The bullets ripped into the trees above me as I lay pressing my face into the dust. I never knew that fear had such timelessness about it. I had been married for only a few months, had just started a new job. When I got back from my stint on “the border” I was to start a part-time degree at Wits University. My whole life lay ahead, full of promise. Another thing I found out about fear that day is that it relaxes both bladder and bowel.
In the mid to late seventies South Africa pushed the limits of its war-mongering into Angola. Such insatiable stupidity required enormous resources in men, machines and money. None of us could escape. All males out of school had to join the army or face imprisonment. Over the Christmas holidays of 1977/1978 I found myself in northern Namibia. I was regimental paymaster, and for this weighty and responsible job I was promoted to Corporal. The job was great once you got used to the idea of living in a tent with four other guys, one of whom was criminally insane.
I had to pay the troops once a month at appointed camps and sites in the bush. My assistant was as brainless as they come; a young farmer from Koster who operated the Browning mounted on the back of the Jeep .He was there to see that the SWAPO insurgents did not steal the army’ money.
The job had great perks. I could use the Jeep outside of my normal paymaster duties, and once everyone had been paid, my job was done. I found that I had about twenty days off in the month. Hey, great stuff. I had time to relax and catch up on my reading. I was based at Grootfontein and the military precincts boasted a swimming pool and a library. My army stint on the border was going to be fun, even if it was at the taxpayers’ expense.
The South African army was strict about keeping soldiers out of the civilian areas of Grootfontein. One could only go into the town on business, and you were not allowed to be there for long. The Military Police set up barricades across the main road into the town.
One of the main attractions of Grootfontein was Pappa’s, a general dealer owned by a lively Greek called Nick. At Pappa’s one could buy the biggest hamburgers in all of Christendom. They were the tastiest and juiciest any soldier could lay his hands on. Add to that a packet of slap chips, alongside an ice-cold Coke, and military life could become almost civilised.
My relationship with the Military Police was good. And why not? I was their paymaster. For me to make regular visits to Pappa’s was easy. “Hey Corporal Payman, when are we getting paid?” the MPs would call out as they waved me through the booms. The deal was, and there was always a deal, that I should buy the guards hamburgers and Cokes. And so my army life settled down into a steady routine of visits to the Olympic-size swimming pool, the library and Pappa’s.
One or two other people seemed to have as much time on their hands as I. Pretty soon I started talking to an older guy at the pool. Keith was guarded on his opinions of the army but was expansive on almost every other subject under the sun. When I suggested that we pop into town for a burger and Coke, he was delighted. On our return, Keith asked me to drop him off at the main admin building where most of the officers were housed. By his bearing and confidence I knew something was different and as far as I was concerned, wrong. Keith invited me to follow him as he strode confidently into a major’s office.
“Morning Brigadier,” said the major as he stood up. “Oh, shit,” I thought.
“It seems as if my friend, the Corporal, is under-utilised. Do you think you can use him, Major?” “Oh, shit,” I thought. My mate Keith was a high-ranking officer in the operational area taking a few days break before he was shipped back home to South Africa.
I was given a crash course in recovery work. Before I knew it I was in charge of an overgrown tow-truck with six demented and enthusiastic guys that I had nothing in common with. I was not relieved of my paymaster job, and now I was running this tow-truck business for the army, recovering civilian cars stuck in the sand and fetching the odd army truck that had run out of petrol miles from nowhere.
The call came early one morning just after the regimental Christmas party. One of our armoured vehicles had driven over a landmine and there were casualties. Our truck was on duty and it was our job to bring the vehicle back to Grootfontein for repairs or scrapping. The army has a set procedure: evacuate the injured, sweep the area for other mines, and guard the vehicle until the recovery unit arrives. There should be a fairly safe passage in and out.
We spotted the camouflaged wreck in the bush. We had driven for over eight hours and were keen to hook-up and go home. It all seemed fairly standard and routine, and I told one of the guys, “Go into the vehicle and release the handbrake.”
Then came the loud explosion as a mine blew into his body. Suddenly, guns were going off nearby. One of our recovery guys screamed and doubled over as a bullet tore into his flesh. It felt like an hour, but it must have taken only a few seconds. Ambush.
I was poorly equipped for this. Being a bank clerk and a part-time student, I was not a big army fellow. I hated guns and tried every trick in the book to get out of visits to the shooting range. Dirk, a fearless Afrikaner mechanic from Alberton was animated. He jumped into our tow-truck’s turret and cocked the Browning. He let loose with a volley of shots that was so loud; it must have wakened the gatekeepers of Hell. The return fire tore into Dirk and I watched in dazed amazement as his head exploded like a watermelon spewing red and white matter. “Oh, God – I am going to die here,” I thought.
I never realised it, but a magazine of automatic fire does not go on and on like in the movies. It takes only a few seconds. In the next few seconds it went quiet. The shooting had stopped. There was a movement and a groan close to me. I crawled over to the noise and found one of our guys, hurt, but alive. I held him in my arms; I felt that I was there, but not there. I was an observer and a participant all at once.
“Ah fuck, it hurts,” said the guy in Afrikaans.
I am not sure how long I sat holding him; he seemed to be sleeping. Time in that place seemed to take on dimensions that I could not understand. “Promise me, Corporal Pay, that if I die, you will tell my wife and kids that I loved them.” “Hey man, no one is going to die. We will go home, we will build empires and we will love our families. Stay with it now Sarel, help will come.”
When I tried to deal with this in my own way back home, I felt a certain detachment from life that was going on around me. I kept my promise to Sarel and went to see his wife and children. I explained to them how their father died a great hero fighting “terrorists” in South West Africa. No matter what I said, no matter what I did, I was left with an overwhelming sense of guilt that I had survived this ordeal while six other men had died.
For more than a year afterwards, I would catch the bus home from work. Not the normal one that took me home, but the one that stopped in Rosebank. Every Thursday I would buy a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine, and walk home to Kay. This was the walk of life.
A few months later a parcel was delivered to my door. It was a medal from Pretoria together with a certificate for framing. An orange ribbon with blue stripes. The medal had an aloe in the centre. I sat in my study in silence and stared at the certificate. I felt empty and numb. I felt nothing.
A poem of WB Yeats came to mind as I held the certificate. I reached for a felt-tipped pen and wrote over the certificate the words of the great poet …
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
In some way Corporal Pay died in that place too. I felt, for the sake of my own sanity, that somehow I had to free myself from the guilt, also the feeling of … well of nothing. In a small private ritual I set that certificate alight and watched it burn to ashes. I gathered these up and placed them in a matchbox and then buried them. Years on I sometimes hear the subtle but distinct cry in the night of my dying comrades.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust – there is still a weak and faint tremble in a heartbeat, still an echo in a melody long forgotten. Even a split-second’s hesitancy in a handshake or a flicker in the eye – it is there in the shadows. Corporal Pay whispers, “I’ll always be with you.”