I spent my youth in East London, growing up in the Railway community. By now we were five kids, three girls and two boys. Not a wealthy family. We lived comfortably, though, in a three-bedroom railway house, and nothing came your way if you didn’t really need it. My dad was strict, but fair. I was boxing out of Turnbull Park, the Railway Recreation Club, in East London.
I dedicated my time after school to rugby and athletics in the afternoon and boxing in the evening. It left little time, if any, for homework, and to be honest, school was never a priority in my life. When my second last school term approached, my dad gave me a wake-up call. ‘You better not fail your grade’, he warned. I never did, but my marks wouldn’t qualify me for a university scholarship. Not that it ever crossed my mind.
By the age of fourteen, I excelled in my boxing and won the Border Championship in my weight division and received my Border Blazer. East London in The Eastern Cape was known as the Border District.
My friends were all children of other railway workers. We all lived in the same neighbourhood and their fathers also worked for the railways. We were naughty and mischievous, perhaps more than the average boy of our peer group.
We raided the Avocado pear trees in the well-to-do neighbourhoods on Friday nights and sold our loot on Saturday mornings. Some even to the people whose trees we raided. If anyone chased us away when we tried to sell them some avocado pears, their postal box would be blown up with a huge fire cracker soon after the refusal.
Fun on Friday nights also included shattering streetlights with pellet guns and throwing stones on neighbours’ zinc roofs. Other mischief included filling a stocking with grass and attaching a string to one end. Then we hid ourselves in the roadside shadows while pulling this ‘snake’ across the road. Both bikers and motorists were perplexed and puzzled but a lot of them got mad once they found out it was not a snake.
Naughty shits we were. But we had the greatest fun.
Saturday mornings we’d go mountaineering down steep cliffs. Other times, we’d spent days in the bush catching fish or snakes, or both. We shot pigeons and grilled and ate them over a camp fire we would make next to the river.
The way to the cliffs led us past the house of the local church deacon, an elderly guy who still had his milk and orange juice delivered, in sturdy glass bottles, to his doorstep. We helped ourselves to either milk or orange juice, depending on what our taste buds dictated on the given day.
As an all Afrikaans speaking ‘tribe’, we stood together against the English establishment. There was no love lost between the two factions, especially when Rugby and Cricket matches were played against each other in the local park. Bleeding noses and bruised egos were the order of the day from which no one was spared. And, the buzz of yet another brawl didn’t go unnoticed in the neighbourhood.
I loved fishing even as a youngster, whether in the ocean, rivers or dams. About two streets from our house lived a locomotive driver and his wife. His name was Jerry “Uncle Jerry” to us youngsters. He was also a big fisherman in his spare time and as youngsters, we many a time got a ride with him when he went down to the harbour to fish. Two of my friends and I would stay in the harbour overnight and catch fish till the next morning. Sometimes he would also fish through the night and then we knew we had a ride back home. The only downside to the entire episode would be the story he told us over and over about the monster great white shark he hooked whilst fishing in the harbour, well before our time.
According to him, he fought it for two hours, until his reel shattered from the drag on it and the size of the shark. Every time he told us the story, the shark got bigger. We estimated it must have been the size of one of the tug boats that was docked close to where we were fishing. He enjoyed telling the story, and we always listened, having learnt that if we ask questions after the story, he would share with us the sandwiches his wife packed for him when he went fishing.
If we caught plenty of fish, we would take it home and smoke it in an old fridge that we modified and sell it in the neighbourhood. It was just another way of earning some pocket money. Often we would go to Uncle Jerry’s house and enquire about when next he would go down to the harbour next and whether we could hitch a ride with him. It was often unsuccessful as on many occasions his wife would open the door and she would say, “uncle Jerry is thinking about it, come back tomorrow”
One day after getting the same answer from Uncle Jerry’s wife, my mom overheard me telling one of my friends that I could not get an answer on the ride down to the harbour yet, as Uncle Jerry was thinking. “What the hell is that man always thinking about”, I heard my mom say to herself out loud. The next time we went to enquire about a lift, we happened to arrive there on the day Uncle Jerry was thinking again. Not meaning to be disrespectful, I asked the wife what I heard my mom said. “What the hell is he always thinking about? “Don’t you come and get clever here with me,” the wife said. “Come on, off you go”. We left the front door and on the spur of the moment decided to take a shortcut through the back yard and jump over the wall into another friend of ours’ yard that lived next to Uncle Jerry.
As we walked past uncle Jerry’s garage, we heard voices coming from inside the garage. The garage door was closed and the only window was painted white, so we could not look inside. We listened and we could hear men talking and laughing from inside. We got onto the roof to see if we could find a place to peek through. I peeped through a hole in the roof and saw six local men I recognised from the neighbourhood standing around a table. There was money on the table and Uncle Jerry was dealing cards. During all the times we were told he was thinking, he was actually running a small gambling den from his garage.