Remembrance Day and I pay tribute to all soldiers and the miners they became. I pay tribute by recalling what little I know of my father’s life as a soldier and as a miner.
His father was killed in a mine accident in Brakpan when my father was a kid. To make ends meet, he and my aunt would go to the local landfill and scrounge the tin cans, return them to my grandmother, and she would plant seeds in them, to sell the young plants to the rich ladies whose men were still alive and working on the mines.
With barely a standard sixth grade education, my father went to work in the local Woolworths store. He was put in charge of slicing the ham. Many years later he told me that as he cut the ham, he would wonder about why, when you swing something around your head, it wants to fly off. And he would wonder about the Trinity, three-gods-in one.
War broke out. South Africa joined the fighting early. My father told me that many Afrikaaners were thrown in jail because they wanted to fight with Germany and end the British Empire once and for all. It worried him that Afrikaaners were thrown in jail; afterall, his mother was an Afrikaaner and she would not even speak English, except to earn a living.
He, as a youngster of seventeen quit his job, and enlisted. He lied about his age; nobody cared at any rate. He reckoned the war would be short and fun, a real break from slicing ham.
But that war went on for five long years, All that time he was with the 8th Army in North Africa and Italy. He grew up. He survived El Alamein—he never could tell how–he just recalls riding from the battle field clinging to the back of a truck
He told us tales of the horror of the war as we drifted off to sleep in the evenings. Long rides in cattle cars when an exhausted man would simply turn over and die. Turning on the field to see a buddy shot to pieces. Walking into Italy to see crosses line the roads and men hanging from each.
All I have from those years is a piece of khaki cloth that he tore from his pants and sent to my mother as a Christmas present.
And when the war was over, he returned and went to work on the East Geduld Mine, Springs, Transvaal. They have changed the names of those places since.
By dint of hard work he rose to become a mine captain, and we had a mine house, an old car (49 Mercury), and lots of debt. With no education, he could rise no higher, but he always encouraged us to study. And all the while he continued to wonder about objects flying outwards when spun and the nature of the trinity. The local priest told him it was a matter of faith, but he could not see that as much of an explanation.
The years passed quickly by as I recall and he fell ill and could no longer go underground. So my parents moved to Evander, that great new mining city to the east. There he managed the training school where the raw recruits new from the fields and kraal came to learn how to hold a shovel, climb a stope, or drive a truck.
Somehow he gathered around him others who had fought in the war. They were mostly silent about their experiences as they played lawn bowls and drank in the mine club through the long evenings. The wives, who had waited the war years for them to return, fussed with making & cooking boerewors, doing crochet work, and discretely sipping sherry.
But his health failed and he died in a mine hospital in Hillbrow one overcast day. And his time and efforts passed.
Only at university did I come to understand the nature of centrifugal and centripetal force. I would never have been able to explain the maths to him.
And only much later did I learn in obscure publications of the 325 Council of Nicaea which set up the Trinity. And today it is as simple as going to Wikipedia to read as much as you care to about how the theory arose and became orthodoxy. That much I learnt from him: if you do not understand it, search until you find a logical answer, never accept anything on faith. And be a good miner, for it is a good life if you can survive it.