Stellenbosch, South Africa


Youthfullness & Wastefulness?

[An abridged version!] 

Born and raised in Colesberg, deep in the heart of the Karoo, I opted to do my medical degree at Stellenbosch University, where I enrolled in 1960.  The streets then seemed generously wide and the only rushing would be water flowing along deceptively deep irrigation channels, bordering the oak shaded roads; where man or motorcar occasionally came-a-cropper.  Unpretentious shops, cafés and offices were a reminder of the town’s rural origins: founded by Simon van der Stel, Governor of the Cape Colony in 1679.  It was a quaint and characterful “sleepy hollow”; life moved at half pace and friendly burghers greeted one another or stopped to chat while going about their chores.  Today it is modern and upmarket and bustling, without having lost its country charm and appeal.  

Having spent a disastrous academic year at Rhodes, and another year working, I was deemed “senior” enough to enter “Koshuis Helderberg”, the only Res outside of campus, but not senior enough to bypass the rigorous two-week initiation period; blandly referred to as “ontgroenig!” the benign name roughly translated as de-greening.  Many words could describe those two weeks.  Let’s see: “Good, Clean Sadistic Fun?”  No: nothing good, clean or funny!  “Kindly Power-Hungry Control Freaks Inc?”  You getting warmer!  “The Ebullient Brotherhood of Bonding?”  Cold! 

Most of us came out unscathed, so to say, though some were not as fortunate.  Not to mention copious amounts of shoe polish, in subtle shades of Black, Dark Brown, Medium Brown or Light Tan—if we were lucky!—which our one- or two-year older brethren got us to bedaub each other with, and had to be scrubbed off our nether regions after some of those artistic soirees.  Boot polish is meant to last!  Yep, ‘twixt the bewitching hours 2- and 4 am, and they were mostly sprung on us out-of-the-blue, or should that be, black?  The clever seniors or “ou manne”—old men—would switch off the mains despite us having pillow cases over our heads!  Occasionally there’d be dire warnings of doom and damnation circulating after din dins that were so bloodcurdling, they sometimes stirred thoughts of packing my kitbag and dashing down Dorp Street to catch the next train to Cape Town! 

The unpretentiously majestic old Grand Hotel stood on the corner of Dorp and Bird Streets, a girl’s stone-throw from Helderberg.  So close in fact, it was endearingly referred to as the “Helderberg Annexe”.  Now what could be more civilized than that?  It was thither the seniors took us after our two weeks were over, plying us with all kinds of plonk and other mood changing liquid refreshments.  The Grand was also our stopover both from lectures, which were at campus on the opposite side of town, or en route to other outings we set off upon.  It was also the venue for friendly or needle games of Billiards and Snooker.  I remember the reserved gloom—before we entered—discreet yellow oblongs cast by the low table lights, and can still hear the soft kiss of an in-off or the reckless crack and clatter as the white ball broke the reds.  I, would have to pay additional penalties to my “partners” on occasion, as my trigonometry was as useful as a compass at the North pole.  Meanwhile, the old Grand dispassionately soaked up most of our precious packets of pocket money!  Misspent youth?  Aye!  And money! 

Around the corner, also on “Dorpstraat”, a tiny café, where we could pop in for cold drinks or other small necessities, was squashed between two buildings, with an alley as shortcut to our Res.  It was run by an elderly couple whose son, Vasco, did the evening shifts.  I’d been eyeing a fancy box of chocolates, as a gift, but well beyond my means, and as things would happen, Vaz made me an offer one evening; one that I couldn’t refuse.  If I could drink a 2-litre bottle of fruit cordial in 10 minutes, he would give me the box.  If I failed, I’d have to pay for the cordial!  Imbibing large volumes of fluid was nothing new to us, but I wasn’t exactly running on empty!  I brazenly began downing tall tumblers as he and my two Res mates looked on.  The closest this fluid came to “fruit cordial” was the name on the bottle: it was turgid, bright orange, synthetic, saccharin goo!  I hadn’t paced myself, and for precious minutes I stood, dazed like a boxer, as my seconds begged me on.  With one minute on the wall clock I was faced with a brim-full tumbler, a brimmer-ful belly and a gag reflex stretched to the limits!  I managed to finish it, and no sooner had we reached the alley, with the damned box clutched under an arm, when a golden fountain—wide as my forearm and seemingly endless—issued forth, unprocessed!  The pressure had been relieved somewhat, but I still felt rotten, and would continue thus until late the following afternoon, when I first began feeling almost human again.  It made some of my hangovers seem idyllic.  It did make me realise that gifts can be dear, or dearly come by, in more ways than one.  Was the exercise worth it?  Yes, and no…though just the thought of it should be a deterrent! 

I will mention the betting-tree seeing as we’re on a gambling roll.  Walking back from lectures one day with a classmate, he suddenly stops beside a random oak tree, peers up the trunk through his bottle-end spectacles and turns to me: “Bet you two Rand I can get to that fork,” he says pointing to the first bifurcation, which was at the level of the first storey at the time, with nary a twig or branch between.  I didn’t think him an athletic fellow, so I told him not to be silly and waste his money; though not using those exact words.  A sweltering, hazy-mountain day, and I took refuge under the veranda thinking he would soon realise his folly.  But, nearly two hours later; shirt and trousers badly scuffed and arms abraded, he finally heaved himself onto the limb, proving the inconsequential stubbornness of youth.  Or was it?  Two Rand was a lot of money those days…to win or to lose! 

Then there was Saturday 1st October, 1960.  We were about to sally out for the evening when I was called to the telephone booth on the ground floor, adorned with lewd pinups—which wouldn’t turn a head today—pasted on the walls.  It was my mother, long distance!  What had become of me, she wanted to know?  How could I have done such a thing?  Was that how we were brought up?  Disgrace upon the family!  There were so many things I’d done that could fit that questionnaire, and as my mind raced ahead, trying to find something to staunch this sad, nay, devastated interrogation skipping across the line and sparking with mechanical and maternal static, that I had to give in.  “What you talking ‘bout ma?” I mumbled, still a little wine weary. 

Coming out of “Die Eike”, a humble eatery on Ryneveld Street where students could graze on tasty fare for reasonable prices, our raucous bunch was spotted by friends of the family, who were coming out of shul for the afternoon recess, cheek-by-growl with the eatery.  I had lost-my-way, which is a more refined way of phrasing it, to such an extent that I was unawares it was Yom Kippur!  And that story did the kosher rounds.  Didn’t it just? 

With many more tales of the young misspending their youth; came a clear early spring day in September ‘61.  Wednesday 20th to be exact, as Google can instantly tell us!  Not only had I stood through Kol Nidre and the entire evening service, but, while the men were mulling around before the morning service began; shaved, scrubbed, suited, tallited and kippa’d I went inside, took up my spot at the rear of the shul and stood until the evening service commenced.  And that story would also do the kosher rounds.  Could it annul my previous lapse?  Don’t think so. 

The following year I went to medical school, which was at the old Karl Bremer Hospital in Bellville those days; a half-hour drive from Stellenbosch.  Although there was plenty of extramural material my mother could have interrogated me on during those next four years, academically speaking things were okay.  But, in my final year a few of us began drifting off course again, and what should have been plain-sailing, ended in shipwreck, and we had to repeat 6 months!  Was all that frenetic energy expenditure worth it?  Most definitely not! 

I’m not using this conclusion to excuse my own misspent youth, but it would be many years later when I rehashed some of these stories, that I began to see those endeavours differently.  Yes, we did squander time and opportunities, but maybe its a natural learning curve?  Don’t young apes or cubs go through the same process?  Maybe youth is also the time when young hawks learn to stoop and lesser kestrels how to soar?  We weren’t the first and I don’t think we’re the last…but, hopefully the young of tomorrow will be wise enough to be a little more thrifty with their youth.                                                                                  


Evan Kaplan December 2014