Chapter 2:

Army trucks do not make for comfortable travelling. Four wooden benches ran the length of the Samil 100’s load bed, overflowing with recruits. The sides and top of the truck bed were enclosed in green canvas. The ten jolting kilometres from Pretoria Station to the SA Infantry Training Battalion in Voortrekkerhoogte took about half an hour. To the suffering recruits it felt like a lifetime.

The long convoy disrupted Pretoria’s lunchtime traffic. Military police manned every intersection on the route. The convoy was preceded by traffic police on motorcycles with flashing blue lights and wailing sirens. Two vintage Bedford trucks, loaded down with the recruits’ luggage, made up the rear of the convoy. The convoy was protected by two Ratel armoured vehicles, just behind the traffic police and in front of the leading Samil 100 truck.

Each recruit was allowed to bring a small suitcase, containing toiletries, underwear, one towel, an electric iron, a packet of washing powder and a can of spray starch. A few items of civilian clothing were also allowed. Needless to say, the suitcases bulged to the bursting point with stuff that anxious mothers were certain their little darlings would not be able to survive without.

Pretoria's inconvenienced road users did not appreciate the long convoy of huge army trucks blocking the roads. Tempers flared and the bloody inconsiderate army was roundly cursed. The trucks drove by, blithely ignoring the fuming motorists.

On arrival, the long-suffering recruits were bundled out of the trucks and reunited with their luggage. The trucks were driven off and the bedraggled recruits found themselves standing on a huge expanse of open ground with grey concrete buildings in the distance.

“Form up in groups of thirty!” an amplified voice shouted. “Not tomorrow, not next week, now! Get your arses in gear!” Brown-uniformed soldiers bellowed and shoved at the hapless recruits.

The boys from Oudtshoorn had stuck together. Johan, Vaatjie and Jannie stood next to each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Johan saw a familiar figure with flaming red hair hurrying past. “Hey, Riaan”, he shouted, “Over here! Come join us!”

For an instant it seemed that the flustered redhead, with his black-haired friend in tow, would ignore Johan’s shouting, but they stopped and joined Johan’s group. Vaatjie curiously regarded the two newcomers. Before Johan could make any introductions, the instructors moved in on the groups of recruits.

Corporal du Plooy was a young man of about twenty, with mousy brown hair under his green beret and a red, acne-scarred face. He also had a very loud voice. “All right, maggots. Playtime is over. Form up in columns of three!” he bellowed at the startled group. The recruits knew what was expected of them, as cadet training was a compulsory “subject” in every South African school. They obediently moved into a standard “squad” formation, standing three abreast, awaiting the corporal’s next order.

We are now going to separate the men from the boys”, the corporal shouted. He pointed at the buildings in the distance. “If you do not make it to the main gate in five minutes, you will return here and keep on running until you do. You will try and try again, even if it takes you the whole day”. This was no idle threat. The camp’s main gate was about a kilometre away and Corporal du Plooy knew that many of the unfit recruits, lumbered down with their luggage, would not be able to complete the distance in less than the allotted five minutes.

Poor Vaatjie lagged far behind the others. He was very unfit and his heavy suitcase pulled him off balance. Jannie took pity on Vaatjie. Vaatjie’s suitcase had a carry strap attached to it. Jannie grabbed hold of the strap, relieving the suffering Vaatjie of some of the weight. This act of kindness earned Jannie a sharp slap to the back of the head. “Very good of you to help your little friend”, boomed Corporal du Plooy, “Just remember, if you don’t get to the gate in time, all of you will run again”. The exhausted Vaatjie shot Jannie a grateful look. Jannie smiled encouragingly at his puffing friend. Vaatjie’s chubby legs churned slightly faster, without any visible result. The distance between Vaatjie and the other recruits increased steadily.

The exhausted recruits finally arrived at the camp’s main gate. Jannie and Vaatjie were about a hundred metres behind the others. The effort of running had turned Vaatjie’s face to a deep shade of purple. Vaatjie’s obvious distress saved the recruits from repeating their scramble to the main gate. Corporal du Plooy was contemplating having the recruits run again, but felt that it would reflect badly on his service record if he killed a troop on the first day of training.

The SA Infantry School in Voortrekkerhoogte was one of the larger basic training facilities of the SA Infantry Training Battalion. The place was massive. It could accommodate up to three thousand new recruits at any given time.

The parade ground lay just beyond the main gate. The Headquarters building hulked behind the parade ground, with the Guard House and Sick Bay to the left of it.

The Officers Club was housed in a beautiful whitewashed Victorian building with a red corrugated iron roof, to the right of the parade ground. The officers were housed in modern bungalows behind the Officers Club. The officers’ bungalows were hidden from view by the Officers Club. The shooting range nestled on a hillside behind the officer accommodation and could barely be seen from the main gate.

The Combined Mess for warrant officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers) was housed in a long barn-like structure, built out of grey concrete, hidden from view by the Guard House and Sick Bay. It was referred to as the WO Mess. The warrant officers and NCOs lived in rows of bungalows behind their Mess.

The Guard House was an imposing red brick building. It also sported a red corrugated iron roof, in true army tradition. The Guard House contained the Guard Room, accommodation for the guards, a Military Police station and even six prison cells for those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. The Military Police were referred to as MPs or “Meat Pies in army parlance.

The Sick Bay was separated from the Guard House by a small patch of lawn, yellowed by the heat and a lack of water. It was a grey, pre-fabricated building, topped with the inevitable red corrugated iron roof. The Sick Bay had a staff of three doctors, three nurses, a dentist and about twenty orderlies. It boasted two wards with eight beds in each and three consulting rooms for the doctors.

The Headquarters building hid the various armouries and warehouses from view. The Stores complex behind the Headquarters building, also housed the barber shop and the inevitable SAWI canteen. SAWI stands for “Suid-Afrikaanse Weermaginstituut” (South African Forces Institute, with the abbreviation SADFI). Even though the SA Defence Force was a bilingual organisation (albeit mostly in theory), both English and Afrikaans speakers referred to the Forces Institute shops and canteens as SAWI shops. The Privates Mess was located between SAWI and the Clothing Store, which was the first barn-like structure, in a row of five similar structures, extending all the way to the boundary fence to the left of the base.

The recruits were housed in bungalows behind the Stores Complex. Each bungalow consisted of two dormitories, accommodating thirty recruits each. The dormitories formed the two ends of the bungalow. The bungalow was cut in half by two bathroom blocks at the centre; one for each dormitory. There was no internal access between the two dormitories. One had to walk around on the outside, to get from one dormitory to the other. Each dormitory was referred to as a “bungalow”, even though it was really only half a bungalow.

The inside of the bungalows was as Spartan as the outside. Fifteen metal-framed beds stood at attention against each outside wall. Each bed was covered with a thin foam mattress and an even thinner army pillow. A metal cabinet propped up the wall to the left of each bed and a metal chest squatted at its foot. The floors were finished in bare cement. Any type of floor covering was considered an unnecessary luxury.

The door to the bathroom was directly opposite the main entrance to the bungalow. Washbasins, toilets, a long urinal and a small store room lurked to the one side of the door. The huge communal shower area occupied the other half of the ablution block. The water heaters were attached to the outside of the building. It was a favourite pastime for the instructors to turn off the hot water during morning showers. This practice was particularly effective on a cold winter morning.

Vaatjie was still badly out of breath. His colour slowly returned to normal. While the other recruits ran through the gates, Vaatjie’s squad marched at a relatively leisurely pace to their assigned bungalow.

Outside their bungalow, the recruits were informed that they would be referred to as Peleton (Squad) 44 for the duration of their basic training. Corporal du Plooy made it abundantly clear that they were responsible for the cleanliness of the bungalow, as well as the outside area.

When the recruits entered the bungalow, Riaan’s black-haired friend claimed the first bed on the left and Riaan grabbed the bed next to him. Johan jumped for the next bed before anyone else could beat him to it. He politely waved the other recruits from the next two beds, keeping them unoccupied for Vaatjie and Jannie. Most of the recruits knew Vaatjie and Jannie well, as they all went to school together and both Vaatjie and Jannie were popular at school. Johan, Vaatjie and Jannie had been inseparable since primary school. The other guys did not find it strange that Johan wanted his friends to sleep next to him. When Vaatjie and Jannie finally appeared in the doorway, Johan called them over. They were grateful that Johan had the presence of mind to keep the two beds for them.

Johan formally introduced Vaatjie and Jannie to Riaan and his friend. The black-haired recruit's name was Wouter Akkerman. Riaan and Wouter had also been long time school friends.

Conversation just started to flow, when Corporal du Plooy appeared in the doorway. “Listen up”, he shouted. “You have one minute to get your lazy arses outside and to form up in a proper squad!” The recruits scrambled for the door.

They quickly formed up into the standard army squad of three columns. Because of the South African school system, all the recruits had had five years of cadet training. They at least knew how to march. What they did not know, was that during Basics, marching was sped up to a dead run. Even Vaatjie, unfit or not, had to lumber at his top speed.

Their first stop was the Privates’ Mess. As they entered the doors, each recruit was issued a “varkpan” (pig’s pan), a metal mug, called a “firebucket” and a combination knife/fork/spoon set, called a “pikstel”. A varkpan is a TV dinner tray, made of stainless steel and serves as the troop’s plate for the rest of his National Service period. Pikstel is the Afrikaans word for the combination eating utensil set. “Pik” refers to the way a chicken eats and alludes to the revulsion the eater feels for the bad army food.

Peleton 44 was one of the last squads to arrive for lunch. They joined the long serving line. Lunch consisted of pork sausages swimming in oil, lumpy potato mash and a mixed green salad that had definitely seen better days. They were also served blobs of red jelly (Jell-O), drenched in a thin custard, for pudding. A varkpan has four shallow indentations for the various types of food served. Of course the custard ran over the rim of its allotted indentation and mixed with the salad, creating a very interesting flavour combination. A side table held an urn of weak army coffee and a few jugs of fresh orange juice. A cynic once remarked that if it were not for the orange juice, seventy percent of the Defence Force would be dead of scurvy within a year.

The recruits sat at long trestle tables. Since Peleton 44 arrived late at the mess hall, they had to hunt for unoccupied seats. After stretching his ingenuity to the limit, Johan managed to snag a seat next to Riaan, with Vaatjie and Jannie across from them. Riaan's face lit up the dingy Mess for Johan. Riaan attracted him like a magnet. Try as he might, Johan could not fathom why the red-haired recruit fascinated him so. Riaan had awakened a strange new passion in him. It was exciting and frightening and sinful, all at the same time. Nobody else ever affected Johan in this way. He knew that these feelings were forbidden and that they should repulse him, but why did he crave these forbidden emotions? Johan was thoroughly confused.

Riaan also experienced weird new feelings. The normally talkative boy was suddenly tongue-tied. He blushed to the roots of his flaming red hair whenever he looked at Johan.

Oh fuck, I'm dead”, exclaimed Vaatjie. “I have never been so tired in my life!”

“Bullshit”, replied Jannie. “You're tired, because you're six meals ahead and ten shits behind. Three months of Basics, and you'll be two tons lighter. You should be grateful to the army for turning you into a man”.

"Yeah, right", retaliated Vaatjie. "Little body, little brains. In your case, other things are little too."

Vaatjie and Jannie bickered on. They had been sniping at each other since childhood. Exhaustion robbed Vaatjie's sarcastic remarks of their sharp edge. The sounds of their squabbling washed over the table.

Johan noticed the fine hair on Riaan's forearms. Each tiny hair was perfectly shaped. Strange, one would expect them to be red like the hair on Riaan's, head, but these hairs were nearly colourless. Johan wondered what colour Riaan's other hair was. He guiltily looked up, meeting Riaan's eyes. Both of them blushed furiously. They broke eye contact and tried to concentrate on their unappetising meal.

Wouter regarded Riaan and Johan's flaming faces with interest. Riaan had been his friend since they were thirteen years old and started high school. Wouter had never seen Riaan this uncomfortable before. He could see no apparent reason for the embarrassment. Not being the most tactful person on earth, Wouter asked Riaan,”What's up with the blushing bride routine? You act like a whore in a carrot patch.”

Riaan spluttered, “Nothing. Mind your own fucking business.” Lamely he added, “It's hot in here and I'm tired. That's all.”

Johan squirmed guiltily in his seat. Wouter was convinced that something odd was going on. He just could not put his finger on it. Johan and Riaan were spared further interrogation by an instructor bashing two dustbin lids together. Most of the recruits jumped at the loud crash.

There are wash troughs outside. Wash your varkpanne properly! Then fall in outside the clothing store next door. In your peletons! Get a move on ladies. You are in the army now!” Instructors fanned through the Mess Hall. Recruits, whether they have finished eating or not, were firmly escorted to the door.

The washing-up area outside the Mess Hall was choked by recruits trying to do their washing-up as quickly as possible. The water in the wash troughs was scalding.

Bloody Hell”, exclaimed Vaatjie, when he lost his knife in the hot water. He tried dredging it up, but the crowd of other recruits, trying to wash their stuff, prevented him from finding it.

The peletons were finally formed up in front of the Clothing Store. Only one peleton at a time was allowed inside. The front part of the huge store was converted into a large barbershop. Behind the barbershop area, a long counter ran from wall to wall, restricting access to the main warehouse.

Whether a recruit had long or short hair, he received a short back and sides haircut. He was sat down on a chair, a plastic sheet was placed over his shoulders and within three minutes, he was transformed into an army troop.

Jannie was less than pleased with the result of his haircut. His medium-length blond curls littered the floor. “I look like a fucking plucked chicken”, he complained to the barber. “Look at my hair! There is fuck-all left!” The army barber shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

Jannie, ever ready for a brawl, commented on the barber's parentage. The barber did not take kindly to the insult. He was a tall, muscular man, with tree trunks for arms.

You Fucking Little Cunt!” shouted the barber and backhanded Jannie across the face. The force of the blow overturned the chair and Jannie was spilled onto the floor, briefly reunited with his blond curls.

The barber's attack on Jannie enraged Johan and Vaatjie. It did not matter that Jannie had provoked the barber. It also did not matter that the man was built like a tank. Their friend had been injured and needed them. Vaatjie barged into the barber, trying to use his weight as a weapon. Johan, who fancied himself as a kung fu expert in the tradition of Bruce Lee, let fly with an almighty kick at the man's head.

Their tactic, unfortunately, did not work out very well. Vaatjie's elephant charge had no effect on the massive barber. Johan might have stood a better chance if he was a bit taller and actually knew something about martial arts. His foot connected painfully with Vaatjie's shoulder. They collapsed in a heap at the barber's feet.

The barber picked both of them up by their still unshorn hair. He shook them until their teeth rattled. “Try this stunt once more, and I will wring your fucking necks”, he hissed at them.

Suddenly an arm appeared from behind the enraged barber. A forearm slipped across his windpipe in an attempt to strangle him. The barber reached behind him with his two massive hands. Riaan came flying over his head, joining the other three on the floor. The barber towered over them. He flexed his fingers menacingly.

“What the fuck is going on here?” bellowed a familiar voice. “I turn my back for one second and you fuck up the furniture!” Corporal du Plooy had been sorting out Peleton 44's paperwork with the stores clerks at the long counter behind the barbershop when the altercation occurred. He had only witnessed Riaan's brief attempt at flight - to the relief of Peleton 44. Corporal du Plooy assumed that the barber had inexplicably assaulted the recruits. The barber attempted to explain what had occurred. The other barbers whined in a chorus that the new troops were a menace to life and limb.

Corporal du Plooy was not particularly fond of his new charges. He, however, would not have his soldiers, raw recruits or not, attacked by a bunch of civvies (civilians), especially when he saw the attack with his own eyes.

Corporal du Plooy ranted. Corporal du Plooy raved. He promised Boards of Inquiry. He promised claims by the Defence Force for damage to State Property (referring to our heroes, who had scrambled to their feet and tried to look inconspicuous in the background). Corporal du Plooy promised murder and mayhem. He also promised bodily violence to any civvie that ever assaulted a soldier again.

Corporal du Plooy was a short, thin little man. His tirade bordered on the ridiculous, but his strident voice finally overwhelmed the barbers, mainly due to its volume. Order was restored. The overturned chair was returned to its spot. The muttering barbers started cutting hair again.

All was forgiven, if not forgotten. Both Johan and Vaatjie received painful nicks to their scalps. It is a very bad idea to upset a barber. Riaan fared slightly better. His hair was cut into near non-existence, but there was no blood at least. Johan smiled a shy thank you at Riaan. “Don't mention it” said Riaan. “Friends protect each other.” Johan decided that the fight was worth the pain and effort after all.