“Remember the White Road? That was something…”
Once the nostalgia of the Border War settles like a cloak on Vetfaan’s shoulders, one has no choice but to let the fire burn itself out. Arguing with him only adds more petrol to that already-fierce flames, while prodding him on is a sure way of blowing more life into the glowing embers. Gertruida (who knows everything) says one must treat these moods like one would manage a rabid dog: don’t ignore it, don’t feed it, watch it carefully. It’ll die on it’s own accord if kept at a distance.
In Vetfaan’s mind the never-ending tracks leading east from Rundu towards the Caprivi remains as sharply etched as if he drove there yesterday. The colour of the deep, loose sand gave the name; unlike the sarcastic Golden Highway to Katima Mulilo, which led to Mpacha and the airport. There was no gold there, at all. Broken vehicles, maybe – but no gold.
But it was on that White Road that the huge Samil and Bedford trucks carried the provisions to the far-flung bases that protected the border with Angola. Rat packs, gearboxes, medical supplies, generators, toilet paper…and post. Letters – so any soldier will tell you – are important. Very important. It is the lifeline to normality, where girlfriends and wives live in houses with electric lights and telephones and shops and…real roads.
Nowadays letters aren’t as important any more. Cellphones killed the magic of letters just like it’ll never be the same driving on the White Road again. It’s been tarred, you see? Everything got faster, everything changed. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have vending machines with real letters in them? Love letters from real people…? But even that is a fantasy and that makes us so much the poorer for it.
Vetfaan hated the White Road. In winter it was dusty and he lost count of the times he had to pull stuck vehicles from the treacherous sand. Then when it rained – which fortunately wasn’t that often – the mud took over where the sand left off. And don’t think it was a straight road! No sir, not at all. It twisted this way and that, avoiding the big baobab trees and the low hills, skirting river beds and hugging little villages. Much like the war, the tracks also had to adapt to fallen trees, landmine pits and the occasional burnt-out vehicle. Vetfaan often said the road reminded him of life: it is never constant.
There was one bit of the run from Rundu to the base camps that gave him immeasurable pleasure, though: peeking into the post bag. He felt a bit guilty when he did this, but it was such a thrill to see who got letters…and from whom. Parents usually wrote in old-style, almost calligraphic letters, addressing the envelopes to the correct rank, number and then adding the address of the soldier. Parent letters, he knew, would be to encourage and support, and without fail would contain good news. (If a parent died, it was the chaplain who carried the message, not a letter.) He only skimmed through those envelopes, simply because they were so predictable.
What wonderful weather we’ve had lately. You should see the Jacaranda’s in Pretoria! The city’s roads are covered with a carpet of purple flowers. It’s beautiful.
Pa says you should have seen Naas Botha play last weekend. You’d have been so proud! The way he sank Western Province with those kicks of his!
Etc etc etc.
Nonsense letters with nonsense news. Letters from parents get read once, and then tucked into the tog bag.
But then there were the letters from the loved ones – the girlfriends and wives. They were addressed to a name, a man, not a soldier. And they were perfumed.
The whiff of perfume in the heat of northern South West Africa was arguably the best message any letter could convey. In the dusty, sweaty, dirty hands of the recipient, such a letter would be stared at for a long time before opening it carefully. Thoughts would wander back to intimate moments, quiet music and clumsy silences. When you’ve been on the border for some time, the mind shunts thoughts of love-making on to a lonely siding – and when the opportunity arises again, there is conflict between desire and an almost-unnatural shyness. The war makes every homecoming a first time, understand?
And then there are the ‘secret’ messages scrawled across the gummed part of the envelope. SWAK – sealed with a kiss. SWANK – sealed with a nice kiss. And maybe the ultimate: YKAYR – your kitten awaits your return. Or (Oh! The ecstacy!!): WAW! – wet and waiting. These messages were often more precious than the contents of the letter, and got stared at with dewy eyes for a long time while savouring the hint of perfume.
But there were others. Dear John…
Dear Johns ripped the heart out of many a manly chest in those days. The girly writing, with no perfume and no ‘secret’ code on the back of the envelope…well, it could be a sister, of course. Or not.
Vetfaan drove that lorry so many times, he recognised the handwriting, the perfume and the ‘secret’ messages on many of those letters. Even before he reached a base, he’d have a very good idea of what news he’d been carrying there. He always kept the possible Dear Johns back until he delivered al the other letters. A troop getting a Dear John would want to be alone when he reads it. And then he’d need more time alone afterwards. And then he’d get drunk. That was the only way to handle these letters.
When Vetfaan thinks back on the White Road, he remembers those letters. During the endless hours of negotiating the track, he’d imagine what every letter contained. That is, until he saw the letter addressed to Corporal Drikus de Swart – or Coalface, as they called him, referring to his surname and the way he applied camouflage during operations. How many letters had he delivered to Coalface? Tens? Hundreds? All of them bearing the fine writing by an obviously feminine hand, all of them exquisitely perfumed, all of them sealed with a very nice kiss – SWAVNK.
But not this one. No perfume. No writing on the back of the envelope. A thin – maybe 0ne page – letter. And Vetfaan guessed correctly – Drikus Coalface was the next soldier to be told the knots of war were stronger than the ties of love.
As usual, he arrived to the sea of anxious faces at the base. Was there post? Yes, there was. Anything for me? For me? For me…? The faces frowned, smiled, hoped and wondered. When Vetfaan finished handing out the letters to the excited hands, he was left with one letter. Drikus wasn’t in the camp. He was out on patrol and only be back later that afternoon.
Vetfaan didn’t want to leave the camp without handing over the letter. To give such a letter to someone else, would be a breach of confidentiality. Young men can be so merciless; once you’ve received a Dear John, you become the ridicule of the camp. Maybe it’s the way soldiers handle this type of tragedy: by poking fun at it. Or maybe it’s due to the other’s relief that they – this time – escaped the scythe of reality. In the end, a Dear John became a strangely funny tragedy.
Add to that the fact that Vetfaan had a soft spot for this brave young man who served his country with such vigour. He was always the first to volunteer for any mission, and due to his actions, many a young man came back to base in one piece. They – that is, Vetfaan and Drikus Coalface – often shared a beer at the canteen to swap information about the White Road. Where was the last ambush? Any sign of infiltrators? Any land mines? And, of course, they’d boast about their loved ones ( real or imagined) and compliment each other on being such men of men…especially after a few more beers.
And now Vetfaan felt it was wrong to leave such an ambush of the soul in somebody else’s hands. No, he owed it to his friend to hand over the letter in person, in private. It was the least he could do.
Later, when Drikus Coalface returned, he read the letter. Tears made little white roads across the camouflage on his cheeks. Take it back, Vetfaan. I don’t want to remember receiving it. It’s not mine, you see?
Vetfaan stopped there after his next run to Rundu. Drikus wasn’t there any more.
Whatever is left of him, is still out there, somewhere; lost amongst the scattered trees next to the White Road in the wilderness.
Vetfaan unfolds an envelope on the counter. No perfume, no secret code. One page hidden behind the sealed flap of the envelope.
“That White Road doesn’t exist any more,” he says. “They tarred it all the way. It’s black now.”
What did the letter say? To this day, Vetfaan doesn’t know. Like Drikus, he’d prefer not to open the envelope again. It’s a private affair between a young soldier and the one he had loved.
“Love, my friends,” his voice is heavy with either peach brandy, or fatigue, simply because that letter weighs so much, “is like the war. Or that White Road. It has to end sometime. Somebody comes along and chucks tar over the pain. But maybe – just maybe – it stays with you even after you’ve forgotten about it. It’s no joke.”
Gertruida – who sometimes thinks she knows everything – lays a soft hand on his shoulder.
“I understand, Vetfaan.”
Of course she doesn’t. She’s talking about the white road – the political one – the one that brought such tragedy nobody would ever want to joke about. There’s just too much camouflage in the way. Then again, knowing Gertruida, maybe she knows the pain those little tear-streaks cause when the road runs out and camouflage can’t hide the person behind it any more…