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A Shout From The Attic: Donkeys, Computers And Human Hearts

What do donkeys, computers, and human hearts have in common? To find the answer to that question involves reading this most enjoyable episode from Ronnie Bray's autobiography.

To read earlier episodes please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

You’re thinking. “What do donkeys, computers, and human hearts have in common?” It’s a fair question. One that I would be tempted to ask, had I not had known the answer.

I have entertained a fondness for donkeys since I saw my first line of wide-eyed, scruffy quadrupeds on Blackpool beach, bouncing happy, inscrutable, or terrified children along the sands at breakneck speed for twopence a ride.

I suppose it was their sad looks that filled me with overwhelming sympathy. On the other hand, perhaps I had found kindred spirits. My favourite fictional character is Eeyore, the depressed donkey in Winnie the Pooh stories. Eeyore is relatively easy to understand, uncomplicated, consistent in his self-deprecation, and, therefore, loveable. Besides, on account of my surname, some have unwisely employed the sobriquet ’donkey’ to my person.

I wanted a computer because computers promised unlimited knowledge and lots of fun. I was not put off by Richard Leonard’s experience. He had bought one but was gravely disappointed with its performance.

“I thought all I had to do was ask it a question, such as ‘How far away is the nearest star?’ and it would give me the answer.”

“And doesn’t it?” I asked, with innocence equal to his own.


Had I been brighter, I could have discovered a significant truth right there and then, but I didn’t, and the incident went into the black plastic bag of history.

When I was seventeen and a half, I reached a decision. At eighteen, I would have to serve in the Army for two years National Service. I pre-empted the draft and signed up for three years in the Regular Army. After nineteen months in England, I was shipped to the Middle East and attached to the Green Howards, an old and valiant infantry regiment. I looked after their vehicles.

Their regimental day is Alma Day, named after one of their many battle honours. On Alma Day, 1955, at Nine Mile Camp, Dhekelia, Cyprus, gung-ho sergeant majors woke the troops with buckets of tea, going from tent to tent slopping the hot stuff, allegedly laced with rum, into mugs held out by smiling squaddies still abed. Special food would be eaten, special events would take place, and a general air of jollity would prevail as the battalion let its hair down until the bugle sounded ‘lights out.’

One of the programmed events was a “Donkey Derby.” I am uncertain how I came to be in charge of a donkey, possibly because I was a known teetotaller and the day was decidedly festive, but through my affection for the beasts, I yielded. From surrounding villages, enterprising soldiers had coerced owners to part with their creatures for several hours, probably encouraged by a small payment.

An area of grass was roped off for the racecourse, and the half dozen or so donkeys tethered at one end. The groom-for-a-day set stood around in the baking sun. The battalion was at lunch, so the whole camp assumed an air of calm that should have remained intact until the colonel rode in the first race at 1 30 p.m.

Someone said, Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. During the general discussion between the grooms – we were not meant to be jockeys – someone suggested that since there was at least an hour before the first race, why not have a practice. This met with general agreement, as foolish ideas often do. Carried along with the sheer weight of our absurdity, we untied our nags, mounted their bony backs, and with reins and sticks in hands, pointed them up the course. From the moment we released the donkeys, we happy band of riders were inconsequential.

Donkeys may not look smart, but these had minds of their own. Perhaps it was the lack of food and water that generated within their group consciousness the common urge to head for home. Each sad-eyed burro immediately turned towards its village, bouncing its hapless jockey up and down on a razor-sharp spine.

Tugging on the reins did not turn the creatures. Shouting was useless, though we filled the air among the shrubs and scrubs with tortured hullabaloo, all to no avail. Eventually, on the rocky trail leading to Pyla village, I pressed the ejector button and saw my brute trotting off down the hillside, braying mirthfully. All my companions suffered similar fates. It was a bad karma day. Those who were not thrown off their bobbing chargers, threw themselves off to stop being either jarred to death, suffering long division, or being transported to destinations unknown by an out of control homing donkey.

There was no Donkey Derby that day. We stuck to our story that the donkeys had formed an escape committee and after outwitting us, had made good their escape. Whether Colonel Roberts was disappointed we never learned, but there were no repercussions, which speaks for itself.

Shortly thereafter, I went to Pyla village to visit friends. On hearing my story, they laughed heartily. A donkey was produced and I received a lesson in donkey-driving, Cypriot-style. It had nothing to do with the reins and everything to do with the stick. Tapping the right side of the neck turned the donkey to the left, and vice-versa. The donkey smiled smugly as it was led away.

- - -

My first computer was a second-hand basic model, requiring the operator to do some programming. Armed with a book on Basic, I set about putting it through its paces. The miserable thing was obviously broken since it would not do what the book said it should do. I complained to my son-in-law, Lewis, who is a computer wizard for the Inland Revenue. On his next visit he sat in front of the broken machine, ran his fingers over the keys, and, behold, it sprang into life! A man of few words, he grinned and said, “You just have to speak its language!”

That’s what Richard had failed to grasp. That’s what I had failed to grasp, not only as I mumbled mild curses in front of my Radio Shack special, but also those many years before when I sat astride a bucking burro on Alma Day in the blistering heat on the Jewel of the Mediterranean, and fumed at a donkey who did not obey me because I did not speak his language.

As it is with donkeys and computers, so it is with human hearts. To be understood, we first have to learn their language. To reach a human heart, to raise it from sorrow and despair, to warm it with love and to put its shattered pieces back together, we have to speak its language, or we fail.

Solomon provided the clue when, in response to the LORD’s question, “What shall I give thee?” asked for “an understanding heart.” It is unlikely that such a gift will become ours through a miracle. We have to get our understanding hearts the hard way. Then we can speak to the hearts that are waiting, even now, for us to speak to them in the only language they understand - the language of love.


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