A story by Ronke Luke
College Chapel Church
My father's vigil
They did what?!
Laughter interrupted the tears. Grief lightened for a moment. Puzzlement added new contortions to my face already crumpled by crying. I had heard most of the stories of my father’s feats retold by this point of his vigil. At least versions of the stories. They were funny but also familiar. Hearing them told again by his friends at this sad time was soothing. Tales of dad swimming to school. Although he seemingly left home clothed in his school uniform, I never figured out what he did with his uniform before he plunged into the water. Or dad riding his bicycle that had no brakes around Freetown. Pedestrians fled as he careened down King St - a steep hill that pedestrians and cars alike strained to ascend. At the bottom of King St., veering left and right to avoid collision with cars and people, dad brought the bike to a halt with his feet. I always wondered about his shoes when I heard the tales of the bike. African children don’t get lots of shoes, so roughhousing one’s shoes like this was certainly reckless. But stories of my dad’s youth all conveyed him as popular and incautious.
Then came Uncle Teddy (I think it was him).
He started with, “I remember our student days in England.”
My father and his contemporaries started many of their tales like this. With time and place. Setting up for the yarn. This one would be in the fifties.
Uncle Teddy continued “... when Egerton, Desmond and Brady represented Sierra Leone at the Olympics.”
Egerton was my father, who we were eulogizing. Desmond, his surviving brother. Brady, was Bradman, rest-in-peace, their long-departed cousin.
“Government of Sierra Leone didn’t select them. In fact, Government of Sierra Leone didn’t have a team” Uncle Teddy continued his voice rising, a smile on his face. “So Egerton, Desmond, and Brady decided to go on their own.” Uncle Teddy was now laughing. “A three-man team to represent Sierra Leone. Just like that!”
What? I’d never heard this story before.
“Desmond was the athlete. Brady, the manager and Egerton, team doctor.”
My father’s contemporaries, transported back in time by the memory or their image of the trio, burst into boisterous laughter. Were they in on the lark? They nodded vigorously or shook heads in surprise, either way concurring it was a thing that dad would do.
The rest of us first let out an audible “what!” as we looked around the pews, astonished at the audaciousness of what we’d just heard. Then we laughed too. Hesitantly.
In his stride, Uncle Teddy elaborated how this three-man team had assembled itself. “Desmond had been a brilliant student athlete, of course. Breaking records. The first school boy in England to clear six feet in high jump. So he was the athlete. Egerton, studying medicine, naturally was team doctor. And Brady was studying law, so he was the manager. The three musketeers. They marched in the opening ceremony and all,” laughed Uncle Teddy. After the Olympics escapade, the three travelled around Europe, he continued. I don’t remember anything else he said or how he concluded his tribute. His first story had been so fantastical it blotted out the rest.
Several days after we’d buried dad
I brought up the topic with Uncle Desmond as we sat in his living room. Me on the sofa. He, in his favourite armchair, across from the TV.
“At the vigil, what was Uncle Teddy talking about you and dad going to the Olympics?
My uncle chuckled. His eyes twinkled. “He said that?” he asked.
Wasn't he there? Didn't he hear it?
“Yes, in the tributes. That’s the first I heard that story,” I shook my head at him, forehead creased, eyebrows closer to my hairline, hands raised, upturned, open in the universal questioning gesture. “What was that about?”
He never replied as more family arrived and the conversation changed.
Eight years later in Maryland, USA
I was with Uncle Desmond in his hotel room. We’d been chit chatting, watching TV and nibbling on snacks. I broached the topic again.
“So Uncle Desmond. Back to dad’s vigil and Uncle Teddy’s tribute about you, Dad and Brady going to the Olympics?”
“Ah hmmm” he replied.
“So? Did it happen?”
“Er, yes, sort of” he replied lazily as he continued watching TV.
“The three of you went to the Olympics!”
“Was the Commonwealth Games,” Desmond clarified, turning to look at me, a smile across his face.
Well, Commonwealth Games brought their escapade down a notch, but it was still an utterly crazy story I had to get to the bottom of.
“Yes. The three of us went.” His eyes twinkled.
“As a team representing Sierra Leone.”
“Yes,” Desmond replied, matter-of-factly.
“What!?” I was dumbfounded. “Really!? How?”
“Well,” he replied in his lazy drawl, part laughing. “The Commonwealth Games was coming. We didn’t know whether Sierra Leone was sending a team,” he shrugged. “So, ahhh, your father, Brady and I, decided to go as the team.”
“Just like that!?”
“Yes,” he laughed. “Why not?”
“Had you been training to compete at the Commonwealth Games?”
It seemed so casual. My dad, his brother and cousin, all college students in England, on a whim decided to go to the Commonwealth Games because, maybe, no official team was going. The sheer chutzpah!
“So without much training or preparation you arrived at the games and registered?” I pressed.
“Said you were the Sierra Leone team. Just three people and that was it?”
“Yes.” He was laughing again. “There were others there.”
“And you competed?”
I was staring at my uncle dumbfounded. “In what events?”
“High jump and long jump.”
Of course. He had excelled in these disciplines in school and at Oxford.
“Wow! Just like that?” I stared at my Uncle, eyes wide, mouth agape, head shaking.
“Yes.” Desmond seemed tickled by my amazement. His eyes twinkled. He laughed. He seemed both pleased at my reaction and his memory of the uproarious lark.
I didn’t get to ask how it all turned out. The sound of a key card jostling in the hotel room door interrupted our conversation. His wife had returned.
In the ensuing years, I promised myself, next time I see Desmond that was one conversation I needed to finish with him. I needed to get to the end of the story.
Alas, fate robbed me of the chance when news came that fateful Saturday late in February. Desmond had suddenly departed this life. Heart attack it turned out.
And as the tributes poured in for him, I thought again about the trio at the Commonwealth Games. Dad, Desmond and Bradman. They were all gone now. No one left to ask. This time I googled it. And there it was. Desmond E. F. Luke listed amongst the participants for high jump and long jump at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. He didn’t make the podium. Far from it. But the fantastical story behind his appearance alone made up for the feet and inches between him and the medalists.
- End -
copyright 2021 Ronke Luke
What's your craziest caper?
Have you done anything audacious? Or know someone who has?
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.