Category Archives: My life

about my family and where I come from

Goggles

I have written about this before here:
http://eriktheready.com/somerset-west-i-can-see-clearly-now/
but this is a version that I wrote in 2012 for a course assignment and that I was also considering entering in a story contest. I hope you find it interesting? 


The little boy had cried before he fell asleep.

There had been no beating but there had been words. Words that made him feel worthless and stupid, as if he did not merit the roof over his head.

It had been about his reading. After being told to go to bed and switch the light off he had used a torch – and been caught.

“You’re always reading! Why can’t you be like other boys your age? Why don’t you play sport”, these regular harangues caused the boy to become more withdrawn. Trying to speak up for himself he only attracted more scornful accusations.

Life was a series of precarious, unpredictable encounters with his stepfather who could be affable and good-natured at times. Patient and imaginative he would teach the boy things – little things that the grown man would later remember and struggle to reconcile with the more usual behaviour of scorn and impatience.

His mother once asked him, pleading and demanding that he avoid annoying the man. He should do his chores before the man came home and avoid the nastiness.

He never seemed to be able to water the garden enough, or clean the hen-houses or rabbit hutches properly. His mother understood and when she could she helped. But the man would know by the way the hutches had been cleaned by stronger arms and that led to more nastiness – both mother and son would suffer.

The boy loved playing with the few friends who lived up on the mountain but reading was his escape.

Huckleberry Finn’s adventures on the river after escaping his father (he could relate to that), the dangers on Treasure Island and the Famous Five.

Oh to have parents who allowed him camping adventures? Breaking crime rings and smuggling operations!

Lost in his books the boy would be startled out of this other world by the arrival of the car, by his name being shouted, ordering him to another confrontation. The man would raise his hand and the boy would cower against the expected blow. Sometimes it did not come and the man would declare scornfully, “Christ I haven’t even touched you. What are you afraid of? Be a man!” But he wasn’t a man; he was a little boy.

“He’s only a child,” his mother would say, “let him play”, and the scornful reply would be that the child couldn’t play sport but he always “just wants to ‘play’.”

“But you never let him stay in the village after school. How can he play sport if he has to come home and water the garden and work around here?”

Another argument would start about her taking her son’s side over supporting him and how the child was a waste of time. At times, and if drink had been involved, the abuse of his mother might become physical and he might get a severe beating himself.

One evening, at the dining room table, the boy was copying notes from another child’s notebook because he was unable to read the teacher’s notes on the blackboard.

The man accused the child in harsh terms of cheating and cribbing and being so useless that he had to copy other people’s work.

The boy protested. The man became even angrier when the child told him it was because he could not read the blackboard. The child’s mother tried to intervene, to suggest that the child be given a chance.

The evening did not end well.

Next day the boy was chastised by his teacher because his notes were not up to date. He had to explain that his stepfather had accused him of cheating, taken the notes away and only given them back that morning so that he could return the book.

The teacher, a stern spinster was a dedicated educationist, fiercely protective of the children in her care. She had experience of the type of conflict that was involving this child. Without overt fuss she wrote to the parents about the difficulties the child was experiencing and the effect on his work.

The little boy gave the note to his mother and then went to his room to hide in a book.

Soon raised voices announced that the note was under discussion and fragments of the altercation drifted up to him:

“He’s just lazy and making excuses….”

“Why do you think he would do that? The teacher says he battles to see the board!”

“He’s sly and he’s got her fooled, stupid old cow”, and so it went on.

Suddenly the door of the room flew open, “What’s this rubbish that you’ve asked your teacher to write to us? Just because she believes you, doesn’t mean I have to! You’d better start doing your work and don’t let me catch you copying again. Now turn off the light and go to sleep!”

“But I haven’t had supper yet…..”

“And you won’t get any tonight”, slam.

Time passed.

At school his teacher had him sit next to a girl who wrote clearly. When he could not see the boy was to copy from her as she wrote her own notes.

This solved the teacher’s dilemma but anyone who has suffered this type of childhood ignominy will understand how the child felt – and how he was teased.

Already rather introverted and shy this “humiliation” was hard to take at first. He was an intelligent child and although not able to engage in some of the rough and tumble ball sports and games – he couldn’t see the ball you understand – he was more well-liked than not. All the quieter children suffered at the hands of the bullies but in a fifties village teachers were more aware of the culture in the school. Bullies’ dominance was not what it was to become later under less dedicated educators. But that is not the subject of this story.

Once a method had been found to enable the boy to keep up with the class he was always at, or near, the top of the class. This earned him some respect because it was known that this was achieved on his own easy ability and that he received no favouritism.

There was still trouble at home. If the boy had stayed in the village to play or take part in activities and arrived home too late to carry out his chores the man would always find fault, even when the chores had been done.

“You didn’t water the garden properly!”

“I did, I watered all of it.”

“Not properly, look here,” digging his index finger deep into the soil, “it’s only damp on top! You only sprinkled some water over it so it would look like you had done it. Do you think I am stupid?”

“No, dad, but I did water ….”

“Rubbish! You think I’m an idiot? Did you think I wouldn’t check?”

“You can stay out here and water the whole garden properly and before you come indoors I’ll come and check. Now get started”

“But I can’t see.”

“Just water the bloody garden and don’t make excuses.” and off he went. The boy could see him through the window, sitting at the dining room table pouring a drink.

He watched his mother enter the room with the food and her questioning posture. The abrupt, angry gestures and the sound of the raised voices drifted across the plot to him. He couldn’t hear the words but he knew they were arguing about him.

A while later his mother came out with a sandwich and some tea. She did not say anything. Then he   called her inside – angrily. She went.

It was very late when she came out again.

“He’s fallen asleep” she said “let’s just turn off the hose and you can come inside and have some food and then you’d better go to bed.”

“What if he wakes up, mom?”

“He won’t, don’t worry.”

One day the government doctors made a visit to the school in the village. Reports would be sent to the parents of children deemed to be in need of medical attention.

This medical included an eye test.

Only a few children got letters for their parents. The boy was the only one called for a second test and it was explained to him that he must tell his parents that he is very short-sighted.

The boy was jubilant and fearful.  Jubilant at having a reason for his difficulties; fearful of the reaction the letter would receive at home.

He gave the letter to his mother and after she had read it and asked a couple of questions the boy disappeared.

It was not long before the raised voices indicated that this latest communiqué was not being well-received.

“He’s lying again, just lazy and looking for sympathy. You spoil the child.”

“But he’s my child and he is not lying. The teachers and doctors say he needs to see an eye specialist.”

“Waste of money. I won’t waste money on him.”

For once though, his mother prevailed. An appointment was made with one of the leading opticians in the region who had his offices in the city where his parents worked.

The day came. Not going to school, he would accompany his parents to the city, thirty six miles away at the foot of the mountain.

The grumblings that had gone on for several days continued on the trip into town. Dire predictions of what would happen when the specialist proved what a liar the child was. That it had been a waste of time and money.

The optician was a kindly man with rooms upstairs in a tall building. The boy was fascinated and intimidated by the procedures that he underwent. He was enthralled by the way the letters on the chart went from indistinguishable blur to pin-sharp clarity.

The optician said his spectacles should be collected a week hence. For a few days he should only wear them at home until he was used to them.

The man was furious at being proven wrong but curiously, at the same time seemed pleased that a very real problem was being solved.

The great day arrived when his new glasses would be brought home.

It must have been summertime because the day was still bright with sunshine as he put the spectacles on and looked around. They were brown horn-rims (the ‘Buddy Holly’ look of the day), but they were magic devices! 

Their house, the very first one on that estate, had a wonderful view. It was a spectacular vista across one of the most beautiful bays in the world.  The child had had no true appreciation of the locale. The bay stretched some thirty miles across and its arms stretched away some thirty miles to each side.

White beaches fifteen miles away, surf breaking on them. Swells on the blue ocean could be seen. Fields and vineyards in the valley were no longer smudgy greens and browns. Roads with cars on them. Far away the white letters GB, on either side of an anchor, on the mountainside above the old naval school were now clearly readable…eight miles away!

He looked and looked and looked. He looked everywhere and anywhere and over and over again he looked at things.

Next morning he gave assurance that he had put his new glasses in the drawer, hoping to be believed.

At school there was teasing, oddly good-natured though and that was OK. With his glasses on he did not have to sit next to a girl any more. He was still not particularly good at ball sports!

A few years later the boy went on to an all-boys high school as a boarder. The school was way out in the bush, an old training aerodrome from the war years.

Within days he was nicknamed “Goggles”, Gogs for short. He did not resent it – besides his mom had said only well-liked people got nicknames.

Sixty years later, the man still occasionally bumps into people who remember “Gogs”, and that is also OK.

Abandoned – sort of

We arrived in Rhodesia from Cape Town in May 1958 when my stepfather, Cyril Williams, was transferred to Gwelo (Gweru) as General Manager, Prices Candles Central Africa.

By the end of the year he had lost that position and we moved to Sinoia (Chinhoyi) where my parents were to manage the Sinoia Caves Motel. The trip was quite an adventure with our trailer losing a wheel on the dirt road between Hartley (Chegutu) and Sinoia via Gadzema. (These are stories for another time).

There was no high school in Sinoia (that opened in 1960) so in the January of 1959 I was enrolled at Guinea Fowl School (GFS), halfway between Gwelo and Selukwe (Shurugwe). I was in Wellington House (WH) at the school. My brother was born in Sinoia in April 1959.

GFS was a great school, way out in the bush and almost every weekend would be spent walking and exploring.

Some time in about mid-to-late-1959 my stepfather caused the owners of the Caves Motel to, reluctantly in my mother’s case, let them go. My mother wrote and told me about this and said Cyril had got a job at Copper Queen near the Sanyati – way out on the Alaska road. He had been friendly with the people who offered him the job. The accommodation, I was to learn, was primitive – not to put too  fine a point on it.

Towards the end of 1959 I had no idea where my parents were.

I subsequently learned that the job at Copper Queen had ended and my parents were, by that time, living on a very basic farm (rondawels with no electricity or running water) with a chap named van Tonder about halfway between Karoi and Sinoia (I know it was 28 miles from Sinoia).

I had not been in contact with my parents for some time and I must have said something to one of the teachers. The upshot of his was that under no circumstances was the school prepared to let me get on the train to Sinoia until contact had been made with my parents. There was some discussion about what to do because the school would be closed. One of the cook matrons was approached and she offered to look after me until my parents could be contacted.

Accordingly, on the last day of term, I accompanied the lady (I will call her Mrs Brown for ease of reference and until I learn her actual name) to her home in Hunter’s Road, where her husband was a warder at Connemara prison.

They were lovely, kind people and I remember running around the area, exploring here and there. I don’t remember if they had children of their own but I remember that there were children around my age – perhaps neighbours?

After a few days Mr Brown announced he had taken a week off and was going to go down to his gold mining claims near Fort Victoria (Masvingo). He wanted to do as much as possible in his mine as he could because Lake Kyle (Lake Muturikwe) was close to completion and had already started to fill. When the lake was full all the little mine smallholdings would be under water.

He asked if I would like to go with him – I jumped at the chance and we set off. I cannot remember the accommodation there but I think Mr Brown had a small cabin that we stayed in.

I do remember exploring the mine. It was quite extensive with drives into hillsides and long dark tunnels and some deep, dark shafts. On one occasion I was walking along a tunnel and Mr Brown suddenly stopped me rather sharply. He then pointed out the shaft in the tunnel floor that I had not noticed. He showed me how to walk around this black hole and warned me about the care needed in the tunnels. He forbade going into the mine drives alone.

I did do a lot of exploring in the area on my own while Mr Brown and his black workers were occupied in the mine.

One day I was up on the hillside and had been peering down some of the open and unprotected shafts that were dotted around. At one of these shafts I was standing about half a metre from the edge and leaning slightly forward to peer into the dark hole, tossing a couple of pebbles in to hear if they hit bottom or splashed into water.

Somewhat engrossed in this boyish activity I suddenly heard an angry HISS by my feet.

Now HISS is misleading. It leads one to think of the insignificant sound of a tyre deflating…this was more like an EXTREMELY amplified consumptive wheeze, a noise you make in the back of your throat but loud and sinister! Think of the second syllable of BACH (yes, the musical genius – unless you can’t pronounce Bach …?) and imagine that CHCHCHCCH….at your feet but at CONSIDERABLE volume? That is the closest I can get to describe the sound of a startled serpent.

The next sequence of events took place so quickly that for many years I have believed that, in times of stress, one of the SIXTH SENSES is telekinesis.

I glanced down. The cobra was reared up. Its head was level with my knee, hood spread. Another angry CCCCCCHHHHHHH…. then I fell over a log some three or four metres BEHIND where I had been standing.

Trembling, I stood up, all the time staring at the place I had been standing. There was nothing there! Nothing. I picked up a large stick and looked around wildly…was the snake slithering towards me? Would it be angry and come after me? After another moment of dithering I fled. I am glad there were no hidden shafts in my path as I scampered pell-mell down the hill and back to our camp.

When Mr Brown got a message from home that my parents would be coming to fetch me we packed up and drove back to Hunter’s Road.

A day or two later my parents arrived to collect me. Cyril was grumpy that he had had to travel all that way and that I had wasted the train fare. He wanted to know why I had not got on the train – I think he had arranged for someone to meet me…but he had not told the school anything!

Anyway my mother was pleased to find me safe and well and thanked Mrs Brown and her family for their kindness. Although My recollection is scant on detail, and I have forgotten their name, they were the nicest of people – the best of Rhodesia. I have never forgotten this episode.

My stepfather enrolled me at the new Sinoia High School in January 1960. It only had form one in the first year and I had to hitch-hike 28 miles from the farm in the bush every morning. I was always late and I resented being put back a year. My behaviour was not exemplary and this resulted in Mr Talbot-Evans, the new head and my ex-housemaster from Wellington, giving me a talking to before he caned me. First boy to be caned at Sinoia High School – what an achievement.

Because of my rebelliousness it was recommended I go back to GFS and, two weeks late for the start of term I was back in junior dorm at WH.

By the end of 1960 my parents had moved to Salisbury and in 1961 I had to go to Cranborne High, near where we were living. This was because my stepfather could no longer pay my boarding fees due to his depleted circumstances.

1961 was eventful…I started at a new school where I refused to do Latin because I had been due to stop it at GFS. I was downgraded to a B stream as a result…My sister was born in the March…I broke my arm in the April (?), just before end of term…and then, a week or so after start of term, on 11 June 1961, my stepfather was killed in a car accident. 

I missed the rest of second term, we went to stay with relatives in South Africa but came back to Salisbury within months. At the end of the year I came seventh in class. As promised for passing the year, my mother bought me a bicycle. It cost her eighteen guineas that she paid off and it was many years before I comprehended what it took for her to keep her promise. 

My mother made a life for us, made a home for us and brought us up. I was fourteen, my brother was two and my sister three months of age when she was widowed. She always said that had we stayed in South Africa she could not have done that but, in Rhodesia, she could.

I have written a little about these events in my anecdote titled AFTER GUINEA FOWL SCHOOL.http://eriktheready.com/after-guinea-fowl-school-gfs-2/

Somerset West – The cabin the plot & going to Rhodesia

While I have been writing these anecdotes I started to realise that my memories are reasonably accurate but my memory of the TIME LINE for all these things is a bit out of kilter. (Remember I was a child aged between about eight and eleven when all this took place). So allow me some licence and know that these things all happened – in spite of the odd contradiction the eagle-eyed reader may pick up.

However, the time line for:

the plot being bought;
starting to camp there;
building the cabin followed by its extension;
arrival of the animals;
moving into the partly complete house and, finally;
moving into the house proper…

has all become a little fuzzy. The careful reader of these anecdotes will notice these anomalies but I trust it does not detract from the stories. A quick resume…?

Here is a picture of me in my first year of school at Maitland. I was at boarding school in Maitland until the end of 1955 when I finished Standard two and nine years of age when I started at Somerset West Primary at the beginning of 1956, in Standard three.

I would have been coming home from boarding school to the little flat in Moullie Point and later Sea Point and the plot trips may well have started while we were living in one of those places. I think I remember getting the train from boarding school to Somerset West a few times on a Friday. Children could safely do that in the mid-fifties.

The memory of those train trips also suggest that my parents may well have moved to the plot before I finished at boarding school.

The plot on Irene Avenue was a little over an acre in extent, bought some time before building of the house commenced.

We started going there for weekends and holidays almost at once. At first we spent weekends in a huge tent that Cyril had had made. After a time we had a chap from the Transkei, Marikane, working for us and staying on the plot.

Cyril helped Marikane build a small (well-built) shack for himself and made sure he had the basics of life (probably more than he had ever been used to). I think these basics were a paraffin stove, some pots, crockery and cutlery and a bed and table and maybe a few other bits and pieces and several sets of overalls, courtesy of Prices Candles I think. There was water laid on to the plot so that was never a problem.

Marikane dug two long drop toilets – one over towards his shack and one nearer our tent site that was more or less in the middle of the plot. Cyril made sure to site these very carefully and ensured that there was plenty of lime on hand to treat them.

After some time of staying in the tent at weekends (we could leave the tent up because Marikane was there to look after it), Cyril decided to build a cabin. Ever thorough, he must have done some reading and research and a delivery of timber, nails, cement and rolls of malthoid arrived at the plot. Malthoid is/was a waterproofing material for roofs. A tarry, slightly flexible grey/black sheeting probably two or three millimetres thick.

Construction of the cabin started by digging a number of holes in a square arrangement. He then planted what I seem to remember as 4 x 2 timbers (roughly 100 x 50mm in cross-section) in the holes. Marikane mixed a batch of concrete to fill the holes around the poles. While the concrete was still wet, Cyril very carefully checked that all the timbers were correctly aligned and vertical using builders lines, levels and all those good things!

I won’t bore you with the details but in a fairly short time the one-room cabin was finished. It was about six or seven metres square so not much bigger than a decent bedroom but adequate for weekends.

My memory is a bit woolly about this period but I THINK my parents may have moved out to the plot BEFORE the house was completed and while I was still at boarding school.

I do know that the cabin became a bit small for us and that the animals had already started to take up residence at the plot and the two black bunnies were still spinsters. I remember the bunnies because one day Cyril had had one or two libations too many, as was his wont, and had fallen asleep on my bed in the ANNEX. He had been petting the two rabbits when he nodded off and they were climbing all over him. They had donated a generous helping of droppings on his sleeping form and he and the bed looked as if someone had spilled chocolate-coated raisins over them. In spite of her annoyance, my mother couldn’t help laughing at the site of this slumbering man with two black rabbits hopping all over him, pooping as they went. This sketch is the extended cabin with notes.

Cyril had built the original cabin really well using tongue and grooved timbers for the walls and floor. It was raised a couple of feet above ground at the front and quite near the ground at the back, or uphill end.

The later extension to the cabin was not nearly as elaborate. Instead of tongue and groove, the outer walls were made of less robust planks done in a shingle fashion. This meant that there were slightly more uprights but the walls were flimsier. The floor was hard-packed earth that I think either duckboards, or some kind of linoleum, had been laid on. The roof was similar to the original cabin and covered in malthoid.

To connect the two rooms Cyril removed a section of the original cabin wall.

We had a paraffin primus and when not used for cooking we had a big, brass reflector that could be fitted to it to turn it into a very efficient heater.

Showering was a matter of timing. We had an incredibly long hosepipe. We ran water through it then closed the sprayer. After it had been lying in big loops in the sun, we connected it to a spray rose in our outdoor shower cubicle. Water on, get wet, water off, soap up, water on and rinse. It meant waiting a while between showers while the water warmed up but – it worked.

Finally, we had a fridge, electric lights and a few other mod cons, as utilities were connected and made available on the plot.

When building on the house started, Cyril had the builders complete the garage and servants quarters first. We/my parents moved into that part of the house while building on the main house proceeded. It is entirely possible that we were living in the cabin or the completed servants’ quarters when I started at SW Primary School…but I THINK we may already have been in the house.

One thing that I do remember was that Cyril got to know people and made friends in the village and the general area. Even before the house was completed, we had some great braais. Most of these I never saw the end of, having nodded off and been carried – or led off half asleep – to my bed.

I think we had been living in the house proper for about two years when Cyril mentioned that his employer was talking about transferring him to Central Africa. This was discussed off and on for a while but really only became serious in early 1958.

One thing that has always stuck in my mind was my thoughts on the matter as I lay in bed one night. Cyril had, on a couple of occasions threatened to leave me behind in South Africa. This would occur on those occasions – fairly frequent occasions – when I had done something that annoyed him and, of course, he could be equally annoyed if I had not done something.

Anyhow, one night as I lay in bed I got to thinking about this potentially life changing move and how it would affect me. I got to thinking about life and mortality and the thought of the year 2000 crept into my eleven-year-old mind. How old would I be in that year? I would turn fifty-four in 2000 and that would be unbelievably ancient. What would I be like, what things would I think about, and what would I be doing and what would it be like to be so unbelievably OLD?

As I am sure everyone knows (and for the information of those who may not), the little boy is still there, inside my head and inside me. That little boy is the grown up me, (71 years of age in pic taken 30 May 2018) and the grown up me is the little boy and I defiantly wear a badge on my everywhere jacket that proclaims:

Growing OLD is inevitable, Growing UP is optional.

 I try to keep my sense of wonder that allows me to ask daft questions and be interested in all kinds of things that GROWN UPS should apparently not show they care about. I try really hard to hold onto that unconscious naiveté that children have that allows them to see things without our faux sophistication. Does that make sense?

I drifted away there!

Prices Candles transferred Cyril to Rhodesia as Manager, Prices Candles, Central Africa, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in mid-1958. I was to turn 12 in August of that year.

We had left Cape Town station on the 30th of April or the 1st of May and arrived in Gwelo on the 3rd of May 1958 at about midnight. It was a wonderful trip and we were well looked after by the cabin staff and the conductor. My mother was to tell me later that it was because Cyril had slipped the conductor five pounds and the chief steward had received something as well. Five pounds at that time may have been half a month’s wages for a railwayman I suppose?

Within three years our life, our way of life, was to be destroyed due to a number of factors but mainly due so something that, in those days, was deemed a nervous breakdown as a more genteel way of not acknowledging that someone was an alcoholic.

I will write of that in other posts. The signs had been there for a while with a couple of NURSING HOME stays before the transfer. With hindsight I think the transfer to Rhodesia was a LAST CHANCE for a very talented and capable man. It was a time when no one openly discussed or dealt with the demon, and the stigmatizing of people with alcohol problems was quite awful. Of course, one has to acknowledge that it – alcohol – CAN be beaten but it is not easy and certainly with the attitudes of that day and age perhaps more difficult than today, when we tend to be more open and less condemnatory.

My stepfather died in a car accident on the 11th of June 1961 aged just 38 – he was passenger in a touring car that overturned one evening when, we believed, the driver had fallen asleep. His children, my brother and sister, were just two years of age and three months old respectively.

My mother was not yet 38. She took us to Cape Town after the funeral but decided that life would be easier for a widow with three children back in Rhodesia. We left Cape Town to return to Rhodesia on the 5th of September 1961, my mother’s 38th birthday.

There will be a few more anecdotes of my time in Somerset West. Of course, the time I spent there was comparatively short. Three years in a child’s life is a long time, not so much for an adult!

Perhaps a few of you may enjoy exploring my site and seeing how my life panned out…and a bit about how it was BEFORE Somerset West!

Somerset West – The Skollie

Skollie – a young tearaway hooligan
Snik-snik – haltingly through tears
Imperial coinage – a shilling (twelve pence) converted to ten cents and a sixpence was five cents when decimal coinage was introduced.
Tuppence – two pennies (colloquial)

This is actually NOT a Somerset West story because it took place in Observatory, Cape Town. We were, however living in Somerset West when it happened (I think we were and if not we had already bought the plot and started spending weekends there so maybe it counts?) I am sure people who know the area will relate.

My stepfather, Cyril, worked for Prices Candles in Observatory. Sometimes in school holidays, he would take me to work with him. I would get filthy playing and walking around in the candle factory and climbing all over the high, dirty stacks of bagged paraffin wax. I used to enjoy those days – something different for an eight or nine-year-old. I learned how candles were made.

We usually took sandwiches to the factory and from time to time there would be food prepared in the offices where there was a relatively small staff working.

On the odd day we would get in the car and go to a café in Salt River to have tea and sandwiches or a light meal.

One day Cyril was busy at work and it was late morning so he asked me if I would like to go for a walk and buy us a packet of sandwiches.

I was a bit bored with the factory and was happy to do something different. The streets were quite safe during the day so off I went with three shillings in my pocket. Two and sixpence was for the sandwiches and I was to have a soft drink out of the sixpence (and probably have tuppence change). I would wait while the sandwiches were freshly prepared.

They made three generous sandwiches for me, two rounds of egg and one of polony. They cut them diagonally and wrapped them in greaseproof paper. The sandwiches were then placed in a large brown paper bag for me to carry them back to the factory. The distance I had to walk was probably a mile – say one and a half kilometres?

Like all children – and many others I imagine – I loved looking in all the shop windows. There were many different shops in the area from bicycles to hardware, jewellers, small grocers, pawnshops and many others. I dawdled along looking at this and that until I got close to the factory when I turned off the main road.

There were a couple of quiet side streets with houses and small yards with non-retail type businesses in them. Car and bicycle repairs, small scrap dealers that kind of thing. It was very quiet in these streets as I got closer to the factory and I was probably not even a block from my destination when it happened.

I stopped to look at something that had caught my attention, holding the bag of sandwiches in one hand. As I stood there a young coloured man, probably a teenager, came loping up the street towards me. I was only absent-mindedly aware of him.

As he got close to me, he seemed to put on a spurt, dodged half a step towards me and snatched my precious bag of sandwiches! Stunned I turned and shouted “Hey!” I think he glanced over his shoulder and laughed, he may have shouted something rude, I don’t know. He turned the corner and was gone.

Getting over my initial surprise, I felt hurt and angry but mostly just shocked, I suppose. “How could someone do that?” my innocent mind seemed to ask rhetorically.

Flowing directly from that thought was my apprehension over how Cyril was going to react! Knowing how unpredictable he could be, and already in tears, I walked (maybe I ran?) the remaining distance to the factory.

Cyril surprised me. He crouched down and put his arm around me, and told me to tell him what had happened. Snik-snik, I told him about the skollie, and the stolen bag of sandwiches.

He told me not to worry, wash my face and hands, and we would go and get another bag of sandwiches.

We drove out of the factory gate and he said we would drive around a bit and see if we could see the skollie. I don’t think we saw him at all – or if we did he quickly vanished down some alleyway.

After getting the sandwiches, we went back to the factory and at last had our tea and sandwiches.

Writing about that now, I remember that factory rather clearly. The streets in the area were clean with very little litter. One drove in the gate by the offices and the yard was spotless.

Inside the factory though, things were dirty because of the type of work and the railway line that ran past the back (the factory had its own siding too). Steam trains were still common with the attendant dust that they produced.

We moved to Rhodesia in mid-1958 when Prices transferred Cyril to manage the Gwelo factory. For reasons that I will talk of elsewhere he soon left the company.

Then, sadly, in 1960, we heard from my aunt that the Prices Candles factory in Observatory, Cape Town had burned down in a spectacular fire. Considering the raw materials that would have been in stock, it must have been quite a blaze.

Somerset West – school trips

Braai – a barbecue (Pronounced brigh – to rhyme with sigh or why, the word is a dead giveaway that someone hails from Southern Africa.)

Somerset West Primary School and Somerset West the village was, as you may have noticed from all my anecdotes, a big influence on my life.

Until I started writing these recollections of the time spent in Somerset West I don’t think I had realised what a profound influence this little cameo, these three or four years of my life, had on me. I cannot say that it was life changing or that I learned things that made for startling changes in my life but perhaps, in its way, it was the happiest period of my childhood. Our life was more settled than ever before, or after, and I was young enough not to be bothered by adult matters that took place on a higher plane and did not really affect me.

Something that stands out in my memory of school was trips to learn about businesses and manufacturing. We learned something about where the things we used and ate came from, how things are, and were, made.

Three trips (well four actually…you’ll see…) in particular were…

The Cape Times Newspaper.

This was the mid-fifties, a long time before computers. The offices, behind the reception façade, struck me as being slightly dingy and dirty – probably all the ink and dust from various printing techniques. Rows and rows of typewriters and rows of READERS – checking copy for spelling and other errors – little did I know that one day I would be working at this, proof reading and editing.

The TELEX room was so noisy with the old Creed teleprinters, (generally referred to as TELEX machines, I was to learn). There were people typing on them and creating punched tapes at the same time so that the same copy could be sent to several distant places and of course there were machines RECEIVING stories from all over the world. Even with silencer boxes over them these old electro-mechanical machines were incredibly noisy. (I was to become a soldier when I left school. I served in the Corps of Signals and, apart from rifle fire, I think that working in communications centres, with a dozen or more of these old machines hammering away, contributed to the hearing problems I have been aware of for many years).

They showed us the thundering presses as these gobbled up huge rolls of newsprint and the compositors’ room where the print was prepared and set in blocks to be printed. Some of this last process was mechanised (automated…? I am not sure that would be an accurate term to use). The Cape Times was, and is, a broadsheet, a BIG, full sized, newspaper. Blocks of print, each the size of a double page spread, had to be fitted to the printing presses in the correct sequence. 

What I found most interesting about this trip was my first experience of a fax machine. 

This, however, was NOT the little desktop unit we know (and that is already becoming obsolete). It was not even called a fax (or facsimile) machine but rather it was termed photographs by wire or some similar term – I remember seeing the tag in brackets picture by landline. The machine used, however, rather like early computers, required a huge room all to itself and it was as noisy as the noisiest factory.

We were shown the receiving of a press photo of something that had happened in London or somewhere equally distant a few hours earlier that was being received as we watched. The machine thundered and banged like  a war zone. At the end of the performance a grainy, black and white picture, that was probably about the size of an A4 sheet, appeared. It was a marvel of its time.

Sweets.

Another memorable trip was to a factory making sweets (Buchanan comes to mind…? but I am not sure).

What I remember about this visit was my first impression, that the place was dirty – well at least grubby.  They showed us sheets of toffee, wrapped sweets, nigger balls (I know you shouldn’t, for rather suspect PC reasons, use the word but that IS what they were called), and all manner of other sweet things being made and packaged. They had all these different things in progress and some damaged stock so we all went away with pockets full of sweets. In many cases – and I was one – we stuffed so many products into our pockets that we were eating pocket-furry sweets for days!

Andy Becket and I went up to one chap who was working with chewing gum – great flat sheets of what I think was Juicy Fruit – and scrounged SOME chewing gum. He laughed as he cut a great strip of gum for each of us. My child memory tries to say that it was about a metre of chewing gum but… anyway it was more than we could hope to get in a year. We quickly rolled it up, stuffed it in our pockets and hurried to catch up with the rest of the group. We had been expressly forbidden chewing gum so naturally Andy and myself…

Prices Candles

We also visited the Prices Candles factory in Observatory where my stepfather, Cyril, worked. I had asked him and, to my great joy, he agreed. I told the teacher, arrangements were made and one day, off we went. I don’t remember much of that one because I had been to the factory many times. The entrance yard and the offices were immaculately clean.

I knew the manufacturing process pretty well. We always had balls of scrap wax with bits of wick in them at home to start our winter fires and our braais. We also always had bobbins of partly used candle wick that we used as string – it was incredibly strong.

The wax storage warehouses were huge, and very dirty, full to the rafters with sacks of wax. On the factory floor at one end were the melting vats. From there the workers carried the liquid wax in big scoops to the ranks of candle moulds. Naturally, a lot of wax slopped onto the floors and you had to be very careful not to slip.

The candle making machines, for straight and non-fancy candles, were amazingly simple. The wick was threaded through each mould in the machine that had perhaps fifty moulds in it. The wick was tensioned above and below to ensure it stayed in the middle of the mould. At the top of the mould, where the base of the candle would be, was a tray arrangement about three centimetres deep into which liquid wax was poured and this ran down into each mould. After moulding a very sharp butcher knife was used to cut the wicks above and below the moulds – leaving a short piece for lighting the candle at the tip of it (the bottom of the mould).

A short time later the tray at the top of the moulding machine was cleaned out with a sharp scraper/cutter that removed all the excess wax and bits of leftover wick – the smooth bases of the candles could now be seen. These scrapings were discarded in big boxes from which the scrap balls, that everyone who worked there took home for lighting fires, were roughly fashioned.

The finished candles went into a packing room where a number of women worked at wrapping the candles in packs of six, in wax paper printed with the Lighthouse logo that Prices Candles used for this product.

Finished packets of candles were packed in wooden boxes. The wood panels were delivered in flat packs printed with the Prices’ logo and address in blue and red. These boxes were assembled on an automatic nailing machine. The operator positioned the box sections in a jig and pressed a lever with his foot. This brought down a piece of equipment that clamped the pieces for a moment simultaneously driving in the nails. It took the operator no more than a minute or two to put together each box. The lids, after the boxes had been packed, were nailed on by hand. The boys in the class were impressed by this nailing machine thinking it really clever.

A group of thirty-plus children, we inevitably came out of there rather dirty. We had, however, been told to wear old play clothes, which was a good thing.

I have a vague memory of a visit to a bakery…some place that made biscuits, Baumann’s or Pyott’s (?) and we all had biscuit crumbs in our pockets for days after. Or… was that also the sweet factory…?

…and now for the afterthought…

This was the visit to the Cape Town Castle! Also known as the Castle of Good Hope this formed part of our history lessons. It was a really great visit – seeing the cannons and all the old quarters and trying to imagine what it must have been like way back when it was built in the 17th century. When we were taken to the prison cells and shown the torture equipment there were some serious oohs and aaahs, especially from the girls. 

Down in the dungeon the guide told us how it would have been partly below water at high tide and remarked that prisoners had gone mad in there, scratching and tearing at the walls in the dark. 

Andy and I had crept up to the entrance while he was talking. Pulling the door almost shut we turned off the electric light. We took some stick for that but it was gratifying for two small boys to have heard the hysterical screams in the pitch dark dungeon just for those few seconds!

 

SOMERSET WEST – miniatures and Brooklax

I was probably ten when the miniatures collecting craze took hold in the school.

I think it started with one or two children having tiny bottles of Coke in miniature crates.

Soon we were getting into it quite seriously with dentist’s samples of toothpaste and any other “miniature” we could get our hands on.

In the town, maybe one street up from the Primary School and just off the main street was a company called EPEE Distributors. It was easy to remember and sort of a joke because my initials are EPE.

I had been into EPEE a couple of times to ask for miniatures, which, in the form of rep’s samples, they gave me. I remember they gave me a tiny tube of Kolynos toothpaste. It was quite distinctive with the yellow tube with black print on it. (If anyone remembers its colours differently then put it down to my colour confusion). There was also Ipana toothpaste and I had also got a tiny tin of Andrew’s Liver Salts and one or two other things from there.

The woman at reception told me that we could call in every couple of weeks and if there was anything new she would put one or two items aside for us.

One day after I had been playing at school, or at with some friends, I was going to hitch a ride to the Cylnor – if I got lucky, I might even get a lift part-way up Helderberg College Road. As I walked past EPEE Distributors I called in with my friend (I can’t remember who I was with) to check if they had any new miniatures. I think they were busy but they gave us a handful of samples (miniatures) and we scampered out to divide our loot.

Among the two or three items were about six sample packs of Brooklax, consisting of about six small squares that looked, innocently, like a tiny, thin slab of chocolate. The chocolate was even wrapped in silver foil and slid out of the wrapper just like Cadbury’s.

For those who do not know (and we didn’t) Brooklax is a fairly powerful laxative.

We got up to the garage where the fork in the road went right for Stellenbosch, and home for me, or left for Cape Town. My friend lived somewhere near there and went off home and I started walking up the hill. I got a lift as far as the Cylnor and started to trudge up Helderberg road.

I had read the instructions on the Brooklax wrapper without REALLY understanding the dire warnings. I decided a little taste would do no harm, would it? I mean it was just chocolate medicine that they would not just give to children if it was dangerous?

By the time I had walked to Irene Avenue I had eaten, if not all of one pack probably most of it. As I started into my road my tummy rumbled. Google Earth shows the distance from the corner to my then front gate as being 160 metres. I was probably 50 metres from the front gate when I rushed headlong into the bushes, barely able to adopt the position before my bowels emptied.

I made it home with about two more stops by which time there was nothing inside me and I was somewhat worried I was going to turn inside out.

When I told my mother why I looked so terrible she could barely contain her laughter but she made sure nothing bad would happen and I was OK to go to school next day. The lesson was well and truly learned.

To this day I avoid laxatives and even if a doctor wants to prescribe them, as has happened literally once or twice since, I try to talk the doctor out of it!

We children hiked everywhere if we did not cycle and thought nothing of it. Our parents forbade it of course but we did it anyway – a much gentler, law abiding and less dangerous world it was then.

SOMERSET WEST – Wa Wiel – Wagon Wheel

David, my friend, suggested I enlarge on this children’s farmyard game that I mentioned in my first Somerset West article.

We would draw the general shape, shown above, in the dirt in the yard. Usually by dragging out feet along to make the lines. It was perhaps thirty metres in diameter? A lot depended on the available space.

Much like what we called ON-ON (in Rhodesia I learned it was called Touchers) where the one who drew the short straw or lost at several rounds of one-potato, two-potato (we did not know about rock-paper-scissors yet) would be ON and have to take station in the BOSS (the middle) of the wheel.

As long as you were between the tramlines in the RIM of the wheel, you were safe – the boss and the spokes belonged to the person who was ON. Now I hope I have the rest of it right!

The object was incredibly complex – run down a spoke to the centre and run OUT on a different spoke, without being touched in the centre – or without being caught while on one of the spokes and dragged back to the centre. Do you see where the potential for it to get physical comes into play?

If you ran outside of the tramlines of the spokes you were deemed caught and would have to take your turn in the middle. No jumping across from one spoke of the wheel to another to avoid capture allowed. You could retreat, back up the spoke, if you changed your mind and were quick enough.

The person who was ON, tried to LOSE that position as soon as possible while the others’ ambition was just the opposite.

Several players would start to advance to the centre at the same time, tempting the ON player to try to catch one of them. If the guardian advanced towards one player on one of the spokes the hub would be temporarily unguarded and someone quick enough could score a point.

When play stopped the person who had made the most successful runs or points would be the winner. It was a pretty loose system though – mostly we just had fun. Generally, play stopped when we were tired, it got dark or the resident parents called time – often with some biscuits and cool drinks or tea.

I found a similar game played in the USA called Fox and Geese…here http://grandmaideas.com/fox-and-geese

SOMERSET WEST – I can see clearly now

Another version of this story can be found here:  http://eriktheready.com/goggles/

I think I was in Standard 3 aged nine, when they discovered the problem.

Our classroom at Somerset West Primary School that year, 1956, was long and narrow. You entered from the veranda through a door in one of the narrow ends of the room. The blackboard was on the long wall to the right with the teacher’s desk in front of it and about four rows of desks facing it. Each row was about four desks deep and each desk seated two children. I cann0t really remember dimensions but it was probably two or three times as long as it was deep.

Like all boys, I had grabbed a seat at the back of the class – probably only about five metres from the front.

Soon, however, the teacher had me moved to the front of the class and, horror of horrors, sitting next to a GIRL! (I am not sure that I really minded but peer pressure demanded that little boys and little girls should avoid each other.)

The reason for the teacher moving me was that she soon realised I was having trouble reading the notes written on the blackboard. More to the point was the fact that most of these notes had to be copied into our notebooks and I was sitting there, less than five metres from the board, unable to read what the other children were having no problem seeing.

I think part of this ritual was that we got to practice our handwriting and it set the salient facts in our minds. With many of these notes – in geography for example – we had to illustrate the notes to further show that we had understood the lessons. Unlike today with the singular focus per subject, good English was always expected. Whatever the subject, Geography, History, Arithmetic etcetera, you lost marks for poor spelling and grammar. I have noted that most people educated in that era have good language skills and often remember, 50 or 60 years later, what they learned.

However even from the front row, I was squinting and unable to read the board. The upshot of this was that the teacher took the book of my desk mate (girls’ handwriting was generally better that the boys’ anyway) and told me to take it home and copy the notes from it.

When Cyril saw me copying the notes he bristled and accused me of cheating and cribbing other children’s work. Well that was the gist of his tirade – and wanting to report me to the school for cheating. My mother, who I had told and who had the note from the teacher, tried to intervene but was met with scorn for trying to PROTECT me.

In those days, a team from the health department used to come to the schools and give the children a rudimentary health check. I think the check was primarily for TB but it also ensured that any underprivileged youngsters would not fall through the cracks because the parents could not afford to take them to the doctor. Most of us were disgustingly healthy and the checks never bothered us.

Eye testing teams also visited schools for the same reason – quite progressive thinking in the fifties.

A few days after one of the episodes of copying notes from another child’s book, the optical team visited the school.

I failed! I was chronically short sighted and, because of the alarming result of my test, I was given a note for my parents.

Cyril was openly scornful again. I was just playing up, he said, and being too lazy to do my work. This was just another excuse and so on and on…such fun!

My mother put her foot down. Reluctantly and with dire warnings of the consequences if I was malingering, Cyril let my mother make an appointment for me to see a well-known optician in Cape Town. I think his name was Townsend…could that be?

There were no Spec-Savers® type opticians in that day. We arrived at a very ordinary building in central Cape Town and climbed the stairs to the optician’s offices on the first or second floor. A very plain door with the name of the optician and his business on it, opened into a tiny reception area and a rather old-fashioned waiting room.

The optician’s office/consulting room was all wood panelling and books with none of the modern paraphernalia one expects today. I sat in a chair and he wheeled his apparatus over and proceeded with his tests.

I was vaguely apprehensive. What if the optician somehow found it was my fault that I could not see properly – effectively supporting Cyril’s stance?

The optician confirmed that I was very myopic to the point that he did not understand that no one had noticed this before. I suppose it is a sort of a boiling frog syndrome – my eyesight deteriorated but to me that was normal as I continually found ways to WORK AROUND the problem. He also discovered that I have a degree of colour confusion. This was to preclude me working in the electrical and electronics fields and it would probably have stopped me had I ever had the opportunity to learn to fly.

I was prescribed spectacles and my mother helped me to choose a pair of horn-rimmed frames that she thought looked good. Cyril muttered direly in the background.

About a week later my parents came home from work with my new specs. The optician had counselled that I should not wear the glasses to school at once and I should only wear them at home until I got used to them.

I seem to remember that I was outside when mom gave me my glasses – probably doing the hated watering of the garden.

 I put the specs on and I think my eyes filled with tears.

A step back.

Where we lived on the slopes of the mountain the view over False Bay was one of the most spectacular that you could expect to see ANYWHERE. It was simply breathtaking but I had not even been aware of its beauty. To me it was just, the sea is over there and on the right , I know, is Simonstown and Muizenberg and over to the left is the Strand and Gordon’s Bay and the mountains that we drive along to Hangklip. I KNEW this but my VIEW of it was a vague blur. The photo, mined from the internet (acknowledgement to GORDO), is not an ideal image but serves to give some idea of the vista from Helena Heights on the slopes of the Helderberg Mountain. 

Analogy is my strong point but it tends to elude me when I get to describing this. Imagine your TV is slightly off station and the image is a sort of sepia blur. You fiddle and suddenly it is in sharp, brilliant colour. Can you imagine that? I thought of a blind person seeing but that would be presumptuous for I can, and could, see. I don’t think one can imagine being blind but it is perhaps as difficult if you have always had 20/20 vision to imagine the transition I experienced.

Technicolour – that was my first thought. The world has changed to Technicolour – and it is beautiful. I just stood, and stared and slowly looked around at all the things that I had never noticed. The detail of the rocks on the mountain, the dynamite factory and the lake in its grounds five kilometres  away near the sea and more than 200 metres below us…. everything was pin-sharp and in TECHNICOLOUR – even the chickens, thirty-odd metres away, were no longer a heaving blurred mass of white as they fed – I could see individual birds.

Overwhelmed, I cried.

I suppose that is the only time I have experienced what is termed sensory overload. My mother just put her arms around me and held me as, confusedly, I tried to tell her what I could see and how beautiful it was. I suppose it was a kind of revelation to her, too. After a bit she chuckled quietly, genuinely pleased for me, and told me it was alright but to wipe my eyes and act normally to avoid any nastiness when we went back into the house.

Next morning I was to leave the specs at home…NOT. After assuring the parents that I HAD left the glasses in my room I got into the car to go to the bus stop, with the precious specs in their hard case at the bottom of my satchel.

As soon as the car had disappeared over the hill in a cloud of dust, I put on my glasses and marvelled at all that I could SEE.

At school there was some teasing about four-eyes and so on. I silenced that by saying I would rather see than not see – the teasing NEVER bothered me and because of that it never lasted and I, and my glasses, became just part of the normal school scene.

My schoolwork improved and I told my mother later that I had never left the glasses at home – she had known but not said anything.

A few years later, in 1959, I started at a boarding school called Guinea Fowl in Rhodesia. It was a wonderful school out in the bush and there I was given the nickname Goggles. I wore the name with pride and it never bothered me. One or two people still remember that nickname – Goggles.

Somerset West – the bike and Cyril’s cock

I always wanted a bicycle. I had never ridden one but I had seen plenty of other people, and children younger than me, effortlessly riding around on bicycles. How difficult could it be, I thought to myself? I made a point of making a point of this whenever I could!

While I was at boarding school it was never going to happen, I suppose. We were living way up in Sea Point just below High Level Road and the thought of a bicycle, that hill and me, scared my mother I think!

Shortly before we permanently moved to Somerset West – I think it may have been Christmas 1955 – I got my bike!

Cyril had gone to a lot of trouble with the presentation of it, only bringing it into the house after I had gone to sleep and packing it in a special bike-sized cardboard box he had had specially made. Inside and packed around the bike were a number of other presents.

Of course, when I came out and saw this huge, beribboned box I had no idea what it was so when invited to open it I was stunned to find the long-awaited two-wheeler. As much as was my joy at getting a bike so too was my apprehension because I KNEW I could not ride a bike – having insisted that I could in order to get the thing.

After breakfast, Cyril took me out to one of the more level roads and was dismayed to learn that, in fact, I could not ride a bike! He was both annoyed and disappointed and now, with an adult perspective I suppose I can understand – especially as he had gone to such trouble to surprise me with it.

That, sort of, spoiled the rest of the day.

After we got to Somerset West, I tried and tried to ride the bike. Even with Cyril helping, I did not have enough confidence to develop the intuitive sense of balance. Cyril’s scornful opinion of my bike riding and other abilities did not help in the slightest as far as building confidence was concerned.

Enter Ellis Jackson. How this came about I am still a bit unsure but I think my parents knew Ellis’ parents. One day he was at our place and the subject of riding, or not riding, a bike came up. Ellis offered to help and patiently got me riding the bike, with him helping to balance it by holding onto the saddle behind me. I am not sure how many lessons like this it took but I clearly remember the day he let go.

I was talking to him and realised he was not replying. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Ellis standing in the road about twenty metres behind me. In that instant the fact that I was riding solo never entered my mind – instead my confidence fled. After a series of wobbles, I proceeded to make intimate contact with the gravel road.

Ellis had me up and, wise beyond his years (I have learned he is only two years my senior) he encouraged me, got me to dismiss my scratches and get in the saddle again. He pointed out that I had just been riding solo and promised not to leave me to my own devices again. (He did though – let me solo without telling me first – but the scare only lasted as long as it took for the next attempt).

Ellis Jackson kindly sent me this picture of himself in which he thinks he would have been about eleven so it was taken about the time that the cycling lessons took place….

It seemed it was not long before I was soloing on the bike with no one in attendance. Fall I did, many times although it seems – from the distance of years – that it was only a short time before I was riding with absolute confidence. Actually, too much confidence.

One day I came barrelling down Annandale road towards our gateway a bit too fast – and a bit too late on the brakes. The little bump before the gate acted like a pivot and instead of zooming, ramp-like over it the bike catapulted me over its handlebars to land in a heap in the drive. Luckily, a couple of additional scratches and a bruised ego were the only result! I did learn how to ramp that bump though…

Cyril, who was already – and without great success – into keeping rabbits, pigs and sheep for the pot decided we should keep chickens and be self-sufficient in eggs and chicken for the Sunday roast.

Now I am uncertain, all these years later, if the breed I have described is actually the correct one but I do know they were all white. There is a chance the pictures I have chosen will not be correct – to the purists, forgive me.

Accordingly, after some research, a large box appeared in the corner of the dining room containing a hundred day old chicks. Over the box was suspended a high wattage light bulb to keep the chicks warm.

With his usual thoroughness, Cyril then built a large chicken run at the bottom of the plot with a nesting and roosting enclosure in the middle of it, so that the chickens could be closed in at night.

When the cross Australorp/Leghorns (for that is the type of chicken they were) were old enough they were placed in the chicken run and I (read we, my mom and I) had the job of seeing that they had ample water and feed and that the eggs were collected. Oh, and that the cages were kept clean and the enclosure swept and raked from time to time – the sweepings to be used in the garden as fertiliser. 

One day I had gone into the chicken run – a job I disliked because the chickens seemed to be rather aggressive (I may have been approaching my tenth birthday). We had a large cockerel, with a magnificent red comb, that was the bossiest chicken you could imagine and he always intimidated us – mom and myself.

On this day, I think I was putting water in the troughs with the hose, Mr Rooster came buck-buck-ba-cawing over self-importantly, as if to interrogate what I was busy doing. I sprayed him. Bad move.

He fluffed up and spun round once or twice then stepped towards me, muttering in chicken. I sprayed him again. Once again a couple of pirouettes, a couple of more noisy buck-bacaws were followed by more aggressive  steps towards me.

Maybe I kept up the teasing and spraying a bit too long but when I moved to do something else, Buck-Bacaw was right behind me and very vociferous. I moved away from him quickly. This must have encouraged him to think he had me on the run (well, he did I suppose) and he went to peck at my foot. I jumped, he jumped in, I jumped back and before I knew it, the massive chicken had me running around this big chicken enclosure shouting for help.

Mom was in the garden and came hurrying into the chicken run, grabbing a broom as she came. Getting between the rooster and me, she jabbed at him. He flapped up into the air ba-cawing with some anger now and landing closer to us. Darting in at our feet, mom jabbed again. The performance repeated a couple more times but the fowl was now in a foul mood and with much chicken-shouting came flapping in in attack mode.

This time mom swung the broom like a hockey stick connecting the rooster on the head. Down he went, motionless. We tentatively stepped forward to examine the creature and mom gently prodded him with the broom handle. He did not move.

“Oh, my god, Erik,” she exclaimed, “we’ve killed Cyril’s cock!” then immediately started to giggle. I was much too young to realise what was causing her to laugh at this serious incident but she continued, her voice genuinely worried, through her chuckling, “What are we going to do? What are we going to tell him when he gets home?”

She took a tin and threw some water on the chicken’s head. It stirred! It shook its head and scrabbled in the dirt as it struggled to its feet.

“Come on, let’s get out of here.” she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me to the gate while the groggy rooster was still getting its bearings and gathering up its somewhat damaged dignity.

It was to be YEARS later when we were telling someone this story that I REALLY saw the funny and understood why she had been laughing – and, I recall, she would laugh heartily every time we talked about the incident.

Not that they were our favourite creatures but I think the chickens were the only halfway successful FARMING venture undertaken on the plot. We got plenty of eggs and mom and I had no qualms about eating chicken. In any event, they were so anonymous we would never have known which chicken was missing.

Somerset West – of rabbits and woodwork

My stepfather’s name was Cyril Williams and from now on, I will refer to him by his first name.

Cyril was born and brought up in the coal-mining area of the Rhondda Valley in Wales, in the UK. From what I can gather, it was a mostly rural area but at about the age of fourteen, which would have been in about 1936/37) he was enlisted into boy service in the Royal Navy where he completed his schooling to GCE O level I believe.

He served in the RN during WWII and I think spent time in the middle east but I am not really sure other than some of the few times he spoke of his service he mentioned that region, the heat and having to accompany shore parties into the desert.

Cyril had been brought up in an area where game such as wildfowl, some deer and rabbits were part of the normal fare along with mutton, pork and beef.

The Rabbits – I have written briefly about this in my first article but, just to enlarge on it…

I think the rabbits – two black ones that we got – were bought for, or given to, me but Cyril decided that we should breed them. Accordingly, with the help of Marikane, our general factotum from the Transkei, he built an enclosure of split logs on our plot in Helena Heights.

In spite of his supposedly KNOWING about rabbits, Cyril forgot that they are burrowing animals but, at first, the burrows that we saw in the enclosure were just curious and interesting. Within a day or two, we realised that they were ESCAPE tunnels and we were chasing the bunnies all over the plot. He then built new enclosure that had a wooden floor topped with about a foot of soil so that the rabbits could burrow but not escape.

…and we waited. After several weeks, our very happy little bunnies were still playing house but showing no sign of breeding. Having befriended a chap named Bill Prince in the village, and knowing that Bill had a number of rabbits himself, Cyril asked him what he thought the problem could be. The bunnies (my mother and I had probably given them names by this time), were examined by Bill who with great amusement, informed us that the rabbits had not been breeding because we had two does (girls).

A buck rabbit was introduced to the mix and the stage was set for him and Cyril to start the commercial supply of rabbit to the local butchers and specialty restaurants. (There were none of the latter in the area although they did exist in Cape Town – I think).

Cyril was very good with his hands and particularly good at woodwork. He bought a supply of timber and built some very professional cages that were about six hundred millimetres deep by about a metre wide and perhaps six or seven hundred millimetres high. They had mesh front, back and sides and a mesh floor so that droppings could fall through. Under each floor was a slide-in drip tray the size of the cage, that he had had made out of galvanised steel. I think there were about 12 cages in all.

As our two girls started to produce offspring the cages soon filled up (and Cyril added some new livestock I think) and it fell to me to clean the cages. As a city-raised child of nine or ten this was not something I took to with relish and there were often some vigorous exchanges about the poorly cleaned cages and drip trays. Cleaning was more difficult because the bunnies, usually two to a cage, produced prodigious amounts of droppings – mostly in one corner of the cage where all the droppings would clump together and stick in the mesh like tar. I was not strong enough to wield the wire brushes to good effect nor tall enough to get into the higher cages. My mother would then get stuck in and clean the cages out. Cyril would come home, see how well mom had done the job and come looking for me. (This may have occasioned the lone pine tree incident that I spoke of elsewhere).

I mentioned before that my mother and I would not eat rabbit, if we had raised the creature, but if it came from Bill as ANONYMOUS meat we condescended to consume the meat – rabbit is delicious by the way.

As to the commercial viability of the venture I seem to remember it fizzled out…The pelts were meant to be a by-product of the venture but I only remember a couple of pelts ever being properly cured while the rest turned hard and ugly. I think Marikane did cure a few pelts for himself and he got the odd rabbit to slaughter for his own consumption.

I believe that Bill Prince ended up with all the rabbits and their cages because, unlike Europe and Britain where rabbits are largely regarded as livestock, in South Africa the white people tended to think of rabbits in the category of domesticated pets. Black and coloured people would have gladly eaten rabbit but not at the kind of prices that these were being offered.

Cyril was very good with wood, and I picked up many ideas and some technique from him but because of his impatience with me, the experience was sporadic and came to be something that I would avoid.

Having decided that we should fence the plot Cyril bought a huge pile of raw pine split logs and made up sections of fence that looked roughly like this.

Each section was about 2 to 2.5 metres long with the ends about 1,800mm high and the middle about 1,400mm high. Each pole was about 100mm wide and 100mm apart and he nailed it all t0gether with 100mm nails which, for the first couple of prototypes he did not drive all the way in – leaving the rather big heads projecting for about 5mm. The sketch I have created is NOT to scale of course. The fence needed quite a few of these sections. In a 2 to 2.5 metre section there would have been twenty to twenty five uprights – a considerable weight of timber.

In order to be able to see these sections while getting the pattern right Cyril needed the sections upright and I, still aged nine, was roped in and made to sit on the ground and hold a section so that it could be viewed to see the effect.

One section of fence was MUCH heavier than I was so all I was doing was precariously balancing it in an upright position. I was taking some flak from Cyril as usual, not getting anything right according to him. My arms were getting tired when an errant gust of wind caught the structure.

I valiantly tried to hold the section but it pivoted to the horizontal on my outstretched arms. For just a moment I was supporting the entire weight of the section before my arms collapsed.  The structure fell on me, driving one of the protruding nail heads into the centre of my head. There was pain, surprise, a not-inconsiderable amount of blood and, I was nine, remember, howls of pain as I lay flattened under the section of fence.

“Bloody fool, why didn’t you hold the bloody thing up…useless idiot.” …words to that effect were directed at me but I think he had a fright because he soon had the thing off me and my mother was out with a cloth and warm water – and some words for Cyril. I think we went down to the hospital where they determined that apart from a sore head and a severe, shaved, bump – accompanied by a wound that was soon to scab over I would be OK. I was young enough, and my skull was still flexible so there was no skull damage. I do have a slight concavity on top of my head though, that perhaps might not have been there otherwise.

The finished front fence (I think Marikane was pressed into service – or someone was hired to complete it) was quite smart looking.

Somerset West childhood memories

Somerset West recollections from 60-plus years ago – I was asked to write about my memories of the place and it has turned into rather a long post…

My mother married my stepfather in early December 1953, The end of my first year of boarding school. They went away for a few days to a place called MOON RISING on the road that ran from Helderberg college up over the shoulder of the mountain and down into Pérel Vallei (Silverboom Kloof Road, according to Google Earth). When they had been there a day or two a friend or theirs, named Jimmy Brookes, took me to visit and I stayed with them for a couple more days after which we all returned to Moullie Point where we were living in a small flat in Moullie Court – it is still there to this day.

In about 1954 my stepfather and my mother bought a plot on an area called Helena Heights, situated on the flanks of the Helderberg Mountain. It was about four or five miles from the then village of Somerset West on the Stellenbosch road. We were in Irene Avenue – the fifth road to the left after turning off at the Cylnor Hotel (in those days Irene Avenue did not carry on to the right towards Pérel Vallei, as I now see it  doing on Google Earth). The Cylnor Hotel was on the corner of Old Stellenbosch Road and Helderberg College road where I see some shops are now located. In the fifties, and beyond I suspect, it was a very popular place.

Below, taken from Google earth – where we lived with my comments

Somerset West in the mid-fifties was considered true country living – thirty miles from Cape Town it was something of a sleepy hollow. On returning to the town in 1982 I was not too surprised to see the extent of development on Helena Heights but the town, with the new highways to get one there, seemed like a suburb of Cape Town! What did surprise me after having left, as a child 24 years previously was that I was able to take the Paarl turn-off and, via Stellenbosch, drive straight to our old house.

Anyway, 5 Irene Avenue was our plot and we were to build THE VERY FIRST HOUSE ON THE NEW ESTATE. My stepfather first built a wooden cabin that we lived in at weekends until they had enough to start building the house. The plot was just over an acre in extent and Cyril made it a stipulation that, apart from what would be absolutely necessary to build the house, NONE of the protea bushes was to be cleared so we had these magnificent, huge protea bushes dotted around all over the property.

We probably moved into the new house some time in 1955 when I was still at boarding school but I started Standard 3 at Somerset West Primary School in January 1956. I would have been nine years old. We used to get the school bus on the Stellenbosch road where it intersected with the Faure/Firgrove road, which I think was still a dirt road.

In summer they allowed us to go to school barefoot, (the reason given for this was so that poorer families could save some money). My stepfather very firmly told me that he would NOT allow me to go barefoot and I was always to wear shoes and socks to school.

Some of the children came from fairly well off families many of whom farmed in the area – grape farms had become a big thing with the wine industry starting to go full out. One of my classmates, with whom I was friendly, was a chap named Basil Boer whose family had a farm a couple of miles on the Stellenbosch side of where I used to catch the school bus. Basil used to go barefoot in summer, as did many other children who were in no way underprivileged so I was determined to do the same. For a while, I got away with it too.

I would take my shoes and socks off as soon as my parents had dropped me at the bus stop and driven off and I would hide them in a culvert to be collected when I returned after school. One day I stayed late at school and was given a lift home by a friend’s mother. It was only the next morning that I realised I had no shoes and socks to put on! The confrontation with my stepfather was not pleasant but at least the shoes and socks were where I had left them. I still went barefoot as often as I could but was a lot more careful with my shoes and socks.

I remember only a few teachers from my school days but Miss Melville, who was my teacher for quite some time at Somerset West Primary School, is one such. She was strict, with a forbiddingly upright demeanour but (and I began to realise this many years later) she was a teacher because it was her VOCATION – it was not just a job, it was her life’s purpose…and she was not that strict, either. It just seemed that way. Miss Mellville had a broad leather strap cut to form three tails that she used on the boys’ bums and the back of their legs – the girls only got it across the back of their legs. Not viciously or very hard and, I think that because family values were the way they were in that era, it was more the embarrassment and shame of being singled out for punishment rather than any lasting pain.

Certainly, my recollection of that time, of those punishments, is of a benign era of honour and decency and I doubt that ANY of Miss Melville’s pupils will be carrying emotional scars, as today’s PC folks would have us believe we should.

The school was dual medium and classes were streamed as Afrikaans medium or English medium but I think we all, certainly most of us, spoke both languages – using them quite unconsciously depending on who we were playing with.

It was a long time ago but some of the lessons taught by Miss Melville stay with me to this day – you may gather she made a big impression on this little boy. Miss Melville who we thought SO OLD, who rode an upright bicycle with mechanical brakes that had a basket in front and a carrier over the back wheel. The back wheel had a screen over it to prevent her skirts or dresses from catching in the spokes. …and she had a briefcase and a basket that came to school with her.

Yes, DRESSES AND SKIRTS – no such thing as trousers for a lady such as Miss M – even on a bicycle!

Calling children KIDS had started by then but Miss M overheard us using the term she would admonish us that we are CHILDREN and HUMAN young and that KIDS are the offspring of GOATS!

In 1957 at the end of Standard 4, a couple of us decided tat we would hide Miss Melville’s strap. The classroom blackboard was fixed to the wall and we got the strap firmly wedged up behind it. Lo and behold, next year Miss Melville took over Standard 5 so we were back in the same classroom! Miss M grumbled quite a bit about her missing strap but a few weeks into the new term, she became somewhat agitated with someone and banged the blackboard with the duster to make her point. There was a sound of something moving and, with a loud clatter, a very dusty leather strap tumbled out from behind the board. Holding the strap in her hand, she gave the class a triumphant glare – but said nothing.

My stepfather’s name was Cyril Williams and he was the kind of person who came to know everyone. In our time in Somerset West, he soon DID know everyone it seemed. He was friends with the butcher, the hotel owner – Barney Teperson (?), the hardware store owner even members of the police.

We used to have some wonderful braais at our place. It was before transistor radios and other personal devices and there would always be someone who had a guitar or piano accordion who came along and I have great memories of how popular my mother, Enid, was and what a fine singer too. She was always asked to sing the popular songs of the day – Moonlight and Roses, Memories are Made of This, Send Me the Pillow that You Dream on are just a few that come to mind.

Some people may not be aware that South Africa was VERY Calvinistic in that era and at about 1200 or 1300 on a Saturday all retailers closed. On Sundays, hotels could only serve liquor with a meal. Cinemas (or bioscopes as we knew them then) did not open on Sundays. If it was decided that we were going to have a braai and it was after closing on a Saturday Cyril would make a couple of phone calls, go for a drive and come back with meat and drinks and bread and the party would get going. Of course there was only one other house near us by 56/57 so no neighbours to worry about, as invariably they would be at the party.

In about 1956 a couple – who I only remember as Ginger and Iolanthe – built a house on the plot just in front and to the right of us (on Montrose Crescent directly opposite the end of Pierneef Street) – you could say at one o’clock from our plot and sharing a short bit of boundary in the corner. They had a baby named Cynthia (I think?). We kept rabbits and one day when Cynthia was a toddler, they came over and my stepfather gave the child a baby rabbit to hold. No one was watching the child as she hugged and hugged and hugged the little bunny. After a while I noticed that the little creatures head was lolling unnaturally – quite innocently, the little child had hugged the bunny to death!

The rabbit saga, that was to cause much strife for me and my mother, started when Cyril, bought a PAIR of rabbits with a view to breeding them for slaughter but they steadfastly refused to breed. Enter Bill Prince, a friend Cyril had made in the village who was from rural England. Bill determined that we had TWO FEMALES and after he had introduced a buck, we had something of a rabbit population explosion. My mom and I determined we would NOT eat OUR rabbits so the only ones we ever ate were the dressed-out-ready-to-cook ones obtained from Bill who was also breeding them.

My mom and I did that with every animal brought to the plot for breeding and eating. We made pets of them. The sheep – my mother cooked a leg of it but neither she nor I would eat any. Cyril was livid with us.

Enter the pig. When it came time to slaughter this creature Cyril decided that it was to be carried out in our big kitchen yard that was of steel-floated concrete with good drains. One of his less well-known friends, who claimed to know all about slaughtering and butchering, came along to assist. The calibre of pistol they used was too small and the wounded pig squealed and thrashed around the yard spraying blood while these two men tried to put it out of its misery. This was, I think, achieved with another bullet and slitting the now-stunned animal’s throat. My mother and I were periodically peeping out of an upstairs window, horrified by this obviously amateur debacle in the yard that was now awash with pig blood.

When the mess was cleared up and the butchering completed a few days later (I suspect some of that was done by the butcher friend in the village), some of the meat was brought home. Mom said she would cook it for him but she was buggered if either of us (mom or myself) would eat any of it. That bad vibe lasted for some time.

I was good friends with Andy Becket, a classmate whose grandparents had a small farm a short way up the road and spent many holidays and afternoons over there (it was only a short walk across a field to get there). I helped to turn the handle on the separator and I would get a glass of milk, still warm from the cow, for my trouble. Scones fresh from ouma’s oven with FRESH cream and FARM butter that I sometimes helped to churn.

Climbing Helderberg and almost getting stuck on the mountain. Going there again, caught by bad weather, stumbling around in the mist. We survived all that stuff and more and no one seemed to get into a panic at us actually packing some food in a school satchel and setting off for a day of adventuring.

Tree houses, amateurish and probably unsafe, built in trees on the farm. We swam in ponds of black water with soft squishy mud on the bottom: scaring each other with fanciful stories of monstrous creatures in the murky water.

The Cylnor was the local watering hole and although my stepfather was friends with Monty at the Helderberg Hotel the Cylnor was far enough out of town that they would close the doors after hours and the party would continue behind the closed doors. Not so easily done down in the town.

Does anyone remember playing WA WIEL (Wagon Wheel)? Never came across the game after I left SW. It was a children’s farmyard game played on a roughly 30-metre wagon wheel marked out in the sand. There was a big family on a large property on what I see is now called Future Road just next to the Old Stellenbosch Road. I became friends with the family and it is where I played Wa Wiel.

One time I was in town and playing cowboys in the grounds of the Helderberg with Monty’s son, Barney and a few others and I ran through a drainage ditch with some black waste water in it. I felt a tickle on my foot and a few minutes later one of the boys commented that I was bleeding. Sure enough, there were big splotches of blood where I had been moving around and, after I raised my foot, we saw a big cut in the ball of my foot, just behind my big toe.

No panic, Monty or one of the other adults, just got the cheerful coloured delivery bike rider from the off sales to put me in the basket on the front and run me up to the doctor – about a block away – leaving big splats of blood every couple of metres. At the doctors I sort of hopped up to the door only to be shooed away by the receptionist who made me go to the back door (where the coloured people used to enter) and I had to go in that way to be treated. Laws or regulations around the colour of one’s skin notwithstanding they were NOT about to let someone bleed on the floor of the practice!

I still have a faint scar from that cut. They did not stitch it and it healed quickly – we were real little animals!

I could barely keep my head above water when it came to swimming – let’s face it, I couldn’t swim. I learned though, in the Lourensford River a few hundred metres from the Helderberg Hotel when a friend chucked me into the river one day. Talk about sink or swim…

Stealing fruit was a rite of passage. No one needed to raid orchards or vineyards but we did it because they were there. On one occasion, on Lourensford estate, we were being chased – I cannot remember what fruit we had been helping ourselves to but probably grapes – and we rode off as fast as we could on our bikes through the pine trees where a vehicle could not go. The deep pine needles hid something else – stumps. After hitting one of these little stumps, I went flying over the handlebars. I bounced to my feet, grabbed my bike and joined the rest of the fleeing robbers. One friend also came off his bike, somehow landing up on his chest, which meant he had a lot of squashed fruit in his shirtfront!

I did not get along famously with my stepfather and one evening he came after me for some transgression or other. I jumped out of my first floor window onto a ledge and swung down off that to land in the garden. Then I took off. As I crossed the road in front of the house, I heard the front door open and he bellowed for me to stop. I ran faster but I was still small and I knew I would be caught so I had to make a plan. I ran along the footpath that went towards the Becket’s farm and when I got to the lone pine tree by the path I shinned up it as fast and as far as I could.

After yelling at me to come down he climbed up the tree but, when it bent alarmingly, he realised nothing was to be gained by both of us falling some 15 or 20 feet to the ground. He climbed down, all the time demanding that I come down. I stayed. After a bit he left and went home where I heard him shouting at my mother after which he drove off in the car in the direction of the village. Still I stayed. After some time I heard my mother calling from the corner, assuring me it was OK to come home and have my supper…

At our house the front door faced the street and around the back of the garage, where the maid’s room was, we had a door into the kitchen yard, which the maid could use. We had a big coloured woman as our housemaid and a rough one she could be – especially when in the wine. She was married to a very gentlemanly black Nyasalander (today he would be a Malawian).

The doorbell was wired so that the front door had a double ring BING-BONG, BING-BONG while the tradesman’s, or servants, entrance had a single tone – BONG, BONG, BONG. Both of these rings only chimed ONCE at each push of the button.

One Saturday night the tradesman’s bell started its monotonous BONG….BONG….BONG and no amount of cursing and swearing out of the upstairs window would stop it. In high dudgeon and with all of us awake, Cyril went down to see what the hell was going on. Before he could start yelling, the husband fell forward through the door, bleeding rather profusely and superfluously informing us that he had been stabbed.

After packing old blankets and stuff around the man, I went with to the village hospital where they removed about seventy millimetres of broken knife blade from his back near the spine and the heart. I do not remember if they kept him in but he had bled right through the padding we had wrapped him in in the short time it had taken to get to the hospital. He recovered quickly and was soon seen around the garden where he helped from time to time.

It turned out that he had been to a farm compound to FETCH his wife who he believed was buggering around with someone. After receiving considerable abuse, he had decided to leave when he was stabbed from behind while simultaneously being told to bugger off by all present.

The stabber was identified and deemed to have been drunk; he was sentenced to only three months in jail!

This has turned into something far bigger than I had expected it to be when I started but I will finish with two more anecdotes…

In early 1958 the new cinema (bioscope) opened in SW at the top of the street as you came into town from the Stellenbosch side – it was about a block up from the road where the Primary school was.

Elvis Presley’s JAILHOUSE ROCK was the feature film, showing for the first show in the new cinema. It was a black and white film and probably the only B & W movie he ever made…?

I so dearly wanted to see this movie (I was not quite eleven and a half) and managed to cobble together the one and sixpence (about fifteen cents) that was the normal ticket price and walked from Helena Heights into the village. When I got to the ticket office the price had been put up to one and ninepence – or about eighteen cents!!

I knew my parents had gone to Gordon’s Bay for the afternoon so, figuring to come back for the late afternoon show, I started to hitch hike to GB. I did not get many lifts and was standing on the road about halfway between G B and the Strand when a family friend stopped to ask what I was doing. I said I was trying to find my folks so that I could get the extra tickey (threepence) to get into the Elvis movie in town. I think it may have been about that time that my parent’s happened along and Cyril was angry with me while my mother was quite aback taken – she just wanted to help me sort this out.

I don’t remember WHAT exactly transpired except that I ended up getting into the movie. Every time old swivel-hips came on screen and started to sing all the girls SHRIEKED (and there were a LOT of girls in there) and no one could hear a thing. The manager turned off the sound, the screaming stopped, sound on – screaming, sound off – quiet, sound on…. Eventually the manager came out and said he would restart the film but if there was any more screaming he would stop the film entirely and it would be the fault of the screamers.

So I watched, and heard, Jailhouse Rock and the very start of any screaming became muffled as boyfriends shushed their dates and groups of girls managed to keep themselves in check.

At New Year there would be a New Year’s Eve dance-cum-ball in the town hall. I and a few other children were able to attend if we kept quiet and sat upstairs in the balcony. The town hall had also been the town cinema before and there were comfortable seats upstairs. There would be a huge net with coloured balloons suspended from the ceiling and a bar going like the clappers – not sure if there was food but there probably was…

Below: My mother, Enid, on the right, Cyril (holding Teddy the maltese) and a friend of theirs.

I remember sitting upstairs watching the grown-ups and, even as a youngster I was aware of how good-looking my mother was and how much attention she received – both good (from the men mostly) and bad (from some of the women!). Looking back as an adult I know I was right when I often thought my mother the most beautiful woman at any gathering.

At midnight the balloons would be released and there would be singing of Auld Lang Syne and other songs and my mother might be asked to sing along to the piano. Next thing I would know would be being carried to the car or woken up to go home and perhaps a bacon sandwich.

Above: My mother at around age 20

If more comes to mind I will add to this post…it was the best of times in many ways and a few years later perhaps the worst of times. After we went to Rhodesia in mid-58 my stepfather’s fortunes changed for the worse and we lost the house in SW and, to a large extent, our way of life and standard of living. He died in a car accident in June 1961. My mother remained in Rhodesia with me and my much younger brother and sister, who had been born there, and our little dog, Teddy. She made a home and a life for us and we were all OK.

HF Radio-telephone Botswana

It might seem strange that I have included this with my military experiences (it is posted elsewhere too). The reason for doing so is that this anecdote would not have been possible without the training and experience I received in the Rhodesian army. That includes being innovative and a bit of a “McGyver” type of person.

In 1985 I worked for a small radio communications company in Johannesburg.

The owner of the company was something of a wheeler-dealer in the radio industry at the time and he had managed to get in with the owners of the then Tuli Safari Lodge in Botswana (I think it still exists – the pictures are from a google search of the name). It was situated a couple of kilometres inside the most eastern corner of Botswana and, by road from South Africa, was reached by crossing at a tiny police station/combined border post called Pont Drift.

I think it may have been late winter or mid spring in South Africa. On this occasion his advice damned nearly got my wife, Margaret, and I locked up in Botswana. 

When I lived in South Africa I carried a Browning 9mm Hi-Power that I had bought and carried in my Rhodesia days and my boss’ advice was just chuck it under the seat or in your toolbox and you will be fine. I should, in fact, have handed it in for safe-keeping with the police at Pont Drift on the South African side but I took the boss’ advice and it was only when I presented myself on the Botswana side that I realised that this had been a BAD IDEA!

The country was, and is, paranoid about private weapons especially if you bring them across the border with you, undocumented. Only if you have completed the reams of paperwork required as a professional hunter can you bring rifles into the country. Handguns were treated as a great sin.

There were signs everywhere warning of the DIRE consequences of bringing undeclared weapons into the country and I had heard one or two chilling stories of incidents involving weapons and these were brought to front of mind in no uncertain terms.

Too late now, so I brazened it out and we were allowed in and drove up to the lodge.

Why were we there…of course…well a radio tech had been sent up a couple of months previously to sort out the HF radio. This was very important to the operations of the lodge because, in those days, before the advent of cell phones the only telephone link to remote places in Botswana was radio-telephone. It had been thus for many years – if you received a call an operator established communications with you then – using acoustic coupling (basically connecting the telephone to the handset of the radio) – they allowed the call to proceed. Outgoing calls were initiated by radio and the control operator made the phone call and connected the radio subscriber. Callers on phones had to use radio procedure because, unlike a telephone or cell phone, only one person can talk at a time so you HAD TO wait until the other person had stopped speaking before you could take your turn. Of course call quality was variable but if you had a GOOD HF LINK it made a huge difference.

Anyway the technician had gone up there and basically buggered around and made little if any difference to the performance of the radio link. Very shortly after he left call quality dropped off to virtually non-existent other than at some arbitrary times of the day. The owners had paid and they were seriously NOT AMUSED so I had been sent up to sort things out. Because the boss was on good terms with the people at the lodge I was invited to bring my wife up. Margaret took a day or two off and we travelled up – on a Friday I think – arriving very late in the afternoon.

We were allocated a very comfortable room and invited to join the evening game drive which was most enjoyable even though we had been travelling all day. I think we also did the early morning game drive on Saturday.

Meals were taken in a semi-circle, each at your own little table and this worked to get everyone present talking to each other. A great atmosphere and wonderful food (and the worry in the back of my mind about the pistol lying disassembled under a bunch tools and greasy rags in a compartment of my Microbus).

After breakfast I got stuck in and examined the radio. This piece of equipment was located behind the bar which was partly inside and partly under, a large hollow baobab tree.

After I connected my wattmeter to the radio and plugged the antenna lead into it I got the strangest readings. Basically there ought to have been NO COMMUNICATION AT ALL and in fact I felt that it was so badly mismatched that I was surprised that the radio had not blown a final. How strange, I thought, the tech who had been up must have done the same test??

Only thing for it and, getting a ladder, I climbed up into the tree to see where the feeder cable led to thinking that perhaps there was something wrong with the junction of feeder and radiating elements.

Imagine my surprise when I found the radiating elements (made of bare copper wire) had been NAILED TO THE BRANCHES OF THE TREE using metal staples made from wire nails bent into a U shape!!

One of the basic things we were always taught on signals course was that you avoid having any part of the radiating elements touching trees or poles even though our antenna in the army would normally be using insulated wire. I was flabbergasted that someone who was supposedly a radio technician would have done this!!

I had been given the frequencies for the equipment before leaving Johannesburg and had grabbed some petty cash and, using 2.5mm panel wire and some stuff I had lying around, I had made up a two-element HF dipole in my garage at home. I proceeded to erect my antenna – that necessarily had to be spread above the lawn covered beer garden area near the baobab bar.

The owner had been away but when he came back he was rather disconcerted to find the antenna strung above his guest area. He said the previous technician had taken heed of this and made sure that the antenna was unobtrusive to which I retorted that it was so unobtrusive as to be completely ineffective too. Did he want communications that he could rely on or were aesthetics more important? He could not have both. With a bit of a grumble he let me carry on.

By late afternoon I was happy and confident that the equipment would now perform correctly. I had been receiving some flak from the control station in Gaborone because my testing was causing interference on the radio net that served all outlying places in the country. I had apologised for that and explained why and said that if calls came through I would wait for them to be completed. (The duty barman said that was the best comms, while I was still setting up, that he had heard since being there!)

Anyway, after a quick wash I went on the evening game drive. Margaret had already been on the day drive during which they had stopped somewhere to look at a view or while the guide pointed out something of interest.

Margaret had seen some colourful rocks and picked up three or four pieces thinking the pretty colours would look nice with a pot-plant or in a rockery at home. Probably agate (in picture) or quartz which is plentiful in the area.

Sunday morning was spent on another game drive followed by a pleasant breakfast-in-the-round and later we set off back to Johannesburg.

At the Botswana border post we were asked if we had anything to declare. Now I must comment here that the brightest people are probably not going to end up in a backwater like this but that did not make them NOT THOROUGH. So thorough, in fact, that some of the things we were asked were frankly ludicrous but they were asked in absolute seriousness. What plants were we taking out if any, did we have any minerals or diamonds that we had collected and so on and then the dreaded question – “May we look through your vehicle, sir?” as if I was in any position to refuse.

Heart pounding and dry-mouthed I walked out and opened the sliding door and the first thing they noticed on the floor was Margaret’s innocent bits of prettily coloured stones. I could have held the stones in one hand but these boys lit up and all of a sudden they wanted to know if we had any diamonds? What else did we have? Would I open the back? Take out the stuff in the back, open the engine compartment please?

They were poking into everything looking in our bags, in my toolbox and Margaret was nearly in tears explaining about the pieces of stone saying she would throw them out to prove that they were just something she liked and picked up off the ground. To their unsophisticated but officious and suspicious minds no-one just picked up some stones because they were prettily coloured – we had to be up to something.

I suppose the whole episode did not last much longer than what seem like a full day but was probably thirty minutes in reality. The worst bit was the homemade bins I had between the front seats of the bus.

“What is in here?” “Oh my rubbish bag and rags that I use when I work on greasy stuff and probably a couple more tools” I said as nonchalantly as I could.

He was trying to open it as if it was hinged and I slid the lids open one at a time. He poked round in the smaller one that had some grubby stuff in it (I can’t remember where I got it from but it had not come with us). Sliding open the next one I gingerly put two fingers in and picked up a particularly dirty, greasy rag.

“What else is in there?”  “I think there is a spare oil cap (there was) this water pressure cap,” as I fished them out and waved my hand at the bundle of greasy rags now lying in the bin. He looked on as I gingerly started to put my hand in again, as if I did not want to get any dirtier, then said “OK, you can go” and proceeded to lecture us on the sovereignty of Botswana and how they do not appreciate diamond smugglers etc etc. (the nearest diamond mine is about 450 kilometres away in the middle of the country in a very barren area – there are NO DIAMONDS in the Tuli area but I was not going to argue that point).

We went in and got our passports stamped, thanked the officials, got into the car and drove off as sedately as we could – barely breathing and expecting to be called back at any second. Margaret’s stones…did we get to keep them? After all this time I can’t remember.

We crossed back into South Africa – taking several deep, shuddering breaths of relief as we arrived. I told the policeman on duty about our adventure as he stamped our passports and he told us we were very lucky indeed because they could be quite savage on anyone breaking the weapons rules in Botswana.

About a week went by before I got feedback that the radio communications were now the best they had ever been in roughly the twenty years the lodge operators had been there. They thanked us and told my employer that I was welcome there at any time. We never took them up on it though we did discuss it. The remains of the copper antenna wire are probably still there, embedded in the tree I imagine.

That good old Rhodesian Army Corps of Signals training and experience had struck again!

For some information on HF antenna go to my earlier post
http://eriktheready.com/about-antennas/

HF Antenna Lesotho

It might seem strange that I have included this with my military experiences (it is posted elsewhere too). The reason for doing so is that this anecdote would not have been possible without the training and experience I received in the Rhodesian army. That includes being innovative and a bit of a “McGyver” type of person.

In the late 1980s I worked for a company called RF Marketing (RFM). My friend Rick Borrett also worked there and was one of the top salesmen (he may have been sales manager by then).

Rick had sold a lot of radio equipment into Lesotho and I was to accompany him on several of his trips to that little country to sort out radio problems. On one trip I had to squat in a small snowbank on a mountaintop while I worked on a VHF repeater and its solar panels. Just to make things more pleasant it was gently snowing.

We had been flown up in a Lesotho Defence Force helicopter (they rented them out for commercial use) and while the pilot sat in the warm aircraft we trudged over to the job and I got stuck in. Of course our clothing was quite inadequate for the cold but, in order to use my tools, I had to remove my gloves. Quite soon Rick remarked that I could not use my gloves, could I? Rhetorical question that it was I grunted in the negative to which he replied “Please can I use them?” and I handed over my nice leather, fur-lined gloves so that he could keep his hands warm.

After about forty minutes I had finished the work and I was so cold that I seriously, just for a moment, thought of abandoning my tools there on the mountaintop and scrambling into the warm helicopter waiting fifty metres away. They were my personal tools and Rick had the good grace to help me chuck them into my toolbox and then take one side of the toolbox to carry it to the helo.

We scrambled in and Rick asked the pilot to get us off the mountain as quickly as possible. He gave me back my gloves. The aircraft heater warmed the cabin and I warmed up a bit as we descended. Twenty minutes later after getting out of the chopper we were removing layers of clothing.

It was on one of these trips that I had the most sincere, if back-handed, compliment from Rick. He was muttering about some bloke approaching us as we waited for a light aircraft at some bush airstrip. In reply to my question he said, “He is a bloody idiot – his pockets are always full of bits of string and stuff and Swiss-army knives and shit like that.”

Somewhat disconcerted I replied “Well that sounds a bit like me with all my McGyver-type stuff.” Rick’s reply was something like “Yeah, but you know what to do with all that fucking shit.” A compliment is a compliment, I suppose! …and I still do – carry a lot of shit with me per the illustration!

Oh, HF, that is what I started with! Lesotho is a tiny land-locked country completely surrounded by South Africa and only measures about 210 x 162 kilometres in extent – about 34,000 square – kilometres and VERY mountainous.

A donor country had decided to build a micro hydroelectric station to provide power to an area way up in the mountains near the area that is the highest point of the famous Roof of Africa rally.

They found a steep mountain stream that made a short hairpin bend and doubled back to flow about 20-30 metres lower down but probably 30 metres or so from the uphill section if measured horizontally. The photo shows an area in Lesotho where the river doubles back on itself similar to what I have described. By diverting the upper part of the river they tunnelled down and through the dividing piece of mountain, installed a small hydro generator and then allowed the river to flow again after partially damming it BELOW the upper entrance to the tunnel. This now became the race for the head of water that would drive the generator. Very clever but not a short-duration project. The company had an HQ in Maseru, the capital, but very poor communications to the construction site.

Rick had sold them HF radios that had been installed by one of the technicians but the radios were not working at all – well the communication was non-existent while there was nothing wrong with the radios. The antenna of course, were another matter and we set off with poles, ropes, pegs, cables, connectors and some HF antennas I had made up in my garage at home.

On arrival I installed an end-fed long wire antenna at the base station because there was no room for any other kind of antenna and next day we got a light aircraft from the airport and were flown in to this VERY high landing strip on top of a mountain. It was a bit windy but early in the day so the air was relatively still. The landing – for the uninitiated – was quite hair-raising on this dirt strip that ended at a cliff drop-off. I think the picture is of that actual airstrip in Lesotho.

Taken up to the camp I proceeded to erect my poles – with help from Rick and a couple of men assigned to help us. I then erected a conventional HF dipole, connected it to the radio and then had to trim it by keying the transmitter, checking my antenna meter, adjust the length of each element of the antenna (calculating the antenna length is not an exact science in the field and it is necessary to let out or take in the ends until the correct reading is obtained). While we were doing this we had to keep telling the people at base to shut up while we worked – they were so chuffed that they could hear us and that we could obviously hear them!!

When this was done I tied off the ends of the antenna, checked the stays on the poles and told them they were set to go. “That antenna is not high enough” one of the local old hands had observed when I started and I had assured him it was. The finished job left the radiating elements of the antenna about three or four metres above the ground (depending on where you stood) but a car or pickup could drive under it. I told them in no uncertain terms, that apart from ensuring that the antenna was safe and secure, to NOT be tempted to move it or change its height from the ground.

“Why is it so low?”, I was asked and I explained about needing to get the signal up and down quickly because, although driving through the mountains took hours the base was only about 50-60 kilometres away in a straight line. The fact that it worked was irrefutable but they were confused and pointed out that the International Red Cross (IRC) down the road (about a couple of hours drive away) had these very precisely arrayed antennas and that they were at least thirty metres off the ground.

I enquired if they knew who they talked to and it turned out that they had wonderful HF communications with Switzerland. And in Lesotho? Oh those radios could not talk to anyone in Lesotho. I surmised that those antennas had probably been professionally erected with the express purpose of very long range communications. (We passed the IRC buildings next day and the antennas were indeed erected with Germanic precision on lattice masts that towered over the place).

Now that we had communications at the site the first message we got was that there would be no aircraft coming for us because the wind had come up and aircraft could not land or take off from the mountaintop!!

Our hosts rounded up some beers, coke and brandy, gave us a good feed and we sat around chatting, drinking and listening to Billy Connolly tapes in the cookhouse. I had chosen to sleep in the manager’s caravan (he was away) and the wind kept me awake most of the night, fearful that it would lift the caravan and chuck it off the mountain with me inside! Rick had chosen to sleep in one of the accommodation containers – it was heavy, dark and quiet and he slept well.

Rick looked rather rough in the morning though, having consumed the best part of a bottle of brandy with coke the previous evening!

Still no aircraft, we learned after a hearty breakfast, so they arranged a four-wheel drive pickup for us with a driver. Rick, who is an excellent driver, had their man in the back seat within the first couple of kilometres – I did not blame him because the driver did NOT instil confidence. There were stretches that were a bit like those horror roads you see in the video clips from South America and, narrow as the roads were, Rick was on the inside closest to the mountain while I looked fearfully at the horrendous drop-offs on my left. After FIVE LONG HOURS we got down on the level and merely had to contend with some rioters throwing stuff at us as we zipped past. My Microbus was still safely standing at the airport – untouched. We handed the pickup over to the company driver, went to our hotel for a shower and a meal and next day started back to Johannesburg.

It was most satisfying to get feedback from the client that they were very happy with their NEW communications – having been ready to box everything up and send it back to us.

For some information on HF antenna go to my earlier post
http://eriktheready.com/about-antennas/

Trish, Tish and David

Pay close attention all ye Patricias, Tishes and Trishes and, too, all ye Davids attend.

This is stuff you cannot make up.

I went to GFS in 1959 and my brother David, was born that year in Sinoia.

At the end of 1960 I was made to leave Guinea Fowl School, because my stepfather could not pay my boarding fees, and the following year, 1961, my sister, Patricia was born. She, when she was old enough to decide, became Trish – unequivocally.

Also in 1961, unknown to me at the time, David Brooke-Mee (who was to become my stepson 15 years later – and is today my best friend) was also born. …and in 1964 his younger sister, Patricia, was born and she was to become TISH.

Still with me here?

My brother and sister have (had, in Trish’s case) the surname WILLIAMS. Now pay attention at the back there! This meant, of course, that my mother was Mrs Williams (it IS important).

Tish, remember(?) was to marry, in the 80s, one Spike Williamson (that’s WILLIAMSON) – pay careful attention here.

Come the 1990s and I have been stepfather to the Brooke-Mee children since 1976 and Margaret and I are living in South Africa.

On a visit to South Africa, and staying with us, are Spike and Tish. They have taken Spike’s mother to stay with her sister on the other side of town.

Debbie, a cousin to my brother’s wife, phones to contact MY mother.

Spike:                     (answering the phone): Hello
Debbie:             Hello, is Mrs Williams there. (he is used to the …son being dropped from his surname)
Spike:             No, she’s in Randburg. (forgetting he now has a wife…)
Debbie:                Oh, (slightly puzzled) …er, do you know how I can contact Trish?
Spike:                      Oh, Tish, she’s here, hang on.
Debbie:                  OK…
Tish:                         (coming to the phone) Hello?
Debbie:            (not recognising the voice) Is that Trish (Tish is used to this, see?)
Tish:                        Yes.
Debbie:                 David’s sister?
Tish:                       Yes…..

The Black Dog

Depression – The BLACK DOG

I hope the Australian organisation using the name https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/ will forgive me but I believe that no lesser persons than Samuel Johnson and Winston Churchill (http://theconversation.com/winston-churchill-and-his-black-dog-of-greatness-36570) coined the term many years before when referencing their own status, that of being the sufferers of depression, quite likely being manic-depressive.

I was married to a sufferer. Indeed, we had a REAL black dog, Digger was his name, an irrepressible, goofy and lovable Labrador/Border collie cross…and my then wife, Rose (Rose-Marie) had her personal, invisible BLACK DOG. Depression is an awful condition that has only in the modern era been identified as a real illness. An illness partly of the mind and partly of the chemical make-up of the body of the sufferer.

I am not going to address the difficulties of her childhood that no doubt contributed to her state of mind as an adult but suffice to say, the condition is apparent in her family as related to me by her cousin, a woman who quietly takes her medication and who shows no sign of her black dog to the outside world.

Rose, when I met her, was a startlingly attractive woman of about thirty-two who must have been (and still was ,actually) quite beautiful in her teens and twenties.

Having been shy and introverted, when she was introduced to the world outside the confines of her family she cut loose with a vengeance.

A short-lived flirtation with LSD and a few other drugs was to trouble her once or twice in the years before we got to know each other but she had the strength of character to KNOW that this would be the end of her.

She was a fairly heavy smoker and her DRUG of choice was to become alcohol.

Rose was always well-groomed and outwardly confident but inwardly she seethed with insecurity and anger. The anger was directed inward at her inability to stand up to people because of a fear that she would be thought lazy or incompetent or not fun-loving. It resulted in her becoming overwhelmed as people loaded their work onto this helpful, seemingly cheerful, woman.

Another result of this fear of being found wanting was that she was bullied. By men in her life and by bosses and colleagues who should have known better.

She had few friends because she suspected everyone who tried to get close to her of having an ulterior motive. The men wanted to get her to bed the women were, in her mind, snide and nasty and as soon as people seemed to become her friends she pushed them away. Not so you would immediately notice but she would just find excuses not to meet them, to not accept their invitations to visit for a party or drinks or a braai (barbecue to the uninitiated). In her mind everyone was criticising her. People would eventually give up.

After several years of knowing her we were married and almost immediately the problems started. The accusations of an ulterior motive to anything I did. The raking over of my previous relationships and the often cruel and vicious personal attacks.

From denigrating my manhood, accusations of wanting to beat her, accusations of wanting other women (I dare not comment on some film star for example – yes, I was likely to meet them, NOT). It did not matter that these things were irrational – they were brought up to provoke. And even when the AA had managed to get her off the booze and she was enjoying the company of the members of her group she remained fragile and volatile.

If she visited a psychologist or counsellor she would find a reason to distrust them, to stop seeing them. I came to the conclusion that as soon as the psychologist started getting too close to the matters that were important the distrust would take over. There would be some reason – “He tries to look down my neckline” to “She criticises me” (sometimes the criticism accusation would be made against an innocent comment on the colour of her skirt but it could be turned into CRITICISM if the need to claim such was there).

After seeing several psychologists over a period of years, she had started to see a psychiatrist and was taking medication. I, we, had hopes for her future.

In 2013 at the age of 53 she went into hospital – a supposedly good, private hospital – for a comparatively minor operation from which she was recovering when inadequate care was to blame for her dying. No one has been held to account and no cause of death, just UNDER INVESTIGATION, appears on her death certificate. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary was eight days away – we had known each other for about twenty years and lived together for sixteen.

My point here is that this lovely, attractive woman did not believe she was just that – a lovely attractive and capable person. She believed everyone had an agenda against her and she trusted no-one except her mother – not even me. She screamed abuse at and accused both her mother, who lived with us, and me of the most awful things. Often the most absurd and hurtful things would be screamed at us as she retreated to her corner, believing that only her truth pertained. No matter that she was wrong, and demonstrably so, her self-loathing and insecurity meant that, in her mind, no one told the truth to her.  

For us who loved her and wanted nothing more than that she should learn to love herself and shine as we knew she could this was the MOST PAINFUL thing to experience.

Some sufferers of depression are openly aggressive, are often highly talented yet believe themselves to be failures. Some are withdrawn and hide the aggression and anger inside. In all cases the anger, the distrust, the feeling of being alone against the world the introversion and the extroversion eats at them.

It slowly and inexorably erodes them. They gradually find themselves without friends or with VERY FEW friends and only close family will generally persist with them. For these supporters it is exhausting, totally exhausting for they will never know if what they say will be construed as criticism, and not as gentle criticism but as harsh, judgemental and condemnatory. The reaction will vary from hysterical withdrawal and tears to very hurtful (to the supporter) shouted accusations and condemnation of the imagined slight, often made in the most confrontational and aggressive manner.

It is usually those closest to the sufferer who experience this behaviour and if anyone not “in the know” were to be told of it they would generally exhibit utter disbelief. The may even buy into the narrative of the sufferer and join with them in condemning those who know and care about the person.

Rose and I never had children together but my experience leads me to believe that the children of such persons learn to co-exist out of an instinctive sense of self-preservation. Rather be on mommy (or daddy’s) side and be with them rather than to even be suspected of not buying into the fiction. The long-term effect of this on children can be devastating and lead to estrangement in later life with sometimes quite tragic outcomes.

The BLACK DOG affects not just the sufferer but their family, their friends, their relationships – intimate and otherwise – but the ripple effect can be damaging to many persons that one may not even imagine could be affected. It is an insidious, scary and very harmful condition.

Many sufferers do not realise they have the condition or, if they do, they play it down. Many avoid or refuse treatment and counselling. There is nothing the people on the periphery can do except hope that the need will be realised and the help sought.

It is a horse and water situation and cannot be forced. It is tragic.

*****

Subsequent to writing the above I came to learn about BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder. Also called: BPD, emotional dysregulation disorder). Could Rose have also been a sufferer of this horrible condition, this very treatable condition? She certainly exhibited some of the symptoms? I don’t know and would hope her psychiatrist would have ruled it out but her life, already difficult, must have been torture if this had been added to her burden.

Joining the army part four

National service – first phase continued 3

“Does anyone want to join the regular army?” the instructor asked.

Two of us immediately stepped forward.

“Why do you want to join up?” the instructor asked me. I replied that I had always wanted to and I had a number of friends in the regular army. I had been turned down when I applied in 1963 but I now felt that as I was being trained I wanted to try again.

I due course I was marched in to see the OC A Coy (I think it was Major Willar). He posed much the same question and put me at my ease by sitting me down to tell him my story.

I explained to him that I had tried to join the army at the end of 1963 but had been turned down because of my eyesight. At his prompt I added that I felt that if I could be shot at as a spectacles-wearing short-sighted territorial or NS soldier then surely it made no difference if I was a regular and besides, my friend Graham in RLI signals troop was equally short-sighted.

“So where do you want to go if you join the regular army?” and I replied that I wanted the RLI signals troop.

I don’t really remember what happened then but a few signals must have gone between Army HQ and DRRR because when the intake was being split up into the various specialty training groups I was in some kind of limbo – not having been allocated anywhere yet. I was called in and told that while a decision was being made I would be temporarily put into the RPs (Regimental Police) – where I was to languish for about ten days.

A new intake arrived during this time and I was with the MEET AND GREET party of RPs at Heany Junction. With great enthusiasm we started cursing and swearing at these new recruits in exactly the way we had been welcomed on OUR arrival – doubling the men here and there (being bloody bullies actually, on the premise that WE had been subject to this shit so….)

Imagine our surprise when we were taken aside and told that we were to moderate our language and not make the men run until they had all had their medicals…WHAT A DOUBLE STANDARD we muttered. As to the swearing we were admonished that there had been complaints from parents…we were gobsmacked that some youngsters could have snivelled to their parents.

I was in the guard room one day and heard a woman shouting outside. Keeping a low profile I looked out and saw that there was a woman BERATING the guard – in fairly robust language – for not saluting her and for not opening the boom – forcing her to stop her car.

C Sgt Gregan who was in charge of the RPs came out and spoke to the woman.

“Madam” he reminded her, “you are not a serving member of the Army nor are you an officer. As such you are NOT entitled to the courtesies accorded to such rank” (or words to that effect, as we used to say when framing a charge sheet). The woman was apopletic but the C Sgt went on and told her that the boom guards were merely doing their duty and following the orders of the CO of the Depot. One such order was that ALL VEHICLES will stop at the boom and the drivers will identify themselves before being allowed to proceed.

With some further rather startling invective the woman drove off vowing to have the RPs, and the C Sgt in particular, sorted out.

It may have been later that day or the next morning an officer came down to the guardhouse and spoke to C Sgt Gregan. He apologised if his wife had been rude (knowing of course that she had been) and assuring the C Sgt that he understood perfectly that the men had acted in accordance with standing orders. We suspected that Colour Gregan having a talk with the RSM about the matter may have had a lot to do with this apology. The clerks in HQ confirmed that it had started with bluster from the officer, a visit to the CO by both the officer and the RSM and a somewhat subdued officer leaving to speak to the NCO in charge of RPs.

A few days later C Sgt Gregan came into our quarters and told me to pack my kit. I was then driven down to Brady Barracks, on the outskirts of Bulawayo, and handed over the the School of Signals where I was to join the Regimental Signals course that the Intake 70 men had started nearly ten days previously.

I did not have too much trouble catching up and enjoyed learning voice procedure, basic electricity and battery charging, radio set handling, line and field telephones and – MORSE CODE and procedure. It was unfortunate that we were taught morse code in a way that some of us found difficult as the speed increased but we managed to pass it anyway.

At the end of the course I think I was in the top three (maybe I came first – I really don’t remember) and while everyone was getting ready to go home I was summoned to the School of Signals offices.

“Do you still want to join the Corps of Signals” asked the adjutant.
“No sir, I want to go to RLI signals”.

Looking at my records he commented on my excellent results as well as the results of my aptitude tests and said, “You can join the Regular Army, Corps of Signals, or you can NOT join the regular army at all.”

I accepted the ultimatum, not realising at the time that THEY wanted ME and that he probably did not have the authority to make that deal – to coerce me really. Anyway, a signal would have been sent to expect me at recruiting in Salisbury.

I attested into the Rhodesian Regular Army, Corps of Signals, on the fifth of March, 1965 – a few days after completing my national service – fourteen months after the dissolution of Federation and a mere eight months before UDI (the Unilateral Declaration of Independence) that was to take place on 11 November 1965.

The Signals badge BEFORE Rhodesia declared itself a republic in 1970

As it was to turn out I think that it was the right thing for me to go to Signals because I suspect I would not have been a particularly successful infantryman.

Joining the army part three

National service – first phase continued 2
(Pictures used were mined from the internet. The butts are somewhere in England and there was no caption on the picture of the range. No harm is intended by the use of these pictures – they will be removed if so requested by copyright holder).

A lot has been written about basic training in the army – the Rhodesian Army as much as perhaps any other army so I will not harp on this aspect too much. Once weapons training had started things became a lot more interesting and serious with weapons safety being a point hammered into us at every turn.

A typical military range see where LOW shots have gouged at the mantlet in front of and below the numbers. The STOP BUTT is the higher mound BEHIND the targets.

Before going onto the range for the first time for live firing A Company was addressed by WO2 “Pinky” Mould, an ex Guardsman who always had a rather red face made worse by the african sun.

The butts, on an army shooting range, is the area below and immediately behind the mantlet (the raised berm from behind which the targets are hoisted). The much higher berm further back is called the STOP butt – for the obvious reason that it is meant to STOP the rounds that have been fired at the target. Every so often a stop butt would be MINED for the astonishing amount of metal from spent rounds that could be recovered from it and sold.

Toward the end of his briefing SM Mould instructed that the butts party must ensure that they patched every target properly. There was plenty of target patching glue, he said, but should one run out he off-handedly suggested semen be used, emphasising this with a well-practised flick from the region of his groin that resulted in a large gobbet of patching glue splatting onto the zeroing target in front of us. Among the ribald laughter one of the men was heard, and seen, vomiting! Poor sensitive soul was teased mercilessly every time we were on the range after that!

Sometimes a shooter would aim too low and the butts party would get a shower of sand and grit as the round ploughed across the top of the mantlet. One day such a round hit the top of a target frame and ricocheted in under the mantlet where I was sitting on butts duty and landed in the crook of my arm. The round was spent but it was still bloody hot! I still have that round which I found today, 15 October 2018. See picture added!

Typical view of the BUTTS the mantlet on the right protects the butts party. Note the target frames with zeroing targets fitted

We did a lot of live firing with many of those from rural backgrounds showing better results and those of us not used to firearms struggling a bit – but we all became proficient and passed the training.

One day we were being taught to shoot from fire trenches – in front of each firing point there was a roughly four foot deep slit trench and we had to learn to load and fire from this cramped position.

In one of the squads was a young man from Cyprus whose English was not really up to scratch but who had been disdainful of the training with claims that he had been in the fighting in Cyprus as a guerrilla a few years earlier.

DOWN RANGE was the mantra – the rifle must ALWAYS POINT DOWN RANGE.

Our Cypriot had a stoppage while in the trench at the number one firing point and turned to call an instructor. As he did so the loaded rifle was turned to point down the line of foxholes, the instructor screamed at him and nineteen heads disappeared into their foxholes! SM Pinky Mould had been standing behind this man watching him with considerable distrust and he leapt forward, snatched the rifle and stomped the man down into the trench – all the time yelling at him in the choicest language (and he had an impressive vocabulary) about how stupid and careless he was.

The Cypriot was incensed and tried to go for the SM only to get clobbered and marched off to the guardhouse for a week in the RP (Regimental Police) cells.

This was several years before the mandatory issuing of ear defenders for range work and anyone caught with four by two (weapon cleaning rags) in their ears would be teased and vilified implying deficient masculinity. I am sure that some of the problems I have today with hearing higher frequencies stem from those days – especially during zeroing when the number of men on the firing line was doubled and the rifles on either side were about a metre away. Further range exercises and listening to noisy radios while wearing earphones in my first few years of service probably also contributed!

Some very mean, bullying tricks were played occasionally. There was a very slightly built chap (a first class bloke – let’s call him Mike – with whom I was to become friendly a few years later) who had been made pony master (he was in charge of the regimental mascot) but he still had to learn drill and shooting. One day on the range some smartarse turned Mike’s SLR gas regulator to zero while he was not looking.

The gas regulator controls the gasses from the fired round directing some of them to sharply push back a piston to automatically reload the weapon. Normally set to around position five, lower settings meant the recoil became increasingly, and unneccesarily, violent – not good for the weapon nor for the shooter.

Not noticing what had happened Mike took up his prone firing position but when he fired the weapon he let out a yell of agony and laid the rifle down. I think he may have had a cracked collar bone. He was horribly bruised around the shoulder area and in considerable pain – much to the amusement of the bullies behind the trick. (I think Sgt Annandale sorted them out though).

A few weeks later we were to fire the Sterling sub-machine gun and Mike, who probably only weighed about a hundred pounds or so, turned up with a pad of cloth around his shoulder (not knowing or believing that the nine millimetre Sterling had no recoil to speak of). When the SM spotted the padding he humiliated Mike by showing it off to all those on the firing line which I felt was rather unfair and poor Mike was so embarrassed.

Young and overwhelmed by all that was going on – and feeling sorry for Mike – many of us did not say anything but when we were asked why we were not laughing we had to smile weakly in order to BELONG – and not become targets ourselves.

In spite of these unsettling incidents I feel there was nothing particularly special about my initial training.

Grenade training was fun if only for the TERROR shown by some of the men – some of the BIG DEAL bullies at that! Many of the guys wanted to throw the grenade and run and had to be held UP by the scruff of the neck by the instructor and MADE to watch the grenade land. I watched my grenade roll to a stop but did not need the instructor to pull me into cover though! Years later I had to instruct some people on hand grenades and it was odd to observe the “students” from the perspective of the instructor – and have to be ready to grab the runners.

One morning before we were marched off for another round of drill we were asked by the instructor:
“Does anyone want to join the regular army?”….

Joining the army – part two

National service – first phase continued.

The people in my barrack room ranged in age from around 18 – like me – to the early-to-mid twenties. Some of the older young men had been to university or been overseas but inevitably the call-up had netted them.

A few smug individuals had older relatives who had completed their call-up. They had, variously and through these relatives or friends, obtained boots that were highly BONED, brasses that had been squared and buffed for them and some even had mess tins and so on that had been CHROMED so that they merely had to wipe them for inspection and could use their issued kit for day to day use.

It was interesting to see how the various instructors reacted to this preparedness – some accepted it and others would throw these items off the beds and sneeringly tell these men to make sure that the ISSUED kit was presented for inspection. Of course the PREPARED boots and brass would pass muster. I remember that I battled with drill boots (we called them STICK BOOTS) until one of the batmen came round and, for about ten shillings or a pound they boned the boots for us. A few times the batmen’s quarters were raided and then those without boots for inspection were in deep trouble! I was lucky and was not discovered having my boots set up by the batman!

Many of those who had benefitted from the experience of their predecessors had DURAGLIT™ – something I had never heard of and was marvellous to use compared to Brasso™. I also learned to scrounge some beaverboard (sometimes call softboard) on which one could REALLY shine brass with the help of Brasso™.

Lots of tips and tricks were shared or observed and a team effort emerged because it was in no-one’s interest for any member of the barrack room to fail inspection.

About three weeks into training my feet and ankles started to swell from the hours of drill and the pain in my feet was excruciating. Sick parade was no fun and the doctor and medics were mostly indifferent to us recruits. I started to worry that I would be back-squadded – everyone’s biggest fear – that meant staying for a second round of recruit training. I don’t know what made me think of it but I stuffed my packs and other gear under the end of my mattress to elevate my feet at night. Within two days I was OK and had no further fear of being back-squadded. I did this for several weeks until I had no more problems.

Outside A company and ready to go on pass. The bush jackets were only for stepping out and ceremonial
Picture courtesy ORAFs

In those days all drill was done in stick boots (leather soles with hobnails) with puttees and hosetops, starched khaki shorts and shirts and a slouch hat with the brim up over the left ear. Of course the intricacies of putting on the puttees correctly gave the instructors plenty of scope for criticism at inspections – never mind the boots having to gleam. (the picture is from 1962 – two years before my time in those barrack rooms)

“You think those boots are shined, boy?”
“Yes, colour!”
“What!” screams the Colour Sergeant in the recruit’s face – so close that little specks of spittle land on the poor unfortunate’s shirt. “I’ll put my boot up your arse so fucking hard it will come out of your mouth and FUCKING BLIND YOU – that is what shined is you fucking arsehole!”
“Yes, colour” but the NCO had already moved on and was regaling the next unfortunate with his expletive ridden, sarcastic criticism.

We had THREE Smiths in our squad and one morning the instructors were observed marching up to the barrack rooms a few minutes earlier than normal. There was a scramble to get out onto the road and form up for inspection before they arrived.

This one Colour Sergeant, a small built man with an English accent that the rest of us struggled with (he was not our normal squad instructor) completed his inspection and looked at the squad, and looked at us again. Marched up and down each rank, looking each inwardly trembling man over and obviously puzzled by SOMETHING that was wrong.

He marched out again and turned to face the squad. Just as we thought he was about to march us off he SCREAMED – “SMITH!” Three Smiths took a smart pace forward. “Not you and you,” he shouted, stabbing at the other two with his stick and they, smartly and with obvious relief, stepped back into line.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing, Mr Smith” he bellowed, standing about a foot away from Smith. “What, Colour?” came the bewildered reply.
“Do you think you are fucking clever, Mr Smith? Did you think you could get away with this you little shit?” (made funnier because the NCO was about five foot six and Smith was over six foot)
“What, Colour?”

Most of us had seen what Smith had done and to this day I don’t know if he was bucking the system or if it had just been as a result of undue haste but his hat was on back-to-front. Where everyone else had the upturned brim with the badge over the left ear his was the opposite way round. (see picture above where all the hats are correct)

“Do you see that hangar over there?” said the NCO, pointing with his stick at an aircraft hangar made small by distance. Smith’s head snapped to the side, “Yes, Colour”. “You will DOUBLE AROUND that hangar and when you come back into view you had better be properly dressed, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“No, Colour, er yes Colour, er, what, Colour?” “Run, you fucking idiot or you will be on a fucking charge”.

As Smith took off for the distant hangar the NCO, who had been aware of the sniggers of the rest of the squad, suddenly screamed “What the fuck are you laughing at?” causing the squad to immediately brace up. “You keep laughing and you will join that fucking idiot”. A suppressed laugh or two later and we were off for the distant hangar, at the double and with dire warnings about being last back…

One morning, instead of being marched out onto the old airfield for drill we were marched towards the stores and issued with rifles from the nearby armoury – the SLR (Self Loading Rifle). Used by the British army the L1A1 was widely considered a more rugged improvement on the FN FAL that would become the Rhodesian Army’s standard issue rifle a few years later.

We were to do several days of drill with the rifle before starting weapons training but everyone was suddenly more interested in this new development.

Joining the army – part one

National service – first phase

I had thought about joining the army for some time when I was still in high school and after writing my high school finals in 1963 (in which I got terrible results – another story for another time) I decided to go for it.

It must have been about November 1963 when my best friend at the time, Willie van Rooyen, and I presented ourselves at the Army recruiting office.

I was quite short-sighted and wore heavy horn-rimmed specs and Willie had a bad limp.

Willie had fallen off a roof a couple of years earlier while bunking school. The neighbours in the council flats where we both lived thought it would teach Willie a lesson to be left in pain – assuming he would get up and limp away to nurse his bruised ego. What they did not know was that the head of his femur had popped out of the hip socket and, from lying there for several hours unable to move because of the extreme pain, the fluids in the joint had dried up (my understanding of what Willie was to tell me about it later) and it would now require surgery and bone work in order to be put together again.

The nett result was that Willie’s one leg was shorter than the other and he walked with an increasingly pronounced limp.

After our tests we went for a medical and were told we would be informed of the results. We were concerned about Willie’s tests because of his leg but when the letters came he was accepted with no restriction and I was rejected for being short-sighted! We had made a pact that if we could not BOTH join up then neither of us would and we kept to that pact.

I was puzzled though, because my friend Graham McCallum was in the regular army – and had been for about 18 months already – and he was as short sighted as I was if not more so. I approached the recruiting office and they said there was nothing to be done and assured me that any chance of serving was to be forgotten. “Even National Service?” I asked and was assured that I would not be called up. (with hindsight this was the end of Federation and that may have had a bearing on attitudes and so forth as far as recruiting was concerned).

I went and got a job with the OK Bazaars, supposedly in their advertising department hoping to become a commercial artist eventually but I ended up selling pots and pans, much to my chagrin.

Fast forward to September 1964 and I got a call-up notice and was promptly fired!! (they could do that in those days and I had said, in good faith, that I was not eligible for callup).

In mid October, having turned 18 in the August, I entrained from Salisbury station to join Intake 70 at DRRR (Depot the Royal Rhodesian Regiment). We arrived at Heany Junction the following morning where several army trucks, drivers and junior NCOs were waiting for us.
We had the usual hazing that all new recruits went through – on and off the trucks – never fast enough getting on or off with our luggage but eventually we were taken to the barracks quartermaster stores to be issued with our kit.

Loaded like pack mules with our civilian kit and our army issue we were formed up in a shambling column and marched (well sort of marched!) up to the A Company lines by our instructors.
Of course we kept calling the instructors SIR, this and SIR, that and got yelled at for doing so:
“I am not a fucking officer boy! I am a fucking COLOUR SERGEANT DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“YES, SIR”
“NO, YOU STUPID CUNT, YOU CALL ME COLOUR! I am a COLOUR sergeant!”
“YES, COLOUR”

This exchange was going on in every barrack room and was to continue for a few days until we got the hang of it.

We were then told to ensure that the floor of the barrack room was gleaming for the next mornings inspection and told to get the polish (in huge 25litre cans) off the back of the land rover.

On opening the polish (that waxy, stoep/veranda/cement floor type of polish) we found that it was black while the barrack room floor was green. Some brave souls approached the staff and told them there had been a mistake. “NO, THERE HASN’T BEEN A FUCKING MISTAKE” bellowed the Colour Sergeant, “we want the fucking floor BLACK by 0600 tomorrow morning. Get the paraffin and rags and brushes off the truck!”

There were a few “But, buts” and other comments that brought down more wrath on the heads of the speakers and we all retreated into the barrack room to get started – by this time it was getting late and we still had to go and have supper (we had been introduced to the mess hall at lunch time).

It took all night. We moved everything to one end of the barrack room and cleaned and scrubbed and scraped then moved the gear to the other end and did the rest. We then had to put everything back in place and be ready for inspection. We saw the sunrise that morning without benefit of sleep.

Typically shiny barrack room getting ready for inspection
Picture courtesy ORAFs

We were to be cleaning waxy green/black paraffin-infused muck from under our nails and the pores of our hands for days but at 0600 the barrack room had a black floor. One of the junior instructors had come in a couple of times during the night and hazed us but also given some valuable advice. A few recruits from B Company messed us around but soon left us alone when a couple of them were nearly flattened.

We had a grudging approval from the Sergeant in charge of our barrack room who was a pretty decent chap named Annandale although the platoon warrant officer, WOII Mould, was not so easily pleased – ever!

We had one chap who professed to HATE the food and determined he would NOT eat what was served in the dining halls. He used to buy what he could at the canteen but there was not much in the way of proper nourishment available considering the extremely physical routine we were being pushed through. One morning he came to breakfast, wolfed down EVERYTHING he had been able to get on his plate and asked the people nearby for any toast or sausages they weren’t going to eat. No one said anything but everyone was highly amused.

I actually don’t remember too much of the first few weeks – it was a haze of doing things at the double, of marching, of weapon training and field work and we gradually started to work as a unit, as a team,  responding to the army way of doing things. We also became very fit in phase one training…

Hitch Hiking December 1979

As December 1979 approached David, my brother, and I decided to go Cape Town.

We were both serving in the Rhodesian Army with plenty of leave available but to save money and have a bit of “adventure” we hitch-hiked and stayed with my aunt in Constantia.

Because of the situation in Rhodesia convoys, escorted by police and army reservists, ran between main areas. As soldiers and with our service rifles we would be very welcome on, or in, anyone’s vehicle.

Salisbury to Fort Victoria to Beit Bridge, about 600kms, was boring and uncomfortable. At Beit Bridge we signed our weapons in to the BSAP armoury.

We walked over to South Africa and got a lift to the Mountain View hotel in the mountains above Louis Trichardt. It was raining and the hotel owners let us camp in some disused, leaky, sheds. We put up our tents, (leaky roof, remember) ate, had a beer then slept.

Day TWO dawned cool and misty and after a wash in the gents we made our way down to the main road. The rain had stopped and it was misty but we held up our CA (Cape Town registration) sign. A young woman roared up and offered us a ride. She had a crow in a box on the back seat (don’t ask because I don’t think we found out why). She drove like the clappers and roared through misty Louis Trichardt – ignoring stop streets – while chatting away excitedly.

In Pietersburg (Polokwane) we found an excuse to leave our dangerously cheerful benefactor, got a bite to eat and went to the main road.

We soon got another lift, being dropped near the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) in Pretoria. We trudged for about a kilometre when a truck pulled over. Offered a ride in the enclosed rear – no communication, view or way to open the door, we declined his “kind” offer

At around 1400 we got a lift to Meyerton south of Johannesburg, pleased we didn’t have to navigate Johannesburg’s confusing highways.

We were wondering about where we would sleep when a bulk liquids 28-wheeler pulled up and offered us a ride all the way to Cape Town.

Our job was to talk to the driver so that he would not get bored and go to sleep…at the wheel!

It was late, very late, when we stopped at a sleepy Beaufort West for cokes and a pie and again, shortly before dawn, at a watering point in the middle of nowhere.

Going over du Toit’s kloof (a picturesque, and dangerous, mountain pass) was marvellous. Outside Paarl and about an hour from Cape Town though, the driver said we must find another ride – if seen with passengers he would be in trouble.

With no-one stopping to give us a lift I called an ex-army friend who came and fetched us and took us to the Pig and Whistle pub in Rondebosch. It was early afternoon on day THREE – not bad going.

I only stayed about a fortnight and  it was now Saturday of my last weekend and once again in the city and hanging around our uncle’s brother’s market stall I knew we would be doing bugger all else. We had been relying on my uncle for transport but always ended up going where, and doing what, he wanted and I really wanted David to get a better experience of the city. Even though I had only lived in the Cape as a child 20-plus years before I said to David “Let’s go, I’ll show you how to get around”.

We went on foot to the harbour and a pub then by bus to Clifton and Sea Point.

Friends in Sea Point took us to the Pig & Whistle and later we took the train to Wynberg where we bought the best fish and chips ever across the road from the station!

We got a bus to Alphen – and walked several miles to my aunt and uncle’s house in Constantia. I was wearing brand new jeans and was chafed raw, but we’d had a good time.

David was staying for a few more weeks which was why I had wanted to show him how to get around! He had a great time on his own after I left.

We got a lift into the City the next morning and I held up my sign, the one David is holding in the picture, with the Rhodesian flag colours and SBY (Salisbury) on it. My first lift to the Worcester turn-off left me stranded for three hours in 40°C temperatures.

Finally, in Beaufort West after having got another lift, I stood for five hours on the northern edge of town. When it started to get dark I got permission to camp on the lawns of the motel over the road. I had some food and was back on the roadside at 0500.

I read a book, standing there, an ENTIRE BOOK and at 1500 a car stopped near me and I asked bemusedly, “Are you offering me a lift?”

We slept somewhere during the night. I’d worried a bit about my benefactors but they dutifully delivered me in Joburg where I was able to spend the night with my brother in law. Next day I was on the road at Buccleuch interchange and got a lift all the way to Beit Bridge.

My convoy lift developed car trouble and, with the main convoy drawing away quickly, there was potential danger for a lone car. After a few roadside repairs and with a few other stragglers we made our own convoy. I think I was the only one among them armed but we made Fort Victoria OK. From there to Salisbury was straightforward.

I was home for Christmas with a backpack stuffed with gifts and bits and pieces others had asked me to get.