’t, as a rule, inhale cigar smoke.
Later that afternoon, my Dad and my Uncle indulged themselves in a second cigar.
Once again the room became host to the spirals and eddies of thick tobacco smoke. But he post-meal quietude was suddenly shattered with a curse and a yelp of pain. My younger brother was hopping about, one foot in the air. Oh bugger! The fishing tackle! One of the Cretins had left a ‘spinner’ on the carpet. It was the ‘business-end’ of one of these handsome objects consisting of three hooks, which was now tightly embedded in my brother’s foot and source of all the mayhem.
After lengthy attempts to remove it (unsuccessfully) and a lot of cursing by my brother (successfully, in as much as he selected appropriate words – some of which we didn’t even know he knew, and used them in an appropriate context) the only solution was a visit to Casualty concluded my Dad.
So my brother was bundled up in a blanket, injured foot hanging out and some 6 inches or so of fishing line (now cut from the rod you will be pleased to know) dangling from the offending hook and carried out to the car, nobly by my Dad, second cigar still clenched between his lips/teeth, much in the manner of an American comic-book war hero. Once alongside the car (yes, that’s the self-same Vauxhall Viva we all know and love.) my Dad, carefully stoops down to hand my lame sibling into the vehicle. However, as he does so, to add insult to injury – or more properly injury to injury – his cigar end is brought into sudden and painful contact with the forehead of my stricken brother, causing a handsome burn as it does so.
‘Not to worry …’ assures my Dad ‘… They can look at it while they do your foot’
Whereupon, he climbs in, shuts the door and starts the car. It fires up, he backs out of the driveway, and with a glance back at my brother to check his condition, my Dad puts his foot down: destination Hospital. At which the car loses revs, begins to splutter and stops …
© Andy Daly 2011
Pic Credits: Google Earth, freephoto.com, UKStudentlife.com, Tedcarter.co.uk