I Must Go Down To The Sea Again . .

. . . to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

Maybe Steph was thinking of Masefield’s poem when he suggested we’d done enough short jaunts with our parents’ cars late at night while the dorp was sleeping and good kids were in bed dreaming of homework well done.

Been to Kestell? Tick;

Been to Swinburne? Tick;

Been to Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Had a head-on collision with a hill on Queen’s Hill? Tick;

Drifting laps around the atletiekbaan in Pres Brand Park? Tick;

Donuts on the high school netball courts? Tick;

What was there left to do? Maybe this was the first sign of his lifelong love of the sea (sailing his huge ocean-going catamaran and fishing on his skiboat off Sordwana)? In those far-off days, that was yet to come.

Whatever – (let’s face it, more likely Steph was just thinking ADVENTURE! REBELLION! ADRENALIN!) – he started us plotting a biggie.
It was most probably he who came up with the bold idea:
I know. Let’s go to Durbs, dip our toes in the Indian Ocean and bring back a bottle of sea water, and – as always – be back before sonop.
RIGHT!!

We must plan:
– We need the white Corsair, not the black Saab; It’s faster.

Here’s what it looked like except Gerrie’s was white. And four-door. Otherwise like this.

Ford Corsair

We must leave much earlier. We can’t wait for our parents to fall asleep; We need longer.

But not too much planning – I don’t remember discussing fuel or mileage or consumption. Those weren’t really fashionable topics in those days.

So Steph strolls into his Mom Alet’s bedroom, the one nearest the long getaway driveway, to talk to her as she lies reading in bed. At a given signal we start wheeling the Corsair out of the open garage and down the long driveway to Stuart Street. The driveway is downhill – that helps – and made of two long concrete strips – that doesn’t help: the wheels fall off the edge GghgGghgGghg! SHHH! shhh!

And they’re off!
There’s no beer this trip. This is more serious. It’s a journey, not a jaunt. We have a mission.

We roar past Swinburne; We roar past van Reenen; Down van Reenen’s Pass; Past Ladysmith and on into unknown territory.

Suddenly: Blue lights! Oh Shit! They’re after us. We slow down a little bit. Just to the speed limit. We sit straight in the car, no slouching. We rehearse our story: Ja Meneer. Nee Meneer. The flashing blue light fills the car – then overtakes us and whizzes past and shrinks into the distance.

We slow down. We think. We reconsider. Wordlessly, we make a U-turn and head back to the big HY.

Oh well, it was a good idea while it lasted.
And anyway, that story about the bottled sea water is just a myth.

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I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

R.I.P Steph, our histories are forever entwined. You are part of who I am. My sense of self would be poorer without those mad crazy daze!

R.I.P Steph

I can’t believe it. Steph. Died in a car accident today. Near Frankfort.

I’ll write later.

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Here’s how we’ll always remember him. Us who knew him in the 60’s and 1970 (his matric year).

The fab five strikes! Pierre, Larry, Steph, Koos; Tuffy must have taken the picture
The fab five strikes! Pierre, Larry, Steph, Koos; Tuffy must have taken the picture

His more recent friends and family remember him like this: Mad keen fisherman, yachtsman, can-do builder, taker-on of major projects. Big-hearted friend, generous to a fault (he would dispute the ‘fault’ part).

Steph funeral 5

His family and colleagues put on an amazing memorial service and wake for Steph at The Pines this Saturday. Entertained us royally. His daughter tells me he has seen to it that each of them are set up with something to do to keep going.  was his saying. There were grandkids running around and the day was just as if he had organised it himself. It typified Steph de Witt, as it was Generous and Inclusive. The family did him proud.

I have written about our schooldays here:

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2015/04/11/raiders-of-the-lost-saab/

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/chariots-of-beer/

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/woken-by-the-tamboekie/

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/an-old-mystery-whose-fault/

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/the-night-we-hijacked- the-orange-express/

https://vrystaatconfessions.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/i-must-go-down-to-the-sea-again/

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Also:

We were a gang of five that came of age together. Really fun days. Beer, wit, song, wisdom, ‘borrowed’ cars, adventures and escapades *  and um, extra homework (some of these things may be disputed by some) . . . Pierre du Plessis and Steph and Larry Wingert  our American Rotary exchange student were 1970 matrics, me and Tuffy Joubert were 1972 matrics. I phoned Larry in Ohio to let him know the sad news last night.

One of the things I am most grateful for (I’m in awe, really) and I try hard to apply some of it in a balanced way to my Jess & Tom, is just how tolerant and patient our 1960’s and ’70’s Vrystaat parents were! I’m sure Steph’s Mom Alet and my Mom Mary, Pierre’s Mom Joan, Tuffy’s Mom Joyce often knew we were out and about but they would just check we were OK in the morning. ** Larry’s Mom would have been blissfully unaware of her son’s shenanigans in Africa!

Steph’s Dad the legendary Koos de Witt died when Steph was in Std 6. He was a prominent builder: Built many Much Deformed churches all over SA. Steph did civil engineering at varsity then started building. Made and lost fortunes. Owned a huge ocean-going catamaran, house in Cape Town, ‘cottage’ in Kommetjie, game farm in Limpopo. Then he was back – bought the biggest stone house in Kestell while he had big contracts to build roads and a shopping centre in Qwa Qwa. I looked him up there on our way to Lesotho once. He was driving a huge imported Ford F250 pickup truck. When I told him which road we were taking into Lesotho in my kombi he said “You can’t go that way, Koos! I built the road to the border and that’s fine, but after that you’ll never make it!” Well, we did, but Aitch veto’d that route thereafter.

He always kept The Pines – or Shady Pines – their big old house in Harrismith and ran it as a B&B. He wanted to start a museum and had bought and restored his Dad’s big old Dodge and his Mom’s old Karmann Ghia.

Next month Steph was going to take another exchange student from my year who they hosted to his game farm – Greg Seibert’s first visit back to SA since 1972. We’ll have to fill in that part of his itinerary.

His year had their 45th matric reunion last week. Older sister Barbara was in his class and was involved in organising it. But Steph didn’t go. Getting together with the hele klas wasn’t his style. A few beers with the boys would have done it. Although: For their 40th reunion he and Pierre organised, hosted and paid for the whole thing. Wouldn’t take any money from the rest of the class! Generous. His funeral was organised by his brother JP, his kids and his wife and ex-wife just as he’d have wanted it. All his workers invited, all his friends and more. LOTS of food and drink and lasting the whole day. At The Pines.

Now he’s gone. Well, none of us would have predicted Steph dying of old age in bed, that’s for sure. But this soon? No, no, no!

Our last reunion was in 1996 when Larry visited from Ohio:

Larry Visits from Ohio (4)
Pierre, Francois, Koos, Steph, Tuffy, Larry

*I told you how we stood innocently in assembly while the headmaster promised threateningly that he would catch the blighters who had left tyre-mark donuts on the netball courts – “Ons sal hulle vang!” – and we thought “No you won’t”.

** The other day I was about to growl “Turn down that noise!” to Tom when I thought to myself I don’t remember my folks ever doing that to my full-blast Jethro Tull or Led Zeppelin! Amazing!
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Pierre at Steph’s funeral:

Pierre at Shady Pines

Shady Pines

Shady Pines de Witt

Moonrise over Bobbejaanskop, Platberg as I left Harrismith that sad day:

The moon rising as I left to go back to Durbs

“The great pleasure in a schoolboy’s life is doing what people say he cannot – may not – do.”

  • paraphrasing Walter Bagehot, British journalist, businessman, and essayist

Appenstance

The farm Appen is the most picturesque place. At the foot of Rensburg’s Kop just above Swinburne its a lovely rustic old farmstead. Wessel Campher is now the proud custodian and has done a beautiful job of converting the buildings into comfortable rustic accommodation.
It has become a popular venue for matric reunions (and many other functions).DSCN0068
P1080511
Apparently the Bland family inhabited the farm years ago.
And apparently one of the ladies in the Bland clan dropped ‘er aitches and would say ‘ere, ‘Arrismith and ‘not ‘arf bad’ or some such. She would speak about the family farm which caused the more correct and well-spoken ladies of greater Harrismith to mistakenly refer to the farm as “Happen“.

Story as told to Mother Mary by Grandmother Annie Bland.

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Where from the name? Who knows!
In Yorkshire, appen doesn’t mean happen, but perhaps.
Appen is a municipality in the district of Pinneberg, in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, 20km northwest of Hamburg.

Raiders of the Lost Saab

The black Saab is packed to capacity as we roar off in the dead of night to Kestell, that mecca of silence and stillness and, uh peace, I guess. We aimed to fix that in our 1961 black two-door Saab 93. Riiing! ding ding ding ding Riiiiing! – that’s the two-stroke engine you can hear.

SAAB_96_De_Luxe_1961

Steph, Larry, Pierre, Tuffy and Me. Warmly dressed against the Harrismith winter chill, we’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder, hardly able to lift our elbows to down the 455ml can of beer we each have. The sixth one we’ll share. Tuffy’s empty can goes clanking along the tarmac before Steph has even hit third gear. Glugged.

When the Saab goes quiet we stop briefly to tap the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for that purpose and we’re off again.

After cavorting on the gravel main street of Kestell and losing a tyre off the rim on one of our laps around the biggest thing in Kestell, the Groot Klip Kerk, we pick up the car to change the wheel as there’s no jack. COme to think of it, the word ‘domkrag’ might have been invented that night! The guys at Jakes Grove’s garage kindly fix things for us and we’re away, heading for Jan van Wyk’s place on the way home.

 

Jan’s farm is a turn-off to the left on the way back home. He’s the sitting hoofseun at Harrismith se Hoer, 1970 edition. It’s 4am and there’s something we need to tell him.

Tuffy tackles an ox en-route.

Driving down the farm road with its middel-mannetjie the passenger-side door suddenly flies open as we drive past a few cattle blinded by our headlights. Next thing we know there’s a dust cloud and some concerned moo-ing. Tuffy has launched himself into a flying tackle of one of the cattle. We stop and Tuffy gets back into the car dusting off his khaki grootjas with a smug look of “that’ll teach them” on his dial. Long toms always went straight to the clever-and-brave lobe of his brain, especially when he downed them in seconds flat.

Arriving at the homestead all is in darkness. The dogs sniff us as we tiptoe into Jan’s room and wake him. Maybe we aren’t quite as stealthy as we think, as a voice comes from down the passage “Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee”. His Ma. Ma’s. They always know what’s going on.

As we leave we spy pa Hertzog’s big Chev Commando parked in the open garage with a few big sacks next to it. Mielies, probably. Takes a bit of effort but we manage to raise it and push the sacks under it, leaving the rear wheels just off the ground. The beer is obviously still circulating, making us innovative, witty and irresistible.

 

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middel-mannetjie – hump between the tracks in a rustic road to tickle the undercarriage;

domkrag – car jack; literally ‘stupid strength’; Us;

grootjas – greatcoat issued by the army or bought 2nd-hand from surplus stores;

“Jan, maak tog vir hulle tee” – Give these drunks something to sober them up;

Culture, FreeState Style. And Counter-Culture

At the Harrismith se Hoerskool, we were taught “sang” by Eben, well-known HNP lid of the Harrismith Tak who we thought fancied himself as a singer and ladies man.

HARRISMITH HS TEACHERS 1967 Eben

He tried his best, but we were not an easy task. The RIGHT way was very clear in ou Eben’s mind: Die Volk, Afrikaans, Die Voortrekkers, Die FAK Sangbundel, no “anglisismes” and no Engels. And modern music was the work of the devil. This much was not in doubt. This meant, of course, that the RIGHT way in our minds was – well, something other than that.

He announced one day in the asbestos pre-fab sangklas that we would now sing “Heb je al gehoord van den silveren vloot”, which wasn’t actually Afrikaans, being Hoog Hollands, but that was kosher in his world; followed by the pure Afrikaans “Wie is die dapper generaal? DE WET!” which made us all think we were singing a song of praise for our flyhalf, De Wet Ras.

At this, Skottie Meyer sighed audibly: “O, jis, sing ons al weer vir Vokken Vaderland?”

Rugby HY 1972 Skottie

Well! Despite Skottie’s protestations that he had said “Volk en Vaderland”, he was despatched by a puce-faced Eben to the headmaster’s office, forthwith! Inderdaad! But he must have forgotten to go all the way because he appeared at the window behind Eben a minute later and proceeded to have us stifling grins the rest of the session.

I will confess we did sometimes sing words other than those strictly written down in the sangbundel.

Skottie has since shuffled off this mortal coil. Actually, they both have.

Chariots of Beer

It was the Eastern Free State athletics championships and we were three kranige athletes, in our prime. Well, so far . . . we would get better at some things as time went on.

In the triple jump we have : Steph de Witt, matric. Long legs, big springs. In with a chance of a medal.

In the pole vault we have: Hoender Kok, matric. Feisty competitor, but probably not a contender as his short aluminium pole looks ancient next to the long, whippy fibreglass poles the boys from Bethlehem Voortrekker school are sporting. Fullback for the rugby team, he was nicknamed “HO Ender” (hoender, geddit?) after HO de Villiers, the Springbok fullback.

In the javelin we have: Me, Std 8. New to javelin, just discovered it that year and loved it. Unknown factor, only thrown once before – at the Harrismith Hoerskool Atletiekbyeenkoms.

The school bus was naturally available for us to get to the metropolis of Senekal. That was the usual and expected way, so we naturally declined, Steph organising that we drove ourselves to Senekal in Gerrie Pretorius’ white Ford Corsair. Actually we weren’t licenced – to drink OR drive – so  one of the guys who worked for his Mom at JN de Witt Hardware drove us.

Accompanying us was Larry Wingert, Rotary exchange student from Cobleskill New York. He had brought Bill Cosby’s “Why is there air?” vinyl LP to the Free State without Hertzog the censor baas knowing it. NOAH! Ri-ight! What’s a cubit? Vupa vupa vupa. (You had to have heard it).

The Corsair’s engine did sound a bit like a Cessna engine as we roared off in the pre-dawn heading west, the rising sun behind us, to Senekal, city of song and laughter – well song anyway. Tiekiedraai songs. As we pulled in to the dusty dorp Steph had us pull over outside the only cafe in town, where he asked the Greek owner, who became his mate in two seconds flat – Steph is like that – if he’d please keep our beers.

Oh yes: Steph’s gardener had procured a sixpack of Black Label Mansize cans for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales, Mom & Dad losing the sale at Platberg bottle store because of their unreasonable “No under 18’s” policy. Also known as “the law”.

Now at this juncture, please don’t come with any stimulant or performance-enhancing accusations. Let it be noted that we did not partake in our stimulants until AFTER the athletic meeting was over. During the competition we were clean, nê? And anyway those mansize cans were only conversation stimulants and personality enhancers.

Let the games begin! Steph’s event was first and we watched and moedig’d him aan. He won the driesprong! We had a gold medal in the Corsair! The beer was legitimised: It was celebratory! True it was only a paper certificate, but it said Eerste Plek and that = Gold Medal.

A long gap followed before my event after lunch. It didn’t look too good and I was languishing, but then I didn’t have any expectations. My last throw came and the whole thing is etched in my memory. I can still today feel the run, the full-strength launch, the perfect flight of the javelin and my landing, spiked foot digging in one inch behind the wavy, hand-drawn white-wash line on the grass and having to push back to not lurch over it and get disqualified. I just knew it was perfection and it flew on and on, past all the markers of the langgatte from Voortrekker in Bethlehem and pegged perfectly. Another gold medal for the Corsair! Spiesgooi. This one out of the blue.

Hoender’s event was last and we went to cheer. It didn’t look good. One short stiff pole vs a bunch of long whippy poles seemed unfair. He was offered the use of a fibreglass pole but he declined. They take some getting used to. Then it started to drizzle. Suddenly everything changed! The okes with the whippy poles started floundering and slipping. Hoender soldiered on. It made no difference to him what the weather was like. On the last height there were two competitors left. Whippy pole slipped and gly’d and got nowhere. Hoender went over to a roar of applause from all four of us. He’d won! Our third gold medal! Paalspring. A clean sweep!

chariots athletics.jpg

The music from Chariots of Fire swelled over the once dusty, now damp, dorp, rising to a crescendo. Sure, the movie was 1981 and this was 1970, but WE HEARD IT.

We hastened straight to the white Corsair, parked under the nearby bluegum trees, skipping the official podium pomp.

bluegum-trees

We had our own unofficial celebration waiting. Off to the cafe to rescue the beer from next to the eskimo pies and away we went “with the windshield wipers slappin’ time, n Larry clappin’ hands”! We roared off in the twilight, heading east, the setting sun behind us, slightly pickled after glugging the 450ml of contraband nectar, conversations stimulated and personalities enhanced.

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Years later a nocturnal visit to Senekal involving beer would not be as much fun; more hillbilly horror than fun!

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kranige – excellent. And handsome

hoender – his nickname. He looked a bit like a scrawny old rooster, I guess?

Harrismith Hoerskool Atletiekbyeenkoms – school athletics meet

tiekiedraai – Like, lame dancing that adults approve of

moedig’d him aan – told him C’mon, Move Your Arse! JUMP!

driesprong – triple jump

langgatte – long arses, tall chaps

spiesgooi – spear chuck, javelin

gly’d – slipped

paalspring – pole vault; see how we pole-vaulted in the tough old days, with stiff poles and the ground ploughed over to act as a “soft” landing;