THE OSHAKATI SICKBAY
RELAXATION WITH THE DOCTORS AT THE SICKBAY
There were four national service doctors working in Oshakati: David Dix, Conrad Smith, Basil Abramowitz and Sakkie Loftus. There was a policy of stationing doctors with an interest or experience in general medicine at Oshakati, where there was a larger population of military dependants. Conrad and Dave were probably lucky to have been allocated to stay at Oshakati, as I imagine that there would have been other doctors with their interests and experience who ended up in the outer bases.
Sakkie had volunteered to stay on the border for the balance of his national service. He was provided with a house, and his wife moved up to stay with him. I presume Basil was there because he was married, but I don't know.
Dave was tall, and generally fairly reticent, but he did his fair share of rounding up parties to go out for meals. A year or two before this, a woman called Henrietta Fowler had won the Afrikaans quiz programme 'Vlinkdink', the equivalent of the British 'Mastermind'. She was very Afrikaans, and no relation to me. South Africa, Fowler is not a common name, and eventually Dave asked me whether I was any relation. 'She's my mother,' I told him. I expected him to challenge me, but he didn't. He said that he was quite disappointed when I eventually admitted that I had been winding him up. He had apparently written and told his friends and relatives that he was socialising with the son of a celebrity. Sorry, Dave!
Conrad was small and fox-like; very alert. In spite of his name, he was Afrikaans speaking, but his English was very good. During his previous border duty, he had been stationed to the West of our Sector, and reported his experiences with the Ovahimba tribe, one of the most primitive, or non-Westernised on earth. He had drunk beer with them in their huts. I remember him reading Charles Darwin's book `The Voyage of the Beagle'.
Doctors David Dix and Conrad Smith's idea of a good time was to eat out, which they were prepared to do two or three nights a week. As national servicemen, there was only one restaurant they could go to, and this was 'Driehoek' ('Triangle'). There was another steakhouse in town, `Die Gastehuis', which was a police hang-out, and was therefor supposedly out of bounds to the army. Driehoek charged Pretoria prices, but the food and service were not great. You generally had to wait for at least an hour for the food. Although not uniformed, Driehoek was somehow part and parcel of the military. This complex had a bar for special occasions, the ordinary restaurant and bar, and good accommodation for important guests and 'tourists' visiting Oshakati.
The meals were fair for the price, and one could be fairly debauched there. It was surprising, after a couple of drinks, to remember that one was considered to be defending our country against the godless communists massing on the other side of the Angolan border to come down and rape our mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, cats, dogs, sheep, goats, goldfish and who knows what else?
While we were there, we would hear the fire-plan, to remind us of where we were, but we all became oblivious to this in time. The restaurant was within about three hundred metres of the Sector 10 Headquarters bunker, so it was not impossible that we could be hit by a rocket while we bloated ourselves on too much food, and got drunk. I believe that various parts of Driehoek had been hit in previous revs.
There was a large table at Driehoek, which seated about twelve people. It was nicknamed 'the SWAPO table' and was rumoured to have been captured from a SWAPO base, probably during Op. Protea in 1978.
Dr. Sakkie Loftus had a car in Oshakati, and he lent it to Conrad or Dave when he went away anywhere. They rounded me up to go with them to the 'Okatope July'; various motor-sports organised by 53 Battalion, south of Ondangwa. I had a stinking cold at the time, but was dragged along anyway. Dave called me a 'dig drip' which was quite descriptive of the way I felt.
We arrived after the big race, in which 'Tiffies' (Mechanics) had souped up 'Buffels' (Most common armoured personnel carriers) for speed. It was interesting to see the decoration that had been added to these vehicles which I had only previously seen in dusty nutria.
At the end, we had difficulty prising Conrad away from hanging on every word of a drunken Commandant telling about the advice he had given to a widow who had been paid a hundred thousand rand following the death of her husband on the border, a lapsed reformed alcoholic who had died of a heart attack. [The story is told below]. I have a vague recollection of Conrad and the others going horse-riding briefly in Okatope.(Okatope, a 53 Battalion base, is described in Norval (1989), pp. 118.)
When I arrived, there was some conflict between doctors and dentists. I mentioned this to the Commandant, with the idea that we might be able to sort it out and clear the air. The Commandant didn't understand that I thought it was serious, and he commented that he thought some conflict this was healthy competition, and a good thing. It was a cold war, and they would ignore each other, and go and sit at different tables in the dining hall. It seemed that Sakkie had said something at some stage which had annoyed Wilhelm, and the groups had split along professional lines. I lived with a dentist, but knew and tended to socialise mostly with the doctors. Enrico never held this against me. He was the first to socialise with the doctors again, and when he had done this, Mark followed.
Once I walked in to one of the doctor's offices to find them playing cards, and using pills as 'chips'; different colours representing different denominations of currency.
I was amused at some of the things that the doctors did to ward off boredom. I think it was Conrad who had rigged up a pair of glasses with fake eyes staring through them which were two white polystyrene domes from a shaped egg-tray. Irises had been drawn in, and pupils punched out so that the doctor would be able to see what he was supposedly examining. I saw such an examination demonstrated, but I doubt this was on a genuine patient. They also had a magnifying glass, through which supposed pimples can be examined. This is always done outside, so that the person could be scorched by the sun through the magnifying glass. They also had a little toy telephone, which they could make ring. They could then `answer' it, say `Its for you' to the patient, and hand them the artificial receiver.
Discussion with Dr. Graham Pitcher following heated debate on Friday 10/07/87 about the different approaches to medicine offered by the Universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Tukkies (Pretoria). It was a 'my university was better than your university!' argument. Wits (English medium) graduates are trained to be cautious, and to call for specialised skill when they are unsure. They are also trained with a background to become specialists. Tukkies (Afrikaans medium), however, believes in throwing their medical students in at the deep end, which gives them confidence to 'rush in where angels fear to tread.' Tukkies may give their students more of a background needed to be a GP; where there is no-one to refer to, and where you have to do everything yourself.
AFTER HOURS IN THE SICKBAY
After work hours, the sickbay took on a different character. It offered a quiet refuge away from the noise of the officers' mess and the shouted conversations of the younger officers. I spent many of my evenings in one of the doctors' offices, at the desk, reading or occasionally writing with the good fluorescent lighting. I had been warned to take books and things to read with me, which I did, and with five hours of evening left after supper, I could often read more than a hundred pages at a sitting, taking a break after about two hours to have coffee with the ops. medic on duty at the desk.
I had been struggling through Lawrence Durrell's `The Alexandria Quartet' since the previous Christmas, but I finished it in a week. I read two John Irving books in about three days each, which is good going for me as I have a slow reading speed. Then I discovered the library! In the little village of Oshakati there was a library, supplied with books from the Library Service of the Transvaal Provincial Administration. It had some good books; I read Joseph Heller's `Something Happened!' and a host of other books. It was great! It was about 100m from the Officers' Mess.
Basil, who some considered to be a domineering know-it-all doctor, also tended to live in the sickbay after hours. We would often meet up for coffee breaks - I think he wrote ten page letters to his wife every night. I didn't find Basil as irritating as most of the others seemed to. (I remember one of the doctors protesting: `I'm not anti-Semitic. I just don't like Basil.') Basil had married just before reporting for national service, and could claim, as he did repeatedly, that the army had kept him away from his wife for more than half of his married life.
Somehow, over coffee with the Medics on duty, a discussion group developed, usually focusing on religion. There were divergent beliefs; which made for lively discussion. Basil, of course, was the ultra-educated orthodox Jew, I (I can now safely admit) was the agnostic with a fairly thorough Methodist upbringing. Two privates also joined in; Bryan Abbott was a Salvationist and Gary Vine was a Born Again, `happy clappy' Christian.
Bryan Abbott was a private, a young NSM whose ambition was to be a Salvation Army Officer. His parents were NCOs in the Salvation Army. I believed him to be very intelligent, in spite of the rather dull way he presented himself. The curiosity which lead me to choose psychology as a career made me spend many hours in conversation trying to understand him, but he always succeeded in blocking my attempts, making me even more curious. It was tortuous to try to get any personal information out of him.
Gary Vine, was as excitable as Basil, but had less information with which to argue his case. He had recently been 'Born Again' so he wasn't sure of the references of many scriptural passages which he tried to quote, and his defence was always 'I'm new to this'. He was always protesting being on the border, which he claimed was causing his girlfriend to have a nervous breakdown - yet she was a twenty three year old school teacher.
We would meet quite often for spontaneous religious discussions. Most of the dialogue was between Basil and Gary, but tempers were controlled throughout. I had to try and coax Bryan to express his views on certain issues. There was a lovely closet friendship that existed between us. We would sometimes talk until about one o'clock in the morning.
One evening we were discussing God's responsibility for Adam's fall from grace in the 'Garden of Eden', one of my favourite religious discussion points. Gary Vine dramatised an example; "Right, you (Bryan) are God, I'm Adam, you're (Barry) Satan (Good casting?) ..." I realised that we could have been certified as insane for having taken part in such a conversation. I got a lovely 'But you only read the Bible half way'-crack at Basil, which he took very well.
Basil questioned the lack of an underground bunker in Oshakati, which prompted a Mickey-taking discussion of how one would not be able to mix officers and non-officers, permanent force members with national servicemen, and PF wives with ordinary troops, blacks with whites etc. Each bunker would have to be clearly marked, and these markings would have to be illuminated to prevent people accidentally sheltering in a bunker reserved for another population group.
Basil had managed to locate one other Jewish chap in the whole of Oshakati, a young driver with the Air Force contingent. The two of them would get together for their religious observations, including the Sabbath fast. Something that amused me about Basil's friend was that he pronounced our mine resistant ambulance, which everyone else called a 'Rinkhals' as a 'wrinkles'. It sounded very cute.
Basil refused to work on Saturdays for religious reasons, which irritated the other doctors, who would always have to cover part of the weekend for him. There was another Jewish doctor, Trevor Shar, stationed at Nkongo, the base furthest away from Oshakati, and he was also an Orthodox Jew. (Rumour has it that there is no such thing as a non-orthodox Jew in the Army because of all the benefits associated with orthodoxy.) Apparently Trevor Shar wasn't getting kosher rations. Commandant Potgieter ("Hitler had some good ideas!") was, of course, not very sympathetic. He either told Basil to arrange kosher rations for his friend, or else Basil took it upon himself to do so, and he told everyone else in the sickbay what an effort it was, which made him less popular than he was before. Basil himself seemed to live on sweets.
Basil told me that at one stage, the logistic problems of providing kosher rations to all of the orthodox Jewish national servicemen had seemed too daunting a task for the Defence Force, and they considered exempting all Jews with verifiable long standing orthodoxy from military service. But, Basil was disgusted to add, the Elders of the South African Jewish Community protested against this, saying that their young men were South Africans, and should bear the responsibilities of citizenship along with all gentile white South Africans. Gee, thanks, Chaps!
Basil suggested that there was a way to avoid the bitter after taste of the anti-malaria tablets we took weekly. He suggested that you should pop them into your mouth along with a mouthful of 'Fanta Grape.'
Basil had a relative - an Uncle, I think - who had developed a self help assertiveness tape package. Basil saw the border as an opportunity to market these, and he made appointments to meet various important people to try to sell the idea, if not the product. I don't think that anyone was interested in it.
I had my video of `Pink Floyd - The Wall' with me. Some of the ordinary medics heard of this and asked to watch it. I suggested that we might set aside some time for a general showing for all those interested, which was fairly well attended. I had some supporting information with me, and thought that I would put on a little bit of a presentation at first in an effort to explain it. When I stood up and started to elaborate on the few points that I had jotted down I realised that it would be very difficult to explain it. The troops just wanted to watch the video anyway. We watched it in the large hanger-like part of the sickbay, which would be used if we ever had to deal with casualties on a major scale.
Once I seemed to be manning the desk while the medic on duty was away somewhere for a couple of minutes. A patient came in requesting some medication for a headache. He knew that I was the senior person present, and addressed his request to me as the medic returned. I confused Dolloril (ponados) with Darachlor (the mosquito - malaria prophylactic) and suggested that the medic give him some Darachlor. The medic on duty diplomatically ignored me, and gave him some pain killers.
Tuesday 21/07/1987 is post day, along with every other Tuesday and Friday. This gives one something to look forward to on the journey home from work. Post arrives late, and then has to be sorted, so we generally only get our post after supper. On this evening, Major Kevin Holmes told us that we would not be able to recover any letters because the 'Post Tiffy' (Medic who takes responsibility for collecting the post) was away for several days, and he was the only person allowed to collect our post. Kevin was just winding us up, possibly partly to get back at me for the ultra - paraat salute I always snapped off to him first thing on seeing him each day.
Basil introduced me to the post master, whom he knew on a first name basis, so this was no problem. "When one finds one's way blocked by bureaucracy, one starts to make use of one's contacts," I told Kevin light heartedly. "Consider yourself redundant."
The game began! Kevin said that he would go and stand at the door to the post office to prevent any medics getting their post illegally. "Over my dead body," he stressed. Was he suggesting a solution? Enrico and I had about 400 rounds of R5 ammunition in our room, and all the medics have been issued with R5s. I told Kevin that the investigating authorities would not be able to determine which medic(s) had been responsible for the murder of Major Kevin Holmes, that is, if his bullet riddled body could be identified. (He did the autopsies anyway!)
The fantasy developed further, and later on I wandered over to the post office to determine at what time the letters could be collected. Kevin sent an embarrassed ops. medic over to send me away. Kevin stood watching from the door of the sickbay with an evil smirk on his face. After all the drama and intrigue, there weren't any letters for me that day anyway.
I heard a story of some member of Koevoet chasing medics doctors away from the Oshakati swimming pool or other such facility. Somehow the doctors then managed to refuse to treat Koevoet patients, and almost immediately the culprit was produced and made to apologise.
A relay marathon race was organised for military personnel between Oshakati and Ondangwa. The medics didn't win, but they entered more teams than any other unit.
Victor Dewey describes a police (Koevoet) 'Casspir' as a 'Company Car'; 'Koevoet' personnel would often take their vehicles home with them, and he suggested that you could also take to the shops to collect the groceries.
Driving along in a Rinkhals armoured ambulance, and talking to spirited medic Sam Esteves, I discussed the use of a Rinkhals as a family vehicle. Ideal for the Drive-In as there are plenty of hatches for the children to sit in to watch through, and the stretchers at the back would be great for the kids to sleep on during the drive home. The seats facing each other behind the cabin would allow the kids to play cards or chess on long journeys. A drawback was that the vehicles cost in excess of R 100 000 each.
"Yes," Sam joined in. "And if your neighbour gives you any grief you can flatten his house!"
The shortage of transport resulted in Basil arriving to collect us from a party at Sakkie's house in a Unimog ambulance.
Some ops. medics wangled the use of Rinkhalses to drive through to socialise in Ondangwa - being led on by some young single-parent mother. They were youngsters, a long way from home and girlfriends, and living in a strongly male dominated world.
Most of our vehicles here are wrecks. I was told that 175 mechanics had been called up to do a border camp, and their assignment was to fix up all the vehicles. Unfortunately no-one had ordered any spare parts, so after cannibalising some vehicles, the mechanics sat around for the rest of their camp, unable to do anything.
One of our drivers, a chap called Beeselaar managed to run down a donkey, quite deliberately, it was believed, because it happened to be on the road at the time. Somehow, in the final instant of its life, the donkey managed to cause the twelve ton mine-resistant Rinkhals to roll, and it was just about written off. I think that some disciplinary action was levelled against Beeselaar, but I don't remember anything significant coming from it.
Bryan Abbott, the would-be Salvation Army Officer, told me that there was someone 'he thought I should know about' living in their cubical in the troops' mess. This was a scruffy looking English speaking medic, whom, it was rumoured, kept a goat's head in his locker, which, it was rumoured, he worshipped. I passed this information on to Kevin Holmes, who raised his eyebrows when I told him, but nothing came of it.
I spoke to the man in question once, and discovered that he had some music tapes which I believed were banned because the South African Censors, or the Dutch Reformed Church considered them to be Satanistic. I borrowed some of these tapes from him, which he was secretive about, and wanted my assurance that I would give them back the next day. I played them on Enrico's tape player than night. Enrico was unimpressed, as was Mark Alison when he walked in. "It sounds like a tuneless rip off of Black Sabbath," Mark told me.
There were one or two barbecues arranged for the medics, attended by both the officers and other ranks. I remember one at Sakkie Loftus's house, and there was one at Major Kevin Holmes's caravan. From Kevin's caravan, I took a photo of a very long row of Koevoet Casspirs in their base in the distance. I remember noticing that the Satanist and one of our other medics emerged from somewhere in Kevin's caravan, looking hot and sweaty, and out of breath. 'What have you been up to?' I asked in a friendly manner. 'Don't ask!', one of them told me, which made me wonder whether they didn't have a homosexual relationship. There had been some hints previously in this direction.
For one barbecue, which might have just been with the dentists, I remember buying a couple of six packs of 'lemon twist' cans, and - finding that they fitted exactly into an ammunition box that I had acquired - I carried them around in that, which must have looked very Gung ho!
Discipline was considered to be slack amongst the medics, but no-one was really interested. There was something professional about the service, which didn't fit in to the tight hierarchical military way things were 'supposed to be done'.
Some of the `other ranks' had difficulties. In an army that has parades, inspections and standing orders, all aimed at maintaining discipline, how can it happen that troops can get drunk and wake up their sleeping comrades to hold a singsong at 2 a.m. amongst the troops' bungalows. Anyone who sneaked off back to bed ran the risk of having his bed overturned while he was still in it. This was raised as a complaint by some of the junior medics, and I think that Major Kevin Holmes managed to put a stop to this.
Kevin announced that a PF corporal was being shipped in, apparently with the specific job of raising the standard of discipline amongst the medics troops. The medical-professional officers were not interested in this, but were ready to get upset if he disrupted the good working relationships which existed within the service.
We met him, an ex-Rhodesian army paramedic, and English speaking. One usually had the assumption that someone must be reasonable if he was English speaking! The corporal started to throw his weight around as soon as he arrived, as he had been briefed to do. The troops hated him from the start, especially the national service ops. medics (Lance-Corporals) who shared a room with him. They could not escape from him. And with loyalty to the men, the Officers effectively shunned him as well. He became a lonely man, and he too, started to haunt the sickbay at nights, usually trying to brow beat someone into playing chess with him. He was an excellent player, but thrashed everyone so humiliatingly that people avoided playing with him. I played with him a couple of times, and he would talk about planning moves five moves in advance, which made me feel like an idiot. I could have improved my chess by playing with him, but it wasn't much fun. I remember seeing that Bryan Abbott had been trapped into playing chess with him once. I talked to him fairly often. He was a braggart, but he had some interesting stories to tell, of ops. that he had been on and of living off the land. Some of these stories could have been true.
His aim was to become something I could not remember the name of, but it seems to be someone who knows everything, and on a free lance basis, tells governments how to sort out their problems. I'll believe it when I see it.
Enrico did some dental work on him, and said that his dental hygiene was disgusting, which wrote him off as a human being in Enrico's eyes.
Somehow the exercise of 'The Corporal will get some discipline back into our unit' was abandoned. I can't remember why. I doubt that Kevin backed the man up. His duties were changed, to more medical and less disciplinary duties. He admitted to me that he was very pleased. 'He didn't like having to be a bastard. He would much rather do genuine medical work.'
We had a `vaak seun' (Dozey lad) medic, who most of the other youngsters took the Mickey out of. Someone told him in a rather cruel joke that "Die Flossie het geval (The Hercules has fallen)". This had some implications for him; like that the person who was sent to relieve him would not be arriving, which caused him considerable distress. Probably for the first time in his life he took the initiative, and he phoned the Air Force ops. room to request confirmation that the Hercules had crashed.
This apparently threw the Air Force into confusion. They had heard nothing about the aircraft coming down, but it seems that they could not be sure about this. Apparently this uncertainty developed into a panic, and when it had settled, the Air Force OC phoned and complained to Commandant Potgieter, who reprimanded all his subordinates. I remember noticing that the culprit was not there for this reprimand. I found it amazing that, in this day and age, with modern radios etc., that the Air Force could not contact the pilot to ask; 'Excuse me, but have you … er ... crashed?"
Medics were rumoured to be soft, and loathed until someone got hurt. Then they were everybody's best friend. Our ops. medics had undergone the military medical course which qualified them as paramedics or ambulance men. They could save people's lives. The course was strenuous, and involved a lot of military bullshit; after intensive lectures during the day, they would have to stand guard duty at night. Yet after their course, they were only given the rank of lance corporal ('one stripe') which didn't mean very much outside an infantry training camp. Most of the military doctors I knew had great respect for them.
Kevin had it within his power to promote two of about ten candidates to full corporal - a dilemma he loathed, and wished to avoid. I didn't help, by championing the underdogs, our ops. medics, and suggesting that he should raise the point of them, as lance corporals being allowed to eat in the NCOs' mess if Air Force Privates took this right for granted. And all involved were national servicemen. (The Air Force look after their people. The army abuse theirs. And the medics try very hard to impress the army.) Nothing came of it. I never expected it to.
Willie Bronkhorst was an ops. medic. He was very 'camp' when he relaxed, but when at work, or when he felt he needed to, he could turn it off and appear fairly macho. He was another person who haunted the sickbay at night, whether he was on duty or not. He was probably nineteen or twenty, and ranged from showing adult responsibility and opinions to a sweet child-like playfulness. (I think his nick name was 'sweet pea' from the 'Popeye' cartoon)
He had found a book of magician's tricks somewhere, and would demonstrate these to the secretive 'coffee club'. He wasn't very good at them, and I would see him suddenly freeze as he realised that he had done something wrong. He would dash away to consult his book, then return, re-shuffle his cards, and say 'Right, Now watch!'
'Camp' as he might have been, Willie had spent a couple of months deployed in the bush in Angola with a unit of SWA-SPES (South West Africa Special Forces) Troops. He said that he didn't speak to anyone for the whole time; he just attended to their medical needs. He wasn't allowed to speak to them, firstly, but secondly he didn't have a language he could make himself understood in either. They used to walk all day, and sit under trees staring at each other in the evenings. When we had got to know him, he was again sent on a secret mission - on which people could be killed - and it was sad to wish him well and say goodbye. A month or so later he returned, unaffected by whatever he had experienced, and we didn't ask him what he had been through or what he had seen. I thought he was great!
The most embarrassing thing that I did as a SAMS Officer follows. I had made coffee for the ops. medic on duty at the reception desk, and was chatting to him. One of our drivers, Bullock, staggered in, very drunk. He saw the anagram that he could make with my surname, and said 'Hello Captain Flower'. I ignored him, but he wanted a confrontation, and repeated it, louder. This attracted attention from some new medics who had just arrived in the sector. I couldn't let him get away with being disrespectful. (At the time I didn't know that he was drunk on duty as well!)
I told him to go to his mess, and to stop looking for trouble. "Why, Captain Flower?" he asked, still speaking loudly.
"If you don't go away and stop calling me that, I will charge you." I told him.
"Will you really, Captain Flower?" he asked. Yes, I would! We were in the military, and I understood the need for discipline. Bullock was a troublemaker anyway, and I'm sure one or two of the troops encouraged me to take it further.
Next day I asked the RSM how I should go about disciplining Bullock. The RSM must have been delighted at a psychologist actually embracing some aspect of military discipline. He said he would refer the matter to the Commandant. Bullock was also on orders for other offences. Bullock was called on orders in the Commandant's office. I was called in to give evidence, and I felt very silly - and even more petty about it. (I wonder if the Commandant didn't have a quiet chuckle to himself when the RSM told him of my complaint. `Blommetjie?!' (Flower) No, I don't think he did. He was too highly strung!)
Bullock had to write a letter to me apologising for making fun of my name, which was about as petty as I had been. Bullock, as punishment for his other offences was given extra duties, and as I recall, he only did one extra duty before being rotated back to the 'States'. I apologised to the Commandant for occupying his time with such trivia.
"Not at all," he told me. "I'm glad you did." There! I've admitted it. I fitted quite comfortably into the system that I am enjoying satirising now.
Ops. medics were often nicknamed 'Tampax-tiffies' (Tampon mechanics) and `Aspro-tiffies' (Asprin mechanics). Psychologists were 'Kop Krimpers' (Head shrinkers) or 'Kop Smokkelaars' (Head shufflers or smugglers?) Chaplains were `Siel-tiffies' (Soul mechanics).
THE NEW DOCTORS
When the new doctors were sent up for their stint of border duty, to replace those who had just finished their three months, there was chaos as usual at Waterkloof Air Force Base. One of the doctors remarked that it was as if 'THEY' (The powers that be!) were doing it (organising a flight) for the very first time!
The doctors were transported from Ondangwa Air Force Base to Oshakati sickbay in a Samel 100 truck with all their kit. The truck zoomed past the HQ and screeched to a stop (as much as anything can screech to a stop in this sandy country!) outside the sickbay. A truckload of doctors!
The other psychologist, Captain Charl de Wet, had arranged a role for the psychologists in the allocation of doctors to different bases. Most of them wanted to stay at Oshakati or Ondangwa, closest to civilisation, with the greatest chance of accompanying patients down to 1 Military Hospital when this was called for. The Commandant addressed the new doctors first, at which he sang the merits of volunteering to be posted to one of the most remote bases - somehow he convinced some! One doctor reported an interest in the Ovahimba tribe, one of the most primitive on earth, where Conrad Smith had spent time previously. He was granted that posting without question, and the committee settled down to decide which of the twenty applicants should replace the three doctors who were rotating back from Oshakati.
"Koevoet is arranging a sponsored cycle down to Pretoria to raise funds for a new recreational hall for themselves. (Why do they need a new hall to torture prisoners in?) They want a doctor to go along with the tour to offer medical assistance - which will keep him out of action at Sector 10 for about two weeks. A doctor was sent - it makes one wonder just how important it is that there be four national service doctors posted in Oshakati, if one can suddenly be donated to a non-military non-army function."
One of the new doctors fortunate enough to have been posted to Oshakati was Dr. Cobus Vorster. He was 'One of the English Vorsters', and was old for a national serviceman, being at least twenty eight. He had evaded the army for so long by doing a science degree first, and then branching into medicine. He was married, and his wife and two little children lived in Durban.
He was homesick! He phoned me up one night, when I was house sitting for Charl de Wet, and said he wanted to speak to me. The part of me that wanted to help said `yes', I would go and fetch him. It was slightly more complicated than him just saying that he was homesick. His four year old son was playing up, and appeared to be pre-occupied with death, and his wife was distraught with this and didn't know what to do about it.
There were SAMS psychologists in Durban, near enough to the doctor's wife and child, so I phoned them and arranged for one of them to assess the family, and see if they could help the child, which would take some of the pressure off the father while he was on the border. The psychologist assessed the child, made some diagnosis, and made the recommendation that the father be transferred to a unit close to home as soon as possible. And he either told the father this, or else he told the mother, who told the father. Anyway Dr. Vorster heard about this before I did, so we couldn't hide this from him. I was intimidated by the man's age and profession, and had an idealised view of family life, which suggests that it is a good thing for families to live together, so I was in favour of sending him back. We didn't need as many doctors as we had, as demonstrated by the way that one could so easily be spared to nursemaid the Koevoet Cycle Tour. More personally, if we kept him on the border, then I, as the sympathetic psychologist, and as a Captain seen to have influence, I would have the doctor crying on my shoulder for the rest of my stay. It would be difficult to avoid someone who lives in the same building as you, and has such easy access that he could walk into my bedroom at any time and talk about his personal problems.
Charl, typically, felt differently from me. No way was the doctor going back to 'the states' without doing his patriotic duty and defending his country! But he was my patient, and I could push Charl out if I felt strongly enough. Things got pretty pathetic. The doctor was sent down as the next casevac escort, and given a chance to visit his family for a weekend. That much I could arrange.
The flight down to the states was typically delayed, and I think he missed the first flight down to Durban, but he got there in the end, and his son reportedly ignored him for the whole time. He returned, complaining to just about everyone. It really was unpleasant. I returned from my duty while he was still up there, and Charl took him on. I heard later that he had completed his tour of border duty.
There was a secret border base where doctors had to go and do sick parades - probably for UNITA troops. One doctor did that; another did the POW compound. They were very secretive about this. They didn't tell me anything, but in fairness, I didn't ask.
MEDICAL PATIENTS SEEN AT THE SICKBAY
28/07/1987 - An anonymous infantry major brought in a patient he had found collapsed at the side of the road. Several of the medics remembered that this major had previously brought in another patient that he didn't know. Maybe this was a hobby of his?
A military policeman reported to the sickbay, with injuries to his hands which he admitted resulted from his having punched prisoners. Does he wonder why the medical staff are not sympathetic?
Conrad had previously answered an 'urgent' house call, which turned out to be for a small boil or something similar on a woman's face. She had not presented at the sickbay because she didn't think that it would be right for her to be seen in public looking like that.
A couple of weeks back, a 31 year old man died of a heart attack at 4 a.m. in the sickbay, after 3 doctors and a couple of medics had struggled for more than an hour to save his life. He was an ex-alcoholic, who had been out drinking again (?). His wife, also under the influence, brought him in with chest pain after a party. She left him in the care of Basil, the doctor on call, and returned to her car. Her car wouldn't start, so she returned to the sickbay, just in time to see her husband have a cardiac arrest.
Basil called for assistance from Conrad Smith and David Dix who fought to save the patient's life, while his heart was trying to kill him, and eventually it succeeded. Conrad was kneeling over him, working the defibrillator. With one of the shocks, both the man's arms shot up, one of which struck Conrad in the balls. Conrad doubled up. Dave found it bizarre and amusing, that with all their efforts to save his life, his last action was this. He could not laugh though, for the man's wife was waiting outside.
His wife left, and almost immediately there were insinuations that the doctors had mismanaged the case, and that the patient had choked to death in his own vomit.
Charl de Wet told me this on the morning following the death, and he expressed condemnation of the doctors for letting the patient die. Stories of the alleged mismanagement spread like wild fire. Eventually the Commandant called Basil in for an enquiry. The Commandant is a dentist, not taken particularly seriously by any of the doctors who work under him. The Commandant apparently started to make accusations. Basil defended himself, and threatened to ask the SAMDC to hold a full enquiry. When the wife came back from South Africa, where she had fled following the death of her husband, she became aware of the rumours. An autopsy had been done somewhere, and the man's lungs had been found to have been clean; he had not choked to death.
She brought in her sick child, specifically to see Basil, and after he had treated the child, she tearfully apologised, and said that she had been distraught and slightly under the influence, that she was sorry, and willing to make a public apology. Basil appreciated this. The rumour mongers remained at large.
A patient presented at the sickbay saying that he was going to have a heart attack. The doctor on call was Basil Abromowitz, who had lost a heart attack patient [above] only days before, and he was taking no chances. He did a thorough medical examination and connected the patient up to an ECG monitor. He found that there was nothing to be worried about, and off duty medics drifted into the emergency room, some drinking coffee, to watch. I commented that the ECG machine could be used as a lie detector, and instantly became the centre of attention of the surrounding medics.
A black soldier was taken to Ondangwa Military Base Hospital with an unexploded missile, known as a 'snotneus' (snot-nose), about four inches long and of two inches diameter lodged on the inside of his cheek bone.(The "snotneus" is a grenade launcher, which looks something like a break-open single-barrel shotgun, but much shorter, with a thick barrel. The older version (37 or 38mm, I don't remember) is well-known in townships and Johannesburg city centre, where it was used to dispense teargas grenades during riots and marches. Its use in firing tear gas is likely to have given rise to its nickname. You would fire the thing towards the ground, and the round would bounce high up and explode above the crowd. I'm not sure why - maybe to slow down the round and allow it to explode sooner? It could also be used to fire anti-personnel grenades, and illumination rounds. The rounds look like fat shotgun shells (no fins). There's another (newer) version, which I haven't seen personally: 40mm, has a drum magazine and can repeat fire. The 37mm is an infantry weapon, and is also used by the police. [Information supplied by Hendrik Martin.]) I saw the X-rays with my own eyes. It must have been a very brave surgical team who extracted it. Apparently they were working behind bomb resistant safety mats, but they still must have been in great danger. Apparently the operation was a complete success.
One day we heard a loud bang, which people who supposed they knew said was a large explosion. At the sickbay, emergency procedures were followed with the expectation that we would be getting an unknown great number of casualties. Nothing happened.
Everyone asked, but no one knew what had happened. Local blacks said that the explosion 'had come out of the sky'.
A few days later, it was announced at the order group that the sound had been caused by a jet breaking the sound barrier above us. "The Air Force is keeping us on our toes," said the Commandant. Positively reframing! I wonder if he sent the bill for all the wasted medical materials to the Air Force?
Published: 1 July 2000.
Here are shortcuts to theNext Chapter, or back to the Grensvegter?: Table of Contents page, or the Sentinel Projects Home Page.