My Uncle Lex

My Uncle Lex was a real character. He was an unknown quantity and I never got to the bottom of all his stories of his escapades through life which he so fondly let me have snippets of throughout the years that I knew him.

Christened Dan Alexander Schweizer, he was my uncle, as he was married to my father’s sister, Johanna Batavera(Vera) Kempen, fondly known to all of us kids as Auntie Va. They were a lovely couple who farmed up in the mountains of the Praamberg in the Karoo just 25 kilometres out from our town of Victoria West, on their fifteen thousand acre sheep grazing property, called Montana. There were lots of farm activities to get in to and there were cats and dogs and chickens and of course rock rabbits. Dassie is the Afrikaans name for the Hyrax Rock Rabbit, whose closest relative is the elephant, so they say!

Lex and Vera, had no children, but delighted in having their nephews and nieces come to stay on the farm whenever this was possible. My aunt was a kindly person who loved all of us kids dearly and took great care of us. Uncle Lex was a great teaser and went to great pains to tease us in a humoristic way.

Uncle Lex was born in 1903 into a legal family and attended school at St Andrews College in Grahamstown. He was interested in farming however and as far as I know he attended an agricultural college at Grootfontein near Middleburg in the Cape Province. Somewhere in the late 1930’s he met my Aunt Vera and they were married in Rondebosch. He then bought the farm Gedierteshoek (translation: Creatures Corner) and renamed it Montana. Lex had a six sisters and a brother.

I spent hapy times on Montana from my childhood right through to adult years.

My parents were a very loving couple, although they never showed this outwardly. I think that they were uncomfortable with us children and needed time and space for themselves. A result of this phenomenon was that we kids used to be sent to the farm almost every weekend. Lex and Vera used to come into town every second week on a Friday, to buy supplies or to bring their workers in for shopping and then we would all cram in front of the bakkie (utility vehicle) and head for the mountains. Then Dad and Mum would drive out on Sunday for lunch, a siesta and late evening drinks, before taking us all home again. Quite a cosy arrangement this was. Our parents would get their free time and our Uncle and Aunt would get company and a diversion from routine jobs. We sometimes got a ride out to the farm with a neighbour and would be met at the road gate between the two farms. On other weekends our uncle and aunt would come in to play tennis and then they would stay over at our house and entertain us with their many antics.

On the farm we used to go out with the workers to muster sheep, mend fences, mend windmills or hunt rock rabbits. The latter were shot using .22 calibre rifles which we were taught to use from a very young age. Dassies lived up in the rock shelters and would come out the crevasses to sun themselves or to forage down on the plain. Being herbivores they ate the karoo bush and were in direct competition with the sheep. If my uncle or aunt noticed deterioration in the condition of the flora around the hills they would instruct us to go out and hunt as many Dassies as we could. Rifles and ammunition were supplied The meat was considered a delicacy by the native workers and they in turn salted, dried and tanned the pelts so that a kaross(doona) could be made out of them.

The terrain of Montana was quite rough, with gullies and washouts and numerous small hillocks called ‘koppies’. Ironstone rocks made up the bulk of the earth’s crust and in between the hills the plains were covered with karoobush and thorny acacia. As a youngster I was given free reign to walk these hills and plains and to take my rifle with me to shoot Dassies. I had to be wary of sheep in the area of course and I was given strict instructions not to scare the sheep. The farm ran about two thousand five hundred sheep in a good season and with careful management my Uncle and Aunt made a comfortable living out of it. They employed four male workers and their families which increased the population of the farm to about thirty. The wives of the workers normally were employed by my Aunt at the farmhouse in the kitchen and in the laundry. Employment conditions pay and housing was very frugal in the 1950’s but the African workers seemed quite happy at Montana and many of them stayed on for ten years or more.

Uncle Lex was a hard worker and used to be out and about by sun-up and only come back to the homestead at nightfall. After supper we would sit in the lounge and listen to stories while the grown-ups indulged in a glass of whiskey or two or three or more. There was never a shortage of whiskey in that house. Uncle Lex had a bunch of keys which locked all facets of farm implements and food away at night so that idle hands could not be put to use. There must have been at least ten keys on the bunch and they were set on a round clip and then attached to a long leather thong to another clip which fitted on to my uncle’s waistband. The keys were kept in his trouser pocket and hung on his waistband when not in use. Every evening Uncle Lex would come back to the house, unclip the leather thong, hold the clip in his hand and remove the keys from his trousers. Every evening he would then throw the bunch of keys at me pulling back on the thong so that the keys stopped just inches from my face. Every evening my aunt would yell “Lex!!!….don’t do that”! My Uncle Lex would just laugh and walk off to his office to do his daily books. Or we would be sitting on the front veranda of the house gazing over the lovely garden which they had cultivated over the years. In the distance, some twenty kilometres away a flat topped mesa rose out from the surrounding small hills. It was named Tafelkop and Uncle Lex reckoned that a giant lived behind that mountain. Lex would wait until he saw that I was not looking that direction and would “Look! The Giant of Tafelkop”! Then as I looked up he would say “Too late! You have to be quick because he just peeps out for a few seconds”. I would stare at the mountain but to no avail. Uncle Lex would laugh softly under his breath and as a child I was none the wiser always hoping that one day I would se that elusive giant. As I grew up and my brothers came along they too were teased with sightings of the giant. By then I was aware that the whole episode was all make-believe and would play along.

Uncle Lex and Aunt Vera had a pretty set way of living. They rose early and set about the days tasks and then came in for breakfast around 8am. After breakfast it was back to work down at the Old Farm House where he had his workshop and farm implements. If he and his workers were working out in the veld for the whole day then a packed lunch would be arranged for all the men. Normally they finished work at 5pm and then would make their way back to the homestead. As the property was only fifteen thousand acres in size there would be no need to stay out overnight or come in very late in the evening unless there were some farm related problems. Then, when Uncle Lex had had a quick wash, the a housemaid would bring out a fresh bottle of Whiskey, cold water, and ice, and some glasses on to the veranda, and then they would watch the sun set over the late afternoon stillness of the Karoo whilst imbibing copious amounts of Whiskey. The house staff would be sent off early and supper would have been prepared before and only needed some heating. In winter there would be a fire roaring in the lounge before the staff went home. In later life, after Uncle Lex’s illness, he and Vera could drink two bottles of Whiskey in an evening, especially if there were some visitors.

Every year Lex and Vera would take off on a well earned holiday somewhere. They delighted in travelling over the length and breadth of Southern Africa and in to countries such as they were then known, Bechuanaland(now Botswana), Basutoland(now Lesotho), Southern Rhodesia(now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia(now Zambia), Mocambique, Tanganyika(now Tanzania), Nyasaland(now Malawi), Kenya and South West Africa(now Namibia). They drove at first their Hupmobile, then their 1945 Chevrolet, and then later in their 1948 Buick, to all of these places, taking many rolls of 16mm film which they showed us at endless film parties. Now in retrospect, I think that that is where the wanderlust was instilled in to me.

In 1955 they were in Tanganyika and got the Buick stuck in a sandy creek crossing. While trying to heave and push the car out of the sand Uncle Lex stubbed his foot against a rock submerged in the sand. He developed a callous over some months and this growth became painful. He then visited a podiatry specialist who suggested that the cist be removed by a new method of burning with a high intensity flame. This treatment would remove the cist and quarterage the wound, thus fending off a risk of infection. Lex reluctantly agreed to this procedure. The operation was a success but after a few months the wound became infected and as my uncle was a very active person and not prone to complaining about this lot he let things slide a bit. The wound became gangrenous. He was rushed to hospital where the leg was amputated just above the knee. This happened when my uncle was 52 years of age. It was a terrible blow to him and it broke his spirit. He was now on crutches and in a wheelchair at times and he could not get around his beloved Montana as he used to be able to. This had a debilitating effect on his life and with his spirit broken he began a slide towards disability and dependence on drugs and other people and in 1965 he died an agonising death. I was a witness to his death as I did a mercy dash to the farm with a canister of oxygen and arrived there in his room at his moment of death. This scene haunted me for many years. He rests in the Victoria West Cemetery.

One of my uncles favourite stories was the night he had to arrest the droster. A droster was a vagrant who had no fixed address and wandered out in the veld and on to properties, stealing supplies and slaughtering sheep to survive. One evening my uncle’s neighbour, Piet, rang him to say that he saw what he thought was a small fire high up on the Praamberg. The Praamberg mountains were two, high, conical mountains, almost identical in size, and resembling a pair of breasts. My uncle referred to them as “Your aunt’s tits”. But I digress. Lex decided that he had better see to the culprit and while Vera made contact with the police in the village, he, armed with his rifle, a torch and some rope, set off to the peaks in his truck. He had to drive in the darkness with the lights off for about five kilometres but knowing every inch of his property this was not too difficult. The moon was also in its waxing cycle and shed some light for his journey. He then approached the lee side of the peaks and began a long arduous climb along the fence line until he came to where the climb became a serious affair. The landscape of this part of the world was strewn with rounded iron-stone rocks and stunted prickly acacia flora and derivatives. Walking in the darkness over the loose stones without making too much noise was quite difficult but Lex approached the highest part of the cone on the blind side and edged his way around until the offender came in to view. He managed to creep up to within twenty metres and shouted “Do not move!” The droster, a black African man, got such a fright, he fell over and scrambled away in the dark. My uncle fired a shot from his .22 rifle in the air and shouted “Stop, or I will shoot!” to which the droster stopped dead in his tracks trembling in fear. “Don’t shoot, boss, don’t shoot!”, he yelled. Lex commanded him to lie face down on the stones and to put his hands behind his back and then proceeded to tie his wrists together and also tied a loop around his waist and tied his bound wrists by a rope to the waist rope. He doused the fire and put a raw bone from the freshly killed sheep in his jacket pocket. Then they walked down the difficult slope in to the night, where their footsteps were precariously lit by a faint moon and the light of my uncle’s torch. Luckily by then my Aunt and two policemen were making their way up the fence line and it wasn’t long before the culprit was in the custody of the police. He received a jail sentence of six months only to be released and to re-offend again. My uncle thought that for some of those vagrants life was better inside prison than outside.

I was still a young child at the time but do remember the ‘Flying Trapeze’. It was a very early model Chev car which had been cut down with a hacksaw and oxy cutting tools and made into a utility vehicle. It was an open vehicle with no roof and sometimes no windscreen as the latter could be laid down on to the bonnet. It had a jumpy clutch and at best was a difficult vehicle to drive. One thing it had going for it though was that it had excellent brakes and front tyres. Uncle Lex related a story about how he was working out at a windmill in one of the camps. The farm labourer for the day was a difficult chap giving cheek and advise all day long. They left the mill windmill after dark and had a number of gates to pass through before reaching the homestead. The labourer was holding on to two 44 gallon drums of water positioned right behind the driver’s seat. At the first gate the labourer was supposed to jump down and open the gate but refused for some obscure reason and Uncle Lex had to open and close the gate after driving through. At the next gate the same thing happened. By this time Uncle Lex was getting really annoyed after a long, trying and tiring day. The third gate down the road was on a slight downhill slope. Uncle Lex put his foot down on the accellerator and the old rattletrap lurched on as fast as it could go along the winding wheeltracks. The labourer cried out “Boss, Boss, what are you doing?” and Uncle Lex replied ” You’ll soon see!”. Not long after the old gate loomed up in the dark lit by the pencil lights of the truck. When almost right on top of the gate and still going at speed Uncle Lex slammed his foot hard on the brake pedal and lay down to the side off his seat. The brakes and tyres gripped the gravel road with venom and the Flying Trapeze came to a sudden stop. According to Uncle Lex, the labourer came flying over the top of the old truck with a 44 gallon drum in each hand and landed with a thud right next to the gate spilling water everywhere. Before the labourer could regain his senses Uncle Lex yelled out “And while you are there you can open the gate!!!”

An occasion arose during the school holidays once, when I was visiting on the farm, to go to a livestock sale. Uncle Lex had difficulty driving his Ford utility truck but managed somehow to come in to town. My Dad, who was an auctioneer at some of these events, drove us out to the auction where we spent the day. That night I was told that I should accompany Uncle Lex on the journey back to the farm as it was Friday and the weekend lay before me. I agreed with glee and soon we on our way to Montana. The minute we drove on to the unsealed gravel road Uncle Lex said “You drive, me lad” to which I agreed whole heartedly. I was honing my driving skills at the age of 13 now and had been driving since I was 8. I was at the stage however not mechanically minded and was unaware that the battery on the Ford was about to demise. There were three gates to open on the way to the farm. I had to open them all as Uncle Lex was incapacitated due to his disability. By now it was dark and when we got to the second gate I left the lights on with the engine idling whilst swinging the gate open. Then the engine stopped running and by the time I got back in to the truck the lights had dimmed considerably. I switched lights off and cranked the engine. The engine turned over slower and slower until it stopped. Flat battery! Now what!

“You will have to walk to the farm house to get your Aunt to come and rescue us” Uncle Lex said dryly.

Now, I did not think that I was afraid of the dark. Just cautious. I had no choice but to walk the last eight kilometres to the homestead.

“Keep an eye out for the spooks”, said my Uncle mischievously.

That comment I did not need as I started up the hill of the ‘Hoogte’. The Hoogte was the track cut out of the mountain side in a left-handed L-shape with a rather sharp incline at the top of the gradient which swung away to the right and on to the third gate. Some times the gravel would become a bit loose on the top slope of the track and this could induce a bit of wheel spin from the vehicle. Sometimes a second or third attempt had to be made to crest the track. In those days four wheel drive vehicles were unheard of.

I climbed the Hoogte and made my way through the gate. I decided that as the track followed through a very densely vegetated valley, I would follow the fence through the veld which was the shortest route to the homestead. The Uncle Lex’s words started mulling around in my head. What if I saw the headless dog? This fable was from the writings of a well known Afrikaans horror writer. What if I saw something I didn’t recognise? My goose bumps became active again. I stared humming a tune to myself to keep my confidence up and to warn animals or things lurking in the bush that I was approaching. On my walk through the first paddock I had to climb down and through a number of dry creek beds. In one of them I must have scared a hare as it took off in fright. Who got the biggest fright I do not know as I managed to leap across a number of washouts, eventually falling into one in my haste. I lay there panting but unhurt. This was silly, I told myself, regained my composure, and set off with confidence into the night.

Climbing over the saddle of the last hill near the homestead I was suddenly confronted by a white animal like apparition with no head blocking the pathway. “Aaarrrgghhghgh” was all I could say, and froze.

Then from the throat of my spook came a sharp “Baaaaaa!” It was Lamby, the pet Karakul ram, with a white body and a black head!

“Oh hello, Lamby” I said with relief. Lamby let me pass but followed close behind. Then it started head-butting me from behind as all young rams do and I had to climb the fence to get out of harms way.

As I rounded the hill and the lights of the homestead began twinkling in the distance the farm dogs started barking. So I set about whistling as loud as I could and started calling the dog’s names in between. My Aunt Vera came out of the house with a very worried expression calling out “Is that you, Boetie?” After replying to the affirmative the dogs came up and jumped all over me, being ever so friendly.

Soon we were on our way back down to the bottom of the hoogte in the car with jumper leads and a spare battery. I fell into bed well after midnight after retelling my night’s adventure with little prompts from my uncle, who, despite being very tired and worn out, still had enough in him to tease me. I must say though, that after that, the night held no more secrets for me and I was able to go out in the dark without fear of mysterious things happening to me.

Uncle Lex’s favourite saying was “It is not what you make on a farm, but what you save on a farm”. And so it happened that whilst his neighbours bought machinery, tools and accessories for their new farming methods, my uncle still ploughed, repaired washouts and made contours with donkeys and old style implements. They worked very well and he managed to get all his work done, albeit at a slower pace. His neighbours often wondered how he and Aunt Vera could afford an annual jaunt overseas.

The time had come when Uncle Lex had lost all interest in farming and Aunt Vera was not only burdened with the day to day running of the business but also had to look after Uncle Lex every moment of the day. A decision was made to hire a Farm Manager and they advertised for one in the rural press. A man and his family, a Dutch immigrant to South Africa, were appointed to the job. His surname was Spaargaren and Uncle Lex refreed to him as ‘The Bobbin’. It wasn’t a good choice but the best available at the time and Uncle and ‘The Bobbin’, had a love-hate relationship. The new manager had a fiery temper and was also totally useless with anything mechanical. So it also came to pass, that the farm acquired a tractor for ploughing and general duties around the farm such as towing a farm trailer around the property, carting various materials. A second hand tractor was purchased and that was mistake number two as this tractor spent more time in the mechanical workshop in the village than anywhere else. No one on the farm had mechanical skills and therefore the tractor became neglected due to poor servicing and incorrect usage. Nevertheless, everyone persisted with their folly.

The manager left the farm soon after Uncle Lex’s death as he could not envisage being given orders by a woman and another Manager was hired. This gentleman with a vast knowledge of farming settled on Montana and stayed there until the farm was sold in 1977 and when Aunt Vera retired to Cape Town at the age of 73.

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