It’s a wonderful life.
Only the foolish and the ignorant argue with the military.
I am neither, but I did argue my case, two months into a six-month Family practice locum. The South African Defence Force insisted I had no option than attend a two-month citizen-force deployment. Having completed my two-year compulsory military service three years earlier, I was still eligible to do camps for another seven years. In the past, this always involved a one-month camp at a time that suited me. Not this time. In the late 1980s, we found ourselves at the nadir of the protracted South African Border War.
I said, no, I can’t attend such a camp. The military said, oh yes, you will. The family physicians cried foul, claiming such an arrangement was never part of the contract. The latter threatened me with my job if I dared take a leave of absence and the military was ready to send in the military police if I did not. I was given a month notice to report in Pretoria.
The previous year I had completed a ten-month training in Anesthesia and obtained a coveted diploma, ready to apply myself in family medicine. What could have been more perfect for wetting my toes by starting with a locum in the lovely rural Transvaal Bushveld? What can surpass waking to the cooing of turtle doves, sans the incessant hum of traffic, each day appreciating the surprising variations of red and purple bougainvillea, in a town surrounded by vast open skies, rock-scattered hills and bushveld, lush with karee, wild pear, mopane, sugarbush, acacia, and stemfruit.
Neither the army nor the family physicians would budge. The military, threatening me with more dire consequences, won the tug of war. Within weeks I was without a job while preparing for the task ahead, scheduled to join my medical battalion, donning a brown uniform, burgundy epaulets and matching beret.
New plans for the future had to be made on an urgent basis, what with my dream of becoming a rural family physician fast going up in smoke. Never had I anticipated that it would not work out and had envisioned how we would stay on after the six-month locum period. Perhaps it was a blessing that after five years of marriage, there weren’t yet little feet running around the house while we had to come up with a workable plan. How could I save face? I didn’t have the heart to return to the university hospital where I had obtained my diploma a short three months earlier. A better plan was required.
Day after day, after returning from work, we’d scan the newspapers and medical journals for job postings, while reaching out to friends and acquaintances. (The internet was still in its embryological stage at the time.) Endless prayers and many telephonic conversations later, I came in contact with a friend of mine, John Hubert*, medical superintendent of a new hospital in Phuthaditjhaba, a town in the foothills of The Drakensberg, close to Lesotho.
John, a man of few words, listened to my tale of sorrow and woe and self-pity, without a single interruption.
His response was immediate. “I need medical officers to staff my hospital. You’ll be welcome here.”
Catching my breath, all I managed was, “John, are you sure?”
“When can you start?”
That was John Hubert. A man who walked a straight path, always ready to lend a hand, without expecting a pat on the back. A humble and honest man. Two years my senior, he’d lead a group of medical students and nurses on numerous occasions volunteering weekends and parts of vacations to do clinics in the interior of Lesotho, high up in the mountains. I accompanied him on some of those excursions.
Within a heartbeat, I accepted the offer.
What could be grander, working again with my friend, no longer as students, but in a hospital? Each day I’d be able to face, no longer bougainvillea and karee, but the breathtaking foothills of the azure berg, a real towering mountain. The Drakensberg is the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment which encloses the central Southern African plateau.
Tears flowed when I shared the news with my wife. More than relief washed over our us. Being let go like a bad worker was one thing, the uncertainty of what was install for the upcoming two months with the military was another. I could breathe again, filled with gratitude. God had used my friend to open his hand and bless us. I could hold my head high again. I could leave my wife behind for a couple months, knowing she would be well taken care of.
With much less lead in my heart, I could now say my goodbyes and report in Pretoria to the medical battalion headquarters. Life was good — things would work out just fine. However, I was in for a surprise. We were forced to surrender all our civilian clothes and belongings to our next of kin who had accompanied us to the check-in point. It became clear — this would be no ordinary camp; there would be no fooling around.
I had the honour of forming part of the medical support for a convoy of a thousand military vehicles. The armoured- and support-vehicles had to be driven from Pretoria, through the Free State, Cape province, heading north through Namibia, into a temporary base in southern Angola. The three thousand kilometres with a thousand vehicles and several thousand men took three weeks to complete. Traveling the distance in military browns, in an eight-ton armoured ambulance without air conditioning in the middle of an African summer, was character formative.
By the time we reached the Namibian border after traveling for a fortnight in the sweltering heat, unable to wash each day’s dust from our bodies, it had become hard to tell which man was with or without a shirt. Some men went shirtless, the Commandant’s orders in spite.
After traversing Namibia, embraced by the Namib desert to the left and the Kalahari desert to the right, with only Koker trees during the day and the lonely jackals at night as accompaniment, we entered the tree-covered plains of Angola. It was possible to sigh with relief.
Once we reached the semi-permanent base, we all split up into smaller units. My new duty became to attach my armoured ambulance, driven by my medic, to the Ratel-90 unit. Ratel-90s were six-wheeled armoured attack vehicles, with 90-mm cannon turrets and had a 10-troop-carrying capacity.
Soon enough, we learned the ins and outs of the perfect fishbone. As soon as enemy fighter planes were reported to have taken to the skies, a Victor, Victor crackled over our radios, causing the unit to spread out like a fishbone. Having found cover under giant mopane trees, we’d watch the sun reflected on the wings of MIG 21s and 23s, flown by Cuban and Eastern German pilots.
And later, when the 500-hundred-pound bombs plopped on the outskirts of our sizeable laager, ripping craters in the soft earth, but none touching us, it was impossible not to become aware of a giant handheld above our camp, protecting us.
In those moments, I would experience an immeasurable peace. I’d see my darling waiting at the foothills of the Drakensberg, its peaks capped in white, her head slanted, listening to the triumphant call of the Fish Eagle.
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