He’ll never forget that first day.
They were met at the station by Sergeant-major Grove – a man that took particular pride in his appearance and had a voice like a hoarse lion’s roar. At first there were a few sniggers when Grove stood to attention at the end of the platform, and roared the order for this group of horribly unfit, stupid, incompetent and untrainable, genetic misfits to immediately – im-me-diate-ly!! – to fall in properly in front of him.
Sure, the all had cadet training in school, like all boys did in those years. The basics of drilling, shining of buckles and boots as well as an understanding of military discipline was well known – but Grove’s voice didn’t fit the Charles Bronson image the young men (actually, still teenagers) formed of what the real army should look and sound like.
“You filth! You mongrels!. You illigitimate sons of scum! You laugh at me? At me?” Grove seemed on the verge of developing an epileptic fit. “Corporal!”
A wiry young man bearing two stripes on his sleeves stepped forward, stamping a foot down (raising dust from the clean platform floor) as he came to attention before Grove.
“Take these misfits to Voortrekkerhoogte. I shall order the Bedfords to return to base. You’ve got an hour. Is. That. Clear?”
And so it happened that they trudged all the way from the station to the barracks, carrying the various kit-bags, suitcases and shopping bags containing whatever belongings they brought along. The corporal marched ahead smartly, swinging his arms high, and shouting left-right-left-right all the way. Amongst the group, the few jokers eventually fell silent; the grumblers found no audience and the silent ones cursed under their breath. The departure of the convoy of Bedford trucks wasn’t funny any more.
Kasper van Graan – tired, sweat-soaked, short-of-breath despite his passable fitness – followed that corporal and promised himself he wasn’t going to remain a rookie. He’ll be an officer and a gentleman – not like this disgraceful sergeant-major. No, the army needed the respect and loyalty of the troops, not this obvious attempt to alienate the very soldiers they expected to fight the very real enemy; the Communists, the Chinese and the Cubans…and of course the terrorists (although – so van Graan thought at the time – the terr’s shouldn’t be a problem at all. They – they – aren’t real soldiers, are they? He was not to know how wrong he was at that time).
Quickening his step, he caught up with the corporal.
“Sir?” He wanted to say some of the guys have trouble keeping up with the pace. It was hot. They were carrying heavy bags. They’ve had no breakfast.
“Do I look like an English lord, you miserable sod?” The venom dripped from the words. “Fall back! Stay in line! NOW!”
He did, gritting his teeth.
They reached the barracks at last, puffing and panting. Grove was there, waiting for them.
“I gave you an hour.”
“You took an hour and five bloody minutes!”
“Make these…these…wankers…leave their miserable possessions on the parade ground and take them on a tour of our facilities. On the double!”
The ‘tour’ involved a run through Voortrekkerhoogte. The corporal, who seemed incapable of tiring, shouted out the land-marks: the SAWI shop, the new hospital, the old hospital, the different training facilities, the workshops, the barracks, the officers village, the schools.
Dog-tired and beyond feeling anger any more, they arrived back at the parade ground, where (predictably) Grove waited for them.
“Did you show them the place? I expect them to know exactly where everything is by now, you know that?” His tone was conspirational, as if they were playing a game.
Grove marched up to the group and singled out a panting, long-haired youth.
“Explain to me,” he said in an over-friendly tone, “where the shooting range is?”
We never saw the shooting range, and Grove knew it.
“Please escort this despicable group to the shooting range. They’re soldiers now, dammit! Surely they know soldiers use rifles?”
The corporal suppressed a laugh. This was part of an obviously well-rehearsed welcoming ceremony.
Van Graan fell in with the rest on the jog to the range. To object would be to ask for more.
Despite everything, van Graan started to see the point of their basic training. First you break them, then you build them – that seemed to be the object of the exercise. Well he’d show them! In his bungalow, his rifle was the cleanest, his bed ironed to 90-degree edges, his uniform spotless and pressed, his boots mirrors to the inspecting eyes.
Some of the other rookies couldn’t take it. Two tried to escape, and were court-marshalled. One guy – apparently from an influential family – used the tickey-box to phone his father to complain. He was locked up in the detention barracks for a week. Almost all of them visited the chaplain, who also acted as a sort of counsellor, to hear: every recruit in the army feels a bit down in the mouth initially; but, my son, the program works. You’ll see: you’ll be stronger when the basic training is over, a fighter fit do defend his country against the Communists. Just hang in there, God is with you. That’s why you can do it…
Kasper Albertus van Graan didn’t buckle under the early morning marches, the inspections and the million times he was told how useless he was. He remembered the bomb. The bomb kept him going. There was only one way to get rid of the bomb, and that was by beating – no, killing – the terrorists responsible. It made perfect sense.
When the basic training was over, he was promoted – much to the envy of the others in his troop – to become a two-stripe corporal. He now had the honour to accompany the sergeant-major to the station to ‘welcome’ the new recruits – in fact, he developed a deep loyalty and respect towards the older man.
Then he was selected for further training. More PT, everything about guns and mortars and hand granades, knives… Survival. Map reading. Camouflage. Tactics.
And then, on a fine summer morning while he was telling the rookies how useless they were, the general summonsed him to issue him with two stars and an order.
And that, in a nutshell, is how his life was ruined.