Pass the pliers and nail clipper, please

Back in the mid-60s when I was a Mormon missionary in Samoa, we often had to be flexible when it came to repairing things. For example, in an earlier blog entry, I shared the story of how barbed wire might be used to jump a car battery. Now, I’d like to tell two more tales of creative mechanics — both from Samoa’s “big island” of Savai’i:PliersPass the pliers, please…or na pä le pa’u o le ta’avale: One day while driving from Samata, where we lived, to Salelologa, the main commercial area and terminal in those days for ferries to Upolu, one of the tires on our Toyota Land Cruiser blew out (pä le pa’u). This in itself was such a relatively common occurrence, whereas service stations were not, that we were supposed to carry all the equipment we needed to make our own repairs. Unfortunately, that did not include a spare tire (if I remember correctly, the other missionaries with the same model Toyota on the island had borrowed it).

I looked in the glove compartment: Good, we had the hot patch stuff; and searching behind the seat we found a hand pump, but auë! we didn’t have a jack or lug wrench. Somebody had also borrowed those. In fact, the only tool we could find (besides the little clamp for the hot patch) was a sorry pair of pliers.

Okay, pop quiz: How do you change a tire without a jack or lug wrench? Our solution was to ask some young men who, of course, had come to watch the excitement of changing a tire to bring a stout pole. Using that as a lever plus everybody else but one lifting, we were able to shove flat-ish rocks under the Toyota to keep the tire off the ground. Next, one of the Samoan Elders — I think it was Edward Stevenson — was somehow able to get enough of a grip on each of the lug nuts with the pliers that he eventually got the tire off. If I remember correctly, he had to wrap something around the lug nuts first to give the pliers a little more bite. The process also took considerable strength…and sweat.

The rest was faigofie — easy. We used a rock to pound the steel band around the tire rim back in place, and we were on our way again in about an hour.

• Oh-oh, now what? Or the road less traveled: One evening four of us were in the beach-side village of Neiafu, which wasn’t far as the seabird flies from the next village of Tufutafoe where we needed to take Elder Stevenson and his companion (Elder Norman Bastian?). The problem was it would take at least two-to-three hours to drive inland and uphill to the so-called auala tele [“big road”] or unpaved highway, and then back down to the coast on a horrendous road that needed all the four-wheel drive capabilities the Land Cruiser could muster.

But we had heard there was an older, more direct road between the two villages that people used in the days before the auala tele; and so, pointed in the right direction by Pei Burgess of Neiafu and bolstered by a beautiful full moon as well as a strong desire to save a few hours, we set off.

The old road through the bush was overgrown with waist-high grass and other greenery, but easily stood out in our headlights. Soon, however, we thought we could smell something starting to burn — and the Land Cruiser began to act a little sluggish. We stopped and looked around, but couldn’t see anything wrong, so we kept going.

The symptoms worsened. We stopped again, looking under the hood to make sure nothing was overheating, or worse yet, on fire, but we didn’t see any problems. We drove on.

Finally, however, the mighty Land Cruiser was obviously having trouble making headway: It was like the brakes were on all the time — and we could all smell that smoky odor.

We decided to look under the truck, where the smell now seemed to be coming from: Did anyone have a flashlight? Of course not, but we had the matches from the hot patch kit.

Any guesses what we found? It was a big surprise to us, too: As we had been driving along the overgrown path, the grass and weeds had slowly but surely become wrapped around the drive shaft, building up layer-upon-layer to the point where the whole thing now rubbed against the metal bottom of the Land Cruiser, making it hot and giving off the smoky smell. When we tried to pull the grass off, we discovered it was very tightly wound — cinched almost solid.

Nail-ClippersDid anyone have a knife? Of course not, again. We were missionaries, more likely to carry scriptures than tools in our ‘ato laufala [hand-woven pandanus baskets]. Did anyone have anything else to try to get the grass off? Yes, we came up with two things: The crappy pair of pliers [see above], and one of the missionaries had a small fingernail clipper that could open wide enough to cut one or two strands of grass at a time.

So, using little torches for light under the Land Cruiser, and taking turns clipping and then yanking the freed grass off the drive shaft with the pliers for the next hour or two, we were finally able to make forward progress again.

We rolled into Tufutafoe about 1:30 a.m. where the Eli family, with whom the missionaries stayed, were still waiting up for us with a fully prepared dinner. That was the real miracle of the evening.

By the way, the next morning we sent one of the family boys under the Toyota with a machete to clear the rest of the grass off the drive shaft. Nothing like having the right tools for the right job.


  1. Mikaele says:

    My friend Fran Corcoran, Branch Manager of Kahuku Public and School Library, emailed me this reaction:

    “Mike, your stories usually have a chuckle included and lots of lessons learned. Thanks for sharing them. Fran.”

    …and thank you, too, Fran.

  2. Samuelu Partsch says:

    Great stories Mikaele. I think many of our experiences during our missionary days have some humor in it. I have some funny stories too but will tell you the next time. Fa’afetai tele.


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