These are recollections that I have of receiving my rank; non-comissioned officer, full corporal. That means I wore my rank on my sleeves, two stripes, and that I was not saluted to by soldiers but rather braced to or they were required to stand to attention when I addressed them. I was part of both the South African Defence Force as well as the South West African Territorial Forces. As usual I have collated these recollections from my letters and journals of the time. Please note that names of course have been changed.
In a tent in the “bushes”
12 kms north of Windhoek
It’s pretty quiet in the tent. The guys are all watching movies. Me? I’m catching up on my correspondence. It was pretty cramped on the train up here from Kimberley (6 in a compartment for 3 days is no joke especially when the beds have to be put up). Honest, our toilet at home is a little smaller than that compartment.
I can’t believe that I’m heading toward the end of one year in the Army. Also nearly my 19th birthday. My last year as a teenager. Scary!
We’ve just been watching videos. It was a sort of farewell present. Tomorrow we head for Grootfontein, 500kms from here, by truck. My behind will never last. From there we split up and we four English guys go to the Caprivi or somewhere near there.
3kms from Border
Hi Mom, Dave and pets
Well, I just phoned you. It was great to speak to you all again. It’s not too bad up here. Very hot but quite modern for the “bushes”. Hey, I’m missing you all terribly, honest. All this traveling is really bugging me. We traveled for kms on the back of an open truck, sucking dust and insects, through this godforsaken country, yeugh. We’ve slept on floors and dirty mattresses with towels as blankets for 3 weeks now. But at least time is going. But we’ve still not arrived at our final destination. There are only four of us left: Hakkinen, John-boy, Knicklebein and myself. All the others have been dropped off at different points along our journey.
Guess what? We may only get pass for the first time in about six months time! Can you believe it?
But I’m fine otherwise, keeping fit and tanned. I’m coming home a bronzed god. Well, keep well, okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though I’m missing you all terribly
PS You will notice that there is a censor stamp on the envelope. They check what we write to ensure we don’t give away military secrets so don’t worry.
Scout Andrew Peter Swanepoel
Field Post Office 1
Comm. Ops Pretoria 0106
Hi ya! Greetings from South West Africa’s exclusive beach up here. The sun is hot, the sand is soft and the food is good. What more could one want except home. Well, finally got an address to which you can write. We still might get sent further along the Border but the address remains the same. I can’t tell you much about the place or what I am doing, as this is a restricted zone. It’s very different from what I expected, a lot better and a little worse than I expected. If you know what I mean.
My birthday was cool. It was yesterday, in case you forgot. The guys bought me some drinks and we had a braai. Oh, by the way, we get to see 4 movies a week here, which isn’t too bad for the “bushes”. The guys here are pretty cool, especially our commander. The first day we arrived here he challenged us to a volleyball game, can you believe it? He’s a pretty classic guy!
Oh, about pass. We have two lots left. We’ll have to decide when I should take it.
Hi ya! I’m fine and fit. My hair is at last growing (it was completely shaved when we arrived). By the way, I’m not at Rundu anymore, in case you were wondering. I am at 201 Battalion now. About 200km from where I was and the camp is in a nature reserve. While I’m writing I can hear the Bushmen singing and playing drums on the other side of the camp. They start on Friday and don’t stop until Monday morning. I’ve met this guy from Durban here. His name is Douglas Griffin. We both know each other from somewhere but can’t remember where. Ask Pierre if he knows him. He’s a cool guy but mad. He joined PF. That’s right, Permanent Force!
We had a cheese and wine to welcome us here. It was great except the wine just made me sleepy. We played soccer on Tuesday. The field has no grass and consists of thick sand and gravel. I have some fine “ roasties” from it. On Saturday we played soccer against a camp near us. A black soccer side went with as well. It was a good day although both our sides lost. One of my buddies was in the other side. It was good to see him.
Their camp is right near the Okovango River. That’s a really big river up here. It is really beautiful although it is full of crocs. Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dream of swimming in it.
Ma, guess what? There is actually a drive-in here in the camp! It’s a screen (like the drive-in but about a tenth of the size). They show movies on it about once a week for the Bushmen soldiers and their families. They really enjoy it and stand right through the whole movie. Last week we saw “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Rocky 2”. All the Bushmen think that it was me in the movie. You know, Stallone. They have given me some name that has a lot of clicks in it that I can’t pronounce. Apparently it means the boxer or fighter.
Well, I’m sitting inside my kimbo (wooden cottage) on my bed writing to you sipping condensed milk from a can. I got it from my chef buddy.
I feel really good at the moment; in fact I’m tingling all over, serious! This guy who is a Christian has just been speaking to me (remember in the good old days when I was one). Well, since I have been in the Army I lost it all. My faith was broken and weakened. Well, speaking to him really helped me. Ma, you know, I still pray every night just like you taught me all those years ago
Hope you receive this before Christmas. You must all have a blessed one and I will try get a radio call to you via our Ops room. Miss you all terribly!
I have a little surprise for you; actually, it depends on whether I am able to phone you before this letter reaches you. You see, I am writing this letter to you from our sickbay. Let me tell you what happened. Yesterday, we played a rugby match. Well, it was during the second half and I was playing scrumhalf. I went in to tackle my opposite number; at the same moment he brought back his elbow. My eyeball and his elbow made violent contact. I thought my head had exploded. The medic looked at it and said it looked fine. It felt a little raw but I played out the game (we won). My eye hadn’t even swelled.
After the match I went for a shower. I blew my nose and was surprised to see blood come from my right nostril. I was even more surprised by the fact that my eye swelled. I blew it again and it swelled shut this time. I was really worried now so I went to see the doctor that was on duty. After the check-up he said that the actual eye was fine. He then asked me if the swelling had occurred when I blew my nose. Surprised, I said yes. He then told me what I had was known as a Blow-out Fracture. This was a fracture of the thin bone between the eye and the brain. It is likely that the nerves and muscles of the eye were caught in the fracture. He taped my eye, booked me in and I’m off to Pretoria One Military Hospital to see a specialist.
I’ll try and call you from there. Don’t worry, the doc didn’t seem worried.
There were signs that he was coming, there must have been, I am sure many twisted and turned, moaning in their beds, sweet dreams suddenly turned to cobwebs, shadows and flickering candles. If I had noticed, there were signs of his coming. Portents: blood spilled, death, strange occurrences. The PB’s (the locals) claimed that that Summer had brought with it the worst plague of Red Romans they had ever seen. Now let me tell you: I have a spider-phobia! As far as I am concerned the only good spider was Charlotte or a dead spider. They are creatures from my worst nightmares. My logic says they control pests and are part of Nature, God’s creatures. But! They tickle the primal, caveman part of me with their hairy legs and that part of me wants to run screaming like a girl when I see one. That or smash them into paste. Where it comes from I do not know but I do know that I do not eat crunchy peanut butter because my brother used to tell me it was made out of spiders. Eeyew, that image has and will stay with me forever! Red Romans are huge, hairy, flesh-coloured, nocturnal spiders that, much like moths, are attracted to light. Big, ugly mutant moths! They would come out of the dark like big, hairy hands, scuttling into the kimbos. I would leave my light off as long as possible, only putting it on to check my bed for unwelcome visitors and then turning it off and sprinting across the dark room to dive under the sheets, in that instant between bed and light switch a child once more. For those months the nights were filled with shouts, curses and screams usually followed by the crash of a boot or a magazine and triumphant exultation.
The first sign was probably the gathering of crows around the base: a murder of crows. Ironically the base’s emblem was a crow, a black and white one. The black symbolizing the Bushmen contingent and the white, the White leadership group. A murder of crows. They were everywhere, hanging dark, heavy and ominous like storm clouds in trees and on roofs, black eyes glistening, insect-like. Their harsh calls were skeletal fingers down the spines of our psyche. They were shadows in the corners of our eyes and subconsciously we paced about like skittish horses. Spooked. I knew from Smoking Joe that the Native Americans had believed ravens were deceiving spirits that accompanied Evil. The crow a carrion cousin symbolized contention, discord and strife. They were right on the money in this case.
The boding raven on her cottage sat,
And with hoarse croakings warned us of our fate.
I remember hearing that in a movie or reading it somewhere. It gave me the chills.
The other sign was a sacrifice of sorts, to prepare the way for him. This really rammed home the fact that something was amiss, that my idyllic world was threatened, that things were falling apart. Over the years the base had given rise to a growing population of dogs. Mostly wild, they lived off the scraps and refuse that the base produced. One fine Sunday, the day before he arrived, those interested, mostly PF’s, took their rifles and went hunting dogs under the auspices of ridding us of a potential rabies problem. The frivolity and holiday atmosphere that emanated around the camp sickened me. I hid in my kimbo, music turned up loud in an effort to drown out the shots and yelps and pitiful cries of pain. Those poor, poor wretched animals! Those involved bragged about it over the dinner table. I glowered at them, ate and stormed out.
So blood was spilled to welcome him. To welcome Captain Swart.
Captain Swart, he whom Dreyer, the looty from Rundu, had warned us about. Captain Swart, the one from those photographs. Those photographs. He arrived in the dark of night, troubling my already restless sleep, rippling through my dreams of bloodied dogs and shadowy pursuers. He was at brunch the next morning, where Commandant Donald introduced him to those there. I swear my heart stopped beating and forgot to draw a breath for an age. Captain Swart stood, thin, almost willowy. He looked nothing like he had appeared in those photographs, all predatory, face shadowed by the darkness of his intent. Here in the sun-painted dining room his face was light and youthful, his short hair blonde and streaked, a moustache feathery against his dark skin and an easy grin wrinkling the corners of his mouth and eyes. Like most of the ou manne on the Border, his uniform, Browns, were bleached from the sun and immaculately pressed, creases razor sharp.
“Thank you, Commandant Donald, for your kind words. I look forward to spending time in your lovely base. Here, gentlemen, dames, ladies, aangename kennis. Pleased to meet you. One more thing, could the Commops and Intelligence troops please meet me after brunch for a few minutes. Outside by the big tree over there.” He sat and the buzz of conversation and the symphony that is created by a large group of people eating rose once again above the tables, ebbing and swelling like the tide. Did they not realize who this was? Would they in fact care, these slaughterers of dogs? My stomach turned in oily disquiet, a bowel of writhing, glistening eels replacing my appetite. I pushed aside my plate and picked up my glass of juice, willing the time away. Jack looked at me through those milk-bottle glasses, eyes goldfish-like.
“Join me outside, Swany?” he asked apprehensively. I nodded, downed my juice, pushed back my chair and stood. I waited while he poured himself a cup of coffee and followed him out.
“Hold this for me please?” Jack asked and reached for his Chest-of-Steels. I held his coffee while he lit his cigarette with hands shaking with agitation. He inhaled deeply and noisily and then coughed out a plume of pungent smoke. “What the fuck do you think he wants, Swany? That’s the same guy who was from Rundu, hey? The one who works with Koevoet?” His eyelashes, pale and fan-like, flickered, down and up, up and down, as he blinked rapidly. He gulped furiously at the steaming coffee.
“Yep. I dunno, it can’t be good though,” I said sighing and kicking at the base of the tree. Gradually the dining room emptied. Knicklebein and the rest of the Intelligence troops joined us, most immediately plugging their mouths with cigarettes like thin, smoking tampons. Hans stormed up and wrapped his arm around my neck, whooping and chastising in a state of frenetic hyperactivity.
“Howzitt! C’mon, Swany, cheer up, hey! Cheer up! It won’t be that bad! Exciting times, broer, exciting times!”
I shrugged him off and punched him on the shoulder. “Stop it, man! Sh, sh, watch out here come the lootys and that captain.”
Everybody turned to face the doors through which Lieutenants Van Niekerk and Bouwer and Captain Swart were coming. Cigarettes were extinguished in coffee cups as Knicklebein whispered, “On my call guys.” Then he bellowed, “Attention!” and saluted as the rest of us braced and stomped our right feet in.
Captain Swart returned the salute and said “At ease, men. Who has a light for me?” Five or six lighters appeared in a flash. “Easy, guys. One will do,” he smiled, pretending to shield himself from the heat. I watched as he cupped the flame and leaned forward to light the cigarette. An expression of total hedonistic abandon washed across his face as he drew in the smoke. It was almost animal-like in its utter carnal rejoicement. If he had been a cat he would have arched his back and dug his claws. He opened his eyes, slanted in shape and green in colour, and looked at me. I flushed and glanced away, knowing he had caught me studying him.
“Right, gentlemen. As Commandant Donald told you, I am Captain Blackie Swart. I am in charge of Intelligence Operations for Sector Two-zero. I have been involved in joint ops with Koevoet in Sector Two-zero for the last two years,” he paused. “With great success!” He dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his flat-sole. “With your Commandant’s assistance we are widening our area of operations to now include the Caprivi Strip. Obviously I can’t be everywhere so I am going to be here at Omega setting up a satellite ops station. You people are all from Intelligence School and therefore have the training to form an integral part of said ops. The fact that you are all involved in Civic Action or Comops tasks with the Bushmen who are already SADF friendly is, excuse my French, fucking ridiculous and a total waste. I have informed Commandant Donald of my opinion and he agrees.” He looked each one of us in the eyes as he paused. There was absolute silence, apprehension sliding across some faces like wind lifting ripples on still waters. However, few faces lit up, enthralled at the prospect of something bloody approaching: Knicklebein and the two lieutenants.
I watched him as he padded from side to side while he addressed us, there was no mistaking the predator that he was, the thinly-veiled violence that he wore about him like the scent of aftershave. Like a large feline he paced before us enthralling us with his glowing eyes, ready grin and soft voice.
“As from tomorrow all of you except Walker, Odendaal and Bekker are relieved of your present tasks. Those three gentlemen will run the school and VOS. The rest of you will join me in the Ops-room for a briefing at O-eight hundred hours tomorrow. Bring a pen and a notebook. So sort out what you have to today.” Again he paused for what seemed like an eternity then he spoke, almost as though conspiring, “Look guys, nobody likes change but I can promise you this will be good for you. I am even pushing for rank for you: one-liners and two-liners. Don’t jump the gun but the Commandant agrees in principal so RSM Blignaut will be joining us for part of tomorrow. I will see you tomorrow. Dismissed! Now who has a light?”
There was a buzz of excitement as we dispersed. Lieutenant Van Niekerk shouted across to Walker and myself, “Walker, jy gaan met Swanepoel. Jy gaan die VOS beheer. Het jy dit?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” Walker answered. He turned to me, the cigarette dangling from his lips accentuating his pouting mouth. “That is so fucking unfair! So you guys are going to get rank and go on a jolly-patrolly while we do the work!”
“Dude! I said irritably, “Just now you were bitching about this guy being here now you want to be included. Tell you what, I don’t want rank anyway, so you take my place and I’ll stay at the VOS. How’s that for a plan?” A tiny glimmer of hope flickered to light in the darkness that was my angst.
A billow of smoke and uncertainty replaced the pout. “Well, I’m not sure. I was just saying.”
“So now you don’t want to swop?”
“Well, uhm… lets see what happens.”
“Just forget about it, alright! You’re irritating me, you wet! C’mon!” Glimmer extinguished.
The next couple of weeks became a blur of lectures, drills and maneuvers as we set about plotting the destruction of the Enemy. Hectic! Captain Swart carried/dragged us forward by his sheer force of will and personality. I found myself liking the man despite all my preconceived notions, and what I knew of him. He had an easy confidence and projected clarity of vision and purpose that were both reassuring and inspiring. Among the rest he was becoming a god-like figure. About the base conversations were filled with references to him and what he had said or did. Wherever the Captain was he was surrounded by a group of admirers/adorers/worshippers. None more so then Knicklebein, my erstwhile bud. He and I, though very different, had shared a love for rugby and both played flank. We had played together for the SA Intelligence Rugby team and had both made the Northern Cape Defence Force rugby trials while at Discobolos. Much to my disgust, and to Knicklebein’s enjoyment, I was drafted in as a center rather than at my beloved flank position. According to the huge, farm-boy Afrikaners I was too light and too short. I had to admit though, that they did grow them huge out there: the type that made their own mothers wince when they looked at what they had given birth to. They carried a calf under each arm, tackled bulls, had skin and feet like leather and ate like pestilence. I had taken one look at the size of the two forward packs and had been secretly happy that I would not be involved in any rucks, malls and pile-ups with them.
Knicklebein, always the paraat and gung-ho one, naturally slotted into the position of the Captain’s right-hand man. A bungalow-bill of sorts. When we drilled he was the marker, when we did maneuvers he was platoon leader and when we were in lectures his hand was always the first raised. As was my nature, I observed, not quite certain what to make of the Captain. And so I drifted between, playing Devil’s advocate for the others as well as myself, not ready to cast my vote just yet. What, however, could no longer be avoided was the fact that we were involved in a war and that we, if Captain Swart had any say in it, would be up to our necks in it soon. According to the Captain the Koevoet Ops K unit he had been with had turned a PLAN insurgent. I shuddered at the word turned remembering those photographs. The terrorist had provided information about a special mission that was in operation. Since May 1982 Eastern Bloc and Cuban instructors had been training Volcano members for this mission. SWAPO had begun moving these elite soldiers down to southern Angola near the South West African border. There were apparently something like 1700 men, formed into 14 companies of 50 men each. They were to infiltrate into Kaokoland, Ovamboland and Kavango as well as the farms of the Kamanjab, Outjo and Tsumeb area. We, at Omega were to be part of Operation Phoenix, which was being mounted by the SWATF to counter this PLAN incursion. God help us! It was time, said the Captain, for the Intelligence Corp to get involved in this war.
The Captain was true to his word: on 14 February, Valentine’s Day of all things, we received our rank. To my surprise I was made a full corporal along with Knicklebein, no surprise. The rest were made lance corporals. In a full dress parade on our tiny parade ground in front of the admin building and ops room we received our rank and were introduced to the rest of the unit as non-commissioned officers. Afterwards Regimental Sergeant Blignaut called us aside and told us, in his slightly-accented, booming voice that we were his charges now and not to be afraid to approach him about anything except sexual matters, be it homosexuality or our urges to have sex with the local population. His advice was to be neither maatjie-naaiers nor meide-naaiers but rather to be draadtrekkers or bluestone drinkers and save the sex for Stateside. Then he told us to be at the Non-com Pub at 1900 hours sharp in civvies and blustered off, handlebar moustache bristling.
Knicklebein brayed like a donkey and grabbed at his groin, “Well, they say the longer you’re up here the blonder the Owambo maid becomes, hey!”
“Thanks but I’ll stick to Bo Derrick here,” Martens joked, lifting first his left and then his right. “And Brook Shields here. A classic combination of youth and maturity, both with shit-hot bods!”
We all burst out laughing except Walker who looked nervously at us.
“What Walker?” Knicklebein asked, his voice filled with exasperation. The whites of his eyes flashed against the dark of his skin as he rolled them heavenward. The two did not get on.
Walker glanced at Knicklebein and then addressed the question to Martens, “Do think they really put bluestone in the coffee so that we don’t get jags? Because I’ve heard it can make you permanently sterile.”
As Knicklebein began jeering I interjected quickly, “Naw, Woody works in the kitchen and he told me that’s a fallacy. No way they do that.”
Relief washed over Walker’s face, “Whew, thank goo…”
“So bums to the walls, guys! No bending for the dropped soap in the showers. Wally-baby here may slip you one,” Knicklebein mocked.
“Oh, fuck you, Knucklebone!” Walker retorted.
“Oh, you wish you could, dearie. But if anybody is going to do the fucking around here it is going to be a corporal like me and not a lance-jack like you, you wet!”
Walker flushed and grabbed his cigarettes, slamming one into his mouth and lighting it with shaking hands. Knicklebein had a grin chiseled on his face that thinly veiled a throbbing, veined reddened anger.
“C’mon guys. Let’s go get ready for our party. After you, corporals,” I waved my hand in the direction of the kimbos and bowed. The tension immediately dissipated to be replaced by anticipation and so off we set to prepare for our big night, hooting and hollering, jostling and joking.
Two hours later, bellies full, be it with nervous tension or the delicious food Woody had prepared, we assembled in the Non-com Pub, huddling in a shadowy corner. The room was filled with the trophies and discards of war and violence: animal heads mounted on the wall, obsidian eyes dusty; shells of all sizes, brass ashtrays and bins; weapons in trophy cases, a Darwinian progression of tools of bloodshed from the primitive to the sophisticated; emblems and badges, a banner to kill and be killed under; photographs, young men captured forever in lustful pursuit of death. The dark, rough-hewn wood of the bar counter spilled over into the eaves and pillars about us, misty with cigarette smoke and cobwebs. It was in the shadow of one of these huge scarred, wooden support pillars that we stood. The ou manne non-commissioned officers were gathered around the huge bar, jovial in anticipation, gulping down their Rum and Cokes and Windhoek lagers and expelling gouts of profane laughter and smoke into each other’s faces. I ran my hands through my short hair, the bristles tickling my palms; still damp from the shower I had taken earlier. Looking at the faces of my fellow soldiers, I wondered if I appeared as fresh-faced and youthful as they did, ironically, uncomfortable in our civvies: jeans and checkered shirts.
A call broke through the revelry and our group’s nervous silence. The room came to attention as the RSM bustled in, handlebar bristling, waving us to relax as he reached for his Capie’s the barman had speedily prepared. His already-veined and ruddy face flushed as he slurped at the foamy, pungent mix of Captain Morgan’s Rum and Coke. He rolled his eyes, slurped again.
“Nou dit is lekker! Beter as koffie-kapitaal soos die boere se,” and he winked, smacking his lips. He placed his drink down and hooked his fingers into a huge, shiny buckle on the belt around his slim waist: a rearing horse. We tittered nervously while the rest of the non-coms erupted into laughter. The RSM was known for his sense of humour and was well liked by the all the men. He zeroed in on us. “Kom hier, Groentjies. Oe fok, julle is mos almal Engelse, ne? What is the world coming to? English non-commissioned officers, die Vader-alleen weet! Come to I!”
Knicklebein took off at virtually a sprint while the rest of us, leaving our blocks a little slower, followed after. We came to attention in front of him
“Kalmeer, kalmeer. Gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the newest members of the Non-commissioned Officers’ Pub. Ring the bell if you would please, barkeep. Jan, mix the first Molotov,” he turned back to us and he continued in precise, slightly-accented English. “Right, in the time-honoured tradition of the brotherhood of men who actually work for their money, those who wear their rank on their sleeves: this is the Weeping Post!” He pointed to a wooden pedestal in the corner of the room behind us, on top of which stood a steel German pith helmet. We nervously looked from Jan to the helmet. He was mixing into a large, brass shell casing from a line of bottles before him on the bar counter. As the barkeeper poured a measure from each bottle into the shell there would be an exclamation of approval and a glance over in our direction. In those glances you could read the humiliation and unpleasantness that was about to be visited upon us.
“Reg, donkie-trille, watter een van julle will eerste wees? Come, fortune favours the brave! Who’s first?” he said in that large voice of his, twirling the ends of his moustache like some cartoon villain. Knicklebein, who else, stepped forward.
“Ja, Knicklebein, good. Ready, hey? Jan, is the Molotov ready? Gentlemen, fellow non-commissioned officers, please gather around I. You are about to witness the deflowering of these virgin corporals from mere teachers
of men to men of action, from weapons of the book to weapons of the Good Book, from troops, I beg your pardon, scouts, to non-commissioned officers: leaders of men.” He took a breath then continued. “You will consume this quart of Molotov from the Sacred Chalice and then place your forehead and hands upon the Sacred Helmet. You will then spin clockwise for no less then twenty revolutions as fast as you can go. Is this clear?” He looked at each of us. “Crystal clear.”
We nodded. Saliva already filled my mouth and my stomach roiled uneasily. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steel myself. The room erupted into a chant as Knicklebein was handed the Sacred Chalice.
“Here’s to a new corporal: may he be a man among men and a breaker of women’s hearts! May he smite his enemies down in bloody fury for his country, nation and God! May he be strong, White and right and fight the good fight! May he be one mean, motherfucking, fighting machine!” As Knicklebein lifted the Chalice to his lips they began to sing, “Here’s to Knicklebein, he’s so blue, he’s a drunkard through and through, he’s a bastard so they say, tried to go to heaven but went the other way! Singing: one, two, three …”
Knicklebein began to gulp down the mixture in huge chunks, breathing loudly through his nose. Again my mouth filled with saliva and I found myself grimacing in sympathy with Knicklebein. His face emerged from the Shell, chin and shirt front wet, chest heaving, bellowing.
“As julle gaan kots, dan kots oor die muur. Cotch over the wall. Finished, Knicklebein? Good, turn it upside down over your head. Empty, well done. Now place your hands on the spike and place your voorkop against them. And go!”
“One, two, three…!” the assembled men counted as Knicklebein spun around and around the helmet. By the count of twenty his legs were ready to go and he wobbled off, careening sharply to his left and crashing to the wooden floor. The room erupted into hilarity as the men formed a tunnel through which they bounced and bundled a weak-legged Knicklebein, expelling him onto the lawn outside. He fell forward onto the grass, groaning. A couple of the men lead by Uys, the lance corporal with a chip on his shoulder, surrounded him, jeering, making vomiting noises. Uys sniffed violently, and you could hear the wad of snot hit the back of his throat. He rolled it around in his mouth like a sweet and then, standing over Knicklebein, allowed it to slide from his mouth: green, gelatinous mucous hanging from a silvery strand of saliva. Knicklebein turned his head and looked up at Uys. As he did so Uys sucked up the mucous and swallowed. Knicklebein convulsed and those surrounding him scattered. Knicklebein rolled up onto his knees and projectiled a torrent of partly digested food and liquid.
“Sounds like porridge on a tin roof!” someone shouted.
“There she blows!” bellowed Uys. “Fucking rowes! They can’t take the punch and they’re being made corporals. It’s bullshit!”
“Uys!” the RSM glared over at him. Uys turned and vented his anger at Knicklebein.
“Right! Who is next? Which of you is wanting to come to I?” the RSM said, grinning like a little boy at Christmas, rubbing his hands together.
With a mouth full of saliva, a stomach like a pail full of worms and legs of rubber I stepped forward. I watched myself from a space above my head, looking down. The Molotov dragged me back down to the misery that was my human condition. The smell of the concoction was a potpourri of all those scents you find in a hospital, had the feel of sardine oil, tasted like week-old chicken and burned like Satan’s aftershave. I tried to open my throat like all the seasoned drinkers tell you to do but it felt like I was swallowing chunks of squid. It landed in the pit of my stomach like mercury in a bowl. I heaved and saw the spectators scramble backwards through tear-filled eyes. I gasped, forcing down the bile. I took another huge breath and lifted the shell again. Some of the mixture ran from either side of my mouth, collecting on the point of my chin and splashing on to my chest.
“Spillage!” some the non-comms shouted.
“Sluk, jou naai!”
I drained the dregs and lifted the Sacred Chalice above my head. The crowd roared! I bit my lip, fighting my body’s natural instinct to expel the poison I had ingested.
“Ooogh! I’d rather lick my own bum then taste that again! Pah!” I shocked myself with my vulgarity as well as the onlookers who bellowed their approval.
“Ja, Swanepoel, you half-breed Engelsman. Assume the position!” the RSM said laughing.
I could feel my face flush with the alcohol as I leant forward grasping the spike on the Sacred Helmet. I overbalanced, almost driving it through my forehead. As I began to spin about the helmet, vertigo almost immediately set in, turning my consciousness into the tilting, swaying deck of a ship upon stormy waters. Alcohol numbing my body and filling my head with cotton wool, I closed my eyes and sucked in huge breathes of air. Saliva jetted up from the back corners of my mouth, filling it.
“… Eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
Lifting my head and opening my eyes, I felt the Earth’s rotational force implode upon my diminishing faculties. As I swallowed the saliva my stomach clenched violently and I knew I would not be able to prevent myself from vomiting. Helplessly, I veered sharply to the right, groaning, feeling my body curl about the fake axis that had been created for it. Men scattered.
“Oa, fok, hy gaan kots!”
“Get the fuck away from me!”
“Run away! Run away!”
“Ralph! Ach! Yeogh!”
Like a top, I bounced off a pillar, a stool and then as I felt my legs fold beneath me, rough hands grasped my sides, righted me and pushed me forward violently. The solid wood balustrade, which acted as a wall around the pub caught my midriff. I vomited in a yellow torrent of chunks into the foliage and then collapsed, hanging weakly over it, heaving and groaning. I spat, long strands of silvery saliva dangling from my mouth.
“Preach, Brother, preach!” shouted the RMS.
I waved to the crowd and then promptly threw up again, much to their enjoyment. I spat a couple of times more and then stood, feeling surprisingly well.
“Thank you, people, thank you,” I said, walking around to the entrance and heading to the ablutions, followed by heckling, some cheering and even a couple of slaps on the back.
I passed Knicklebein on the way there. He was still hawking and spitting vehemently.
“Fuck, that was shit! I’m sure there was oil in there. You puke?”
“Ja, like a boy at his matric dance. I think they put sardine oil in it. I’d definitely rather lick my bum then taste that again!”
Knicklebein laughed, hugging me.
“Come on. I’ll buy you a dop, you mad fucker.”
“I just want to wash my mouth out. I’ll be there now.”
“What do you want?”
“Hey, a coke to start off with, please,” I said, grimacing at the disgusting taste in my mouth.
“I don’t buy coldrinks, china. We are going to get fucked tonight! Now what do you want?”
Thinking, I paused and then said, “I’ll take a vodka and orange.”
“That’s better. A voddy and orange, hey? Ok, I’ll see you now-now then?”
I grunted. I did not really feel like drinking tonight, not that I was much of a drinker anyway. I had been drunk on three previous occasions in my life: the first, at age seven; sampling a friend’s father’s collection of miniatures, the second, a disastrous party at a girl’s house who I had been in love with, and lastly, at my matric dance after-party.
By the time I got back, Walker was on his knees vomiting by the entrance while Hakkinen was being cheered on as he consumed from the Sacred Chalice. Knicklebein, his confidence having obviously returned, had made himself at home at the Non-com Bar. He leaned back against it, gunslinger style, drinking beer from a huge mug. He waved me over as I came in and handed me a drink.
“On your father’s yacht, I see,” I said, joking.
“Hey, I don’t play, Mister Pillay! Anyway, fuck them. We’re corporals now, my man. Diddly they can do to us, now. It must be killing all those bok-naais. Those infantry wankers. Grensvegters, my arse.”
“I think it bugs Uys a tad more than anybody else, dude,” I said gesturing with my glass to a red-faced Uys. He was leaning over Hakkinen screaming, spittle surrounding his head like dust motes. “Look at him. He’s a psycho of note.”
“Ja, well it takes all kinds, hey. Come on, drink up, its not Ladies Night,” Knicklebein said downing half his beer. “Ah, Mother’s Milk!”
My sobriety is a wild and unhinged thing that needs to be reined in like some powerful stallion. It rears and bucks, chaffing at the bit and God help those around me should the reins slip for even an instant. I strut, stomp and spit: the wild, vast spaces of my soul and mind, sometimes bountiful and sometimes desolate, reflected in my behaviour and my conversation, mirrored in my eyes and my smile.
I was, however, only just learning about this side of my nature although even I knew how mercurial my moods could be. As the alcohol smudged away at my consciousness the night stretched out ahead of me and behind me like a dark highway. Faces and conversations flickered past: there for an instant and then gone. I remember the bell in the bar being rung for last round, and then we comrades-in-arms, buddies-of-the-bottle swaying out, loud. I remember walking along the airport road, toward the school, all of us looking supernaturally beautiful in the light of the full moon, feeling invincible and virile, like creatures from a children’s tale. We passed a bottle between us and I kept on forgetting where we were going and why.
The tar of the runway glistening in the ivory light of the moon. Inky shadows between the huts. A huge fire, clawing up into the sky, spitting sparks. Captain Swart welcoming us, glistening eyes and teeth, hand reaching out, pumping ours with wiry strength, his shadow capering behind him. Somewhere a boombox was playing the New Romantic techno of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Knicklebein prancing around the fire with Uys of all people. Walker passed out against a tree, snoring loudly, an unlit cigarette between his fingers. I sank down next to him suddenly feeling weary, my energy draining as the Moon passed over and slide toward the far horizon.