We had asbestos heaters on the walls in our Louisa Street residence in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. The res was in the shadow of the not-yet-completed Ponte tower – the 50-story residential cylinder up on the hill that became famous and notorious for varying reasons over the years.
Ponte loomed above us. It was still being built then.
Late one night we woke up to yelling and cursing. Thick smoke billowed into our room, so we rushed out to see wassup. Glen Barker and Louis Slabbert’s room was on fire! Glen’s clothes, his bedside table, the linoleum floor and the ceiling were ablaze. We soon put it out and, coughing and spluttering, opened up the windows and doors to let the acrid, foul smoke escape.
To the amazement of the non-smokers amongst us, Louis then sat down on his bed, lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply!
The Kleinspan schooltime ended around twelve noon or one o’ clock I guess and we lived less than a mile east along Stuart Street and so one bleak and chilly winter day Donald Coleman and I set off for home in our grey shirts, grey shorts and grey socks – and grey jerseys.
We had lots to talk about and so we walked along on the pavement under the big old plain trees, mostly bereft of leaves, many of which were lying in the deep sandstone gutters.
It was really cold and Donald had a box of matches in his pocket and a plan. We raked together a pile of the dry leaves with our chilly hands and started a nice fire and sat down to warm our hands and shins as the fire crackled away.
It soon burnt out and we meandered on and a block or two later made another blazing but short-lived fire to sit and chat and warm up by.
Then we reached Hector Street and Donald turned down toward his home and I turned up to mine. Mine on the corner and his a block or two closer to the mountain.
“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN!?” greeted me. The tone of the question surprised me and ruined the quiet, gentle ambience of our leisurely journey home. At his home Donald was being asked the same unreasonable question. We’d been to school. Everyone knew that, why were they asking?
“IT’S FIVE O’ CLOCK! SCHOOL ENDED OVER FOUR HOURS AGO!” We weren’t arguing. We didn’t say it didn’t. What was their point? “WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG?” Uh, we were talking . . .
We were told off and left to ponder the mysteries of the adult world. They obviously marched to a different drum. We sauntered to ours.
They didn’t know that Donald was an archeologist, paleontologist, cosmologist, naturalist and we had LOTS to think about and consider. They just assumed we were buggering around.
And anyway, whose stress levels were highest? I arse you that.
Huge thanks to Sandra of Harrismith’s best blog DeDoudeHuizeYard for the pictures – exactly right! That is the SAME gutter we sat in. You can even see a few of the plane leaves, great-great-great descendants of the ones we burned, um, (surely it can’t be!) fifty six years ago.
Freezing on top of Platberg, wet and an icy wind. We huddle and chomp some snacks.
I brought matches, I’ll light a fire, I announce. But it ain’t easy, dry kindling is hard to come by, but I persevere. Pierre and Tuffy are skeptical: If you get that going I’ll buy you a farm in Eloff Street, says one.
But I do! Not a roaring blaze, but we warm our hands at least.
This must’ve been ca. 1969. Eloff Street was Johannesburg’s main street and priciest real estate at the time. No longer, as businesses fled the CBD and relocated to Sandton and other nodes outside ‘Old Joburg’.
If I had got my farm I wonder if I’d have sold it before the bust?
We were somewhere below that red flag:
Found this lovely pic on a Harrismith Mountain Race blog site – thanks!!
Farnie, is that a box of matches in your pocket? asked stern Uncle Louis. No Dad, its just a block of wood.
We were having lunch on their smallholding east of Harrismith and father Louis knew enough to ask, but not enough to check. After lunch we were off into the veld and once out of sight Farnie bent down, struck a match and set fire to the grass, watched it in fascination for a few seconds, then beat the flames out with his hands. My turn. Then his turn again.
Who knows whose turn it was – doesn’t matter – but we let it grow too big. Both of us tried to beat it out, stomp it out, but the flames spread and ran away from us.
OH! SH*T!! We ran back to the farm house and phoned the fire engine in town. When Louis found out he phoned again and told them not to come. He had already phoned the neighbours and alerted all hands on deck.
My most vivid memory was herding cattle out of a paddock and having a cow refuse to go, charging straight back at us and forcing her way back in. Her calf was in there and she only left once it was with her.
Nine farms burnt, we were told. And calling the fire engine costs money we were told. And we learnt some other lessons, too. You can tell: Both of us are fine upstanding citizens today (telling our kids to BEHAVE themselves, dammit).
A fire in 2014 in the exact same spot (click on the pic). Our fire was ca 1960.
NB: As memories are notoriously fickle, read older sister Barbara’s (probably more accurate!) recollection of this day:
Let’s go back to the Schoeman’s farm. The three little Swanepoels were spending a week-end on the farm with the three little Schoemans.
Three Swanies ca 1960
After breakfast the six of us went for a walk in the veld. Unbeknown to me, two little sh*ts had lied about having matches in their pockets. Not far from the house they crouched down and I thought they had seen something on the ground. On inspection I now knew that it was matches that they were playing with. They lit a few little fires and quickly with their bare hands (brave boys!) killed the flames. Until then it was all fun for them but I felt very uneasy.
Suddenly the next little flame became a “grand-daddy” of a flame and within no time the two little sh*ts could not longer use their brave little hands. Guess who ran away first? Yes, the two little sh*ts! Something made me look back at the roaring fire and that’s when I saw little Louie – who was 3 – standing in a circle of flames with his arm raised and covering his face – he was frozen stiff. I turned around, ran through the flames, picked him up and ‘sent it’ back to the farmhouse.
With no grown-ups at home, I phoned my mother at the Platberg Bottle Store and through lots of “snot and trane” told her what had happened. She ran across the road to the Town Hall corner and “hit” the fire alarm for the Harrismith Fire Brigade to come and save the day. Needless to say they saw no fire in town so must have just gone home.
The fire did burn through about 3 farms – the damage was extensive. Uncle Louie and Aunty Cathy, on coming home that afternoon, apparently stopped the car on the main road, got out and just stared – could not believe what they was seeing.
Well, we were supposed to spend the week-end there but all the grown-ups had had enough. We were packed up, bundled up into the car and taken home.
Years later (before they left SA) I bumped into Louie and Gaylyn and told them the story. I could not believe it when Louie told me he had always known that I had saved his life – and I thought that that memory had gone up in flames!
Lots of love to you all
Yours “Firewoman” Barbara
Later I wrote (thinking that nothing had really happened to us after the fire): Dammitall, we really had amazingly tolerant parents back in the sixties, come to think of it!
To which Farn Schoeman replied: Koos, small correction: YOU had amazingly tolerant parents!