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.
The old man inviting me to go someplace! How’s that!? I hopped into the old faded-blue VW Kombi OHS 153. This sounded interesting. We never went to the railway station. We’d go near there to the old MOTH hall and occasionally to the circus field when the Big Top was pitched there! But never to the station itself.
‘We’re fetching a family from Italy. The father is coming to work at the Standard Woollen Mills and they can’t speak English,’ says the old man. He picked up Italian in Italy around 1943 to 1946, first wending his way up the Adriatic coast in the Italian campaign and then later on involved in the post-war stuff armies do after the end of WW2, before flying home, having traveled the length of Italy south to north and into Austria. He kept up the language over the years mainly by fraternising with Boswell-Wilkie ** circus folk when they hit the Vrystaat vlaktes on the circus train and pitched the Big Top next to the railway line on the west edge of our famous dorp.
This exciting station trip was in 1965 or thereabouts. So we got to the stasie, the train rolled in and there hanging out of a window was a family of four: Luigi, Luigina and two sons about my age, fresh from Italy out. They were probably staring at my bare feet. But I’m just guessing.
I carried one suitcase to the kombi and then from the kombi into the Royal Hotel, where my great-uncle Smollie Bain was the barman. His Dad built the hotel and I think he stayed there all his life.
Soon Claudio and Ennio were in school, Claudio a standard below me in sister Sheila’s class, and Ennio a standard or two lower. They got a house in Wilge Park and so started many happy visits and sumptuous Luigina meals with the Bellatos – I can still picture her kitchen so clearly. And sundry happy adventures with Claudio.
The only time before this anything Italian might have rolled up at Harrismith stasie might have been these Italian things ca. 1914.
** Boswell-Wilkie Circus: Every few years for a while we would suddenly have clowns, lion-tamers and acrobats in our home! They all looked very ordinary, frankly, in their normal kit; except Tickey the clown. He and his daughter were instantly recognisable even without make-up because of their small stature and strong faces.
Ah! Claudio read it and responded with compliments and corrections:
‘Excellent Koos. The year was 1967 – 24 March. Otherwise pretty accurate. A good read and great memories. ** laughing emoji – thumbs-up emoji ** Well done.’
Miz Zobbs was scathing: Why can’t any of you whistle? Listen to Claudio! HE can whistle. Show them Claudio. It takes a boy from Italy to show you lot how to whistle!
Poor old Claudio Bellato dutifully pursed his lips and tootled some Italian to show us how it was done while probably thinking . . You Don’t Pronounce My Name Clawed-ee-oh.
See?! *SNIFF* *SNIFF* You see! shrieked the old duck, sniffing loudly and wobbling alarmingly.
Dora Hobbs, snuff-sniffing tour de force of Harrismith Volkskool could rampage. She would march up and down like a galleon in full sail, never happier than when commanding a choir.
She stopped us in mid-song once to berate us: How many of you can say that!? Huh? How many of you can say you’ve fought and won!? she demanded.
Us ten year-olds stared at her blankly. What was she on about? Did she think we actually thought about the kak we were singing? Weird.
We’d been singing:
There was a soldier, A Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away, And soldiered far away
There was none bolder, With good broad shoulder
He’d fought in many a fray, And fought and won
How many of you can say you’ve fought in many a fray? she brayed.
Dripping disdain and snot, with snuff stuck in her moustache, on her glasses and on her ample bosom, she’d close her eyes, toss her head and mince around on her toes like a bulk ballerina. I think she was living in another world. When she opened her eyes and saw not dashing broad-shouldered soldiers in kilts, no underpants, wanting to woo the wee svelte lassie inside her, but instead snivelling pint-sized Vrystaters who would rather have been anywhere else in the dorp other than in “singing,” her mood probably grew dark.
Anyway, she probably didn’t know we fought of something totally different when she said ‘fray’ – and no we hadn’t done that either. Yet.
She could be vicious, too, I’m afraid. She beat Dries and Alvaro mercilessly when they irritated her. Across the shoulders, on the top of their heads, stalking them from where she sat behind us. Face-to-face she would smash the heavy 40cm wooden ruler on their fingertips. She was rooted in Olde English educational methods:
A. Find out what a child cannot do; and then . .
B. Repeatedly demonstrate that he cannot do it;
Stand him up in front of the class and order him to do that thing that you know he cannot do; HUMILIATE HIM; followed sometimes – depending who the child was – by . .
C. a public beating.
A bad show, really, even granting that having Std 1, Std 2 and Std 3 in one class was probably not easy. Still: Not right. 26 kids in a class is far from the most anyone ever taught. She picked on the vulnerable. I suspect she knew none of their parents would challenge her on their behalf. Nor would the headmaster. Others of us never got touched; never even a harsh word.
Years later I read a review of what James Joyce had written when his character’s knuckles had been viciously beaten by a sadistic Catholic priest in front of the whole class. I found it now:
Stephen knelt down quickly pressing his beaten hands to his sides. To think of them beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt sorry for.
Stephen – the character in Joyce’s novel A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man – reported it to the rector and got at least some satisfaction and admiration for being bold enough to defy convention and make the cruelty known. In Harrismith Volkskool no such justice was done; nor even attempted, to my knowledge; no-one brave enough, me included; no-one believing it was any use to expect any justice or fair play.
volkskool – primary school
fought – thought
fray – woo, neck, kiss, make love, first fumblings
kak – shit
Vrystaters – citizens of the Free State; which was anything but
Down the Mighty Vulgar River (Wilge really) in a borrowed canoe ca 1970. An Accord double kayak borrowed from the ‘Voortrekkers’ – Afrikaner Propaganda Volks Brainwashing Outfit – thanks to Ou Lip’s kindness. He had a good heart, Ou Lip Snyman, and I’m sure he thought he looked dashing in his Voortrekkerleier uniform.
I’m with my mate Claudio Bellato. He’s not a Voortrekker, even though his Afrikaans is bedonderd good. For an Italian. We embark in Swinburne.
The water’s high, it flows up in the willow branches making some sections very tricky. A branch whips off Claudio’s specs – down into the swirling muddy waters go his 5D cylinders (optometrists will know that’s no mean amount of astigmatism). His view of the world has changed from clear to er, interesting. He wants to go after them, knowing that Dad Luigi will take a dim view of the loss. I say “Are you mad!? You’ll drown!”
Later I lose my specs after an unscheduled swim and I go out on a precarious willow limb sticking out over the current looking ‘just in case’. “Oh!” says Claudio, “I’m mad to think of looking for mine, but its OK for you to look for yours?!” Well, mine are only 4D spheres I didn’t mumble, illogically. I must have muttered something, though. Optometrists will know that even with all my foresight, my view of the world was now also not pin-sharp. Rocks in the river would now be navigated by sound.
We paddle on in the blur, the myopic leading the astigmatic. I’m wearing my PlusFours. We decide we should camp while there’s still daylight. That night we share one damp sleeping bag, as mine’s sopping wet. Little did I know that for decades ever after Claudio would introduce me: “Meet my mate Peter. I’ve slept with him.”
The next day we sally forth, peering ahead and paddling tentatively, which we later learn is not the way to negotiate a swift current. The river forks to go round an island, there’s a treeblock, and we wrap the boat around the semi-submerged treetrunk. Our downriver expedition has ended and we’re marooned on the island.
This is new to Claudio, but it’s the second time I’ve now wrapped a borrowed boat on a flooded Wilge River. Fording the rushing current, I only just make the right bank and I signal above the roaring water for Claudio to SIT! STAY! on the island. DON’T try and cross this stream, its DANGEROUS! I semaphore in my best sign language. Then I turn and run off to the beautiful old sandstone house under the splendid oaks of Mrs Girlie and the Misses Marie and Bettie Jacobsz’ farm Walton to phone Charlie Ryder.
Not long after, says me, ‘A hundred years later,’ says Claudio – he comes roaring out in his pale green Volvo 122S in a plume of dust with a long rope. We pull Claudio off the island, but the boat is pinned to the semi-submerged tree. We only rescue the Voortrekkers’ green and white boat two weeks later when the water has subsided.
The Voortrekkers take a dim view of my treatment of their flatwater fibreglass Accord craft and rush me R50 – keep the wreckage.
I’m hooked on kayaking! I can do this! I think . . .
School holidays. We have to DO something or we’ll go crazy! Ma, we want to go and climb Mt aux Sources. How are you going to get there? We’ll hitch-hike. Over my dead body! or words to that effect. NO, I think she meant.
So two days later we get home – me, Claudio Bellato and Carlos da Silva – drenched, muddy and weary, having reached Witsieshoek, but not the mountain, as the heavens had opened up, torrential rain turning the roads into quagmires. So the mountaineering goal of the expedition had been thwarted, but the main goal – having fun – had not!
Where have you been?! To Mt aux Sources, like I said. How did you get there? We hitch-hiked, like I said.
One of our lifts was with one of the Trading Greys, dunno who exactly. The rain bucketed down and I learnt a lot about driving in slick mud by watching him continuously turn into the skid on the muddy Witsieshoek road.
As always, Mother Mary couldn’t stay cross with me for long. My companions on this adventure, Claudio and Carlos, loved it as much as I did.
The images show that same road in sunny weather years later. Then it was wet and gravel, not dry and tarred.