Remembrance Day is getting closer, and poppies are starting to be displayed as we head towards the 11th. I saw two of the latest iterations of Remembrance in town yesterday.
And on Wednesday 10 October at 11am, a service was held at Tewkesbury Cemetery, to welcome Home Pte. Henry John Waylen who died of illness contracted during service in Salonika in 1917 but who has been laid in an unmarked grave ever since. I photographed his grave on 29 October.
I always consider the 7th of November 1981 a day to forget. At that point in time Bravo Company was heavily involved in Ops Daisy in Angola. I had remained behind at Omuthiya and was idling my days away. I had less than 2 months left of my two years national service. Nothing was expected to go wrong between then and Christmas. How wrong I would be.
On the afternoon of 5 November 1981 I was called to the comcen where I was told to pack my kit as I was leaving for “The States” as my father was very ill in hospital. At this point we were unaware of the death of Cpl JL Potgieter on the 4th of November. I had no real information as to what the problem was back home, but for them to recall a soldier in the middle of a cross border operation was extremely rare. Secrecy was the watchword back then. On the 6th I was on my way to Tsumeb and from there to Grootfontein for a flossie back to Pretoria. I don’t really recall how it all came together, but for once the SADF was being efficient. I hopped a train from Pretoria to Johannesburg and then a taxi to Mayfair. I even still had my rifle with me as well as my balsak. When I got home I found out that my father was in JG Strydom Hospital, having had a heart attack, probably on the 4th. We went to see him, I was still in my browns and I remember lots of pipes and monitors and the clinical coldness of the ICU. A neighbour took us there, and after that short visit we came home.
Later that night the phone rang, he had taken a bad turn and we returned once again, waiting…. then my aunt arrived and we sat through till the morning when suddenly he took a turn for the worst and the medical staff asked us to wait outside. That was the last time I saw him alive.
Ironically the 7th of November is also my mothers birthday.
The next few days do not really register, I recall the funeral, I recall the delayed shock, I recall the empty house, the tears and the lost feeling I had. I really did not want to be here, I wanted to be back on the border where at least I could shunt it all out of my mind.
The operation ended in Angola and the company returned to Omuthiya, we had taken casualties and lost one of our fellows. November 1981 was a disaster on so many fronts.
I returned to the border, the days went quickly. My mind shunted all the events from the 7th into a compartment and I concentrated on getting through the last days at 61 Mech. We kla-ed out relatively quickly, one day we were on the border, the next we were in Bloem, and then we were on civvy street.
But that arrival at home was difficult, because my father was no longer with us. Our small household now numbered three. Things were never the same again.
It’s been 30 years since his death, and that of JL Potgieter. I found Potgieters grave in May of 2011 and it was a very sad occasion. Today is my mothers birthday again, and she is now 83 years old. My father has been gone longer than I knew him, and longer than they were married. Life was never the same. I still do not know the answers to the questions I wanted to ask him as an adult. I still don’t like November. Coupled with Remembrance Day it is really just a month of sadness and loss.
When I packed up my troubles in my old kit bag so many years after leaving the military I really cut all ties with it for many years. There was nobody who understood what I had gone though and frankly most civvies did’t really care. We had done our 2 years and were now really cast into limbo.
Things changed many years ago after hearing a piece about PTSD and I then wrote down a long rambling account of my military service. It eventually appeared on my website and parts of it still exist on my blog
Wind forward to August 2009; and I was invited to attend the Border Boys Parade at the Gunners and Engineers Memorial (GEM) Village, Irene. In memory of the Soldiers, Airmen. Medics and Seamen who lost their lives during the Border War.
The parade was hosted by the Casa Mia Shellhole, and the guest speaker was General Jannie Geldenhuys who spoke about the importance of the border war in the context of the cold war, and how important our role was in this period of history.