I was born up Shit Creek without a paddle. Quite literally. OK, my actual birth, per se, was in Duggie Dugmore’s maternity home, less than half a kilometer away on Kings Hill, but mere days after I was born – as soon as I could be wrapped in swaddling clothes – I was taken home to my manger on a plot on the banks of Shit Creek in the shadow of Platberg mountain. And it was twelve years or so before I owned my first paddle. So this is a true story.
I paddled my own canoe about twelve years later after we lost the plot. OK, sold the plot, moved into town and bought a red and blue canoe with paddle. The first place we paddled it was in a little inlet off the Wilge river above the Sunnymede weir, some distance upstream of town. Right here:
Before this, I had paddled a home-made canoe made of a folded corrugated zinc roofing sheet, the ends nailed onto a four-by-four and sealed with pitch. Made by good school friend Gerie Hansen and his younger boet Nikolai – or maybe his older boet Hein; or by their carpenter father Jes? We paddled it, wobbling unsteadily, on their tiny little pond in the deep shade of wattle trees above their house up against the northern cliff of Kings Hill.
Good school friend Piet Steyl wrote of the wonderful days he also spent in the company of Gerie Hansen – who died tragically early. He told of fun days spent paddling that zinc canoe, gooi’ing kleilat, shooting the windbuks and smoking tea leaves next to that same little pond. We both remembered Gerie winning a caption contest in Scope magazine and getting reprimanded for suggesting Japanese quality wasn’t good. Irony was, the Hansens actually owned one of the first Japanese bakkies seen in town – a little HINO.
Gerie used to say ‘He No Go So Good’, and Piet says when it finally gave up the ghost he said, ‘He No Go No More’!!
Shit Creek – actually the Kak Spruit; a tributary of the Wilge River which originates on Platberg mountain, flows down, past our old plot and westward through the golf course on the northern edge of town, then turns south and flows into the Wilge below the old park weir; Sensitive Harrismith people refer to it as ‘die spruit met die naam;’
die spruit met die naam – ‘the creek with the name’ – too coy! It’s Die Kakspruit; always will be. Shit Creek.
gooi’ing kleilat – lethal weapon; a lump of clay on the end of a whippy stick or lath; spoken about way more than practiced, in my experience; Here’s a kid loading one:
We went to a dance in Red River. Beer. Music. I danced with a tiny little girl. I was smitten, she was a gorgeous freestyle hippy, having fun and dancing with gay abandon. How old ARE you? she asked when I told her I was repeating matric for the third time. Well, she had asked what I was doing and I’d said Senior in High School. Again.
Eighteen, I said.
I don’t believe it, she said.
And you? I asked – I was suddenly getting good at this wooing stuff. Makin’ small talk, I was.
Twenty seven, she said. What? No way! I do not believe that, says me.
She whipped out her drivers licence: 1946. She was 27. I didn’t even know you got people that old.
I was still smitten.
Come round to our place in Arroyo Hondo tomorrow, she invited. It’s an adobe house right on the road to Taos, you can’t miss it, she invited.
We were there like a shot the next day! Me and Jeff in his blue Willys Jeep. Talk about me being young: Jeff was fourteen. We’d only got back to Granma’s cottage in the wee hours, so it was after midday that summer day when we found the house that looked about as my new focus of fascination had described it.
Sitting on the mud wall of the porch watching the daily non-stop broadcast of the Nixon Watergate hearings on a small black and white TV was a fella with long hair and a scraggly beard, with a fag hanging from his lips. He was filing away at a flywheel. We learnt a few minutes later that it was a Chevy flywheel and he needed it for his old Ford. Or a Ford flywheel and he needed it for his old Chevy. It was too big, so he was filing away one tooth at a time. When it fitted he was going to move on.
But first we said Hi! Is ___ (I really should remember her name for a love story like this, should I not!?) around?
‘Ah, she went thataway about eleven this mornin,’ he said, flicking his head over his shoulder indicating the road South to Taos. ‘Said she wanted to catch a concert in Cali.’
California!? Where . . ?
‘Some rock concert.’
How . . ?
‘She threw her thumb out and somebody gave her a ride.’
Heartbroken, we drifted back to Red River. Took me ages to recover. About as long as the romance had lasted. Hours.
But hey! it’s 47yrs later and I can still remember how she felt and smelt dancing, and what the top of her head looked like, so there was true love involved too.
The ole man gave me a knife quite recently. Well, in the last ten or fifteen years or so. He told a story in a rare letter to his darling son, written on the back of a Maxprop invoice and folded into the special PUMA green and yellow case:
Let me tell you about this knife, he writes. I first saw it in Rosenthals, a big safari shop in Windhoek more than 30 years ago. This on one of his family holidays he took in the family car. Without the family.
When friends of ours, the Maeders, went to Germany on holiday, he asked them to get the knife for him in Austria, where it is made, by one man, whose name appears in the brochure – a small 50-page brochure that comes with each knife.
The letter continues: Anyway, the knife arrives by post in Harrismith. Uproar!! Urgent meeting: Me, the police and the postmaster – in his office. I had imported a dangerous weapon – the blade was more than 4″ long – illegal!
The postmaster unlocks his safe in the presence of all concerned, removes the knife, makes a tracing of the blade. This is to be sent to the SA Police in Pretoria. Meantime, the dangerous weapon goes back into the safe.
I told them not to be bloody silly; I could walk over to the OK Bazaars right now and buy a butchers knife with a 12″ blade!
After all the dust had settled and all charges paid, the knife cost me R64.00
The ‘over the counter’ price at Rosenthals in Windhoek – which he refused to pay, knowing he could save money by ‘getting it direct’ – had been R63.00!
And I’m always trying to get a better price, to save money! Love Dad
As a kid way back in the sixties, I took over my Dad’s much bigger dagger; also with a bone handle. One day the duP’s came to visit and Pierre and I were playing with it, stabbing it into the hard Vrystaat ground on our side lawn on the aviary side of the house, seeing how deeply we could bury the blade. I plunged it down with all my might, not seeing Pierre was still tamping down the ground and lawn from his attempt! I just about cut his finger off! Typically, stoic Pierre said Shh! and kept it quiet, going straight off to show his Ma Joan, who cleaned and bandaged it!
Once chosen as a Rotary Exchange Student in 1972, I had to get to Durban to get my passport done and – I think – some other paperwork; My big mate Leon Fluffy Crawley hitch-hiked down with me. On the way down – or on the way back – we called in at big sister Barbara where she was staying in the Pietermaritzburg YWCA. We met her friend Lyn there.
That’s about all I remember! Luckily, Fluffy remembers it too!
Other hitch hiking at school was to Witsieshoek with Claudio and Carlos.
The picture is the group of Rotary exchange students chosen in 1972 for 1973. It may have been taken at the airport, about to leave. If so, it was students from all over South Africa, leaving for all over the world. Kneeling next to me is the guy who went jolling with me in New York; Seated next to him is Eve Woodhouse from Durban, who ended up in a village Fort Cobb near mine – Apache – in Oklahoma; Right behind me is Lynn Wade from Vryheid.
A lovely post on Women in Ornithology by ornithology historian Bob Montgomerie led me to thinking about Women in – well, My Working Life.
First there was Mom. Mary Methodist. In the Platberg Bottle Store. And Annemarie Maeder, also in the bottle store with Mom. Mom ran the shop, ran the home, played the church organ, was a member of the church Women’s Auxiliary and the MOTHs MOTHWAs. Always involved and ready to help. Annemarie, too, ran her home with husband and three kids.
In the background, too, was our ‘panel of Moms’ – Moms of all your friends. Prominent ones were Jean Coleman, Joan du Plessis, Joyce Joubert, Polly Crawley, Harriet vdMerwe, Emma Morton and others.
Next were women in Apache Oklahoma – all working, all capable: Carol Crews, Joyce Swanda, Katie Patterson, Jackie Lehnertz, Virginia Darnell, Odie Mindemann, Pug Hrbacek, Janie Payne, Peggy Manar . .
When I started my first own practice in 1981 up on the seventh floor of Eagle Building in Murchies Passage between Smith and West Streets in Durban, there was Merle Oosthuizen. I walked in as owner and boss and was lucky enough to have Merle recommended to me as a ‘receptionist.’ Well, ‘receptionist’ indeed. Where’s the appointment book? she asked. Appointment book? I said. The receipt book? Receipt book? She soon twigged my capabilities and knowledge and quietly took over, becoming the Practice Manager and the Me Manager.
Where are you staying? she asked the first day, when she learned I’d just come out of the army. Oh, in a residential hotel, I said. She nodded, satisfied. Some weeks later I breezily told her I’d rented a flat. Do you have a bed? A bed? Bedclothes? Bedclothes? Um . .
Of course she could spot easily how this child masquerading as a man hadn’t a clue. She bought all the above and more for me; and she had all the stuff you need to live a bachelor existence delivered to the flat by the bed and furniture sales people. My first duvet, a kettle, a toaster. Even a fridge.
She was so organised I could say casually to anyone who asked: ‘Oh, I have it all under control. No worries,’ as she organised my practice and my life.
She ruined me. Ever since then I have had capable practice managers run my practice and my life – and I have consequently learnt very little myself. I simply do as I’m told. Later on, twenty six years with Aitch just re-inforced that pattern at home, too.
My usual response to their pointed suggestions along the lines of roer jou gat is, ‘Um, Yes of course, I was just about to do that . . ‘
Des is a mensch. He’s a gentleman and he has good intentions.
He’s in a serious marriage and under strict starter’s orders. The thing is Des has a bit of a dodgy handbrake. Even when pulled up tight it can occasionally slip and he can lurch forward a few steps and then all hell can break loose and you don’t know if he’ll be able to stop.
So Hector Fyvie being a legend and him being a nephew, Des got written permission to go to Uncle Hec’s funeral and straight back. Promise.
It was a lovely funeral and lots of people were there celebrating the life of a very special man. Now it was time to go home, and Des was definitely going to leave as he had clearly undertaken to do. Honour bright. And he would have . .
But there were Vennings and Fyvies and Leslies and other people there and a strong case was put forward for Des to stay for the wake. The after-gathering was naturally well-catered with sustenance and libations – Aunt Stella, Gail, Ian, Skig and Tabbo always do things right. Still, Des refused to relax and partake, which made the exhortations stronger. With friends like this . . .
He raised himself up, closed his eyes and tilted his chin up in that way he does and made a small speech, one of many we have heard from Des:
“You guys”, he said. “Jy weet: Een is genoeg, Twee is te veel and Drie is te min”and he agreed to have Just One. Just. The. One.
So we knew he was staying for the duration.
Een is genoeg, Twee is te veel and Drie is te min – “One martini is all right. Two are too many, and Three are not enough” – James Thurber
So there we were ensconced on a farm outside Potchefstroom among raw rockspider seventeen year-olds, fresh out of high school from all over South Africa. We heard it had been a reform school for delinquents before we got there and turned it into a military camp. A SAMS base – South African Medical Services. “Loopspruit” or “Klipdrif” they called it. We’d been sent there for “army basics”. We were around twenty four, having delayed the joys of military life by studying to become optometrists. In hindsight, maybe we shoulda done the army first!? Time would tell . .
Our barracks was an old science lab. It still had the thick wooden workbench tops, the thick ceramic washbasins with fancy taps and the bunsen burner attachments. And best of all – vinyl tile floors! That flooring was to become our biggest asset . .
One young dutchman was big as an ox, quiet as a mouse. He sat listening to us twenty four year-old oumanne praating Engels in fascination. In many pockets of the old South Africa you could grow up hearing very little Engels.
Suddenly one day our man became famous! He burst into song, singing three lines: ‘Are you lonesome tonight? Are your brastrap too tight? That’s why you’re lonesome tonight!‘
He sounded unlike Elvis:
We hosed ourselves and gave him a new name: Jelly Tots. He didn’t really like it, but his name was Lotzoff, and we would see him and say ‘Lots and Lotzoff – JELLY TOTS!’ He learnt new words from us – and taught us a new phrase too: When frustrated he didn’t say “fuck’s sake”, he said “fuck’s fakes” so that became our phrase too.
Another character was as small as Lotzoff was big. He looked twelve years old and was a compact, muscular, good looking, perky, cute little bugger. He had a smattering of Engels and preferred to use it. Some of the others refused to even try – Stoere Boere. His name? GT Jones! Pointless giving someone with so apt and memorable a name a nickname. GT Jones!
We were in the medics and we had to know all about ambulances. GT Jones called them ‘ambuminces.’And so was born a new name for one of the meals in the mess. On ground beef days we would refer to the stuff plopped onto our plates by the bored chefs as ambumince – which led in turn, naturally, to gruesome speculation on its origin!
Among the older, optometrist inmates: Graham Lewis – A companion worth his weight in gold. Never fazed, always cheerful. Keenly aware of the hilarity of this fake existence we were leading. He’d been assigned to D Company. We were in A or C Company and we were chuffed when he got transferred to our (better, natch) company. We were good company and so was he! D Company’s barracks was one of the old residences. Wooden floors. A nightmare to clean. They would regularly get bollocksed for dirty floors after hours of scrubbing them, while we got praise for our vinyl floors after all we had done was sweep them. Typical army illogical unfairness. They would lose weekend passes and we would win bonus weekend passes based on the luck of the floors we’d been allocated! Once while we were away on a weekend pass . . .
Basics was, uh, basic. Get up in the morning, bugger around with your clothes and other domestic stuff like making your bed; Assemble in straight stripes; March; March; Trudge; Omkeer! Eat; March; March; Trudge; MakeeriePAS! Holy shit . . .
Dave Cooper was another worth his weight in gold. Always smiling, always upbeat.
Les Chrich, Les Davies, Les Miller, Okkie Oosthuizen, Rod Stedall, who else?
Loopspruit – walking creek; running stream;
Klipdrif – stony shallow river crossing or drift;
oumanne praating Engels – old men (24yrs) speaking English
– still to come –
guard duty – grootjas, cold; threats if caught not looking sharp on duty; one flyswatter gets DB – the dreaded Detention Barracks
Puma helicopter demo / race / stretchers – we win!
Harrismith History – Free State Fables – Rural Legends . . well told.
Harrismith has had a few published authors over the 171 years of the town’s existence. One day I’ll make a list. The best by far is Leon Strachan – imho of course! I have four of his books and am searching locally for the others.
In 1999 Leon wrote Blafboom, tales of Harrismith characters bravely told even when some may not have wanted them told! Admittedly some are told anonymously, but those in the know would know exactly who he was writing about . . and shudder. Some, I must confess, left me in the dark, but with a burning curiosity: One day I’d love to ply him with whisky – he drinks scotch, as like me, he has Scottish ancestry – and get him to tell me who the culprits, the instigators and the victims were! Known characters include ‘the man who swapped his wife for a bicycle;’ Petronella van Heerden, pioneer, leader, doctor and farmer; Caveman Spies, famous local mischievous strongman; He also tells the story of some Byrne settlers who moved to Harrismith from Natal – a step up.
Blinkoog followed in 2002. My mother Mary Bland grew up on Nuwejaarsvlei on the Nuwejaarspruit. Their neighbours were Badenhorsts on Stratherick, and Odendaals on Sterkfontein and Eskol. She told the story of how freewheeling downhill was known as ‘using Casper’s petrol’ – ‘ons ry nou op Casper se petrol’ she would say, smiling. He was known as Suinige Casper (Frugal Casper Badenhorst would be one way of explaining his nickname). Today the beautiful and precious wetlands and streams and valleys of Nuwejaarsvlei and neighbours are irreplaceably lost, drowned under Sterkfontein dam. Sacrificed to feed the industrial monster of Gauteng / iGoli / Joburg. Dead water waiting to be flushed downstream and then flushed down a toilet, where before an amazing ecosystem existed. You’ll notice I love wetlands . .
Botterbek in 2004 – I’d love to know the true identity (identities?) of ‘Botterbek,’ Leon’s narrator! More whisky! Characters who feature here include the very well known Kethlaan Odendaal, Jan Schambreel and jackal hunter Frans Olivier. Jurie Wessels’ remarkable ‘Harrismith Harem‘ is featured and explained in Strachan’s characteristic way: he seeks to understand the people involved; and while he will tell you the scandal and the rumours, he won’t simply leave accusations hanging without investigating them. And so it turns out the impressive building was really meant to be the most impressive home in the district for his wife. And it would have been had the 1914 rebellion not intervened . .
Bergburgers: his fourth book published in 2017 tells of Platberg, the beloved mountain that looms over the town and is visible for miles around; the book’s title alludes to the fact that the citizens of the town – past and present – all consider Platberg ‘theirs.’ The annual foot race up and down the mountain, started by an insult and a challenge; the geology of the mountain and how it formed over the millennia; Leon corrects the injustice done to the families living in the Lost Valley by telling their real story – a fascinating tale of quietly capable people living their own lives, yet interacting regularly with neighbours and townsfolk, not at all totally isolated; old Professor Bloch the violin teacher who lived down the road from us in Stuart street; old archeological and fossil findings by Arthur Putterill – one of them maybe the same as the one Donald found? and two boats built in our district, far from the coast, that sailed the high seas – one in 1886 to England and one in 1986 to the Caribbean;
Some of his stories are in the fine English he was taught by Mrs Ella Bedford, mother of Springbok rugby captain Tommy Bedford, but for most of them you have to be able to read Afrikaans.
I know of three heftier tomes he has written:
Leon’s Grandad’s Story
Probably all in suiwer Engels, Son of England, Man of Africa (2009) is the story of a Harrismithian who led the South African chapter of The Sons of England – Leon Strachan’s grandfather Charles Davie. Leon tells the little-known inside story of a secretive organisation for the first time. He then takes a look at other similar societies which took a leaf out of the SOE book. The SOE’s aim of uniting men who were loyal to England and wanted to remain ‘English,’ – sometimes more ‘English’ than their fellow countrymen ‘back home!’ – was based on the Freemasons; SOE was more influenced by the ‘correct’ political and religious powers of the day; plus they were more into charity work. The Afrikaner Broederbond, the Hebrew Order of David and the Caledonians based their organisations to some extent on the principles of the SOE. Ah, well, nothing exceeds like success . . and there was a time when little ‘England’ was the centre of the known Universe. Leon and I both had grandparents who lived secure in that knowledge!
Then Matters Military:
Krygers en Skietpiete (2011): The 150 year history of the Harrismith Kommando, excluding the Boer War, which tale is told in his next volume. From Thabo Bosigo, through the ‘skietpiet’ period; to duty on South Africa’s borders; to deployment against fellow-citizens (though this was denied – ‘they’ were not citizens of South Africa, remember?!) in South Africa’s ‘townships’ – towns in which indigenous African people had to live by law. Leaders and interesting characters; the influence of political developments; incidents, good and bad.
Krygers en Guerrillas (2015). Experience the Anglo-Boer War as it was experienced by people in the Harrismith district, daily as the war unfolded; sometimes far and away and only read about, sometimes in their midst. See why the defenders, invaded by a foreign power, called it the Tweede Vryheids Oorlog – they were fighting for their freedom. Good tales and shocking deeds, including war crimes; the whole war time is unfolded from beginning to end. Comprehensive, the data includes names, casualties, Boer deaths, Brit deaths, prisoners, concentration camp deaths; ‘hensoppers,’ Boers who surrendered; ‘joiners,’ Boers who joined the British invaders; and ‘verraaiers’ who were outright treacherous. Boer Jews and Boer Irishmen and men of other nations who joined the Boers to help them against the invasion by the world’s biggest war machine, deployed by the world’s biggest looting and plundering machine. The war is presented from a local ‘on the ground’ perspective as well as a wide-angle perspective, showing how national and international decisions affected the people doing the actual fighting, suffering and dying.
A keen horseman, Leon leads an annual ride down into and through the Lost Valley every year.
I was born in Harrismith in 1955, as was Mom Mary in 1928, and her Mom Annie in 1893. Annie thought “the queen” of that little island above and left of France was also the queen of South Africa (and for much of her life she was right!).
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 between it was Voortrekkerhoogte) in 1979 and in Durban (Hotel Command and Addington Hospital) in 1980.
I stayed in Durban, paddled a few rivers, and then got married in 1988. About then this blog’s era ends and my Life With Aitch started. Post-marriage tales and child-rearing catastrophes are told in Bewilderbeast Droppings.
‘Strue!! – These random, un-chronological and 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. Add your memories – and corrections – and corrections of corrections! – in the comments if you were there.
Note: I go back to my posts to add / amend as I remember things and as people mention things, so the posts evolve. I know (and respect) that some bloggers don’t change once they’ve posted, or add a clear note when they do. That’s good, but as this is a personal blog with the aim of one day editing them all into a hazy memoir, this way works for me. So go’n re-look at some posts you’ve enjoyed before and see how I’ve improved over time (!). It’s just as my friend Greg says: ‘The older we get, the better we were.’
The Class of ’77 had a wee gathering at Zena’s place in Feb 2020. The lies we told!! ‘You’re looking younger’n evah DAHling!’ Yeah, right!
Actually, none of that. A lot of truth was spoken. Which led to a lot of laughter.
Zena laid on a wonderful spread and we sat around a colourful table on her Sandton patio.
Schoeman smuggled in some gin n meths in an expensive bottle; Zena provided wine and buckets she said were gin glasses – old soaks have all sorts of tricks! Brauer provided beer; I just drank.
The afternoon whizzed past and all too soon we had to shuffle off to take our other meds.
We should do this every forty three years.
Is a gathering of presbyopes a parliament of presbyopes? I think we were more a chuckle of presbyopes. While searching I did find these: an unhappiness of husbands . . a tedium of golfers . . and – not being one – I made up a yawn of grandparents.
PS: Soon after this came lockdown and our little group of six turned into a wonderfully convivial whatsapp cartel, sharing advice, support and look sharp! in equal measure.
The Origin Story:
From: Pete S Sent: Wednesday, 20 November 2019 To: Zena Jacobson; Subject: Jacqui
I think that’s Jacqui’s correct surname. She was ___ way back in Harrismith in 1972!! She’s having what sounds like an adaptation problem with new multifocals. Thanks so much for agreeing to check her over. Cheers – Pete
PS: I will definitely commit to making a trip behind the boerewors curtain. I have abandoned the kids a couple of times this year and the house didn’t burn down, so I think I must keep on doing it more and more.
Zena: Can’t think of anything nicer than an afternoon with old friends. They are so few and far between these days.
Pete S: Thanks again. Brauer thinks a get-together is “a good eye dear”
On Thursday 21 November 2019, Zena Jacobson wrote: Great. Tell me when you want to cross the boerewors curtain and I will arrange a get together.
Pete S: In the new year. We need to get Terry into the loop. She’s Brauer’s memory glands.
Zena Jacobson wrote: Yes. I’ll set up a WhatsApp group for us, and we can chat together.
Pete S: Excellent. Brauer can sponsor the event. He must be flush with cash as he has just revamped his practice with bells and whistles and open windows, no vertical blinds.
And lo! It came to pass.
How fortuitous, as we formed a lovely support group through lockdown.
As a check on my powers of prediction: My house did not burn down, but you will remember I was distracted for a while in Zena’s garden on an over-long phone call: Jessie had fallen down after trying to drink as much alcohol as her more experienced friend. Did she inherit my genes or summing, dammit?!
Terry saved the situation with a sensible suggestion later that night when we were back in the gramadoelas: Send her to hospital.
Alcohol poisoning. They put her on a drip.
* sigh * If only she’d inherited my fine singing voice instead.