The Liberation of Herbert Vermeulen

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Whenever Gertruida is teased about her vast knowledge, she tells the group about poor Herbert and the way things turned out to be.

***

Why she was called Herbert, is an open question. Some say her father, Herbert Vermeulen, really wanted a son and a heir. Others say, no, that isn’t so; Herbert chose the name when she was three, because she adored her father so. And there is the undecided group that insists it’s her mother’s fault because she always wore long pants (in the days when the church still frowned upon such sinful attire).

Whatever the reason, Herbet grew up to be just like her father: steadfast in her ways and rather stubborn. See, her father was the local attorney. He knew everybody and almost everything that happened in the district. Almost. He knew, for instance, why the young Pastor Brown had to leave so suddenly – long before everybody else. In those days relationships were strictly between men and women, and certainly confined to what was called back then ‘according to the group you belong to’. Back then the state and the church combined in their efforts to promote ‘separate but equal development’, which turned out to be the oxymoron of the century.

But, although he had such a sensitive finger on society’s pulse, Herbert’s father had absolutely no idea what his daughter was up to while he sorted out the district’s legal wrangles. Herbert, you see, had two major passions in her life: reading (which she got from her father) and flying (goodness knows where that came from). Ever since she could read with some confidence, she had been drawn to pictures and books about aviators and flying. By the time she was seven, she was able to recite the history of the Wright brothers, recount the adventures of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and comment on the life and times of Chuck Yeager.

Growing up on an isolated farm like she did (outside Vosburg, in the Great Karoo), she ignored the curious looks she got whenever they went to attend church in town. She always dressed in khaki: short pants, shirt and hat. Even her socks were brown, as were the boots. The more sophisticated little girls in town dressed the way their mothers and the church dictated: floral skirts and sensible blouses. As time went by, the curious looks changed to overt stares of horror accomponied by constant jeers and teasing. Herbert’s parents seemed oblivious to this disapproval – in fact, her father told everyone who wanted to hear how special his daughter was.

Herbert, however, became increasingly uncomfortable with the silent (and not so silent) rejection she experienced and withdrew more and more to her father’s study, where she spent days on end, reading quietly. As most parents know, there comes a time in little girls’ lives when they’re not little girls anymore. This can happen overnight, like it did with Herbert. It wasn’t as if she developed pimples or curves or anything like that; she simply got up one morning to announce to her surprised parents that she wants nothing to do with society any longer.

“People are hypocrites, Pappa. They smile at you and then gossip behind your back. Society is based on pretense and lies. I shall refrain from having friends in the future.”

Now – as every parent knows who has guided a twelve-year-old into adulthood – one is best advised not to take every opinion expressed by  hormone-tormented teenagers as the ultimate statement of truth and wisdom. A quiet nod and indulgent smile would usually suffice to allow the storm to blow over. This was the approach Herbert’s parents tried at first, but after two weeks they were an extremely worried couple. Herbert slept, ate…and then retired to the study to read. Day after day, her routine remained the same.

They talked to her, of course. What about school, they asked? What about church? And Herbert shook her head and said no, she never, never wants to go to town again. Then her father had a brilliant idea.

“What about flying lessons, Herbie? Real ones, in Beaufort West. One of my clients has a small strip and an aeroplane – he occasionally uses it to fly sick people to Cape Town, but mostly he simply loves flying. It’s in his blood, you see? He says that’s why he was born – to fly. Don’t you think…?”

That was the start of Herbert’s liberation. For the next four years her father drove her – every second weekend – all the way to Beaufort West. Her teacher turned out to be the ungainly Smartryk Genade, a man in his forties with an disarmingly shy smile and a way of making complicated things sound simple. By no means handsome, he seemed a rather morose individual at first. Like Herbert, Smartryk had a strange name which had caused him much pain over the years. And like his new pupil, he abhorred society.

“I’d much rather escape to heavens than than to talk about rugby around a braai where I didn’t want to be, anyway.” Herbert understood that all too well.

By the age of eighteen Herbert and Smartryk were quite a team. By now Smartryk had two aeroplanes and the contract to fly post to the bigger sorting offices at Upington and Cape Town. (Although these things happened  long ago, some older readers might vaguely recall the time when the Postal Service actually functioned well.) On weekends the two of them were much in demand as Smartryk and Herbert’s Flying Circus at the various agricultural shows throughout the Karoo. They’d do a few loops, several fast fly-by’s and then a coordinated,wingtip-to-wingtip landing, earning quite a bit of money for their bravery.

But, inevitably, people talked. This older man with the lively young girl? This couldn’t just be about flying in the air, could it? Surely they rock the landing gear on occasion? Whoever said it first would certainly not have foreseen the tragedy these questions would bring. The gossip spread – as it is wont to – like a veld fire on a hot summer’s day. Shows got cancelled. Smartryk bore the brunt of the remarks thrown at them (at first obliquely but later blatantly to his face) about how ashamed he should be to be such a wretched old man, and that with a willing little hussy half his age.

Then one day, Smartryk took to the skies and never returned. They found the burnt-out wreckage on the mountain range to the south of Beaufort West, where the Karoo National Park is situated these days. So badly was the wreck burnt, that only a few fragments of charred flesh were found.

Yes, the people said, you reap what you sow. God doesn’t turn a blind eye to sin, now see what has happened? And they pointed fingers at Herbert, telling her she was to blame and she must just wait, her time was coming.

Herbert grieved deeply. Her father, who knew his daughter was still as pure as the day she was born, tried to sue some of the worst gossip-mongers, but the magistrate was in a bad mood that day and the case was dismissed. Of course, the gossip only increased after that.

In desperation, her father convinced her to attend a church service.

“This one is different, Herbie, I promise you. This man heals people. He performs miracles. Maybe he can help you feel better?” And, because her father was the only man she could trust, she nodded and said it’s okay, she’d go even if it’s a waste of time.

We’ve all seen such preachers. The suit has to be according to the fashion of the day. The shoes are important: unsuccessful preachers wear old, scuffed shoes. If you’re a miracle man, the shoes must be new and shiny. Most importantly, the miracle worker must have sympathetic eyes, a wide, white smile and a commanding attitude. The voice is of great significance: it has to be authoritative but kind; well-modulated but with the ability to project a whisper to the most hard-hearing member of his audience.

People still talk about that service. The preacher (who called himself Prophet Jacob), was at the point when he wanted the sick and the weary to come forward, when an almighty roar sounded from outside the church. The people glanced at each other in fright, hands flying to mouths, eyes large and scared. Somebody cried out, welcoming the Lion of Judah. Prophet Jacob tried to hide his confusion.

And then, there he was. Smartryk Genade, in a tattered flying suit, strode down the aisle, glared at the prophet, and took the microphone from his trembling hands.

“You sinners!” His shout echoed through the silent congregation. “You spreaders of lies! You festering cesspit! You have taken pleasure in spreading lies and completely unfounded stories.” The aviator’s eyes shone with anger as he spat out the words. Then, to Jacob’s utter surprise, Smartryk put an arm around his shoulders. “Now, this man,” he hugged the preacher, “has come to perform miracles. Hallelujah! ” The crowd was silent. Smartryk glared at them, shouting hallelujah! again. This time, they chorussed the word after him.

Smartryk turned to the prophet. “Listen, man. You perform wonders, don’t you? Well, here’s your chance! I command you to cleanse this community. Let them all come forward for you to lay hands on them. Every single soul, no exception. And then, then let them apologise to Herbert over there for the terrible things they said about her.”

***

Gertruida sits back with a satisfies smile. “And that’s exactly what happened. That poor preacher had to lay hands on everybody – except Herbert and her family – and afterwards they all had to apologise. Then Smartryk waved a little salute to Herbert, stalked out and got into the plane he had just landed. Herbert stormed out but the throng of people was so thick, she only managed to see the little plane hop once or twice down the main road before it took off into the blue.”

“So, what happened, Gertruida?” So engrossed in the story is Boggel that he’s sitting on top of the counter.

“Nobody knows, Boggel. Some say his appearance after that horrible crash is the biggest miracle of modern times. Others maintain that Smartryk staged it all and that he now ferries tourists to and from lodges somewhere in Africa. The funny thing is that people almost stopped gossiping about him and Herbert – and that’s enough of a miracle.”

“Almost?” Vetfaan arches an eyebrow.

“You know how it is, Vetfaan. Today hallelujah, tomorrow it’s ‘did you hear…’” Gertruida shrugs. Some things never change.

“But Herbert? She says it’s all so typical of Smartryk. He could always make complicated things sound so simple – it’s his gift.  She stays at the small strip outside Beaufort West and does the flying these days. People say – and it’s not gossip, they actually swear they heard it – they say that sometimes, late at night, you can hear the drone of an aeroplane landing there. Then after a while, they say you can hear merry laughter coming from that hangar.”

At this point, Gertruida smiles sadly. “You always joke about me knowing everything. Well, I’m glad to inform you that I don’t…”

Another you,
Where to find her?
Another who
Would surprise me.

Another you,
Similar misfortune..
Who knows if
There is another you.

From: Un’altra te, words and music by Adelio Cogliati, Eros Ramazzotti and Pierangelo Cassano.

4 thoughts on “The Liberation of Herbert Vermeulen

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