Of bullies, bicycles, thieves, and that old school tie

Wynberg High School and home life in Claremont (1954 – 1955).

The following year I moved to the High School on the other side of the Junior School fence. I was the only boy in the class without a senior boy’s tie. The junior tie was a droopy strip of blue and white horizontal stripes. The senior tie had the “modern style”, all silky with slanting silvery and blue stripes. One day I went into the changing rooms. Some of the boys were doing sports and one of them had left his tie hanging on one of the hooks. Is it possible? Could I be a real Senior! The blood was throbbing so much I couldn’t breathe. I was no longer in a changing room. Silvery music invaded my soul.

Like a holy priest after mass removing his golden stole in reverence and awe, I removed my tie, lifted the silver tie from the hook and replaced it with my own. (Of course, I didn’t, at the time, know what “holy” or “priest” was). The next few hours, were like days, waiting for school to end. Will anybody notice my sudden new status? The end-of-school bell rang. I stole out of the school – more than just myself. On the bus home, I was torn between hiding and displaying my new lease on life. Deep down, though, I had the premonition that this lease was to become a leash around my neck. At home, I took a ballpoint and scratched a few pathetic stripes of blue  through the black indelible name embedded in the cool smooth silk. The next day I came to school in my new senior tie. The same day, the Principal, Mr. Bowden, called me to his office. He always wore a black academic gown and a blacker scowl. He asked me about the tie I was wearing. I confessed. The next day I was once again a junior senior.

A few weeks later, the Principal calls me to his office again. He says that before he calls the police I must own up. I was already a thief in everyone’s averted eyes. Own up to what – again? He doesn’t say. All I hear is “police, police”. Confess to what? “Police, Police. The perturbation I felt when I had stolen the tie in the changing rooms was nothing compared to what I felt roiling in me now. The Principal would not cease snapping. On and on, Police, Police. I seized up like a terrified Nero unable to plunge the knife into his heart, which was the only way to save him from the raging crowd banging down his door (I did know something about Nero then). The Principal was speaking; purse – stolen – changing room. I thought about the tie I had stolen a few weeks earlier. So, that is why I’m in Bowden’s office again. I thought of my brother Gerry. Wasn’t it only  Gerry who got into such trouble? I didn’t know how to confess to something I hadn’t done; even if such a confession –  the Principal promised – could keep me out of “jail” – perhaps the most frightening word to a 12-year-old boy. Where can I run to? The Principal let me go. They never found the real thief. So, in everyone’s eyes, I was the real thief.

I was good at rugby and athletics; I excelled at the  100-yards dash. There was another boy, Hilliard, who was also very fast. They expected him to win the 100-yards race on sports day. I’m on is heels all the way; I flashed past him at break the tape. He was mad and blamed his sore toe. It was wrapped in a band-aid. I won the under-12 short distance runner’s trophy. It had a lid on it, which made it fancy. The lid didn’t fit properly, so I had to cup my other hand over it. In the bus home, I sat upstairs. I held the cup in my one hand, and when the bus jolted, I clasped the lid to the trophy with the other hand. The cup stood on the shelf in the family lounge in Claremont for many years. Then it vanished.

I was chosen to represent Wynberg School in the under-13 100-yards race at the Western Province athletics day in Paarl, about 60 kms from Cape Town, a two-hour train journey. I had to get up early to take the train at Cape Town station. I also had to take two buses between home and Cape Town station. To ensure I didn’t oversleep, I set the alarm on our family alarm clock and put it next to my bed. I thought I’d set the alarm for 5 am, but it went off at 1 am. I couldn’t get back to sleep. I got dressed, packed my kit, went to the kitchen and boiled some eggs. I forgot about them, so when I dug the teaspoon into the top of one of the eggs, it got stuck like the fork my sister Minnie once through at my head that got embedded in my scalp. There’s not much worse than cloggy bits of  rubbery egg  on an empty stomach four hours before dawn.  I couldn’t leave home before 5 am because the buses only started then. I dozed off a few times. By the time I Ieft home, I could hardly keep my eyes open. I slept a bit on the train, but had to keep a lookout for my train stop in Paarl. Otherwise I would have ended up in Wellington. (I returned to the Homestead in Wellington the following year (1956).

Before the race, I was very cold. The weather was cool and so there was no reason to feel so cold. I put my hairy brown pull over on top of my vest. I think it was the lack of sleep, overboiled eggs, and long journey that had reduced my resistance and sapped my energy. I yawned on to the track. The official raised his gun. What did I do now! On your marks, get set – whazzzat? – BANG. Like an lead spring, I sproinged out of the blocks. I was running. I forgot to remove my hairy pullover. I saw nobody in front of me. I saw nothing. Nobody passed me. Did I come first?  No, last. Nobody passed me because they were all already yards in front of me before I had left the blocks. I was torn between shame at letting my team down and wanting to fall asleep forever. It was a long journey home into night. I nver thought about this at the time but one might be wondering why I was left to arrange the whole trip by myself – waking up on time long before dawn, and making all the other preparations for the trip. Why didn’t Izzy or Fanny not help me? I never held this against my parents, and never will. That was the way things were in our house.

There was the bully, Stadler. He was a squat snorting bullneck. I was long and scrawny. I couldn’t take it any more, so one day I brought a knife to school and showed him. He laughed. In those days, bringing a knife to school didn’t get you into big trouble.

A little while later, at break time I found myself on the rugby field facing him. It seemed as if the the whole school had formed a ring around the two of us. I have no idea how I had got into this situation. Somehow I had agreed to fight him. What madness. I think I challenged him. Why I did so went – I would like to believe and could be true – beyond myself. There were so many other boys whose life he made a misery.

We stared at each other. He didn’t look as if he was keen to fight.  I stood at the edge of the raucous circle.  Was he doubting himself? Nope. He charged. Stunned, my arm mecanoed outward, the elbow locking into position. Stadler rammed into a bony fist. He staggered back. The boys shoved at me, clapping and shouting; they were as confounded as I. Stadler came at me again. Sproiing. Lock elbow. Bam. Stadler’s face was changing hue. I don’t remember how many times he lumbered into my fists. His face began to bloat. The bell rang. Saved by the bell. It was the end of break. A few years ago, I received an email from one of the old Wynberg boys, Ralph Shlomowitz, who witnessed the fight. (His uncle married my sister, Sonia). He said in his email: “you were a great hero playing on the wing in the rugger (rugby) and taking on that bully Stadler and getting the better of the fight.” It was not I who said I was a hero, but I suppose I was; everyone seemed to think so. It wasn’t me, then, who was saved by the bell. Stadler never bothered me again. He didn’t bother anybody again. But then he might have gone back to his old ways the following year after the hero left the school. I wonder whether his wounds every healed. I suppose not; it’s a male thing.

We had a tiny room off the dining room in our house in Claremont. We used to keep little yellow chickens in it. It was then converted into the radio room. There was only enough space for one bed and the table for the radio. The room was about 21/2 long and 11/2 metres wide. The most popular radio station was “Springbok Radio”. It was marvelous. My mother used to listen to about 4 -5 serials during the morning. Our favourite programmes were “Pick a box”, “Take it from here”, “The creaking door”, “Snoektown calling”, and “No place to hide.” But best of all was the weekly “Lux Radio theatre”, which had wonderful plays. When the play was announced, I would ask Fanny: “Drama or comedy?” If she said drama, I lay next to her on the bed, and spent the happiest hour of the week. I sometimes listened to comedies as well, even though they weren’t so “deep”. “How can laughter be deep?” to a 12-year-old boy? After Lux Radio, “Superman” was next favourite. Whenever Clark Kent  was about to change into superman, his voice would take on a deep timbre, which was superman’s voice. I stopped breathing for a bit.

We had a boarder in the room next to the lounge at the front of the house: Miss Honey. She was fleshy and old and couldn’t lift her feet when she walked. We always heard her shuffling down the passage in the morning, carrying her pail of pee to the bathroom. I hardly went into her room. She kept a budgie. One day, she left. Issy’s business was doing better and we needed the space. I heard that she was very upset to leave. A little later she was knocked down by a car. She survived. That, in one paragraph, was Miss Honey. How paltry are our perceptions, how shallow our judgments.

Every Saturday afternoon, we’d wait for Izzy, my father, to come home from work. It was pocket money day: One shilling and thrippence (three pence), which was enough for a return bus ticket from our house to Claremont station, for bioscope (movies) at the Scala, for two chappies bubble gum and for two Norman toffies. Issy made us squirm every time. We mooched around him at the dining table while he ate his lunch. If he doesn’t give us our pocket money soon, we’ll be too late for the bioscope. Issy never disappointed. But how could we be sure?

We saw lots of cowboy movies. I liked Charles Starett, who was the “Durango Kid.” Gene Autry was a sissy: he used to sing in his films, he hardly ever got into a fight, and never  jumped on his horse from a roof – perhaps he was worried about crushing his precious jewels.  He was too mediocre to be bad. I discovered later that Starrett didn’t do any of his stunts.

One Saturday, we got our pocket money earlier than usual, so we decided to save our bus fare; we walked to the bioscope: a 20-minute walk. On our way back home, we were walking fast over the bridge – me hugging Sammy’s shoulder – in a hurry to get home in time to listen to one of our favourites on Springbok Radio. I said to Sammy: “Hope we’re not too late for Superman.” At that moment, two girls sauntered past; and tittered. Sammy was very cross with me.

I asked Izzy to buy me a bicycle. I made a deal with him: if he bought me a bicycle, I wouldn’t ask him for pocket money anymore. The bicycle for the Durango kid – and for Chappies and Normans. Issy didn’t say anything. I told Sammy that daddy was going to buy me a bicycle. He laughed. A little while later I told Sammy that I would have a bicycle by 12 noon Saturday the following week. He laughed. I asked Issy if he could get me “the” bicycle by 12 noon next Saturday. At that stage, he hadn’t even told me that he would buy me “a” bicycle. When the Saturday morning came, Issy asked me to come with him in his green chev bakkie (van) to town. I said nothing. Was he going to buy me a bicycle? We drove to Cape Town. We stopped outside the Raleigh bicycle shop. Issy bought me a brand new black bicycle with chunky black tyres. I can still smell the sweet rubber. I asked Issy if we could try and get home before 12 o’clock. We put the bicycle at the back of the bakkie. I got in the back with the bicycle. We just made it. We turned into Selous Road. The bakkie began to slow down. I stood up, clasping the bike close to my hip, trying to keep my balance at such a heady moment. Sammy was there. The bakkie turned into the driveway. It had just turned 12 o’clock: High Noon.

The following Saturday at lunchtime, I was mooching around my Dad at the table. I wanted to go to bioscope.  He made me squirm a little more than usual, and kept me guessing.  He gave me “my” one and thrippence.

When my bike broke, Sammy fixed it. He took the bicycle over. Sammy’s motto: I fix, I own. How to get away as far as possible? I couldn’t ride away anymore – I no longer had any transport.

If you want a bully bicycle, you can find one at “Bully Bicycle.”

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