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 . . .