Ernie van Biljon wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I got to go to America as a Rotary exchange student back in 1973.
What a lovely man. He should have lived to a hundred.
Rotary held their interview and selection sessions at Greystones outside Estcourt (where I had attended a Veld & Vlei leadership course earlier that year):
Which three countries would you like to go to, they asked? America, America, and America I replied – and I want to go to a small town, not a big city.
Well, they selected me anyway, but decided, “OK, smartass,” and dispatched me to Apache, Oklahoma, population 1500.
“There are two strict rules” they told us sternly: “No Falling In Love; and Strictly No Driving while you’re there.”
Of course not . . .
Well, I got none out of two right but it was just infatuation; and the owner of the Chev Camaro covered for me in Apache; and the owner of the VW Beetle covered for me in Canada. Turned out I double-failed at both the Two Commandments. I broke them and I was useless at them.
Sheila writes: Dad was at College from 1935 – 1938. He was “pushed up” twice and ended up starting matric in January 1938 a month after he turned fifteen. Three months later, on 1 April 1938, he left. He says he didn’t run away – he left. He’d had enough!
And now, 78 years later – he’s still doing his own thing! His way! In May this year, I (his daughter Sheila) took him to his 78th matric re-union at College. And yes, he was the only one of his year there, but he wasn’t the oldest old boy! That was Cyril Crompton, matric 1933, who was 97. He turned 100 last week. He and Dad have become great pals.
Posed at the seldom-used front door. The side door on the left was where we filed in to get saved.
They demolished the old sandstone church! Demolish and Build! was the fashion. Pity.
Sunday school – Stella Euthemiou was my Sunday School teacher. We would gather in the hall on the left and she would lead us on the path to heaven. Well, try anyway. We would have followed her anywhere!
I suffered severe stress in the army in 1979. Once.
My two-tone 1965 Opel Rekord 4-door bench seat, column-shift sedan in sophisticated shades of grey: dark grey body, pale grey roof, grey upholstery; got indisposed while parked under the bluegum trees outside the Medics base camp on Roberts Heights – then Voortrekkerhoogte, now Thaba Tshwane. She wouldn’t start.
This was serious! We had a weekend pass and there was a party on in the City of Sin & Laughter, aka the metropolis of Harrismith, as everyone knows.
Not a problem, said KO (surname). We were all KO’s: candidate officers. He kindly offered to tow me to Harrismith behind his V6 Cortina bakkie. A short piece of nylon rope was found and we set off. I immediately thought Uh Oh!! as we hared off, accelerating furiously. Soon we reached what felt like 100 miles an hour. Slow down! I screamed silently. We hadn’t arranged any signals or communication, so I simply gripped the steering wheel and concentrated. If cellphones had been invented I’d have sms’d him: WTF RU MAD? Then I’d have worried about him reading his sms while driving at that speed.
I sat tensely, staring at the rear of the bakkie a mere six imperial feet from my bonnet. I couldn’t even see the towrope as we roared along. We’re going East so fast we hasten the setting of the sun.
Then it started to rain! Then twilight fell. Then it got dark, with the rain falling ever harder as my wipers feebly swished back, and then later on, forth. With the motor not turning, the battery got flatter and flatter and the wipers got slower and slower. Blowing the hooter and flashing my lights just made things worse – the wipers stopped if anything else was switched on. Upfront in the bakkie the music was so loud and the chit-chat so intense they didn’t even notice us. Or pretended not to?
There was nothing for it but to hang in there for hours. Worst journey of my life. My chin got closer and closer to the windscreen and my knuckles got whiter. Still the KO kept the bakkie floored! He had to get to Durbs where a girlfriend was waiting. My neck was tense and I don’t think I blinked once, staring at the top edge of the bakkie tailgate. My right thigh ached as it poised ready to brake – delicately! – at any moment.
An eternity later we pulled up in Harrismith, unhitched the towrope and off he went, on to Durban. ‘Hey, thanks!’ I said. ‘Appreciate it!’
Fu-u-uck-uck-uck!!! I had never felt such relief. The beer soon relieved the stress though. And soon the testosterone was saying ‘It was nothing.’
Jim Stainton was aghast! He had just invited me along to a rock concert in Oklahoma City and I had immediately accepted. My motto in Apache was I only say YES to all invitations to travel. Only got a year, gotta go everywhere! His follow-up questions had forced me to admit my ignorance.
Don’t say that! Don’t say you don’t know who Chuck Berry is!
Hey! I was a seventeen-year-old Vrystater. I was lucky enough to know a lot about modern music, but turns out there was this gap in the fifties when I was one month and twenty days old and Maybellene hit the charts!
But I was willing to learn, I had a ball at that concert with Jim, and I have been a Chuck Berry fan ever since!
What I didn’t tell Jim is I had even less heard of Bo Diddley! He featured with Chuck and they rocked up a storm. ‘My ding-a-ling’ was really big just then! (ok, that didn’t sound just right, but anyway . . . knowaddimean . . )
He played all his hits with huge energy, holding the big stadium in the palm of his hand. He played ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Nadine’, ‘No Particular Place to Go’, ‘Reelin’ and Rockin’’ ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Surfin’ U.S.A’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ etc. etc And ‘My ding-a-ling’.
That was 1973. I recently found a 2014 pic of Jim on the internets. That’s him in the red T:
Some Chuck Berry:
– “People don’t want to see seventeen pieces in neckties. They wanna see some jeans, some gettin’ down and some wigglin’.”
– “I love poetry. I love rhyming. Do you know, there are poets who don’t rhyme? Shakespeare don’ rhyme most of the time and that’s why I don’ like him.”
– “It amazes me when I hear people say ‘I want to go out and find out who I am’. I always knew who I was. I was going to be famous if it killed me.”
– “I would sing the blues if I had the blues.”
In 1963, Bo Diddley starred in a UK concert tour with the Everly Brothers and Little Richard. The supporting act was a little up-and-coming outfit called The Rolling Stones.
footnote: I asked a friend last year to bring some Chuck Berry to a gathering on my patio. I decided to catch up before so I looked him up on wikipedia – to learn he had died a few days before at the ripe ole age of 90. R.I.P Chuck Berry.
In Apache Oklahoma in 1973 I lived with the charismatic funeral home owner, fire chief, ambulance driver, hearse driver and tornado alert man, Robert L Crews III. In the funeral home. While I was there we sounded the siren for tornadoes twice and watched them approach. Once we even went down into the basement as it came so close. But both times it went back up into the clouds – didn’t touch ground.
Here’s the view on one of those days:
In May we heard of the Union City disaster. We drove there to look-see. The image that stuck the most in my mind was the main street with many buildings completely gone. One shop had some shelves still standing – with product on the shelves – but the roof and walls were gone.
I found this recently: Union City Tornado Makes History
NSSL revisits its past as it celebrates 40 years with NOAA – by Rachel Shortt
On May 24, 1973, a tornado rated F4 struck the Union City area and was the first tornado widely documented by science as part of storm chasing field research. NSSL out of Norman, Oklahoma placed numerous storm chasers around it to capture the life cycle on film.
As the devastating tornado tore through the small town of Union City, no one knew the tremendous impact it would have on the development of weather radar. Researchers from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory now look back on that day as a significant event in the history of severe weather research and forecasting.
And I was (sorta) there!
For a human interest story, see this article written in 1993, on the 20th anniversary of the tornado:
The tornado that people in Union City talk about the most twisted in from the northwest twenty years ago this week, killing two people and demolishing half the downtown buildings. It blew the cross atop St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church into a field six miles away.
Another tornado destroyed the same church in 1896, and another flattened fifteen farmhouses in 1927. Yet another reduced two barns on the edge of Union City to kindling and seemed hell-bent on roaring toward town until it hit the South Canadian River nearby, spun away to the east and died out.
Here in the heart of “Tornado Alley” almost everybody knows that a new tornado will eventually show up on the western horizon. But they also agree on this: There is not much use in being obsessed about it.
“You can’t let it rule your life,” said Leo Radtke, who in 1973 watched from the storm cellar as the house where he was born, as well as his new Chevrolet El Camino, was swept away. “If it hits, it hits, and you just start over again, which is what I did. It’s part of living in this country.”
Where the Winds Collide – ‘This country’ is a swath of the Great Plains stretching diagonally from the Texas Panhandle to southern Iowa where warm, moist winds from the Gulf of Mexico frequently collide with cold, dry winds from the west at this time of year, combining to produce more tornadoes here than in any comparably sized place on earth.
And while most of the attention is understandably focused on communities when they are actually hit, a more typical tableau of life in Tornado Alley is found in places like Union City, a town of about 1,000 people in central Oklahoma, 23 miles west of Oklahoma City. Here and in thousands of communities like it, tornadoes exist not as a present danger but as a grim memory and a future threat.
Early warning? – There have been major advances in the radar equipment that helps meteorologists to detect a tornado while it is forming and to warn of its approach. Because of those advances and improved communications through radio and television, there has been a steady decline in the average number of fatalities caused by tornadoes every year — from 311 people in the 1920’s to 138 in the 1950’s to 56 in the most recent 10-year period, according to the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Missouri.
But the average warning time is still only 19 minutes, and many tornadoes cannot be detected at all until they hit the ground, meaning that the first warning is an old-fashioned one: a human being sees it and yells. And even when people know it is coming, a tornado remains one of the most destructive hazards of nature, a vortex of winds swirling at up to 300 miles an hour and often churning up everything in its path, making any effort to protect property generally futile. ‘There’s Nothing You Can Do’
“If your home is in the way, you’ve had it — there’s nothing you can do,” said Leo Demmer, 64, who has seen five tornadoes in his lifetime but escaped the path of all of them.
Mr. Demmer, a wheat farmer and cattle rancher, quickly added that he was talking more about property than people, who will almost always be safe if they manage to get underground, perhaps to the kind of storm cellar that sheltered Auntie Em and Uncle Henry when the tornado struck Kansas in the “Wizard of Oz.”
Mr. Demmer should know. As he spoke he was adding two and a half tons of concrete to help anchor his own storm cellar, made of two steel cargo containers sunk into his back yard. “It was frightening, it was beautiful, and here it was coming right at us,” Mr. Demmer said of the 1973 tornado. He snapped a few pictures, then headed for the cellar.
It was 20 years ago, but people who describe the tornado can make it sound as if it hit last week. Several recalled that in the hours and even minutes before the tornado struck, at 4:55 in the afternoon, it seemed like the balmiest of spring days.
A Scrapbook of Memories – “It was just real pretty out,” recalled Odessa Bromlow, the owner of the T&B Country Market, which at the time was a cafe. “I had just been to the beauty shop, and it was time for a shift change — then poof. The wind just started howling.” As she spoke, she flipped through a scrapbook she had put together full of headlines from the Oklahoma City papers. “Union City Devastated,” said one. “Twister Leaves Trail of Ruin,” read another. A Union City woman died because she could not get the door to her storm cellar open. The other victim was a man named Corp Sanders who had insisted on watching the tornado from a chair on his porch, even as the police officer screamed at him to run for cover.
Most People Stay – But while almost everybody here seems to have vivid memories of the tornado and the daze that settled over the town after it struck, most of those whose property was damaged eventually rebuilt and stayed put. Several people, asked what it was like to live in a place where each spring brought the threat of tornadoes, quickly said it was far preferable to living on either coast of the United States. On the east coast were hurricanes and on the west were earthquakes, they said, both of which can yield a far broader trail of destruction than a tornado.
“As terrible as it was, I’d rather deal with a tornado than an earthquake any day,” said Georgia Rother, the town clerk and treasurer. “With a tornado, at least you can see it coming. You can try to run away from it. With a quake, there’s no place to hide.” Others pointed out that even in Tornado Alley, the chances of getting killed or having a home destroyed by a tornado are very low — about as low as the chance of hitting the jackpot in a state lottery.
Early warning 2 – Many towns, including Union City, have installed emergency warning sirens on their streets — but only after experiencing the terror of a tornado when they did not have such devices.
Earlier this year Catoosa, a suburb of Tulsa, tabled as too expensive a motion to buy used warning sirens from a nearby town that was installing a more modern system. Then, in late April, a tornado struck, killing seven people and causing millions of dollars in damage. This week the neighboring town donated the used sirens to Catoosa.
For those who get their warnings by television, though, some experts fear an altogether different problem: too many warnings. Television stations throughout Kansas and Oklahoma have become ferociously competitive over the years. “Some of them will interrupt programs with a tornado alert at the slightest provocation,” said Frederick P. Ostby, the director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center. “It’s getting to the point where people feel they can’t see any television program in its entirety during tornado season. People are getting angry about it.”
Mobile homes and fatalism – Here in Union City, when people think about tornadoes at all, it is usually with fatalism. That was especially true in a mobile-home development on the south side of town. At one trailer some old tires and cement blocks were placed on the roof to give the unit a bit more heft if a storm hit. “But I don’t suppose it will make much of a difference,” said Beverly Brookshire, a 48-year-old waitress who lives in the trailer. “If it’s our time, it’s going to hit. I just pray, ‘Lord, don’t let it be our time.’ ” Mobile homes can be unsafe in even the weakest of tornadoes. “There’s kind of a folklore out there that tornadoes actually seek out trailer parks,” said Frederick J. Gadomski, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University. “But it’s not that at all. It’s really that because of poor construction, they’re simply more vulnerable.”
On Tabbo’s Warden farm ‘Rust.’ Mine host Tabbo is second from right, yet another ale in hand.
None of those guineas were killed by me (second from left) with my old man’s cheap Russian shotgun, even though the barrel was smoking. A marksman I am not! I was ‘Rust’-y.
Kai Reitz once tried to cure my handicap of not being able to hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. On his farm, The Bend on the Tugela river outside Bergville, he gently lobbed up big sandclods in a ploughed field and I filled the air surrounding them with birdshot. Then they plonked to earth. Thud! Unharmed.
It was for naught – he had to give up.
With the last two shells Kai took the shotgun. I hurled two empty shell cases as hard as I could. Blap! Blap! he hit both of them. Bang went the gun and bang went my chance of using faulty Russian alignment as an excuse.
Bloody guineas better watch out, I’ll bring my mate next time!
As always, Sheila has the details:
This was taken on 1 September 1974, at a shoot at the Fyvies’ farm ‘Rust’ near Warden. According to my 1974 diary, we had had a wonderful party at Nick & Anne Leslie’s farm ‘Heritage’ the night before – “Had delicious supper. Danced. Sat & chatted” – most of us spent the night there, then moved over to Rust the next day, where the guys “shot about 60 fowls.”
I was going to ski – we would have called it snow ski! – for the first time in my life. Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. We’d be catching a bus from Oklahoma, driving there and staying at the lodge. Jim Patterson was taking me on a host-Dad and Son special treat. It was 1973, and in the previous summer he and Katie had taken friend Dottie Moffett and I on a steam train ride nearby – the Durango to Silverton narrow gauge railroad.
My pic of the Animas River out the train window:
That was a glorious summer. But now we were going in winter:
As the day approached we watched the snow reports with bated breath. Nothing. No snow. The day before we were to leave the bad news came: Trip cancelled.
True to form Jim looked on the bright side – he always did! – and invited me to join him in drowning our sorrows as he opened up the big heb cooler full of Coors beer he had packed for the trip! Jim always put a good spin on everything!
I would have to wait fifteen years till 1988 before my first snow skiing – in Austria.
Also, another new sport I had started but wouldn’t really get into for another nine years, took place on the Colorado rivers next to that railway line: White-water kayaking:
When I got to Apache Oklahoma in 1973 I had already finished high school. Not much effort had gone into my matric and I was keen to put minimal effort into this second matric, or ‘senior year’, at Apache High. In my mind I had been sent to America to socialise and be an ambassador, ‘period’.
So I carefully selected my subjects – I had to take American history – I was OK with that. I learnt about George Washington. I had to take English (compulsory for all foreigners). I added typing, ag shop (agricultural workshop – farming, welding, etc making me a member of the FFA – Future Farmers of America), annual staff (making the school annual, acting as a journalist, selling ads in town – a hoot! Actually, they chose me, you couldn’t just elect to do it. I was lucky). I’m sure there was a sixth. Yes, Oklahoman history, I think. My mind wasn’t really on these details.
Here’s me focusing on my typing. I’m with fellow annual staffers Robbie Swanda and David Lodes slave over their hot typewriters. I reached a blistering 19 words a minute with ten mistakes.
Typing – roaring along at 19wpm with 10 mistakes
Robbie Swanda & David Lodes, fellow typists and Annual Staff members bashing out the Apache 1973 school annual
When I told host Dad Jim Patterson my subjects he grimaced. Then he grinned and said – “Peter, are you sure they didn’t offer basket weavin’!”
Jim was a great teacher. He taught me all about ‘counting fence posts’. He would pack a sixpack of Coors into a coolerbox full of ice and we would drive around the district in his old red Ford F150 pickup along the farm roads with Jim recounting all the tales of who lived where, what they farmed and some history of the area. We were ‘counting fence posts’.
Here’s Jim waking up on the back of that pickup one camping trip: