Uncle Jack Kemp had a big dilemma. He loved a party and there were two parties on, one at our house and the other at Ronnie from Threeburgh’s place. To get from the one brandy bottle to the other he had to walk down our front steps, down our little-used front path and out the gate onto Stuart Street. He then had to cross the road and walk northwest to the other corner where Ronnie and Martie were whooping it up – and they could whoop it up!
Then he had to retrace his steps in case there was something more exciting going on where he had just come from.
After a few such sorties he went missing and Isabel Necessary asked her Koosie (pr: coosie) to Go And Look For Him Please My Love, throwing back her head to let out a peal of loud cackling laughter, drink in one hand and ciggie in the other.
I found him under the willow, flat on his back with the unspilt brandy glass balanced on his big boep. Hello Cock, he rasped. ‘Hello Cock’ he’d say to everyone. Saved him remembering names.
Uncle Jack was fine, he had just run out of steam and vertical-ness and was thinking about his next move. What lovely people were Jack and Isabel Kemp!
In the map the four dots mark our yard. Just above the top dot is the van Tubbergh home, showing the short route Uncle Jack had to negotiate. In the picture of the front of our house, there’s a willow tree on the left. Just out of picture on the right is the willow tree under which dear Uncle Jack came unstuck, where schoolboy me found and ‘rescued’ him.
When modern man decided to pinch water from the Tugela river and pump it uphill to satisfy the Vaalies’ thirst, our area around Harrismith and Bergville saw a flurry of activity and an influx of new people. A bus arrived at school and a flock of new kids tumbled out. They were cruelly christened Die Dam Paddas by us parochials.
New things started appearing in the distrik: Sterkfontein dam; TuVa township (Tu Va – Tugela/Vaalies, geddit?); a vertical tunnel in the Drakensberg for the hydro-electric turbines; canals and smaller dams. All had to be built.
One of the latter was Driel Barrage on the Tugela river on Kai Reitz’s farm The Bend, so once we’d had sufficient beer one fine day we drove down on the back of Kai’s big Chevy pickup to look at the construction and to say some insightful engineering things about it.
A very high wall had been built starting out from dry land until its highest point in the middle of the river. Very interesting, but we don’t have to . . . . Oh, we do?
So we climbed up it and inched our way on our bums along the 30cm wide wall to its highest point. Some walked, but they were just being foolish, right? OK, so we’ve seen it, can we go now?
The muddy brown water way below us was completely opaque, no way you could see even one centimetre into it. It could have been knee deep or ten metres deep, who knows, so we definitely won’t be . . . . Mandy! ARE YOU MA-AA-aa-aD?!
She’s jumped! Holy shee-yit!! Ah neely dahd, she took forever to plummet as I watched in slow motion, and then she entered with a big splash and disappeared, which I s’pose was better than if she hadn’t.
Eventually she surfaced with a huge grin on her face and now I knew I was stuffed. I’d have to jump. Unless the others chickened out, but no, there went Sheila and so before long I had to stand up, act casual and plummet meself.
Unbelievable what a fierce hold brave women have over us cowardly um, circumspect men . . .
We would meet on The Bend, Kai’s paradise on the Tugela outside Bergville. The guys from Doories in Johannesburg studying to be optometrists and engineers at the Wits Tech and the gals from NTC in Pietermaritzburg, studying to be teachers of the future fine upstanding youth of SA. We would meet specifically to practice setting a good example.
We’d sing and dance, play loud music, down many beers, fall in love, salute General Armstrong the whisky bottle, dance, laugh, swim in the river, jump off the dam wall, have a ball, dance, laugh, recover and start all over again. In hunting season some of us might shoot a few guineafowl.
Sundays we’d load up and go back to school like responsible students. Speronsible, as Lloyd Zunckel would say.
On this occasion Lettuce Leaf loaded up the off-yellow Clittering Goach to head SE back to PMB and Spatch loaded up the beige Apache and Scratchmo loaded the green VeeDub to head NW back to Joeys. We decided to help Lettuce pack out of the kindness of our hearts, slipping a dead guineafowl in amongst the girls’ suitcases. Ha ha! That’ll give them a surprise when they get back!
Here Scratchmo chunes the Clittering Goach’s under-bonnet-ular bits, pretending he knows what’s going on to impress Lettuce:
Back in Johannesburg later that Sunday night, we couldn’t wait to phone them from the nearest ‘tickey box’ or public phone.
How was your trip? Fine.
How were your suitcases? Fine.
How was Lettuce’s boot? Fine.
Oh! Um, was there anything unusual in the boot? No. Why?
DAMN! We suspected Scratchmo Hood Simpson, and interrogated him accusingly: Are you so in love that you removed the fowl to spare the girls the smell? No, it wasn’t him. But, but . . someone must have removed it. Damn!
Oh, well, it was a great idea for a prank! Pity it failed . . . .
A week later we got a parcel slip:
A parcel from PMB awaits your collection at the General Post Office in Jeppe Street.
It was big and quite heavy and read: Contents: Musical Instrument.
Unwrapping layer after layer of paper and one plastic bag after another we unveiled: THAT GUINEAFOWL! The girls had suckered us! We had been (in 21st century-language) SERVED!
Hummed? It honked! It ponged! – that was obviously their “musical instrument” clue! Heave! Vomit! Yuk!
So what to do with it? Holding it at arms length we carried it out. It was 5pm rush hour. Traffic backed up under the Harrow Road flyover. Innocent hard-working people on their way home. A little plumber’s bakkie looked easy, so as the light turned green we deposited the offending deceased foul fowl discreetly on his loadbed. He’d have an interesting mystery when he got home!
We then made our way to the nearest tickey box. We had a concession phone call to make to PMB.
Fanie, is that a box of matches in your pocket? asked stern Uncle Louis. No Dad, its just a block of wood.
We were having lunch on their smallholding east of Harrismith and father Louis knew enough to ask, but not enough to check. After lunch we were off into the veld and once out of sight Farnie bent down, struck a match and set fire to the grass, watched it in fascination for a few seconds, then beat the flames out with his hands. My turn. Then his turn again.
Who knows whose turn it was – doesn’t matter – but we let it grow too big. Both of us tried to beat it out, stomp it out, but the flames spread and ran away from us.
OH! SH*T!! We ran back to the farm house and phoned the fire engine in town. When Louis found out he phoned again and told them not to come. He had already phoned the neighbours and alerted all hands on deck.
My most vivid memory was herding cattle out of a paddock and having a cow refuse to go, charging straight back at us and forcing her way back in. Her calf was in there and she only left once it was with her.
Nine farms burnt, we were told. And calling the fire engine costs money we were told. And we learnt some other lessons, too. You can tell: Both of us are fine upstanding citizens today (telling our kids to BEHAVE themselves, dammit).
A fire in 2014 in the exact same spot (click on the pic). Our fire was ca 1960.
NB: As memories are notoriously fickle, read older sister Barbara‘s (probably more accurate!) recollection of this day:
Let’s go back to the Schoeman’s farm. The three little Swanepoels were spending a week-end on the farm with the three little Schoemans.
Three Swanies ca 1960
After breakfast the six of us went for a walk in the veld. Unbeknown to me, two little sh*ts had lied about having matches in their pockets. Not far from the house they crouched down and I thought they had seen something on the ground. On inspection I now knew that it was matches that they were playing with. They lit a few little fires and quickly with their bare hands (brave boys!) killed the flames. Until then it was all fun for them but I felt very uneasy.
Suddenly the next little flame became a “grand-daddy” of a flame and within no time the two little sh*ts could not longer use their brave little hands. Guess who ran away first? Yes, the two little sh*ts! Something made me look back at the roaring fire and that’s when I saw little Louie – who was 3yrs old – standing in a circle of flames with his arm raised and covering his face – he was frozen stiff. I turned around, ran through the flames, picked him up and ‘sent it’ back to the farmhouse.
With no grown-ups at home, I phoned my mother at the Platberg Bottle Store and through lots of “snot and trane” told her what had happened. She ran across the road to the Town Hall corner and “hit” the fire alarm for the Harrismith Fire Brigade to come and save the day. Needless to say they saw no fire in town so must have just gone home.
The fire did burn through about three farms – the damage was extensive. Uncle Louie and Aunty Cathy, on coming home that afternoon, apparently stopped the car on the main road, got out and just stared – could not believe what they was seeing.
Well, we were supposed to spend the week-end there but all the grown-ups had had enough. We were packed up, bundled up into the car and taken home.
Years later (before they left SA) I bumped into Louie and Gaylyn and told them the story. I could not believe it when Louie told me he had always known that I had saved his life – and I thought that that memory had gone up in flames!
Lots of love to you all Yours “Firewoman” Barbara
Later I wrote (thinking that nothing had really happened to us after the fire): Dammitall, we really had amazingly tolerant parents back in the sixties, come to think of it!
To which Farn Schoeman replied: Koos, small correction: YOU had amazingly tolerant parents!
There were two reasons we ‘borrowed’ Gerrie’s 1961 black Saab 93 late one night: (1). If you don’t give a car a run the battery can go flat, and (2). We had Larry the American Rotary Exchange student with us, who might have heard that the Free State can be a very boring place with “nothing to do”. Especially at night. And also (3). A moving car is a safe place to drink beer in. These are facts.
Quietly wheeling it down the driveway we held our breath until we’d pushed it far enough, then quickly started it and we were OFF! Freedom! Beer! Speed! Steph was multi-tasking, driving and handing out the ‘longtom’ cans of Black Label beer his family’s obliging gardener had bought for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales. My folks lost the sale because of their silly and pedantic “over-18’s” policy.
Tuffy always finished his before we hit third gear . . .
A quick routine stop to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose, and we headed for new terrain.
We had already done the town athletic track and the school netball fields on other occasions, leaving our trademark donuts and figure-of-eights in the gravel.* This time our destination was the National Botanic Gardens on top of Queen’s Hill, stopping only once more to tap the fuel pump with the half-brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose.
In the dark we met Kolhaas Lindstrom in his car. He was legit: He’d already left school and was a licenced driver. “Dice?” he challenged, and the game was on! Whizzing through the veld Rring-ding-ding-ding-RRriiing! It’s a two-stroke, remember?
Don’t believe the Minister of Transport, speed doesn’t kill you. Speed exhilarates. It’s the sudden stops that kill you. And the sudden stop and loud bang came as a surprise to us. Dead silence reigned until in an awed American upstate New York accent Larry exclaimed from the back seat, “We’ve had a head-on collision with a hill!” .
That broke the ice. The hill, meantime, had probably broken the suspension.
But no. A committee undercarriage inspection revealed all four wheels suspended in mid-air. Trying to gun it out left the front wheels whizzing around uselessly. Well, that is why there were five of us, so we man-handled it over the ditch and away we went, cleverer than before.
Forty five years later I flew in to inspect the scene of the mystery. Which was still unsolved and now a very cold case. The mystery was this: How could it be that such great and experienced drivers crashed? I mean some of us had been driving for . . well, months! And in not too many years’ time, we’d be licenced drivers.
I flew in via google earth. And there it was: A fault!! It was Queen’s Hill’s fault, not ours!
A great big fault – or ditch? – runs North-South across the whole hill. THAT was what caught us by surprise in the long grass.
I have little doubt that if one were to measure its width you’ll find it just a bit greater than the wheelbase of a 1961 Saab93!
* Next time you’re wondering who made those ‘crop circles’? Think a) Homo sapiens; b) Homo sapiens subspecies pranksterii; c) Alcohol; These are facts.
The mighty Vulgar river had risen! It was flowing way higher than usual, and had overflown its banks. We needed to get onto it!
So Pierre and I dusted off the open blue and red fibreglass canoe the old man had bought us and headed off downstream early one summer morning from below the weir in the park.
By the time we started the river had dropped a lot. Still flowing well, but below the heights of the previous days. This left a muddy verge metres high where the banks were vertical, and up to 100m wide where the banks were sloped and the river was wide.
When we got to Swiss Valley past the confluence of the Nuwejaar spruit, we had a wide wet floodplain to slip and slide across before we reached dry land, leaving us muddy from head to toe. Dragging the boat along we headed for the farmhouse where Lel Venning looked at us in astonishment. I don’t think she even recognised us.
No, You haven’t! You can’t fool me! APRIL FOOL! she exclaimed when we said we’d paddled out from town.
Pierre and I looked at each other and he said “Happy birthday!”
Fresh from officers course at Roberts Heights (then it was called Voortrekkerhoogte, now it’s called Thaba Tshwane) this brand-new lieutenant is sent as adjudant to Natal Command, fondly known as Hotel Command. I’m given my own room just above Marine Parade and told to leave my shoes outside the door. Not for religious reasons – because someone else miraculously cleans them overnight!
In my very own office in Metal Industries House the PF (permanent force – career officer) outgoing adjudant gives me the list of hospitals which fall under my care: Mosvold, Ngwelezane, Christ the King, Madadeni, Appelsbosch, Hlabisa, Osindisweni, St Appolonaris and Manguzi are the names I still remember. I’m responsible for the civilian force docs posted to these outposts, so I go through their files to see wassup. Wait! This guy is due to leave Mosvold tomorrow! I better phone him NOW! He thanks me profusely and says “Usually we’re told late or not at all!”. Another one thanks me for giving him a whole week’s notice. Both notices had arrived on this desk more than a month earlier!
Once I have everything sorted out and organised after about a month I ask around: Yes, says my boss Naval Captain Dr Mervyn Jordan, head of SA Medics in Natal in his dapper white uniform, I can requisition a Land Rover and visit “my” hospitals! I can’t wait. I start planning an adventure to all the Zululand hospitals for starters.
But just then I get a transfer order myself, and though I’m sorely disappointed to miss my planned “Grand Tour of the Provinces” I cannot miss this: “You are hereby ordered to report to Addington Hospital where you will be given your own flat in Doctors’ Quarters across the road from the Nurses Res where hundreds of nubile nurses await your arrival”.
For army basic training we were posted to Loopspruit outside Potchefstroom. We were ‘medics’ we were told. The place had been a reform school before and we were billeted in old houses converted into barracks – or most of us were. Our gang (platoon?) got the science lab, and boy, were we lucky. The other guys spent their days sanding and polishing old wooden floors. We had linoleum. All we did was sweep and – unfairly – we often won the prize for neatest inspection. Every so often that meant a weekend pass, so we were careful to keep the place clean, removing our boots at the door and shuffling around on ‘taxis’ – cloths you step on and scoot around on, cleaning as you go.
Uniforms and beds were inspected too, so evenings were spent cleaning and ironing and smartening. Some would even sleep on the floor, unwilling to mess up their crisply-straightened beds. One of our guys found this all a bit hard. Graham. What a lovely bloke, but Tidiness R Not Him. He would get bombed by the corporals for untidiness, so we took to doing his ironing and smartening for him, forbidding him to move as we shone his boots and dressed him for inspection. If he moved he would get boot polish on his browns, so we ordered him: SIT! STAY!
One weekend we were all given a pass but Graham was ordered to forfeit his. On our arrival back in camp Sunday evening we were greeted by the disturbing sight of our dazzling floor looking dull and scratchy. It had lost its shine!
Graham explained: Bored all alone over the weekend he had spied an electric polishing machine and some ‘DryBright’™ polish in one of the houses and thought he’d do us all a big favour and get the floor to a dining shazzle the likes of which had never before been seen in military history.
Well, the more he polished the duller it got. So he polished some more. Eventually he managed to get it to the disastrous state we now saw before our ‘thinking-of-lost-weekends’ eyes! Fortunately we knew where Graham’s heart was, so we saw the funny side and set to rescuing the situation as best we could.
But we never let him forget it: Graham DryBright Lewis!
Here’s the man a few years later. Probly explaining his floor-polishing theories:
His lovely partner for the evening is thinking Omigawd . . . as many of our partners seemed to do back then, I dunno why . .
1979 Army “basics” – basic training – and my buddy Graham and I are hitch-hiking from Potch to Harrismith. Waiting for a next ride outside Villiers in the darkness of that Friday night a clapped-out bakkie stopped. At last. Jump on, says the weirdo who looks three sheets to the wind, while handing us a quart of beer to share. We jumped; We drank; Screaming along the road to Warden we glance nervously through the back window into the cab and over the driver’s shoulder, the speedo needle was quivering at 135kmh! We glance at each other, trying to be casual. Nonchalant.
Suddenly a loud schlap schlap schlap schlap sound and the bakkie lurches. Burst tyre! We start skidding sideways with the white line coming at us from the left; Then skidding with the white line coming at us from the right; Then going backwards staring at the white line racing under the back of the bakkie towards us as we sit facing what should have been backwards; Then spinning round to see the white line receding away from us – as it should.
We come to a halt still upright and facing forward – and on the correct side of the road; RELIEF!
COME! I barked at Graham. Grabbing our balsaks we hopped off and walked back where we’d come from into the night without a backward glance or even a single word to the driver. I did not want to engage with him in any way at all. We walked till completely out of sight and out of earshot in the dark night.
I wasn’t there. It really felt like I was there, and I wanted to be there so bad, but I wasn’t. All I know is the Arabs decided to reduce the availability of their oil, thus raising the price of petrol and reducing the speed limit to 80km/h. Petrol stations closed at night and we were forbidden to carry extra fuel. Also that Tabs his cousin Des decided around then to buy a 1947 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe. A maroon one. Like good mafiosi, they formed a syndicate to buy it.
I also found out that Tabs and Des set off for the sleepy hollow city of Pietermaritzburg with a few jerry cans full of contraband fuel in the capacious boot of their ‘new’ 1947 maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe to attend the Natal Teachers College Ball. Probably at more than 80km/h.
I also know – well, I heard – that when the cops pulled them over late one night Des was driving clad only in his underpants – had they been for a swim in the Epworth Girls School pool? – and there were lots of ladies on the capacious sofa-like back seat who suddenly found Des sitting on their laps in those same capacious underpants, saying ‘Why, I doubt I even know how to drive such a vehicle, officer.’ The cops apparently very rudely said he was anyway way too drunk to have driven and threw them all in the back of the Black Maria.
When it was time to drive off they asked whose vehicle the maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe was. Everyone pointed at Des; so he was hauled out of the back of the Black Maria and made to drive the big maroon beast to the cop shop.
I also heard that when in the custody of the gendarmes in the back of their police van, those same innocent young ladies let the air out of the cops’ spare wheel.
But as I say, I don’t really know WHAT happened that night . . .
My friend Charlie Mason remembers something his old man told him years ago: