Red Sock Friday

“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.Unogwa 3

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.Unogwa 4

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.

Unogwa 2

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The real work begins now

The invasive surgery on my ankle is a memory. It has been six months since I came off crutches, the pain and discomfort is retreating, but I still have to be careful. The stiffness is still there in the mornings when I get up and after sitting for long periods of time. Thunder storms and cold bring their own brand of agony. The time requiring no weight bearing is long and drawn out and the period of enforced inactivity is numbing. I went from one TV series to the next, from one book to the next. The consequence of this is an alarming weight gain. Never before in the history of the Universe has there ever been so much of me in it!!

This is where, I believe the real work begins. I officially tipped the scale at over 100 kilograms. Worse, I am unfit and have become weak and lazy. Fine for a surviving Christmas turkey, but a has-been athlete with an ankle replacement? – not so much.

I started a walking regime, slowly, modestly at first, and by mid-December I could cover three to five kilometres without too much discomfort. Over the Christmas holidays I was away on the Transkei Wild Coast and did some walking on the beach. Difficult, to be sure, but it did stretch the ankle a little. I was too ambitious and pushed the distance limits a bit too far. Two six kilometre journeys over punishing hills left me painful and very sorry for myself.

But now it is a New Year, there are resolutions to be made and an ankle to fix. The investment in an ankle replacement is huge. Therefore it is my resolve to get the very best from it. Speaking of investment – it is as much a financial consideration as it is a physical, mental and emotional one. The payoff is getting the very best from this trying time.

Firstly, I have to get my weight under control. To do this I am cutting out all sugars and junk foods. When I stopped drinking (766 days ago as I write this) I replaced one addiction with another. Chocolate was my drug of choice and my weight ballooned. So – only proper foods and no sugars and crap for the time being. Secondly, I need to get some regular exercise – here a daily walk of between two to four kilometres is all I can comfortably manage.

I contacted a personal trainer who specialises in rehabilitation work and he puts me through my paces once a week. I found after 30 years of compensating for my injury, the body adapted to a host of bad habits. I have to learn to walk all over again. I am trying to regain my body alignment. Before the replacement my injured leg was two centimetres shorter than the other. Strength, then, and balance is what I work on when I meet with Mornay. Add a weekly class of TAnkle replacement (23ai Chi for balance and stretching.

One thing I intuitively know, the healing process is heavily dependent on my attitude and my approach. It may take another year, even more. What is true is the real work has only just begun.

New to Total Ankle Replacement? Want to find out more? Start here….

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