“I don’t like that man. According to him, the older he gets, the better he was.” Servaas knits his brows together, takes a giant swallow of his beer, and continues. “I remember him coming back from the army as a broken man. Now he claims he’s a veteran. Decorated, nogal. Makes me sick.”
“But he tells that story so well, Servaas. Even you asked him about the mortars and the bombs. Maybe they were there, maybe they weren’t. Still, it’s a good story.”
“Look, Gertruida, I was there. Saw the blood and the gore and the vomit. Saw young men cut in half by machine gun fire. There’s nothing romantic about war, let me tell you.”
“Get off your high horse, Vetfaan. I’m just teasing old Servaas, here.” She pats the old man’s shoulder. “But I do love a well told story. And he’s got the gift.”
They watch as Gunner Grove gets into his pickup. The years have treated him harshly and his limp is more obvious than before. As usual, he’s had a few too many, but he manages to open the bakkie’s door on the third attempt. Then, grinding the gears, he creeps out of town, banging the suspension hard on the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.
Gertruida always says ( because she knows everything) that one mustn’t be hard on the men who served on the border – it doesn’t matter whether they attacked or defended. She says it is water under the bridge as far as the politics are concerned, but not for the individuals who had to endure the terrible conditions back then.
But even she, despite her vast knowledge can never guess why Gunner Grove insists on telling his story the way he wants people to hear it. Memory is much like history – it depends on what you want the audience to hear. Sadly, people don’t care much what happened in 1854 any more. However, when it comes to recent history, a certain amount of bias and prejudice is almost unavoidable. Listen to any political speech on Youth Day or Freedom Day and you get the drift: emotion is often more important than fact.
A lot happens in the Army that the generals never know about. This was as true for the little base camp on the banks of the Okavango River as it is for any camp in any given war you’d care to think about. Major Bothma, for instance, arranged for his wife to pay him a secret visit.
‘Secret‘, under these circumstances, is also a relative term. Ladies tend to (unlike some soldiers) insist on wearing clean clothes every day. Now, when…er…certain items…started flapping in the wind on the washing line, it didn’t take an expert on warfare to figure out that something out of the ordinary was happening. The troops did what they did best: they gossiped and wondered and discussed and guessed. And quite naturally (young men being such willing vessels of excessive amounts of testosterone), it was inevitable that some would want to investigate.
Gunner was one of these.
So we find our unlikely hero sneaking through the bush in a roundabout way to get to the major’s tent, which was conveniently pitched a little apart from where the other soldiers camped. Privileges of rank and all that…
Whether by coincidence or fate, he wasn’t the only soldier making his way through the thick bush that night. Sergei Boris Kalanderishvili was there, too. As military advisor to the FNLA, he was ascertaining vital facts before the attack they planned for the next day. Sergei, one must understand, had come to understand how important it is to have accurate information about the enemy before engaging them in a skirmish. After having relied on information gleaned from the local inhabitants on a number of disastrous occasions, Sergei insisted on first-hand info before advancing on any target.
Olivia Bothma was – of course – unaware of such things. A few agonising months before she had married the man of her dreams and now – at last – they could spend some time together. And Olivia – a beautiful young lady with a stunning body – didn’t care that the accommodation didn’t match up to luxurious standards. She was with her husband and that was all that mattered. As such, she made sure that his homecoming (tent-coming?) was a joyous occasion.
Gunner was the first to peek through the foliage that evening. Like King David of Biblical times, he watched as the major’s wife undressed and waded into the cool water of the Okavango. Sergei must have arrived more or less at the same time, and he, too, must have been pleasantly shocked at what he saw there.
It is a myth that crocodiles are sound sleepers. And they don’t keep office hours. So, when lovely Olivia splashed the water on her shampooed hair, a rather large leviathan-like croc started taking keen interest in the shapely meal that so conveniently presented itself.
Who saw the crocodile first? One cannot know. It wasn’t Olivia, for sure. She was washing her hair and toying with the idea of waiting for her husband, dressed only his shirt. or, maybe, nothing at all? Occupied with such deliciously wicked thoughts, she certainly paid no attention to the small waves on the surface of the quiet waters, caused by the huge body moving silently towards her.
But Sergei did notice the ripples in the moonlight, as did Gunner. It may be fair to say they saw it simultaneously.
Rules number one and two of any covert operation: don’t get noticed and don’t give your position away. Gunner knew he was trespassing and had a very good idea of what would happen to a voyeuristic soldier ogling a superior officer’s wife. Sergei had an even bigger problem, of course. Shouting would be suicide. Shooting at the creature would bring on the rest of the camp, ending his military career in disgrace.
The horror of what was about to happen, galvanised the two men into action. To save Olivia, she had to be removed from the river…immediately! And so, still unaware of each other, the two men stormed from their hiding places, flapping arms and rushing into the water, where they literally snatched the would-be victim from the jaws of death.
Sergei got hold of Olivia’s shoulders and started dragging her towards safety. Gunner grabbed her legs to lift her clear of the water, and staggered along to carry their surprised load. Olivia, unaware of what and why this was happening, didn’t cooperate at all, thrashing wildly to get free. A well-aimed kick sent Gunner flying backwards.
And that’s when the croc got hold of his left leg.
“I don’t care whether it’s true or not. The way he tells how he infiltrated that FNLA camp, posing as a cook, is priceless. Imagine that? A whitey managing to get himself established in an enemy camp? Of all the lies he tells, that one must be the best!” Vetfaan sits back and winks for another beer.”Then, with some terribly important data, he tries to sneak back to his own unit – only to get shot in the process. And so, after months in the bush, he gets back to his base camp after operating on that wound himself. Imagine that? He did a sterling job with the injury, despite the circumstances. He could have lost that leg.”
As we know, strange things happen during wars. When Sergei got the struggling Olivia back on solid ground, he didn’t spend time inspecting the lovely curves of the beautiful lady. He saw a man being dragged into the river. And he dived in and wrenched the victim from those jaws before getting him to safety, too.
Why did Sergei do what he did? He should have left Gunner to bleed to death, for isn’t the object of war to kill your enemies? But he didn’t. Maybe – even during war-time – soldiers obey the instinct to preserve life. While Olivia scrambled off to find suitable attire, Sergei whipped off his belt and bound the leg to stop the bleeding. He realised his predicament, of course: staying there would be out of the question.
By the time the shocked and now dressed Olivia emerged from the tent, only the bloodstain on the ground remained as evidence of recent events. And when her husband arrived a while later, she told him what had happened.
Oh, they searched for Gunner, you can be sure of that. But darkness in the African bush and the possibility of infiltrators in the vicinity made the progress slow. By the time the sun rose the next morning, it was concluded that the crocodile must have won the battle between man and beast.
Back at his house, Gunner Grove sits down with a sigh after pouring a generous shot of his own peach brandy into a mug. By the light of the flickering candle, he relives the time when a Russian military advisor saw to it that he was treated by a Cuban doctor. They did, he realises once more, save his leg…and his life. And somehow – who can explain these things – they became friends. One may be pardoned for assuming that gratitude and the camaraderie of men at war played a role. Be that as it may, Sergei admitted at being proud of what he did and Gunner shared many a glass of Vodka with his saviour. And then, after many months, it was Sergei who drove him through the bush to deposit Gunner near the border.
When Gunner wipes a tear from his stubbled cheek, it’s not only because he remembers the way the Russian treated him, it’s because he stares at the Honorus Crux (gold) framed above the fireplace.
That’s the medal awarded posthumously to Major Bothma; the one his widow had posted to him, so many years ago.