Parabats, Pilots, a Poephol and Peter
I start with the army parabats. Fear not, the poephol and the pilots will follow.
The Parachute Battalion
It certainly seemed to us to be exciting. We saw these really fit and tough-looking guys running around the camp at Tempe, outside Bloemfontein, in pairs, carrying huge logs. They were smart. These would be the guys at the front line. The fit boys would be dropped behind enemy lines when fast action was essential. These were the heroes who would save us all. We wanted to be one of them. It seemed glamorous.
Was there an enemy?
We didn’t have a clue who the enemy was, but we wanted to jump out of these huge Hercules C-130 troop carriers and helicopters, float down using World War Two parachutes and land without breaking a leg. Those chutes were primitive domed canopies with a hole in the middle. We had seen those heroes do it and, damn, it looked like fun. I wanted to do it and I wanted that maroon beret. When the time came, I was one of the volunteers. We didn’t want to be the “cannon fodder” of the infantry.
The Paratrooper TEST
That was a tough day. In full kit on the parade ground at Oh Five hundred on a bleak Orange Free State morning. I cannot recall having eaten breakfast. They marched us up and down and back and forth at double pace for about two hours.
Then they gave us tasteless coffee, put several bricks in our backpacks, marched us through a little dam to get our boots, socks and pants soaking wet, and off we went.
I shan’t belabour the point here and run through everything they made us do that day. It was not fun. We persevered. Well, some of us could. The idea was to break us physically if they couldn’t break our spirit first.
The End was nigh.
By about 16 hundred hours we ran into the Parabats section of the Tempe camp. Bodies burning. Minds muddled. Temples thumping. Memories muddled. Longing for life to continue. We thought that it might end on this day. By this time the “We” component was about 10% of the starters. We were “The Few”. It would have been a blight on the record of the sadistic sergeant instructors, had more of us arrived on the training ground of the Parachute Battalion. They expected a 90% drop-out. It was probably their target. They achieved it with this intake.
The Jump Tower
The parabat instructors were on standby and without delay they strapped each of us into a parachute harness and one by one we climbed up about 100 rungs of a metal ladder to a tower. That, after 11 hours of torture, was bloody tough. It felt like 1000 steps. There were two men on the platform. Well, I guess that they were men. Women were not allowed. Although I couldn’t have recognised Santa Clause or the Easter bunny if they spat in my eye.
“NAAM, RANG EN NOMMER – – TROEPIE” yelled Santa while the Easter bunny clamped a cable onto the back of the harness. Nothing was spoken here. Everything was at a volume that would kill Mick Jagger at a Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park.
“UCKO, A V SEWE NUL VYV NEGE. PRIVAAT – – – SAH” said I as strongly as my weakened vocal cords, my pummelled rib cage and my savaged lungs allowed. It was weird that 90% of the time we were yelled at and replied in Afrikaans. Yet the “Sir” was always in English. And it was compulsory. A troepie never said anything without saluting and saying very loudly “SAH”. Whether it was “Ja SAH” or “Nee SAH”, there was always the sharp, loud truncated “SIR”
Jump or be damned
“SPRING” commanded Santa. I released instantly like a coiled spring. If you didn’t you got a hefty boot on your arse from Easter Bunny, and Santa crossed your name off the list. Hesitancy meant removal. That was the Parabats done for me.
On the way down I thought, as did several of those remaining few, “Age nee. Fok dit” when suddenly the steel cable jerked and snapped me upwards. I bounced a little and dangled there for a few minutes swinging back and forth like a strangled chicken, until I was let down, at last, onto blessed Mother Earth.
I was accepted for training as a paratrooper, but I withdrew my application and returned to the infantry. 5 SAI had me back after one day. I wanted to live a quiet life.
Flight training in the army?
I had always wanted to fly aeroplanes. My father flew the wonderful old Tiger Moth. It was a dream, and here I saw an opportunity. I volunteered for Army Air Reconnaissance and requested a transfer. I could get my Wings, fulfil a dream and stop all this crawling around on my belly in the bush. Added to this was the possibility that the army would pay for it all. Here I introduce the Poephol. “NEE” said the Captain. There was no discussion. Had I argued, I might have been arrested for insubordination and sent to DB for 30 days. (See Part 2).
Private flight training?
The next step in pursuit of my dream was private flight training. We made enquiries at the Flying School, which was actually across the road from the army camp. My parents came to visit me, once it was allowed. They explained that they would pay for my flight training, but it needed me to be excused from my army duties and allowed out of camp on at least two afternoons a week. Even on weekends was good. “NEE”, repeated Captain Poephol emphatically. He didn’t grasp the fact that I could, at a later time, transfer to Army Air Recce as a qualified pilot and the army wouldn’t have paid for my training.
That was the bull-headed attitude and arrogance of an officer in the S’Effrican army. They had the power, and they used it. Our guess was that in “civvy street” they would most likely have amounted to very little.
Two pilots meet again.
The insanity is this. Several years later I had obtained my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) and was at a flying show in Durban. Those were simple and happy times. I flew a single-engine Piper Cherokee PA28-140. The registration and Call sign was ZS- FHB. I loved that. “Zulu Siera Foxtrot Hotel Bravo calling Virginia Tower” as I approached the airfield outside Durban.
There, damnation and buggeration, was that very Captain who had refused my requests to transfer to Army Air Recce. He had himself transferred to AAR and was flying. Oh the tragic irony! The AAR would have been fun for me. They flew a lot of Short Take-off and Landing (STAL) aircraft. Very slow and very low-level fence hopping excitement. Land and take-off on the proverbial tickey1. Captain Poephol, having denied me the opportunity, was doing it himself.
It wasn’t the end
Here we both were. Both of us licenced pilots, but I was a free civilian and he was still locked into the army and that uniform. For many, however, and I suspect that it was so for the Captain, the army was a safe and secure place, and the uniform was a comforting crutch. Our paths, the Captain and I, were to cross again.
- Tickey: In the days before our currency metricated to RAND we had Pounds Shilling and pence. LSD, as we called it, because the symbol for a Pound was £ and resembled an L. A tickey was thripence. Three pennies. The cost of a telephone call. Hence public telephones were called “Tickey Boxes”
Find many interesting and fun articles by a variety of creators in the Chronicle Here is more information about SAFREA – The SA Freelancers Association. Perhaps you would like to join. To find a freelancer, go directly to that page.