Sunday, January 21, 2018

Parents, part 1.

This is the first of what will be at least a couple of entries about my parents, John and Patricia ("Tish").  This one is about before they were married.

(For some of the terminology it may be worth referring to the separate entry Background on schools and universities in South Africa (during the Apartheid era) posted on 1/20/18.)


My mother, Patricia (though I never heard her called anything other than "Tish" or Mrs. Couper) was born in the small coastal town of Knysna.  I don't know where she attended primary school but for high school she was a boarder at the Collegiate School for Girls in Port Elizabeth (the sister school of the school I later attended).  Both of my parents must have showed signs of leadership quite early (a trait that passed me by completely).  For instance, my mother was appointed Head Prefect in her final year of high school.  The only information I have about her from that time is this school report from her last quarter:  The date on it shows that World War II ended while she was still in high school.

After high school my mother went to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where I think she majored in English and History.  She didn't do an honours year but instead jumped straight to doing an MA in history.  She later expressed regret about not doing an honours year (that is, more coursework) before starting on a thesis.  I believe my mother served on the House Committee of her residence hall and may even have been chair of the House Committee.  After finishing her MA she obtained a teaching post at a high school in Cape Town.  I think it was at St. Cyprian's School  I don't know whether she started there before they were married.  Married women couldn't have a permanent teaching post at a public school (that was still true even in the mid 1980s) but that wouldn't have been an issue at a private school such as St. Cyprian's.

In this photo my mother is on the steps outside Jameson Hall at UCT.  (I don't have a date for this photo so don't know whether it was before or after meeting my father.)


My father, John, attended high school at Kearsney College, a private boarding school for boys near Durban  I must have inherited my pack-rat tendencies from my father - I have much more material that he saved than I have for my mother.  Like my mother, he was appointed to a leadership role quite early, though just as a House Prefect:

My father was in the marching band.  He is the one wearing the leopard-skin, fourth from the right in the front row.  That's the only evidence I have of any musical ability on either side of the family.  I seem to remember there being a piano in my maternal grandmother's old house, but don't recall anyone ever playing it.

This letter gives what I believe are my father's final high school grades.  I wish I'd known about these less-than-stellar grades when I was in high school!

After high school my father started medical school at the University of Cape Town.  World War II was still in progress at that stage.  In 1944 my father decided he wanted to serve in the war.  In those days one was not legally an adult until 21.  Prior to that age one had to get a parent's signature on any legal documents, including to sign up for the military.  My father sent his father a telegram saying "Want permission join up leave studies immediately stop.  Will make arrangement come home pending reply. Love John".  I don't have a copy of that telegram, just a scrap of paper on which my father had composed what he wanted to send.  I do have a couple of replies from his father though.  From the telegrams sent in reply, his father obviously didn't think much of the idea, though he seemed to be more concerned about finances than the dangers of going to war (despite having himself been wounded in World War I).

Permission must eventually have been given.  Even before I came across these documents after his death, I knew that my father served in North Africa and Italy.  I don't think he was in any actual combat and he never talked about his military service. 

After initial training, he was called up for active duty in 1945. 

My father kept a diary for at least some of the time he was in the military.  I haven't read all of it yet, partly because his handwriting is difficult to decipher.  The strangest entry is this one:

15th August (1945)  Victory over Japan was announced today - while we are in the Red Sea on our way to the East.  Have been very depressed today.  Everything seems to have gone wrong since I've joined up  [after that unreadable]

Everything seems to have gone wrong?  Victory in Europe?  Victory in Japan?  Gone wrong??

My father received a couple of service medals:

In September (1945) the troop ship arrived back in Durban.  There are a few more rather interesting entries among those before the last diary entry on October 3.

12th September:  Slept in late, about 10:30.  I awoke to find Aunty Mabel and Uncle Percy here.  God, if only they knew how I hate some of my relations.  I simply cannot stand Aunty Mabel.

The "hate some of my relations" may partly explain why we seldom saw anyone from my father's side of the family.  Another reason is that they were much further away than my mother's side.

18th September:  Seriously thinking of taking up Pelmanism.  Think it will do me a world of good.  Also today gave serious thought to going overseas to finish my studies.  Weak points are whether an overseas trained man will be as popular as a S.A. trained man in five or six years' time & finances.  Strong points - education, better tuition, away from home.

2nd October:  Bioscope with the family.  Quite an enjoyable picture - "Weekend at the Waldorf".  Had a fight with the family on our return.  I seem a proper misfit at home which I hate.  May I never get married & have children if the family's idea of "home life" is anything like it is at 38.  [The 38 was presumably the number of their house.]

Despite what he wrote on September 18, he did resume his medical school studies at the University of Cape Town.  I think that like my mother he was later elected chair of his residence hall's House Committee, which may have been how they met.  I don't know when exactly they met, but do have evidence that it was no later than 1950.  Below are the cover and the inside pages of the program from his residence hall's farewell dance at the end of the 1950 academic year, with my mother listed as his partner.  (Being in the southern hemisphere the academic year falls within a single calendar year.)  I also have his dance program from the previous year, with "Miss Thelma Loots" listed as his partner.  I wonder what became of Miss Loots.

What occasioned the photo below I don't know.  The only information with the photo is that it was taken in 1947, which would have been after my father resumed his studies.  It looks like it is at the University of Cape Town, in which case the large rectangular object behind my father is a memorial to those who died in the two world wars.

In this photo the war memorial is the large white object directly behind the statue of Cecil Rhodes (that has since been removed, as a result of the Rhodes Must Fall protests in 2015).  The first building on the left is what used to be called "Women's Residence" and the first one on the right used to be "Men's Residence" back when there was just one residence hall for women and one for me.  By the time I was a student there were several more and these had been renamed Fuller Hall and Smuts Hall, respectively.  The building in the middle with the columns is Jameson Hall (see a photo further up of my mother sitting on the steps outside it).  The mountain directly behind the university is Devil's Peak, with part of Table Mountain visible to the left.

At some time after this my father's medical studies were interrupted again when he had a serious motorcycle accident.  Apparently a motorist who hadn't seen him made a U-turn directly in front of him and he couldn't avoid crashing.  He lost a substantial amount of flesh and muscle tissue in the lower part of both legs.  He continued to receive medical treatment for many years after that - I remember that when I was about 5 I went with him by train to Johannesburg so he could consult a specialist about the wound.  His legs never fully recovered - he always walked with a limp and usually had to wear bandages on his legs.  When he died more than 40 years later the underlying cause of death on his death certificate was listed as infection from the leg wound.

This photo was from a year or so before their wedding.  It looks like it was taken in Knysna.

Below is the invitation to my parents' wedding.  Note that this was a winter wedding (June in the southern hemisphere).

To be scandalously continued … with me playing outside the church while my parents were inside getting married.  (Don't believe everything a toddler Couper tells you.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Background on schools and universities in South Africa (during the Apartheid era)

A whole entry on background

Some background and terminology on the school and university system in South Africa for my American (and in some cases other) friends:


First some related comments about Apartheid, because all of this was before and during the Apartheid era.  Prior to the National Party coming to power in 1948, South African society was probably about as segregated as the US was at that time.  The National Party formalized segregation as Apartheid, which can be translated as "separateness".  Apartheid involved "aparte ontwikkeling" - separate development, with separate and supposedly equal facilities for all race groups.  The "separate" was attained in many areas, the "equal" not so much.  After 1948 the National Party enshrined more and more segregation into law.  While the US was struggling with breaking down various racial barriers in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa was moving in the opposite direction.

Race in South Africa was not just divided into black and white.  There were so-called Coloureds (mixed race), Cape Malays (originating from Southeast Asia and usually legally regarded as being Coloureds, Indians (from India, not the African equivalent of American Indian), plus very small numbers of Chinese.  Although many of the Indians were brought to South Africa as laborers, to work in the sugar cane fields, there have also long been many doctors and other professionals.  The Coloureds faced discrimination from whites during Apartheid, but at least some of them were also concerned about discrimination from blacks and were worried about being just as much of a minority under a black government.  During the later years of Apartheid the Coloureds and Indians were given their own political systems and some control over their own affairs.  Blacks, on the other hand, were all supposed to belong to "independent" self-governing countries (usually referred to in English as "homelands").  The only countries that recognized the independence of these homelands were South Africa and each other.  How much of a sham this was is illustrated by the fact that as soon as Apartheid ended they all became part of South Africa again.

Schools were segregated on racial lines, though the segregation was probably more strict in terms of white versus other than between the others.  Different race groups were also confined to living in different areas.  A wealthy Indian doctor, for instance, could not buy a house in a white area.  What caused a great amount of bitterness was that in cities such as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth there had been Coloured/Cape Malay/Indian communities quite close to the city centers but during Apartheid they were relocated to much more remote and less convenient areas.  District Six in Cape Town is probably the best known example of such forced removal.  As noted in Wikipedia "Over 60,000 of its inhabitants were forcibly removed during the 1970s by the apartheid regime.  …   By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 25 kilometres away. The old houses were bulldozed. The only buildings left standing were places of worship.  International and local pressure made redevelopment difficult for the government, however."  What had been a vibrant and cohesive community was destroyed.  The area remained essentially undeveloped until the end of Apartheid.

At university level there was a little more mixing (at least by the '70s when I was a student).  There were some Coloured and Indian students at "white" universities, though they were not allowed to live in "white" residence halls.  Black students could study at a white university only if they could prove that there wasn't a reasonably equivalent option at any black university.

The small Chinese community lived in a rather strange twilight zone.  For some purposes they were accepted as whites.  They had their own residential areas and schools.  On the other hand, they could not only study at white universities but even live in white residence halls at these universities.  I met a bunch of Chinese undergraduates on the long train journey when I went off to college for the first time.  The Chinese students were allowed to reserve a sleeping compartment in a white carriage on the train, but were not allowed to eat meals in the white dining car!

South Africa was not only divided alone race lines, it was divided along language lines too.  There was probably less animosity between whites and blacks than there was between some English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites.  The two language groups went to (mostly) separate schools, with each group being taught in its own language (apart from also having to study the other language).  Rugby, which is stylized war even at the best of times, provided a wonderful opportunity for the two groups to get stuck into one another.  One of my college friends, who used to play rugby at an advanced level, used to come back from matches against the police (predominantly Afrikaners at that stage) with bite marks on his back and elsewhere.


In South Africa there are two levels of school - primary (or junior) school encompasses grades 1 through 7 (back in my day called sub A and sub B followed by standards 1 through 5) and high (or senior) school, encompassing grades 8 through 12 (back then called standards 6 through 10).  One could earn a school-leaving certificate at the end of grade 10 ("junior certificate") or at the end of grade 12 ("senior certificate" or "matric certificate"; with grade 12 also being referred to as "matric") by passing national or provincial exams (depending on one's school).

What are called private schools in the US and in South Africa are, strangely, called public schools (or independent schools) in Britain.  What in the US are called public schools are sometimes called government schools in South Africa (because they are funded by either the central or the relevant provincial government).  Unlike in the US, government schools can charge fees.  The level of the fees varies, so high-quality government schools may charge fairly hefty fees whereas schools in deprived areas may be free.  The better government schools can also be more selective about who they admit, rather than having strict zoning such as in the US.

Many of the better private and public schools in South Africa are partly boarding schools, attracting students from rural areas and smaller towns, as well as legacy students (that is, who parents went to those schools but now live in other cities).  Most of the better schools have a "house" system, like in the Harry Potter books, with not just boarders but also each day student assigned to a specific house, with intra-mural competitions between the houses.

My old school even has an entry in Wikipedia  You may be shocked to see that I am NOT listed under the "Notable alumni".  Also, how can something be a "tradition" if it dates to AFTER when I was there ("Quad Races")?  😃

This (very recent) article about a cricket player from a disadvantaged background ("His mother and father toiled in other people's grand homes, a legacy of the apartheid system that was officially dismantled in 1994 but affects people's lives to this very day.") touches on some of the background above.

Passing grades at high school level are A, B, C, etc., based on percentage scores, with A = 80-100, B = 70-79, C = 60-69, D = 50-59, E = 40-49.  I think F = 33-39 and is still a pass, with below 33 being a fail.  If I recall correctly, below 40 was a fail for English and Afrikaans.  Back then when these were the (only) official languages, students had to take both through high school.  I have no idea what the language requirements are now that there are 11 official languages.  What Americans call a grade point average (GPA) was called an aggregate and was a (weighted) average of the scores of the individual subjects and was also a symbol using the same conversion from percentages as above.  The weighting gave extra weight to one's first language.

Prefects (edited version of a Wikipedia entry):  In some British and Commonwealth schools, prefects, usually students in their final year of that level of school (primary or high school), have considerable power; in some cases they effectively run the school outside the classroom.  They were once allowed to administer school corporal punishment in some schools.  They usually answer to a senior prefect known as the Head of School, Head Prefect, or Head Boy or Head Girl.  In schools with boarding houses, there may be house prefects within each boarding house.  House prefects typically have authority only over the students in their house rather than over students more generally.


At university level a standard bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BSc) degree takes 3 years.  One can spend an extra year after the BA or BSc to obtain an honours degree (a second degree) in a particular discipline, usually one in which one has majored.  Unlike at American universities, there is no "general education" requirement forcing one to take classes in a wide variety of disciplines - I could have done my undergraduate degree taking only classes in mathematical fields.  Most coursework is restricted to undergraduate level, with masters and doctoral degrees typically (though not always) requiring just a thesis rather than additional coursework.  Medicine is (or was back then) a 6-year undergraduate degree, with the first-year classes being physics, chemistry and biology, second-year being anatomy and physiology and then 4 years of more clinical training.

Grades at university level are first class (75-100%), upper second class (70-74%), lower second class (60-69%), third class (50-59%) and fail (below 50%).  There is no equivalent of a GPA at university level.  The degree is awarded with distinction in one's major (or majors) if one gets a first class pass at the end of the major and the degree as a whole is awarded with distinction if one gets a distinction for each major (including if one has just one major).

Residence halls (res., or what in America are often called dorms) typically elect a House Committee for self-government, organization of social events, etc.  A faculty member serves as the Warden of the res., often living in a house adjacent to the res.  A few senior students may be appointed as sub-wardens, to act as advisors to other students.  (Sub-wardens are generally appointed by the Warden whereas House Committee members are elected by the students in the res.)

Monday, January 1, 2018


Our son Steven put in a request for me to write something about my family.  First up, an entry on my grandparents.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, all four of my grandparents were born in South Africa but all eight of my great-grandparents emigrated from various parts of the British Isles.  The Couper branch came from Scotland.  The image shows the postcodes where the last name Couper is currently most common in the UK - around Glasgow and in some islands off to the north-east.  The map was produced using  

Three of my four grandparents lived to an older age than either of my parents (or either of Riëtta's parents).  The only one who didn't was my maternal grandfather Patrick Cuthbert, who died of cancer (of the stomach, I think) when he was 62 and I was just 5.  He was older than my mother, but not than my father or Riëtta's parents.

Maternal grandparents

Patrick and Iona Cuthbert lived in Knysna, a coastal resort where Patrick had the local Ford dealership and the Shell petrol / gas franchise.  (In South Africa, particularly in small towns, new car dealerships and gas stations were usually co-located, much like gas stations and convenience stores in the US.)  Their house, called "Patriona" was at the edge of the Knysna lagoon, about where the upward-pointing arrow is in the aerial photo.  The image was clearly taken at low tide - at high tide water would cover most of where that arrow is placed as well as most of the downward-facing arrow.  Patrick and Iona had two children, my mother and a younger brother, David.

The photo below shows Patrick and Iona with my parents (and me).

After Patrick passed away Iona continued to live at Patriona for several more years.  She was still there when we lived with her when I was in the second half of 5th grade, which I spent at Knysna Primary School.  I think David was in college when his father passed away and abandoned his studies to take over the family business.  David later married Isabel and they in turn had two children, my cousins Paul and Patrick.  (After having lost contact with them for a number of years, I was pleased to be able to re-connect with Paul through Facebook.  When Steven and Stephany visited South Africa in 2016 they met Paul and his family, plus various other relatives.)  Some time later Iona sold out to a developer and moved to a new house in the Hunters Home area, just above the golf course.  The rightward-pointing arrow shows the approximate location.  We had several other relatives in the Knsyna area, including some who lived in a rather gloomy old house at The Heads (the downward-pointing arrow).  David and Isabel initially had a house at Hunters Home but then bought the house at The Heads from the elderly relatives.  They remodeled and turned what had been such a gloomy house into a wonderful bright, sunny home.  (I was not just sad but also a little annoyed when David, my favorite uncle, died of colon cancer.  The reason for the annoyance is that after my mother - his sister - died of colon cancer he should have been screened frequently.)

This photo is from the (previously gloomy) house at The Heads.

Iona was a feisty old lady.  We (or at least I presume my brothers felt likewise) enjoyed staying with her because she always fed us so well, including buying wonderful cakes from the local bakery.  Because Knysna is relatively close to Port Elizabeth, we often spent summer vacations there and I have good memories of the area.  Iona not only fed us well, she ate (and drank) well too and later in life became quite rotund.  It is ironic that my mother was much more careful about what she ate and watched her weight yet passed away just a year or so after her mother.  (I presume Iona was in her late '70s or early '80s when she died but don't know either her actual age or exactly when she passed away.)

Paternal grandparents

I have fewer memories though more printed material about my paternal grandparents, particularly my grandfather.  John and Grace Couper lived in Gillitts, a small town near Durban.  Partly because Durban is much further from Port Elizabeth, we seldom saw those grandparents.  I think we visited Gillitts just twice when I was young.  Grace was ill for several years before she passed away in 1971, aged 78.  According to her death certificate, she had a stroke (which is also what later killed my father) and bronchopneumonia, as well as coronary sclerosis.  (I should add that from my line of work I know that death certificates are notoriously inaccurate about the exact cause of death.)

This photo of John and Grace was probably taken at their house in Gillitts.

My grandfather and my father used to write to one another quite frequently, with my grandfather always typing his.  I think this was the last letter from my grandfather, when he was 99.

John and Grace had four children, first two girls, Elizabeth ("Beth") and Ruth, then my father John and his brother Derrick.  Beth and her husband lived in what was then Rhodesia.  They had two children, Lesley and Rory, who I last saw in 1971 or 1972 when I was still in high school.  Our family visited them in Rhodesia.  While we were there I accompanied Lesley when she drove Rory back to his boarding school, quite some distance away.  On the return journey (in the dark), we were travelling at around 70 miles/hr when Lesley tried to change the channel on the car radio, went off the road, over-corrected and flipped the car multiple times.  I am reasonably sure we weren't wearing seatbelts (most cars probably didn't even have them then).  The rolling of the car felt like being caught in a big wave at the beach.  I managed to crawl out of the car unscathed.  People in a car ahead of us had noticed our headlights making strange movements and came back to see what had happened.  Lesley was in a lot of pain (it turned out she had broken some vertebrae, though fortunately without damaging the spinal cord).  The people who had stopped to help drove us home.  Lesley was in too much pain to provide directions yet somehow even though I'd been on that road just once before, in daylight and going the other way, I managed to guide them.  That was obviously long before smartphones with maps and GPS.  (The trip was the first time I'd been outside South Africa and also the first time I saw TV - South Africa didn't get TV until a few years later.) 

Ruth and her husband didn't have children.  Several years after her husband died, Ruth married Bill Cochrane, who had won the Comrades (ultra) Marathon in 1935 and 1946 (the race was not held in 1941-45 because of World War II).  Bill's running days were many years behind him when he became part of the family rather late in his life (at age 63).  

Derrick and his first wife had a son Blair, who I am not sure I have ever met.  Derrick married at least three times - as far as I know he is the only one on either side of my family to have been through a divorce.  I think Blair is his only child though.

John lived to be 99.  One of his brothers reached 100 and John had hoped to do so too but apparently lost interest in life rather suddenly somewhere in his 100th year.  He'd been doing well until shortly before that - see the article at the end of this piece about him still playing bridge at 99.  The article has some interesting historical notes such as this one about headlamps on cars:"… he bought a second hand Ford Tin Lizzie for 25 pounds in 1919.  It had no self starter, only a crank.  There were no headlamps, one had to stop when darkness fell, to light the gas carbide lamps."

As the article about John playing bridge at 99 notes, in the First World War he was wounded at Delville Wood, a historic battle in which South African troops performed heroically despite a very high casualty rate  

[I have just a very poor copy of the clipping of the newspaper article from which the transcription below was taken.  One of our relatives transcribed the article.]

Highway Mail April 26, 1986

John is still playing bridge at age 99

by Liz Gower-Jackson

Wounded at the battle of Delville Wood in 1916, living in Durban at the turn of the century and filled with intriguing memories of those early days, John Couper of Hillcrest turned 99 on April 17.

He rises at 5.00am each day, polishes his own shoes and dresses neatly to face the day.  He is charming and dapper, and has a memory better than many half his age.  He told me of taking up playing bridge seriously when he was 92  because he broke his leg and could no longer play bowls.  His twice weekly bridge afternoons add interest and a social fullness to his life.

Always bright and cheerful, John is grateful for his long and happy life.  He has given much time to his fellow man through those years.  Well over 50 years as an elder of the Presbyterian Church and 25 years as Sunday School Superintendent  at the Berea Presbyterian Church, are indicative of his quiet service.  When that church celebrated its centenary recently John Couper seemed surprised at the fuss everyone made of him.  When asked for an interview he said "But a 99th birthday is not special.  I am not 100."

John lives at Hillcrest with his daughter Ruth and her husband Bill Cochrane.  He has shared a home with Ruth since his wife died in 1972.  They had married in 1917 and Ruth is one of four children.  John is a professor of Anaestheology at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria.  Elizabeth is a nurse who is married to a man who was in the Indian Army, and Derrick has recently opened a typesetting business in Westville.  Ruth is well known in the bowling world, having been president of the Southern Natal Bowling Association.  She and Bill are keen bowlers at Hillcrest bowling club.

John started playing bowls in 1918 at the Maritzburg Bowling Club when he returned to civilian life after being wounded at Delville Wood and found he could not return to tennis, which was his first love.

In 1923, returning to live in Durban, John joined the Silverton Bowling Club, just over the road from where he had lived as a child.  He can remember riding to church each Sunday with his mother in a carriage and pair, and having to pay toll at Tollgate.  The toll keeper was a Mr. Hulyone (?) who kept a small store to supplement his meagre income.  

All the discussion of the new toll road on the N3 reminded John of that other toll gate all those years ago.  The Coupers had to pay toll when they went to Durban because they lived on the upper side of Ridge Road but many folk slipped through the property  of David Don who lived on the corner, to avoid the tollgate and save precious pennies.  

John Couper drove a car until he was 95 but he can still remember his first car.  He had ridden a motor cycle from 1912, but after World War I, as a married man, he bought a second hand Ford Tin Lizzie for 25 pounds in 1919.  It had no self starter, only a crank.  There were no headlamps, one had to stop when darkness fell, to light the gas carbide lamps.

That car lasted for 10 years before John replaced it with a second hand Buick, and then he had a Chevrolet, and a Zephyr the English Ford was his next car.

In all his years of driving he had only one minor accident, when a motor cycle ran into him.

Looking back over the span of his 99 years, John Couper can remember when there was no electricity, no radios, no motor cars, no movies, no aeroplanes and, of course, no television.  He watches the news on television, but otherwise he loathes its interrupting influence on our lives. 

He says the first electric lights came to Durban about 1900 when progressive and proud householders had just a single electric light, usually in the parlour of their homes.

In another tie with contemporary news John tells of how he came to do duty on the border of what is now Libya.  He left with the South African Brigade for France in World War I.  Arriving in England many of the colonial troops suffered from pulmonary complaints so the South Africans were sent to Egypt where they served on that border, and John's friend, Bob Jones from Durban, was killed.

After being wounded at Delville Wood in July 1916 John ended up convalescing in Ireland for three months.  He says his military service afforded him a veritable Cook's tour.

Career-wise John had to fend for himself from an early age.  He joined a general merchant's business as an office boy at R5 a month, and was earning R10 a month by 1902.  When his employer Arthur George May went into milling in 1905 John went over to the new project which was to become the Union Flour Mills and eventually it was taken over by Premier Milling.  Mr. May was killed in his late 30s when he was thrown from a horse while riding in New Forest, England, where he was holidaying.  Mr. Couper stayed with the firm until he retired at 70. 

Always one to keep up with the times, John has applied for a military pension, feeling that he should qualify under the new rulings announced recently by the Government.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Former girlfriends

List of former girlfriends who were willing to go on a second date with me:


See, I told you this would be a short entry.  No-one even needed to bribe me to keep her name off this list.  Young women had impossibly high standards back in the day.  They wanted someone who had either looks or a personality, if not both.  I have neither.  They weren't even willing to put up with me for my money (mostly because I didn't have any, nor even a suggestion that I had prospects of a bright future).

The list is not a whole lot longer if I include those who went on a first date with me, but I'll leave that for another day.

Someone did risk a second date and thankfully she isn't "former" even 36 years later.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Prelude to the SFAD; Peninsula Marathon

Thanks to the Internet I now know how much aspirin is required for a lethal overdose.  Back in 1978 when I "needed" to know, there was no Internet.  Why did I need to know then?  That's a story for another day (SFAD).  (Spoiler alert:  I wanted to AVOID taking a lethal dose.) 

What does that have to do with the image ("borrowed" from Google Maps)?  That will also have to wait for the SFAD.  Some of my South African running friends may recognize that landmark, though often having approached it from the opposite direction.  That is a naval gun at Lower North Battery, between Glencairn and Simon's Town, a couple of miles before the finish of the Peninsula Marathon (now the Cape Peninsula Marathon) at the SA Naval Sports Ground in Simon's Town.  (The marathon and the sports ground are also peripherally related to the SFAD.)

Back in the '70s and '80s the winners of that marathon were a who's who of the local and (later) the national running scene.  Most internationally-famous was 1982 winner, Mark Plaatjes who later sought political asylum in the US and won gold for the US in the marathon at the 1993 World Championships.

My first Peninsula was in 1977, my third marathon and first sub-3 time.  I managed a little under 2:55 despite having to make a pit-stop.  There were no Porta-potties in those days - I had to go through and out the back of a convenience store.  First and second that year were two fellow University of Cape Town (UCT) students, Bruce Robinson and Peter Hodson.  They were running for a new club, Varsity Old Boys, that they had helped form partly with the aim of being one of the first running clubs in the country to be open to all races.  Later that year I started running regularly with Bruce and Peter.  Trying to keep up with them was a big reason for a 19-minute improvement in my next marathon later in 1977.

Looking at a clipping from that 1977 race, another finisher was Steve Harle, one of my first regular running partners.  A year or two later Steve and his wife were tragically murdered by an escaped convict when they were hiking/camping in a remote wilderness area.

Didn't run the race in 1978, for a reason that is a big part of the SFAD.  Ran it again in 1979, nearly 20 minutes faster than in 1977 but a minute or two slower than two PRs I'd managed in the interim.  At the end of 1979 I moved to Pretoria.  Didn't run Peninsula in March 1980 because I'd run the Pretoria Marathon a week earlier in 2:30:46 (the one and only time I won a marathon), after setting a PR of 2:30:40 just 3 weeks before that.  (I ran 2 more marathons in the next 4 weeks.)

In February 1981 I managed to get under 2:30 for the first time and then went to Cape Town for a month (related to the SFAD, a required Navy "camp"), which enabled me to run Peninsula again, in a new PR of 2:26:23 (with PRs in a 20-mile road race and for 5,000m and 10,000m on the track between the two marathons, the two track races being on the same day).  According to my logbook, I had a DNF in the 1982 edition of the race.  I have no recollection of running it - or even being in Cape Town at that time.  I was still living in Pretoria and Rietta and I were getting married about a month later and moving to Cape Town soon after.

In the 1983 edition I ran my all-time PR (2:25:51).  The next year the race was run in reverse, to try to avoid the headwind that often made things tough on the point-to-point course.  According to my logbook I ran 2:33, though again I have no recollection of running the race or even of ever having run it in that direction.  A few FB friends were also in that race, including Ron Boreham, who won in 2:17, Bob de la Motte (4th in 2:20), first veteran (age 40+, called a "master" here in the US) Brian Mather in 2:29 and frequent training partner Graeme Dacomb in 2:30.

Missed the race in 1985 because I was recovering from Achilles tendon surgery.  At the end of 1985 we moved back to Pretoria.  Thanks to lack of fitness and surgery on the other Achilles tendon I didn't get to run the race again before we moved to Seattle.

As the site of several PRs, including what will forever be my 1st and 3rd fastest marathons, I have fond memories of the race despite its association with the SFAD.

My times in the Peninsula Marathon
1977:  2:54:55 
1979:  2:37:22
1981:  2:26:23
1982:  DNF
1983:  2:25:51
1984:  2:33:02

SFAD; self harm; or Daddy, what did you do in the war?

A while back, on Facebook I referred to the story for another day (SFAD).  It is now another day.  The story includes mention of the time I started to attempt self-harm.


Apartheid-era South Africa had universal conscription of white males.  One was supposed to do the initial service after completing high school.  Those who intended going to university could either serve beforehand or defer service until after graduating (or dropping out).  In the '70s there was no allowance for conscientious objection.  If one didn't want to serve, one either had to flee the country or be sentenced to a protracted period in a military prison.  By the late '80s, if one managed to get classified as a bona fide religious objector it was possible to perform approved alternative service instead of being in the military.  My little brother Ian managed to get religious objector status.  That wasn't an option for me because it wasn't available in the '70s and in any case I wasn't sufficiently religious.

Had I served directly after high school, my initial period would have been either 9 or 11 months.  But I took deferment and by the time I graduated the initial period had been extended to two years.  After the initial service one was still liable to be called up for periodic "camps".  The number of these and the period for which one remained liable had also increased.  Do I regret opting for deferment?  Definitely not.  I may have had to serve for longer but I certainly had it easier than I would otherwise, including avoiding being involved in active combat.  So, much as I complain below, I know I was very fortunate compared to many of my peers.  My other brother, Mick, served a couple of years after me.  He ended up in the S.A. Medical Services (SAMS) and was initially assigned to the Navy Medical Center in Simon's Town, but later spent time in the "operational area" either side of the border between (then) South West Africa and Angola.  He had trained as a social worker and served in that capacity.  He made it his mission to classify as many conscripts as possible as being unfit for combat duties.

Becoming a marathon runner

Backing up several years …  Although I enjoyed playing a variety of ball games (cricket, rugby, soccer, squash in particular) I had neither the basic speed nor the hand-eye coordination to be any good.  I started running about the time I turned 16 - because my dog needed exercise.  For the first couple of years I always ran alone (other than with the dog, though later the dog became lazy and I left it at home).  I usually ran on days I wasn't playing another sport and always ran the same route.  I have no idea how far it was, but do recall it taking between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on how I felt on the day.  Although I didn't train with the high school track team and was entirely uncoached, I did run a couple of meets in the last month of high school.  I have no recollection of what events I ran and never knew what my times were.  I certainly didn't come close to winning.

In college I continued running when not playing other sports (intramural rugby and soccer, sometimes both on the same day).  In 1975, soon after turning 21, I completed the Stellenbosch M marathon, though I am fairly sure I didn't go even as far as 10 miles on any training run.  I managed to finish shortly before the time-keepers disappeared.  Steve Moss, a frequent training partner at that stage, was probably about 15 minutes behind me and the finish line had been packed up and the time-keepers had left when he finished in around 3:45.  This was years before digital stopwatches became available, so he had to estimate his time from the stadium clock.

Over the next couple of years I gradually increased my running and decreased participation in other sports.  In March 1977, in my third marathon I managed to get under 3 hours for the first time, finishing the Peninsula Marathon in about 2:55.  (The map shows the approximate route of the Peninsula Marathon, running roughly north to south.)   A few months later I started running with Bruce Robinson and Peter Hodson, who had placed first and second in the Peninsula Marathon.  They were both final-year medical students and most lunchtimes they would run laps around the perimeter of the university's main cricket field (so most of our running was on grass).  In July of that year I ran in the South African Universities cross country championships - only because it was in my home town during winter break.  My college (University of Cape Town) didn't have a cross country coach, any scholarship athletes, or any travel funds, so the team at the meet consisted of those who lived in Port Elizabeth or were willing to make their own way there.  According to my running log I narrowly avoided being lapped and was 49th out of 67 finishers.  Back in Cape Town, trying to keep up with Bruce and Peter helped me improve substantially.  In my next marathon, in September, I dropped my PR to 2:36, finishing ahead of Bruce and Peter (as well as some other runners who I'd thought of as being much better than I was).  For the first time in my life I felt as if I had some athletic talent.  In December, after final exams, I was back at home in Port Elizabeth and ran a 10-mile race.  That was the first race I won - and the first time I received a prize for anything athletic rather than academic.  Not exactly a big prize though.  As I recall, the first 2 or 3 finishers were given a 6-pack of cans of guava juice to share (not even a 6-pack each).

The above is all by way of background, laying out that at the end of 1977 I was starting to think of myself as a reasonable runner.  I had no illusions of being a great runner - I had reasonable endurance but didn't have enough basic speed to be very good.

Off to war (or at least to the Navy)

In the first week of January 1978, I boarded a troop train with a bunch of other conscripts called up to the Navy.  I don't recall whether it was one of the items we were told to take with us, but I had a very large bottle of aspirin (probably at least a thousand pills), the relevance of which will become clear later.  After a long train ride we reached the naval training base at Saldanha Bay, about 50 miles north of Cape Town, on South Africa's west coast.  Then, in good military hurry-up-and-wait style, we spent a few days hanging around waiting to hear our fate.  The base was large and as we didn't have much else to do, I was able to run.  The base commander somehow heard I had a degree in operations research and so put me to work trying to find an optimal schedule for assigning guard duty.  After a few days, those of us who had completed college were loaded up and sent off to a much smaller training base in Simon's Town, which is just short of a marathon distance from central Cape Town (the Peninsula Marathon used to go from Green Point Stadium in Cape Town to the naval sports fields in Simon's Town).  See the leftward pointing arrow on the map above.  The naval training base there was hardly bigger than a postage stamp.  (The whole naval base was much larger, with several contiguous and disjoint components. )

There were 30 conscripts who had been to college first and we were put directly into an Officers' Orientation Course (OOC) without having to do basic training.  The navy didn't seem able to make up its mind how to train graduates, with the plan varying from intake to intake.  Both the intakes before us had their officer training at Gordon' Bay, the navy's main officer training base.  The rightward pointing arrow on the map indicates Gordon's Bay.  I think one of the two intakes first had to do regular basic training, the same as lower ranks, before an OOC whereas the other intake had to go through the full officers' training (not just an orientation course for graduates).

While on the OOC we had the "rank" midshipman (i.e., candidate officer)  Also on the OOC were 6 graduates who had signed up for the permanent force (that is, career military rather than being conscripts).  Even though they were also fresh in the military, they had already been assigned actual officer ranks.  At least a couple of them were in their 30s and some were heavy smokers and very unfit, especially a Lt. Booysen.  In overall charge of the OOC were S/Lt. Morris and Warrant Officer (W/O) Harmse, with a variety of other people responsible for specific aspects of the course..  W/O Harmse liked to remind us that in terms of the naval hierarchy "midshipmen are lower than shark sh*t).

The photo shows us -- conscripts, permanent force officers on the OOC plus some of the officers in charge of us, in our "ice cream suits" (summer parade uniforms).

Being the military, we had to do nearly everything in squad formation, including running.  But Lt. Booysen and 1-2 of the other permanent force guys were so unfit that they couldn't run for more than about 100 yards without needing to rest.  So we didn't get much exercise.  As I mentioned, the training base was very small.  Unless I was willing to run many laps around the buildings, there was no way I could maintain any running fitness.  I put in a written request to be allowed to go running outside the base, but that was turned down. We were kept busy (even if not physically busy), so I was too tired and unmotivated to want to run laps around the buildings.

Then for part of our course we had a few days with an instructor who was a first-class asshole.  Lt. "Gunner" Mead was a gunnery officer, though that wasn't his role in our training.  (As a gunnery officer he used to train seamen to load and fire naval guns.  The photo shows the Lower North Battery where they used to practice, right next to the main road to Simon's Town.  Manual loading of these big guns was probably already obsolete in proper navies by that stage.  He used to claim that his gunnery teams were so fast they would be able to shoot down an anti-ship missile.  I don't think he had any conception how fast a missile travels.)  Gunner Mead seemed to be taking out his frustrations on us.  Maybe it was because of a sense of inadequacy - he was middle-aged, yet in a rather lowly officer rank and without any skills needed to progress further, whereas we were recent graduates with supposedly bright futures ahead of us.  I won't claim to have been singled out in any way, though I did have my own feeling of inadequacy; in one of the activities in Gunner Mead's part of the course I was the only one with so little upper body strength that I couldn't pull myself up a sheer slope using a rope.

Part of Gunner Mead's section of the course was on riot control.  The Army and Air force we involved in the war to the north, so the Navy was apparently supposed to deal with internal unrest.  The formation we had to adopt when facing rioters was called "Form D".  The straight edge of the D had to face the rioters and whoever was in charge of the formation would be in the middle, along with soldiers firing tear gas and the like.  The idea that we might be required to fire on fellow citizens (most likely of other races) was deeply disturbing to me.  I don't think the Navy ever ended up having to do riot control.  The police were often involved though, such as in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre  Other units of the military may also have been involved at later stages of the Apartheid era.  (There have been numerous massacres in South Africa over the past couple of hundred years.  Not all have been between races.  Some were black on black, at least one white on white, and in the nineteenth century several black on white, along with the white on black ones suppressing anti-Apartheid protests.  This list on Wikipedia seems rather incomplete:

By the end of the first day of Gunner Mead's training I wanted out.  I decided to try to make myself ill.  All I had at my disposal was the large bottle of aspirin mentioned previously.  I didn't want to cause myself permanent harm, so decided to start with 8 aspirins the first day and then gradually increase the dose until it was enough to make me ill.  The next day with Gunner Mead was equally bad.  However, early that day I realized he was essentially a caricature, with more bluster than real bite.  Even though he may have been serious we didn't have to take him seriously.  Instead, I found we could laugh at his over-the-top behavior (as long as we didn't actually laugh in his face).  That took all the pressure off and I felt no need to take any more of the aspirin.  (I have no idea what happened to all the pills after that.)  The rest of our time with Gunner Mead might not exactly have been "fun"  though at least it was a source of some amusement.  I was still despondent about not being allowed to run and there was no easy fix for that.

We had a day to two of weapons training, part of which was learning to take apart and reassemble a rifle and a pistol and then some time on the rifle and pistol ranges.  On the day we had to do actual shooting, half of us were assigned to the rifle range in the morning while the other half went to the pistol range.  In the afternoon we were supposed to switch ranges.  But it started raining and the afternoon's shooting was abandoned.  So I never got to fire a pistol.  Naval officers carry pistols, not rifles.  That meant I didn't get a chance to practice with the weapon I would be expected to use, though I had learned how to disassemble it.  I used to joke that if I was attacked I would have to say "Hold it right there.  I don't know how to shoot you, but look how quickly I can take this pistol apart."  We weren't issued our own pistols but for some duties (mentioned below) were allocated one to use while on duty.  I usually left it in the safe.

I don't recall exactly when we had our first "pass" allowing us to go off base for a few hours one afternoon.  I seem to think that it happened to be on the day of the Peninsula Marathon, which went right by the main gate of the base, less than a mile from the finish of the race.  (See photo below of the main gate.)  I didn't watch the runners going by that morning.  There must have been a strong headwind though.  Brian Chamberlain, who won in 2:32:43 was a better runner than Bruce Robinson who had run 2:30:47 to win the previous year.  Also, the winning time in each of the next 10 years was not only under 2:30 but under 2:20.  I don't remember what we did with our free time on that first "pass".  I know I didn't go for a run.  Probably went to a nearby bar.

Each component of our course lasted a day or two, at the end of which we had an exam on that section.  The instructors generally had at most a high school certificate and had little experience setting exams.  They usually pretty much just gave us the answers.  And as there weren't any consequences for doing poorly, the exams didn't add any stress.  One exception was the section on law and the Military Discipline Code.  That part was taught by a (uniformed) navy lawyer and he set a more realistic exam.  I tried looking for loopholes, such as ways to get off base to go for a run.  So I studied the material carefully and ended up with the highest score in the class, even doing better than the 4 fellow midshipmen who had just finished law school.

One day we got to take a couple of sailboats out on False Bay.  The morning was relatively calm, with little wind.  The wind picked up nicely as the day wore on, enabling us to sail at a good clip.  I say "us" though I didn't exactly do much.  I have little interest in sailboats whereas some of the others were keen sailors (and one had qualified as a naval engineer).  There were more of them than were needed to man the boat.  So I let them do the work.  I went below deck and had a very pleasant nap, with our speed across the increasingly choppy water being very soothing.

At some point we competed in a track meet against some of the other local units.  The meet was on a 300m grass track - on the naval sports-fields where the Peninsula Marathon traditionally ended.  I ran the 1,500m and maybe also the 800m.  What made the 1,500m memorable was that after I finished W/O Harmse accused me of running a lap short!  I hadn't even won; I was just a not-very-close second.  He obviously didn't think much of my running ability.  He wasn't the only one.  Several months after the end of the OOC, after I was back in reasonable shape, a fellow conscript said he didn't know how I managed to run so fast because when not running I always looked very lethargic.  I hadn't been aware of that and was too taken aback to think of a response such as "That's because I am conserving energy."

Near the end of the OOC we had a couple of multi-day activities that were referred to as "Leadership Training".  There wasn't any formal training involved.  At most it was a case of "work things out for yourselves while you do these activities".

The first part involved hiking in full gear (plus rifles) in the Karbonkelberg (literal translation: Carbuncle Mountain) part of the Table Mountain range.  (See downward arrow on map.)  I had forgotten that that had included camping out for two nights.  (I was reminded by glancing through a copy of the occasional newsletter we produced while on the OOC, in which I had written one of the two articles about the Karbonkelberg experience.  I have copied my piece below)  We were divided into 4 groups, with each group given a map and a two-way radio.  We were told to make our way to various points (in different order for each group) and to report in by radio from each of the points.  One group "failed" the test.  One of the points was next to the ocean, reached by going down a long and rather steep slope.  That group decided they didn't want to go down and then right back up again, so they radioed in from the top of the slope, saying they were at the bottom.  What they didn't realize was that the bottom was in a radio shadow from the base camp and so they should not have been able to make contact if they had been at the foot of the mountain.  When they returned to base camp they were made to go out again to do the task properly.  The group I was in didn't make the same mistake.  We went all the way down, though took a different route on the way up because of where we needed to be do reach the next checkpoint.  While traversing a steep section of quite thick bushes we disturbed a swarm of bees, which promptly attacked us.  Bee stings don't affect me much.  Although I was stung multiple times, all I did was hold my helmet over my face to protect it.  I was very amused at the big tough guys in the squad crashing through the bushes and screaming as they tried to avoid getting stung.  What we didn't realize was that one guy in our group was very allergic to bee stings.  Fortunately for him he moved in the opposite direction from where the other guys were hurtling down with the bees in hot pursuit.  So he emerged unscathed.  Apart from that, our hike was tiring but uneventful.  (The least fit of the permanent force guys must have been excused this exercise.)

The next part of the leadership training was spending two days going down the Palmietrivier (literal translation: Bulrush River) on rafts.  We were split up into pairs and had to tie foam-filled fiberglass "logs" together to make the rafts.  I was paired with a quiet Afrikaner, Andre Kruger.  Or at least initially it was going to be just the two of us.  Then we were told that we had to take Lt. Booysen, the least fit of the older guys, along with us on our raft.  Most of the first day was spent pulling the raft through the bulrushes giving the river its name.  The other pairs merely had to pull their rafts over the bulrushes.  But Lt. Booysen not only was unable to help pull, we had to pull him along on top of our raft.  Andre was one of those dependable types one wants to have with one in the trenches - no complaining, just get the job done.  Even so, the first day was rather tough for the two of us.  We all camped together next to the river that evening.  In the morning we found that the previous day's work had got us through the bulrushes and we had reached the part of the river where we could actually ride downstream on our rafts.  Even better as far as Andre and I were concerned was that the powers-that-be decided we no longer needed to have Lt. Booysen on our raft.  So that turned out to be a very pleasant day being carried by the current, over several rapids and across stretches of open water.  (I may not have any interest in sailing but I've always enjoyed being in and around water.)

When we graduated from the OOC we were assigned to the units where we would spend the rest of our two years of initial service.  I was among several seconded to the Institute for Maritime Technology (IMT) which, notwithstanding the bland sounding name, was the naval branch of Armscor (the Armaments Corporation of South Africa), a government body doing military research.  IMT is located in Simon's Town.  Full-time employees of IMT were civilians, could wear regular clothes and were paid a respectable salary plus good benefits.  (Very good benefits, which is why a few years later I went to work at IMT as a civilian.)  Those of us doing national service had to wear our navy uniforms and were paid the same pittance as other conscripts of the same rank.  (Pay scale for conscripts did improve quite substantially during our period of service though.)  At the time IMT was in a building less than a stone's throw from the training base where we had endured the OOC.  Several years later it moved into a fancy new building on the waterfront.  My work at IMT is a subject for another day, though I did mention something about it on Facebook a while back.

With the OOC behind us, we moved into the naval officers' mess and, outside working hours, could come and go as we pleased.  One might think that I would immediately have started running regularly again.  As is so often the case, one might be wrong.  I was rather unmotivated.  I went running a few times before I even bothered resuming writing down the distance of each run.  For the week ending April 9, 1978, I recorded just a total (20 miles).  Three weeks later (April 29) I ran a marathon in 2:48, so clearly I had retained some running fitness.

As mentioned, we were each assigned to a regular day job, such as at IMT.  But we still "belonged" to the navy and they made sure we did our fair share of naval duties.  At first we had to take turns at being Officer of the Day (or night), that is, the person in charge of the whole Simon's Town naval base overnight on weekdays or on weekends.  While on duty we had to stay in the command center (but were allowed to sleep).  Duties of the Officer of the Day included giving ships permission to enter or leave the harbor, directing firefighters if there was a bushfire on the mountain behind the town, and generally responding to any crisis that might occur, such as an enemy invasion.  There was a pistol in a safe for us to use if we needed it to repel the enemy.

We hadn't been given our proper officer ranks at that stage though and after a while some high ranking officer decided it wasn't appropriate for midshipmen to be in charge of the country's main naval base, even if just overnight or on weekends.  So the navy had to come up with some other duties for us.  They decided that outside regular working hours we should drive around checking that guards were all at their stations (and signing the logbook at each site to show we had been there).  We were supposed to carry a pistol while doing these rounds, but after the first few occasions I left it in the safe.  On weekdays we had either a 4 PM to midnight shift or a midnight to 8 AM shift (on top of our regular workdays).  Most of my colleagues preferred the 4 PM to midnight shift, whereas I have always preferred running in the late afternoon, which made that shift less desirable for me.  If assigned to the midnight to 8 AM shift, most of the others would do a quick tour of the various guardhouses right after midnight, go back to the officers' mess to sleep for several hours and then do another quick tour shortly before 8 AM.  I was much more conscientious and so would spend the whole time driving around.  To help pass the time I usually tried to accompany the crew of the harbor patrol boat on at least one of their trips around the harbor, rather than just signing their log.

There weren't very many midshipmen assigned to jobs in Simon's Town, so we had one of these shifts every 3-4 days.  Because we also had our regular jobs at IMT or elsewhere, these frequent night duties were rather taxing.  Fortunately our proper officer ranks came through and we were able to go back to being Officer of the Day - not only were we allowed to sleep while doing that, but there were many more officers available to take turns with this duty.  It took about another 18 months before we received our actual Deed of Commission certificates (see image below).

Looking at maps and photographs of Simon's Town, much of it seems similar to when I last saw it (probably about 1985).  The wardroom (that is, commissioned naval officers' mess) where we were housed after we'd completed the OOC no longer exists though.  Update:  It turns out that I was wrong.  My brother Mick sent an email saying he'd seen it in November 2017.  I'd obviously just forgotten the exact location.  Here's a photo from Google Maps with the wardroom partly visible in the background.  That's the closest I could get to it on Google Maps.

The wardroom had previously been a hotel (Seaforth Hotel if I recall correctly).  It was just over the road from Boulders Beach, a crappy, windswept collection of rocks and sand next to a frigid ocean.  The beach has since become world famous.  A web site even has it as #40 on a ranking of the world's best beaches: though in my opinion it wouldn't even make the top 40 best beaches in South Africa.  A couple of penguins were introduced to the area in 1982 and the penguin colony now numbers around 3,000.(Some sources I've seen say the initial two penguins were introduced to the area, others that they found their way there themselves.)

Below is the piece I wrote for the "Gunroom Gazette" about our Karbonkelberg adventures [with some attempts at explanation in brackets, like this].  In days of yore midshipmen were housed in the gun rooms of ships and "gunroom" has since become the term for the sleeping quarters for midshipmen.

Some you win, and some you lose

Karbonkelberg in retrospect

For many of us, Karbonkelberg was the highlight of the course.  Typical Naval organization resulted in the trip taking place on the "wrong" weekend (ask first starboard watch [I presume that group was supposed to have a weekend "pass"]) but apart from that the operation was smoothly run.  My memories, as indicated by the title, include a number of contrasting experiences.

To 32 of us, our rifles were the worst possible curse that could have been inflicted upon us while Alan Woolfson's saved him from an untimely end [not by shooting anyone - we were not issued with ammunition, so he must have used it to stop himself falling].  Adri Smuts drank so much water that his stomach rejected it, while Harry Trisos suffered the same fate from having too little water.  For two days we would have paid any price for a beer, whereas on Saturday night most people had more than they were able to drink.

The star skinniver [Google is no help in finding a good explanation; basically means someone who has a knack of avoiding work or anything requiring effort] of the course lost his unbeaten record when his group succeeded in contacting base from an area previously thought to be "blind" for radio transmitting, and paid the price for their mistake.

A hot night in luxury at base camp made a welcome change from the two (Southern) uncomfortable nights spent in the bush although many of us woke up exhausted after a collective dream that we had been made to run up an enormous mountain shortly after midnight.  [The "Southern" refers to Southern Comfort whiskey, that some people must have taken on the hike to provide "warmth".  I presume the "dream" was real - that we were roused from sleep to run up a mountain, though I don't remember that.]

For all that we suffered (and most of us did) the experience was worthwhile in that many of us dragged ourselves (or were pushed) to levels of endurance not previously reached and there is a (Southern) ring of truth in the idea that we came to see facets of character in others (and ourselves) which could no longer be camouflaged.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Ghosts of Christmases past

Dreaming of a white Christmas?  About forty of my Christmases, including all of those when I was young, were spent in the southern hemisphere, where Christmas falls in the middle of summer.  I was 35 before I first saw snow falling and within 24 hours had decided it would be just fine if I had to wait another 35 years before experiencing another snowfall.

Apart from the lack of snow, our family Christmases when I was young followed a reasonably typical British model, even though my forebears had lived in South Africa for a couple of generations.  (I think all of my grandparents were born in South Africa but all of my great-grandparents emigrated from the British Isles.)

Christmas was usually spent at home in Port Elizabeth, though some years we went to my maternal grandmother in Knysna a coastal resort about 160 miles to the west.  In either case, we always had a real Christmas tree, with strings of lights, ornaments, tinsel. and a star at the top.

Many kids in the area had their photographs taken with "Father Christmas" at the local O.K. Bazaars (a chain of department stores) and received a gift box containing a bunch of cheap trinkets.  Because my brother Mick is still a baby, the photo must have been taken in 1957, when I was 3.  That's not a very Ho! Ho! Ho! kind of look that Santa is giving!  Our other brother, Ian, is 7 years younger than me so by the time he was old enough to be in such a photo I was no longer interested.

When we were young (or even not so young) our parents bought all the gifts, including the ones we had to give each other.  On Christmas Eve one parent would take us aside to wrap gifts and write cards for the other parent and then the other parents would do likewise.  Sometimes in the days before Christmas when our parents were out of the house we would snoop around trying to find what they were going to give us.  One year we found a table-top soccer game.  But on Christmas morning that didn't show up among the gifts that we unwrapped.  We didn't say anything.  It turned out that our parents had forgotten about it.  They came across it a couple of days later and gave it to us as a belated present.

Several weeks before Christmas my mother always mailed out many Christmas cards, to relatives and friends both near and far.  We received many in return.  Those living nearby who my parents say frequently tended to write just our names and their names on the card.  Those living further afield usually added at least a few sentences of news.  The cards we received were pinned to string strung around our living room.

My parents had a couple of LPs with Christmassy music - maybe one with carols and another with Christmas songs.  At least one of the two was a recording of a choir from a European country where English was a foreign language and their pronunciation of English words a little strange.  For instance, it sounded like they were signing about "San Douglas" coming to town.

When I was in high school I "sang" in the choir at our church (St. Hugh's Anglican church).  My "singing" career is a story for another day.  The only relevant part is that the choir sang at midnight mass on Christmas Eve and again at the 9 AM service on Christmas morning.  I had to be at both services, usually riding my bicycle the mile or so each way.  My father had been raised as a Presbyterian and when we were very young we went to the Christmas morning service at a Presbyterian church, long before I started going to the Anglican church.  For many years Christmas was the only time my parents went to church, though they started becoming more religious at about the time I was becoming less so.  My father later claimed that it was because of me that he started going to church more frequently.  I don't know why I got the blame - I did not try to persuade him to go.

For us Christmas was mostly about gifts and eating.  Much eating.  Heavy Christmas (fruit) cake with thick white icing for morning and afternoon tea.  The main Christmas meal was in the middle of the day, often with neighbors or other friends invited.  There were always paper crowns that we had to wear at the table and Christmas crackers to pull (see photo).  Christmas crackers  The main dishes were roast turkey and glazed ham.  (There is no Thanksgiving in South Africa, but those of British descent typically had turkey at Christmas.)  From a quite young age even the kids had wine with Christmas dinner.  Dessert was Christmas pudding with brandy butter sauce.  Low denomination coins were traditionally stuck in the pudding.  I liked to help my mother make the brandy butter sauce, mostly so as to do taste testing.  Much testing was needed.

Although our mother did some of the baking, such as making Christmas cakes, much of the credit for the main meal was due to our live-in housemaid, Edith Hempe.  She worked for my parents for more than 25 years and even moved with them when they relocated from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria.  The photo shows Edith holding Steven in my parents' backyard in Pretoria.

My kids never had a chance to experience our traditional Christmas.  My mother passed away shortly before Steven was born.  Lisa was born in Seattle and was less than two years old at the time of the only Christmas she had in South Africa.