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 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.
My gran Annie’s Caltex garage in Harrismith had a filling station, a restaurant on the forecourt, a workshop behind – and the VW agency. My gran Annie sold VW Beetles!
One of the perks of Annie having a VW dealership was Volkswagen’s toy models of their cars & kombis. They were fascinating! They had moving doors, flaps, engine covers, side loading locker in kombi pickups; some had a clear sunroof that clipped off. Something like these:
At one time – I don’t think I’m imagining this – the VW Beetle cost less than R1 per cc: The 1200cc engine model cost R1199. Let’s check: A VW Bug in the USA was around $1563; A US dollar cost us 72 SA cents – Yep, about right.
A long concrete ramp lead up into the workshop behind the Flamingo Cafe. At Truscott was the mechanic – I remember him as small, bald and kind. I remember the big jacks that lifted the cars; the lights they shone into the engine bay – an incandescent bulb in a cage to protect it, with a 220V cable dangling behind it; There was a high ‘shelf’ overhead – above the wall of the ‘office’ inside the big shed-like workshop on which lots of tyres were stacked; The wooden workbenches were full of interesting vices and spare parts and grease.
One of Annie’s forecourt attendants was Joseph Culling. He was a son of Sgt Culling, who was demobbed in 1913, when the British finally left Harrismith after the Anglo-Boer War. He had been stationed on Kings Hill and unlike most of his fellows, he stayed behind and married a local Harrismith lady. In the apartheid classification of the day that immediately – and magically!? – made his children ‘coloureds.’ I remember him with the leather coin dispenser satchel on his hip, the strap holding it slung around his neck and shoulder, wearing a Caltex cap.
Back in the sixties, many of us, of course, also had an inordinate fondness for the beatles . .
‘Mom! Dad’s in pain,’ said Mary, out of breath. She’d run up to the Caltex garage in Warden Street. Annie drove her back and took her husband Frank Bland to Frank Reitz, his friend, rugby team-mate and physician/surgeon. Gallstones, a gallbladder op needed, was the verdict.
Mom was fifteen, ‘about to write my JC‘ – Std eight, Grade ten – it was 1943. Frank did the op and sent Frank home to convalesce at 9 Stuart Street, his mother Granny Bland’s home, his pain considerably eased; but he was weak, recovering slowly.
One Saturday morning he walked out to the wisteria-covered outside toilet, about twenty metres off the back veranda. Granny Bland watched him walking back, hand on hip as she always stood and wearing an apron, as she always did.
She spoke to him and he didn’t answer her. That was unusual. When he got to her he collapsed and she caught him in her arms before he could bang his head. They had no phone; it was a Saturday, Annie was at work, eldest daughter Pat was away nursing in Boksburg-Benoni. This time Mary didn’t run to the garage, they must have sent someone else.
‘Poor Dr Reitz’ says Mom, ever empathetic. She knows he would have hated it that Frank didn’t recover fully. She speculates that a bloodclot to the brain did him in. The funeral was soon after. Annie told Pat not to come down and she and Mom stayed at home. After the funeral people came around to tea and to pay their respects. Annie didn’t do funerals.
The only picture of Frank Bland that I have doesn’t quite include all of him. It does have his daughters Pat and Mary, and older niece Janet Bell.
Soon after, Mom’s dear friend Dottie Farquhar’s father died. Then Jessie’s husband __ Bell died. Jessie was Annie’s older sister and they lived in Dundee down in KwaZulu Natal where he was a dentist. Maybe the only dentist? Jessie then also came to stay with Granny Bland.
When Mary aged eighteen came home on her first leave from the Boksburg-Benoni hospital where she’d also started her nursing, a phone had been installed in the house! Where? I asked. She showed me:
… and their humour. Met up with Sam, an excellent Scotsman who came in for some glasses today. We were chatting about some of the female news anchors you see on TV. One of them, Virginia Trioli, we agreed is opinionated, superior, demanding and – from all accounts – a piece of work.
sums her up:
“Ya woodn’t want ta be coming hoome to her wi’ only a half week’s pay packet.”
Later, I am handing him over to Ioannis who has the job of telling him how much his new multifocal glasses are going to cost (cringe) with some light banter … Sam replies:
“Well I am a Scotsman ye know. Every penny a prisoner.”
packed up – had not heard that one before.
comes up a lot in the local pub.
Me: So right! Gotta love the Scots!! 😉 – I must remember those pearls!
My gran Annie’s father came to Harrismith straight from the freezing far north of Scotland – a fishing village called Sarclet, south of Wick – but she sadly became heeltemal Engels – the queen, the empire, and all that.
only Scottish she ever spoke to me was her oft-repeated tale of once
on the golf course, waiting to tee off. The oke in front of them
sliced off into the bush and said,
‘Och, its gone off in the boooshes,’ to which Annie quipped,
‘That’s betterrr than doon in the wutterrr,’ – upon which she says he spun around and said,
‘Begorrah’ (or whatever a Scotsman would say on an occasion like this), ‘Yer one of oos!’
‘Aye,’ said Annie semi-truthfully.
takes me to her THIRD language: Afrikaans.
Of her ninety years on Earth, Annie spent about eighty seven in Harrismith. She was born there, she went to school there (half her schooling) and she sold Caltex petrol to her Vrystaat customers there.
The only few years she was away from Harrismith she spent ‘down in George.’ She went to stay with her sister Jessie Bell when Jessie’s daughter died.
When she got there there was great excitement as they just knew she’d be very useful in dealing with the kleurlinjeez, who spoke their own Afrikaans and hardly any Engels.
‘Annie speaks Afrikaans, she’ll be able to speak to them and understand them,’ was the buzz.
So the first day the gardener needs instructions and Annie confidently demonstrates her skill to the assembled rooineks:
‘Tata lo potgieter and water lo flowers’ she told the poor man who must have scratched his head at the Zulu-Engels mix in which the only word approximating Off-The-Krans was ‘potgieter’ instead of ‘gieter’ for watering can.
more Harrismith Scots joke I’ve told you before, but I’ll add it to
this collection: Jock Grant arrives from Scotland full of bravado,
bulldust, enterprise and vigour.
He’s a plumber – a plooomerr – but soon he’s bought the stone quarry, bought the Montrose Motel in Swinburne, bought the Shell garage, bought a big white Mk 10 Jag and smokes fat cigars.
In the pub at the golf club he removes the cigar from his lips, waves it around and tells the guys he’s started Afrikaans lessons – he’s going to learn to speak Afrikaans.
Jannie du Plessis looked concerned. ‘Jock,’ he says, ‘We think you should rather learn to speak English first.’
heeltemal – completely
kleurlinjeez – a vague racial classification in apartheid times – and still in use today! Not black, not white, therefore ‘coloured’; actual word: kleurlinge
rooineks – people congenitally unable to speak Afrikaans, try as they might; actually, try as they don’t
Annie had a Caltex garage; Dad worked for Annie; Louis Schoeman traveled for Caltex. Between 1962 and 1971 Caltex gave cloth wildlife calenders as their gift to their filling station owners.
Dad (now 96) says Louis would ‘forget’ to hand them out and he would insist on seeing what was in his boot. And there, ‘along with the sheep shit’ were the calenders! An inveterate collector, Dad would get ‘his’ share! Right! That’s why he has quite a few duplicates!
Some have been sewn together to make table cloths. He still has plans for them, can’t get rid of them. He knows someone who will make them into cushion covers. Then he’ll get some cushions . .
He’s had it done: The calendars are now table cloths and cushion covers and he’s very proud of them. Can’t understand why his eldest daughter didn’t rave about them! She doesn’t like them, I dunno why; I like them. Nice and colourful.
One of Annie’s workers at the Central Service Station on the corner of Warden street and Southey street – the ‘Caltex garage’ as we knew it – was called Johannes. Because he looked so different from the other petrol attendants, we learnt his surname. He was Johannes Culling.
Today I found out a bit more:
The Boer War started in 1899 and ended in 1902, but a lot of British soldiers stayed on in Harrismith until 1913. One of these was Sergeant Culling, stationed on Kings Hill. He, in fact stayed on even longer, as he married a local lady and went to live with her in the ‘location’ called ‘Skoonplaas’ outside town, probably when it was south of Queens Hill on the far (left) bank of the Wilge river.
Dad knows of three children: Johannes, Henry and a daughter. They could not have had an easy life in the Free State of yore and Dad tells of problems: ‘run-ins with the police due to drinking and fighting.’
Long long ago Annie said to me I should get her beloved husband Frank’s oak desk. We never knew Frank. He died when Mom was just fifteen or so, still in school. Annie had five grandkids and I suppose her reasoning was the only grandson should get it?
So now Mom’s in Azalea Gardens and Dad will be joining her soon, so it was time to fetch the desk. Dismantle, ship on the back of and inside of my Ford bakkie and re-assemble in my office.
It looks good.
Very importantly, the key is in the top drawer, attached to a label ticket. Written in (I suppose) Annie’s handwriting: “Key of Frank’s Desk.” Interesting, as there’s no lock or keyhole in the desk, nor any of its drawers!
Steve Reed sent a picture of old American cars in Aussie .. I wrote:
These lovely old motorised wrecks remind me of Swinburne character Abe Sparks’ Rolls Royce bakkie. And that reminds me of Nell van Heerden.
Dr Anna Petronella van Heerden, born 1887 in Bethlehem. She studied at the University of Amsterdam from 1908 to 1915 where she completed her medical degree. Van Heerden served as an intern at the Volkshuishospitaal in Bloemfontein in 1916 and had her own practice in Harrismith from 1917. She specialised in gynaecology in London from 1921 before returning to Amsterdam to complete her PhD in 1923. She moved to Cape Town where she practiced as a gynaecologist. She retired from her practice in 1942 to go farming in Harrismith.
Apparently she bought the Roller in England, toured the continent in it, then shipped it back to Kaapstad where she ran her specialist practice. This part about the car is according to my 96 year-old Dad.
She gave up practicing medicine and came to Harrismith to farm cattle and was legendary among the boere here.
Before that, she went digging:
Always dressed in khaki trousers, khaki shirt, sturdy shoes and hoed, she would answer my gran Annie’s How are you, Nell? query with ‘Fair to bloody’ as she filled her bakkie up with Caltex at Annie’s Central Service Station. She had a live-in girlfriend Freddie Heseltine, who sometimes had to move out to the cottage when Nell had city girlfriends over for wild parties on her farm Grootfontein, behind the mountain. So we were told!
A cattle farmer, she would be seen at the vendusies where if any of the boere made the mistake of saying something, she’d be ready along the lines of “Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” A true character, salt of the earth, a socialist and a real mensch. Imagine how strong you’d have to be, being ‘anders’ in a milieu where being a Male White Afrikaans Christian made you a baas, made you automatically right and should have made all women appreciative and in their plek – and NOT at vendusies! And if they must be at vendusies they should serve the tea and koeksisters! The local boere would have known she was well-connected, though – she had served on National Party bodies – and was not to be taken lightly.
She did genealogy research and wrote two autobiographical books – I must try and get hold of them.
Anna Petronella van Heerden (1887–1975), was the first Afrikaans woman to qualify as a medical doctor. Her thesis, which she obtained a doctorate on in 1923, was the first medical thesis written in Afrikaans. She practiced as a gynaecologist, retiring in 1942. She also served in the South African medical corps during World War II.
She campaigned for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, and worked as a farmer after retiring from her medical work. She also published two autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (Candle Snuffings) and Die Sestiende Koppie (the Sixteenth Cup), and other works, including:Waarom Ek ‘n Sosialis Is (1938) (Why I’m as Socialist), and Dames XVII (1969). Her awakening came, she writes in Die Sestiende Koppie, when she found out just how few rights women had, and that they were – she was – legally classified with children and idiots!
This from Women Marching Into the 21st Century: Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo:
This from “Nationalism, Gender and Sexuality in the Autobiographical Writing of Two Afrikaner Women,” Viljoen L. (2008):
Viljoen investigates questions of nationalism, gender and sexuality in the autobiographical texts of Petronella van Heerden and Elsa Joubert, and makes the point that autobiography, a genre often considered marginal to the literary canon, can be regarded as a site for examining the impact of nationalism on the construction of gendered and sexual identity. Petronella van Heerden (1887-1975) became the first Afrikaner woman to qualify as a medical doctor and published two short autobiographical texts, Kerssnuitsels (‘Candle Snuffings’) and Die Sestiende Koppie (‘the Sixteenth Cup’), in the early 1960s. The article argues that van Heerden’s omission of overt references to her lesbianism can be attributed to the strong, though embattled, position of Afrikaner nationalism at the time her texts were published.
My guess is there would also have been a fair dose of Nell saying ‘its none of your bloody business’ in there as well.
Nell van Heerden died in 1975, aged 88.
Oh, back to the Rolls Royce! I imagine – but I don’t know this – that it was converted into a bakkie, a pickup, a ute, after Abe had bought it from Nell. We always heard stories of how Aussie sheep farmers ‘drove Rolls Royces around their farms, as the running boards were wide enough to carry dead sheep.’ Abe would have liked that, and my guess is he thought ‘Hell, I can do that too.’
Kaapstad – Cape Town
boere – farmers
hoed – hat
vendusies – livestock sales / auctions
“Ja, (Jan, Piet, Koos) ek is n fokken vrou al lyk ek nie so nie!” – Yes, Koos, I am a woman even if I don’t look like one!
anders – different; anything other than white, straight, conformist and obedient
plek – place; as in ‘know your place’
koeksisters– ‘South African doughnut’; deep-fried, very sweet
bakkie – pickup; ute
Before Nell van Heerden: The first female to practice medicine in South Africa was Margaret Ann Bulkley. She was born in Ireland in 1789. She disguised herself as a man and called herself James Barry from then on. She qualified as a medical doctor in Edinburgh in 1812 and practiced medicine in Cape Town from 1816 to 1828. She effected significant changes, among them improvements to sanitation and water systems, improved conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill, and provision of a sanctuary for the leper population; performed one of the first known successful caesarian sections in which both mother and child survived; the child was christened James Barry Munnik in Barry’s honour, and the name was passed down through the family, leading to Barry’s name being borne by a later Prime Minister of South Africa, JBM Hertzog. Her birth sex only became known to the public and to her military colleagues after her death.
Before Nell:Jane Elizabeth Waterston was born in Inverness in 1843. One of the first women to be trained at the London School of Medicine for Women where she took her medical degree in 1880. She received a medical license from the Irish King and Queen’s College of Physicians. In 1883 she became a physician in Cape Town, where she died in 1932.
Same time as Nell:Mary Gordon b. 1890 in Lithuania, qualified as a doctor at the University of Durham in 1916 and emigrated to Johannesburg that year, taking up a position at the Johannesburg hospital.
After Nell: In 1947 Mary Malahele-Xakana (1916 – 1981) was the first black woman to register as a medical doctor in South Africa. Born in Polokwane, she qualified at Wits.
There’s an article about her in Journal of Literary Studies. (the link takes you to a summary – they want US$43 to read the whole thing!)
Arthur Kennedy arrived in Harrismith like a dwarrelwind. Why we were so lucky as to get Arthur to our town I don’t know, but I think his wife Zita had family here. I think she was related to the Kerkenberg mountain vd Bosch’s.
He brought an exciting new venture to the dorp: A new motel on the N3 on the south-east end of town – at the Jo’burg-Durban-Bloemfontein junction – or the Warden-Swinburne-Kestell junction you could say if you weren’t going to drive far.
The motel – Kennedy Motel – was going to have a ‘flyover’ restaurant suspended over the road so diners could watch the road as they munched their mixed grills. All the Durban-Joburg traffic – the busiest rural freeway in South Africa by far – would have to drive underneath them. But meantime the motel and petrol station had to be built, plus all the rooms – the chalets. A cable car to the top of Platberg was also in the pipeline, according to Arthur. Big plans!
The Kennedy family stayed right on-site in novel half-round semi-portable wooden bungalows above the building site and below the track that was an extension of Vowe Street, below the SE end of Hector Street. Arthur was very hands-on and was deeply involved in everything. He made the cardinal apartheid error of starting to pay his workers more than the “known” Harrismith wage which, according to Steph de Witt, got 5ft 6 inch Arthur a visit from 6ft 4 inch Koos de Witt, Steph’s Dad. Steph says Koos found Arthur in a foundation ditch. He jumped in next to him and “explained” to him in international language how he was not to bend the “local rules” of wage exploitation.
Later he built a triangular house of wood and glass above Vowe Street – a huge novelty for the town. It was next door to the du Plessis home, and Pierre and I hopped the fence and inspected it while under construction. The bathroom had a novelty in it which we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t know it was called a bidet, but we spotted right away what it was for. HaHaHa! Our schoolboy humour kicked in. Arthur’s initials were AW (were they? or did we invent that?) and we proceeded to call him Arse Washer after that bathroom furniture that so tickled our crude funny bones. We weren’t always Methodist-polite, ’tis true.
He even became a town councillor, this foreign rooinek in the vrystaat! If America could have a President Kennedy at that time, why couldn’t we have a possible future mayor Kennedy? Quite a guy was our Arthur!
The Cupboard Snake
For a while the Kennedys lived in the middle of town – in or near the house where Nick Duursema lived, near the circle in Warden street, just down from Arthur Grey’s corner store. That’s where the puff adder landed on top of the bedroom wardrobe.
The first and last puff adder I saw ‘in the wild’ was in Hector Street outside our house in about 1965 when – ware vrystater that she was – Mother Mary ran over the poor thing in the blue VW OHS 155. Doelbewus! Swear! The old man was called out from the pub. He came home, caught it and put it in a box which he gave to Zita Kennedy to give to Tommy van den Bosch. Maybe he’d first stunned it with a blast of cane spirits breath.
Tommy lived against the slopes of Kerkenberg and wore a cowboy hat and played the guitar. He’d sing you a mournful – or toe-tapping if that was your poison – cowboy song at the drop of a hat. His cowboy stetson hat. He collected snakes and took them to the Durban snake park who paid him by the foot. They estimated this puffy at five foot, though of course that length may have grown over time! SSSSS – Snake Stories Seldom Suffer Shrinkage.
That night in bed just before lights out Arthur Kennedy asked Zita “What’s that box up on the cupboard?” She hadn’t finished telling him and he was already out in Bester Street opposite the ou groot kerk near the traffic circle in his tiny pie-jarm shorts shouting “Get that thing out of there ! I am NEVER going into that house again until that thing is gone!” and other earnest entreaties.
Flying through the air with the greatest of ease – Arthur K on his flying trapeze!
He did! He flew the full length of the stadsaal; again in his tight broeks. So he might have had a fear of snakes, but he was fearless in other ways: Who can forget Arthur Kennedy dressed only in a white Tarzan loincloth, swinging right across the hele stadsaal on a trapeze high above the gob-smacked and ge-be-indrukte Harrismith dorpsmense? And outdoors upside-down high on a thin pole above the skougronde? Fearless aerobatics and acrobatics.
But a snake on his cupboard? That was too much for him!
For a while he made Harrismith seem part of the wider world! It was a bit like this:
Here’s the actual scene of the thrill (I remember the curtains as red back then):
Republic Day 31 May 1961: On the big day celebrating South Africa’s freedom from the tyranny of Mrs British Queen, Arthur gave a stunning performance on his own equipment down at the President Brand Park in front of a full pawiljoen of ge-be-indrukte Harrismith mense! Dad filmed it:
Arthur ran our mountain race and, further proving his commitment to Harrismith he married a second local girl – much, much younger than him.
dwarrelwind – whirlwind, tornado, breath of fresh air
doelbewus – on purpose; Swear! ‘Strue’s God! Gentle Mary did that. In those days you did. The only thing that made you think maybe you wouldn’t drive over it was the story that it would wind itself around your axle and then climb up into your engine, then under your dashboard and THEN pik you on the foot! Swear!
ware vrystater – genuine free stater; born and bred in the free state, as was her mother before her (who would not have been celebrating the 1961 demotion of QEII from monarch to foreign tannie)
tannie – auntie
ou groot kerk – the old Dutch Reformed Church, the Moederkerk
Back in 1963 we joined the du Plessis on a one-week beach and fishing holiday on the Natal north coast – Chaka’s Rock! They were beach regulars, this was one of our two beach holidays that I can remember. (flash: there were three!). Louis Brocket wrote in to remind us that, as Lynn’s boyfriend, he was also there for his first “vakansie-by-die-see“.
Sheila writes: “Found a postcard which Mary Methodist sent to her Mom Annie Bland (1½ cent stamp – remember the brown Afrikaner bull?). Mary wrote ‘We’re enjoying the swimming immensely. Coughs no worse in spite of it. We’re sleeping well and eating very well. The coast is beautiful. This is a picture of the pool where we swim.’ I think the three little Swanies all had whooping cough. Must have been fun for the du Plessis family who shared our holiday!”
It was amazing! The cottage on a hill above the beach, the rocks and seaside cliffs, narrow walkways along the cliffs that the waves would drench at high tide; magic swimming pools set in the rocks. The men were there to fish:
We baljaar’d on the beach and sometimes even ventured into the shallows – just up to safe vrystaat depth. A swimmer I was not, and I still vividly remember a near-death experience I had in the rock pool: a near-metre-high wave knocked me out of Mom’s arms and I was washed away out of her safe grasp! I must have been torn away by up to half a metre from her outstretched hands; little asthmatic me on my own in the vast Indian Ocean for what must have been a long one and a half seconds, four long metres away from dry land! Traumatised. To this day I am wary of the big-dam-that-you-can’t-see-the-other-side-of, and when I have to navigate across any stretches of salty water I use a minimum of a Boeing 737, but preferably a 747.
Well, this was the most threatening Free State water I was used to braving before I met the Indian Ocean: Oh, also the horse trough.
The view from the cottage looking down the flight of stairs:
vakansie by die see – beach or seaside holiday for naive inland creatures
baljaar – frolic
safe vrystaat depth – about ankle deep
postscript: I tried to keep up the luxury cottage theme but Barbara talked about the big spiders on the walls and yesterday even Dad, who was talking about Joe Geyser, mentioned ‘that ramshackle cottage we stayed in at Chaka’s Rock.’
Dad was saying Joe hardly ever caught a fish. He would be so busy with this his pipe, relighting it, refilling it, winding the reel with one hand while fiddling with his pipe with the other. My theory is the fish could smell the tobacco and turned their nose up at his bait. Dad reckons tobacco was never a health hazard to old Joe. Although he was never without his pipe, it was mainly preparation and cleaning, and the amount of actual puffing he did was minimal.
Once he caught a wahoo and brought it back to Harrismith. Griet took one look at it as he walked into her kitchen and bade him sally forth. Some wives had agency. So Joe brought it to Dad and they cut it up and cooked it in our kitchen.
I went back in 2016 and the beach and rocks and the pools still look familiar.
But don’t look back! The green hillslopes have been concreted.