Army Days

I was never called up to do my National Service as most young South Africans were in the 1960’s and 70’s. Somehow I missed the draft. It never really interested me. My Uncle Henry, who was a Colonel in the Defence Force, started chewing my ear about joining up. It was a good career move and I could go far in the Army and the Army was good for fitness, health and wellbeing. Blah, blah, blah.

I was out of work.

I got fired from my last job for insubordination. Yeah, I went to work wearing a blue shirt and company policy stated that I had to wear a white shirt. The result was that I was carpeted in front of the General Manager who said that he took a dim view of such insubordination and that I was to go home immediately and change my clothes. I said that I thought that he was being petty and if he really insisted then he could shove his job.

Within twenty minutes I was out on the street with a severance cheque in my hand and unemployed.

Being unqualified to do anything really apart from selling cars, insurance or encyclopaedias neither of which interested me, I drove home an wondered about my next move. No, the army was definitely not an option !!

My girlfriend of the time, Nicky, who was studying commerce, thought that an Army career may be a good move and a secure income, should our relationship grow and meet other expectations. Being totally infatuated by this woman, whose sex appeal drove me nuts, I slowly but surely had my head turned around, and one day, as my finances started to wane and job prospects looked dim, I wandered in to the Army HQ and put my name down for inclusion into the ranks.

What a bloody mistake that was!

My posting was to the infantry at the South African Infantry Division 1 at Oudtshoorn. I arrived at the gates at the given time and leaving my car outside walked up with my gear to the main office. Everyone was very friendly until, that is, I signed in. Then I was standing outside the office, saluting a telegraph pole for ten minutes non stop, with a belligerent little sergeant standing beside me, shouting insults. Why is it that all NCO’s in the army are people who are small in stature? When the sergeant grew tired of this he pointed me in the right direction and I was marched to my dormitory where I joined twenty other recruits.

The initiation, which was six months basic training, was extreme to my way of thinking and I soon realised that I was a person of self discipline and not one that takes too kindly in having discipline forcibly thrust upon me. But I was not in a position to challenge any authority at that stage and had to abide by the rules however unpleasant they were. Having fellow humans hurl abuse at one only for the sake of getting a point across was not the way I was brought up and invariably some of this stuck in later life when I had to give orders to my staff. I may have said things I’d regret at a later stage.

After a month of intense physical training we were then allowed out of the barracks until midnight on Wednesday and Saturday nights. One evening we decided to go to the movies. It was a late show and the movie only ended at a quarter to twelve. If we had walked we would have been late and most likely would have received some sort of punishment. Our sergeants saw us at the movies and were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of punishing us for being out beyond the time limit. As the movie goers came out of the theatre they ran flat out in the direction of the barracks which would have taken them fifteen minutes. They arrived at our dormitory completely out of breath and then became very angry when they saw us sitting there preparing to go to bed. Up to this stage they were not aware that I had a car and their frustration at finding this out boiled over and they upturned all the dormitory beds, even those with sleeping occupants in them leaving the place in chaos. Later in the week word got out of this event and both sergeants were reprimanded which made matters worse.

The few good things I remember about those early days were the field trips where we were taught how to camouflage in the bush. The driving lessons were good and my first 4×4 experience was with a Landrover which I mastered with ease. Next came a 6×6 Unimog which was an awesome vehicle to drive. I was shown how to drive down and through gullies where even animals would fear to tread. Then there was the inevitable marching. But we became very fit. Once in full kit and running in a squad of ten, our time for a mile was just over six minutes. On the rifle range I excelled as I was a marksman from school days and took part in Inter-provincial target shooting competitions. Learning how to dispose of hand grenades over a wall was exciting until we had to throw them in real life in an open field. The resonating blast was something else and one had to make sure that one was well protected behind a tree or mound. One young recruit froze with a grenade in his hand whilst in the practise area behind the wall. The quick thinking instructor banged his arm down on the top of the wall so that the grenade dropped to the opposite side as it came out of the recruits hand. He yelled in pain and was nursing a bruised arm for a week but we were thankful that the blast had not happened on the wrong side of the wall.

The most boring job was guard duty in the four corner turrets of the barracks. Four hour shifts in a cold and dark cubicle overlooking an open plain. Invariably we recruits got the nightshift. It was not something we looked forward to.

After three months training we were allowed weekend passes. On one of my weekends away my old Auto Union car cracked its head and I had to buy a car in a hurry. In Malmesbury I found a cute little Mini Cooper S and did a deal on the spot. I was supposed to drive to Cape Town, not far away, to sign the papers. When I got there however the office was closed and I went on to enjoy the weekend and drove back to Oudtshoorn on the Sunday night. We always had to be in camp by 23.59 or one minute to midnight. During that week my father contacted me saying that the Hire Purchase Company I had bought the Mini off were very angry about me not signing the papers and that they were going to take legal action. He explained that he had paid for the car and that I was to bring it home when on my next weekend pass.

I went home to Victoria West on the first weekend pass available and my dad took possession of the mini with glee, admonishing me along the way for being irresponsible. When I asked how I was supposed to get back to the barracks he explained that he would give me his company vehicle fondly known as the ‘Office furniture’. It was a 1954 Ford Customline V8. I was sad to lose the Mini but had no choice in the matter. Instead now, I had a roomy, all powerful, petrol guzzling car!

The Ford was a boon to my social life in the army. On weekend passes I would gather up those less fortunate without cars and we would have six or seven in the car and I would charge them a fee. As we were paid a pitiful allowance in the army the extra cash came in handy. Even with V8 economy I was earning a few dollars extra. I was having a good time. Then it all came unstuck when one passenger mentioned it to his father who mentioned it to his boss who was high up in the department of transport. Next thing I know my dad is blowing in my ear again telling me to desist from taking money for fuel.

One day we were doing exercises to dismount from a moving vehicle with a full 30 kilogram army rations kit and a 7.62mm rifle in hand. The truck would drive at 15 kmh and we would run off land on our feet and try not to fall over. On one of my jumps I felt a sharp pain in my knee but survived the exercises and thought no more about it. A couple of days later whilst marching in drill formation my knee gave way and the pain was excruciating. What followed was lots of yelling and verbal abuse by sergeants and accusations by officers of ‘swinging lead’ until a specialist report said that my cartilage was irreparably damaged and I had to go on to light duties. It was suggested that I have an operation but I declined that offer. The specialist said that by age 40 I would not be able to walk. I did not want to believe him. Well…..in a sense he was right….. the crunch came at age 58 when I was diagnosed with acute osteo-arthritis in both knees and other joints of my body.

The army transferred me immediately to Head Office in Pretoria where I was to be assigned to a desk job. So I packed up my meagre belongings and drove to Pretoria via Cape Town, mind you, to have just to catch up with my girlfriend of that time. I even received a fuel allowance from the army which covered some of the costs.

I was based at Voortrekkerhoogte, Army HQ in South Africa and was assigned a desk job. We had minimal drill routines to do as long as it was done and you were allowed to march with a limp. There was also some night training and on more than one occasion we were to be the infiltrators in an army exercise. On one occasion I managed to steal a truck out of a camp whilst the manoeuvres were on but was severely manhandled when caught. I gave up on being too clever and stuck to my boring desk job.

I set about building up my social life again and contacted various school pals who lived in nearby Johannesburg. My Uncle and his family lived in Pretoria and I would visit them as often as allowed. My Uncle was a lovable alcoholic and lead me quite happily down that same path although I never let the booze take control of my life.

My Ford developed engine trouble one day whilst visiting my uncle and would not start after that. I left it there and commuted by bus for a while. Months later my uncle complained that his lawn was growing up through the car and wanted it moved. I endeavoured to trade it in. I managed to do so without going into debt but the catch was that I had to trade down to a Fiat 500 Bambino!!! How the mighty had fallen. Nevertheless I pressed on with my hectic social life. By this time my girlfriend had moved up to Johannesburg to start a job in a computer firm and we got together as often as we could. But the bright lights of the city dimmed our enthusiasm for each other and after a big argument one night we called it quits. I was a bit devastated as I was still very insecure in my life.

When my twelve months service came up I was allowed to apply to be discharged by paying a fee of R200. This was money I did not have and so I approached my friend old school pal, Tony, who lived in the upper bracket of society in Johannesburg. We had been in the same class at school at St Andrews College at Grahamstown and were close friends. He did not hesitate and before long I had shaken the shackles of army discipline off and was standing out in civvy street wondering what to do next!!

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