Mom Mary fondly says bachelor Louis Schoeman was quite important and quite full of himself – ‘He thought he was the Prince Imperial!’ she says teasingly. ‘Louis the Seventeenth,’ she says, adding one to the last of that French line of kings.
‘He played polo, you know, and that was very posh. He walked with a regal bearing. So when he walked in to Havengas bookstore one day and threw down a document on the counter in front of Dad saying, ‘Pieter! Sign here!’ Dad said ‘What for? I don’t sign anything unless I know what I’m signing!’ all the assembled men’s heads turned to Louis, sensing drama.’
‘I’m getting married!’ he announced, ‘to Cathy, the sister at the hospital.’ Well, like sympathetic, caring, thoughtful bachelors will do when a friend is in need, the men roared with laughter and teased Louis unmercifully!
‘And you know what?’ says Mom Mary: ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to him! Cathy bore them five lovely children and was a wonderful companion, mother and home-maker. Wonderful sense of fun and humour, and they were very happy together.’
After Maritzburg College, Dad joined the General Post Office as an apprentice electrician. Around 1st April 1938. Here’s a spirit level he was issued that day:
While he was still apprenticing, he tried to enlist to join the WW2 war effort, but was sent back. He was transferred to Harrismith, from where he again made his way to Durban and was sent home again, finally being allowed to join after Oupa gave his reluctant blessing. He left for ‘up north’ in 1941.
While in Harrismith ca.1940, he met old Mr Buckle the Blacksmith down in McKechnie street, near the railway station. He was from England.
He ended up with a few tools from old man Buckle: a back saw and a set square with a beautiful brass inlay and brass leading edge.
Dad stayed on a plot outside town – townlands – and bought horses, schooled them and sold them for a profit. I assumed he’d had them shod by Buckle but he corrected me. Buckle was a blacksmith, upholsterer and wagon-maker. He didn’t shoe horses. That was up to Charlie Rustov, Harrismith’s only farrier.
From his plot out west of town he would ride out to Boschetto Agricultural College for Ladies on the slopes of Platberg, the mountain that dominates the town. Boschetto was where the girls were. The first time he went he met the formidable Miss Norah Miller, the founder and principal. Luckily for him she needed something done, he was able to help and so became a firm favourite of hers from the outset.
While he was telling the story Mom remembered a story about Norah: She knocked on someone’s door. Whoever answered went back and was asked ‘Who was there?’
They said, I don’t know, but she’s got one eye, one leg and a hell of a cough! Norah had one lens of her glasses frosted out, she wore a leg brace (probably childhood polio?) and smoked like a chimney. When her leg brace buckled, Dr Frank Reitz made her a new one. A better one. He would have loved that challenge. He was a hands-on fixer.
Harrismith author Leon Strachan found some fascinating info on Norah Miller’s leg – it was not polio. His source, Isobel Kemp (Dr Frank Reitz’s receptionist for thirty years): It was probably osteoporosis resulting in a hip fracture in 1928, only six years after she established her college. Usually this would have resulted in incapacity and excruciating pain, but Norah was in luck: she was in the right place at the right time, and knew just the right man, bold innovator and pioneering surgeon Frank Reitz.
He operated and joined the femur using an ordinary screw to hold the femur ends together! This trick would only become common decades later, in the fifties. Thirty years later she was still walking – with difficulty, but still mobile, and in charge of her college. When Cedara took over Boschetto she moved there, where she died in 1959, aged 79.
If it wasn’t for Arthur Kennedy the ladies of Harrismith would have had a more boring Republic Day in 1961. They would only have seen kids waving flags and men on horseback. Thanks to Arthur there was also a strapping male physique in a tight-fitting white leotard with a bulge in the broek. No ways the komitee vir die viering van hierdie groot dag would have arranged that. That needed Arthur Kennedy.
Here’s footage of the goings-on down at the pawiljoen in the President Brand Park that day. Preserved thanks to the old man Pieter Swanepoel filming it back then with his 8mm Eumig cine camera, and preserved thanks to his daughter Sheila recently having it digitised:
wappering – waving, fluttering
broek – trousers; leotard
komitee vir die viering van hierdie groot dag – prize committee to be on; demonstrated status and power; you got to have input into the celebrations of the day South Africa left the British Commonwealth – uiteindelik! You did not, on said committee, suggest that all South Africans be allowed to be present; if you had those kind of thoughts you would not be on the said komitee
uiteindelik! – at last! Free At Last! Thank Goddlemydee Free At Last!Oh, no that was Martin Luther King Jr
Way back around 1968 a new book appeared at 95 Stuart Street Harrismith. I was fascinated. Nearly as fascinated as I’d been when cousin Jack read Valley Of The Dolls from the big wooden bookshelf in our long, dark, carpeted passage. That novel must have been good, as Mom actually physically took it from me, saying ‘You can’t read that’! Oh? Oh, well, back to the bird book:
I was fascinated by the orange Cock-of-the-Rock on the cover. Fifty years later the book was on my bookshelf in Westville and I was sad recently to discover other bookworms also liked it and had got into it in a big – and deep – way. It was riddled with holes. I copied the pages with the plates I remembered best before turfing it out. Hopefully a whole family of borer beetles went with it!
Valley of the Dolls – by Jacqueline Susann was about film stars, their raunchy pecadilloes and their use of ‘dolls’ – amphetamines and barbiturates. Time magazine called it the ‘Dirty Book of the Month,’ probably thinking ‘that’ll kill sales,’ but that and other anti-reviews made people think ‘that sounds interesting,’ and the book was a runaway commercial success, becoming the best selling novel of 1966. I mean, a review saying ‘Dirty Book of the Month’ might have made Mom Mary not buy it, but it likely had Dad head straight for the bookstore! So there it was: From one metropolis to another – New York to Harrismith – in no time.
By the time of Susann’s death in 1974, it was the best selling novel in publishing history, with more than 17 million copies sold. By 2016, the book had sold more than 31 million copies. In 1967, the book was adapted into a film. Like the book, the reviews were scathing, but it was an enormous box-office hit, becoming the sixth most popular film of the year, making $44 million at the box office. Author Jacqueline Susann had a cameo role in it as a news reporter, but she said she hated the film, telling director Robson that it was ‘a piece of shit.’ – wikipedia
Birds of the world: a survey of the twenty-seven orders and one hundred and fifty-five families, by Oliver L. Austin, (1961); Illustrated by Arthur Singer; Edited by Herbert S. Zim, New York, Golden Press; Many reprints were made and it was eventually published in seven languages over many years. I think ours was the 1968 edition published by Paul Hamlyn;
bookworms: The damage to books attributed to ‘bookworms’ is usually caused by the larvae of various types of insects including beetles, moths and cockroaches, which may bore or chew through books seeking food. Mine were little brown beetles. Buggers. I’m procrastinating about checking all my other books! Must do it . .
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.’
The Studley Tool Chest: Made out of mahogany, rosewood, walnut, ebony, and mother of pearl.
Henry O. Studley (1838–1925) was a carpenter, organ and piano maker, who worked for the Smith Organ Co. and later for the Poole Piano Company of Quincy, Massachusetts. He is best known for creating the famous Studley Tool Chest, a wall hanging tool chest that cunningly holds 218 tools in a space that takes up about a metre by half a metre of wall space when closed.
I wrote about this in Feb 2014. I got responses:
Steve Reed wrote: In his entire married life, Henry Studley only came inside the house at mealtimes and to sleep. Otherwise he was out in the shed. Must have had a bag of a wife.
Me: Or just his pri-horities right ?
Talking about living in the shed: Did I tell you my ole man bought himself a new lathe? Brand-new wood lathe with a 1m gap between the headstock and the tailstock. The headstock can swivel so he can turn bigger bowls – and turn them sitting down. Says he can’t die now for at least three years to justify the purchase and to finish the chisel handles and tables he has in mind . . . ninety one and counting . . .
Went to visit the other day. Their tenants have left and I found the ole man in the second house on top of a stepladder, muttering that they’d left their curtains up. Bitched good-humouredly when I took over and removed the rest of the curtains: ‘What do you think? I’m too old to climb a stepladder?’ Uh, yes, Dad.
Now he wants to buy a new kombi – with the old lady’s money! Goat . . .
Peter Brauer wrote: I’m with your old man on this one. Want a job done properly… do it yourself
Me: Want a job done properly, procrastinate till it no longer needs doing . . most peaceful*, cost-effective method I’ve found.
*under the new regime. Under the old regime this method was NOT peaceful . .
Brauer: I don’t know what procrastinate means, but stuff it, I’ll find out tomorrow.
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.
Dad was a Post Office technician. He applied for ___ which was more technical, but was given electrician. He did his apprenticeship ca.1938 and was soon put on telephones for some reason, given a truck and sent off to Ixopo where he was assigned a “line boy.” Actually an adult to do lots of the hard work for you. His line boy’s name in Ixopo was Charlie.
Himeville fell within his area and he got to know the lady in charge of the General Post Office there – Miss Viven Wise. Miss Viven D Wise, actually, which got the young techies snorting as “VD” was rude. She spoke of the Sani Pass up into Basutoland and how beautiful and rugged it was, so when out that way one day Dad decided to see if he could get there. He soon came across a stream he had to ford, so out jumped Charlie to pack stones in the stream so the truck could get across. Soon another stream and the same procedure. After the fourth stream he decided this is going to take too long and turned back.
He also tells of putting in new telephone lines. From one farm to the next the line would go as the crow flies, over hills and through valleys. They’d be allocated long gum poles treated with creosote and they’d take them as close as they could in the truck, but to some places they had to be carried on their shoulders. Heavy and the creosote burning their shoulders, they’d lug them over the veld, dig the holes and plant them.
I’m guessing Charlie did more than his fair share?
Dad: “Victor Simmonds was a lovely chap and a very good artist. He was a little man, grey, a lot older than me. What? How old? Well, I was probably 35 then and he was grey. He was probably 50. He lodged with Ruth Wright on the plot next door to ours, Glen Khyber. I doubt if he paid them any rent, they were probably just helping him out. He moved to the hotel in Royal Natal National Park where they allowed him to sell his art to the guests and that probably paid his rent.
“He was a hopeless alcoholic, unfortunately. He used to come to me begging for a bottle of brandy late at night, his clothes torn from coming straight across to Birdhaven from Glen Khyber, through the barbed wire fences. I said ‘Fuck off, Victor, I won’t do that to you,’ and sent him away. I wish I had bought one of his paintings. Sheila found these paintings he gave me for nothing. He said he did these as a young student. As I took them he said ‘Wait, let me sign them for you.'”
So I went looking and found a lot of his work available on the internet. Once again Dad’s memory proved sound. Victor was born in 1909, thus thirteen years older than Dad:
I knew this scene! To me this looks like the stream above the Mahai campsite in Royal Natal National Park – So I went looking and at lovecamping.co.za I found this:
A number of his paintings are available for sale. I’d love to see his ‘The Gorge, Royal Natal National Park, Showing the Inner Buttress and Devils Tooth’ but I’d have to subscribe for one day at 30 euros! That one was apparently painted in 1980, so he kept going for at least 23 years after he stayed in our neck of the woods. That would have made Victor around 70 and his liver a resilient organ.
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.’