Recently I had a surprise phone call from Metchosin (the Place of Smelly Fish) in British Columbia.
The caller was a man I had last seen in 1964 when we knew him as “Boetie Wessels”. He was the coolest cat in our residence, Driekoppen, at the University of Cape Town.
The residence was nicknamed Belsen, after the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp in north-west Germany, as the residence initially housed students who had served in World War II and it had a bunch of army-style bungalows, each with a stoep running along the front. Groups of students liked to gather on these stoeps after lectures, and Boetie sometimes joined our group by grasping the rafters supporting the verandah roof, lifting himself up a bit and gazing down on us with a slightly bemused expression on his face. He seemed to find this pose very relaxing, and developed the reputation of being impervious to pain.
For the first six months all freshmen had to wear a jacket, long trousers and orange tie, with a big circular piece of white cardboard attached to the jacket giving full details about the unfortunate wearer. They were required to greet all senior students in residence by saying “Good morning (or afternoon), Sir.”
Everyone complied except Boetie and me.
I got there after spending four years working underground in the diamond mines of Kimberley, and a week at the YMCA. I was blowed if I was going to call anybody sir or wear a tie, and was in fact given “second-year status” after panicky friends had urged me to apply for this.
Boetie wore the tie; but for trousers he wore three-quarter surfer’s pants, and topped off his ensemble with an aluminium miner’s helmet. His standard greeting was to wag his forefinger and say, “Hi there.” He was a tall chap with broad shoulders, a Ringo Starr haircut and a disarming smile. The seniors left him alone. But just in case they got any ideas he thought he’d teach them a little lesson in advance. One night he removed a wheel from Rod Morgan’s car and stuck it on a branch high up in the tallest pine tree on the property.
Rod was a really tough guy; a rugby player and chairman of the residence students’ council. He commanded respect from one and all, and in fact commanded some freshmen to climb up the tree and retrieve his wheel. Several tried but nobody could manage the feat. Eventually Boetie took pity on him and climbed back up the tree at night, retrieved the wheel and put it back on Rod’s car.
Rod never found out who the culprit was.
I thought it fitting that a chap who had to wear a helmet while he was working underground, and a chap who chose to wear one just for the hell of it decided to catch the bus to town one day to have tea at the OK Bazaars in Adderley Street. The tearoom on the mezzanine floor was popular with students because prices were reasonable, and it was an ideal vantage point to look down on shoppers below, and to spot the “floorwalkers”. These were men who were looking for shoplifters and did their best to blend in with the rest of humanity. Sharp-eyed students could identify them in seconds, and had great fun making jokes as the detectives followed suspicious folk while trying to look inconspicuous.
After we had had our tea we decided to do a little shopping. I watched with open mouth as Boetie selected a potted cyclamen, and engaged the elderly saleslady in earnest conversation about the care and feeding of the plant. People nearby were cracking up as the Beatle-haired, miner-hatted surfer held the plant in one hand and a miniature orange long-spouted watering can in the other, and sauntered through the store without the ghost of a smile on his face and on to the bus as children nudged their mothers saying loudly, “Mommy, there’s Ringo.”
Around the middle of the year I spotted a General Motors newspaper advertisement offering what looked liked ideal employment for someone like Boetie, who loved motor cars, but seemed to lack interest in theoretical subjects like pure mathematics. He agreed that the job would suit him admirably. So Brian, who was doing a commerce degree and had just learnt how to do the ideal business letter, helped him compile a response to the advertisement.
It worked; Boetie got the job. And one of UCT’S more interesting sons moved to Port Elizabeth, and was later transferred to the USA. He now lives in rural bliss on Vancouver Island where he and his wife run a sausage manufacturing business which gives Canadians the chance to appreciate South African boerewors, amongst many other products.
I wonder if any of his five children are as laid back as he was . . .