I have called three countries home: England, South Africa
and Australia. After leaving school I worked in electricity generation and
distribution for 10 years. I have dabbled in a number of jobs including sales,
teaching and public speaking and running my own business.
This book was conceived while at university studying
creative writing. The idea grew and will become six books covering life and
times from 1967 to 1972.
Who encourages, supports, believes
and loves unconditionally.
Thanks to Leigh and Talitha Ockey
for their assistance with the cover design.
Africa, the Dark Continent, was a wild and mysterious place, attracting adventurers, explorers and missionaries. South Africa in the Sixties still held that mysterious attraction. Servicemen, seeking a new life far from the memories of the battlefields of Europe, found South Africa a friendly country, hungry for their skills and offering dreams of a bright future.
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The Norman family left their English Midlands home, seeking a fresh start in the newly established Republic of South Africa.
Dickie (Richard) Norman had served with the Royal Air Force in Bomber Command. As a ground crew leader, he’d developed a ‘knack’ for fixing almost anything on any aircraft entrusted to his care. His fabrication skills could turn a pile of scrap metal into a treasure trove of spare parts. After the war Dickie worked in the food canning industry, developing further skills in workforce management and food processing. The combination of all these skills led to his appointment as Manager for the tomato processing plant in Malelane.
Helen Norman was the South-African-born English Rose. Born on the outskirts of Pretoria to English missionary parents, she spent her formative years in and around Pretoria. In 1939 her parents were recalled to England, and arrived late in July. World War II began just two months later. Helen joined the WAAF, to ‘do her bit’. On her first leave she attended a dance with friends. The band had just started playing the first tune of the night when she heard a gentle, deep voice ask her for a dance. Helen took to the tall confident RAF gentleman at once and allowed him to fill her dance card. Dickie Norman asked for her hand in marriage six weeks later.
Richard Raymond Norman took his first breath in 1954. A complete surprise and blessing to Dickie and Helen. Doctors had told them that they would not be able to have children. On a sunny Saturday morning in September, God intervened.
Night lifted its cloak and retreated from the bold sunbeams of dawn. The animals of the bush moved towards water to quench their thirst. The bush woke and came alive, yet little seemed to move; a green canopy hiding the vibrant life below.
In a green roofed house on the northern side of the Malelane Railway Station, Richard Norman slept. His light soft curly hair lay upon the pillow like a halo. A sheet lay loosely over his tall, athletic figure. At peace for the moment, soon he would wake and the day would begin in pain.
Helen looked at the clock.
“Time to get up.” She moved to Richard’s bedroom door and knocked.
“Richard, it is seven o’clock, time to get up.” Helen listened for some sign of movement or acknowledgement.
Something that sounded like “Okay, Mum” came from the other side of the door.
Helen moved quickly away from the door to the kitchen. She hated hearing her son wake.
Richard was having a growth spurt that began a year before. Shoe sizes increased every three months. Clothing that was too big in January was too tight in April. In his seventh year at school, Richard already measured six feet in height. The dark side of this frantic growth was pain, aching bones and muscles – at worst early in the morning.
Richard opened his eyes. In that place between sleep and wakefulness, growing pains racked his still tired frame. All sleep was quickly banished. He threw his legs off the bed and stood up as fast as he could. Standing up eased the pain. Richard’s breathing was at first fast and noisy. As the pain subsided, so his breathing slowed to normal.
In the kitchen Helen heard her son’s loud, heavy breathing. Powerless, she stood fighting back tears and feeling helpless to comfort her son. Once she had been in the room when he woke. As the pain tore through his body, she threw her arms around him to comfort him. Richard had pushed his mother away; his pain-filled body needed to stand free of any restriction. Her hug to ease the pain only made it worse. Doctors had no medication that would help. The advice was, ‘He will grow out of it’. They did not have to hear their son in pain almost every morning. Helen heard Richard’s door open, the signal that the pain was gone. She could relax.
Neither of them knew it, but today 12-year-old Richard Raymond Norman was going to fall in love.
After breakfast, Richard mounted his red and white bicycle and rode to school. He rode at a leisurely pace along a cinder track parallel to the shunting yard. Richard listened to the many sounds of morning – bird song, truck engines and the sounds of people on the move. At the end of the shunting yard, the track dipped down sharply, rising again to meet with the public road. Richard turned right and crossed the railway line, stopping a few metres further on.
To Richard’s left was the African village. Unlike the ‘white’ town, this area had no laid out streets, street lighting or any form of town planning. There were no trees in the village and no lawns. The absence of these things gave the village an air of being incomplete and temporary. Yet Josephine, the Norman’s house maid, lived here. She seemed content and happy with her lot. Why was this place so different from the rest of the town? Richard allowed his thoughts to wander while he waited for his friend, Mario.
Mario was of mixed stock. His mother was South African and father Italian. Mario lost his mother to some sickness while still a toddler and now had a stepmother who was French. The result of this mixture left Mario with a wonderful talent; he could pick up a language just by listening to it.
The African bush is crisscrossed with shortcuts and hidden paths. Mario used one of these paths as a shortcut to school. He came at speed, bursting out of the bush and stopping next to Richard with a flourish. Mario rode a ladies’ bicycle without a manufacturer’s identity or model. It was black, still had mudguards, a chain guard and mechanical front brakes. The balloon tyres rounded out a look of being cumbersome and heavy. This machine had one advantage; it could carry two people without effort and was less susceptible to punctures. When Richard read of the escapades of the French Resistance he imagined this was the kind of bicycle the heroes of the day would have ridden.
The boys greeted each other and began the journey to school, riding two abreast and chatting about this and that. Below them the road surface changed from cinder to graded dirt and at Minty’s shop, to tarmac. Station Street started here, the oldest and originally the only named street in the town. It ran from the railway station to the main Nelspruit - Lorenzo Marques Road. Mario called out ‘race’ and began to peddle as fast as he could.
Richard responded in kind.
Traffic was not a problem in Malelane, even during the ‘rush hour’. Local lore had it that rush hour was on when five cars and a cow were seen on Station Street at the same time. If the cow was not present then the cars would not be held up hence Malelane had a ‘rush hour’ at random times throughout the day, any day of the week. No cow or cars hindered the boys’ headlong rush down the street today.
Halfway between the railway station and the main Lorenzo Marques Road the street divided and became the Rotunda. The town planner meant the town to be designed as a wagon wheel, with the Rotunda as the town centre or hub of the wheel. In the centre of the Rotunda there was a grocery shop, temporary bank and a haberdashery. This was of no interest to the two flying cyclists.
Richard obeyed the normal road rules and followed the road around the Rotunda shops, peddling for all he was worth and keeping the bike on a constant turn. Mario had balloon tyres and really good back pedal brakes. As Richard disappeared from view, Mario hit the brakes and swung across the road and on to the hard dirt shoulder. Using his superior grip on uneven surfaces, he forged a shortcut to school. He reached the turn-off to the school just as Richard came into sight still flying just metres away.
The daily jostle for position began. Richard had the momentum and speed, Mario had the position and was ahead. From the corner to the school entrance it was a short hop. Richard caught up with Mario within the first few metres, but Mario was getting up to speed and was hard to pass. At almost full speed the boys started the turn into the school yard; right off the road, hard left down the drive, full on the brakes, at the same time bearing to the right and stopping alongside a wall.
The boys knew the left-hand turn in the school yard was the hard one. The cumbersome ladies’ bike could not turn as quickly or as tightly as the red and white lightweight. Both machines turned at the same time and Richard knew he was going to win, as he held the inside line. Mario found himself braking for the sharp left-hand turn only to see the red bike already through the corner.
Both boys laughed as they walked towards their classroom. Neither kept any kind of record of who won or lost; friends do not keep books of account.
The boys sat on opposite sides of the class. On the first day of the year Mr Otto separated the two friends, knowing no good could come of having them together.
“Today we are going to have a day with an adult,” Mr Otto announced. “You will be given a choice to go with an adult to see what they do while you are at school.”
This sounded like great fun. The adults were seated behind Mr Otto on the verandah that served as a stage for assemblies and access to classrooms at other times. Richard recognised at least two farmers who had lots of tractors and overhead spray irrigation, as well as a smattering of ‘boring’ people like the local shop owner, a dressmaker and Jo-Jo.
Jo-Jo looked out of place and uncomfortable; he worked with Mr Fellani at one of the garages that did both mechanical repairs for cars and panel beating. Mr Fellani and Jo-Jo were Italian ex-prisoners of war. They’d been captured by the South African forces in North Africa and sent to South Africa for the “duration”. Like many of their comrades they found a country ready and hungry for their talents. At the end of World War II, they and many others were offered places in South Africa. These they took and stayed. The two men found Malelane and an underserviced agricultural community needing mechanics who could fix diesel and petrol engines. Now, 20 years after the cessation of hostilities, Jo-Jo and Mr Fellani had become respected business owners.
Jo-Jo was a worker. Fixing things was what he did best. Happiest when covered in the oil and filth of a workshop floor. Quite uncomfortable in clean overalls and in front of an audience. Mr Fellani had to be somewhere else this morning so the responsibility fell to Jo-Jo to come to the school. Richard noticed that most of the boys in the class wanted to go with the sugarcane farmers as there was the possibility of having fun with the overhead sprayers. Richard wanted to go to the farms as well but felt that he should go with Jo-Jo.
“Boys and girls, we have to divide you up, but I would like to know where you would really like to go.” One of the kids in the class handed out a slip of paper with a list of activities – Farming; Irrigation; Dressmaking; Motor Mechanics. Richard did not read the whole list. When he got to Motor Mechanics he ticked the box and handed his slip in. Mario went to a sugarcane farm.
“Just call me Jo-Jo. Everybody does and you can too.” The heavy Italian accent had not been dulled over the years.
Richard sat in the front seat of the car and smiled. “What kind of car is this?” he asked.
“If you want to be a mechanic you have to know more than just the manufacturer of the car. You need to know more about the car.” Jo-Jo paused and looked at Richard.
He smiled at Jo-Jo and waited for him to continue.
“This is a 1965 1500 Fiat. Four-cylinder engine, side-draft Weber carburettors, four-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive and runs on premium petrol. Regular petrol will cause pinking and wear out the engine.”
Jo-Jo spoke a language that sounded like English but Richard did not understand the meaning of his sentences, only the individual words. Richard knew he wanted to understand this amazing new language. The first step to falling in love with cars and all things mechanical had been taken.
At the workshop Jo-Jo showed Richard how to use a hydraulic jack. More words came. Richard was hard pressed to keep up, there were so many. Piston, cylinder, ram, hydraulic fluid, caster and the most important, safety. He jacked up all the cars that needed it for the rest of the day. There was just so much to learn.
In the workshop Richard saw the most beautiful car he had ever seen – a 1965 Ford Cortina GT. This car was the first Richard really liked – loved, maybe, but liked lots and lots.
Hearse black, with chrome five-spoke wheels, shiny bullet-shaped wing mirrors, a wood-rimmed steering wheel, red bucket seats and a brash silver-tipped double exhaust.
Jo-Jo explained the technical details. “Modified with a cross-flow head, side-draught carburettors mounted directly on the head inlets, free flow twin exhaust from manifold and radial ply tyres. Maybe this one will join the Ton-Up Club.” Richard found out that the Ton-Up Club was for any car that could exceed 100 miles per hour.
Richard learnt so much and it was all fun. Viscosity, SAE ratings, belts, chains, timing, balance, and so many words he could not keep up. All too soon it was time to drop him back to school. In the car Jo-Jo spoke to him.
“In the village where I was born, someone like you would be presented to the Patron. I think you would be earmarked as a possible consigliere.” Jo-Jo paused. “You could be a good mechanic but you are better. Do not become a motor mechanic or a consigliere. Become who God wants you to be.”
Richard was quite confused by the words the man spoke, but thanked him anyway.
That night Richard fell asleep with the light on. A book on loan from the library, The Modern Car, a volume of his encyclopaedia, a car magazine and a dictionary surrounded his sleeping body. Helen cleared the books away and neatly placed them on the shelf. Dickie joined Helen to wish their son goodnight. They looked on the peaceful sleeping form, smiled at each other and turned off the light. Just before he fell asleep, Richard had looked up “consigliere” – advisor, normally of legal matters. Richard thought that this seemed an honourable job. “Why did Jo-Jo not want me to be an advisor?” Images of cars and questions about how the internal combustion engine worked were interrupted by God. He blessed the boy with deep and untroubled sleep; answers were for another day.
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