Donald Coleman was my good mate and older mentor and side-kick in Harrismith up to around 1964. He died in a car crash, alone in the car, around 1975. I have no detail of what exactly happened.
In around 2011 or 2012 I found a letter on the floor of my garage at 10 Elston Place.
It was from “your mate Donald” and consisted of one page. Probably page 2 of a 2-page letter, plus a scrap of envelope addressed to: poel rrismith e Free State
A franked 2½c stamp in good condition is still on the scrap of envelope, but the date part of the franking was missing.
I was gobsmacked! HOW did it get here? I have lived a year in Harrismith after it was written, a year in America, four years in Jo’burg, a year in Potchefstroom, years ‘in the wild’ in Durban as a bachelor, then my first own home for fifteen years and NOW, after being in my second home for six years, a letter falls out onto my very untidy garage floor!
I’d love to know how it happened! I suspected it fell out of the old Cape Colony post office stinkwood desk Dad gave me, as I had moved it to give it back to him before it fell to pieces.
The letter, in neat, flowing cursive writing in blue ink, said (I have copied the line breaks as they were on his page):
This is slightly exaggerated but between points
0 and 1 it is 50 miles and between 1 and 2 it is 13 miles and between
3 and 4 it is 14 miles. Even if you go at 10 m.p.h all the
way you will make it in a day. Well don’t take
too much equipment etc because you’ll shit yourselves
coming. Don’t forget to take hats and plenty of patching
equipment. If something goes wrong and you reach
Bergville or Winterton after dark just ‘phone us our
number is Winterton 2412. Well I hope I’ve got everything down here, any-
way I still hope to run the Mountain Race
with you. I’m going to try harder this year. It’s a pity I won’t be seeing you fellows
because I’ve got some jokes to tell you. From your mate Donald
Not a single correction or spelling mistake (oh, one tiny one changing your to you).
So it seems he had sent a map as well as the (presumed) 1st page of the letter. Obviously we were planning to ride our bikes to Winterton!
I gave the page and the half-envelope to Donald’s mother Jean.
I must ask Dad about the old stinkwood desk. Was it a Harrismith find? From when? That could explain how the letter got in there, I spose. A sudden suspicion: Did my folks open it and not pass it on!? Very unlikely.
UPDATE: I searched the old desk again and found the rest of the envelope! It was franked on 30 March 1971. I was in Std 9, and Donald would have completed his time at Estcourt High School.
I asked the old man. He said he had bought the desk at Cannon and Finlay auctioneers in PMB some time well AFTER 1971. So I suppose the letter was put into a ‘new’ desk. Which raises the unlikely ‘they knew about it but chose not to tell me’ possibility again.
So the mystery remains. Well, I am SO glad I found it anyway. And glad I could share it with Donald’s family.
UPDATE 11 July 2020 – Another find! I found ANOTHER 3-page letter from Donald while clearing out old boxes in the garage, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages!
I was gobsmacked. If you’d asked me if I’d ever received a letter from Donald I would said No, I very much doubt it. Here it is:
I immediately started writing to his little boet Eddie, now in Japan, and while writing it the penny dropped: These three pages are from the same letter. This map is the map he refers to in that “one pager” I found eight or nine years ago.
Now I can rest content! I found a treasured memory from my past from a friend who was really really big in my life for the first nine years of my life and I’m glad to find out we kept in touch later on.
If I had ever got their farm, which Donald christened The Craggs, this would have been the view:
Here’s older boet Donald with sister Anne and lil boet Eddie back when they were in Harrismith; and a pic of four of us in Harrismith:
14 July 2020 – And now another letter DOES pop up: Dated 29 November no year, and the envelope franked 30 November 197_ (probly also 1971 – he gives his address as Eastside Hostel again, but says he’ll be going home soon).
Here he says he hasn’t done any running ‘since the mountain race’ – so that means he came to do the mtn race in 1971? I can’t remember that.
Sometimes Umzinto would get kinda desperate, and after casting around far and wide would eventually consult telephonically: ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Fraid so. ‘OK, well then if there really is no-one else, ask your mate Swanepoel.’
So Glen Barker would say ‘Pete, can you play for us again this Sunday?’ And I’d always say Sure thing! cos . . LUNCH! The ladies of Umzinto and district and the staff of the Umzinto country club knew how to make lunch, and for a bachelor with buggerall to do that Sunday anyway, whattapleasure.
So I’d borrow white trousers, wear a white work shirt and drive south down the notorious South Coast, full of rokers, weed smokers, fishermen, retired Vaalies and dodgy farmers; and do sterling service for the 100yr-old august olde Umzinto Cricket Club. The usual: I’d get a duck in the morning, drop a few catches in the afternoon and enjoy a very good lunch with a few beers in-between. It was Win-Win-Win all round. Everybody was a winner: Me, the Umzinto team, and the opposition.
Dad’s car is missing. Old lady can see where he parks it – right in front of her sunning and exercise stoep of the frailcare section. And it isn’t there. Uh Oh! She’s worried. Later she finds out. ‘Oh, I went shopping. Don’t worry, I got permission from Sister Rose!’
And then again: This time, ‘Oh, my microwave packed up; Johan said he had an old one lying around that I could have, so I drove over to his place and fetched it.’
He’s about halfway through his current five-year validity period. He’s legal till he’s one hundred years and five months old.
Sheila has a lovely Mary Methodist anecdote from around 2012. Mary was about 84yrs old back then:
Her granddaughter Linda was telling her a story about a friend who had all his precious work stored on his laptop computer – ledgers, spreadsheets, emails, the lot. His work and his ‘whole life.’
Like so many people, he had no backup – none, anywhere.
Aware of the potential dangers, he was very conscious about the possibility of having it stolen, so when he had to go out one day, sans laptop, he hid it in the oven.
Well, you guessed it, his poor very embarrassed partner – unknowingly – had done the humdrum – pre-heat the oven to 220ºC – and the unthinkable. The precious laptop was melted, warped, done to a crisp.
– “Oh no!” interjects Mary ”He had cooked the books!” –
June 2020 Sheila reports: Today Mum has so many jerseys on that Sister Rose asked if she was going to the North Pole.
For her crossword Mom asked what Mexico’s biggest volcano was. I looked it up while we were chatting – Popocatepetl. I’ve never heard of it – but Mum knew / remembered it! She had asked a friend who was going to her cottage to look it up on her computer – but now, when this friend comes back with the answer – Mum will know it already – she liked that!
Mom Mary Swanepoel made costumes for a fancy dress event in the Harrismith town hall ca.1959. We were living on a plot Birdhaven in the shadow of Platberg just a kilometre east of the edge of town on the forestry road.
Some thirty years later, big sister Barbara in the middle on the left, made costumes for her kids Linda and Robbie in a re-enactment ca.1986. They were living on a farm Shukela Estates outside Greytown.
At the time our Oupa was visiting us from Pietermaritzburg. Paul Fouche Swanepoel, grandpa of Peter Frank – me.
Now we await Linda’s move – I’ll bet she’ll repeat the re-enactment with her two, Mary-Kate and Dawie VII – they’ll be third generation ‘gypsies.’
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.
This is a rambling post cos it started with an email thread that began with gardens and then moved on to sport – swimming and athletics, and lots of old school pals’ names. The gardens were Mariette van Wyk Greyling’s Cape garden with a pin-tailed whydah at her garden feeder; and mine with KwaZulu Natal meadows rather then lawns.
Subject: Sundry garden pictures – Here’s one showing the bit of lawn and the more of meadow. Plus your pintail added in.
Mariette wrote: Green with envy. My type of garden. You have a stunning pool. And you don’t even swim!
Swim? So The Talk Turned To Sport – and Injury!
Me: I swim like a corobrik. In the warmest weather I dive in, swim to the far end, halfway back, and walk up the steps. Swimming training over. At all times I am able to touch the bottom.
Pierre, Tuffy, Sheila, Ilse, Lulu (and maybe you?) used to go to Mazelspoort outside Bloemfontein for the big Free State gala. Me I was still swimming breadths, not lengths and even then in the shallow end! That’s why I took up canoeing: When there’s water about, I need a boat.
Mariette: Yip I went to Mazels. Second team though. The others were all in the elite team. I always aspired to follow in Sheila’s footsteps. Didn’t get there.
Well, now I’m in hospital – probably for the next week. Shattered my ankle walking the dog. Just want to get out. Gave me the wrong meds last night. My drip came undone and spilled over the bed. The op is only on Friday – provided the horrendous swelling is down.
Me: I just re-read: What? “Op on Friday”!? Ouch! Hope all goes well. As a dedicated coward I will cross fingers and hope you’re well and that I never land up there. Note to self: Walk slower. Especially near bridges or mud.
“Aspired” – that’s so good. I can’t think I ever aspired to anything. It’s so weird. I have always suffered from complete complacent contentment. Weird. A non-planner. At the atletiekdag in Std nine I won something and De Wet Ras came up to me and said “Hey jy! Jy moet ophou wen. Ek wil die beste seunsatleet wen hierdie jaar!”, digging me in the ribs. We laughed and I thought, ‘He’s actually aiming to win it!’ That struck me as unusual. I didn’t think you set out to win things. You just went your hardest and it just either happened or it didn’t. Ridiculous in retrospect. I had won it the year before ‘out of the blue,’ that’s why De Wet was saying ‘hold back!’ And he did, in fact, win it that Std 9 year – 1971.
Mariette: That’s quite something beating De Wet at something sport-related. What was it? Think hard!! Strange that you weren’t competitive. You were good at a few things. Mind you, I wasn’t competitive in sport either. Academically yes. Just wanted to do my own thing sport-wise. But I did want to join Sheila and them in first team swimming. Not for competitive reasons. They simply were a fun crowd.
Even though I was in the first team tennis, there was never much FUN among us lot. Actually got bored with tennis. The car accident gave me a reason to stop without being seen as a drip. Team members I remember were De Wet, Fluffy, you, Scottie or was it Blikkies? Elsie, Ina, I think, me and Noeline? Can’t remember a single fun thing, even when we took bus trips to all those mal rock n rollin’ places. Ha ha. Maybe getting some free koeksisters 🙂
Me: I didn’t beat De Wet – he was an age group older. I just won something and he was kidding that I should stop winning as he was going for the victor ludorum (beste senior seunsatleet) that I had won the previous year in Std 8. Here’s old Ella Bedford handing me that beker that year – 1970. Ann Euthimiou took the picture. When the announcement was made it didn’t register with me. De Wet, sitting next to me, dug his elbow in my ribs: ‘Hey! Dis jy, jong!’ That’s when I mosey’d down for my Ella Fitz-Bedford handshake.
In the inter-regional athletics byeenkoms that year – 1970 – in Senekal we had a blast.
So DeWet won it in 1971. The next year – 1972, our matric – things were different: I just couldn’t lose! I won the 100m, 200m, 400m, 3000m, long jump, high jump (edit: WRONG: Fluffy Crawley won the high jump – I see he also won the paalspring), the discus, the javelin, the U/17 4X100 relay and the U/19 relay. It was ridiculous. I felt like the wind was under my wings and I could always run faster, throw harder, jump further. An amazing feeling. I was really fit, fittest I have ever been. I’d been training to do the Dusi canoe marathon, but that didn’t happen till eleven years later. Sheila found the cutting from the Chronicle that Mom had sent to her mother Annie down in George.
But not quite ‘couldn’t lose’ – in the 800m I thought, ‘better take this one easy, lots of events still to go,’ so when Klein Uiltjie Earle ran off I let him go thinking Ek Sal Jou Vang but he just gaan’d aan and aan and I ended up coming third. Well done Klein Uiltjie! I think Stefan Ferreira came second (edit: WRONG: Stefan passed him; Uiltjie got second). Stefan also got second in high jump and he won the 1500m easily.
In the paalspring – pole vault – teacher Ben Marais said “Ons begin op 2m” and I said Nooit Meneer! Ek kon in die hoogspring net 1,56m spring, hoe gaan ek hoer spring met n paal in my hand? I had never paalspring’d in my life. So I ran at the 2m bar, ducked under it and gave up. Went and rested on the pawiljoen – and tended to blisters on my heels.
That year Gabba Coetzee broke the U/19 shot put record and I broke the U/17 100m record. Mine stood for over 20yrs and I think Gabba’s still stands! I used to see him in Harrismith from time to time and he’d always update me: ‘Die rekords staan nog steeds.’ Then one year he told me ‘Yours was beaten. A new boy came to town who ran like the wind.’ His was still standing.
Tennis – You’re right, that was definitely Scottie Meyer in tennis. I lost most of my singles matches, but Fluffy and I won a few doubles games. Years later I was sent to Addington hospital in Durban by the army and there was Petrie de Villiers from Warden who was a tennis foe and also a team mate when we went to Bloemfontein to play at the Vrystaat whatevers. I got knocked out in the first round by a Symington who went on to win, I think. Petrie would usually beat Fluffy and his twin brother Jossie would always beat me, but Fluffy and I would usually beat the broers in the doubles. Our tennis role models were Ray Moore and Frew MacMillan – especially Ray with his Afro frizz hairstyle. I drew his cartoon image everywhere, even on a white T-shirt!
Interesting times. We drove to Bloem in Bruce Humphries’ little brand-new white Ford Cortina. Dunno where we stayed. In a school koshuis, maybe.
Fluffy tells of another year we went to Bloem to play rugby against Sentraal or JBM Hertzog. Daan Smuts took us in his old VW. The night before the match he took us to a party. Beer! Late at night he dropped us off at an empty skool koshuis to spend the night. There were beds but no bedclothes. We lay shivering in our clothes on the mattresses. Daan was our kinda guy: Lotsa fun, zero organisation! Laid back. Rules = optional.
The swimmers were a fun crowd. They were probly – definitely – the coolest bunch at school over the years. And, of course, also the coldest in those Harrismith temperatures.
Mariette: Jis, you were hot in so many things. I knew you were good at all sorts of stuff, but forgot about your athletics achievements. At that stage athletics didn’t interest me much – probably because I wasn’t good at anything. Tried ‘em all: From shotput (whoever the teacher in charge was said to me ‘nee man, gaan sit op die bank’), ditto with discus and javelin, high jump (too short) and whatever else was going. Fourth or maybe it was fifth in the 100m at some stage was my big achievement. I just enjoyed shouting for the Kudus and listening to Jan van Wyk’s mal quips. Oh, and being a hot drum majorette J.
Ja, old Gabba. What a rock. And what a sad end.
I remember Petrie well. Quite smaaked him, but Elsie won his favour – I didn’t stand a chance. Saw him years later again at varsity – same mischievous face. Strange that the girls all fancied him so much and his twin brother never got a second glance.
Mom: When the Colemans arrived in Harrismith for Ken to start work in ‘the milk factory’ we met them right away as Dad was a great friend of Ken’s older brother Wally. Wally had been his tutor as an appy electrician in the Pietermaritzburg Post Office back in 1938. I recall visiting Uncle Wally as a kid once – I think in Howick?
Ken and Jean started building a new house on the corner of Hector street and Berg street, the road that led out of town to our plot less than a kilometre away. While the builders were at it, some leave time came up and Ken took the family away, prompting Dad to opine to Mom, ‘I would never go away while someone was building my house! I would watch their every move.’ Right.
Mom’s not sure, but thinks Donald was already born when they arrived in Harrismith. When Anne was born soon after me, Mary was chosen as her godmother as ‘Jean was a great friend even though she was Anglican.’ Mary Methodist speaking!
Then Eddie was born and we were like this:
In 2015 Sheila wrote: Mum says when we still lived on the ‘townlands’ on the way to the waterworks, Jean would often ‘phone and say ‘Have you got a little visitor?’– once again her son Donald had gone missing and she knew exactly where he was – he used to walk all the way to our farm to visit his great mate, Koos. The two were inseparable.
Today in 2020 Mom’s version was slightly different: ‘You used to walk to Donald without telling me. I would phone Jean and ask ‘Is there anything there of mine?’ Maybe the strolling went both ways?
What started this reminiscing was Eddie sending me pics of Jean’s 80th birthday celebration in June 2008, when Anne and Eddie took her on a very special outing:
They got together for Mary’s 80th in September 2008
For years after the Colemans left Harrismith we heard about their farm outside Winterton. About how Ken built the rondawels and bathroom very rustically. But I never saw Donald again and only lately found out that I had heard from him once!
After Maritzburg College, Dad joined the General Post Office as an apprentice electrician. Around 1st April 1938. Here’s a spirit level he was issued that day:
While he was still apprenticing, he tried to enlist to join the WW2 war effort, but was sent back. He was transferred to Harrismith, from where he again made his way to Durban and was sent home again, finally being allowed to join after Oupa gave his reluctant blessing. He left for ‘up north’ in 1941.
While in Harrismith ca.1940, he met old Mr Buckle the Blacksmith down in McKechnie street, near the railway station. He was from England.
He ended up with a few tools from old man Buckle: a back saw and a set square with a beautiful brass inlay and brass leading edge.
Dad stayed on a plot outside town – townlands – and bought horses, schooled them and sold them for a profit. I assumed he’d had them shod by Buckle but he corrected me. Buckle was a blacksmith, upholsterer and wagon-maker. He didn’t shoe horses. That was up to Charlie Rustov, Harrismith’s only farrier.
From his plot out west of town he would ride out to Boschetto Agricultural College for Ladies on the slopes of Platberg, the mountain that dominates the town. Boschetto was where the girls were. The first time he went he met the formidable Miss Norah Miller, the founder and principal. Luckily for him she needed something done, he was able to help and so became a firm favourite of hers from the outset.
While he was telling the story Mom remembered a story about Norah: She knocked on someone’s door. Whoever answered went back and was asked ‘Who was there?’
They said, I don’t know, but she’s got one eye, one leg and a hell of a cough! Norah had one lens of her glasses frosted out, she wore a leg brace (probably childhood polio?) and smoked like a chimney. When her leg brace buckled, Dr Frank Reitz made her a new one. A better one. He would have loved that challenge. He was a hands-on fixer.
Harrismith author Leon Strachan found some fascinating info on Norah Miller’s leg – it was not polio. His source, Isobel Kemp (Dr Frank Reitz’s receptionist for thirty years): It was probably osteoporosis resulting in a hip fracture in 1928, only six years after she established her college. Usually this would have resulted in incapacity and excruciating pain, but Norah was in luck: she was in the right place at the right time, and knew just the right man, bold innovator and pioneering surgeon Frank Reitz.
He operated and joined the femur using an ordinary screw to hold the femur ends together! This trick would only become common decades later, in the fifties. Thirty years later she was still walking – with difficulty, but still mobile, and in charge of her college. When Cedara took over Boschetto she moved there, where she died in 1959, aged 79.
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.
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, 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 for my practice; 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.‘
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, ‘Yes of course, I was just about to do that . . ‘