The Day Thou Gavest


The Junkman – 1953/54

As new chums our lives seem to be spent at the double. Double here, double there. No sooner one duty finished than prepare for the next. Fly out of here. Move ! At the double. One action-packed day seems to scramble itself into the next. One recollects, during one such headlong gallop, gazing wistfully across False Bay at the familiar silhouette of Table Mountain and thinking: If only I could just sit down quietly for a moment and think.

If nothing else these two years will teach us one thing and teach it well: In the words of Shakespeare, to make use of time, let not it’s vantage slip. In the process we will learn in good measure preparedness and foresight, for woe to he who discovers, whilst fleeing to a mid-morning math class that his math exercise book resides yet in his locker, or worse, that he has left his cap in the last classroom. There is no breaking ranks to retrieve. We find ourselves subject to new and peculiar pressures. Details tend to become critical, small omissions life-threatening. The loss of a collar stud on a Sunday morning is a veritable disaster. Thus we are metamorphosized, in all respects, for the better. Languid, young louts, formerly the despair of doting parents become as though by magic, tidy, pro-active and wise – though not always adherent to rules. With all this comes an appreciation of that prime Bothie value – the importance of shipmates. Your mates are your staunch allies, against officer and old salt alike. Mates cover for you, help you when you are in trouble and share, the good and the drak. When the port, bow oar in the cutter receives an hour’s slack party for catching a crab, the starboard promptly catches one also. May as well join your mate whitewashing, the squash game is up the spout anyway. We have fallen, if you will, down a nautical rabbit hole, where a lick of boot polish, offered in the nick of time can form a friendship for life.

Some of us come from wealthy homes, some not. But those who have been accustomed to plenty now find themselves on the same commons as their mates. We’re all in the same boat. A lad who never before dreamed of sharing a treat with others now discovers, when that eagerly-awaited gwogbox arrives from home, that there is more pleasure in sharing its contents with mates, in one swift, sticky feast than in hoarding it for himself. There are, after all, some for whom there is never a gwogbox from home and besides, hoarded gwogs tend to fall prey to predatory old salts.

Initially bewildered, we gaze across the main hall during evening prayers at the senior cadets, seventy five, wiry, reckless but effective rascals, seemingly inured to hardship. Twelve months seems to have made one hell of a difference. How did they get like that? They glare back with hostility. We are objects of scorn, offensive, horrible, little chums.

In order to cope we have to equip ourselves as they have done, develop the armour, the camouflage and lightening conductors that are a Bothie Boy’s survival kit, assets which we will find invaluable throughout our working life. We do not realize that, like rookies everywhere, the hardships which we suffer are intended with precisely this intent.

The evening ritual of Both Watches. A hymn: The day thou gavest Lord is ended. Regardless of the beautiful significance of the words, Second Officer Sanderoff stipulates: The first verse only. On one occasion it was the Sailors Hymn, Eternal Father strong to save. – The first two lines only ! Everybody pokerfaced. Junior cadet Oliver pounds out the opening bars on the ancient Joanna. We ease our feet within our shoes, laces already slacked off but with bows presentably tied. On the order, the senior cadets turn smartly to face forward and double away to their quarters, the locker room and the infamous annex.

As our tormentors disappear into the night Sandy consults his Zobo pocket watch and we prepare ourselves for the final madness of the day. Our pants are already unbuttoned, precariously secured by belt alone, ready to slip. We fidget our heels, surreptitiously clear of our shoes and await the first hint of the first syllable of the order dismiss, at which pandemonium will break loose. We will have one minute in which to shed our clothing, fold it neatly on our locker tops, don pyjamas and slippers and stand at attention next to our bunks. Failure will, of course, have its consequences. We still have some tricks to learn: Elastic fitted in the back of pyjama pants with the cord sewn into a permanent bow in the front and pyjama jacket buttoned and sewn up enable one to arrange them beneath ones pillow during the ten minutes for clean teeth, with sleeves and legs carefully concertinaed, so that in two sinuous, and well-rehearsed movements they can be yanked over ones naked form in as many seconds. Many a time, in years to come, when exigencies and weather threaten, the lessons here learnt will be applied in reverse, clothing laid out and gear carefully prepared, ready to be thrown on at short notice in the event of an urgent call during the watch below. Trained, indeed, trained in the grain.

A tornado erupts. The main hall becomes a maelstrom of hurtling bodies and flying clothing. Bruises, abrasions and violent collisions count as nothing in the frantic race against the evaporating seconds. A critical factor in this race paradoxically, is one’s surname. If it should begin with a letter between A and F one has the good fortune to find oneself starting from a position close to one’s bunk since these have been allocated alphabetically. Others whose surnames occur later in the alphabet have further to travel to their bunks. Blondie Stryder, one with such a handicap, hurdles the intervening lockers in amazing style, considering that his shorts are around his ankles, revealing pyjama pants, with legs rolled up, donned beneath.

The bugler sounds the still. The tornado dies on the instant. In the hush that follows we sink, panting to our knees for silent prayers, many seeking divine protection for some oversight – a dropped sock or a pyjama jacket donned in haste, Nelson fashion. A solitary, half-naked figure stands and struggles, beneath the stonewall, Sanderoff stare, to unhitch the reef knots in the legs of his pyjama pants. With downcast eyes we sniff, for, mingled with the bouquet of socks and the coconut matting beneath us, we detect the ominous, pungent odour of menthol. Sniff again in an effort to detect the source. The victim kneels two ahead from you. He has becomes aware, due to a deceptively comfortable warmth in his nether regions, of his situation and is already swearing vengeance: Some evil genius has doctored the crutch of his pyjama pants with Wintergreen, obtained by devious means from the sick bay.

The carry on sounds. We leap for our bunks and lie rigid while the cadet captains step forward to report their parts of ship. While the seventy odd of us battle helplessly to contain our mirth in silence the unfortunate of the knotted pyjamas struggles miserably on, while the mentholated martyr begins to writhe and moan, uncontrollably, as his genitals take fire.