The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
On a given day in our training, our platoon was marched off to the 3SAI Armoury where we sank down onto the ground, back against back, into exhausted relaxation. We were here to get our rifles. Many of the chaps I was with were beyond excitement at the prospect. In contrast, I thought what a bugger – ‘now I have to haul this heavy piece of metal around with me and clean it no doubt’. Several wooden boxes were hauled out, and one by one we went forward to get our special surprise. Brand-new, covered from butt to flash-breaker in thick and cloying grease. The rifle numbers were recorded and logued accurately in the armoury book and company records. I have all my platoon’s rifle numbers to this day.
(below) A pencil drawing of my R4 Rifle, No 653333. Propitious number I thought – at least it would be an easy number to remember considering my weakness with figures.
Anyone of us who called their rifle a gun was viciously berated – “nee jou fok – dit is nie ‘n gun nie, dit is n geweer” (no you fucking idiot, it is a rifle, not a gun). Lined-up we were informed that we were to treat our rifles as women and never, never, to drop them. It did not take long for one of us to to do this, the rifle making a loud crash as it fell from the grasp of some unlucky bastard, who was punished on the spot for this disrespect.
Our first exercise with out ‘gats’ were to take them apart and put them together again at speed, even in a darkened room. I was incredibly useless at this task. Of course – there were the blokes who were able to do this first time. Had they practiced before being recruited? They were generally the types who on a run came in first, leaving us lesser mortals far behind. They simply loved all things military and the prospect of becoming Corporals and Lieutenants filled them with so much glee. Later in our training when we could volunteer for Infantry School at Oudtshoorn, these chaps had their hands up in the air in a wink. It was good riddance to these military enthusiasts. Little did we know that these very same shits would return during our training at Modderfontein, flashing their stripes and stars and making our lives a living-misery with their zealotry. I viewed them with as much disdain as I did the PF’s.
For your interest, our R4 rifles weighed in at 4.3 kilograms and we had to carry them with our left arm. Figure that one out, when we were all (except Shaun Weber) right handed. Staff Sergeant Bunting came up to me one day on parade, his fine military moustache bristling and his sturdy chin smartly shaved. As he stood boldly in front of me I looked into his neck from below my doibie. I noticed he shaved all the way down his hirsute neck to a neat line where the shaved gave way to his chest hair. He squeezed my thin boyish arm firmly between his thumb and forefinger, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and asked me with amazement how I was able to hold up my rifle. What was I to answer – I was as surprised as he was. All the push-ups must have been working their strengthening magic.
Much of our training was sitting through lectures and we were expected to keep detailed notes. These were jotted down in an exercise book. This page records a lecture on Rifle Shooting, I sketched a soldier in the prone position taking aim. Failure to take adequate notes resulted in failed exams and the resulting punishment. There was no carrot incentives in the army, only stick and a kick in the arse.
(above) All the way through Basics in 1984 we sat through innumerable lectures on all aspects of army life. One important lesson was on Rank Structure (as recorded on this page). For some time I did not have a clue what a Sergeant was from a Sergeant Major, or a Lieutenant from a Captain, who to salute and who to ‘strek’. I can still hear the stinging words of a Sergeant who I had saluted, “jou onoosele idioot troep, jy saluur nie n’ Sersant nie; sak vir twintig” (you stupid idiot troop, you do not salute a sergeant; drop for twenty). The humiliation I felt burnt in my face. Complicating the matter was that we had to learn the Afrikaans names for the ranks too.
During most of Basics we would get up at 3 in the morning, and after an exhaustive day, a lecture was sheer suffering because one had such a strong compulsion to sink into sleep, but to do so was to incur the wrath of the lecturers. It was during one of these seated lectures that a sadistic Lieutenant hit me behind the head with all his might. I must have slipped into sleep and awoke in an instant of blinding pain and an instantaneous rage. My rage and contempt must have been evident in my eyes, for a Staff Sergeant by the name of Bunting intervened and remonstrated with the Lieutenant. Forever after, whenever I saw the Lieutenant, such a strong hatred would rise in me, and I would silently curse him under my breath. To this day, I can still see his common face etched in my mind. In contrast, I held Staff Sergeant Bunting with high regard ever afterwards.
(above) A pencil drawing of a section of my regular army boots. I remember hauling my boots on for the first time during early basics. They were so heavy that I thought to myself – how were we to run and march in these bricks. …But we did. When I returned to civvy-life – for a time I had no strength in my ankles. Evidently boots gave far greater support to your ankles than I had thought. My boots provided a ready item to draw as is evident in this post, and after all – one did become rather attached to them, boning them, polishing them and picking the mud out of their treads innumerable times
We all had two pairs of boots. On the last occasion when I had to renew my boots, a size seven pair of regular boots could not be found in the 3 SAI Potchefstroom’s Quartermaster store. Fortunately one of the storekeepers knew of a box of old boots that were several decades old already and had been stashed somewhere. He came back with a pair, size 7. This fine pair of boots had leather heels and soles and were fashioned somewhat differently to the regulars with their castellated rubber soles. In a world where uniformity was rule, wearing a different pair of boots was a some consolation to an individual. I brought them back with me from the army and wore them for years.
(below) And staying with all things cobbled – below is a Surrealistic drawing I did of my boot while stationed in the Kaokoland. I cannot remember what was going on in my artsy-head to make this unusual image. Probably – I was just bored out of my mind and needed some distraction from my misery.
A pencil sketch of my fire-bucket, 1984. Our plastic water bottles slotted neatly into our fire buckets. These were drop-pressed of aluminium with a clever arrangement allowing the handle to be swung under the base and thus tucked away. Up on the border they were a most handy utensil for heating up our food and beverages in. Whatever happened to mine? During training, each day at a given time, the kitchen staff arrived with a large stainless steel milk-can full of hot tea. We would line up dutifully and have our fire bucket filled with the sweetened beverage. With our tea we got two or so rusks for dunking. What a treat this was. I swear without the tea and rusks I might not have made it through.
On occasion we would be brought cooldrink in these milk cans, while training out on the range at Modderfontein, or even on a route march. It was the latter ‘via dolorosa’ one awful day as we trudged some 30 kilometres in full kit back to the camp at Potch that the Samil truck pulled up with a large can of chilled cooldrink. We were all so terribly parched from the summer heat and exertion, and making my condition even worse was that I had vomited several times along the way – the result of foolishly swallowing too many salt pills. We were ordered by Killer Smith to assemble, and as expected, did not do it with enough alacrity to his liking. He swung his large shapeless body up to the back of the truck where the can sat like a beacon of delight, beckoning us as it glistened with a thousand droplets of chilled condensation. And then in a swoop, he turned out its liquid content onto the sand road below. His broad, incongruously boyish face sprung a sadistic smile that did not spread to his dark-rimmed eyes. It was back to slogging again, unquenched, cursing the man under my breath. Hardly reassuringly – following us was a military ambulance and team of medics to pick up those among our ranks who were collapsing from heat exhaustion or who fainted. Oh how its interior beckoned me. I can attest – I was the last in my platoon to make it back, all thanks to a slightly built recruit called Deon Botes, who recognising my plight, supported me and like a true comrade, encouraged me to keep going at my extremum.
Pen and ink sketches of three of my mates during Basic Training, 1984. Most were sketched into my exercise book on the short breaks afforded us during training which was ironically termed ‘Veldt Kuns’ (Field Arts). Some were done during the interminably-long lectures to keep myself alert and awake. As in civilian life, so too in the army – there were bores. And so we suffered at the hands of inarticulate lecturers presenting subjects such as bone fractures and water purification.
(above) Rifleman Pieter Van Der Merwe demonstrating his R4 rifle outside the bungalow at 3 SAI Potchefstroom 1984. Note the grassed area between the bungalows. We were instructed not to piss on the grass should we get the urge at night, but rather to visit the toilet block some distance away. Of course, some chaps thought they would escape detection. But not so – for Killer Smith noticed the green grass was yellowing due to the ammonia in their urine. This allowed him to give the whole platoon an ‘opvok’ of note. Ordered to ‘buddy-dra’ (buddy carry) we were made to run thus loaded down the length of the bricked road between the barracks across a stretch of red sand near the ablution block, over a drainage sloot and across the drill grounds to the fence that bordered the University of Potchefstroom student residences. The students would come out onto their small res’ balconies, or sit atop the parapets and watch us suffering below. The parents of many of the male students knew that by sending their boys to university for endless cycles could arrange that they never did their two year military service, and should they be unfortunate enough as to be recruited – would be taken-up into cushy posts with their degrees. Such was the inequality of the whole system. At the fence we swapped our positions with our buddy and reversed the exercise back up to our tormentor who stood surveying our efforts who we knew would send us back to the fence again. One’s mind is a fascinating thing – that even in extreme physical distress, the mind can be floating free to think what it chooses. I remember wondering whether or not the students ever took pity on us boys, or were we just some afternoon entertainment.
(above) A quick pen and ink sketch of an RPG anti-tank weapon.
(below) A photograph of me about to fire an RPG anti-tank missile during training. Photograph taken by Glen Watson. I remember this moment well, not for excitement sake, but for fear and trepidation. I felt markedly different to many of my fellow platoon members who were beside themselves with excitement. There was no doubt – I was not a natural soldier.
(above) My now brother-in-law, Rifleman Shaun Gustave Weber, Pieter Van Der Merwe and Christo Schwab preparing for an inspection, 3SAI Potchefstroom. 1984.
(below) A rough instructional sketch of the workings of a grenade. In our second period of training, we were required to go for grenade training at Modderfontein. Duly assembled, we were taken one at a time by an instructor, like pigs to a sticking, into a brick and mortar structure very much like a sty. From behind the walls, we selected a grenade from a box, and then having been detailed to pull the pin from the grenade, were instructed to visually locate our detonation spot. Then in an overhanded style, bowl our grenade (cricket-style) followed by a count of two or so seconds before ducking our heads behind the wall to await the high explosive detonation. Our section having already finished training were now waiting atop the hill, beyond the range of the shrapnel. Shuan Weber (who in later years was to become my brother-in-law) took his turn in the pig pen, and having drawn his grenade’s pin, tossed his projectile. However, being nervously frozen (like all the rest of us) his grenade bounced off the wall back into the pen. From atop the hill we witnessed the Captain grab Shaun by his webbing and race him at top speed out of the structure, push him to the ground to fall atop him. We were amazed, and then shocked by a god-almighty explosion and a black cloud of dust and smoke. Both were luckily unhurt. It’s 30 years later – and I still tease Shaun about this one.
Rifleman Shaun Gustave Weber writing a letter. 3 SAI, O Coy, Potchestroom, 1984.