14. My Stomping Grounds In Athlone.

In South Africa marijuana was the cheapest commodity to get high on and always available. A ‘stop’ (Dutch = plug) that was an index finger in length and cost six pence (five cents) would at times be obtained by my mates and I through a Muslim acquaintance whose father dealt in it, and because he had stolen it, would pocket the money. There were also young street kids called skollies (Dutch (schooiers) = layabouts) who when our supplier wasn’t around would charge a penny extra for their service to obtain it. The adult skollies though preferred it to be known that their name was derived from scholier (Dutch = scholar), with the reason been that because of their constant smoking of boom (Dutch = tree), which was what they called marijuana, that they claimed was the tree of knowledge, it gave them the wisdom to be so good at whatever they did, and because of their constant smoking of it they were also known as rookers (Dutch = smokers).

My mother had quite a few of those skollies knocking at our door for handouts when times were bad, and she never refused them a sandwich, coffee and our discarded clothes. That also served us children in good stead, for as we grew older some of them became the rougher tougher element in our neighbourhood and they never allowed anybody to intermediate or harass us. When others might have the misfortune of been threatened, robbed or beaten up, we could safely roam the neighbourhood at night or day, and we even got pointed out as their mense (Dutch = people) when their friends visited or moved into our town, and in that way they made sure that we were safe. Some of them also had a unique sense of dress. They wore a tailor-made hoepelbroek (Dutch = hooped-trouser) cut to a three quarter length from the waist down that ballooned out, a wide studded large buckled belt, which was handy when fighting, a horizontal striped shirt, a cloth cap worn at an angle, takkies (Dutch = (tacky) plain, white sand-shoes), and always carried a pocket knife, and wrap dancers and young kids now wear a similar type of uniform that assimilates their dress now. Their main occupations seemed to be caddying at golf courses, as gardeners, stevedoring, street sweepers, fruit and vegetable hawkers, buyers of liquor for shebeens, which kept the police off the track of those, and fafee (a Chinese gambling numbers game) runners. Although not always gainfully employed those sorts of jobs gave them more leisure time to pursue their favourite pastimes like attending movie matinees, hanging out in bars, all forms of gambling; dice, playing cards, dominoes, darts, billiards and fafee. The fafee numbers ran from one to thirty-six and each number represented an object. Number one was white man, two was monkey, three was seawater and all the way to thirty-six that was penis. A weekly story of which if you guessed the right daily sequence created by the China-man, who was the organizer, bet on it that ranged from a penny to whatever and won, you received twenty-four pence for your invested penny. It was an imaginative game to try and pit your thinking processes along the same lines as the China-man and even I played it. An example would be if the previous story ended with number one as white man you might assume that he was an old man, which had a number too and you would play it on that day, and from there he could have gone to hospital, which could be seen as a big house, which that number would be played the following day, and his nurse could have been a young or old woman with both having numbers and the same would occur, and then he could have died making him a dead man or he could have gone home, which was a small house with both having numbers, which made it a tossup which numbers to play. It was illegal and similar to the numbers game played in America where the runners and bookies wrote the played numbers and money amounts on bits of paper. It was also a known fact that they would swallow the bits of paper when confronted by the police because without the evidence they couldn’t be convicted. I learned the dice game watching the skollies playing in alleyways, on shop stoops and on street corners at night under a street light because of preferring to gamble out in the open. Caught off guard by patrolling police seemed to lend an element of excitement to them, and although they always had a lookout, of which at times I would be one, they would leave the grabbing of the dice and monies up to the last moment before making a fast getaway with the police in hot pursuit. They were fleet of foot, and their forward planning lines of exit over fences, through backyards and over rooftops made their escape very easy, and monies left behind in their hasty retreat got retrieved by me when the coast was clear. Another thing they were good at was pick pocketing and it was an art form. Beware if they had a rolled up newspaper under the arm because the drill was simply to walk beside, past, veer and stop in front of a person with the tightly held paper protruding backward that would hit the person in the chest area. Apologizing profusely with the paper held up to the person’s face as the offending culprit, the wallet or purse got lifted or the pocket picked. When working in pairs the casual opening of a newspaper on a bus, train or even on the street suddenly close up to your face would get an accomplice deft fingers into a handbag, purse or pocket.

Another area they excelled in was their participation in the New Year’s celebration of the Coon Carnival. Troops of males dressed up as Black and White Minstrels were secretive about their tailored colourful costumes, their traditional Cape, Muslim and Afrikaans songs practiced as a group and individually, and their grand march pass for which there were individual trophies for all of those categories when parading with dance and song and performing. There were two neighbours that I knew who made these costumes, one was a dress-maker who lived opposite us and the other a tailor who we called Boeta B because his name was Benjamin, and the world is really small because I met up with him again in Australia. Beside them there were also the American Indians and the Christmas Choirs. They were teams of marchers and instrumentalists who paraded and played nightly through our streets dressed impeccably and uniformly in a summer lightweight suit with collar and tie, pocket handkerchief, soft brim felt hat and cane walking stick. They would stop at a member’s home where they played and sang Christmas Carols and where they would be rewarded with refreshments. There other reward would be the same as the Coons and American Indians where they too would compete for trophies held at showgrounds and stadiums throughout Cape Town. The teams of American Indians were dressed in full costume consisting of flowing feathered headdress, colourful beads, tiny tinkling bells, small sun reflecting mirrors on fringe edged costume, moccasins, wooden tomahawk and bow and arrows. They danced, pranced and war whooped to the realistic sounds of tom-toms, skin drums and penny whistles through our town, and parents knew that they wouldn’t have sight of their children for most of the day. As a young child when seeing those fearsome looking beings for the first time caused me to run home screaming, dive under my parents bed and stayed there until I couldn’t hear the sound of their booming drums. These ‘atjas’ name was derived from the Apache Indians and was also known as ‘skinners’ from Redskin. The Red Indians originated in Athlone through an Apache Indian who lived with his African wife in Norwood Street in one of a row of cottages backing onto the railway line. As kids we were highly entertained, and frightened, when they practiced there on an open field on that street before parading through the streets of Athlone and then board the train to other destinations. I remember my mates and I at one time following them all the way to Crawford and then Lansdowne, which must have been through the mesmerizing music they played as the Pied Piper of Hamlin did, and when they boarded a train we had to walk all the way back.

Over the six weeks Christmas school holidays having a boring time wasn’t in our vocabulary. Traditions, local entertainment and the close proximity of recreational facilities brought about by an excellent and inexpensive transport system kept us on the go. After midnight mass on Christmas and New Year’s Eve it was the done thing to visit as many homes as possible and to party till dawn, where traditional hospitality forbade you to bring food or drink that extended to all celebrations. My grandparents over those periods had parties that lasted for three days where a whole pig, a lamb and a side of beef were roasted on a spit. Feathers flew as no type of poultry got spared, and vegetables and fruit came fresh from the trees or ground in every shape, colour and taste. Wine and brandy flowed from wooden kegs and a stringed instrument band complimented the festivities. Guy Fawkes Night was another event that brought our street alive. In South Africa we actually celebrated an old English tradition to ridicule a conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Parliament on the 5 November 1605. The slogan was ‘remember, remember the fifth of November’ and the kids made an effigy of him with scrounged clothing stuffed with straw. The effigy paraded on their shoulders or in a billy cart from door to door in the neighbourhood with the chanting of ‘penny for the Guy, penny for the Guy’ rewarded them with enough money to purchase fireworks, and the most grotesquely dressed Guy usually got the most pennies. As soon as darkness fell the little ones received lit sparkles and both sides of the street became a myriad of twinkling little particle stars. For their further entertainment and safety, non-explosive fireworks of Catherine wheels, Roman candles and volcano fountains lit up the street. Further activities for the night continued on our vacant lot where adults and older children congregated around a huge bonfire to watch the Guy Fawkes effigies burn. Skyrockets, snakes, big-bangers, exploding volcanoes and fizzes punctuated the night. Chinese firecrackers thrown on the bonfire exploded in an eruption of glowing embers. Big-bangers placed upright on the ground and then lit with an empty tin can over it would shoot straight up like a rocket. Snake-crackers scattered the crowd as it cracked, slithered and jumped on the ground in between the unsuspecting. The mornings after such celebrations a scavenger’s hunt would pervade in our street for unexploded firecrackers and half burnt sparklers, and we older children would pool our booty and cause an early morning disturbance by setting them off. One such morning saw me almost ending up as the Guy Fawkes effigy. Getting up at the break of day to get a head start on my friends I foraged around and found an excessive amount of unexploded fireworks. Although my pajama top pocket was bulging my greed made me continue searching for more in our front garden. Finding a few more I stuffed that in my pocket too, but when bending down to retrieve another, a sudden slight explosion occurred in my pocket. Clutching and tearing at the pocket didn’t help as fizzing and smoke appeared. An unnoticed still glowing ember in one of the supposed unused firecrackers had ignited one with a wick, and expecting at any moment to have a hole blown through my chest I had the presence of mind to grab my dad’s garden hose, put it into my pocket and turn on the water. My shouts of panic though had brought my family and friends who burst out laughing on seeing my soaking wet bedraggled figure.

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My dream drawing indicating the Christmas Tree and Marching Bands in reference to the Christmas Celebrations and New Year’s Carnival Parade, and the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day.

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3 thoughts on “14. My Stomping Grounds In Athlone.

  1. E says:

    Love it while reading that I had the pictures in my head-awesome walk down a wonderful memory lane

  2. hgwlorenzo says:

    And there’s more! Glad you loved it and I think a blog I’ll be doing of my 4 best teenage friends, which includes your Uncle Gus, will be a hoot as the say

  3. […] 14. My Stomping Grounds In Athlone. (hgwlorenzo.wordpress.com) […]

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