“Sparks Strydom got me stopped again today.” Verfaan sits down heavily, takes off the sweat-stained hat and wipes his brow. “I feel so sorry for him.”
Now, if you’re a regular traveler between Upington and Rolbos, you’ll know all about Sparks. He’s a sinewy man of about fifty, sporting a small moustache and a goatee beard. He’s not altogether unhandsome, but the high cheekbones and the sunken eyes combine to give him a cadaver-like appearance, which seem to frighten children. The few who know his story, also know that he’s a kindhearted, gentle soul who’s only trying to make ends meet.
“Really? I thought that gun would never work.” Kleinpiet signals for a round of beers. It’s been another scorcher in the Kalahari. He knows all about Sparks. They served on the Border together. “He used to be quite clever, that man. But that was before…”
Yes, they all nod, Sparks could have had such a bright future. He had been the star student in Pofadder High, the only one who passed matric with distinctions. A bursary was offered to study engineering, but the Border War intervened and he was conscripted to the army.
“I remember that day they brought him back to the hospital in Grootfontein. Man, was he a mess! It was a miracle that he survived.” Vetfaan, who also spent some time recovering in that hospital after an ambush, shrugs as he sips his beer. “The doctors said he’d never be the same again. They were right.”
“Ja, shame, the poor guy. And when the war was over, he tried to study. Lasted two weeks in the university before the professors realised he couldn’t keep up. Such a pity.” Kleinpiet recalls the day he met Sparks in Upington. He had been shopping for a new transistor radio at Kalahari Electric, when the gaunt man behind the counter offered his help.
“Gosh, Sparks? Is it really you?”
The man allowed his eyes to drift upward from the glass-topped counter to travel over Kleinpiet’s paunch, his chest and finally to Kleinpiet’s face. A small frown furrowed his brow. “Ja, it’s me.”
“I’m Kleinpiet, remember? We played rugby against each other. In Prieska…before the war.”
“Oh.” The dull eyes attempted an apologetic smile. “I don’t remember things so well anymore.”
It was an embarrassing moment. Kleinpiet smoothed it over with smalltalk and then said he wanted to buy a radio. Sparks shuffled away to call the other salesman.
“He did get better,” Gertruida tries to sound optimistic. “At least, that’s what I heard. Some of his old ways returned – he actually started reading again.”
“Yes, that’s true. He read up on wars. Fascinated by conflict, Sparks was. Maybe he still is, for that matter. But the gun? I think it’s a stroke of genius.”
Gertruida nods. “Yes, when he stumbled upon the work of Barker and Midlock during WW II, he became obsessed with them. Imagine soldering tin cans together to create microwaves? Shew! But that was the start of the radar speed gun, which paved the way for laser speed guns. And our Sparks copied that – only he had at his disposal a whole heap of old, broken radios – an unlimited supply of transistors, and diodes and who-knows-what.”
“Yes, and now he’s the only independent speed analyst in the Northern Cape. He’s hard to miss, dressed up in his old army uniform like that. I could see him a mile away, standing next to the road with his contraption, so I speeded up a little. Didn’t want to disappoint him.”
“That was kind of you, Kleinpiet. So what was your fine?”
“Well, he stepped onto the tar, held up a hand and I screeched to a halt. As usual, he didn’t say much; just held the contraption so I could see the reading. So I apologised and waited. He held out his hand and I gave him fifty bucks. Then he waved me on.”
“His usual routine, eh?”
The group at the bar remains silent for a while. Yes, they do feel sorry for Sparks. And yes, they know how the scars of war sometimes never heal. Politicians so often blow on the embers that flare up emotions, cause conflict and result in harm and bloodshed. Gertruida once said it’s the result of an imbalance in the logic/ego ratio. Once the ego increases in a disproportionate ratio to logic, irrational circumstances are sure to follow. They all nodded wisely as she said this, just to show her they weren’t ignorant. Afterwards they tried to figure it out until Servaas told them about the rabies one of his dogs once contracted. It’s a fatal thing, he said, when the brain cannot cope with fear. That, they agreed, was what Gertruida tried to say.
“At least he’s making an honest living,” Boggel say as he refills their glasses.
They laugh at that, because they know Boggel is just trying to lift the mood. Just like stopping when Sparks holds up a hand when you approach, one should at least smile when Boggel makes a remark like that.
Note: If any of the readers ever travel to Rolbos, please be on the lookout for Sparks. He’s the one with the Ricoffy tin next to the road. He’ll stop you and make you read the little ‘screen’ on the back, where ‘150 km/h‘ is clearly scrawled in his shaky handwriting.
Give him something.