8 Dec 2015, Bangkok, 08:15
As an avid moviegoer and very keen participant in childhood “gangs“, it is strange to notice that this TV Series and eventual movie, somehow showed up at various places in my life. The Saint TV Series starred a young Roger Moore (Simon Templar) as a Robin Hood of sorts. He is involved in a whole slew of fantastic adventures.
Unfortunately I never did become a handsome, rich, film star and perhaps even sadder, the latest movie adaptations of The Saint, are nowhere near the original series in viewing value! Robert Moore, dashing as he is, is not the protagonist today. Instead, it concerns the little stick figure in the poster adaptation.
For those that haven’t met my imaginary set crew, let me introduce you to them as they get busy, moving our props into place. That tall fellow over there is in charge, he’s Mr E N Vision, he has a lot to do here. The short, fat guy is Mr. Surmise. (A foreigner -but documented!- just in case you wonder about his strange appearance) The rest of the crew, we’ll meet at a future date.
South Africa, MANY locations, circa 1984
Joining the throng of thousands of newly conscripted National Service members, I get off the train in Potchefstroom very, very slowly. My luggage is aptly packed in a duffel-bag, so that I can drag, instead of carry. In my shirt pocket I have a letter, indicating that I am here to serve my country as the proud intake for January 1983 – December 1984 … 2 years National Service!
My movements were deliberately slow, not due to anything you might assume…perhaps unwilling to do my National Service? The painful truth was that I was suffering from a series of broken bones in my vertebrate spinal column. Not being blessed with medically approved terminology, I had broken my back in 3 places. Not broken like SNAP!…broken like CRUNCH! (crackle and pop were the other fiends that accompanied this condition) It had occurred as result of a car crash just a few days earlier, in Middleburg, Cape.
The X-rays showed that the vertebrae at Axis-C1 and T11-T12, as indicated by the red circles, were basically
There are other medical terms to describe this condition and I seem to recall reading that it was referred to as “compression fractures”
The pain was not something I was overly concerned about. The main worry was that “wrong” movements would have paralysis or even death as a result. Taking my place in line with thousands of eager 18-year-old’s and being shepherded into seemingly random columns, I gritted my teeth and tried to appear as normal as anyone with a broken back could… It worked! The perfunctory ID checks over, we headed to our new home for the next few months, at the SAMS (South African Medical Service) training camp.
If you are unfamiliar with the South African National Service system during those days, you could find some information HERE. The only important issue in my humble opinion, is that I joined the SADF, not the SANDF…but what’s an N between friends?… hold that thought!
The two years preceding this day, had been filled with hitchhiking through South Africa, ending up in Middleburg and working on a farm. Glamorous as Merino sheep and Angora goats may seem, their company was not what I had planned. When running away from home at the age of 16, my plans were mainly centered around learning from the big book of life. Hunting Sprinbok, riding horses and wooing farm girls was a good life, make no mistake, but it somehow didn’t fill a growing need I had to “do something” important. The car accident was unfortunate but it definitely was not going to stop me from trying!
I was fit, healthy (despite the back) and eager to serve my country in any capacity. My initial disappointment at being called up to the “Medics” was replaced by an acceptance of the fact and an ambition to join the specialist 7 Medical Battalion Group. I had done my homework. This was where I was meant to be. Young as I was, I already had the skills to waltz in there and take charge… or so I thought.
My plans were set, my heart in the right place and everything was on course. This world has never met a soldier like me. Let’s get this war started, ended and won, all in the same breath!
On my very first day of National Service, I met a young corporal Broekman and to the utter dismay and mocking disapproval of my fellow conscripts, I liked him immediately. Despite his cocky attitude and incredibly bad English, he was just as I imagined a training corporal to be.
The practical problem of having a broken back had to be hidden as a matter of course. Knowing we would be doing a lot of physical activity, I was convinced that even my broken-back self would not only keep up, but excel. It was not to be. Even a lay quack would know that exertion would aggravate the condition. Not being a lay quack, I didn’t worry about that bit of anecdotal nonsense and set about my plan.
Running and drills were somehow painfully possible but it soon became very apparent that there was more to National Service basic training than the eye of the unenlightened would behold. Broekman was relentless in his attempts to shape us into semblances of soldiers. Our game attempts at mimicking soldiers were met with endless “vokops” (Fuck-ups – loosely translated as physical exercise, designed to break your very soul). SAMS was considered by many as an easy basic training and it would have been very, very easy too, had it not been for the small bones that heal so fucking slowly.
Just a few weeks into the training, we were doing “battery exercises” for the purpose of classification and medical check-up’s. On this exact day, my back decided to make it’s, hitherto ignored, opinion heard (actually felt) and totally gave in. I mean totally! Having managed to get through the initial weeks, I had no idea what was about to happen.
The obligatory 2.4 kilometer run was achieved with a sub-standard time and I was not too happy. Things were starting to feel out of place and my legs were just not listening to me. If they were, they were hearing something else. My feet were somehow detached from my body too because I could not control the direction my toes were pointing. In hindsight, I think I probably looked like a “disabled runner” (Please know that I have the utmost respect for disabled people, I am merely trying to create a suitable image for the reader)
Having finished the run, we were lined up for “Paal PT” (this involves carrying tar poles of varied lengths and weights for some measured distances, all timed of course) Not being gifted with foresight, I took my place and started the first exercise, one involving two carriers and a reasonably long pole. The front participant picked up his end and I bent down to do the same. The small “sqeeeeck” sound I heard alerted me to what was about to happen, but not loud enough to warrant any attention. Straightening up, with the pole firmly on my right shoulder, I waited for the whistle to blow, indicating that we had to start our run. The tweet was given and we set off. In all, I think I managed about 20 steps with the pole bouncing on my shoulder, because now my arms had also suddenly lost willingness to take part in this game.
Pole and me reached the ground at about the same time and we were separated from each other unwillingly. Nothing worked…I mean nothing at all! My legs, arms, shoulders, feet, neck and I think even my ears refused to obey a simple screaming command…MOVE!
Broekman was disgusted, I know he didn’t think too highly of me at all but that’s not the point. How could I be so inconsiderate as to upset the whole timing of today’s carefully planned activities. Not wanting to bore my reader with the details of the next few days, suffice to say that I returned to the unit a few weeks later, newly classified as G4K3. The ONLY reason I was not immediately thrown out of the army, was my insistence to the attending doctors that I had nowhere to go and that if they threw me out, they were consigning me to a life on the streets. Through a mixture of boyish charm and begging, it worked and I got back to my original plan, now complicated a BIT by my medical classification. You see, 7 Med Battalion is a Specialist Unit and would accept ONLY G1K1 members. I knew that insignificant little fact but my logic was, if I have made it this far, the last bit can be done somehow.
The weeks that followed were pure hell. I was useless in any real sense and not even allowed to take part in the least of activities that involved movement. That and the shame-tag of being in the PeeePawww (sound of a siren) squad weighed heavily on me. This was not going to end well!
Not being able to do physical stuff, my mind was still active and I managed to get in trouble enough times to keep getting the attention of Cpl. Broekman and Lt. Pietersen, our platoon officer. I know this because I stole his pips (shoulder insignia) and wearing them, went into other platoons to order them to clean up our side of the camp. We were staying in hard-top tents then, kept immaculately clean and pristine by hours and hours of attention and sweat from dedicated (lol) troops’ brows. The stolen pips were used to make our own platoon get some well deserved rest and to get some of the other platoons involved in completing the duties. Very fair, wouldn’t you say?
Broekman and Pietersen didn’t quite agree so I was the recipient of their undivided attention for a while. This was not a problem, it was planned. As any good marketing person and every good parent will tell you, getting attention is good. Bad attention, good attention, undecided attention and even unwarranted attention are all acceptable and favorable to the outcome. Undivided attention was a bonus!
At the end of the basic training, several other branches of the SADF visit the SAMS training camp and get to choose from the smorgasbord of delectable recruit morsels, ready to feed them into their respective specialisms.
I watched specialism after specialism do their selections and NONE of them had an opening for a fucked-up soldier. 7 Battalion’s selection committee didn’t even bat an eyelid when telling me that there was no place they could use me. Even my through-the-roof shooting scores and record aptitude test scores didn’t impress them to even offer a chance. FUCK!..There goes my plan. There is no way in hell that I was ending up as a “tampax tiffy” (a combination of two terms…Tampax -a tampon used by menstruating women…and Tiffy – word to describe a mechanic in the army. Though it’s use may SOUND derogatory, it is in fact a unit of excellence, Red -Tampax-beret notwithstanding ;-))
Please don’t get me wrong, in later years I got a LOT of respect for the red berets, worn by the medical core. But at that moment in time, it was like adding an extra star to my broke-back-peepaw-badge!
If there is a God, he decided to have a chuckle one day. Let’s give this guy a toothpick and see what he does with it to break through a wall.
On the very last day of the selection process, a nondescript, quiet and sullen looking lot showed up. They wore black berets and I was under the impression that they might be from the armored division (School of Armour / 1 South African Tank Regiment …both in Bloemfontein)
Last chance bud – Tank or AV?.. I could already see myself in one of their infamous (only to the enemy) tanks. These units are equipped with the Olifant Mk1B or Olifant Mk2 main battle tank. Either that or a jaunt across the bushveld in a Rooikat. No problem, I knew I could manage any vehicle, bring it on!
It was not to be, the selectors turned out to be from Intelligence School, based in Kimberley. My logical assumption was …Intelligence needs intelligent people with a high school diploma/certificate and that they were NOT dumb enough to be fooled into accepting a crippled-before-he-could-even-become-a-vet applicant. Again, Mr Logic accepted second place in my thinking process and he waited patiently as I took my place in line with hundreds and hundreds of others.
Counting people is not a problem, accepting odds is a problem. The latter lost out as I started to look at what they were doing more closely. They were sitting down and having a short chat with EACH AND EVERY applicant that passed the initial IQ/Aptitude test, actually little more than a series of really easy and really meaningless questions (right?). WTF! Are they crazy? This will take for ever. Not having much more to do, I settled into the waiting mode reluctantly and reached the interview table in the late afternoon. To this day I don’t know their names but I can tell you one thing, their faces are etched in my memory for ever! Meaningful or shocking events do that to you.
The interview was brief and impersonal. They asked a few questions, looked at me, chatted with each other, shuffled papers and told me I could go. FUCK…NOOOOO! I was doomed to wear the red beret and to top it off, I had no backup plan for what to do while wearing it. That’s it, I’m out of here. As soon as I reach the tent, I’m packing my shit and hitting the road. Well played GOD, you really managed to entertain yourself with this toothpick joke!
Again, my plans went awry because I was called in to see Broekman and Pietersen. Not knowing what the hell they wanted, I started thinking up excuses, alibi’s and reasons for a million things I might or might not have been a participant of. Not caring to even do the obligatory “draf”(jog) that was expected when called by officers, I ambled toward their quarters/offices, a row of red brick buildings. OK, maybe this is good, it will waste some time and make my later AWOL plan work better.
They were both in a surprisingly good mood. I immediately assumed it was because their duties, as trainers, was coming to and end because most of the recruits that were staying on were now being handed over to new staff and RTB trainers…set to become the next intake’s junior officers. They were drinking Coka Cola (you DO believe me that coke makes you feel THAT good…right?) and showed me to a chair in front of a desk, piled high with files.
The conversation that followed was better than any musical performance could aspire to be. The notes ebbed and flowed, I was transported and transformed into a thing of grace and..OK..OK..enough with the Bullshit!
They told me that I was accepted by the SAINTS (South African Intelligence School), to get my kit ready and to pick up my train ticket to Kimberley at the duty office after two days. Now I should have been ecstatic and I was…truly ecstatic…BUT…(Again?…come’on man, there’s always a BUT for you!)
There remained the small issue of the application form and a certain set of questions. More specifically, the set of questions that relate to EDUCATION. You know, where they ask about the where, when, what of your high school education…and unfortunately this was where my fingers slipped and what was DEFINITELY supposed to be an 8, happened to look like a 10! Right there where it asked about highest level of education….
Easy mistake to make, I know!
More about SAINTS later, right now I feel the need for speed! I’ll hop on my trusty Honda Scooter and zip across the park for some lunch. Don’t go too far, see you all in a few..
Kimberley here we come!
The three months of basic training completed, only 7 recruits from Potchefstroom SAMS made the selection and we were kept busy, discussing and arranging everything related to this momentous event. The only names I remember from those seven were Anton Briel and Meyer Geldenhuys. The latter only because his dad was some big brass in Pretoria. I visited their palatial house, set against the mountains in the Tuine area, some time afterwards and I was just amazed that ANY military person could possess such wealth. (I had a lot to learn)
Unfortunately we were told that we had to remain with our original unit colors and kit. (Yes, I still didn’t have respect for the maroon/red beret THEN) We packed our shit and headed to the station. The long train journey to Kimberley was fraught with ideas and assumptions about what lay ahead. We arrived in Kimberley in the early hours of the morning and were met by guys from the next-door unit. Later we had names for them, not the guys that met us, the unit… They were “waterkoppe” (Loosely translated as Water Heads – based on the fact that they were from 1 Maintenance Unit, wearing blue berets, and that they carted these huge water tankers around)
On the subject of nicknames given to various Branches and units. The Military Intelligence Unit nickname was “Snuffel Tiffy” (Sniffing Techs) ….imagine a fox (our unit emblem) sniffing as it’s job. Other units had even less flattering names.
Their unit was a few kilometers away and we met them many times for little parties at night. Not the parties they would have enjoyed, because it mainly consisted of us (intel) in small groups “invading” their camp, cutting the tent cables, beating up a few and then running like hell to get back to our bungalows…Let’s call them bungalows, but they were actually aircraft hangars, converted to hold roughly 300 troops in each.
Our arrival at Discobolos was met without fanfare or any ceremony. The official unit name was “Danie Theron Kryg Skool” (Danie Theron Battle School) but it was widely known as the South African Intelligence School (SAINTS) in Kimberley.
Note: Following the link you will notice that it was actually a converted military airport. I had the camp history somewhere and when I find those documents again, I’ll make it available, for those interested.
Enduring the smirks and snide comments about our berets, we set about our respective attempts at integrating. There were troops from most branches of the SADF but we somehow always ended up as the butt-end of some blood or mishap related joke. This couldn’t be tolerated. Not in my books.
In addition to South African troops, there were also a few from other countries, participating in some exchange of information program. All of us were ready to start the task of becoming officers or NCO’s. Looking around the bungalows, you could see that the selection guys had been pretty careless because they had a mishmash of all-sorts as their result. It didn’t really make any sense that they chose so many different kinds of people. To my young self, it seemed better to have a “perfect soldier“kind of profile and work from there. I was also conveniently forgetting my own situation…Not exactly the perfect soldier profile…
- Broken back (Much better now, thank you for asking..pain like hell with everything…but I could at least DO THINGS)
- Not a racist
The first three alone would have disqualified me from anything in South Africa. The added factor made this a situation that warranted very…VERY careful planning and execution.
As it was God that started the joke, I think he decided to up-the-anté and he threw a few variables into the mini-me’s life.
It started with an innocent “jog”
Daily exercises were becoming possible and I even managed to enjoy most activities. I was careful not to have my G4K3 Card anywhere near me and so far, I had not been asked about medical classification or education history. Life was good!
A short bout of “Gippo Guts” (slang for diarrhea) and brought about by someone poisoning our food (Definitely those fucking water heads), was the only major happening in the first weeks. I was just starting to get the hang of the R5 Rifle and my shooting scores were becoming acceptable. Higher than most, they were still well below what I knew myself capable of. My changeover from the FN was not easy, I liked the long stock and heavy back-end of the FN but I also liked the ruggedness and quick deployment of the R5, it just didn’t shoot as accurately.
One of our regular exercises routines was a 2.4 run to the “Perde Stalle” or Horse Stables. A measured and timed run of 2.4 kilometers. It was usually done with light webbing (in our case “butterfly webbing”) but wearing boots and full browns (uniform). These runs were my favorite because, despite my relative inactivity the last few months, I was still fit. Though starting slow, they quickly turned into a race… If you’re from any kind of military or uniformed background, I don’t have to go into the psychology of this but for the benefit of those not so blessed, I will explain.
Being from varied units and branches, all still wearing the associated colored berets and other insignia and badges, we were constantly in a friendly (really?) battle and oneupmanship. Our red/maroon berets were not seen as representing any fighting unit and the natural result was that we had to work a LOT harder to gain respect. Not that gaining respect was important, it was actually a typical young male MY BALLS ARE BIGGER AND BRIGHTER kind of rivalry.
One morning while doing the fun run, we were told by our instructor that he was willing to challenge us to a race. If ANY of the troops finish the 2.4 run in front of him, they had a free pass, meaning permission to leave base and go to town.
Testosterone, boots, counter challenges, and eventual acceptance was the result, not necessarily in that same order. The problem was that he was dressed in “tekkies” also known as sneakers in lesser civilizations. Besides that, he was also not wearing full webbing, or a “staaldak” (Military hard-hat) … Fair challenge or not, it was accepted and we set off. There must have been at least 50 runners, all eager to get a weekend pass and in doing so, also show just how big and bright their balls were.
I started somewhere in the middle but as we set off I felt a very kind angel tap me on the shoulder. She whispered something like “Get him” in my ear and the next thing I knew, I was at the front, with another 10 or so, all of us behind Pine Pienaar, the officer in charge of PT. Now you all know that there are no angels and that nobody whispered in my ear. But I can seriously not explain my actions in any other way than to say it was unplanned and undecided. The front group had already broken away quite a distance when we took the turn at the horse stables. Pine Pienaar was a fucking machine. At about 1.85 (Think that’s just over 6 feet tall), he had the shoulders of a boxer and the legs of an athlete. No jokes if I tell you that he was impressive as hell! Going around the stables was a jostle of elbows and ego’s and we all made it through regardless.
If you know about horses, you’ll know what happened to me right then. I saw the home stretch and I just opened up. I stopped hearing, feeling or even thinking and the next few minutes just didn’t happen, as far as I am concerned. When I reached the front gate, the guard-duty guys lifted the boom, or they must have because I couldn’t have run through the boom. I stopped at the corner of our bungalow, where the run had started and looked whence we came. Lt. Pienaar had passed the boom and was about 10 meters away, the rest were strung out and also heading back. The run was not timed but I know this was probably one of the fastest times at Discobolos. To make a long story short, I was the only one that got a weekend pass, which was absolutely fantastic. Much more importantly though, our red/maroon berets actually got a lot less heat from that day on.
On that sweaty note, let me leave you with a few questions that merit some thinking. If you can help me answer the two questions at the end, I would really appreciate it!
- Being born in a country determines your nationality. You can never really lose it, change it, obscure it or even damn it!
- Nationality demands loyalty and sacrifice, it helps the nation grow and expand it’s culture.
- Putting on a uniform and defending your country, from all dangers local and abroad, is an honor and in performing it you should serve with honor.
Question: If your country changes government, as in the case of South Africa, where the previous enemy (then called terrorists) now becomes the government (ANC), what happens to your nationalism?
Question: If honor is lost on the battlefield and senior officers actions caused harm to innocents, where does your duty lie?
Thank you for being a part of my day…