The Hero of Fern Gully – A True Story

The red Hyundai Atos sedan was struggling uphill along the winding narrow road of the Fern Gully heading towards Moneague and away from the resort town of Ocho Rios. Behind it, a stream of headlights seemed to be concentrated on the small vehicle as the driver turns off the A/C in the hope that its tiny engine would realize a little more power. It was almost as if he could feel the impatience of the drivers behind the Atos, all anxious to return to the city of Kingston after a weekend on the “North coast.”

Rounding a jagged and sharp curve, the car narrowly misses a pothole, that bane of the Jamaican road. The driver stifles an expletive sparing the two female occupants who had now become concerned at the intense darkness of the gully’s roadway. They had left Runaway Bay while it was still daylight hoping to return to Claremont before dark only to discover that the main road via St. Ann’s Bay had open trenches and was impassable as a result of flood damage from Hurricane Ivan the previous year. Now they are on a detour of several miles by way of Ocho Rios to circle Claremont and approach via the town of Golden Grove.

As the Atos rounds a corner, the darkness of the gully recedes and the darkness of night is a welcome development—they have come to the end of the Fern Gully. The cars speed up. Many zoom past the Atos as the road straightens. Suddenly, a bang, a reverberation as the car hits a pothole. Seconds later, the “plop, plop, plop” of a busted flat tire and the realization of a nightmare: a flat tire at night on a country road.

The driver pulls over to the side of the road. There is no flashlight. As fear grips the occupants, one asks, “Is it wise to stop? Let’s keep going!” The driver replies, “There is nothing for miles, we’ll just make it worse.” The driver jumps out and the two ladies follow. “Look for some stones to block the wheels,” said the driver. “Maybe we should look for something to defend ourselves,” said one of the women.

Fumbling in the dark, the driver replaces the flat tire with a spare. Relieved, they all pile back into the car and take off. Alas! After going only a few feet, the “plop, plop, plop” of a flat tire returns to haunt them. They stop and examine the just replaced tire and realize that it is also completely flat. Evidently, the spare was defective.

All three riders are visiting from Atlanta in the US where they have lived for decades. They have come to visit their grandma who is about to celebrate her 97th birthday which many feel could be her last. They have been in the small town where they grew up for only a few days and yet noticed drastic changes all around. Homes are now barricaded with burglar bars and most of the people they once knew have either migrated or moved to Kingston. Everyone talks about crime and corruption. So to be stranded on an unlit lonely road on a Sunday night is not a comforting thought. If only the government had fixed the main road so they didn’t have to make a detour.

With two flat tires the situation is looking grim. Where can you fix a tire on a Sunday evening? The driver reaches for their borrowed cell phone and calls one of the few friends for whom they have a contact number, Dave. But Dave is out of town. He offers to call someone. The car is on the narrow road with no shoulder. It is in a dangerous spot. Cars zoom by and it seems only a matter of time before someone run into them. They decide to move the car to a better spot driving slowly on the flat tire realizing that with each turn of the wheel the tire is being chewed up. Minutes later, they reach the turnoff to a secondary road that runs through an area known as Orange Park and connects with the main road at the town of Golden Grove which is three kilometers from their destination in Claremont.

The driver brings the Atos to a stop on the paved shoulder of the turnoff. All they can do now is sit and wait. They call grandma’s house and Sylvia, her helper, answers. They explain their predicament. She agrees to see if anyone can help. Dave calls back to say he has asked a friend named Troy to help. Meanwhile, the Sunday night traffic picks up and they witness several near accidents. Thank god they decided to move off the main road. They weigh the options. The car is a rental from Montego Bay—there is no way they can leave it overnight were they to get a ride home. But where to get a new tire: the flat on the car was completely ruined in getting to this spot. Where is AAA when you need them? It’s now almost nine o’clock.

Suddenly a Toyota sedan pulls up. A young man jumps out. “Me come fe help wid de flat tire,” he says. The driver of the Atos shakes his hand and asks, “What yu name, sah?” The Toyota driver replies, “Ian Collum.” This does not compute; Dave had said he was calling someone named Troy. So more questions have to be asked. Ian says he is from Golden Grove and was sent by a guy he only knows as “Pops.” Ian suggests they use his spare and retrieves it from his trunk. It is the same size as the Atos but the lugs do not match up. Ian says there is a place in Ocho Rios that’s open where they sell tires. But how to go about it. They can’t leave the women alone with the car and they would not go off alone with a strange man. Ian volunteers to remain with the rental car while they all take his Toyota Camry to find a tire. That seems an awfully generous offer but there is no hesitation, they accept it. After exchanging cell phone numbers, they head off towards the Fern Gully and Ocho Rios.

A few minutes later, the cell phone rings: Ian is calling to tell them that he is very low on gas and they should gas up in Ocho Rios. They find a gas station and tank up. The tire store is in a place called Exchange on a secondary road that turns off the main between Ocho Rios and Oracabessa. They cannot find it and return to the gas station for directions. Heading off again they locate the tire shop but it is closed for the night. It is now almost 10 o’clock. They call Ian. He is out of ideas. And he is now hungry and asks that they bring him some food on the way back.

The situation is not looking good. The night is getting late. The cell phone rings. A relative from Atlanta is calling. They explain the problem and realize the phone is running out of credits. Now they have to get a new phone card. They stop at several shops but none sell the “Reddi Celli” card they need as it is an older type. A large gas station is still open and they pull in. Luckily they have the correct phone card. The driver asks if anyone knows where he can get tires at this time of night. Everyone says no. An elderly man walks into the gas station and buys a coke and a penny bun. The cashier asks if he knows a tire place that would be open at this time of night. He says there is a place out by Maumee Bay where they open 24 hours. It’s a yellow building on the left side near where the road is all dug up due to the construction of the new highway to Montego Bay.

The driver thanks him and heads back to the borrowed Toyota. He tells his sisters what the old man told him. What are the chances there is a 24 hour tire repair shop in this part of the island. He couldn’t think of one in Atlanta, for that matter, much less in St. Ann. But what choice did they have. There is no other option but to check it out. So they head off to Maumee Bay and soon run into the road construction. The road is all torn up and a choking and blinding white dust makes driving difficult. They don’t see the yellow building but notice a side road after they pass it. Turning around, they turn up the hill and onto the side street stopping to ask for the tire place. “Ya, Mon. It jus down de so. But yu have fe drive pon de likkle piece a road bank fe get dey,” was the reply.

In widening the road, the construction crew had dug away most of a narrow side road that runs about five feet above the main road creating a mini precipice. This is the only way to get to the tire shop. So the driver slowly and cautiously maneuvers the Toyota on this side road. After a few breathless moments they reach the tire shop. And it does say “24 Hour Tyre Repair” on the sign. Two men are sleeping in a tree. One stirs as the car approaches. He explains he has no tires but can fix flats and begins working on the rim of the wheel from the first flat tire, knocking at it with a hammer. When it appears that the rim is sufficiently round he applies a black paste to the portion of the tire that meets the wheel and inflates it—it does not hold the air. He tries again. Still no luck. The driver suggests he try the other wheel from the spare tire. The tire on this wheel is completely torn up and is discarded but the wheel is fixable and it maintains the air pressure. What a relief.

After paying for the repair, the Toyota makes its way back to the dusty main road and Ocho Rios. They stop again to get some food for Ian who is still waiting in the rented Atos. The Jerk Center is open and everyone is hungry anyway.

Once more they navigate the Fern Gully. This time of night the traffic is virtually non existent. The driver turns off the lights for a second to appreciate the density of the darkness beneath the canopy of the fern. They arrive at the turnoff where a tired and hungry Ian is waiting with the Hyundai Atos. He quickly devours some of the jerk chicken. Hurriedly they put on the tire. It works! Hallelujah!

After giving Ian a very big tip and thanking him profusely, the weary travelers are on their way to Claremont, driving carefully as they have no spare tire. They reach Grandma’s house way past midnight but thankful that the adventure is over.

Back in Atlanta, Georgia, the three siblings tell the amazing story of that night on the Fern Gully road and how Ian Collum became the hero of Fern Gully and confirmed that there are still angels in Jamaica.

About the author

Glen Laman