“If we make it out of this war alive.” Sidney Feinson’s eyes shone in the dark with intent “I swear I will wear red socks every Friday to remember what happened at Tobruk.” He spoke softly as two fellow POW’s listened. They nodded in agreement. “We definitely should try and escape,” said Dick. The tightly knit group met often and spoke in the Italian camp called Laterena.
Their chance came when, unexpectedly in the autumn of 1943, the Italian government capitulated and changed sides. Good news perhaps for the Allies, but bad news for Feinson and his mates. Sidney and his compatriots were to be moved by rail to a prisoner camp deep inside Germany. It was during this long train trip that Sydney, Dick Osborne*, Jock Lobbon, Butch Kilpatrick and a few others decided to put their haphazard plan into action. They made their move. Each dived into the dark, each committed themselves to their own fate and freedom as the POW train steamed toward the Reich.
How such stories make their way into the imaginations of mortals is unexplained. Like a dye slowly poured into a clear glass, the colour soon spreads and before long fills it. Just how that promise made by Sidney to wear red socks on Fridays spread is lost. But that does not matter.
Many years later a young South African, John McInroy came upon the story. “I had read about Sidney Feinson, a South African soldier and his pact with a few friends in an Italian prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, where they promised each other that should they make it back from the war alive, they would wear red socks to remember each other. So my friend Ian Symons and I started wearing red socks too, as a mark of our friendship. We decided to always do it on Fridays – because it seemed a good day to do it. Soon our colleagues and friends also picked up on the idea, and because times were economically tough the red socks seemed to brighten up people’s lives. It just spread from there.”
We leave the ghost of Sydney Feinstein for a moment and go in search of another legend. That of Phil Masterton-Smith, known as Unogwaja – Zulu for The Hare. The Comrades Marathon was a small affair back in 1930, with only 29 finishers. There were two remarkable things about that event. One – it heralded the remarkable if patchy career of the great Wally Heyward, who narrowly won the race. The other foreshadowed the beginnings of the legend of second placed Masterson-Smith.
When the gun started the 1931 event, second placed Masterson-Smith from the previous year was every bit a contender but alas, the winner Hayward would only make his formidable presence felt many years later. That day, however, was thrilling by all accounts, for it belonged to the Unogwaja who beat his close rival Noel Burree by a mere two yards. At 19 he remains the youngest winner of the Comrades Marathon. His running future looked bright and the defense of his title seemed inevitable.
Life was hard for the young Capetonian and in 1933 Masterton-Smith couldn’t afford the train fare from Cape Town. The Old Durban Road and the Valley of a Thousand Hills beckoned the young competitor, but his obstacles were great. Undaunted he decided to cycle the 1500 kilometer distance from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg anyway. It is difficult to imagine how he peddled all the way across South Africa just to get to the start of the Comrades Marathon. The journey took him over ten days and on the 11th day he ran the race to finish 10th. This then is the story of the Unogwaja, a story where great difficulties are overcome, where you do whatever it takes. If your dream is clear enough, if the call strong enough – you follow – no matter what.
For the young idealist there is a tragic postscript to the story, for Phil Masterson-Smith was killed in action on 5th June 1942 by a mortar bomb while defending the Gazala line during the siege of Tobruk.
So the ghosts of Sidney Feinson and Phil Masterson Smith smiled benevolently when a small but hardy crew undertook the Unogwaja Challenge for the first time in 2011, and followed in the wake of a great fallen hero. The Unogwaja Challenge today has become annual event and aims at bettering the lives of many South Africans. Red socks on Friday shows support for the Challenge and celebrates the spirit of the Unogwaja.
As for me, I am an older man now, and such challenges lie outside my physical reach but not my spiritual grasp nor outside my imagination. Each Friday I am sure to wear a pair of red socks. For on Friday morning as I dress, in my mind I hear the call of a growing number of runners as they call out with a boisterous “ShoOops!” as they merrily make their way down the road or trail. These are the proud members of the ‘I Wear Red Socks on Fridays’ social movement, which has developed into an unofficial global running club of sorts, all from a simple gesture of friendship by a POW so long ago. “ShoOops!”
*Dick Osborne was my uncle.