You know you are getting old when memories and regrets replace dreams

2012-03-19 00:00

IT was a time of innocence and dreams … and short pants.

Reading about the current shenanigans at the University of KwaZulu-Natal brought back memories of another time when old Maritzburg Varsity made The Witness news pages for reasons other than the nefarious activities of a few self-serving administrators.

My old man was a veterinarian involved in lecturing and research at Natal University, and from 1953 was based at the agricultural faculty which was built on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.

He and his fellow lecturers had joined the staff after World War 2, and they were an eccentric, dedicated, if oddly dressed, bunch. Many had moved into new houses on the outer edge of Scottsville — in Shores, Hutchinson and Carbis roads — and within easy walking distance of the Agfac

My dad said they dressed funny because they had been told by those in charge (some things never change) that jackets and ties had to be worn by staff. Many had just spent five years of their lives in the armed forces and they were not happy to be ordered about again.

The offshoot was this curious daily parade of hairy-legged lecturers, doctors and professors striding down Carbis Road to the Agfac, dressed in the obligatory jackets and ties but supplemented by long socks and shorts.

The Agfac has for over 60 years produced researchers and teachers whose work has been recognised internationally. But, as we approached the exciting sixties, there were two research projects which were close to home and, to the horror of my self-effacing dad, found their way into The Witness.

The first involved the digestive system of a burly sheep. He had a peephole cut into his side, a window to his stomach, which allowed students to follow the progress of his various meals.

(I concede that I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. I was teetering uncertainly on the brink of teenagership, didn’t go out much and tended to glaze over when the talk became scientific.)

The students cynically named the sheep Tom Dooley — after the Kingston Trio’s current hit song about a young man facing execution after the murder of young woman — and The Witness story drew some negative public comment.

Dr Bishop was not amused.

“Tom [they were on first name terms] is the most pampered sheep in the world. He is warm and comfortable, he has room service and he is never short of company,” he privately huffed.

We were delighted at the turn of events and would walk behind him, singing (badly): “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you’re bound to die.”

The second project, far more revolutionary, involved my dad pulling sheep out of rabbits. Months of meticulous planning at Natal University and Cambridge University had resulted in the fertilised eggs (one-fifth of a millimetre and only just visible to the human eye) being placed in the reproductive tract of a rabbit which was rushed from London to Durban.

A hectic dash and the midnight transfer of the eggs by the old man to two recipient Dorper ewes completed a lengthy process never before achieved in farm animals.

Five months after conception two surprised Dorper ewes gave birth to purebred Border Leicester lambs. They were named for the twins Romulus and Remus who, according to legend, founded Rome and had a wolf as a surrogate mother.

My dad — it was a delightful irony that his nickname was Bunny — said that timing and synchronisation were critical in this strange mating game and in keeping the donors at Cambridge University and recipients at Maritzburg Varsity at precisely the same stage of their heat cycle.

Young, fertile English rams won first prize, detecting and mating with the Cambridge ewes in season, while the maidens back home on the range in Pietermaritzburg had to make do with an old vasectomised South African ram as their blind date.

By way of an aside, the long ears of the Border Leicester ram lambs born at the Ukulinga Experimental Station in Mkondeni caused some consternation among the farm labourers until the induna explained that the pair had inherited the rabbit’s long ears.

Again there was newspaper reaction, resulting in Bunny having to allay fears that the sheep had suffered

“Any discomfort which the ewes might have experienced, but showed no signs of, must have been more than offset by the preferential treatment which followed,” he said at the time.

Much of the debate passed us by. These were the most exciting of times. The Beatles were growing their hair — and sound — in Liverpool, Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards were starting to emerge and Keith Oxlee was creating his own magic with Natal at King’s Park

The decade of foreplay, the fifties, was giving way to social revolution, the swinging sixties of mini skirts and free love. It was (for some) a hazy time of flower power and psychedelic drugs.

Martin Luther King was not the only one having a dream.

But life is indeed about timing and synchronisation. If you remember the sixties, we were later told, you weren’t really there. And that, sadly, was my small problem. I remember the sixties vividly.

Figuratively and literally, I was also in short pants.

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