An Old Mystery: Whose fault?

There were two reasons we ‘borrowed’ Gerrie’s 1961 black Saab 93 late one night: 1. If you don’t give a car a run the battery can go flat, and 2. We had Larry the American Rotary Exchange student with us, who might have heard that the Free State can be a very boring place with “nothing to do”. Especially at night. And also (3) a moving car is a safe place to drink beer in.

Quietly wheeling it down the driveway we held our breath until we’d pushed it far enough, then quickly started it and we were OFF! Freedom! Beer! Speed! Steph was multi-tasking, driving and handing out the ‘longtom’ cans of Black Label beer his gardener had bought for us from Randolph Stiller’s Central Hotel offsales. My folks lost the sale because of their silly and pedantic “over-18’s” policy. Tuffy finished his before we hit third gear . . .

A quick routine stop to bash the fuel pump with the half brick kept under the bonnet for just that purpose, and we headed for new terrain.

We had already done the town athletic track and the school netball fields on other occasions, leaving our trademark donuts and figure-of-eights in the gravel. This time our destination was the National Botanic Gardens on top of Queen’s Hill, stopping only once more to tap the petrol pump with the half-brick kept under the bonnet for that purpose.

In the dark we met Kolhaas Lindstrom in his car. He was legit: He’d already left school and was a licenced driver. “Dice?” he challenged, and the game was on! Whizzing through the veld Rring-ding-ding-ding-RRriiing! It’s a two-stroke, remember?

Don’t believe the Minister of Transport, speed doesn’t kill you. Speed exhilarates. It’s the sudden stops that kill you. And the sudden stop and loud bang came as a surprise to us. Dead silence reigned until in an awed American upstate New York accent Larry exclaimed “We’ve had a head-on collision with a hill!” .

A committee undercarriage inspection revealed all four wheels suspended in mid-air. Trying to gun it out left the front wheels whizzing around uselessly. Well, that is why there were five of us, so we man-handled it over the ditch and away we went, cleverer than before.

Forty five years later I flew in to inspect the scene of the mystery. Which was still unsolved and now a very cold case. The mystery was this: How could it be that such great and experienced drivers crashed? I mean some of us had been driving for . . well, months!

I flew in via google earth. And there it was: A fault!! It was Queen’s Hill’s fault, not ours!
A great big fault runs North-South across the whole hill. THAT was what caught us by surprise in the long grass.

I have little doubt that if one were to measure its width you’ll find it just a bit greater than the wheelbase of a 1961 Saab93!

 

 Queen's Hill - Annotated

I’m fifteen?

The mighty Vulgar river had risen! It was flowing way higher than usual, and had overflown its banks. We needed to get onto it!
So Pierre and I dusted off the open blue and red fibreglass canoe the old man had bought us and headed off downstream early one summer morning from below the weir in the park.

By the time we started the river had dropped a lot. Still flowing well, but below the heights of the previous days. This left a muddy verge metres high where the banks were vertical, and up to 100m wide where the banks were sloped and the river was wide.

When we got to Swiss Valley past the confluence of the Nuwejaar spruit, we had a wide wet floodplain to slip and slide across before we reached dry land, leaving us muddy from head to toe. Dragging the boat along we headed for the farmhouse where Lel Venning looked at us in astonishment. I don’t think she even recognised us.

No, You haven’t! You can’t fool me! APRIL FOOL! she exclaimed when we said we’d paddled out from town.

Pierre and I looked at each other and he said “Happy birthday!”

Brief Sojourn at Hotel Command

Fresh from officers course at Roberts Heights (then it was called Voortrekkerhoogte, now it’s called Thaba Tshwane) this brand-new lieutenant is sent as adjudant to Natal Command, fondly known as Hotel Command. I’m given my own room just above Marine Parade and told to leave my shoes outside the door. Not for religious reasons – because someone else miraculously cleans them overnight!

 

In my very own office in Metal Industries House the PF (permanent force – career officer) outgoing adjudant gives me the list of hospitals which fall under my care: Mosvold, Ngwelezane, Christ the King, Madadeni, Appelsbosch, Hlabisa, Osindisweni, St Appolonaris and Manguzi are the names I still remember. I’m responsible for the civilian force docs posted to these outposts, so I go through their files to see wassup. Wait! This guy is due to leave Mosvold tomorrow! I better phone him NOW! He thanks me profusely and says “Usually we’re told late or not at all!”. Another one thanks me for giving him a whole week’s notice. Both notices had arrived on this desk more than a month earlier!

Once I have everything sorted out and organised after about a month I ask around: Yes, says my boss Naval Captain Dr Mervyn Jordan, head of SA Medics in Natal in his dapper white uniform, I can requisition a Land Rover and visit “my” hospitals! I can’t wait. I start planning an adventure to all the Zululand hospitals for starters.

But just then I get a transfer order myself, and though I’m sorely disappointed to miss my planned “Grand Tour of the Provinces” I cannot miss this:
“You are hereby ordered to report to Addington Hospital where you will be given your own flat in Doctors’ Quarters across the road from the Nurses Res where hundreds of nubile nurses await your arrival”.

Hey, orders are orders!

Graham Drybright Lewis

For army basic training we were posted to Loopspruit outside Potchefstroom. We were ‘medics’ we were told. The place had been a reform school before and we were billeted in old houses converted into barracks – or most of us were. Our gang (platoon?) got the science lab, and boy, were we lucky. The other guys spent their days sanding and polishing old wooden floors. We had linoleum. All we did was sweep and – unfairly – we often won the prize for neatest inspection. Every so often that meant a weekend pass, so we were careful to keep the place clean, removing our boots at the door and shuffling around on ‘taxis’ – cloths you  step on and scoot on, cleaning as you go.

Uniforms and beds were inspected too, so evenings were spent cleaning and ironing and smartening. Some would even sleep on the floor, unwilling to mess up their crisply-straightened beds. One of our guys found this all a bit hard. Graham. What a lovely bloke, but tidiness R Not Him. He would get bombed by the corporals for untidiness, so we took to doing his ironing and smartening for him, forbidding him to move as we shone his boots and dressed him for inspection.

One weekend we were all given a pass but Graham was ordered to forfeit his. On our arrival back in camp Sunday evening we were greeted by the disturbing sight of  our dazzling floor looking dull and scratchy. It had lost its shine!

Graham explained: Bored all alone over the weekend he had spied an electric polishing machine and some ‘Drybright’ polish in one of the houses and thought he’d do us all a big favour and get the floor to a dining shazzle the likes of which had never before been seen in military history.

floor polisher Lewis.jpg

Well, the more he polished the duller it got. So he polished some more. Eventually he managed to get it to the disastrous state we now saw before our ‘thinking-of-lost-weekends’ eyes! Fortunately we knew where Graham’s heart was, so we saw the funny side and set to rescuing the situation as best we could.

But we never let him forget it: Graham Drybright Lewis!

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Here’s the man in centre:

Lovely chick thinking OmiGawd! as Lewis 'splains things to Reed

His lovely partner for the evening is thinking Omigawd . . . as many of partners thought back then.

Hitch-hikers

1979 Army “basics” and my buddy Graham and I are hitch-hiking from Potch to Harrismith. At last, in the darkness of that Friday night a clapped-out bakkie stopped. Jump on, says the weirdo who looks three sheets to the wind, while handing us a quart of beer to share.
We jumped;
We drank;
Screaming along the road near Villiers glancing nervously through the back window into the cab and over the driver’s shoulder, we glance at each other, trying to be casual. The speedo needle was quivering at 135kmh!
Suddenly a loud schlap schlap schlap schlap sound and the bakkie lurches. Burst tyre!
We start skidding sideways with the white line coming at us from the left;
Then skidding with the white line coming at us from the right;
Then going backwards staring at the white line racing under the back of the bakkie towards us as we sit facing what should have been backwards;
Then spinning round to see the white line receding away from us – as it should;
Coming to a halt still upright and facing forward – and on the correct side of the road;
RELIEF!

COME! I barked at Graham. Grabbing our balsaks we hopped off and walked back where we’d come from into the night without a backward glance or even a single word to the driver. I did not want to engage with him in any way at all. We walked till completely out of sight and earshot in the dark night.

Where we hitched a ride with another stranger.

A Chrysler Maritzburger Deluxe

I wasn’t there. It really felt like I was there, and I wanted to be there so bad, but I wasn’t. All I know is the Arabs decided to reduce the availability of their oil, thus raising the price of petrol and reducing the speed limit to 80km/h. Petrol stations closed at night and we were forbidden to carry extra fuel. Also that Tabs decided around then to buy a 1947 Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe. A maroon one. In a syndicate with his cousin Des.

I also found out that Tabs and Des set off for the sleepy hollow city of Pietermaritzburg with a few full jerry cans in the capacious boot of their ‘new’ 1947 maroon Chrysler New Yorker Deluxe to attend the Natal Teachers College Ball. Probably at more than 80km/h.

I also know that when the cops pulled them over late one night Des was driving clad only in his underpants and there were lots of ladies on the capacious sofa-like back seat who suddenly found Des sitting on their laps in those same capacious underpants saying ‘Why,  I doubt I even know how to drive such a vehicle, officer’.

And that when in the custody of the gendarmes in the back of their police van, those same ladies let the air out of the cops’ spare wheel.

But as I say, I don’t really know WHAT happened that night . . .

Riding Shotgun

My lift from JHB dropped me off at home. The dorp was empty, where WAS everyone?

I phoned 2630 pring pring pring. Or was it 2603 priiiiing priiiing priiiing? I forget. Can you fetch me? No, get yourself here quick, we’re going to Warden to scare some guineafowls. Now.

What could I do? The imported white Ford Econoline V8 van was in the garage, I knew where the keys were, and the folks were away. And after all, I’d only be using it to get to Gailian then hop into Tabs’ bakkie and away we’d go. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and I’d better borrow Dad’s 12-gauge shotgun, too.

As I drew up next to the prefab on Gailian a cry of Perfect! A real shooting brake! went up and six gentlemen holding shotguns and beers piled in, calling Tommy the German Pointer in with them. No, guys, hang on, I said feebly . .

The day at Warden was a blur but the drive back came into sharp focus. We ‘had to’ pull in to the pub in Warden.  I of course, had suggested we go straight home, but that went down like a lead balloon. Blithely ignored. In the pub the barman took one look at us and refused to serve us. Someone who shall remain nameless but whose surname maybe started with a G fetched his shotgun and casually aimed it at the expensive bottles of hooch above the barman’s head whereupon he suddenly remembered our order and delivered seven beers pronto. When we decided we’d like to play snooker same thing: A Simpson-like character aimed a shotgun at the cue ball and the cues were produced with alacrity. And chalk.

When to my huge relief, we finally got going, the G-man, who was riding shotgun on my right (the van was Left-Hand-Drive), sat on the windowsill and three of Warden’s four streetlamps went ‘pop’. Now I KNEW I was going to jail forever. Putting my head down and roaring for home I wasn’t stopping again for NOBODY. Except the gentle tickle of a shotgun against my ear persuaded me otherwise and I stopped as instructed with my headlights shining on the Eeram sign. A firing squad lined up, three kneeling in front and four standing behind them. This is for Ram, guys, he’s getting married next weekend! BLAM!! and there was ‘ram’. Nor do I believe it.

I finally got home and looked at the van. Holy cow! Dog hair, guineafowl feathers and the mud and the blood and the beer all over the carpets and upholstery of Dad’s Ford Econoline V8 camper van! I set to work cleaning it. And cleaning it. And scrubbing it. Still it stank of that mixture. In desperation , I took a jerrycan and spread petrol liberally on the carpet and scrubbed again.

When the folks got home I made a full – OK, partial – confession: Dad, I spilled some petrol in your van, but I’ve cleaned it all up. Sorry about that!