The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
What I write below is an introduction to a series of posts on the two years I was conscripted to the South African Defense Force. The posts are based on the drawings and paintings that I did during the course of 1984 and 1985. For 29 years these images lay buried in a cardboard box, bound in string. When the 30th anniversary to my conscription neared, I resurrected the images, and thus was born an idea to post them and perhaps to write a caption in explanation to each. The project took a life of its own, and memories long buried, resurfaced. They are the images of an 18 year old, and my observations and memories are that of a youth.
(below) My ‘Call-up’ Instructions for National Service at 3rd South African Infantry Battalion, Potchefstroom, South African Defence Force.
Towards the end of my last year of schooling at the Pretoria School of Art, Ballet and Music in 1983, I received in the post my Call-up to 3 SAI Potchefstroom, sent on to me by my mother from Newcastle, Natal. I remember the trepidation and fear this document evoked in me, a 17 year old, slight in build, and weighing no more than 59 kilograms. I would imagine everyone who received these ‘Call-ups’ felt the same stomach-gnawing anxiety. All us white South African boys knew from when we were children that this compulsory military service lay before us and there was no escape.
I know that my fearful anticipation was exacerbated by the clear knowledge that I was gay; and I was knowledgeable enough to know that this fact was not going to make my army service an easy one. My thoughts were troubled ones – what could I expect if my orientation became common knowledge? Would I be able to hide my identity, and if I couldn’t – what kind of treatment could I expect from my fellow soldiers, not to mention from the Permanent Force? I would have to keep my gayness well hidden if I was going to survive two years. Would a stray and unguarded gesture expose me? This troubled me exceedingly as it must have concerned many other gay boys over the many years of conscription. Assisting my planned camouflage was my outdoorsy and vigorous upbringing. Having to contend and compete with my three straight brothers had toughened me up somewhat. Perhaps, maybe, hopefully – I could pull it off. I knew that every gesture, disposition, statement that I made would have to be guarded ones. Did I pull it off? – mostly I think, but I am sure there must have been some chaps who noted something in an unguarded moment. I write this for one day, well into our mortar training, I was standing alone, naked in front of the basins in the ablution block, shaving, when one of my platoon members came up to me and pressed his body up affectionately against mine. I shrugged him off and cautioned him – that this was not the place or time for any expressions of this nature. It was common knowledge that those compromised, were removed quickly from the Riflemen Companies to other duties. Even more frightening was that in the 1970’s and early 1980’s gay conscripts were taken to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria and put through brutal conversion therapies in the criminal, vain and misguided belief that they could have their sexual orientation changed. I write more of this in another posting.
At the same time I got my ‘Call-up’ – my older brother Gordon Stuart McCallum got his Call-up to 1 SAI at Bloemfontein too. My brother must have sensed my vulnerability, for he was more afraid for my survival than he was for his own. His departure date was the same as mine but on an earlier troop train. When his departure time arrived – my parents, accompanied by my younger three siblings and myself, headed off to the Newcastle Station. We walked out onto the platform and I can remember the look of bewilderment in my brother’s eyes. My own departure later that night loomed like a tidal wave in the darkness. Then at a determined moment, there were shouts and commands echoing along the platform. All the young chaps were assembled and ushered quickly towards the darkened train. My eyes followed my brother until he disappeared from view, and then turning to my dear Mother, found her eyes full of tears. We then returned home to await my departure time much later that night. My Mother would have to take leave of her 4 sons in this fashion 4 times over. Firstly my brother Douglas Brian McCallum in 1978, than Gordon Stuart McCallum and myself in 1984, and lastly my younger brother Clive McCallum in 1987.
As you can see from the date in the document above (13 January 1984) – I arrived shivering at the stipulated departure point, the wind-blasted and grimy Newcastle Railway Station with my philandering-preoccupied Father, my anxious Mother and younger Siblings at 11 pm. After an uncomfortable farewell from my Father, and a loving embrace and prayer from my Mother, I was jostled forwards with other nameless, fearful and wide-eyed youngsters towards the military train. Uniformed soldiers and Military Police quickly and efficiently divided us up and bundled us into the train. We were put to bed like children by orderlies and severely ordered to keep all the window screens down. I clearly remember putting my bag down beside my bunk bed, obediently climbing onto the bed in my clothes and lying there quietly in the gloom, aware of the heavy breathing of my fellow passengers, my heart beating like a drum in my chest, and me trying to calm myself down with supplications to the Almighty. Then suddenly, a rhythmic clanking could be heard in the distance as the locomotive took up the slack of each carriage’s coupler, then getting louder and louder and closer, until with a sharp bang and jolt we were on our way into the great fearful unknown.
It was just before 12 pm and so my first day in the Army was a Friday the 13th, a rather inauspicious start to my two years compulsory military service. In the dark the troop train swayed-along as it ascended the escarpment, snaking up the pass in front of Majuba Mountain where men of the British 58th Regiment were cut down by the Transvaal burghers in 1881. I remember the sudden and terrifyingly loud noise as the train entered Langsnek Tunnel just before broaching the ridge and leveling out onto the plateau. It was also on this rise that the Battle of Langsnek had occurred. It was goodbye to our beloved English heartland of Natal. Steeling myself with a pragmatic though fearful resolve to survive – somewhere in the darkness, before the Transvaal town of Volksrust, I fell into a deep sleep, a rest only bestowed upon the truly troubled and emotionally exhausted.
I had taken with me several pencils, clutch pens and lead, as well as my favourite ink pens and a bottle of black and red Quink ink. I was hoping to do some drawing if time allowed. This was naively hopeful for it was going to be months before I had enough time to draw. What I did achieve, were a handful of sketches in letters I sent to family members.
Sometime on the 14th of January the troop train pulled into Potchefstroom Station and we were herded like so many confounded cattle into army trucks to be driven to the 3 SAI Army Camp. On the truck I was able to look around at my fellow conscripts. All looked more fearful than I did, some looked positively sick. This gave me confidence. I had left home at the age of 15 to go the Pretoria Art, Ballet and Music School in Pretoria and had long become accustomed to being away from home and taking care of myself. Crippling homesickness was something I had already experienced several years before.
Most of the chaps had come prepared with close and tidy haircuts. I had my hair short but with a long lock of hair that hung down from the nape of my neck. It was several months later that some of the chaps I was with, told me that when they had seen me thus coiffed, had determined I was a rebel. They also remarked on my happy expression. It must have been me putting on a brave-face. The lock was to get me into two awkward situations. While having our medical examinations, one of the Permanent Force orderlies crudely pulled me out of the line where we shuffled along in our underpants and said aggressively to me in Afrikaans … “Jy dink jy is verskrikkelik snaaks!” (You think you are terribly funny!). Later when we had our army haircuts, the barber shaved my hair ‘Poenskop’ (shorn) but leaving the lock of hair attached, had me paraded around for the amusement of the Permanent Force members. Thus I learnt to despise the PF’s, though I kept my regard well-hidden for my own preservation. It they had known what I thought of them their blood would have curdled. Perhaps there was some truth in what my fellow conscripts thought of me – there was something of a rebellious nature in me, and a truly well-formed English-South African disregard for authority.
When we arrived at Potchefstroom Camp, one of the first things we had to do was fill this document in (above) and the Battalion kindly posted it back to our parents informing them of our safe and happy arrival at 3 SAI. We were ungraciously informed that we were now the property of the government. I had taken along my ink fountain pen, and the colour of the pen’s ink (if you note) is an unusual brown. At this stage of my life I had already been exploring calligraphy for several years and the residual red ink in my favourite fountain pen had mixed with a new filling of black ink. I liked this colour and for some time afterwards would mix red and black ink to make brown.
Graham Leslie McCallum