LIFT TECHNIQUE

I don’t often use a lift (or elevator if you are American and prefer long words to short ones).

But, after some heavy grocery shopping today, I decided to use one to get the bags down to my car without straining my back too much. I then realised that not everyone is aware of the correct Cape Town technique for using a lift. Here are the rules:

  • If somebody is standing at the lift and has pushed the down button, shove him aside and push the UP and DOWN buttons. Several times. That way the lift will know that somebody important is waiting and will pull its finger out to get there quickly. It will know that you actually want to go down, and will ignore any other buttons that have been pushed by lesser mortals.
  • GET INTO THE LIFT AS SOON AS IT STOPS. Do not wait for others to get out first. This works best if you are fat and are moving bulky items into the lift. A skilled practitioner of the art can block the entrance for many seconds and may even trap people inside who couldn’t get past you in time.
  • Once inside, push past people hovering around the buttons and select the floor you want to go to, EVEN IF THAT BUTTON HAS ALREADY BEEN PUSHED AND A RED LIGHT IS GLOWING TO INDICATE THIS. Let’s face it, a lift doesn’t have much intelligence and might forgotten where it was going. Also, if that button gets forcefully shoved by YOU, the lift will realise that it must go straight there and ignore the idiots who only pushed their button once.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM PEOPLE. THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.

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FIRST CAR

My first car was a 1950 Nash. I never got to drive it.

In July 1960 my father was driving it through Kimberley when his Nash broke down. At the time I was working in the diamond mines, aged 17. He decided to leave the Nash there and buy a Packard and carry on to Johannesburg with his new wife. But first he invited my brother and me to have dinner with him and Sylvia at his hotel. This became an ordeal where he felt it necessary to give us a prolonged lesson in table manners that my mother (who had divorced him in Cape Town in 1946 for being a stingy arsehole) had obviously failed to adequately impart to us.

We learned to break slices of bread before buttering them, and to leap to our feet every time Sylvia entered or left the room. Which seemed to be exceedingly often. At the third leap my younger brother, an eccentric, shouted “Hup!” This didn’t go down too well.

On the plus side, a De Beers official from Scotland staying at the hotel had said some complimentary things to him about my progress in the company, mentioning that I had come first in the mine learners’ course. This mollified Dad somewhat. Prior to that he’d had exalted ideas about sending me to Oxford University (who fortunately did not have a course in mining engineering). He’d also wanted me to learn to play the violin.

Before we parted he told me that he had decided to give me the Nash, and that I could get it from the garage where it was being repaired as soon as I turned 18 and got my driver’s licence. As we shook hands he looked at my calloused hands and said that a gentleman should have the hands of a lady. I should never do manual work.

That’s when I knew he was delusional. It was impossible to work underground and not get calloused hands. I quite liked having those brown bumps on my palms. They made me feel tough.

After a few days the repaired Nash stood in the car dealer’s showroom like a big brown upturned bathtub. It was not a thing of beauty. Still, it was mine, and I was able to point it out to friends through the showroom windows. (The pic below is the closest I could find to what I “owned”; this looks a lot lovelier than mine was.)

1950 Nash Statesman

1950 Nash Statesman

About a month later it disappeared. Apparently the Packard had given trouble on the return journey, so he sold it and took the Nash back to his farm near Bredasdorp. I gathered that I could fetch it if I still wanted it, but I could see no way of getting there without a car.

To hell with it. I’d make do with my bicycle until I’d saved up to buy my own car. A smaller one that was less ugly, and not a petrol guzzler.

The first car I bought was a 1960 Ford Anglia. This is a close resemblance.

The first car I bought was a 1960 Ford Anglia. This is a close resemblance.

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HEAD FOR HEIGHTS

Do you have a pathological fear of heights? Me neither. But I do have a healthy respect for dangerous heights. I would rather approach the edge of a vertical cliff doing the leopard crawl than a brisk jog – especially when there’s a strong wind blowing.

I started off life as a skinny, nervous kid who respected authority.  But  soon realised that facing up to my fears and challenging authority made for a more interesting, happier life. I went through a period of deliberately doing the thing I feared to do; and by the age of 10 was game for almost anything. By the age of 65 I’d had at least 10 near-death experiences (falling down or getting stuck on cliff faces, several spectacular mining accidents, nearly drowning while diving for crayfish in front of Camps Bay police station, and dealing with muggers and then some armed robbers who did not like me throwing my car and house keys into the neighbouring property).

Recently, though, things have been rather tranquil. The most exciting thing to happen was wrecking the back wheel of my bicycle while screaming down Canterbury Drive and hitting a pothole two weeks ago. So, for my 72nd birthday I decided to go tandem paragliding off Signal Hill.

Last Monday I found myself trudging up a steep path behind fit young men carrying paragliders in large back packs. After about 15 minutes we got to the launch site half way up Lions Head (Signal Hill, lower down, was getting wind from the wrong direction).

Mias, my pilot, was soon strapped into a harness behind me and told me what to do. Within seconds we were gliding alongside Lions Head – and then soaring above it looking down on the people who had climbed to the top. The view of Cape Town and the coastline was magnificent. This was easy! And fun.

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Maybe Mias shouldn’t have asked me if I suffered from motion sickness. I instantly remembered that this was the one thing that I excelled at. As a child I couldn’t travel more than a mile in a car without vomiting. Luckily we didn’t own a car; and others soon learned to put me in the front seat with the window open. I’m the only person I know who managed to get violently ill while shark cage diving, and even got queasy sitting on a surfboard beyond the breakers after a night of heavy drinking.

Straight after he raised the matter I started to feel a little strange. Then, while floating above Clifton, he offered to do some acrobatics. I said I would prefer it if he headed straight for the landing strip. We landed softly on the fields next to Maidens Cove. But I felt so dizzy afterwards that I couldn’t face the planned ride up Table Mountain in a revolving cable car to go abseiling off the edge of the mountain.

I’ll do that next year.

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THE MINES AND ME (6): DELIVERANCE

Everything seemed so routine the last night that I worked underground. Only one thing differed from the usual – my resolve to drill and blast three ends instead of the usual two: I wanted my varsity vacation job to end on a high note.

My team of workers had not been highly motivated before – they knew I was there only temporarily and did not feel the need to impress me. But somehow, that night everything went smoothly; and shortly before the end of the shift we had drilled and charged up one horizontal development end, and two short vertical raises on the level below.

I thanked my team and told them they could knock off – I would “cheesa” all the fuses myself.

I lit the first raise, then hurried to the next one. It was important to finish lighting up this one before the first one began to go off as they both led off the same tunnel, and I could be affected by the dust and fumes in the relatively confined space.

I finished the second raise in time – no sound of explosions. Everything was going well.

I then ran about 100 metres to a set of steps and climbed up to the next level. I walked along the final tunnel to be lit up, with the spluttering cheesa stick in my hand.

About halfway along this tunnel I heard loud explosions going off very close by. I hesitated – one of the raises I had just lit up could be due to hole through into the tunnel I was in, and no one had told me! If this was the case my superior had failed to observe one of the most important mining safety rules: the miner had to be warned in writing when a hole-through was expected.

I was torn between my desire to flee and the desire to finish the job. The face I had battled to drill and charge up was only 30 metres away.

Suddenly, I decided that if the raise was going to hole it would have done so with the first explosion. (This is the “cut” and consists of six holes drilled in a tight circle and timed to go off simultaneously.)

I ran to the face, saying to myself that if something went wrong I could always return and cut the fuses before they burnt into the holes. I lit up the seventeen fuses and hurried back.

To my horror I found the tunnel completely blocked with broken rock. As I stood there another loud explosion filled the tunnel with acrid fumes.

I clawed at the broken rock; but it was no use. I couldn’t move enough of it to make a space to crawl through. It was now too late to run back to cut the fuses. In less than a minute I would be ripped to shreds by the equivalent of seventeen powerful hand grenades.

I sat down and clearly remember saying, “God, I’m not going to die now.”

Just then I felt a massive explosion beneath me lift me up. Then I fell through a hole that it had blasted, together with tons of rock. I seemed to fall in slow motion and as I fell an explosion went off right next to me. Flying rocks cut through my boots and into my feet. I fell onto a pile of broken rock and rolled down to safety.

The next day in hospital where the wounds in my hand, elbow and feet had been stitched up, I was visited by the inspector of mines. In the background was mine captain DT who had met me as I was being carried out of the mine on a stretcher, and tried to convince me that he had told me that the raise was due to hole into the tunnel I was drilling above it.

The inspector asked me how I was feeling, and asked me to tell him what had happened the previous night. When I’d finished he said, “That’s fine; but in future remember it’s safer to have someone with you when lighting up.” I assured him that was my last shift working underground.

“Just one more thing: mine captain DT says that he warned you that the raise was due to hole into the tunnel.” I had to inform him that nobody had warned me of this possibility.

It was the same mine captain DT who, a few years before, had instructed me to drill and blast the tunnel in De Beers Mine that caused devastation in the shaft. I almost felt sorry for him: once again he would have to endure a painful inquisition. But felt that any trouble he got into was richly deserved.

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THE MINES AND ME (5): REVENGE

I can clearly remember the time I was roped in to help re-open De Beers Mine, which had been left to moulder for many years. Everyone has seen a picture of Kimberley Mine, also known as the “Big Hole” which was closed down in 1914 and became a tourist attraction. But it was only one of the five volcanic pipes which all became “big holes” after they had been mined for many years. Three of them, Dutoitspan, Bultfontein and Wesselton, were still being actively mined in the 1960s. And round about 1962 De Beers Company decided that there were many diamonds left in the old De Beers Mine, and I found myself following Mine Captain DT, along a low, partially flooded, tunnel while thousands of bats flew towards us and hampered our progress.

Most nature lovers think bats are like cute mice that hang upside down. All I know is that the ones we encountered were crawling with fleas, and the rock-floor beneath them was crawling with cockroaches eating their droppings and the odd deceased one. The smell was impressive.

And most people think that bats have got such good radar that they will never fly into a human being. This may be true above ground. But when thousands of panic-stricken flying mice come at you like a dense swarm of locusts you have to duck and hope that only your helmet gets grazed as they fly past. One large Afrikaans miner did not duck far enough, and was far from amused when a flea-ridden mammal thumped into him, and got stuck in his chest hair. The mammal did not survive the encounter.

The bats were there because their home led along a tunnel to the huge hole that had been dug by hand many years before, and they used this as their evening exit to feast on Kimberley’s insects. I occasionally used it to enjoy a bit of sunshine and a view of the blue sky, with pepper trees growing in the upper reaches of the big hole. This was a rare pleasure that was not available in any of the other mines as their workings were far below the floors of their big holes.

After a few weeks shoring up old tunnels with timber, and drilling and blasting new ones, our shift boss told us that we were to be visited later that day by the Inspector of Mines. He told us that he would run ahead of the “grootkoppe” and signal to us to get the “machine boys” to stop drilling. (I guess he feared that the cloud of smoke and water vapour pouring out of the tunnel entrances might contain some dangerous silica dust that the inspector’s testing device might detect.)

He didn’t wait to get my agreement to his plan: he just assumed that nobody would have the nerve to disobey him. I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious nature, and figured that by obeying the shift boss I was interfering with inspections that were intended to help prevent us getting silicosis in our lungs. So, when the shift boss came running down the tunnel the next day I just ignored him and allowed my men to carry on drilling. As he passed me he said, “You little shit”, and quickly got the machines to stop.

The mild-mannered inspector didn’t query why the men had stopped drilling, but just calmly walked on with the rest of the officials. As soon as they’d gone past I went into each tunnel and shouted “Vula”

Within seconds the drilling resumed, and the inspector turned round and started frantically started clicking his little machine in the midst of the smoke pouring out of the tunnels while the shift boss looked daggers at me.

Why was I not surprised that my next job was about a month of night shift, doing something difficult and dangerous? In brief we were expected to drill and blast two rope raises from a newly blasted underground cavern that was to house winding machinery leading to an old shaft that was being renovated. The wire ropes were to travel in the small tunnels that we blasted going up towards the shaft at an angle of about 40 degrees. Despite the inadequate equipment and ventilation we managed it on time with only one case of a worker being overcome by gas or lack of oxygen in the upper reaches of a rope raise.

My next job was widening or “sliping” a tunnel leading to the renovated shaft. The idea was that as it approached the shaft it was to gradually be made wider and higher, so that it would be easier to get long pipes and machinery from the cages into the tunnel. I can always remember that one of the machine men succeeded in drilling a record amount of footage in the easy working conditions. I told him that he would earn a lot of money for that shift. But he was doubtful that the bosses would pay him his full due.

It turned out that he was correct. When I submitted the paperwork mine captain DT said, “He’ll earn more than I will!” Despite my protests he simply reduced the figures to a level more acceptable to him.

The next day I noticed that the broad tunnel or station had broken through to the shaft in the bottom left hand corner. When the shift boss and mine captain appeared on the scene I said that the best and safest way to proceed would be to drill one row of holes around the opening so that the blast would be towards the hole, and not towards the shaft with its new, expensive equipment.

But the mine captain thought this gradual approach would take too long. He said we could break through in one go by drilling the face full of holes at an angle so that the rock would break into the tunnel away from the shaft. (Imagine this as a doorway leading from your kitchen to your living room; you could knock down the wall separating the two by chipping away at the door edges; or you could drill holes at an angle into the kitchen wall, and use dynamite to blast the wall away, hoping that the rubble would fly into the kitchen and not the living room).

I knew that a blast took the line of least resistance. And normally what DT proposed would work – the rock would break back to the free face. But what he forgot was that there were now two free faces, and there was a 50 percent chance that the rock could break into the shaft.

But, he overruled my protest. At the end of the shift, before we charged the holes with dynamite I took the precaution of calling the shift boss and showed him the holes and the sequence that they would be timed to go off.

I made sure to put an extra long fuse on the set-up that would give everybody enough time to get out of the mine before the first shots went off.

As I drove home at about 11 that night the lights of town went out. I wondered whether my blast had anything to do with it.

The following day I went down to see devastation. A huge slab of rock lay across the underground shaft; I was told that a thick electricity cable had been severed and that this had probably caused the temporary loss of the town’s power; hundreds of feet of ventilation pipes were destroyed, and the expensive new Sumo Pumps never worked again.

I felt not a moment’s regret; and there wasn’t a thing they could do to me. But I correctly guessed that I was not likely to be quickly elevated into the ranks of mine officialdom. Not to worry, much as I had enjoyed the adventure of working underground, I had already more or less decided that this wasn’t the career I wished to follow for the rest of my life.

I was transferred to another mine (we learner officials were given new jobs to do every month or two, to build up experience; so my swift move wasn’t necessarily as a result of the drama in my last job). Whatever. I reflected with some satisfaction that big-mouth DT would have had to do a whole lot of explaining to the very irascible general manager. I would have given anything to have been a fly on the wall.

Fate is a funny thing. And it ensured that DT and I had one more dramatic encounter.

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THE MINES AND ME (4): DENNIS

One of the more unusual characters that I met in Kimberley’s diamond mines in the early sixties was a young man called Dennis Knox. Like many of the miners, he had done something else before starting to work underground. He had been a foundry pattern maker. This involved making exact wooden models of a machine part; the model was then pressed into special fine sand, molten metal was poured into the depression left by the model, and the required item was cast.

Why he switched careers I don’t know. But he was one of the few people in the mines whose home language was English. And he was the only person I came across underground who enjoyed reading good books. I told him that I was also a keen book reader, so he gave me the names of some authors I could try: John Steinbeck, Damon Runyon and John O’Hara.

He turned out to be a great raconteur; and told some amazing stories of practical jokes played by work colleagues; and how he and his scruffy friends started off their army training in Bloemfontein by selecting the most distant bungalow, and being discovered only two weeks later.

One story that he didn’t tell me, but one that I heard from others went like this: When acting shiftboss Dennis Knox walked into the shiftbosses’ underground office at Dutoitspan Mine one morning in 1960 there was a strange glint in his eye; there was foam coming out of his mouth, and he was carrying a stick of dynamite.  The fuse protruding from the dynamite was ominously short, and it was burning fiercely – like a child’s Guy Fawkes sparkler.

Dennis saw that he had everyone’s undivided attention.

The shiftbosses’ eyes filled with fear as they did frantic mental arithmetic – they knew from their mine learners’ course that fuse burned at a rate of 90 to 110 seconds a yard.  This particular piece of fuse had a foot to go before a deafening and deadly explosion would tear limb from limb and splatter their flesh against the freshly painted rock and concrete walls.  But their minds were so numbed with dread that they failed to compute that there was a whole 30 seconds left to grab the lightly built Dennis, wrestle the dynamite away from him, and cut the fuse; or at least pull the fuse out and throw it into the tunnel outside where the detonator would explode harmlessly.

Dennis noted with satisfaction that one of the men was attempting to escape by trying to crawl through the one-foot wide drainage channel at the back of the office.  The others cowered under the wooden table while their half-eaten sausages and eggs reposed on thick china plates above their heads.

He placed the smoking bomb on the table and left the scene.

What the terrified officials didn’t know was that the stick of dynamite wasn’t really dynamite – just a stick of tamping wrapped in brown paper.  And he had cut the detonator off the end of the fuse before shoving the fuse into the tamping and lighting it.

As Dennis walked away wiping the foam from the Kolynos toothpaste he had applied to his lips he thought to himself that next time these hairybacks would think twice before giving a soutpiel from Natal such a hard time.  He wondered if mine-captain Brittz, who was built like a brick shithouse, but had a wry sense of humour, would ever ask him to be acting shiftboss again.

In 1993 I saw an article in De Beers News bidding him farewell on his retirement, and I was able to get his address from the journal and write to thank him for introducing me to those writers, especially Steinbeck.

After a couple of letters back and forth from his cottage in beautiful Wilderness next to a lake we lost touch. I wonder if he is still alive, and if he is, maybe by some miracle somebody will put us in touch again . . .

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NOBODY PHONES

Now that I’m old nobody phones – except that nice man from India who thinks there’s something wrong with my computer.

He always asks after my health, then tells me that Microsoft have detected something that is slowing my computer down. The first time he phoned, more than a year ago, I did have a very slow computer; and under his direction I did all sorts things that showed a whole page of files that he said were infected. Then he wanted me to download a file that would fix everything free of charge. I was very doubtful about this, but he convinced me that it was safe to do so.

But when I started to do this a warning appeared (they always warn you before you download anything). I asked him if he would mind if I phoned my son before proceeding. He wasn’t happy with this, and said he only had 30 minutes, but said I could go ahead if I wanted to.

So I phoned my son on my cellphone. Within seconds he found out that the proposed file was a scam. When I picked up the handset of my landline the nice man had gone.

But that didn’t put him off. A week later he phoned again and didn’t seem to remember our previous conversation. So he went through the whole story again.

Now when he phones I get him talking, then quietly put the handset in a drawer and carry on with my life. When I check later he’s gone.

I think that leaving him talking to fresh air for as long as possible is cutting into the time that he would spend conning other gullible people like me. But if he persists I may get a loud whistle, and see if blowing it in his ear livens up his chatter somewhat.

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