Medal

2008-01-19 00:00

By the age of 19 I had attained considerable rank in the Air Force, and the right to wear considerable war clothing. The outfit was in the high traditional military mode, of a military colour known as Baby Faeces, ironed to a knife-edge, brass buttons and badges all over, freshly brassoed, leather straps and belts and things wax polished within the hour. There were certain brass loops on the left of this belt on which one might suspend a sword, and a cross-torso strap to bear the weight of the weapon, whilst on the right were other loops for hanging a minor artillery piece called a .45 Webley revolver plus a polished pouch for reload bullets, and round the left shoulder a lanyard to which one could attach a whistle which one might blow, obliging certain troops to leap from the trenches and fling themselves upon the German machine guns and die. And a medal. Small, that is true, but a medal all right, for being some months in the Air Force without becoming either mad or dead. Or indeed both, in that order. Excluding the sword and revolver with ammunition, I would drape this apparel upon my person and comb my 15-centimetre moustache and walk in the street to see if maybe a woman would whstle at me. But only one, in Pretoria, ever took any notice: a fat one dragging along a small nasty boy having a tantrum in public because he wanted to go to the zoo. She pointed. Sien jy daardie oom? she cried, Hy sal jou VANG!

I resolved to take future weekends in Johannesburg if people in Pretoria were going to use me to frighten small children. Johannesburg was not really to my liking. To be candid, the pace of life was strange to a peaceful Pietermaritzburg lad, people opened their mouths excessively when talking about themselves, most ot the time and in a bad English accent, and they didn’t stand still very often. Also there were certain other people in town just then with even bigger mouths and very very bad Afrikaans accents, and they seemed never to stand still at all, but run about the streets of the CBD where the cafes and bioscopes were, and fall upon soldiers and airmen and bliksem them with assorted ugly clubs and things and break their hands with iron pipes so they wouldn’t be able to go and fly any more and shoot guns at Adolf Hitler’s soldiers. They were on the enemy’s side, you see, and called themselves the Ossewa Brandwag.

The brandwag of the ossewaens were the sentries posted at night around the laager of ox wagons of the Great Trek, of 1830, lest disagreeable people, animals, birds, beetles, Zulus and Xhosas should try to enter their space. Only God could come in if He chose and not get shot. Extra undesirable were Hottentots and Bushmen who would drive off the oxen and eat them. But especially hateful were the Brits, who were foreigners in Africa and had no right to impose their laws on anybody round here and that’s why the OB were on Hitler’s side. The only problem was they were two wars behind, they’d only got as far as the Anglo-Boer one and we were in World War Two, and Prime Minister Smuts got gatvol of all their capers and sent in certain of the Transvaal Scottish with armoured cars to bliksem anybody with an iron pipe in his hand. I donned my military raiment and took a tramcar from a genteel part of Parktown North just to kind of see what was going on in town, alighting outside the hardware shop of a certain small Jewish gent who hated Hitler like anything and was handing out pickaxe handles to anybody in uniform, myself included.

I raised my hand in refusal. A v.large Transvaal Highlander with sunken cheeks leapt into view. He raised his hand, I thought to salute, but he siezed mine, panting Hou vath my tanne!, pressed into my palm his false teeth, upper and lower, seized the pickaxe handle and made off to find somebody with an iron pipe and bliksem him. OH SIS! I cried, put the teeth in my hanky and wiped my hand on my buttocks. Never to worry, said Mr Nussbaum (for that was the name of the small Jewish gent), just leave them on the counter in the shop, that Scotty will know where to find them, and go through to the back where you’ll see a sink with soap and a towel. Which I did, and felt much better. Mr Nussbaum had now run out of pickaxe handles and was rummaging about for replacements. When the Highlander had roamed the streets for half an hour and got hopelessly lost, he turned a certain corner and there before him beheld a civilian with a vicious great red bobbejaan wrench in his hand and let fly a great oath and launched himself at Mr Nussbaum. I leapt between them crying Stay your hand, Lance Corporal! This man is your benefactor! Which I make so bold as to suggest saved Mr Nussbaum’s life.

So though I never took any life in war, I did indeed save one, preventing collateral damage, as they say, and that at least should warrant the award of a medal.

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