We were in second year and had just moved out of downtown Joburg and Eloff Street to the salubrious semi-suburban delightful area of Doornfontein which was once Joburg’s premier suburb where all the gold mining magnates and Randlords lived and built their mansions.
So some final year students asked us to help them in their research for their – whatever.
They needed volunteers to see if blood alcohol levels affected your esotropia. We gave it a moment’s thought and thought that sounded like a HELLUVA good idea as it involved free drink and would provide valuable data and it involved free drink. We volunteered. None of asked ‘what’s esotropia?’
It was very formal. We had to – No, you can’t have a drink yet; Hey! Step away from the drinks table, we need baseline levels before you . . you have? Well, how many? SO many? Well, quick, come, let’s measure you before – Hey! Not another one . .
Well, give them their due, they tried their best and we did our best and it was a WONDERFUL evening filled with laughter and witty repartee and I don’t know if they got any data but we did get the promised drinks and they didn’t need to return any unopened bottles to the grog shop.
Quite a lot was learned, too. Like if you give a person who has had one too many even a little bit of vertical prism he will push the phoropter away and make barfing noises and run out of the clinic. That might come in handy to future researchers, and I give it here free for anyone to use.
I was reading about Andrew Geddes Bain, geologist, road engineer, palaeontologist and explorer in the Cape up to 1864, and his son Thomas Charles Bain, road engineer in the Cape up to 1888, when it suddenly struck me!
First, let’s see what these two very capable men achieved: Andrew Geddes Bain built eight mountain passes, including the famous Bain’s Kloof Pass, which opened up the route to the interior from Cape Town. And he had thirteen children. His son Thomas Charles Bain built nineteen passes! His crowning glory was the Swartberg Pass that connects Oudtshoorn in the Little Karoo with Prince Albert beyond the Swartberg mountains in the open plains of the Great Karoo. And he had thirteen children.
And I suddenly knew exactly what happened when my Great-Grandfather Stewart Bain and his brother James Bain got off the ship in Durban in 1880. They were fishermen from the tiny fishing village of Wick, in the far north-eastern corner of Scotland, used to being ‘knee-high in brine, mud, and herring refuse.’
People in Durban asked them: ‘Bain? Are you the famous Bain road builders? We need road builders here. Can you build bridges too?’
And I know just what the brothers Bain said. ‘Roads? Och aye, we can build roads. And bridges? We can build them with one hand tied behind our back.’
And so they built the railway bridges between Ladysmith and Harrismith, learning as they went, ‘upskilling’, thus enabling the railroad to reach that wonderful picturesque town in the shadow of Platberg. This gave them enough money to buy and build a hotel each, marry, have children – only seven and eight apiece, though. Then one of the seven had two children; and one of those had me! And here I am.
edit: I wrote nine kids in the pic, but I think it was worse – only seven.
Think I’m being unkind to Wick, village of my ancestors? Read what Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about it to his mother when he stayed there in 1868:
‘Certainly Wick in itself possesses no beauty: bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea; not even the gleam of red tiles; not even the greenness of a tree. The southerly heights, when I came here, were black with people, fishers waiting on wind and night. Now all the boats have beaten out of the bay, and the Wick men stay indoors or wrangle on the quays with dissatisfied fish-curers, knee-high in brine, mud, and herring refuse. The day when the boats put out to go home to the Hebrides, the girl here told me there was ‘a black wind’; and on going out, I found the epithet as justifiable as it was picturesque. A cold, BLACK southerly wind, with occasional rising showers of rain; it was a fine sight to see the boats beat out a-teeth of it. In Wick I have never heard any one greet his neighbour with the usual ‘Fine day’ or ‘Good morning.’ Both come shaking their heads, and both say, ‘Breezy, breezy!’ And such is the atrocious quality of the climate, that the remark is almost invariably justified by the fact. The streets are full of the Highland fishers, lubberly, stupid, inconceivably lazy and heavy to move. You bruise against them, tumble over them, elbow them against the wall — all to no purpose; they will not budge; and you are forced to leave the pavement every step.’
Then read a sterling defence of our ancestral dorp by Janis Paterson – also a descendant of the Bains of Wick who read my post and reached for her quill (I have paraphrased somewhat):
Ya boo sucks to RLS! Robert Louis Stevenson, was a sickly child. His father and his uncles were engineers who built lighthouses all over Scotland. Robert was sent to Wick, likely to get involved in building a breakwater there with his Uncle. But he was more interested in writing stories and was just not cut out for this sort of work. I believe he was also ill while in Wick. The first attempt at building the breakwater was washed away during a storm and also the second attempt. The work was then abandoned. I therefore propose that Robert just didn’t want to be in Wick, was ill, fed up with the weather and just wanted to get away to concentrate on his writing. The Stevenson family must have been excellent engineers, as all the lighthouses are still standing. Did Robert also feel that he was a failure as an apprentice engineer?
Stick it to him, Janis! How dare he call Wick fishy? Or smelly!? Or breezy!?
Janis adds ‘Read this book review:’ ‘ . . .fourteen lighthouses dotting the Scottish coast were all built by the same Stevenson family that produced Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland’s most famous novelist. Who, unlike the rest of his strong-willed, determined family, was certainly not up to the astonishing rigours of lighthouse building.’Janis was right! 😉 All HE could do was scribble – like me . .
A visit to Tuffy, then stationed on the Bluff in Durban with Recce Battalion was a happy reunion. There he was in uniform and me with long hair, his student mate from Harrismith. He introduced me to his sergeant ‘Vingers’ Kruger and all his comrades and announced we’d be partying tonight.
We started off at the famous / notorious Smugglers Inn off Point Road and had a good few there, warming up to a fun night on the tiles. On our way out, en route to a nice place one of the guys knew where ladies would remove their tops with sufficient encouragement, we heard shouting – screaming really – in the alley next to the entrance to Smuggies: ‘You’re married to my sister and here I catch you fucking a man!’ We didn’t wait to hear the fellow’s explanation for his errant behaviour – the other side of the story, y’know, in fairness – but there were some smacking sounds.
Later outside another nightclub a few insults thrown around started a fight between some of the short-haired soldiers and a group of longer-haired ‘civvies’. In the interests of transparency, one of our boys had started it. It soon developed into a brawl and the cops were there in a flash. They took no nonsense and a number of prisoners, throwing anyone near the fighting indiscriminately into the back of the black maria. Which was grey, not black. I tried to explain how very innocent I was, having hung back and danced around the edges of the fight, but was told to fokkin keep quiet and shoved into the van.
As we huddled uncomfortably and with foreboding with some of the okes who minutes before had been throwing punches at us – OK, for me, potentially anyway – I saw through the mesh window Sersant Vingers having a quiet word with the cop in charge. Probably something about fellows-in-uniform, our obvious innocence, how little we’d had to drink, how the blackguards had attacked us, look at their hairstyles and other good, if biased, points. The cop in charge nodded and approached the door of our van. As Vingers pointed out his men – we all looked the same in civilian clothes – the cop brusquely shouted ‘You, you and you! OUT!’ Thankfully Vingers included me among ‘his’ men. Any friend of Tuffy’s was a friend of Vingers’.
Once Vingers had counted his men he trooped us back into the club with a grin for a victory drink, with lots of congratulatory slaps raining down on his back. ‘Justice’ had been served.
When I got back to Harrismith in December 1973, we were moving house. The ole man had sold the old house . .
. . and built a new one in Piet Uys street uptown.
I filled the blue kombi with stuff – small furniture, paintings and odds – and drove it the kilometre or so down Stuart Street to Piet Uys street; then back, again and again. Load after load. I loved it, I had driven very little in the USA.
We had LOTS of stuff to go. Including Jock, the brindle staffie terrier.
Finally when I’d moved all the stuff I went for my drivers licence. Overdue. I had turned eighteen eight months prior. I drove myself there. After a short drive the traffic cop turned to me and said “You’ve driven before”. I said Um, Ja and he told me to turn round, go back and he signed on the dotted line.
As I was leaving he asked “Who drove you here?” Um, Me I said. He just grinned.
The new preacherman at the Christian Church of Apache Oklahoma, looked me up after he’d been in town a while and invited me over to his place. Turns out he was interested in becoming a mission-nary to Africa and wanted to meet one of the real-deal Africans he’d heard and read so much about. Maybe suss out just how much we needed saving?
A HUGE man, six feet and nine inches tall, Ron Elrick wore a string tie, a ‘ten gallon’ stetson and cowboy boots, making him damn near eight feet tall fully dressed as he stooped through doors and bent down to shake people’s hands. I met his tiny little wife who was seemingly half his height, and two lil daughters at their house, the church ‘manse’ or ‘vicarage’.
Ron was an ex-Canadian Mountie and a picture on his mantelpiece showed him towering over John Wayne, when Wayne was in Canada to film a movie.
Soon he invited me to join him on a men’s retreat to “God’s Forty Acres” in NE Oklahoma (the yanks are way ahead of Angus Buchan in this “get away from the wife, go camping on a farm, and when you get back tell her you’re the boss, the head of the house, the patriarch – the ‘prophet'” shit. I mean, this was 1973!). I had made it known from my arrival in Apache that I would join anybody and go anywhere to see the state and get out of school – I mean hey! I’d already DONE matric!
So we hopped into his muddy pink wagon with ‘wood’ panelling down the sides – it looked a bit like these in the pictures. We roared off from Caddo county heading north-east, bypassing Oklahoma City and Tulsa to somewhere near Broken Arrow or Cherokee county – towards the Arkansas border, anyway. Me n Ron driving along with the wind in our hair like Thelma and Louise.
Non-stop monologue on the way. He didn’t need any answers, I just had to nod him yes and he could talk non-stop for hours on end. At the retreat there were hundreds of men and boys just like him, no women. Unless you count them in the background who made and served the food. The men were all fired up for the Lawrd, bellowing the Retreat Song at the drop of a hat:
♫“In Gahd’s Fordy Yacres . . !!”♫
We musta sang it 400 times in that weekend. If I was God I’d have done some smiting.
We left at last and headed back, wafting along like on a mattress in that long slap wagon, when Ron suddenly needed an answer: Had I ever seen a porno movie? WHAT? I hadn’t? Amazing! Well, jeez, I mean goodness, he felt it as sort of like a DUTY to enlighten me and reveal to me just how evil and degraded these movies could be. So we detoured into Tulsa. Maybe he regarded it as practice for the mission-nary work he was wanting to do among us Africans?
We sat through a skin flick in a seedy movie house. It was the most skin ‘n pubic hair ‘n pelvis ‘n pulsating organs this eighteen year old boykie from the Vrystaat had seen to date so it was, after all, educational. Thin plot, though.
I suppose you could say I got saved and damned all on one weekend.
Ron did get to Africa as a mission-nary. He was posted to Jo-hannesburg. Lotsa ‘sinners’ in Jo-hannesburg, I suppose. I’m just not sure they need ‘saving’ by a Canadian Mountie.
Miss Underwood taught Mom Mary to play the piano and taught her very well; she then also taught big sister Barbara to play and taught her quite well, too; in my imagination this set off the following family discussion:
Let’s send little Kosie to her as well! He’s such a delicate little chap. If he also does well Sheila will want to follow and then we’ll have four musicians and we can start a band, maybe name it after some insects and become RICH!
Don’t laugh. This was ca.1959 and John, Paul and George were still The Quarrymen. Ringo hadn’t even joined them. There was a gap in the market.
I was dispatched to her house in Stuart street and suffered some torture of the ‘put this finger here and that one there’ kind; and then worse: ‘Take this home and practice it.’ One lesson, in my rugby kit, then I escaped and ran home, never to return.
When the next lesson time came around Barbara called me to the black bakelite phone in the long passage at 95 Stuart street. “It’s Miss Underwood!”
Yes Miss Underwood; Yes Miss Underwood; Yes Miss Underwood
I arrived back in town for the weekend from JHB – 1976 or 1977 – in my shiny new grey and grey 1965 Opel Rekord I’d got from Mom and Dad for my 21st.
Saturday morning I phoned Tabbo. What’s happening in the City of Sin and Laughter? The usual. Nothing. Come on out to the farm. Gailian.
I roared out of Piet Uys street into Stuart street, up Bester street into Warden street on a sunny Saturday morning, heading west with the sun behind me. I pass Annie’s Caltex garage, I pass Stewart Bain’s Town Hall, I pass the beautiful Badenhorst gebou on my left (it’s on the right in the picture). One of our metropolis’ three traffic lights is green so I proceed. I notice a fellow on my left who seems a bit under the weather. He walks forward as if to cross against the red. I move out wide but he then stumbles into a run and I hit the brakes but I also hit him! Shit! I’ve hit a pedestrian! Right in front of the Methodist Church nogal!
I’ve screeched to a halt, horrified, and I hop out. He’s lying about 5m in front of me in the middle of the oncoming lane. His hat is on my bonnet, his carton of sorgum beer is 2m in front of the bonnet, his shoes are 5m past where he’s lying!
Before I can even think where to phone from, Joseph Bronn is there. He saw the whole thing and has already phoned the cops and an ambulance, thank goodness. They’re there in no time and the fellow is taken off to hospital. The cops take names and statements and let us go.
From Gailian I phoned the hospital. Already they know who he is and where he works – on a farm, he’s in town shopping but it seems he decided to do a bit of celebrating too. He seems fine but he’s very drunk so they’re keeping him overnight for observation. The next morning I phone again – he has left already. Don’t worry, he was OK.
Phew! That slow-motion tableau will never be erased. I can see him looking up at me at the last second and hear the thump even today. The car: A small smooth dent in the bonnet, which I never repaired. It would get other dents in time.