So there we were ensconced on a farm outside Potchefstroom among raw rockspider seventeen year-olds, fresh out of high school from all over South Africa. We heard it had been a reform school for delinquents before we got there and turned it into a military camp. A SAMS base – South African Medical Services. “Loopspruit” or “Klipdrif” they called it. We’d been sent there for “army basics”. We were around twenty four, having delayed the joys of military life by studying to become optometrists. In hindsight, maybe we shoulda done the army first!? Time would tell . .
Our barracks was an old science lab. It still had the thick wooden workbench tops, the thick ceramic washbasins with fancy taps and the bunsen burner attachments. And best of all – vinyl tile floors! That flooring was to become our biggest asset . .
One young dutchman was big as an ox, quiet as a mouse. He sat listening to us twenty four year-old oumanne praating Engels in fascination. In many pockets of the old South Africa you could grow up hearing very little Engels.
Suddenly one day our man became famous! He burst into song, singing three lines: ‘Are you lonesome tonight? Are your brastrap too tight? That’s why you’re lonesome tonight!‘
He sounded unlike Elvis:
We hosed ourselves and gave him a new name: Jelly Tots. He didn’t really like it, but his name was Lotzoff, and we would see him and say ‘Lots and Lotzoff – JELLY TOTS!’ He learnt new words from us – and taught us a new phrase too: When frustrated he didn’t say “fuck’s sake”, he said “fuck’s fakes” so that became our phrase too.
Another character was as small as Lotzoff was big. He looked twelve years old and was a compact, muscular, good looking, perky, cute little bugger. He had a smattering of Engels and preferred to use it. Some of the others refused to even try – Stoere Boere. His name? GT Jones! Pointless giving someone with so apt and memorable a name a nickname. GT Jones!
We were in the medics and we had to know all about ambulances. GT Jones called them ‘ambuminces.’And so was born a new name for one of the meals in the mess. On ground beef days we would refer to the stuff plopped onto our plates by the bored chefs as ambumince – which led in turn, naturally, to gruesome speculation on its origin!
Among the older, optometrist inmates: Graham Lewis – A companion worth his weight in gold. Never fazed, always cheerful. Keenly aware of the hilarity of this fake existence we were leading. He’d been assigned to D Company. We were in A or C Company and we were chuffed when he got transferred to our (better, natch) company. We were good company and so was he! D Company’s barracks was one of the old residences. Wooden floors. A nightmare to clean. They would regularly get bollocksed for dirty floors after hours of scrubbing them, while we got praise for our vinyl floors after all we had done was sweep them. Typical army illogical unfairness. They would lose weekend passes and we would win bonus weekend passes based on the luck of the floors we’d been allocated! Once while we were away on a weekend pass . . .
Basics was, uh, basic. Get up in the morning, bugger around with your clothes and other domestic stuff like making your bed; Assemble in straight stripes; March; March; Trudge; Omkeer! Eat; March; March; Trudge; MakeeriePAS! Holy shit . . .
Dave Cooper was another worth his weight in gold. Always smiling, always upbeat.
Les Chrich, Les Davies, Les Miller, Okkie Oosthuizen, Rod Stedall, who else?
Loopspruit – walking creek; running stream;
Klipdrif – stony shallow river crossing or drift;
oumanne praating Engels – old men (24yrs) speaking English
– still to come –
guard duty – grootjas, cold; threats if caught not looking sharp on duty; one flyswatter gets DB – the dreaded Detention Barracks
Puma helicopter demo / race / stretchers – we win!
You give some old bullets the internets, and what happens? – A bunch of unlikely and involuntary ‘soldiers’ turn to reminiscing . .
One fine day in October 2018 I walked into work and my practice manager Raksha said, ‘A lady wants you to phone her. She says she thinks you were in the army with her brother Derek Downey.’
That must be Avril! I said.
Well, that brought back a flood of memories and led to this garbled line of correspondence from a whole bunch of ancient friends who I’m very worried about. I think they’re all going senile. Seems I’m about the last sane one amongst us!
I wrote: Do you guys remember the Durban boys on the offisiers kursus back in ’79? – Derek Downey, Rheinie Fritsch and Paul (‘no KIDDING!?‘) Goupille? They all begged to be sent to Durban-On-Sea after the officers course, citing important sport events, tragic family happenings, weeping needy girlfriends, Springbok surfing training, etc. I, on the other hand, asked to go to the Angolan border in South West Africa. ‘Die Grens’.
Well, all three of them were sent to Die Grens and I went to Durbs. To Natal Command, the famous ‘Hotel Command’ headquarters right on the beach on Marine Parade with the waves of the warm blue Indian Ocean lapping gently at the feet of the soldier on guard at the front gate. Who saluted me when I arrived! I was so astonished I missed the salute back. I forgot I was now a Loo-Attendant, no longer a Kakhuis Offisier (KO).
Inside, I was shown to my quarters and told to put my shoes outside the door – of my own private room! No more bunking with you smelly lot.
I thought the shoes thing must be some sort of ritual or tradition, or maybe a hygiene thing; But the next morning the blerrie things were brightly polished! ‘Twas like a miracle! I had a batman!
I also reported to this motley crew of kakhuis offisiers that our friend private* Graham Lewis – he who belonged to the wrong company at Loopspruit and then joined us – promotion – and promptly proceeded to fuck up our pristine floor in a misguided effort with dribrite polish and a rotary floor polisher – was alive and irrepressible.
brought them up to speed on the Private’s Progress:
He’s done some amazing things post-war that you will not believe and you will think I’m talking kak but I’m TELLING YOU. Our Private Graham Lewis:
married; Can you believe that? But more: To a lovely and very
good-looking lady! Who tolerates his foibles. It’s astonishing!
– got rich; Swear! And not from smousing spectacles. He became a landlord after being skopped out of a shopping centre; it’s a wonderful tale of success and couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. When I phone there now I ask for the Wicked Landlord and they put me straight through to him;
– started running; his mates used to run the 89km Comrades Marathon while he drank beer and they made the mistake of mocking him, so he pulled on an old pair of tennis tackies – unlaced – and entered the Comrades unbeknown to them and beat the lot of them!
– did the 120km Dusi Canoe Marathon; He got into a canoe and fell out; then got in again and fell out again, then entered a race and didn’t finish. So I said to him, come, Lewis! Lemme show you. I took him on a race on the Tugela near Colenso. We finished last, but we finished; Then he entered Dusi and finished and he did it quite a few times after that.
– decided running on KwaZulu Natal hills was too easy so he ran from the bottom of the Drakensberg to the top of Mt aux Sources up the chain ladder and then down the Gulley on a rugged track for about 55km on a balmy day; And the next year he did it again. Barmy day. He’s gone a bit mashugana I’m afraid.
* private? were we privates or riflemen? I can’t remember. If we were riflemen, can we become cannons one day, like dominees can?
Lunch Corporal (equal to a Texas General) Dhhhavid Cooper wrote:Luitenant – I’ve been meaning to reply for a while.
Firstly, luitenant Swaneveer – you’re a damn good writer and your blogs are hilarious. Why have you been hiding your talents under a bosvark?
Secondly, Makeerdiepas Les kept us smiling and “always looking on the bright side of life” with his voluminous aka “audible” mirth. **
Thirdly, I was most impressed with KO Lewis’ resurrection as a first rate floor officer to an even finer specimen of an officer in the running, so to speak. We should all be so lucky.
royalties, meagre as they were, were all blown in one night of wine,
women and song – at least I think they were. Maybe the ‘women’ part
is just wishful thinking. Memories at 63 are not what they used to
– I do remember one conversation with you KO Swaneveer that still
makes me pack up laughing when I think about it . . it related to “a
few polite thrusts” . .
I do remember the Durban boys – Les Chrich was filling me in on the ballesbak time you and he had fighting for the homeland at Hotel Command.
times – good memories.
** Les’ laugh led to a corporal once telling him “Hey, jy moet uit, uit, uit lag, nie in, in, in!”
I wrote again: That really cracked me up, Lunch Corporal Cooper! Whattasummary!!
My real talent lay in talking about hiding under bushels rather than
diving under same. Most ladies would watch wide-eyed as I
deteriorated until eventually I’d be on the floor, last drink on my
chest, one finger held high, still trying to make a point but a
Ah well, it was a good contraceptive. I changed my first nappy at age 43. And even then I contracted out the actual pomping to Child Welfare.
You’re quite wrong about Hotel Command. It was rugged. We suffered. I was told to report for duty as adjutant at the medics HQ in the 25-story Metal Industries House, two blocks back from the beachfront. Tenth floor.
The first day was taken up in making sure I had a parking spot for my sleek grey and grey 1965 Opel Concord OHS 5678 and that my office was suitable, window overlooking a park, now the Durban City Lodge. Couldn’t even see the sea. Hardship.
The next day I checked my desk, covered in brown manila files. One said Lt X was to leave Osindisweni Hospital and report to Christ the King Hospital the next day! I phoned him to tell him. “Wow! Thanks!” he said, “Usually we don’t get any notice at all!”. The next said Lt Y was moving in a week, he was bowled over that someone had told him so far in advance. The files had been on the desk for ages; they were covered in stof. The previous adjutant was a PF – a career soldier – and he was damned if he going to spoil those blerrie civvie doctors, who did they think they were!? He was a funny oke dressed in white with a strange title, it’ll come to me now . . Petty Officer. That’s it, Petty Officer! What a weird name compared to me: LIEUTENANT! You could salute a lieutenant. Who’d salute a petty officer? OK, true, I was a 2nd Lt. Only one pip, but that oke at the gate did salute me.
Our OC – that’s Officer Commanding – was a dapper 5ft tall Captain dressed all in white, complete with white cap and white shoes. Hilarious! What koptoe soldier would dream of wearing white shoes at Loopspruit in Potchefstroom!? Just imagine what the Gotchefstroom stof would do to them! He was Captain Mervyn Jordan. Naval Captain, mind you, which – if you’d read your notes on offisiers kursus – was equal to two Commandants and a beer in a brown uniform.
Once I cleared my desk, Captain Jordan – a helluva cool oke, by the way – suggested I commandeer a jeep and reconnoitre the hospitals under my command (none of which words he used, I’m just feeling uncharacteristically military here). My battlefield / sphere of influence lay between the blue Indian Ocean in the east and the high Drakensberg and Lesotho in the west; and from the Mocambique border in the north to the old Transkei in the south, which was also another country, remember? Three foreign states and a deep ocean surrounded me. Besides Christ the King and Osindisweni my other hospitals were called Appelsbosch, Emmaus, Hlabisa, Madadeni, Manguzi, Mosvold, St Appolonaris, ens ens.
Luckily I’d read my notes on offisiers kursus unlike you lot, so I filled in a DD99 form for the Jeep and a DD45 form for petrol and a DD78 form for accommodation, and – who’m I kidding? I knew DDbuggerall. Some PF pen-pusher did it all for me.
then disaster struck!
Before I could leave on my grand tour, driving my OWN Landrover all over Natal, peering over the border into three foreign countries including Transkei, an order came through on a DD69 assigning 2nd Lieutenant me and 2nd Lieutenant Les Chrich to Addington Hospital as resident oogkundiges. Instead of driving around visiting the odd nun and some okes in uniform at Zululand hospitals, I was ordered to move into Addington DQ – doctors quarters – across the road from the nurses res.
Did you catch that? Are you paying attention? We soldiers were ordered to live next door to a NURSES RESIDENCE. In which six hundred – that’s 600 – nurses in white skirts, silly little white hats and pantihose waited for us to come and service them under the Definitely Desirable DD69 conditions. Their eyes. Focus, you ous!
What could we do? Orders are orders. It was hell; We served. We suffered. We were barracked right next door to the DQ Pub, The Cock and Bottle. The Cock and Bottle was Mecca and Nirvana and Heaven. Every one of the superb six hundred – that’s 600 – knew The Cock and Bottle. Sure, some knew to avoid it, but others said Meet You There!
It was much like Alfred, Lord Tennyson had predicted:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into The smoke-filled Cock and Bottle
Rode the six hundred.
We were each given our own flat. Not a room, an apartment. Bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and entrance hall. High ceilings; Hot and cold running blondes. Seriaas. Ask Les. I shit you not.
Our first big bash was arranged by a New Zealand couple, two of the twenty-some housemen – these are practicing doctors in the literal sense of ‘practicing’ – they didn’t know WHAT they were doing, so they practiced. These two delightful Kiwi appy-quacks’ surname was actually Houseman, funnily enough. Lovely folk; they organised a raucous Priests and Prostitutes night in the Cock and Bottle.
The fishnet stockings! The see-through tops! The high heels! The micro skirts! I thought I’d died and gone to Mecca Nirvana Heaven! I wore a white dog collar (actually just a white shirt back-to-front) and a blue houndstooth holy Irish jacket made by a tailor in Dublin which I’d inherited from a drunk Irishman one FreeState night, which slayed the ladies. I think. They thought I was a catholic father. Much later that night I was on the floor, last drink on my chest, one finger held high, still trying to make a point but a touch incomprehensible.
But there was a big difference now: Nurses! Kind, nurturing souls moved to take up a caring profession. They didn’t step over you and walk out on you like a Jo’burg or Kimberley or Rustenburg chick at the New Devonshire Hotel or the New Doornfontein Hotel might. No! They would pick you up and sling your one arm over their shoulder and take you to bed, tuck you in saying Tut Tut. Or ‘Shine up, Chicken Legs’ if their name was Peppy. This is true! They were angels. Better than angels, as they had a devilish streak. If they diagnosed the need, they would sometimes even hop into the sickbed with you in order to apply pelvis-to-pelvis resuscitation. Swear! Dedicated! The prize for Best-Torn-Fishnet-Stockings-Of-The-Night went to Val the Admin Angel and guess who Viv took home that night? Quite a few party-goers. But guess who she sent home LAST? Sure, she’d had a few, but died-and-gone-to-heaven! Swear!
The weermag had actually posted us to fuckin’ heaven, I swear! Probably by mistake, but we were not complaining. Hey! you can ask 2nd Lt. Leslie LadyLover&Charmer Chrich; I shit you not, I’m not exaggerating! Tell them, Les. We did our duty.
This was brought back to mind recently when I was listening to my new favourite band Tuba Skinny. Sure you can listen, but MAINLY watch the fishnet stockings in the background! That’s Val, and that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Meantime – decades later – a reunion took place in the Fairest Cape attended by old soldiers Stedall, Chrich, Miller and Cooper.
I wrote: Great, Rod! So at your reunion, were there a few tales of how we won the war? Like: ‘PW Botha: My Part In His Downfall’? You, Cooper, Chrich and Miller must have told a few lies about what a terribly hard time we had? I was a normal person before that 1979 weermag year. Also, what’s the name of that song we sang so well, and why didn’t it go platinum?
Rodney Stedall wrote: I think it was Piano Man
I wrote: That’s right! It was. How could I forget!? Here’s one version. not anything like as good as ours:
Which brings us to the second question, why are we not earning royalties from sales of our version? Who has the Master Tapes? Do you think that cunning corporal c.H.ooper filched the funds? Corruption is rampant and I think we should investigate.
Was there another song? Shouldn’t there be more royalties?
Also, what happened to that young female luitenant in her tight browns that Cooper and I used to eye? The only female on the base under half a ton? Do you think she’s wearing browns a few sizes larger these days? These are important questions and someone should demand answers . .
Dhavid Cooper wrote: Howzit Luitenant Swanefeer homse geweer! Would have been such a hoot to have you with us in the Cape!!
Regarding corruption (see The Early Years – my new upcoming book on corruption by Snyman and Verster) – money had to be made when it could – and the stage had to be set for the future of the country . . apparently we did too good a job . .
However, the most memorable event – besides the shapely looty you alluded to – was the well-serenaded, fine-looking lass who stole our hearts that one summer beer-filled night . . . Irene!! Do you remember . .?
We sang “Irene, Goodnight, Irene Goodnight, Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene . . . I’ll see you in my dreams” — and that’s exactly what happened . . we never saw her again except in our dreams!
you’re well pal… be lovely to catch up again sometime….Rod,
maybe a weermag reunion sometime.
Les Miller wrote: Pete – Thank you so much for this. I killed myself laughing while reading it. Brings back forgotten memories. Good ones!
MaakkeerdiePAS! Lick-yak, lick-yak, omkeeeeeer!
I wrote: Hey Les – What a good laugh! Carefree days. Give some testosterone-fueled youths guns, bullets and beers and what could possibly go wrong, huh?
offisiers kursus – learning how to gippo exams; or, officers course; the first of multiple steps leading to the rank of Admirable
Die Grens – the border; usually the border between Angola and South West Africa, where we shouldn’t have been in the first place; In Natal my borders were Mocambican, Transkeian, Lesotho-an – oh, and also Swazi-like, plus there was the boerewors curtain keeping us safe from the Transvaal; Border, by the way, not as in ‘south of the border’ as sung by Cooper which (I suspect, how would I know?) was a panty-line border;
kakhuis offisier – candidate officer; KO or CO; aspirational;
kak – bullshit; crap;
smousing – peddling; which is better, one or two? I’ll take the tortoise shell one;
lunch corporal – half a corporal; one stripe; lance corporal; an onder offisier;
pomping – the brief, active part of conception and procreation, preceding the long slow hatching part and longer, slower raising part; seldom immaculate;
koptoe – delusional;
luitenant – lieutenant; some of us became one-pip lieutenants, a massive promotion from KO; but still, it has to be confessed, only half a lieutenant;
bosvark – biblically, a bushel; otherwise an armoured vehicle; you wouldn’t want to hide under either;
makeerdiepas – mark time; march aimlessly in one spot, raising dust so all your shoe shining was vir fokol; going nowhere; mind you, all marching is aimless and going nowhere;
vir fokol – to no avail;
omkeer – you know where you thought you were going? turn around now and go back;
ballasbak – literally, sunbaking your balls; leaning back comfortably with your groin aimed at the sun and your legs spread; a frequent activity between brief, but recurring, sessions of ‘hurry up and wait’; modern practitioners call it perineum sunning; Hey! Don’t laugh! Crazy delusionists say it ‘strengthens organs, improves ya libido, regulates circadian rhythm, boosts ya mental focus, and increases ya energy! So point ya ring at the sun, man! Ballasbak! It must, for safety, be pointed out that the weermag way of doing it was usually with trousers on!
oogkundiges – uniformed personnel highly skilled in the gentle art of gazing deep into nurses’ eyes;
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 around 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. If he moved he would get boot polish on his browns, so we ordered him: SIT! STAY!
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.
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!
Here’s the man a few years later. Probly explaining his floor-polishing theories:
His lovely partner for the evening is thinking Omigawd . . . as many of our partners seemed to do back then, I dunno why . .
1979 Army “basics” – basic training – and my buddy Graham DryBright Lewis and I are hitch-hiking from Potch to Harrismith. Waiting for a next ride outside Villiers in the darkness of that Friday night a clapped-out bakkie stopped. At last. 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 to Warden we glance nervously over our shoulders through the back window into the cab and over the driver’s shoulder. The speedo needle was quivering at 135kmh! We glance at each other, trying to be casual. Nonchalant.
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 sideways 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.
We come 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. Fucked if I was getting into Stockholm Syndrome with the twerp who’d almost killed us! We walked till completely out of sight and out of earshot in the dark night.