That’s what friends are for…

2153916_130206164911_TD278-3When Vetfaan gets drunk, he sometimes becomes teary and exceptionally morose. The rest of the little crowd in Boggel’s Place know the signs: he’ll become silent, stare out of the window and then whisper: “Gunter Winkle…

This doesn’t happen often, mind you – maybe once a year or so – and for a long time they couldn’t get him to tell them who Gunter Winkle is or was. He’d only answer with a stony stare at the bottle of Schlichte on the shelf and then start humming to himself; a strange tune even Gertruida doesn’t recognise..

It all changed one evening. Vetfaan was staring at the Schlichte bottle again, humming the tune, when Gertruida said softly that she did some enquiries about Gunter Winkle. Vetfaan surprised them by stopping humming immediately as he directed his unsteady stare more or less in Gertruida’s direction.

“Wha…whadaya fin’ out?”

She shook her head. “Still listed as missing, if it’s the same person.”

Vetfaan nodded slowly. “Same person.”

“You have to tell us, Vetfaan, get it out of your system.”

And so, in bits and pieces, Vetfaan finally managed to open up. It eased the pain, even if only marginally.

***

Gunter was the only son of a farmer near Gobabis, in what we now call Namibia. At the time, South West Africa was governed by South Africa and many Suidwesters sent their sons and daughters to study in the Republic. Vetfaan met Gunter at Glen Agricultural College where they attended a course in wool classification. They developed a solid friendship during the month they spent there and kept contact (via letters back then) afterwards. Like it so often happens, the letters petered out and were replaced by a yearly Christmas card.

However, when they met again – it must have been a decade later – it seemed like no time had lapsed since their last goodbyes and they celebrated in raucous style. This was severely frowned upon, for then they were in uniform at the base in Ondangwa, fighting the insurgents from Angola. The brigadier called them in, threatened a court martial and gave them a stern warning. Any breach of discipline would be followed by the harshest possible steps. Their weekend passes were cancelled for two months. When the other troops were allowed to blow off steam in Ondangwa, the two of them would clean the officer’s offices.

Something happens to young men when they have to don a uniform and live under the constant threat of danger. When off duty, they tend to become, well, irresponsible, to say the least.  So while the other troops whooped it up in town, Vetfaan and Gunter were pushing mops and brooms in the offices of their superiors. That is, until they discovered the secret horde of Schlichte n the brigadier’s cupboard – on the first evening of their first weekend of office duty.

The result was a catastrophe. When the brigadier went to his desk on that Sunday, a routine neither of the two scolded men knew about, he found them happily singing the German ditty Gunter had taught Vetfaan during the night. They were dumped in the detention barracks without any further ado.

Monday arrived. The brigadier cooled down. A court martial involved not only other officers, but would come to the attention of headquarters in Pretoria. There might be questions about his ability to maintain discipline. He might be sent to an ‘easier’ post, away from the combat zone – which would mean – in effect – a demotion of sorts. No, he’d handle it on his own.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Kunene River. Angola on the other side.

Vetfaan and Gunter (still severely hung-over) listened in subdued silence as the brigadier ranted and raved for a full half hour. Then he told them they’d be sent to a remote area on the border to keep watch on a section of the Kunene River suspected of being a point of infiltration. No weekend passes, no leave. Just the two of them and a radio. Supplies would be dropped by helicopter every two weeks.

Running an army is a huge job. The admin involves mountains of paperwork, orders and directives. And things go wrong…

The brigadier’s worst fears were realised when he was transferred a base near Kimberley – a lateral transfer which meant the end of his hopes of becoming a general. His successor arrived the day after his departure (to save himself the embarrassment of handing over the reins) and promptly started transforming the Ondangwa base into one of the most efficient in the defence force. Despite this, the two men next to the Kunene were forgotten. Maybe some documents were missing or mislaid, or maybe it was just one of those things that happened back then – it could even be that the original brigadier never set the issue down on paper – but the end result was two abandoned friends in the middle of nowhere.

“We had a wonderful time there,” Vetfaan told the group, slurring the words. “The radio was dead – no new batteries. The local Himbas were quite friendly and supplied us with goat’s milk and sometimes meat. We fished and cooked bird’s eggs. Gunter’s singing intrigued the Himbas and they often came to listen to his German songs – bringing more supplies when they did so.

“Of course we guessed what had happened – being forgotten and all that – but we had no means to get back to Ondangwa. Truth be told – we didn’t want to, either. Still, when the three-month period neared it’s end, we realised we’d have to walk back to civilisation. The Himbas provided us with enough information to do this. On the day before we were planning to start the journey, Gunter stepped on a landmine.”

Zuzu

Zuzu

Gunter was lucky. Although he sustained severe injures to his one leg and face, he survived – just. The Himbas carried him to their kraal, where they helped nurse him back to health. This is where Gunter met Zuzu, the beautiful Himba girl he fell in love with. His recovery was slow and painful, but after a month he was able to walk if aided.

That’s when he told Vetfaan to go back.

“I’m a disfigured man, Vetfaan. I can hardly walk and can see very little. Farming is out of the question. No, my future is here with Zuzu. I can help here. Start a school. Teach them things. Be useful… I owe them that, at least.”

***

“So you returned to your unit, told them Gunter was missing…and never breathed a word?” Gertruida’s incredulous tone interrupted Vetfaan’s story.

The interjection stopped Vetfaan’s recounting of what had happened so many years ago. He simply stared at her, sighed, and nodded. “I gave my word.”

“But what about his parents, his family?”

Vetfaan started humming softly to himself. Didn’t want  to tell them the rest. How he paid a clandestine visit to the Winkles on their farm and explained everything. How Gunter’s mother wept with joy and his father embraced him. And how, every six months or so, the Winkles liked to spend time up in the North of Namibia, holidaying next to the Kunene.

Or how he missed singing old German songs with one of the best friends he ever had.

No, he’d rather have another Schlichte. Anyway, he’d told them too much already.

Heute hier, morgen dort, bin kaum da, muß ich fort;
hab’ mich niemals deswegen beklagt.
Hab’ es selbst so gewählt, nie die Jahre gezählt,
nie nach gestern und morgen gefragt.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Dass man mich kaum vermißt, schon nach Tagen vergißt,
wenn ich längst wieder anderswo bin,
stört und kümmert mich nicht. Vielleicht bleibt mein Gesicht
doch dem einen oder and’ren im Sinn.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

Fragt mich einer, warum ich so bin, bleib ich stumm,
denn die Antwort darauf fällt mir schwer.
denn was neu ist wird alt und was gestern noch galt,
stimmt schon heut’ oder morgen nicht mehr.

Manchmal träume ich schwer
und dann denk ich, es wär,
Zeit zu bleiben und nun
was ganz and’res zu tun.
So vergeht Jahr um Jahr
und es ist mir längst klar,
dass nichts bleibt, dass nichts bleibt, wie es war.

6 thoughts on “That’s what friends are for…

  1. 7128788elfCharles

    Hi Amos, what a wonderful story, it kept me reading until the end, so really enjoyed it. Perhaps one day I too will tell a few army stories, but it is a time of my life that I usually bury deep inside, best wishes and blessings, Charles.

    Reply
    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      Thanks, Charles. Yes, those times are best read as fiction – the reality is still (after all these years – too tough to contemplate. Even so, with a bit of added creativity, writing fiction about it makes one remember the friends, the fun and the mischief of those days. Best to remember those, I think.

      Reply

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