The recent memorial service held for a good man, Des Nel, allowed his family and many friends present to reflect on the fragility of life, as well as time to remember the great care he took in nurturing and preserving friendship.
Des Nel was a man amongst men, a rock to which one could moor one's darkest moments in complete confidence, safe in the knowledge that he could, through simple word and deed, not only offer sage advice, but remove the conflict one felt within and replace it, almost magically, with laughter that restored one's well being!
Such men are few Oom Schalk... they receive the blessing of prosperity through honesty of both word and deed... they understand the saying, form is temporary - class is permanent and they forgive both indiscretion and slight in the knowledge that the secret to life lies more in the giving than the receiving.
As is the tradition attached to such memorial affairs, the service was followed by a wake. It was grand Oom Schalk, perhaps even better attended than the service. It allowed his friends and family the opportunity to reflect on moments in his company, whilst chewing the ice in never ending glasses of Klipdrif, and there were many - both moments filled with good memories... and glasses....
One memory that lingered in my mind, which illustrated the mark of the man, was a robbery that took place on his fishing trawler moored at the Fish Jetty in Durban.
The trawler had just returned to port from the fishing grounds in Mozambique. It had been a good three weeks and she was laden to the gunwales with prawn, crab and crayfish. The crew were a sea of smiling faces!
The prospect, for them, of five days shore-leave before the next trip, a decent tonnage bonus and time in the company of family and other delights, had them whooping and hollering like kids in a playground!
Trawling for crustacean's in the Mozambique Channel is not a cushy job Oom Schalk and a fishing trawler is not exactly The Ritz in terms of accommodation and personal comfort, particularly when a strong westerly turns the Aghulas current on its head for days on end.
You needed a good Skipper and in Mitty Chelin – Des had found a pot of gold. Mitty is and will always remain a gentle bear of a man. Some might describe him as politely crazy, with a big and generous heart, but all will agree that he is without peer in his knowledge of the waters off the east coast of Africa.
A happy boat needs a good Mate and Errol Varley was both the joker and the jack in the pack. A wonderful raconteur, he knew how to keep a crew in high spirits and hard at work on a ‘dry’ boat in the deep blue yonder.
Formerly a highly revered journalist whose words and thought’s were eagerly accepted by the better broadsheets of the world, Errol had regrettably found the delights of alcohol a little too irresistible and had become an alcoholic shipwreck when on shore who could transform into a first class sailor, when sober and at sea.
He would literally pour himself onto the boat on a sailing day and the crew would lock him in a hold for his own safety until the inevitable bout of the DT’s passed and sobriety returned. (He once convinced himself, during a bout of the ‘delirium tremens’, that an Eagle taxi had driven a hundred miles out to sea to take him back to Durban and was waiting for him just off the starboard bow. He was most put out when the crew tied him to the masthead, to prevent him walking overboard, suitcase and all!)
Most of all you needed a willing crew who knew the ropes, who backed each other and who could keep their nerve in the face of danger and laugh when the moment passed. The crew were invariably, in those years of the Seventies, men of colour Oom Schalk, both in character and complexion.
They worked hard for their money and most of them worked equally hard at investing it in the manner of George Best - the famous English football star, on their return to home harbour.... "I invested my money in wine women and song and wasted the rest...!"
Two that stood out amongst this colourful crew were Lefty Saaiman and Eenoog Plaatjies. Both had spent more years than they could remember at sea, both had suffered permanent physical afflictions in the course of trying to wrest a living from a tempestuous ocean. Lefty had felt the excruciating pain of a steel cable that whip lashed onto his left elbow and left him with an arm that would never again straighten. Eenoog had lost an eye in an altercation with a flying fish hook whilst hand lining for chokka (squid) off Cape St Francis.
Despite these afflictions and their mutual penchant for frivolous investments, they were considered to be "Top Guns" when it came to trawling and had carved an enviable reputation amongst the rest of the crew in this regard. They were also inseparable friends who could do some crazy things...!
There was a standard procedure that was followed when the trawler returned to port. Des would meet them as they tied –up. Mitty would give him a brief break down of the trip and a tally of the crew's wages and tonnage bonus. Des would go to the bank to draw the cash and pack the wage envelopes. Mitty and the crew would attend to the unloading of the catch, get everything ship shape and batten the hatches in anticipation of a welcome bit of shore leave armed with a full wallet and prospects.
On the day of the robbery, Des returned from the Bank and went aboard and onto the Bridge, with the money counted, packed. He had no sooner settled onto stool at the chart table and made himself ready for payday, when he was called below to the engine room. Not wishing to take the cash with him he stowed it in the Skipper's cabin and went below.
Once below he found Mitty staring in disbelief at a hydraulic hose that was belching oil all over the below decks. "Sometimes I think hydraulic hose’s are the Devil himself", said Mitty, his voice rising in fury, "If I knew for sure, I would throttle the bastard until he converted to Catholicism... - find Varley and tell him to get me some new hose and a couple of clamps while I try and stop the flow..”!
Varley, the Mate, was found and despatched, armed with the requirements for repair and Des returned to the Bridge to find a very open door that he had forgotten to lock and the money bag missing!
It is in moments of discovery like this, Oom Schalk, that one can easily doubt one’s sanity. Des turned that cabin upside down, not willing to believe the obvious. He retraced his every footstep from the moment of his arrival at the Jetty. He searched the car twice, unable to accept the fact that anyone could rob him!
As he returned from the second fruitless search of the car, an older “lady of favour”, who was patiently awaiting the release of the crew... and their money... on shore leave, beckoned to him and whispered. “They are in the park, Meester”. “Lefty and Eenoog – they have got your bag.... and a big bottle of wine”!
As his eyes widened in surprise, she continued, “Those two palookas’ are too dumb to do a real robbery.., I think the length of the trip, the heat of the sun and the dryness of the ocean got to them..., they are just sitting there, drinking, trying to work out how to come back for their pay and bonus”, she said, half smiling through her missing teeth!
Des took her by the arm and said, in a tone that would tolerate no objection, “Show me where they are!”
She took him to the park, a short walk away, via the tradesman’s entrance – through a hole in the fence behind the cold storage plant, to a pathway that led across the rail tracks and roadways. As they climbed the grassy bank at the edge of the park, the top of which gave a view of the bay behind them, she veered right and said, “If you go behind and around that bush, pointing to a large bougainvillea, they are sitting under the tree directly behind it... I can’t go any closer. I have a reputation and a business to protect...”
Ja Nee, Oom Schalk, what followed was a form of kind, rough justice! Des was very handy with his fists and Eenoog never saw the first punch arriving from his blind side and hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. Lefty, with only one arm that could realistically serve his defence, took the uppercut that snapped his jaw shut, midway through a begging plea for forgiveness!
Des stepped between their painfully prone bodies, picked up the money bag and was about to turn on his heel back to the jetty, when Lefty said, “We are very sorry Master, We were only going to steal twenty rand for some wine... but then the Devil made us greedy and that’s how the accident happened! It’s all there, but for the twenty rand...”
A silence followed as the three men of the sea looked at each other. “Perhaps the Devil should be greedy”, said Des in a quiet voice, “perhaps the Devil should steal your tonnage bonus and then we’ll be square,” he said, his voice dropping as he turned away toward the jetty.
As he approached the road at the edge of the park, he turned and saw Eenoog and Lefty trudging after him most dejectedly. “Perhaps the Devil will accidently drop your wage packets on the railway line...”, he shouted and watched as smiles of understanding and respect creased their faces.
Ja Nee, Oom Schalk, Des Nel knew how to forgive and forget and many felt the benefit. Some say that justice delayed is justice denied and I think the outcome in this instance serves the sentiment of that saying very well. It was a kind justice, albeit rough and it suited the needs of both victim and perpetrator equally and in privacy.
That evening, after the wake Oom Schalk, I sat on my stoep here in the Colony and found myself to be strangely perplexed by my thoughts on justice. How was it, I argued with myself, that someone with such capacity to forgive and forget, could spend his final years suffering the worst forgetfulness of all – Alzheimers. What great sin turned his very strength into a debilitating weakness... what form of justice was served to pronounce this sentence...
Perhaps the lesson lies in learning not to ponder on these things and simply remember him as a fine man who added to the sum of forgiveness in the world. Ja Nee, Oom Schalk, perhaps we should all learn how to add to the sum of forgiveness!
Please convey my greetings to all in the Marico.