and then you get South Africa at the bottom tip, with the Free State in red:
and then in the Free State you get the important village of Harrismith in the east:
The village is guarded by this lovely mountain, our childhood playground:
Here’s the rest of Platberg, seen from the eastern edge of town. To the right of this is Kings Hill upon which is the maternity home in the B&W feature pic, which stood till 1955, then was demolished just after I was born there:
There’s this house:
and in the wintry back garden MY BEDROOM (or cottage) on the left:
Fresh from the City of Sin and Laughter (Harrismith, Free State, South Africa – you didn’t know?), where I’d spent my first seventeen years, I arrived in New York with Great Expectations.
I was READY – more than ready! – to see the big wide world. After landing we – the gang of Southern African Rotary Exchange students -were bused to a hotel in Queens. Someone – a Rotarian, I guess? – checked us in and then left us to go to bed for the night. Early the next morning we’d be boarding different planes to the various states we’d been assigned to.
Go to bed?! Fuhgeddaboudit!
But most did! I was horrified. “Excuse me, no WAY I’m going to bed. I’m in New York, the city that never sleeps!”. Even in Harrismith, Free State, South Africa I would not have wanted to go to bed in case the Holiday Inn was still open! Only one other guy – was he Ian? Or Gary? or was he heading to Gary, Indiana? It’s so long ago now? – joined me and we went to the night porter. “Right! Where can we go for a night on the town, sir? We want to go for a walk, which way shall we head?” Oh, I wouldn’t advise you did that, he drawled, I’ll get the hotel bus to take you someplace.
So off we went, noses plastered against the windows, fascinated. Our personal chauffeur dropped us off at a brightly-lit truck stop and asked when we wanted to be fetched. “Three Ay Emm” we said, pushing our luck. Check, he said without blinking. So we sat and watched a New York night go by drinking beer and slowly eating a burger n fries till he fetched us as arranged. So on our first night in wildest New York in a dodgy area we’d been warned about . . nothing happened.
After three hours sleep, we were taken back to JFK where we split up. Some of us boarded that huge NY Airways Sikorsky helicopter in the pic for the hop over to La Guardia airport from where I’d be going on to Chicago’s O’Hare airport and thence to Oklahoma City – and adventure! My late night truckstop friend was headed for Indiana – that’s him bustling to the chopper in the top picture.
In Oklahoma my nearby exchange student colleagues were the ladies in the picture, from left to right: Helen Worswick from Marondellas in Zimbabwe, Jenny Carter from Bromley in Zimbabwe and Evelyn Woodhouse from Durban. They were hosted by the towns of Carnegie, Mountain View and Fort Cobb respectively – all bustling metropoli like Apache!
Also Jonathan Kneebone from Australia, tall guy in the middle. And then – not in picture – there was the delightful Dotty Moffett from Ardmore in Oklahoma, who had been to Cape Town, South Africa as a Rotary exchange student the year before.
We all met at a festive gathering of Rotary students in Oklahoma and then visited each other’s towns whenever we could.
Here’s the group that left SA the same day, but flew all over the world.
It was amazing and heartwarming how Apache welcomed me. The town, the school the Rotary Club. Right from when I landed in Oklahoma City I was made to feel at home.
I had four immediate Rotarian families in Apache:
Bob & Carol Crews with Rob & Jennifer
Don & Jackie Lehnertz, whose adult kids had left home
Danny & Mary-Joyce Swanda with Robbie, Kent & Dayne
Jim & Katie Patterson with Mary-Kate & Jimmy
I had twenty Rotarians willing and eager to teach me America the Beautiful, and I have sung it on road trips ever since – my kids look at me weird – and show me around Apache and Oklahoma and beyond on their trips, business or leisure.
On my first trip out of state – to Paris, Texas – I learned to greet strangers. Being of faraway English, Scots and Dutch extraction I was insular and reserved. You had to formally meet four of someone’s family in person and know their grandma’s maiden name before you could say hello to them. Well, in Paris Texas I missed the first greeting and even the second. Surely strangers weren’t saying ‘howdy’ to me!? Then the penny dropped: They were, and Why Not? I have greeted people ever since. I get a lot of funny looks but what the hell, ignoring people is not on. I no longer have to meet someone’s grandpa before I say ‘Hello’. After all, I’m not English!!
I had a new ’73 senior class which would graduate soon, and then I’d join the ’74 senior class after the summer. They took me in and – besides English and American History, which were compulsory – let me choose the easy subjects. I was even in Annual Staff, the prize goof-off subject! And they bought me a class ring – how’s that? I had said no thanks, so they secretly chipped in and bought me one!
Few people are lucky enough to be in three high school senior yearbooks! I had ’72 back in South Africa – in the southern hemisphere we do it right – we start in January and end in December of the same calendar year! Then I joined the Apache senior classes of ’73 and ’74 for half a year each.
Robbie Swanda, Jay Wood and David Lodes showed me the ropes. As a seventeen year old I couldn’t drive back in the RSA and Rotary gave us strict orders NOT to drive as exchange students! But in the USA Robbie & Jay could, and I could be a passenger in their blue Ford Mustang and green Chev Camaro. Once Jay made the mistake of letting me drive. Bad. Again, I am sorry Jay and you were amazing the way you forgave me! I was better in the passenger seat. You know: beer. That feature pic at the top is from 15yrs later when I visited Apache on honeymoon: Jay, me and Robbie At Jim n Katie’s new place outside town.
Jim let me drive a tractor and Ole Red, the WW2 Willys Jeep. But on the farm! Sober!
In Canada that summer Sherry Porter made the mistake of letting me drive on a Friday on the way to a TGIF and I wrecked the rear fender of her red VW Bug. Thank goodness I hit a great big fullsize Dodge pickup with a fender the size of a cowcatcher on a steam train and didn’t leave a mark so we could drive off without guilt. You too, were amazing the way you forgave this African-who-wouldn’t-learn, Sherry! I was better on the back seat. You know: beer.
In Rotary every Tuesday we’d have a pattern: We’d sing America the Beautiful, pledge allegiance to the flag, ask about what everyone had been up to the past week and ask a medical question of old Doc O’Connor who would reply – every single time – “Not that kind of doctor”. He was a dentist.
I became a farmer – A certified Future Farmer of America and I can still hear how Schneeburger would say EFFIFFAY. I welded a cattle feeder on an axle and drum with birdshit welding which fell over in the first little breeze. I went to hog shows. I planted peanuts in Fort Cobb. Well, watched some Mexican fellas do it anyhow. I sprayed something on Jim’s lands. I drove in Walter & Pug Hrbacek’s (or was it Gene & Odie Mindemann’s) airconditioned cab in his harvester or tractor with an eight-track tape overhead. I took part in the catching, de-horning, castrating, branding and inoculating of the bull calves, then in eating the produce and washing it down with beer. ‘Mountain oysters’. It was like this, but in Walter’s barn, not at the church:
I learnt to type – Peaking at a blistering nineteen words a minute with ten mistakes.
I got hauled up in front of School Principal John Brown with Jay & Robbie and cowered as he read us the riot act for some misdemeanor, and then listened in wide-eyed awe as Jay said laconically, “You’ll get over it!” as John Brown turned bright puce.
I got taken to Paris Texas, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, the Wichita mountains, many surrounding towns – even Boone! Lawton, Norman, Anadarko for catfish, Lake Ellsworth and Lake Lawtonka, Fin & Feather on Lake Tenkiller, Muskogee, etc.
Out of state I went to Shreveport Louisiana, Cobleskill New York, Dubuque Iowa, Red River & Taos New Mexico, Las Vegas Nevada, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, to Colorado, to Utah, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin – eighteen states in all. And we drove on parts of the famous Route 66 back from Vegas.
Then Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Lake Superior, Quetico National Park (canoed on the Lake of the Woods and got eaten by 40 million mosquitos) in Canada with Niagara falls on the way. Saw the Mississippi where you could throw a stone across it on an amazing trip: The Pattersons took me to Shreveport LA, where Larry & Ginny Wingert fetched me in a VW Bug and drove me to Cobleskill New York; Where Dottie & Dale Moffett and Sherry Porter fetched me in another VW Bug in which we drove through Canada to Dubuque Iowa, from where Don & Jackie Lehnertz drove me home to Apache.
How amazing is all that for a 17 / 18 yr-old from a small town?
I played football and track for school and basketball for a Rotary pickup team.
Somehow the teachers in Apache were all wonderful and friendly! Why is that, when the teachers in my first senior class were not so enamoured of me? OK, let’s be truthful, I was a bit hard-to-take in my home school and very co-operative and smiling in my second school! I was on my best behaviour in the latter and not my best in the former. That’s life. Sorry, Harrismith teachers! Colonel Harold Dennis, Virginia Darnell, Bob Schneeburger, Dan Chandler, Jeanne Setzer, Billie McDonald and L’Roy Campbell were all very good to me – as were all the others. Sadly, memory fails me as far as names go. Another one was Jim Stanton from the lil school, who took me to a rock concert. And I wrote an apology-of-sorts to Rick Hulett too!
I Believe I Can Fly
Colonel Harold Dennis taught me how to fly – in theory – in night classes. “Ground School” he called it. Many years later I flew solo off a mountain in a paraglider. I’m glad I paid attention in his classes. It was stunning. And the Colonel’s knowledge really did help – I knew what was happening as I soared high up above the take-off point like a bird.
Once a year the cattle farmers of Apache pool their resources and get together to wrassle calves (or something like that). I was pulled in to the gathering and closely watched to see if this boy from Africa knew anything. At all. Well, they knew I didn’t by then, but I was good for a laugh! When I first got to Apache the local cowboys asked me if I could help them round up 18 cows. The maths nerd in me said, ‘Yes, of course. – That’s 20 cows.’ (actually, that’s a Jake Lambert joke, but not far off the truth!). I had been found wanting as a farmer more than once before.
We rounded up the calves, corralled them and roped them, brung them down and trussed them up.
We then: De-horned them with pincers; Cauterised the stumps with a red-hot metal ‘dome’; Injected them – inoculation; Castrated them with a pen-knife (not me!); Branded them with a red-hot branding iron. I hovered around, just of out of range of doing anything useful.
Then released them into the next pen, where they stood around bleating with a WTF!? expression on their dials.
After a long day we went home, washed up and gathered in Walter & Pug Hrbacek’s barn for the Big Annual Mountain Oyster Fry, where we fried mountain oysters and ate them covered in batter, washing them down with Coors beer.
What reminded me about this eventful day was this:
When I got to Apache Oklahoma I had already finished high school. Minimum effort had gone into my matric and I was keen to put minimal effort into this second matric, or ‘senior year’ at Apache High. In my mind I had been sent to America to socialise and be an ambassador, ‘period’.
So I carefully selected my subjects –
I had to take American history and English was compulsory according to Rotary as we were ‘foreigners’. I chose typing, ag shop (agricultural workshop – farming, welding, etc making me an automatic member of the FFA – Future Farmers of America), annual staff (making the school annual, acting as a journalist, selling ads in town – a hoot!).
Here’s me focusing on my typing. I reached a blistering 19 words a minute with ten mistakes.
In the feature pic, fellow annual staffers Robbie Swanda and David Lodes slave over their hot typewriters.
When I told host Dad Jim Patterson my subjects he grimaced then grinned and said –
“Peter, are you sure they didn’t offer basket weavin’!”
Jim was a great teacher. He taught me all about ‘counting fence posts’. He would pack a sixpack of Coors into a cooler on ice and we would drive around the district in his old red Ford F150 pickup along the farm roads with Jim recounting all the tales of who lived where, what they farmed and some history of the area.
We were ‘counting fence posts’.
Here’s Jim and that pickup.
Granpa Crews also took me fence-post counting. He just didn’t call it that. A memorable incident happened on one of those drives. Before we left South Africa on our exchange student program we had a weekend prep session here:
Where they told us what to do and what not to do (“Do not fall in love”; “DO NOT DRIVE” and other valuable lessons ignored). Also, they said “After six weeks you will get homesick and lonely. Expect it.” and I quite clearly and consciously thought Ha! What rot! Not me!
So we’re driving along a country road and Granpa Crews says “What’s wrong?” and I chirp a bright Nothing! I’m fine! and a flood of nostalgia washes over me and my eyes welled up with tears. Weird! Granpa Robert L Crews II, experienced old funeral director, mortician and undertaker that he was, had noticed something I hadn’t.
I’d been in Apache six weeks exactly. Every now and then – not often, of course – as a youngster you had to acknowledge there was something to be said for the wisdom of experience.