Sergeant Ben staggered back as the bullet struck, his eyes wide in surprised agony. Then, slowly, he sank to his knees. The small boy he had carried, wriggled free but his legs wouldn’t carry him any more. Soldier and child collapsed next to each other; the grown man silent, the infant whimpering almost silently.
For a long second, time was caught in a vacuum – then everything happened at once. Eager hands grabbed the child, lifted the fallen sergeant, bundled them into the helicopter. The main imperative was to get away from the killing zone as fast as possible.
“It was horrible.” The Himba man seems to have recovered somewhat, and now finds it easier to continue with his story. “Lieutenant Badenhorst was dead, covered by a tarpaulin. The two injured horsemen sat against the fuselage, bleeding from wounds in their arms and legs. And Sergeant Ben lay there, ashed-faced and still, the small bullet hole in the tunic right here.” He slapped the left of his chest. “He wasn’t breathing.”
The medic released the lifeless wrist. “No pulse.”
There are rules for such conditions. Check for bleeding. Stop bleeding. Check pulse. If no pulse, CPR. Ensure airway. Supply oxygen. Ventilate. Get pulse going. Support, support, support. The medic acted automatically, and started bearing down on the slain soldiers chest with a regular rhythm. How many soldiers had he done this with. Five? Ten? A hundred? How many survived? One? Two?
Lifeless soldiers don’t have a chance – and if they do, it’s a very slim one indeed. In the veld the resources are limited, the monitoring of heart function and blood pressure almost impossible, and blood tests unavailable. Medics have to rely on what they can see, feel, smell, hear and…instinct.
Patch Vermeulen, a seasoned medic with three campaigns behind him, was twenty years old. He could stitch up wounds, extract teeth (with some difficulty), apply bandages and dish out Aspirins. He was also the most vital link between the battlefield and the hospital. If he could get the patient to the hospital with some life left in the injured body, there was always a chance – maybe a small one, but at least better than out there in the veld…or in a shuddering helicopter where the use of a stethoscope is impossible.
Patch worked automatically, without thinking. Push. Release. Push. Release.
“Where’s the f*cking AMBU BAG? Get it! Get it now!” The pannier with the resuscitation equipment was only a yard away, but he didn’t want to waste time by getting it. The gunner, who was busy bandaging the horsemen, scurried over to help.
“You’re…hurting…me…” Sergeant Ben’s eyes fluttered open.
“Huh?” Patch stopped the heart massage, completely caught unawares. His patient had been shot in the chest, was pulseless a moment ago…and now he’s complaining?
“You…deaf?” Ben tried to sit up, but then lay down again. “Stop…feeling…my tits, Patch.”
Now Patch looked down at the chest, the hole in the tunic – and realised there was no blood.
“He had a little red Bible in his tunic’s breast pocket,” the Himba man smiles as he remembers the moment, “and the bullet stopped halfway through Revelations. He was very lucky.”
“Oh,” Gertruida whispers. “O know what happened! A sudden, hard impact can do that to the heart muscle. It can either stop beating and go into full cardiac arrest, or fibrillate.” Noticing the question looks, she reverts to her lecture-voice. “Fibrillation: the condition where the electrics in the heart muscle shorts out, and the heart muscle simply trembles, instead of coordinating and doing the pumping it should. Anyway, arrest or fibrillation leaves the patient pulseless. Cardiac massage can sometimes get the rhythm going again. So, when Patch did the CPR, Sergeant Ben’s heart got it’s act together again.
“Lucky? I don’t think so. I think it was a miracle. Imagine stopping the bullet in the last book of the Bible? Wow…”
“Faith, people. Faith…” Oudoom’s eyes shine; he’s just got the most fantastic inspiration for Sunday’s sermon. Oh man! The answer to all wars, all conflict, all strife…stopping the bullet with the final chapter of the Book. Yes, he’ll have them spell-bound, that’s for sure.
Sergeant Ben was taken to the base hospital, where they kept him under observation for a day. Except for the huge bruise (the size and shape of the little bible imprinted in darker purple in the middle of the blue) and two cracked ribs, he was completely well. The doctor advised two week’s sick leave, but he refused, saying he’s got nowhere to go, anyway.
The boy posed a problem in the beginning. He couldn’t tell them where he came from as he only knew the huts and the hills around the kraal. He also refused to leave Ben’s side. Small as he was, he knew the big man not only saved his life, but also almost got killed for his trouble. In his mind the picture of Lieutenant Badenhorst dying next to him, the crack of automatic gunfire and the crash of explosions refused to fade, making him afraid to sleep alone. Sergeant Ben was the answer. With him he was safe.
As an added problem, the language barrier prevented any exchange of information. The three horsemen had been sent back to Voortrekkerhoogte near Pretoria, and several attempts to contact them fizzled out in the bureaucratic chaos that accompanies a war situation. Who cares about a lost Himba kid when you have tanks and aeroplanes to worry about?
In the base camp the senior officers had little choice but to accept the new addition. The boy was so well-behaved, so thankful for every smile and every little hug the troops gave him, that he became a sort-of mascot within the first week. Soldiers wrote home, and parcels started arriving with shoes, clothes, books and sweets.
The camp’s cook turned out to know a little Herero, which is akin to the Himba language. After a month, the two of them could have a basic conversation in a type of funnagalo – a typical South African hybrid of mixed languages. Sergeant Ben was part of this, teaching the boy the words for his basic needs. One of the troops thought fit to teach the child a few Afrikaans swear words – he got thrashed by Ben for his efforts.
In those days – towards the end of the Eighties – the war was staggering towards the final round in which the diplomats, politicians and various other suited carnivores fought about the scarps over sumptuous meals and expensive bottles of wine. The boy was eight years old now and spoke fluent English (with a typical Afrikaner accent!).
Then, out of the blue and much to everybody’s surprise, the troops were ordered back to Pretoria. The war was over.
“Sergeant Ben was my father. Not my real-real father – but close. When he had to leave, I was devastated. This man – who taught me about English and rugby and card games – was somebody who looked after me. He taught me about the Bible, about praying and about faith. He taught me everything a Himba doesn’t know. And I told him – as much as I understood – about our customs. We’d spend long evenings talking.
“He told me he had been married once. Had a wife and a son and a life. Then, one day on her way to drop to boy off at school, his wife drove over a landmine.” The Himba man spoke in a soft, revering voice. “He said God had given him a second chance. He said we were both blessed.
“And then he had to leave…”
Fanny, mindful of how much she loves the twins, cannot imagine what the parting must have been like. “What happened then?”
Vetfaan interrupts. “Let’s eat first, please. I’ve got stomach rumbles that make it hard to hear what he says. Then, afterwards, he can continue his story…”