Stupidity in Action

Saturday, 18 October 1997

The difference between smart and stupid is not always apparent

THERE'S this story I remember about a lighthouse keeper who went downstairs on a beautiful cloudless summer day to answer a knock on the door.

"Terribly sorry to disturb you, old boy," said the middle-aged tanned gentleman at the door. "My wife and I were sailing by and saw this lighthouse, and came in for a closer look, and we've run aground. Can you help us?"

"Sir," said the lighthouse keeper, "do you know what this is?"

"Well of course old chap. It's a lighthouse."

"Do you know what it is here for?"

I was thinking about this as I sat in a service station window this week, counting cars getting petrol. Car washes (among other things) in Cape Town tend to run somewhat slower than in eGoli or eThekwini.

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Not so long ago, I recalled, someone blew up a service station in the United States while using an oxy-acetylene torch to remove a "no smoking" sign.

The petrol attendant at this station was somewhat more careful. He placed his still-lit cig on the pump while removing the hose. After inserting the nozzle with one hand, he reached for the butt with the other.

My usual reaction in such cases is to yell something like: "Yo, moron! Lose the cigarette!" But there's a particular morbid attraction in watching stupidity in action from a safe distance.

This service station, it turns out, is a favourite haunt of minibus taxis. These things are interesting because their drivers exhibit an unusually high tendency towards what I call glyssyps.

Glyssyps is a generic word to describe a sudden rush of excrement from the colon to the cranium. In this case, it manifests itself as the idea that the fuel tank can always take a little more fuel.

Passengers are evicted from the minibus while the driver (and bodyguard if the route demands it) rocks the bus furiously from side to side.

The petrol attendant then trickles in a few more drops, sticks a finger in the tank, signals to the driver, and the rocking starts again.

Some 10 minutes later, as the line of cars waiting for fuel has grown impatiently, the cap is screwed on, the spilled petrol is rinsed off, the minibus gets an affectionate slap on the rear from the attendant, and it roars off.

Eight out of 11 minibuses over the next hour went through the same routine, along with a Gauteng-registered hatchback and a wine cellar's bakkie.

So I went along to the bakkie driver and said to him, "Boet! What are you doing?"

"I'm topping up this blerrie tenk," says he.

"Do you know what the airlock is there for?"

Petrol is volatile. Gases expand rapidly. The expanding petrol vapour can ignite, or force liquid fuel out of the tank. So, God invented the fuel tank airlock. If a petrol spill catches fire, the airlock reduces the chances of the rest of the tank going blooie.

If your vehicle is involved in an accident, chances are that the airlock can protect you from an explosion long enough to get you out of the car.

Unless the airlock has been bypassed. A gentle prang can turn your vehicle into fireball before you have enough time to think about the old joke of how to make a cat bark.

The oil companies need to get smart about this. Having their customers go up in flames is just bad for business.

A chart at every service station explaining why this practice is so dof will help ward off angry taxi drivers or Gatties1 in hatchbacks.

And with profit margins on a litre of petrol being as small as they are, service station owners might consider that the time spent forcibly trickle-topping up a tank could be more profitably spent filling another.

P.S. Not all minibus drivers do this.

  • 1. Collective noun for people from Gauteng.