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.)

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