Bud Abbott - Sick, Stupid, & Saved Because of a Street Fight

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Robert (Bud) Abbott
June 13, 2013

In early 1966, The Peace Corps doctor (Dr. Taylor?) and myself were standing on the second floor balcony of the Peace Corps building in Benin City, capital of the Mid-West State of Nigeria, and saw a dusty commotion on the street below. Sorting through the maze of moving bodies, we slowly realized that it was around the Peace Corps car and that the Peace Corps driver was surrounded by an angry mob. We hurried downstairs out into the street, and as we came up towards the car, we could see that the driver was being beaten by the mob and his shirt was torn, hanging off his shoulders and his face was swollen. A new dent in the front fender suggested the driver had been in a minor traffic accident. The driver was a popular man among the PCV and PC administration. But he was not from the Mid-West State. He was from the wrong tribe. I do not recall what tribe he was from but think he may have been from one of the northern states.

Tensions in Benin City were very high at that time due to a crescendo of tribal violence all over the country. We had been seeing truckloads of people returning from the North having lost everything in ethnic clashes for months. People were on edge and mob justice was common. I had recently seen a young man severely beaten for stealing an orange in the local market. He was doing a snatch and run act, but the sellers, buyers and onlookers exploded into action and converged on him and beat him to the ground. I did not linger in the market place to see what eventually happened to him.

As we rather cautiously approached the mob around the driver and car, a young man grabbed the doctor’s wallet out of his back pocket and started to run. Reflexively, I grabbed the pickpockets’ free arm and swung him around in a big circle, knocking him against other people and with two quick steps, slammed him nosily up against the car, forcefully threaded my arms under his arms pits with my hands pushing down on the back of his neck, placing him in a full nelson wrestling hold, with his belly against the car door, and my knee in the middle of his back. He was completely immobilized. He had dropped the wallet when I was swinging him around. I looked over my shoulder to see that the Dr. had picked up his wallet, and the driver had slipped away. The mob scene seemingly de-escalated to a whisper. I heard some people say, “Oyibo”, the local slang term for a white man. I let go the pickpocket and we briskly walked back to the Peace Corps building prudently looking back over our shoulders at the scene behind us.

Upon hindsight, I could not believe what I had done. I still hardly comprehend what I did to this day. I am not, and was not, a street fighter. I had never ever been even close to being in a physical fight in my school days, when fistfights between kids in middle school were common. Frankly, I was afraid of the guys that got into fights. I was a musician, and one of the skinniest, sickliest kids in school. I had rheumatic fever in primary school and middle school, and numerous bouts of upper respiratory infections. I had missed years of school. What I did have was the gift of gab. I could talk my way out of anything with a few apologetic words, a smile and shift in body language. I was in the Peace Corps because I did not believe in fighting and wars.

But, I had taken some Tai Kwan do training at St. Louis University as a graduate student. The instructor had been a marine in Korea for many years and was a tough demanding teacher. In one barehanded practice fight I was kicked in the hand as I tried to catch my opponent’s foot, and the loud snap of a broken bone in my hand could be heard throughout the room. I paused in real pain. The instructor said, “Fight on”. I did, and learned about the adrenalin rush of a real knock down drag out fight. I did not win that fight, and eventually tapped out, but seemed to have internalized the message of acting fast with total commitment when you absolutely had to.

I don’t remember the drivers name now after all these years, but we became friends and drank Star Beer on occasions and laughed about the incident. It was good that we became friends since he later saved my life. Some months later, while teaching my biology class at Federal Government College Warri, Mid-West State, right in the middle of my lecture I suddenly had chills. It came on so fast that I was stuttering as I lectured and dismissed the class. At that time I was living in a house in Ugbongway Village that was a short bicycle ride to and from school. I got on my bicycle and quickly peddled back to my house in the village. I crawled into bed but was still shivering, so got up and put on every article of clothes that I owned, covered myself with the few sheets and thin blankets that I did have at the house, folded myself into a fetal position and slept. Then I got feverish and then I started vomiting. I was too weak to keep running to the bathroom so I had the cook bring me a pan to set beside the bed so I could just lean over and vomit quickly. I did not eat anything for days. I could barely hold down water.

I had been taking my Sunday-Sunday, chloroquine phosphate, malaria tablets religiously. It could not be malaria, I thought. I had been sick off and on throughout my stay in Nigeria with worms, hepatitis and various types of GI track problems that resulted in diarrhea and or vomiting. So I was sick again, no big deal. My village friends would drop by from time to time and say a few words but mostly said, “Oyibo dooo”. A sort of, ”I feel sorry for you white man.” “Doo” was a compassionate expression for anyone that was suffering, with a sort of fatalistic recognition that bad stuff happens. But no one did anything. I think it was on Friday when I got sick and the school staff did not check up on me. I was so sick I was stupid, and should have gone for help. Instead I just lay in bed, sweated, chilled and vomited.

After about three or four days, as best as I can remember, the Peace Corps driver, that was my new friend, showed up and saw that I was in really bad shape. He literally lifted me out of bed, wrapped my arm around his shoulder and walked me, dragging my feet, out to the car and drove me from Warri to Benin City. I remember part of the drive and how I was laughing a lot. I was hallucinating bright colors on everything. Trees, cattle and roadside plants were surreal in my giddy state. The driver and the Peace Corp Dr. took me to the local hospital immediately. They tried to get me to take some pills. This became a very difficult act and I could not imagine swallowing a pill, since I had been vomiting anything I consumed for days. The Peace Corps Doctor said that I had to take the pills or die. I slowly understood that I somehow had to get those pills down and keep them down. I remember retching immediately but holding the vomit in my mouth and then re-swallowing. I think I was in the hospital about three or four days. I don’t recall spending much time with the driver after that. I think he went back to his tribal village. I’m certainly extremely grateful that he came and got me, otherwise I would have simply died in that village from being so sick I was stupid and not acknowledging I had malaria, and was about to add my name to the list of people in the “white man’s graveyard”.

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