Today, exactly thirty years ago, I arrived the United States.
Also, it is exactly thirty years ago I was in a plane crash.
It was the Nigeria Airways. Thirty odd years ago, and the memory is so vivid it feels like it happened yesterday.
A plane crash is not like a car crash. I’ve survived a couple of car crashes. A Car crash feels like a slow-motion movie.
A plane crash is different.
Have you ever watched a horror film before?
You are in your comfortable theater seat.
The horror film is unrolling, and the actions are spilling off the screen into your seat, as you watch, petrified.
You want to get up and flee. But you have been commanded to fasten your safety belt, and you know there is nowhere to run.
Besides, you paid to watch this horror film.
I did pay the Nigeria Airway to carry me from the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos to the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
By the way, both Murtala Muhammed and JFK were both highly beloved presidents shot to death by stupid assassins.
I left Nigeria September 1, 1992, en route to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to start studying for a doctorate degree and also to continue my career as a university teacher.
I held an appointment to teach at the same university where I was going to study. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
I was also at the top of my game as an artist. My work was selling like hot cakes in Nigeria.
But I decided to abandon that career to see what the US had to offer.
I sure had one or two things to offer in return for whatever she gave me.
Besides, I was pissed with Nigeria: I had just been humiliated at the Muritala Muhammed Airport, where I had slept on the bare floor for three days before they gave be a boarding pass to get on the plane.
If not for the intervention of the legendary soccer wizard, Segun Odegbami, a friend of Tunde Fagbele, who was my friend, I probably would never have been given a boarding pass, though I paid full fares to fly from MMA to JFK.
As sat in the plane, which was half-empty when we took off, I swore I was never returning to Nigeria, after suffering the indignity inflicted on me.
You didn’t know someone who knew someone, you got wasted.
I was fuming, as I settled into my seat.
I had three seats to myself.
As the plane took off, I looked out through the window and blew Nigeria a farewell kiss. I still loved her, but I was getting a divorce from this abusive relationship.
A beautiful young woman was on the seat behind mine. She also had all the three seats to herself.
She was the one who told me where my seat was located as I rushed into the plane last minute before take-off, frantically looking for my seat.
“23A is right there,” she told me, pointing at the seat in front of me.
I thanked her, placed my hand luggage on the top compartment and sank into my seat.
Soon after the plane took off, the cabin crew, in the smart green and white attires served us food and drinks. I drank two bottles of Star beer to wash down the rice and stew dish.
Soon afterwards, I was sound asleep.
When I woke up, it was dawn. They served us breakfast. I have omelets an toasts with coffee.
Soon after they cleared our breakfast things, I felt a touch on my shoulder: it was the lady seated behind me.
“Mind if I ask you are question?” She asked. I shook my head. I was excited.
By that time, I had forgiven Nigeria. I might return I decided.
Most of the folks are amazing: just a few s-holes were screwing up the country, I decided.
And, besides, where on earth could you find women this beautiful!
She got up from her seat, and joined me, sitting next to me.
“Are you staying in New York?” she asked me.
The flight attendant announced that we should fasten our seat belts as descended into New York.
“No,” I told her.
“Thought you were staying in New York,” she said with a disappointed look.
“You are staying in New York?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “it all depends.” She hesitated, then continued. “A friend gave me these tickets to New York. But…em…I don’t have a place to stay.”
I thought, “OMG, eerín kú sí ìlú àìlọ́bẹ!” She was a beautiful lady, dark complexion, glowing skin, flashing white teeth when she laughed.
At that moment I wished I were staying in New York.
“Where is your final destination,” she asked me.
“Catching a plane to Madison, Wisconsin,” I announced, very sadly, to her.
The pilot warned us to “STRICTLY” not move from our seats. We were going to land any minute, he announced, a rather anxious tone to his voice.
All the cabin crew who had been strolling through the plane, offering us food, drinks and Nigeria Airway gift items had disappeared from view.
Ideas began to form in my mind. Perhaps, just perhaps I might be able to convince her to—-
That was when we landed.
We did not actually land. We crashed to the ground.
We landed with a thud, a bang, and a sharp pain ran through my shocked spinal cord.
Instead of sprinting straight forward on the runway as planes do after landing, our craft was spinning and turning round and round, going all over the place.
Everybody began to scream in all the Nigerian languages.
“My head!” “Ori mi o!” “Olorun Olodumare!” “Jesus! Jesus! In the name of Jesus!” “Allah wakbarr!” “Chineke o, God!” “Iya mi o!” “What the f—k is going on!” “I don die o!”
She gripped my hand and I gripped the seat as the horror movie started playing, with us tied to our seats, helplessly watching things spinning round and round.
I thought for a second that I was probably dreaming.
It was not happening.
I was still in my bed in Ile Ife, and was just suffering a nightmare.
Gradually the spinning ceased, and the plane pulled to a slow crawl.
Then it stopped with a jolting halt that threw my head forward, and snapped my neck in half.
Then everything was quiet.
Suddenly we heard the wailing sirens of fire engines, scores of them, moving towards us where we had crashed, right there on the tarmac.
The voice of the captain came on air.
He congratulated us for surviving what could have been a fatal crash.
We landed on flat tires, he explained. The flight indicators apparently informed him our tires were flat as we prepared to descend for landing. And he did the best he could to save our lives, he said.
Later on we were informed that the plane had been sent to New York for servicing. But the Nigeria Airways was owing a lot of debt, therefore, they did not service the aircraft.
The Nigeria Airways, therefore, decided to make a few runs from Lagos to New York to gather some money to service the aircraft.
And then we had the crash.
Soon after the crash, the Nigeria Airways was no longer allowed to fly into the US.
An airline with a flying elephant as its logo: it was bound to crash some day.
An eagle flies better than an elephant.
And my return ticket to Nigeria was worthless.
A happy 30th anniversary to me in the land of exile.