Toasted sandwiches and pranks followed my . . . . . . . . . .
Successes and failures
I had succeeded in qualifying as an Army Bisley marksman. That got me out of a lot of crawling around on my belly in dry grass and thick wet mud, and endless parades. I had forsaken the parabats because it was simply not worth it. My application for transfer to Army Air Reconnaissance to get my pilot’s licence, had been refused. There remained one other option to extricate myself from the cannon fodder situation in the infantry.
The President’s Guard
The option was The President’s Guard. And why not? A fancy uniform was on offer. Assignment to fancy formal functions, like the opening of parliament, was preferable to jumping through endless hoops at the sordid commands of a sadistic sergeant. It seemed like a good option. At least the President1 wasn’t, in theory, a symbol of the apartheid government. He was the replacement of the previous post of Governor General1 who was the representative of Her Majesty, the Queen, and was the head of the government of “Her” colony. That was a time when the Queen of England was our Queen. We sang her song that she might live long2. Apparently we did a good job. Look at her now – still the Queen at 95. She should thank our long-dead sergeant for forcing us to sing with gusto.
Bad genes and goofing off.
This is where my genes let me down. I was too short. They wanted uniformly tall guys. The Guard was required to look evenly elegant. Having a looooooong row of soldiers of 5’ 11’’ and me at 5’ 5” would have spoiled the symmetry. South Africa was still using the Avoirdupois3 system.
I continued shooting straight and goofing off. This was a talent that warranted improvement. Goofing off was great. It was fun. It had to be done well.
Despite constant harassment in the army to keep active, we still had dead time to fill.
What were we doing?
We had Friday night visits to the local synagogue and Jewish families. We had Sunday morning excursions to the Catholic Church where men wore dresses, and the NG Kerk where the Tannies made tea and cake for us and held the promise of introducing us to their daughters. Although these outings were fun and entertaining, there was still plenty of dead time in the apartheid army of the 60s. We were bored more often than was good for the development of young minds.
Soccer was for sanity
We still had Sunday afternoons when we could legally play soccer on the fields on the Independent Protectorate of Natal in the middle of the Orange Free State. All that running around the dusty field made us hungry and thirsty. But we wanted more. We found a way to make it rewarding.
Wheeler dealer: Making it in the army
A small group of business savvy, pimply-faced teenagers did what the Boere are well known for. We made a plan.
One of the chefs in the kitchen became a partner in our fast pre-ordered food business. We arranged with a local wholesaler to deliver supplies for us together with goods destined for the kitchen storeroom. We kept it simple. A few loaves of bread, a few pounds of cheese, orange or other cordial, and an assortment of sweets. Our chef partner kept that for us and we gained access on Sundays in the late afternoon. We toasted the bread to fill the orders by holding it on the end of a bayonet, at the furnace door. We melted the cheese in enamel mugs and poured it over the toast. Really thick. Slapped another slice of toast on top and voila! Toasted cheese sandwiches. We didn’t bother with tomatoes.
The forerunner of delivery services
We delivered orders with toasted cheese, cordial and sweets to bungalows. Our business model was that orders came with the army aluminium food tray. We didn’t waste money on packaging. Delivery in the army was quick and personal. We beat amateurs like Mr Delivery and Uber by at least 40 years.
Parabats and skulduggery
Deliveries to the tightly sealed paratrooper battalion area of Tempe required some skulduggery. We charged a premium for this service. There were no credit cards and all business was conducted in cash. There were no bad debts. We supplemented our one shilling a day army “salary” and became mildly, at least comparatively, wealthy.
This enterprise would be expanded and continue in a different guise when we were sent to Ladysmith after our first three months of basic training in Tempe. More on that, later.
Pranks and having fun
Another essential element of staying sane in the army, was having fun. We did that with occasional pranks. It was a continuation of things that we did as boy scouts. Painting faces on a sleeping soldier required great patience and skill. We tried to do this when we knew that there would be a surprise inspection at three in the morning. The sergeants were, as I keep repeating, sadistic. But we had “intelligence”. Information acquired by stealth. When all 24 of us stood at strict attention at the foot of our beds when the sergeant burst into our bungalow at 03 hundred, one poor guy looked, literally, like a clown. That led to more fun. First, the genuine surprise of the victim, followed by the angry quest of the sergeant to find the culprits. There was never a culprit. We had all been sound asleep until “You woke us up – SAH”. Could it be that troepies from another bungalow or even those horrible parabats, were responsible for this disaster?
Another prank was to squeeze toothpaste into the hand of a snoring troepie and tickle his face with a feather. I leave you to imagine the result. Unless of course you did it yourself and know exactly what happens. You naughty boy!
Deep sleepers were not “embedded spies”
There was always someone who was a very deep sleeper. A herd of elephants thundering through the bungalow and 50 buglers blowing Reveille4, could not wake them. Occasionally we would carry their bed out into the middle of the parade ground. That was always hilarious. The sergeants never thought so, but we did. Many of our antics did cause the sergeants and sometimes the wannabe tough Korporaaaaaal, to try to hide a smile. It told us that they were, at least partly, almost human. As for the deep-sleeping, troepie, they were “Early on parade”.
1. Charles Robberts ‘Blackie’ Swart was the last Governor General of South Africa. The post was abolished on 31 May 1961. ‘Blackie’ became the first Ceremonial President of South Africa.
2. The National anthem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, “God save our Queen” (or King) revolved around the ruler.
3. Avoirdupois was a system of weights and measures used at the time, with 16 ounces in a pound and 1’ (foot/feet) having 12” (inches). 3’ (feet) was one yard. South Africa changed to the metric system on 5 July 1974.
4. Reveille is a tune, usually blown on a bugle, to awaken armed forces. Reveille is traditionally at 04:30 or at sunrise. Listen to it HERE.
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