From Boatsheds to Battlefields 61 War, Whiskey, and Women

End of 60th Entry: Swimming his horse around the mob Mick regained the shore, lit his pipe and chattered with his mates until the drove was ready to once again gallop back to its camp.

Mick found no members of a Young Men’s Christian Association amongst his fellow conducters. 

The Head Conductor, Vijoen, a huge hard bitter man had been a secret service agent of the Old Transvaal Republic. The story had it that on the day Lord Roberts entered Johannesburg, Vijoen had shot two Australian officers whilst an Armistice was on. For this, he had been sentenced to death, to be later reprieved and banished from South Africa. He had gone to the Argentine which had eventually found him too desperate a character for even that tough country.

Returning to Africa Viljoen joined Colonel Maritz then a transport conductor in the Germans Service. The Germans were at war with the Hottentots and the rough conditions suited Viljoen to the ground. Some trouble arose between him and Maritz which resulted in Viljoen being fastened to a waggon wheel and mercilessly flogged. Forsaking the German Service Viljoen wandered into Bechuanaland where he traded and hunted until the Great War broke out.

Jan Kemp, unknown rebel, Manie Maritz at Keetmanshoop in “German West

Another was an ex-attorney who had been struck off the Rolls for some reason and had led a shadowy life ever since. A third was a racecourse man whose life was regarded with suspicion, and a fourth, Mick’s billet mate was a cab driver who, the story went added the post of Assistant Hangman to his more prosaic occupation.

By some means or other, the Transport men seemed to have an arrangement with a hotel proprietor by which whiskey was supplied free apparently without limit. Mick until then had rarely drunk except out of bravado but now he fell easily.

He liked the company. Rough and wild though they were, unsavoury characters perhaps in civilian life they might be, yet all were old campaigners of the Boer and Frontier Wars and made good companions in the present type of life. They fed well, handled natives and animals with uncanny skill, shirked nothing in the way of danger or work and lived entirely for the day.

Mick found he could drink glass for glass with the others, work unafraid with them amidst a chaotic mass of wild frightened animals, handle natives, mules or horses with the best. The young Rhodesian, therefore, dropped readily into the life.

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There were no troops actually in Prieska – the Transport men as yet ranked as civilians and Viljoen was apparently the Commander-in-Chief. Discipline was practically non-existent except as regarded the actual work in the Transport camp itself.

In spite of very heavy drinking scarcely any untoward incidents occurred for the work taxed every fibre and muscle so that the alcohol was sweated out almost as soon as it entered the system. The heat was terrific, the work was not only heavy physical labour but work that needed all a mans’ wits to be ever on the alert to preserve his life.

A drunken man would not have lasted five minutes working in the midst of a few hundred untamed mules or horses. Death or at best, broken bones would have been his portion immediately. Most probably the very act of concentration required to preserve mastery over an inflamed brain caused the alcohol to act purely as a stimulant.

In any case, sober men would never have continued at the pressure demanded of Transport Conductors at that time. Nerves and muscle would have wilted under the strain but as it was the alcohol acted as paraffin cast at intervals on steadily burning fires.

Mick had one or two narrow escapes from disaster. He and his mates were accustomed to race through Prieska as hard as their horses could gallop. Several children and civilians thereby escaped death by the fraction of an inch.

One night shortly after Mick’s arrival, the daughter of the house had a visitor, a civilian policeman. The two retired into the sitting room and a good many hours past. Now the ex-cabby and supposed hangman was not a man whose moral character was above fear and reproach. He thought the girl easy game and made a suggestion that on the departure of the policeman he and Mick should, in turn, share the lady’s favours.

Mick held rather high ideals but the life was having a wearing effect upon them. Although he felt repugnant he yet dallied with the idea, protesting as a matter of conscience, but not taking any decisive stand.

During the early hours of the morning, the policeman departed and the hangman immediately slipped into the sitting room to be received with screams of fear and anger. Mick instantly ran in to find a weeping girl, the hangman in his shirt and the girl’s mother violently protesting.

The hangman ordered the woman to clear out, cursed Mick and caught hold of the girl. Mick jumped in but received a blow which half stunned him. Instantly the Rhodesian ran into his bedroom, returned with a loaded revolver and the hangman seeing murder blazing in his comrade’s eyes loosened the girl and delayed not in his return to his bedroom.

Mick followed him seething with rage to be met by a roar of laughter from the immoral one who produced a bottle of whiskey. The two speedily dismissed the past event from their minds and apparently were the best of friends.

That evening there was some particularly hard-drinking which ended in the hangman becoming fighting drunk. He cursed Mick, insulted him and finally left with the avowed intention of riding the hell out of Mick’s horse – an animal Mick worshipped.

Mick started after him protesting and threatening – turning the hangman sent the lash of his stockwhip hissing through the air, gave a quick turn of the wrist and the cruel hide cut the Rhodesian’s face to the bone – instantly Mick howling with rage and pain drew his revolver. The hangman leaping into the saddle dashed off. Mick emptied three chambers after him sending the dust spurting around the galloping horse. The Head Conductor leaping forward knocked Mick senseless and the affair was over.

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 36 Advice From A Stranger

End of 35th Entry: The third day Mick decided that however bad his own plight might be he could not retain any self-respect by remaining with his friends. Knowing that they would scornfully repudiate any idea of his presence adding anything to their expenses or making any difference, he told them that a friend of his father had invited him out to his place and hoped to find him a job.

So on the fourth morning, Mick once again ventured forth. Night came and the youth now entirely desperate flung himself down in a little pinewood and sobbed his heart out.

In four days he had had one meal a day and that mostly a scanty one – he had interviewed a hundred men without receiving one word of encouragement or hope.

As he lay on the fragrant pine needles a boot kicked him in the ribs and turning over Mick saw a ruffianly individual regarding him.

“What’s the matter Sonny?” asked the tramp Mick explained and the man laughed.

“Just starting to find life ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Come spit out your whole history kid and let Uncle think what’s best to be done.”

The man’s voice was kindly and accustomed to fish and mountain folk as Mick was, he saw nothing to alarm him in a rough exterior. Mick was young but he numbered some tough acquaintances in his circle of friendship and he knew that nobody was likely to hurt him if there was nothing to be gained by it.

So the boy explained the circumstances which had brought him there giving the impression that he was a farmer’s son – the father had been ruined by the drought and in consequence, Mick had been thrown on the world to make or break.

After relating his experiences in seeking employment the boy heard a sarcastic balancing of his mental abilities. The Tramp wanted to know why he hadn’t gone from one business house to the other seeking employment – Buttons, errand boy, office boy, junior assistant, stable boy or anything else.

“With your build and weight and being from a farm the Racing stables would have jumped at you – going to the business firms you’d have had a choice of a hundred jobs – and you damn little fool, you go hunting round on gold mines where there isn’t a hope for a kid. What the hell use would you be on a mine? The Batteries, all the Reduction Works are run by learner labour but the learners are all College youths who have matriculated – the only non-Varsity men are miners and tradesmen and they employ Blacks to do the rough work. If you want to go mining get a job in town so that you can live, then get to know miners and mine tradesmen, and when through one of them you hear of a decent thing, go to it.”

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“Well I guess you’re pretty peckish and so am I – came out of goal this morning – six months hard for battery and assault – anyway I’ll go down and get some food and we can doss down here – you needn’t be frightened kid I won’t hurt you.”

Mick assured his new friend that fear had not entered his mind and promised to remain where he was until the ex-convict returned.

As darkness fell Mick lay under the trees wrapped in an overcoat he had luckily bought and gazed at the flaring headlights of a score of the world’s greatest gold mines – all around shone thousands of lamps and lights and the night seemed alive with the thunder of stamps crushing the rich gold ore and the volleying crashes of trucks emptying their loads of refuse rock or delivering gold-bearing quartz to the tube mills and stamp batteries.

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Hungry and overtired the lad found the feverish activity around him soothing and lulling so that when laden with eatables the man returned he found a boy curled up fast asleep. Waking him the man laughingly invited his young guest to a supper of cold roast fowl, thick slices of brown bread heavily buttered, with a can of hot sugary tea to wash down the feast. A cigarette completed Mick’s satisfaction with the evening’s entertainment.

Next morning on his companion’s advice Mick set out for one of the great racing establishments but on his way passed through City Deep Mine – more out of devilment than anything else he paused at the Reduction Works and asked a man who appeared to be one of the bosses whether there was a job going.

“7/6 a shift on the Excavator, start right away.” snapped the man who happened to be the Cyanide Manager.

“Done” quoth Mick eagerly.

“You look half starved, had any food?” asked the manager rather less abruptly.

Mick gulped – “Not since last night, Sir.”

The man scribbled a note on a leaf of his pocketbook, “Run down to the office with this – give them your particulars and you can get over to the boarding room and wade in – the office will give you a room if you want one and fix you for meals. Report at the Excavator to Roberts the shift boss and get started as soon as you can – if you have any pals I can take on half a dozen men for surface work. Righto Son.”

Dismissed Mick once again an eager boy brimful of happiness skipped off to the office.

Here a document was read to him. He was engaged as a Reduction worker at 7/6 per shift. He would be provided with a room at 10/- per month, board at £6. 2/6 per month would be deducted towards Reading and Recreation room and 15/- towards the medical and Burial fund. In the event of death, he would receive a £15 funeral. Overtime would be at a rate of time and a quarter – eight hours notice on either side could terminate the agreement.

Overjoyed Mick signed the contract and being provided with a note to the mess caterer ran over to the mine boarding room.

Here he found a score of long tables piled with great platters of bread, hot scones, buns, and cakes – dishes of butter and jars of half a dozen jams were scattered over the board where scores of men were eating as he had never seen men eat before. As he paused a waiter came to him, took his note and showed him a vacant place handing him a menu which appeared to contain the names of every dish Mick had ever heard of.

Giving an order for bacon and eggs he turned to look around. The seats were only half filled but their occupants were well worth looking at. Every race seemed represented, every man appeared ravenous and all were uninformed in blue copper rivetted dungaree trousers, heavy boots and dark blue and white striped boiler shirts – many were black with oil and grease, others white and yellow with dust and mud. No-one had appeared to have bothered about washing face or hands and to Mick, the whole crowd looked the toughest set of hard men he had ever seen, or read of.