Out of the Camp

Out of the Camp Ch. 21 – International Wall of Death

We didn’t hear from Dima again for many months. Irina kept Mary abreast of his progress which sounded surprisingly and consistently positive. His Scottish contact had followed through with his promises, and Dima’s equipment was duly shipped to Lagos, all bills of lading, international permits and approvals, successfully certified and, without delay, Dima had started touring Nigeria with his Wall of Death. He had some initial permit difficulties with officials in the cities of Lago and Ibadan, two of the largest cities, and resolved thereafter to focus on small towns and villages. According to Irina this had proven to be a really shrewd decision as performances were received with such delight and euphoria that word of his imminent arrival at the next location would precede him and generate such excitement that crowds of people would be lining the streets as he arrived and directing him to the most suitable site on which to erect his Wall. 

This pattern continued for some months, and Dima and the little crew he had collected to help with assembly and tear-down of the wall at the start and end of each visit seemed as though it could continue indefinitely. Characters claiming to be local businessmen or officials would show up unannounced from time-to-time, and demand “rental” or “permit” payments for the use of the land, but apparently they were never unreasonable with their ‘fees’, and so Dima would just play along without question and pay up. He regarded it as a ‘cost of doing business’ and in fact, it proved to be worth every penny.

To say that Dima led a colorful life would be somewhat of an understatement. As I mentioned he’d somehow gone from Air Force pilot to Wall of Death rider and thought little of this astonishing transition. I much later learned a little of his background and one story he told which was early on in a lengthy chain of events (he describes thus, “this could be a volume greater than War and Peace!”), that ultimately led to his less than glorious discharge.

The story goes that on the base where he was serving there was a parachute department warehouse with a huge, unaccounted for stock of synthetic materials used in the repair of parachutes for both pilots and brakes for MiG 21 aircraft. Apparently, the material had a silk-like appearance and consistency and came in a variety of bright colors such as orange, blue and white. On weekends, the young pilots would visit girls in the local villages and supply them with swatches of the silk-like material. In Dima’s words, “Can you imagine? Somewhere in 60s Russia, village girls were able to sew unique, fashionable clothes. Not only were they so attractive they would turn heads in Moscow but, here, in remote villages it was unthinkable.” Not surprisingly, not all the attention these styles attracted was welcome. There was a report that commanders’ wives had taken note of apparent French fashions being “flashed” in villages around the airbase. Dima again, “It was like a human landed on Mars!” It seems that the resulting brief investigation left “all fingers pointed to…, you may guess, me!”.

He goes on, “I believe the top commander, to avoid catastrophic consequence for himself,” made light of this incident and with a senior officer’s slight of hand, buried it!  “Plus, considering my previous record of ‘arts and crafts’ i.e. creative pranks, I had made simple “corrections” in reports from weather services department entered in pilots’ log-books, recording time spent in icy clouds as three times more than the actual time. This was so that the ice removing system used in the aircraft is falsely recorded as having burned three times the gallons of 99% spirit-based liquid actually used. You don’t have to be Einstein to imagine what sort of upcoming event was employed by me” (Think illegal still/moonshine?)  “I was punished with 15 days in guard house.”

Around five months into Dima’s Nigerian tour, we started to get word through Irina that he was starting to have problems. One of his crew had absconded with some money all of which was being transported from place to place in sacks. The Nigerian currency, the Naira, had plummeted in value over many years as a result of repeated devaluations, and so the collection of coins (not notes back then) that Dima was amassing had become a worrisome burden, the stack and weight of which was growing ever larger with every show and in line with his fame.  It was a couple of weeks following Irina’s latest update when Dima called me directly and described the situation. Things were getting worse and from the way he described it, becoming dangerous. Somehow, the word had gotten out about the stash of coins he was hauling around the countryside. He told me of a couple of robbery attempts which, mercifully, hadn’t ended in anyone being harmed but, as he explained, it was only a matter of time before there was a serious incident. He told me he needed help urgently, that there were now scary-looking characters showing up and he was actually having to sleep on top of these sacks of coins to protect them. Dima was a big guy, standing 6’4’ and all muscle. I didn’t obviously see the crew he’d employed to help him, but they would have to have been in good shape to lift the component parts in assembling and tearing down the wall, so that anyone planning to rob him likely were hesitant at the possible response to any hostile move on their part. I’d no idea what he thought I could do from more than 7,000 km. away, and suggested he get to a bank as soon as possible, open an account and deposit the money. Apparently, this was easier said than done as banks back then were few and far between unless you were in one of the major cities. I pressed him strongly to take a break from touring, head for the nearest city, don’t stop until you get there, and deposit the funds without further delay.

I didn’t ever fully get to the bottom of the “less than glorious military discharge”, but some clues were revealed after mention of a shooting in which an officer, who apparently was a jerk (my translation), sustained an injury in a part of his anatomy that prevented him from sitting for some considerable time. Dima continued, “I have been defined as a schizophrenic and sent to a very serious place – military crazy house. After compulsory ‘Aminazin’ injection (Chlorpromazine) which sends you into hallucinations for about two days, I woke up inside a big room alongside about twenty guys. In my assessment more than half were really mentally sick people, and the rest looks to me as if simulating illness after committing a crime so as to avoid military court/prison. To my luck, the doctor responsible for my care was from Moscow. He immediately realized what had happened and very quietly told me that my prospects are not good. If he diagnosed me as schizophrenic, then all my future for years and years ahead will be more than hell, if he diagnosed that I am fit and sober, I will go court/prison. I don’t remember his name, most probably I never knew it, but I owe him my life. I spent a bit more than eight months in this unreal place, the doctor created a story of a cheating bride, mental torture from home and my inability to sort it out. I don’t really know what else he created, but I was decommissioned from the service on medical grounds not related to mental state.”

Two or three weeks later, Dima turned up unannounced in London. He explained that he had finished in Nigeria and that his equipment was now in transit to Saudi Arabia where he would be performing next. He apparently had found a bank in Lagos that would allow him to open an account and deposit his takings from the tour. He’d also met an American Lawyer there who was engaged in high level negotiations with the Nigerian government but who also had good connections in Saudi Arabia. They started talking and ultimately the lawyer persuaded Dima to ship his Wall to Jeddah where he’d be introduced to some very influential people who’d help get him established and make an arrangement with him to start performing there. So, with the shipping details completed and the equipment successfully loaded onto a cargo vessel bound for Jeddah, shipping time was estimated at nine to eleven days but more likely two weeks, Dima had taken the opportunity to return to London for a break.

Images.

(1) (2) & (3) On the Nigerian tour. (4) Dima road testing one of his bikes. (5) & (6) … and along the beach. (7) Dima with his truck. (8) Back on the Wall.

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