Four sturdy metal tricycles bounced across the African veldt. Three maids followed, each wearing a clean white apron. On the tricycles were four mining brats: one grew up to be chemical engineer—she worked in industry; one grew up to marry the manager of a platinum mine; one became a famous cricketer–Hylton Ackerman died last year, but his son continues cricket; one grew up to write blogs—me.
We were on our way to nursery school as we called it. In the mine club-house, the mining brats would gather each day to be introduced to letters, numbers, and the stick. Discipline was harsh in those days and continued so through high school, were a minor infraction earned a few cut with the cane. Brutal teachers were as much a part of the environment as the veldt.
We graduated from nursery school. The boys were given bicycles; the girls were give bus tickets. Thus we made our way to primary school. Pinegrove was its name. It lay beneath the shadow of a large slimes dam. When the wind blew, the dust would coat our desks during the break. We gleefully wrote our names by dispelling the dust with a grubby finger.
Each day, Hylton and I would head off from the mine to cycle the two miles to school. Along the way we stopped to wait for Alex, and the three of us would continue our way oblivious of the few cars and slow busses carrying the girls who waved to us from the back windows. We rode primitive bikes: expensive by the standards of the day, but simple. Today you can buy their like, but they come at great expense, produced by Italian designers without gears and peddle brakes.
We moved on to High School. Hylton was sent off to a fancy boarding school. His parents believed in private education. Mine could not care, believing that the local high school was good enough. Now the ride was five miles there and five miles back. In the sun, in the rain, in the heat of summer, and on those cold winter days of the Highveldt, Brian Fraser and I made our way passed many a dusty slimes dam that blew dust so thick we coughed and peered to see the path.
Still we rode bikes with no gears and only peddle brakes. Our legs were strong and we did no know anything else.
I loved my bicycle. On weekends, I would head north from the mine, East Geduld, along the road to Sappi, the local paper mill. I would head with glee down the narrow road, past the gum trees and the eucalyptus trees with their sweet foreign smell.
I would ride where forbidden: into the contaminated desert of the slimes dams, the orange water pools, the ponds of green and blue, and the sprays vainly trying to get ride of excess water that I now know was contaminated.
Then it was simply a view of spray making rainbows in the bright sun. This was freedom, far from parents and their cares over crushing debt, far from teachers who cared not for their subject, far from friends who cared more about magazines than about this wild bike ride.
Sometimes I would think of the poem a revered English teacher was trying to make us understand. Or of an equation the admired math’s teacher demanded we solve. All those x’s and y’s fascinated me and I followed their magic to become an engineer.
Or of a Latin verb declension that Mrs. Smart was trying to explain. Who can forget amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant? The words floated around my brain as I rode. They still float around my brain as I hear their derivatives in Italian opera: amo, ami, ama, amiamo, amate, amano. Two thousand years of language change and fifty years of change of bicycle design.