After years of planning, dreaming and saving money, Pete O’Neal climbed aboard an old Toyota Coaster bus one morning last week with 23 Tanzanian children for what he called his life’s crowning ambition.
They were headed to the Swahili Coast, where 71-year-old O’Neal -– a former Black Panther leader who fled the United States in 1970 in the face of gun charges -- intended to give a group of young orphans their first look at the ocean.
It would be an all-day trip from his inland village near Arusha. There would be bad road and car-sick kids.
A few hours in, the bus limped to a stop with a broken fuel line. The 50-gallon tank had to be removed, the diesel stored in hastily gathered trash cans and jugs, the pipe welded. Lacking a funnel, the back-country mechanics sawed off a plastic water bottle to use to pour the fuel back into the tank.
After dark, they arrived at the coastal farm of a retired Englishman who had read a Los Angeles Times article about O’Neal and had extended an invitation to stay.
In the morning O’Neal, a slouched figure in an oversize Lakers jersey and long, swinging dreadlocks, led the kids along the sand under a gray sky.
“Do you see it?” he announced as the Indian Ocean came into view. One child, who had never seen so much water in one place, remarked that it must rain a lot here.
None of them knew how to swim, and so O’Neal carried them one by one into the water, to the point where he was standing on his tip-toes.
Now, back home near Arusha, O’Neal is sore in every part, especially in his artificial knee.
In his long life, O’Neal has gone from violent Kansas City street kid to raging political radical to fugitive exile, and he is still on the run from a decades-old federal conviction for transporting a shotgun across state lines.
He has watched other exiled Panthers die off, and is fairly certain that he and his wife, Charlotte, are the last alive in Africa.
Speaking by phone Wednesday, O’Neal sounded exhausted but giddy.
“I can’t recall anything that gave me the kind of pleasure that this trip did,” he said. “As Martin Luther King said, I have been to the mountaintop.”
--Christopher Goffard in Los Angeles
Photo: Pete O'Neal (wearing Lakers jersey) walks toward the Indian Ocean with Tanzanian children who had never before seen the ocean. Credit: Courtesy of Pete O'Neal