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Thursday, April 21, 2011

The seasick sailor

De Ruyter Division, Saldanha Naval Gymnasium 1959

Naval Gymnasium, 1959

Getting through high school was a painful and miserable time of my life. The home fracas when I “expelled” my father and took steps to relocate the family in 1956 without him ended in failure as my mother acceded to the old man’s tearful pleas to be taken back again. This reunion was in Merriespruit and soon followed by another family catastrophe with the suicide of my brother Odiel who was a few months older than 18. So my last two years at school were clothed in sombreness and withdrawal.

I had no real plans what to do after completing my high school other than getting away from home as fast and as far as I could. There was a standing offer made by my grandmother that I come over to Amsterdam to be put through a University of my choice. This option was in the back of my mind but given the family situation I felt that the better option was simply to jump the cuckoo’s nest and be rid of the turmoil and travails of all family connection. The next best option as holding action was to volunteer for military service at the Naval Gymnasium in Saldanha Bay for a year. The advantage of this was that that volunteering for a one year Gymnasium training for either midshipman or cadet officer exempted one from regualr military call up. The selection process in those days was rigorous and passing the grade in itself an achievement. The reason why I choose the Naval Gymnasium close to Cape Town was that it was as far as I could get from home. 

Pulling into Cape Town station by train was a memorable experience. It was the first time I was in proximity to an open ocean and seeing a huge ship was almost of the miraculous order of buildings floating the water. As I alighted I found officers dressed in white shirts and shorts with white caps signalling us together like a new intake freshly taken from the stock fairs for herding to our new places. We were taken by trucks to Saldanha Bay where the outfitting in uniforms took place during the very first day. The Gymnasium officers seemed to have planned in advance our quartering in divisions with great care. The inland guys were spread out in dormitories made up of at least one half from the coastal areas. I was assigned to Tromp Division and allotted to a dormitory of candidates from the then South West Africa.

A rather vigorous racial indoctrination session was shortly to follow for the inland candidates. We were warned that the area around Saldanha Bay was inhabited mainly by coloureds. (Yes, this term referring to people of mixed race is still not struck out of the popular New South African dictionary). We were told that we were vulnerable as we would find the coloured women attractive thinking they are white. The way to go, we were told, was to observe the women’s finger nails which invariably were different from ours. Also, looking at the tongue and the mouth showed a difference, what exactly I can no longer remember. This was certainly reminiscent of cattle auctions I had come to experience in the old Transvaal. 

The South West candidates were an odd mob. They all seemed to know one another although they came from widely dispersed places from what is today Namibia. Probably this had to do with most of them being placed in school hostels given the thinly spread white population. The territory was then of course still governed by South Africa under the old UN mandate system. One guy came with the nickname “Bos Aap” (Bush Ape!) and was barely tolerated by the rest of his compatriots. He was short and stocky and had a compulsive habit of screaming like a wild Tarzan out of the blue. When this happened while all in the dormitory were asleep on a Sunday afternoon boots would fly in his direction and sometimes he had his testicles scrubbed with black polish.

The stories that came from these South West guys were from another world, maybe a century ago, but sure as dammit a reflection of the racial situation was in South West Africa anno 1959. They spoke about “taming the Vamboes” (referring to the Owambo, mainly involved in agriculture and cattle farming, make up more 50 per cent of the Namibia's population) capturing them and chaining them to trees until they submitted and were “tame” as domestics or farm workers.

On the other hand the Naval Gymnasium also exposed the milder side of the South African personality as many, if not most of the officers were from British Royal Navy vintage. They were above all seamen – world wise and tolerant. We could detect frictions in the ranks between the few Afrikaans officers who had obviously been hand picked to ensure that proper attitudes were developed and maintained regarding the great white homeland. 

I seemed to have drawn the ire of one of these, a Lieutenant Carstens (whom we nicknamed “Karrekas” because of his small and buckled body frame) who one day did the rounds of inspection of our dormitory with the Commander of the Gymnasium. While we were all standing to attention he rifled through my locker and found a pinup from a Time Magazine showing a beautiful Japanese woman. I was picked on by Carstens who lifted the pinup from the drawer as if it was something most nasty, something to snarl about and pulled a face as if it were a stinking baby nappy.  Carstens then turned to my fellow and bunk neighbour, whose name I can remember but do not wish to mention in case he ever gets to read this, and told him to speak to me about this  “deviation” of mine. After the inspection was over this fellow indeed did start clobbering me with accusations of “sis, man, can you not see what you are doing? Look at the shape of her face!” 

That really did catch me on the back foot. Not because I felt in any way moved not to find women of colour attractive, but guilty for being caught out on this. It reminded me of my last days at primary school when Odiel and I were into building model airplanes. There was a hobby shop owned by an Indian family, and mostly with an Indian woman behind the counter. I fell in love with her, even though she was so far removed across the race barrier. I was over the mountains, would pick the legendary flower on the Alps for her, I dreamed about her. I think this was being reinforced as a complex in me as later down the line I found the security police pouncing on me because, they mooted, I was not really interested in helping people suffering injustice, but I merely wanted to bed ladies of colour.    

On another occasion there was cold comfort on this race sexism issue. During the tea breaks a young coloured woman came into the Gymnasium grounds to sell bakeries, the favourite being dough nuts. As the drilling and grilling on the parade ground was done with, we were dismissed and the mob made a rush around the bakery cart and invariably swamped the young lady doing the sales. This became abusive. As the mob swarmed around her others would go in on hands and knees through the throng and start pulling at her panties and fiddling with her. This was most humiliating, but not one of the candidates, myself included, felt inclined or had the guts to report this sexual deviancy to the officers. Probably because the moral was clear – you can abuse people of colour, but not befriend them. 

Finally, there was another memorable run in with this Karrekas. On this occasion he came in for inspection with the base Commander again, once more went for my lockers, and hauled out a copy of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History'. I had found the book in the library on the base, where I tended to spend most of my free time. This became a matter of derision and my fellow candidate, my next bunk spy, was again asked to see me right for reading “communist” nonsense. My protestation that I got the book in the library backfired. The book was taken from me and never replaced on the library shelves. We did get to talk after the inspection was over. My bunk neighbour felt the need to invoke some religious talk and the dangers of atheism. These talks were ongoing and therefore no surprise. I was arguing against God in those days. The guy was considered the most intelligent in the dormitory which evidently he was. He came through his high school with straight A’s, for all subjects. While journeying with him by train he would demonstrate his due diligence and memorise every single station by name and jot down some thoughts along the way.  

I never experienced my being Catholic problematic until my first years at an Afrikaans school in Odendaalsrus. Catholics and Jews were asked to stand aside during any religious service or what was called Religious Instruction. This amplified also the fight between that ubiquitous Dominee De Kock who had ongoing battles with both the Catholic Friars in Winburg and the Anglo American Corporation in getting churches and schools established on the Free State gold fields. At the Naval Gymnasium this discrimination was ratcheted up. We had to get off the parade ground every morning while the Chaplain said prayers opening a new day. The benefit was that on Sundays all except Catholics and Jews were under compulsion to attend church services so we were given other duties such as driving the confessionals in good standing to their respective churches. But the vast majority went to the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk, the de-facto State Church. 

This played out in an interesting scenario during the last quarter at the Gymnasium when I was elected to do specialist radar training at the SAS Bluff, a land base of the Navy in Durban. The Commander of SAS Bluff was a Roman Catholic and as the only Catholic on that specific training course I was asked to accompany him to his own church, which was the Marianhill community. It was here that I had the first refreshing experience of a non-racial community, albeit restricted to within the Catholic Church. This had a definite deflection on the racial consciousness indoctrinated in me, as with all children at state school and institutions, and later spun me off the rails of the race tracks altogether.