Of buses, boots and laughing hearts

During one of the school holidays, while I was at home for three years (Jan 1953 – Dec 1955), Gerry and I were placed in the McGregor home in the Wynberg area for a few weeks. I don’t have any unhappy memories of the Orphanage except feeling homesick, but the Mcgregor home, in contrast,  was a heartless place.  I also felt very betrayed that I was put into that ghastly place  during my school holidays! – after so many years away from home: five years in the Orphanage and two years at boarding school in Wellington. It was the unhappiest  time of all my school years, perhaps because I felt that all meaning had been drained out of me.

The family home moved from Maitland to Selous Road, Claremont in 1950, close to Landsdowne Road, which is a main artery connecting Landsdowne to Claremont. A corner plot separated our house from the road. When Gerry was home during his long spells in different institutions, he would sit on the right front corner of  the wall of our house where he had a good view of the double-decker buses passing by. He had a note book, and wrote down the numbers of the buses, the adverts and other details.

Double Decker Daimler Benz

Double Decker Daimler Benz

Here is a typical double decker bus that we had in Cape Town during the 1950s and 1960s. The photo is of an English double decker, which was  exactly the same as the ones in Cape Town. As shown in the photo, the number on the front of the bus (number 129) is visible from a distance.

Gerry and I enjoyed “jumping”  the buses.  We stand a little distance from the people waiting for the bus so that the “conductor” (ticket inspector) of the bus gets the clear message that we are not waiting to get on the bus. The bus arrives. The people climb onto the small platform situated at the back left corner of the bus. There is a horizontal bar for hoisting yourself onto the bus.

Alighting platform of bus

One morning, I got up, bent down to retrieve my precious veldskoens from under the bed. They were gone. So was Gerry. I knew where he might have gone – to one of his friends, who lived in upper Claremont, whom I had seen a few times. I walked up Landsdowne Road, over the railway bridge, across Main Road, Claremont and into upper Claremont. I had a rough idea where his friend lived, I knocked at the door. It was the right house. His friend came to the door. It was about 10 in the morning. I asked him whether Gerry was there. He said yes, but that he was still asleep. I told his friend to take me through to him. Gerry was breathing heavily under the covers. I’m not sure whether he had heard me and was pretending to be asleep. Under Gerry’s bed were my veldskoens. I swore at Gerry and roughed him up a bit. He let out a bewildered grunt.  I grabbed my shoes and made for the front door. As I left the house, I turned round and met the baffled stare of his friend. I remember that incident with shame.

Gerry had rubber legs, which he did not only use to good effect in conversation – he talked with his legs – and escaping from “government” people, but also in sport. In his late teens-early 20s he took up  the high jump and walking races. In those days, high jumpers used the scissors technique, where the jumper kept the body upright, then threw first the inside leg and then the other over the bar in a scissoring motion. You couldn’t jump very high using this technique, but Gerry’s rubber legs did help raise the bar of the game.

For many years I hardly saw Gerry. I saw him in the 1960s at the bris (circumcision ceremony)  of  my brother, Sammy’s son, Moshe, which took place in the lounge of Sammy’s flat in Kenilworth. There was a reproduction of Tretchikoff’s Blue Asian Lady on the wall. Gerry fixed is dark brown eyes on the painting and communicated in gyrations of pollysyllabic rapture  the finer features of the painting, which defied all rules of syntax, and which had nothing to do with the painting at all.

I saw him a few times  at my parent’s next home – a flat in Sea Point.  He became a travelling salesman. In 1971, I went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and taught at St George’s College in Salisbury (now Harare). One day, one of the Jesuit priests came to me and said my brother wants to see me. Brother, brother? What brother? There must be a mistake. Gerry appeared; with a wife that I’d never seen before. She was much older than him. He was on one of his travelling trips, which I never thought would take him so far away from Cape Town.

There was I, a  light-complexioned, pony-tailed  “Senior French Master” of a Jesuit  college, one of the most prestigious private schools in Rhodesia,  squirming next to Gerry, my rough weather-beaten brother, with black hair and dark brown eyes, who spoke – like most South African Jews –  in a strong South African accent.  Jews are loud and intense. Gerry and I were no exception. Jews don’t speak; they declame. But Gerry did more: he was an Othello, without an axe to grind.  (I describe later  my years at St George’s College).

A little while later, I heard that Gerry had been arrested at the Beit Bridge Border crossing from Rhodesia into South Africa. Izzy had to pay Gerry’s huge fine to keep him out of jail. He must have been smuggling something. During  that time, Rhodesia, under the Smith government, was undergoing international sanctions. I don’t know the details of Gerry’s arrest. It would be nice to think that he wasn’t doing anything worse than breaking sanctions. But this is unlikely, because, South Africa practically ignored the sanctions rules, which meant that trade to and from Beit Bridge was not seriously affected.

The next time I saw Gerry was in 1978, two years after I had returned to South Africa from Rhodesia with my newly-wed wife, Cathy. We were living in Observatory, below Groote Schuur Hospital, the hospital where Chris Barnard did the world’s first heart transplant 11 years before (1967), and where my brother Leslie had died of rheumamtic fever in 1949. Gerry came to visit us. He had no money. He had previously won about 20 000 Rands on the horses, which didn’t last long. He was hungry, and wanted to borrow R20.  He told me that he had been to another family member who had  said to him: “What are you doing here?”, and slammed the door in his face. Gerrry had sold most of his furniture.

Not long after, I visited Gerry in Groote Schuur hospital. He had had a heart operation. He spent much of the time describing a horse race  that he had been listening to on the radio,  in which the horse he had bet on had been pipped at the post. His eyes were flashing with excitement. A lot of excitement for someone who had just had a heart operation.

About a week later, Gerry died. I only found out the cause 20 years later (1997) from my brother Joe in Tel Aviv, whom I was visiting. Joe said that Gerry died laughing. He laughed so hard that he split the wounds of his recent heart operation. I didn’t go to see him in the hospital. I was too frightened to see him in death. I hang my head.

What I remember most about Gerry is his deep brown eyes glistening with ecstacy in his hospital bed after listening to the radio broadcast of the horse race – that he had  lost. Why would he be ecstatic about losing the race? It wasn’t about losing, it was about racing- the racing sojourner.

Labela Leslie died of a broken heart; Gershon Gerry – the sojourner – of a laughing heart.

The Cape Jewish Orphanage (7): How deep was the valley?

The following comment appears in the Orphanage principal’s notes at the bottom of Rachel’s 1951 school report (from the Orphanage archives).  Rachel was admitted  to the Orphanage in April 1951, together with Benny, who was readmitted for the second time:

“Very weedy and ill-nourished. People who are totally unable to care for their numerous progeny. We had five of their offspring until 1949. The committee have definitely decided that the parents only may visit on Sundays but may not take them out to their home.”

The principal’s thoughts about Rachel and benny are clear. I am not sure what the principal thought about the home visits of the five of us who were there from 1945 to 1949 (Benny, myself, Gerry, Leslie and Minnie), but his notes above about Benny and Rachel are a clear indication. We might have made a few periodical home visits while at the Orphanage. I have no memory of these except the one visit for the family photo shoot. The most memorable and happiest day of my young life. Here are the Principal’s notes on Benny, when he was readmitted for the second time in 1951:

“Rough and uncouth. Needs steady discipline. A lot of good in him if he is carefully watched.”

A typical boy – noise with dirt on.

I found  one document about me: my medical record for admission dated 22 March 45. (I left the orphanage for good at the end of 1949): Physical condition: normal. Mental condition: normal. Condition of skin: verminous. Comment: “This child has lice in the hair and should be isolated.” I wonder what is worse for Jew? A verminous Jew or a Jew who believes in Yeshua HaMashiach.

The Jewish community did indeed “lavish” us with “loving care” (Rabbi Abrahams earlier). What would have happened if we had remained in our “broken” home. The Orphanage started out as a home for orphans, but ended up as a refuge for children from broken homes. Here is Fanny Lockitch again (whom I quoted earlier):

“Well we were orphans who had an early foundation of love. But I must say today it’s mostly from broken homes. I mean we are told inaccurately that nothing can replace parental love. It is true, nothing can replace parental love that is best, but there are many broken homes where children are neglected, overlooked, unwanted and these children find in Oranjia the love and understanding they have never known.”

How broken was my home? Here are two letters (from the Orphanage archives) writtten to the Orphanage by the  family doctor, Dr A. J. Gans. The first letter is an application for admission to the Orphanage of five of the Gamaroffs: Benny Raphael, Gerry, Minnie and Leslie.

7 March 1945

This is to certify that Mrs Gamaroff is expecting her tenth child and she is in bad health and is also suffering from a nervous breakdown. She is unable to attend to her children.

The second letter is six years later as is regard to an application for admission to Orphanage of Rachel (for the first time, and Benny and Gerry (for the second time).

5 April 1951

This is to certify that Mrs Gamaroff is in very bad health and finds it impossible to look after her home and the childlren.

When mother breaks, the home breaks. But the mezuzah was in the slanting position!

Here is another excerpt from Professor Chief Rabbi Abrahams’ message (quoted earlier  The Cape Jewish Orphanage (5) – Chief Rabbi Abrahams and Dr Verwoerd: the not-so-odd couple): “it is eloquence of the Jewish spirit and influence of Oranjia that throughout the fifty years, very few of our children have gone astray” (my emphasis).

If Professor Abrahams  believed the Jewish Bible, he would have known that “all of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).” “Children gone astray” for Professor Abrahams – and most people – means children who have “gone off the rails”; who have become a burden or a threat to society. My elder brother (by 11 months) Gerry was judged to be one of these strays. He deserves a chapter of his own.