“So,” Gertruida says, “now that we’ve agreed that Gert Smit’s story is one of those you can start anywhere – as long as you get the ending right – we mustn’t forget that Hieronimus Smit was a deeply religious man. The trek of the Afrikaners from the Cape in 1838 (he was born a mere twelve years later, while his parents still travelled from district to district, searching for an ideal place to set up a homestead) was something he grew up with. Hardly an evening went by without a reading from the Old Testament, in which the plight of the Israelites, the harsh conditions in Egypt and the arrival in Canaan were likened to their own circumstances”
It was during the writing of the 75-page Bible on the island of St Helena that Hieronimus reminded his fellow prisoners-of-war about the strength of the mustard seed. He said they – the Afrikaners – simply lacked faith, that’s why they were losing the war. The proof he said – while condensing the gospels of Luke, Mark and Matthew – resided in the fact that these three books all refer to the mustard seed. If only, he said, we had faith the size of that seed, we would have chased the English into the sea – which wouldn’t have parted for them, either.
So, his listeners asked, how big is such a seed?
Nobody knew. Obviously a mustard seed must be big, one farmer remarked, because you can’t move a mountain with something small. No, another man said, that’s the point of the parable. It had to be small. But then, the first man countered, they were all right – and Gert Smit was right: their faith was too small to move the English from their land.
That’s when Hieronymus threw his hands in the air, told them all to shut up, and went to the makeshift kitchen. He came back with a tomato seed. This, he said as he held out his hand where a tomato seed nestled between the dirty calluses, is about as big as a mustard seed.
The Afrikaners immediately understood why they were losing the war. As a permanent reminder of their lack of faith (it must be at least as big as a mealie cob, Frans Pretorius said at the time) Hieronymus Smit pasted the tomato seed on the page with the sap of a blue gum tree. He said that’s how things start. Once you’ve got enough faith to compare with that small seed, you can start growing mealies.
“One has to say something about that tomato seed right at the beginning,” Gertruida says, “and mention the 75-page Bible with the seed stuck to the page. In a way, that great-great grandfather started something that ended with Gert Smit. And remember, the Great Farini loved tomatoes; so your listeners will immediately connect the trip into the Kalahari, the tomato seed-in-the-Book and the Smit-obstinacy with each other. You see, this way you create a platform for the rest of the story. Then it’s okay to skip to 1976.”
The day after young Gert Smit’s sixteenth birthday, he received a letter. It was the first letter he had ever received. It was in a brown envelope, had the Republic’s coat of arms on the back, and the letter was to change his life. It told him that he was now number 76246943 BA, and that he was eligible for conscription to the army on his eighteenth birthday. Failure to comply with further instructions, will result in imprisonment, the letter warned.
Now Gert, as we know, inherited a generous portion of the Smit obstinacy-genes. At that stage he was facing his first court case for possessing dagga, while the docket on his stealing the Dominee’s car (he needed wheels, he explained, to take Lettie to the drive-in), was still being processed. Dominee would most probably have been more forgiving if Gert brought back his vehicle in one piece.
Gertruida says it is okay just to mention Dominee’s car – and not go into the details. She says that in telling a story, one must stick to the main story line.
It is thus understandable that Gert bade his teary mother goodbye and hiked to Voortrekkerhoogte, where he announced that he refused to wait two more years to be conscripted. At the infantry camp where he arrived, the corporal at the gate didn’t know what to do, This is not unusual in any army you care to mention, neither is the way the corporal handled the matter strange either. He reported it to his sergeant, who approached the lieutenant, who spoke to the captain, who mentioned it to the major.
Major Terblans was a man of particular insight. Look, he said, get rid of the boy. How, the captain asked?
Two drinks later it was decided. If the boy realised this was a grown man’s world, he’d leave all by himself.
“Give him a R1 rifle. Take him to the range. Set up a target 400 yards away. Give him ten bullets. Tell him we can’t babysit kids who can’t handle a gun. Then send him home.”
One can’t blame the major, can one? He didn’t know about Magersfontein where old Hieronymus aimed at the kilted soldier. And he didn’t know much about genetics, either.
Gert Smit didn’t know a R1 from a bar of soap – but he (like his forebears) was no stranger to poaching. True: he was used to the old Mauser his mother gave him on his twelfth birthday – the same one that came down the generations with it’s story of Magersfontein. The Mauser was heavy and cumbersome while this new rifle felt like it was made for him. The magazine slotted in easily, the safety was pretty much a standard little switch and the single shot/automatic mode was clearly marked.
“Ready?” The corporal smirked: he’d seen this so often before. These young boys think guns are toys…until they pull the trigger, hear the blast and feel the shock. And then they stare at the target, unable to understand why the bullet went so far astray.
Gert Smit sat down, rested his left elbow on his knee, pulled the stock tight against his shoulder and fired. He fired ten times, with a second between the shots. His first shot hit the target an inch above the black spot in the center, the other nine destroyed that spot.
And that, Gertruida says, is how Gert Smit became the youngest sniper in the defence force. Oh, it took time, of course: he had to be trained, learn to read maps, become super fit, be taught about tactics, camouflage and a hundred other things – but in the end, at the age of seventeen, he became the youngest member of a small, elite group of men stationed at Fort Doppies, in the Caprivi.
Gertruida says this is a crucial part in telling Gert Smit’s story. One mustn’t elaborate too much about that army base and its tame lion. People are usually so fascinated by Terry the Lion, that they lose track of the importance of the main story. So she insists on mentioning Terry only in passing, just to spice up the tale a tad.
No, she says, one must rush through this part to get to the serious episodes of the story. Imagine, she says, how it must feel for such a young man to fall into the hands of the enemy? Surely, she says, that’s more important than romping about with a tame lion.
As usual, Gertruida is right.