A Slice of Vrystaat

I was born in Harrismith in 1955 as was Mom Mary in 1928 and Gran Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” was also the queen of South Africa. Elizabeth, not Pieter-Dirk.

To balance that, there’s this side of the family.

I attended the plaaslike schools in Harrismith till 1972. A year in the USA in 1973 as a  Rotary exchange student in Apache Oklahoma. Studied optometry in Joburg 1974 – 1977. Worked in Hillbrow and Welkom in 1978. Army (Potch and Roberts Heights, now Thaba Tshwane) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980. Stayed in Durban and got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.

‘Strue!! These random – un-chronological – personal memories are true of course. But if you know anything about human memory you’ll know that with one man’s memory comes: Pinch of Salt. Names have been left unchanged to embarrass the friends who led me (happily!) astray. If I haven’t offended anyone – yet – it’s not for lack of trying . .

Add your memories in the comments if you were there!

Featured post

A Yacht on the Vlaktes

One day I went for a drive with Dad out to a farm in the Swinburne district, Rensburgs Kop in the background. We stopped outside a big tin shed and walked inside. To my amazement there was a huge skeleton iron structure in there. I knew immediately what it was: It was an aviary. I grew up with aviaries, I knew aviaries. It would be just like Dad to visit a farmer with an aviary.

Except this one was in the graceful shape of an ocean-going yacht! It was a yacht. An ocean-going yacht. Or so Ronnie Mostert told us. He and his wife Mel were building it with the help of their farmworkers! But it would sink, I said. Made of steel and full of holes, it would definitely sink. No, said Ronnie. He told us he was going to fill all the holes with cement. Then he would take it to Durban and then sail around the world on it.

Now I knew he was mad. It would sink. Cement also sinks. The mafia use this fact to their advantage when they give a guy cement boots. Cement full of hidden steel will sink even faster. Everybody knows that. Also, Ronnie was a character, maybe he was pulling our legs? Maybe it actually was an aviary? I listened carefully, but it seemed he was serious and it seemed Dad believed him. Bliksem!

And that was the last I saw of it. I heard tell later that he actually had schlepped it to Durban and plonked it in the salty water of that big dam that you-cannot-see-the-other-side-of. And it floated! This seemed a real case where one could say, Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen! 

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Now it’s years later – I mean 47 years later if that was 1972 – and I’m reading all about Ronnie Mostert’s yacht in Leon Strachan’s wonderful book ‘Bergburgers’. Ronnie and Mel welded miles of vertical and horizontal steel bars in a shape according to a New Zealand plan they got in a magazine. Talk about faith that could move concrete! Imagine trusting your life to an unseen person sending his plans to you in a book!

Then they plastered it with cement, with Harrismith builders Koos van Graan and Ben Crawley, both of whom I think I have personally seen drinking beer, just like Ronnie, gooi’ing plaster on it and wiping it with the trowels they usually built solid houses with – and they expected it to float. And blow me down, it did.

How amazing to see pictures of that remembered glimpse from all those years ago and to reinforce my conviction that I’m not imagining all these things running round in my head. I tell my friends: Hey! I’m the sane one around here, but will they listen? Hmph.

Thanks, Leon!

Mel Mostert builds a boat
It’s a steel boat full of holes, so lets fill them with cement!

They christened it Mossie, trucked it down to Durbs in 1983, launched it and sailed and lived in it with their son Gary for eleven years.

the moment of truth is about to be ferro-cemented

Cape Town, St Helena, Brasil, the Caribbean, the USA, the Azores and back down south. They didn’t truck it back up to the Free State, though, they settled in Cape Town-on-sea. Isn’t that just a stunning achievement! Hats off!

Leon’s book tells of another – even crazier – saga of fools building a boat on the Harrismith vlaktes and thinking that it would float. I’ll post that next.

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vlaktes – not a place you’d sail a yacht; flats; veld; savannah

bliksem – blow me down!

Wonderlik wat die blerrie Engelse kan doen! – blow me down!

blow me down – bliksem!

‘Bergburgers’ – ‘citizens of the mountain’, meaning Platberg, thus: Harrismithians; us; also a book by Leon Strachan, Harrismithian extraordinaire!

Mossie – sparrow; many Mosterts are called Mossie but I never heard Ronnie called that; Lovely name for the boat!

Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7

Koos Kombi

Today Mother Mary took a break from playing the piano. She suddenly remembered a time Mona du Plessis came to her after a ‘do’ at the town hall. These memories come and go so she must tell them as she thinks of them.

Mona said to me – says Mary – “While we were at the town hall Kosie took the kombi, loaded up the de Villiers kids and drove to Joan and Jannie’s where our kids were. Then they all got in – Mignon, Jean-Prieur, Sheila, everybody and they drove up and down Hector Street!”

Of course I remember doing stuff like this – I loved “borrowing” the kombi – but I don’t really recall any specific accomplices! I spose it looked a bit like this:

Koos Kombi full_2

On Not Playing Rugby

Matric. Rugby season. I’m not playing. Old pipe-smoking, Andy Capp cap-wearing, grog-loving, moustachioed Stollie Beukes came up to me at school and asked straight-forwardly and politely, no weaseling, no guilt-suggesting. That’s him ‘playing goalie’ above.

“Ons kort a paar manne in die derdespan. Sal jy vir ons speel?”

“Ja, sekerlik,” I said, “Sal ek oefenings moet bywoon?” That would have ended it. I have an aversion to training in sport. Makes you sweaty. If you enjoy a sport, do the sport. Training? Ha!

“Nee, net op Saterdag,” he said.

Cool. So I got a coupla games on the President Brand Park B field; the field with the wooden poles on part of the cricket pitch. You can see the posts behind Stollie in the pic.

Being the mighty third (also last) team, we played early – before the first team, so we could all go and support them in our smelly kit. If it was in the morning there could be frost in the shade of those trees. The game would attract only a handful of the most die-hard spectators.

Lekker.

Then at the end of the season I played in the last game, the traditional matrics vs the rest of school. I don’t know who won? I dislocated my collar bone near the end and went off to see GP Mike van Niekerk, where he glanced at it, told me to wear a sling – “Your mother will know how to do it” – and then spent his time trying to change my future career. And he almost did.

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The next year I played a season of American football; Two years later I played rugger again. In Joburg for Wanderers Club.

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“Ons kort a paar manne in die derdespan. Sal jy vir ons speel?”– We need some superb and exciting talent in the Mighty Thirds. Will you sign up?

“Ja, sekerlik,” “Sal ek oefenings moet bywoon?” – Sure. I’m naturally fit, (right!) so I’m ready to play!

“Nee, net op Saterdag”– play the games only, no need to attend practice; a sign of desperation

Mary’s Matric Reunion

1995, so their fiftieth reunion!

Harrismith Matric Class 1945 – in 1995

One Harrismith wag on his way to a different class 50th reunion said – mischievously and perceptively – “I’m going to my matric farewell.”

Arthur Kennedy

Arthur Kennedy arrived in Harrismith like a dwarrelwind. Why we were so lucky as to get Arthur to our town I don’t know, but I think his wife Zita had family here. I think she was related to the Kerkenberg mountain vd Bosch’s.

He brought an exciting new venture to the dorp: A new motel on the N3 on the south-east end of town – at the Jo’burg-Durban-Bloemfontein junction – or the Warden-Swinburne-Kestell junction you could say if you weren’t going to drive far.

The motel – Kennedy Motel – was going to have a ‘flyover’ restaurant suspended over the road so diners could watch the road as they munched their mixed grills. All the Durban-Joburg traffic – the busiest rural freeway in South Africa by far – would have to drive underneath them. But meantime the motel and petrol station had to be built, plus all the rooms – the chalets. A cable car to the top of Platberg was also in the pipeline, according to Arthur. Big plans!

The Kennedy family stayed right on-site in novel half-round semi-portable wooden bungalows above the building site and below the track that was an extension of Vowe Street, below the SE end of Hector Street. Arthur was very hands-on and was deeply involved in everything. He made the cardinal apartheid error of starting to pay his workers more than the “known” Harrismith wage which, according to Steph de Witt, got 5ft 6 inch Arthur a visit from 6ft 4 inch Koos de Witt, Steph’s Dad. Steph says Koos found Arthur in a foundation ditch. He jumped in next to him and “explained” to him in international language how he was not to bend the “local rules” of wage exploitation.

Later he built a triangular house of wood and glass above Vowe Street – a huge novelty for the town. It was next door to the du Plessis home, and Pierre and I hopped the fence and inspected it while under construction. The bathroom had a novelty in it which we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know it was called a bidet, but we spotted right away what it was for. HaHaHa! Our schoolboy humour kicked in. Arthur’s initials were AW (were they? or did we invent that?) and we proceeded to call him Arse Washer after that bathroom furniture that so tickled our crude funny bones. We weren’t always Methodist-polite, ’tis true.

He even became a town councillor, this foreign rooinek in the vrystaat! If America could have a President Kennedy at that time, why couldn’t we have a possible future mayor Kennedy? Quite a guy was our Arthur!

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The Cupboard Snake

For a while the Kennedys lived in the middle of town – in or near the house where Nick Duursema lived, near the circle in Warden street, just down from Arthur Grey’s corner store. That’s where the puff adder landed on top of the bedroom wardrobe.

The first and last puff adder I saw ‘in the wild’ was in Hector Street outside our house in about 1965 when – ware vrystater that she was – Mother Mary ran over the poor thing in the blue VW OHS 155. Doelbewus! Swear! The old man was called out from the pub. He came home, caught it and put it in a box which he gave to Zita Kennedy to give to Tommy van den Bosch. Maybe he’d first stunned it with a blast of cane spirits breath.

Tommy lived against the slopes of Kerkenberg and wore a cowboy hat and played the guitar. He’d sing you a mournful – or toe-tapping if that was your poison – cowboy song at the drop of a hat. His cowboy stetson hat. He collected snakes and took them to the Durban snake park who paid him by the foot. They estimated this puffy at five foot, though of course that length may have grown over time! SSSSS – Snake Stories Seldom Suffer Shrinkage.

That night in bed just before lights out Arthur Kennedy asked Zita “What’s that box up on the cupboard?” She hadn’t finished telling him and he was already out in Bester Street opposite the ou groot kerk near the traffic circle in his tiny pie-jarm shorts shouting “Get that thing out of there ! I am NEVER going into that house again until that thing is gone!” and other earnest entreaties.

Strange fear, as he was fearless in other ways: Who can forget Arthur Kennedy dressed only in a white Tarzan loincloth – which looked a bit like a nappy – swinging right across the hele stadsaal on a trapeze above the gob-smacked and ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense? And outdoors upside-down high on a thin pole above the skougronde? Fearless aerobatics and acrobatics.

But a snake on his cupboard? That was too much for him!

For a while he made Harrismith seem part of the wider world! A bit like this:

Trapeze.jpg

On the big day celebrating South Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen, Arthur gave a stunning performance on his own equipment down at the President Brand Park in front of a full pawiljoen of ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense! Dad filmed it:

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Arthur ran our mountain race and, further proving his commitment to Harrismith he married a second local girl – much, much younger than him.

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dwarrelwind – whirlwind, tornado, breath of fresh air

Doelbewus – on purpose; Swear! ‘Strue’s God! Gentle Mary did that. In those days you did. The only thing that made you think maybe you wouldn’t drive over it was the story that it would wind itself around your axle and then climb up into your engine, then under your dashboard and THEN pik you on the foot! Swear!

ware vrystater – genuine free stater; born and bred in the free state, as was her mother before her (who would not have been celebrating the 1961 demotion of QEII from monarch to foreign tannie)

tannie – auntie

ou groot kerk – the old Dutch Reformed Church, the Moederkerk

hele stadsaal – the full length of the town hall

ge-be-indrukte – highly impressed, awe-struck, yes, gob-smacked

mense – people, citizens; pale, of course

skougronde – agricultural show grounds

pawiljoen – pavilion; stadium, place of worship

rooinek – English-speaking; andersgesinde

freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen – Republic Day 31 May 1961

Chaka’s Rock Luxury Beach Cottage

Back around 1962 we joined the du Plessis on a beach and fishing holiday on the Natal north coast – Chaka’s Rock! They were beach regulars, this was one of our two beach holidays that I can remember.  It was amazing! The cottage on a hill above the beach, the rocks and seaside cliffs, narrow walkways along the cliffs that the waves would drench at high tide; magic swimming pools set in the rocks. The men were there to fish:

We baljaar’d on the beach and sometimes even ventured into the shallows – just up to safe vrystaat depth. A swimmer I was not and I still vividly remember a near-death experience I had in the rock pool: a metre-high wave knocked me out of Mom’s arms and I was washed away out of her safe grasp! I must have been torn away by up to half a metre from her outstretched hands; little asthmatic me on my own in the vast Indian Ocean for what must have been a long one and a half seconds. Traumatised. To this day I am wary of the big-dam-that-you-can’t-see-the-other-side-of.

baljaar – frolic

vrystaat depth – about ankle deep

postscript: I tried to keep up the luxury cottage theme but Barbara talked about the big spiders on the walls and yesterday even Dad, who was talking about Joe Geyser, mentioned ‘that ramshackle cottage we stayed in at Chaka’s Rock’.

Dad was saying Joe hardly ever caught a fish. He would be so busy with this his pipe, relighting it, refilling it, winding the reel with one hand while fiddling with his pipe with the other. My theory is the fish could smell the tobacco and turned their nose up at his bait. Dad reckons tobacco was never a health hazard to old Joe. Although he was never without his pipe, it was mainly preparation and cleaning, and the amount of actual puffing he did was minimal.

Once he caught a wahoo and brought it back to Harrismith. Griet took one look at it as he walked into her kitchen and bade him sally forth, so he brought it to Dad and they cut it up and cooked it in our kitchen.

The Bend – Earlier Daze

Before we learnt to drink beer on the banks of the mighty Tugela, we drank oros and water while observing our elders drinking beer on those same rocks on the same bend in the river that gives the farm its name. Here’s an 8mm ‘cine’ movie taken back in the early 1960’s – before we followed suit in the seventies.

These were the days when Thankful and Grateful – as that incorrigible axis of evil or mirth Sheila-Bess-Georgie-Lettuce called Frank and Gretel Reitz – would have large soirees on the farm with the Swanies, the Kemps and others gathering ‘in their numbers.’

In the movie Gretel, Joyce, Mary and Isabel walk along that stunning driveway lined with (amIright here?) Grecian (Roman?) columns to the old double-rondawel thatched homestead. Then the drinking party moves down to the river where Gee and Kai pilot the motorboat and Barbara and Bess paddle in the shallows. Check out Doc Reitz’s old Chev OHS 71.

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Two Grand Pianos

Mom Mary Bland learnt to play the piano on her Granny Mary Bland’s upright Otto Bach at 13 Stuart Street. Her sister Pat didn’t play, but when Granny died the piano had to go to the older granddaughter. But how to get it there?

Jack Shannon had a bakkie and he volunteered to schlep it to Blyvooruitzicht, or as the Cowies called it, ‘Blayfore’. It got dropped at some stage in the loading or offloading and had to be repaired when it got there. All was well.

Years later Pat died and Bill decided it should go to Barbara as she played, and his daughters Frankie and Gemma did not. So another farmer with a bakkie was roped in to schlep it back from Blayfore – this time long-suffering husband Jeff Tarr carted it to PMB or Howick or Greytown (must ask Barbara). Barbara still has the piano – now in Linda’s home on their farm Umvoti Villa.

Meantime Mom had bought another: an upright Bentley. Marie Bain had bought her daughter Lynn the Bentley hoping she’d learn to play ‘like Mary’. Well, Lynn never took to playing, so Mom bought it from Marie for the same £100 she had paid for it years before. This was the piano we were so privileged to grow up with at 95 Stuart Street, listening to Mom playing Hymns, Classical and Popular music. Who could forget the late night drinking songs when the Goor Koor gang would gather round her and bellow out their alcohol fumes, cigarette ash and varying levels of talent with gay abandon.

Mom still has the Bentley in PMB and still plays it beautifully. They’re upright pianos, not ‘grand’ pianos, but they certainly have been a grand part of our lives from about 1920-something – Mary was born in 1928 – to 2019. And more to come.

Here Mary at 90 plays someone else’s piano. Her classical pieces she always played with the music score in front of her. She can no longer see well enough to read it, so mainly plays her popular pieces by memory now.

We grew up to these sounds in the background. How lucky can you get!? These next few classical pieces are played by some wonderful pianists who are almost as good as Mom in her prime!

also this:

I remember a few times getting so overcome by the music – melancholy or something? – I’d run down the passage and get Mom to stop playing! weird.

My Wild Days – Stepping Out, Clubbing

Found this picture on the ‘net. It says “The Doors Nightclub Johannesburg”. It reminds me very strongly of my impression of an unusual night on the town with young Fotherby, back in the Jurassic.

Nightclub JHB

I was just as boring then as I am now. My idea of a good night out was find a pub, drink a lot, laugh.

Well, Fotherby thought there must be more to life than that – even though she was from Kimberley out – and so she announced one night that we were going to a nightclub.

A what? Of course I’d heard of them, but I didn’t think they allowed FreeStaters in. Shuddup And Let’s Go was the reply and also Don’t You Have Anything Better To Wear Than That?

You can’t believe it! I was wearing what I had worn since shortly after the rinderpest: Boring shirt, plain pants, brown shoes. What else would one wear?

Sighing, she lifted up my collar so at least I would look slightly different, mussed my flowing locks a bit and then ordered me to drive the grey and grey 1965 Opel Concorde to some dingy back street, somewhere near Joubert Park I think. Don’t park near the door, I was told. Even though we were in the grey and grey 1965 Opel Concorde. Amazing!

doornfontein-003

At the door the bouncers looked us over and because we looked suave and masculine – or maybe as we were with attractive nubile lasses – or maybe cos we paid – let us in. I can’t recall who else was with us – I only had eyes for the delightful Fotherby, of course. I remember an entrance hall and then a huge area filled with people, smoke and noise. Huge. Only later I realised the heavens were the ceiling. The ‘room’ could be as big as it was because we were actually sort of outdoors. Boys danced with boys and girls with girls and some mixed. Getting a drink was a mission. Why the hell would anyone want to go to such a place?, I thought.

I still think that.

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Stephen Reed wrote:

If I was there, the memory could well have fallen between the sizable cracks between the ears.

I do remember one night coming down Smith / Wolmarans street  towards the Doories Res,  full to the brim with alcohol with you and Fotherby in the car and Forsdick I think.
The Austin Apache was purring  along nearing it’s rather modest  V-max when you decided to pull up the handbriek as we went through the intersection with Steil Street or Gould street …
Shrieks of protest from the back seat as the Apache battled to retain its composure . .
On reflection, that may have been on the way back from a nightclub, but just as likely from the Dev or maybe Float-Building.
Either way, we were well oiled. But not the girls.
We must have at some time visited a nightclub or two. We may need to call in someone with less damage to the hard drive.
I have just had a look on the ‘net and Bella Napoli comes up – Pretoria St Hillbrow – we musta been there surely?
But The Doors nightclub – still has me wracking my brains

Me:

Problem is sometimes our carefully stored and index’d memories are filed on exactly the grey cells targeted for destruction by that particular binge.

Of course, sometimes that’s a happy occurrence – don’t always want to remember everything.

As you know, one of my oft-repeated mantras is the trouble with marriage is wimmin have such good memory glands; or – as I prefer to put it – we have much better filters; discretion!

And as I once told you, that particular handbriek trick was a Pierre du Plessis invention. We used to pile into his Mom Joan’s Ford Prefect for a lift home from swimming lessons. As we piled in we’d all say a loud and cheerful HI BEAM! to the light on the dash that said hi beam.

Then he’d wait for just the wrong moment – usually where Joan had to drive around the inconvenient Moeder Kerk – and yank up the handbriek so the car would do a sideways slither to her consternation. Trouble is, she had such a sense of humour and loved ole duP so much she could never actually get cross with him!

So we never learned.

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handbriek – handbrake; a car handbrake, not . . . forget it

shuddup – domineering wimmin talk

grey cells being murdered by grogmight not be true!

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