You seldom find inspiration in life, these fast-moving days. Many of you who have been reading my GhanaCentric blog have realised how I mention now and then my life as an engineer. And so I shall tell you a short tale of why I have been away from this blog for a while and what I’ve been doing on my time away. And what inspiration moves me to write now.
I went to Houston on my first training as an engineer. For ten weeks, I underwent with nineteen others in my class, a leading on our first steps as mud engineers. For ten weeks, it felt like we were on a ship, commanded by one captain whose job made him both colleague and shipmate. Only that, it was his duty to get the ship to the tenth week without losing a man if possible.
We met high and low water but at the end, we got to the tenth week, having lost four men. A steep price to pay but also a refreshing journey for the sixteen of us left. And our captain!
Our instructor taught us what it meant to aspire for greatness, and after his work was done, on the night we were to graduate, he played a presentation of a video that was a charge to go above the ordinary. I don’t remember everything he said that night but I’ll never forget how Mr Skinner made me feel: how he made us all feel that night in that dinner ground. For the rest of his presentation was of a teary man, filled with no less a measure of the passion he had taught us from day one with, repeating to us the words, ‘Be Great’! It’s hard to forget.
Today, in far-away Congo where I have been sent on assignment, on the last night before the week I probably set foot on a rig for the first time, I review here a poem I wrote him the afternoon after graduation, sitting by a Hilton poolside. Here goes…
Of A Man, and Greatness
Moments have turned into days
First slower, and now they’re razed
Raced to this end, our first parting, last goodbyes
No thriving fireplace to tell our stories
Nor days to laugh about our shared past
Hasty ends hurry us away, poles apart
You, noble and true, have shown us your heart.
So few are the men who have trod your path
A keeper of the sixteen, us, your new conquest
Knight-errant, you said to us, ‘Be Great!’
When e’er that phrase attends our ears
With new zeal, better passion, like you taught us,
And sweet greatness will ooze from our touch, minding
Skinner, the one who was great before us!
The whole poem is a sort of parting and looking ahead piece, based on the last night before it was written – the graduation night. Go back up and look at the poem again. Pick the first letter of the first line and set it aside. Then pick the second letter of the second line and set it aside. The third of the third, the fourth of the fourth, and so forth till you’re done with both stanzas separately. If you miss it, I have boldened those alphabets for you. Tell me what you form in the end.
The first two lines sum up how ‘moments’, slow passing times, had ‘turned into days’ and now they were all done – ‘razed’. The days had ‘raced to this end’ (line 3) and brought us to the point of our ‘first parting’ and ‘last goodbyes’ (line 3). In line 4, the words ‘no thriving’ mean that we didn’t have a long night to say our goodbyes. The fireplace did not burn on and on. In fact, our final night together was a 3-hour and something time, to debrief alliances from our captain and be packing to leave in the days to come. We had neither thriving fireplace nor, even longer ‘days’ (line 5) to make merry about our immediate ‘shared past’. The parting was sudden; ‘hasty ends’ (line 6) that were going to needlessly then but also necessarily now set us ‘poles apart’ (line 6) for work sake. Our instructor was a man who gave every bit of his liberties to make sure that we made it through the high-stakes training we got through. I mentioned that four men were lost on the way, consequent to them coming up short on some grades. It was hard, and for each of them, it was visible to see that as much as it affected these fallen men, their jobs all but gone, Mr Skinner felt it too.
So the second stanza says it well. Inspiration doesn’t come cheap and as much as Mr Skinner inspired us all for greatness on board his ship, it is few men who are able to walk in his paths (line 8), and by bringing us safely to the end of the road, the sixteen of us have become his ‘new conquest’ (line 9). He has been our keeper.
The night I walked out of graduation, I felt that if there was nothing else I could be as a mud engineer, I had a commission to ‘Be Great’ (line 10). The affectedness with which those words rung during Mr Skinner’s presentation, made them resound like an echo. Be Great, Be Great, heck do anything you want but Be Great. I felt like greatness in that very room. I felt like, somebody give me a work station right now and let me show them the colour of greatness. I was inspired for mud engineering. I was inspired for my job.
One thing I realised and I say now on the benefit of hindsight, is the fact that Skinner actually had the moral right to tell us to be great because he himself was. He did his job like that was all he lived for. That’s a captain worthy of any ship. And the ease with which he took us through lesson after lesson, day after day, experiment after experiment, is what makes me call him ‘knight-errant’ (line 10) – a seeker of conquest, an adventurer!
So it is that, there shall no longer be a mention of greatness but his memory will come to mind, Mr. Skinner, so many miles across the oceans, somewhere in Texas. The last lines say that whenever again any duty comes to us, all of us who sat in that class with him through it all, we shall rise with new zeal and better passion, remembering greatness. Remembering our call to greatness, but also, remembering, as the last line puts it, ‘Skinner, the one who was great before us’ (line 14).
If you got it right, the alphabets you set aside, wrapped up in the poem, represent my instructor’s name – Michael Skinner! Each alphabet hidden in its right place in its respective sentence. That’s reaching for greatness!