This recollection comes from diaries and things I jotted down while in the Army. It takes place during what was known as Bush Phase. This followed your Basic training. Bush Phase was battle simulation drills to prepare you for actual conflict.
Every day begins at midnight. This was never truer than out here in this desolate place known as Smitsdrift. The drunken corporals were sure to be around sooner or later to ensure this happened, as they had since we had arrived here. They, like silhouettes, granted very loud, bullying silhouettes, but silhouettes nevertheless, hung about at the edges of the day. Silhouetted against torches or a sickle-Moon. Silhouetted against the flash of an exploding thunderflash thrown into a trench. Silhouetted against the lights of the Gary or duty-jeep. Silhouetted against the rising or sinking sun. Always the tormentors, silhouette or not. It was as if those inky shadows that followed our instructors about in the light of day soaked into them once the sun slipped over the horizon and they became one, shadows and man.
I snuggled down into my sleeping bag in an effort to draw some warmth from the earth of the trench surrounding me. The sound of the sand rubbing against the bag made me feel uneasy, as though listening to dirt falling onto a coffin lid. My head cocooned in the hood of the bag, I stared up at the stars above me. They shone down, the souls of angels, cold and impersonal, an untouchable beauty. The sky appeared strange, foreign to me. I did not recognize the constellations, and there were so many stars. I had never seen so many before. Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the sky swirled above me.
That firmament, looking up at it was like gazing down into a warp, seeing the cradle of Heaven, where God created the Universe. A universe with an infinite number of endings and beginnings. Whole galaxies travelling away from Earth at frightening speeds. We are made of stardust, hurled from those great engines of Creation, the stars and the Sun.
“Dew drops on a witch’s cloak.” I whispered to myself. I shivered, and then smiled to myself. “Cold as a witch’s teat,” in an attempt to lighten my mood. I wrinkled my frozen nose, trying to get some feeling back into it. I closed my eyes. “Got to get some sleep. Sleep!”
I could not though. My mind kept on replaying the argument I’d had earlier on with a couple of my platoon mates. We had been eating supper: dog biscuits, processed cheese and good old bully beef from our field rations packs which were otherwise known as rat packs. Conflict simulation therefore no fires allowed. Nothing like bully beef encased in congealed fat, fresh out of the can, to fill the gullet. I stuck to the cheese and biscuits, swapping my can of meat-surprise for an additional bright orange plastic sausage of cheese with Jaco. There had been Jaco and Richard, who were sharing a trench, and Odion and myself, also trench-mates. Richard and myself had been arguing about who was the hottest: Betty or Veronica.
“Na-ah! No way! Betty is the hottest! Number one: she’s blonde! I mean, come on! Two: she’s a really cool person. You know, honest, generous, all those good things. Plus she can cook. Ronnie is just a bitch”
“Oh, please! Ronnie-baby is by far the hottest,” said Richard. “She’s rich and nasty and sexy!”
“Oh, crap! You know what gets me about both of them? They like Archie! A redheaded, freckle-faced dude who dresses like a dork. I don’t think so. Fucking no way! Only in comics,” Odion said, banging his pikstel (cutlery set) against his dicksy can.
“Ja, true, bru.”
“Ha! You’re right, he is a dog, hey.”
“But you know who else is hot? Josie and the … wait for it … Pussycats!” Richard said waving his cheese about like it was his penis.
“Aw, Rich! Only you would come up with that! Although that blonde from the band … what was her name? Melody! That’s it. She’s extremely tidy. And those little outfits! Need I say more?” I asked of them. “Actually, you know who is the hottest? Sabrina: she’s blonde as well, hot and she has magical powers. How cool is that?” I said, grinning.
We all agreed on that while Jaco sat watching us, mumbling about the crazy English and how he wished he were back on the farm. There was silence while we cleaned our dicksys and pikstelle. We had to use sand and a piece of toilet paper as we only received two bottles of water a day. One in the morning and one in the evening. This water had to be used for washing, drinking, everything. Needless to say, we had begun to reek.
It was getting dark and the cooling air carried the scent of a hundred after-meal cigarettes. I sat down with a sigh, tapping my dicksy against my boot to get all the sand out. Richard lit a smoke and sat down next to me.
“You ever notice how there are very few Blacks in the Archie comics?”
“Aw, Jesus, Swany! Here we go again! The race thing! It’s a comic! It isn’t real, you arsehole! They don’t fuck either or drink or do drugs… or smoke,” Richard said exhaling noisily, blowing a huge smoke ring at me. “Or anything real kids do. Anyway,” he said, gesturing in brutal strokes with his cigarette. “American Blacks aren’t the same as ours. They’re almost White, for fuck’s sake. They have straight hair and they dress and speak properly. Ours are still living in mud huts and not bathing or cleaning their teeth.”
“Aw, c’mon. The Group Areas Act forces them to stay in the townships. They have to carry a passbook if they want to come into towns otherwise they get arrested. They’re prevented access to jobs because of their colour. Do you know that in the Railways a clerical job is a reserved position? Only a White person can hold it. How unfair is that? My mom told me. She works there.”
“Bullshit, man! They’ve been given their own homelands where they can develop apart from us, with equal opportunities.” Even though the light was dimming as the sun descended I could see that Richard’s face was flushed with irritation and anger. I knew I should drop the argument before it blew out of control but I just could not believe that people could be so dense.
“Look, that homelands policy just isn’t working! It’s costing the South African man-on-the-street a fortune to keep them going. Plus! Plus can you imagine how much it costs to have us do National Service? Just so we can protect Apartheid and the Dutchmen who gain from it. I didn’t even vote for this government, for fucks sake!”
“Hey, fok you, soutpiel!” Jaco jumped up and stormed toward me angrily.
“Jaco, listen, you know what I mean. There is a difference between an Afrikaner and a Dutchman. You’re an Afrikaner whom I respect, Stopforth is a Dutchman.” I looked up at him, appealing to his better nature.
“You souties must just drop this! You never discuss religion or politics. There is always kak when you do. Nobody ever agrees. En jy,” he said, pointing threateningly at me. “If you talk shit again, I’ll fuck you up, Kaffirboetie!” He turned, went to his bag, grabbed a roll of toilet paper and headed toward the pisslilies.
I never learn. You cannot convince someone who has undergone a lifetime of indoctrination that everything they believe in is wrong. Certainly not at one sitting and not with an audience. It was a personal journey that each must undertake himself. But how could they not see it? How? Perhaps they just chose not to see it. Like a bad dream, they hoped that it would just disappear? All three of them were pretty intelligent and decent guys and yet so … racist. Surely they knew it was wrong. These streams of thoughts, questions and arguments buzzed about in my head. I knew I would not be getting much sleep tonight.
I slipped out of my bag, shivering. Thank goodness, we slept fully clothed, and now, after a week you couldn’t really even smell how disgusting you must smell to others. It also helped that they smelled just as bad. I climbed out of the trench and headed for the toilets. In the moonlight I could make out the plastic funnels sticking out of the ground like so many flowers. Therefore the name pisslilies. Let it never be said that soldiers have no sense of humour. The smell of the noxious cocktail of chlorine and human waste reached me. Good lord, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Army. Away from this, the type of people here, their mentalities and their government. Their Army.