This is the tale of my life. It’s told to give context and color to my life, mostly I am writing this with my kids in mind. It occurs to me that they don’t really know that much about me. I realized that my kids really have no real understanding about my youth, where I came from, what my experience of life has been and what drives me. This blog is meant to fill in gaps and give context.
Two verses of Maya Angelou’s poem And Still I’ll Rise resonate with me as a poetic summation of my entire life:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
My story is broadly divided into my time in South Africa, and then and my time in America. My time in America is divided into the period from my arrival thorough my marriage and up until the birth of our first child, Sam, and then the period of being a couple with children, and finally the period following my divorce. This first section covers the years 1959-1988.
South Africa: 1959 – 1977
I was one of the very last colonialists in South Africa.
I was born in Joberg, Joes, Johannesburg – Peter Tosh sang “what’s the word? Johannesburg”.
For me, Joberg occurred as a big dirty ugly city with no redeeming value. It was originally a gold mining town, and large yellow sulfa filled mounds of sand are dotted around the city along with the sometimes still active gold mining derricks. These mine dumps, so called, are the major feature of the city. It was also the case that the deep mine explosions when the miners detonated the dynamite to break up the rock, would cause tremors through the city like an earthquake.
I lived in the suburbs north of the city. Bramley first and then Glenhazel where I lived till we left. Unlike the bushveld, which were rolling grasslands with occasional trees, the suburbs of the city was heavily treed with a large variety of trees. The northern suburbs were also quite nice stately homes by any stretch of the imagination. And certainly spoke of opulence compared to the squalor of the townships not far away.
16 Kelvin Road 1959-1962
I was born into a Northern Suburbs dwelling reform Jewish family, the youngest son to two older sisters, Sue (8 years older) and Carol (9 years older) and my brother Derrick (12 years older) of Cynthia and Selwyn Chasan. I was born when we lived at the Kelvin Rd house, but I have really no memory of 16 Kelvin Road. My earliest memories are related to a time only after we moved into our house at 44 Linden Road. My earliest childhood memory is my blue peddle car and the long driveway at the Linden Road house. I think that memory is so strong because the new driveway was so long that I really got up a head of speed in my little peddle car.
44 Linden Road 1962-1970
Linden Road was a double story house with 3 upstairs bedrooms and a glassed in patio. My parents room and Susan’s room opened onto the patio. Derrick and I shared the patio. My parents room and Carol’s room opened onto a deck on the opposite side of the house.
The house had two bathrooms and both were upstairs. My parents had a full bathroom on suite while all the sibs shared the other bathroom and separate toilet which lived at the top of the slate covered stairs. I remember it vividly. There is a memory trick called the “memory palace” where you use your childhood home to recall non-related items. I can vividly recall this home with great detail, and used that trick once to great effect.
I remember my kindergarten years going to the little nursery school down the street. Certain features stand out. In addition to the long driveway that I used to drive my sky-blue pedal car up and down, one of my favorite memories is of the sweat pea flowers. My mom planted sweet-peas outside along the whole length of the fence facing the street. It was about 50 feet long and the spring bloom had a wall of aromatic pastel flowers outside. We literally had full vases of sweet smelling sweet peas all over the house! It was glorious.
There was a “Wendy-House” in the backyard, underneath a great big old oak tree that I loved climbing. There were fig trees, a mulberry tree, a green-gauge tree, a granadilla vine, and a couple of plum trees. Summers were great. We spent all our time outdoors climbing trees, playing cricket and one bounce (a soccer skills game), and we ate so much fruit off those trees. My neighborhood friends or my cousins or even my siblings boyfriends were all at one time playmates.
I also kept silkworms because we had a mulberry tree and silkworms eat mulberry leaves. I recently read about how it was illegal to take a mulberry leaf out of China who were trying to protect their silk trade. It was always a fascinating thing to watch a silkworm making its cocoon. And it was magical to watch them emerge as moths and mate and lay eggs. We kept the silk worms in a shoe box that had a few knife-poked holes in the lid. Picking fresh mulberries while we gathered leaves for the silk worms was fun. We would be stained purple from the juice running down our chins.
We also used to keep an eye out for the occasional chameleon that showed up in the yard. They were fun animals to play with. They really could change color effortlessly. I was fascinated by how their eyes moved independently and with their ability to gradually blend into the background. Sort of like those body paintings where the model is disappeared into the background.
We used to try to catch those giant grasshoppers when they were around to watch them feed on grasses we pulled, but the best insects to capture by far was the Preying Mantis – super creepy to watch as it decapitated the male as they mated.
My youth was joyful. We were really the last colonialists. I was actually born in an English Colony, The Union of South Africa. I remember when we became an independent country in 1961 – I was in grade 2 of primary school 1966 when we got an oversized coin commemorating 5 years of independence from Great Britain. It literally made no difference in my life.
We lived in kinda a big house, well it seemed big to me. There were servants quarters, near the kitchen, 4 almost- bedrooms, well really 3. Although Derrick and I shared the glassed-in porch, in truth, he was mostly gone, but when he came home, he shared the room with me.
Derrick was gone a lot, he was 12 years older than me, and when I was born, he was shipped off to boarding school in Port Elizabeth – Kingswood College I think. As a little kid I sure looked up to him and my sisters – worshiped them really. Derrick was close friends with Howard, and Carol was dating Malcolm for most of my recollection. Sue started dating Rex soon after Carol and Malcolm started dating. The both ended up marrying them. It’s crazy to write this now given that Sue and Rex are long divorced and both Carol and Malcolm died last year. I can add now that Sue died unexpectedly a couple of months ago and now its just me and Derrick here. Life is short.
I was kind of a wild kid I suppose. Well not really wild, but curious and fully self-expressed. I have a couple of key memories: for instance I remember climbing a ladder and then climbing to the high peak of the roof and sitting there astride the peak, terrified and stuck. The ritual was that my mom would ring a “dinner bell” to get me in from around the neighborhood. I heard the bell. I yelled down
“I can’t come!”
Mom: (sing song) “why not?”
Me: “i just can’t”
Mom: “where are you?”
Me: “up here!”
Me: “up here!”
Mom comes out and looks up!
Mom: (panicked and screaming) “stay put don’t move”
Luckily the painter was still there and he crawled up to the peak of the roof, had me climb on his back, and he climbed down.
Naturally I got thrashed for that.
There are memories I have of setting the grass on fire once. I think I was 6 and we had this great vine of granadilla (passion fruit) between our house and the neighbors- Mr. and Mrs. White, and my friends and I used to spend hours climbing around he vine picking granadilla’s and eating the sweet crunchy nectar.
Well one time in the winter (Johannesburg had dry winters) my cousin Terry and I were playing in the back yard and we tied a rubber duck to the pole of the clothes line. It was a metal pole so I didn’t think much about setting the duck on fire.
What I did not anticipate was that the dry grass would catch fire. That led to the trash cans behind the garage catching fire. That led to the granadilla vines catching fire. It all happened so fast that before I knew it, the flames were reaching to the sky.
I did the only thing I could think of. I ran away.
Well I wasn’t allowed to cross the street, so I ran away to the end of the block. I tried to persuade a well dressed African man to hold my hand to help me across the street, but he wasn’t having any of it. I was negotiating with him when my dad called – or whistled – for me to come home. Reluctantly I walked home, my head hung low. I knew I was going to get whipped.
My dad thrashed my behind till I was crying hard. He used to hit me mostly with his belt when he punished me. He was brutal. He sent me to bed .. it was lunchtime.
Corporal punishment was commonplace. My friends dad’s used canes, sjamboks (rhino hyde whips), paddles, and branches to whip them. Anthony’s dad used a sjambok, and Grey’s dad made him go and cut a branch from the willow tree in their yard. I was the lucky one. Throughout my life, I got hit by adults. By my parents, by my siblings, by my teachers, by the maid, and by the school Principle. I don’t think a week went by till I was finished high school where I did not get caned. Not one week. I got beat with a strap my first day of primary school, and with a cane during my senior year of high school. I had beatings at home until I was about 14. When I was 16, and my dad slapped me hard across the face, I stood toe to toe to him, told him menacingly that “that will be the last time you ever hit me”. It was.
Grey lived next door, Anthony across the street more or less. We were famous friends. We built model airplanes together in the Wendy House, we had sand clog fights over the back fence pretending we were on ships of old. In Joberg, the sand made these big clumps that exploded on contact. We used to use the trash can lids as shields and the clogs would explode when they hit them. Great fun.
One of my purist pleasures was to climb the Pussy Willow tree in the front yard while it bloomed, and play with those soft flowers. Being up there with the birds and the bees was heaven.
In the fall, we used to make kites and go up to the primary school soccer field and see how high we could get our kites. My record was 6 balls of string. The kite was literally tiny in the azure blue sky. Bringing it down and keeping the string from knotting was always a challenge, but we had a blast.
My brother came home from boarding school and was home for a year when I was about 6. He used to tease me. I had big ears. It seemed that my ears where the only part of my body that was growing! So he would say “Stand on the desk, and flap your ears and see if you can fly to the bed (across the room)”. And of course, because I worshiped my big brother, I tried.
Living in that house was like living in a castle for me. I was tiny and the house seemed so big. It was the 60’s so there was sparse phone service. In fact, we had a party line, which meant that the phone had a distinct ring if it was for you, and other rings for other people. You could listen in on a neighbors conversation if you wanted. 5 homes were sharing a phone with us at first.
One day when I was about 6 years old, my dad said “let’s go” and we jumped in his car. I had no idea where I was going. We were going to a farm nearby to select a dog.
We needed a dog. We used to have Happy, a big white mutt with brown ears that showed up and stayed. Cheri was a French Pug, and my sister Sue had Cleo, a little black Miniature Poodle. Cleo and Happy died so my dad took me to get my dog.
I knelt at the edge of the wire pen and this little brown and black striped puppy with a short tail came scampering over. I immediately named her Sandy. I loved Sandy. Sandy was wild.
We sent her to Dog Training Camp, and then every week I’d take her to dog training class. Being South Africa, dog training class was training your dog to attack (black) people. We would set the dog off after a man running with an arm guard (a big hessian cover) and the dog would sprint 30 or 40 yards after the running man and launch himself at him taking him down. Those brave men used to only get bit on the arm guard. Amazing.
There I was, just a little kid, training my dog to attack black men. Thinking back on it now, it’s so weird. But gradually I got control of Sandy. More or less.
Sandy and I were inseparable. I loved that dog so much. She was my companion. My friend. My playmate. She slept on my bed and to this day I like the feeling of my dog laying on my feet.
I say “almost”, because Sandy would do stupid things. We used to have the whole family, and extended family, over for big Sunday lunches. Every Sunday. Roast beef or roast leg of lamb, roast potatoes, salad and always ice cream. Granny Annie, my moms grandmother would come over. She used to make these great perrogen – little Russian mince meat pies – that went great in soup. Well Grannie Annie was old and she walked slowly with a cane and Sandy insisted on jumping up to greet her and inevitably would knock her over. Occasionally she would get hurt. And both me and the dog would get whipped.
Another time I got into trouble was when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I came home from school and really needed to go number 2. I ran in and ran up stairs to the toilet at the top of the stairs.
I was sitting on the potty looking at the 4″ square white tiles and noticed that the grout was poking out…now I didn’t know what grout was, and there was no malice in my actions. Picking at the grout, a tile fell to the ground. I picked it it up and tried to put it back in place. Two tiles came away and fell to the floor.
I finished my business, and flushed the toilet.
I picked up the two tiles and tried again to replace them…but this time 4 tiles fell away leaving a big grey hole in the middle of the wall. I was petrified. I knew I was going to get whipped.
I thought about it a minute and said to myself that “if the whole wall was the same color, nobody would notice”…..(6 year old logic)
I proceeded to remove every single tile…floor to ceiling…from the entire room. It took a while. Then I went and hid under my bed.
Needless to say, I got thrashed. I got my dad with his belt. Did I say he was brutal? He was.
One time I avoided getting thrashed because my mom and my sister came to my rescue. My dad thrashing me with his belt was something I hated. I tried to avoid it at all cost. The truth is he didn’t beat me often, but when he did, it was harsh. I was bruised for weeks.
The situation was that dad forbid fireworks. In South Africa, being that it was an English Colony, we celebrated Guy Faux Night. This was the main fireworks night that we had. There were always sparklers (which I was allowed to have) and at the end of the night, the organizers would burn a big straw man filled with fireworks on a bonfire. (Maybe the origin of Burning Man? – just a thought).
Well my dad was opposed to fireworks. He would say “its just like burning money”. He had strong objections. Well in spite of that, I always managed to talk my mom into buying me a package of “Tom Thumb” fire crackers. Small crackers that I could play with.
She would get them for me as long as I would light them at the bottom of the garden. Well one day I took the liberty of lighting one in the living room.
I didn’t notice it but a spark landed in the middle of my dad’s favorite chair. What happened was that it burned a hole in the middle of the cushion about 3 inches around. This was an unmitigated disaster. The reason is that every night, and I mean every single night, my dad would come home from work, go to the living room after dinner, go to his favorite chair, FLIP HIS CUSHION OVER, then sit and read the newspaper.
He did this every single day without fail.
I was in fear. He was going to thrash me for so many reasons (wasting money, lighting fire crackers in the house, and lying) and it was going to hurt bad.
My sister and my mom came to my rescue…for a very long time…..what they did every day for years…was tell my dad that they just flipped over the cushion for him….and he bought it every single day. I kid you not.
When we were packing for the move to America 12 years later, he saw the burn and asked about it and my mom said “Oh, than happened years ago ” and he just shrugged…I feigned ignorance.
I was sporty but small. I played soccer every day. I’m our back yard we would set up goals and play 3-and-in for hours. If my friends could not come over to play, I’d kick the ball 20 yards aiming at the clothes line, and I’d hit it quite often. If we weren’t playing 3 and in, we played one bounce, an elimination game allowing only one bounce between touches. We got pretty good with our feet. Often, after Sunday lunch, all the boys (I was almost always the youngest) would go play One Bounce in the back yard. I was given a yellow, full size, soccer ball for my birthday present one year, and we literally played the cover off of it. Soon enough it was no longer bright yellow, it was a mix between brown and gray.
Derrick was a big cricket fan and when he was home, we would put up a milk crate for wickets and he would bowl to me … when I got my very own new cricket bat it was like a magical day.
The bat was a white willow the handle was red, the spring went half way down the bat. I got a brand new kookaburra ball too. That deep red shiny ball with the single yellow stitched seam, and I used that ball to break in the bat by putting it in a sock and hitting the bat a thousand times.
In the summer I spent most of my time with my cousins John and Mandy. John and I would play cricket in the back yard, and John and Mandy and I would play tennis or swim in their pool when at their house. Sometimes John and I would go to the Wanderers Club to watch Test Cricket.
I used to love spending time at John and Mandy’s because they lived near the Zoo and the War Museum. We literally spent all day there so often. I really became interested in war machines after studying the equipment there hour after hour for years.
John had a kids chess set and I became interested and taught myself how to play. I was about six years old at the time. I played with Eddie my very smart close friend who was my closest friend all through high school too. Eddie did gymnastics with me and we also made our high school projects together.
I really grew up in the shadow of the war. Uncle Anthony, John and Mandy and Adrienne’s dad, was a Spitfire pilot who fought in The Battle of Britain. He always seemed larger than life to me. More about him in a bit. My dad and his brother, my uncle Neville, were in the South African Army infantry serving in East Africa during the war. I understand that my dad was somehow involved in guarding German and Italian prisoners of war in Kenya. It was here in East Africa that my dad developed his deep love of the African Bush, and through him, how I developed that same love. My dad was so proud of his time in the service that married my mom in his army uniform.
We didn’t have TV growing up, there was no TV is South Africa until about 1976, so we either sat in the living room reading in front of a coal fire, or we listened to radio dramas, and we sometimes used to have movie evenings. Often it was my dad showing his 8 mm home movies, but often it was rented 16 mm movies, and invariably we saw black and white war movies. Films like The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day, and other black and white films glorifying WWII. I became good at running the projector during those days. It made me feel important to be in charge of the projector, changing reals and fixing skips. Those skills carried over first at high school where I often ran the projector when we had things to watch like the test match between the All Blacks and the Springboks (rugby), and then in college when I was still running the protector on the day I graduated at the graduation ceremony.
I also had an HO train set
and a scale electrix car racing kit.. The Lotus was my favorite car
and used to set up the train – which took hours – and play with it when I could get the electricity to work, which always seemed difficult, and I also used to set up a great race track for the cars and play with them either by myself or with friends. I was into car racing from early on. Kyalami Race Track was near our home and my dad used to take me to watch the races.
I remember being in the Pit on practice day one year, when I almost got nailed by an F1 Ferrari as it came into the garage. I jumped over the wing….it probably was not close but it scared the shit out of me. I think it might have been this car….
I have followed F-1 since those days as a result of being at the track as a young boy. I am still a fan.
During those days I had already started gymnastics. I remember my mom bringing me to the Wanderers Club when she found me doing handstands and cartwheels. I was a little pipsqueak in those days but a little wild and fearless. I tried all the tricks and learned all the skills I could on all the apparatus but tumbling was my first love. We used to do these huge displays for people (parents and family members I guess) – and I was always a contender in the hand stand competition.
The instructor was a guy named Neville Graham who was a national team gymnast and he was also the son in law of my parents good friend Iris and Laddie who had this amazing yard with a fish pond and big trees where hundreds of exotic birds were resident. (I recall falling in the fish pond fishing for tadpoles when i was 3 or 4.) They used to feed the birds every day around 4:00 and it was like Dr. Doolittle. I remember being there one day when a peacock came to feed. It was amazing to see so many birds – all quite wild, including a peacock – standing patiently waiting for Iris to spread the seed.
On Sundays, my dad and his mates used to work on cars. Laddie had a pit so that they could get under the car to do oil changes and so on. I used to like hanging around and listening to the men talk about the engines. It was this experience that had me take apart my first car as an adult and try to rebuild the engine.
I was 6 years old when I broke my arm the first time. I was on the high bar and I was doing giant circles with the coach – that day a guy named Phillip, spotting me. Well I lost my grip and went flying. I landed more or less on my head between two mats and unconscious fell over onto my left wrist folded awkwardly underneath me cracking my ulna styloid process.
The trip to the hospital is vague, but I remember the anesthesiologist telling me to count to 10 and I remember getting to 3!
I woke up in the dark not sure where I was when I felt the weight of the cast on my arm. I remember feeling like I was a “big shot” because I had a cast.
I was pretty hard on the cast and had softened it up so much that the doc extended my time and wrapped it again with fresh plaster. It was pretty heavy, and when the cast came off, my arm involuntarily floated up… it was weird. I stood there with my left arm extended out sideways. It stayed there for a few minutes. Totally weirded me out.
In those days, my diet was mostly supplemented by icing sugar. My mom used to bake a lot and I used to lick the dish but my favorite thing to do was to take a little silver egg cup and press it down into the icing sugar and just lick that. Needless to say my teeth suffered. I had so many cavities that needed filling. I spent many an hour at the dentist. The ritual was that I got to go into the dried fruit store in the lobby after being at the dentist, and I always selected dried apricots. Still have a fondness for them.
During the year before I broke my arm, just 6 years old, I got to go on an ocean cruise with my parents, on a Union Castle Line cruise ship called The Rainer Dell Mar. It was a big purple ship with a red and black chimney and white masts etc.
I loved that voyage. We were gone a month in all. About 10 days to cross the ocean leaving from Cape Town. I remember departing and the thousands of colored streamers that were thrown from the ship to the shore. There was a band playing on the dock and people were very cheerful.
I had the run of the deck and made friends everywhere. A sailor taught me how to play the slot machines, and I made a fortune in 5 penny pieces called “tickies”. I remember carrying handfuls of coins in my shirt back to the cabin.
There was a movie theater on the ship that played several movies, one of which was Bambi, that I couldn’t get through because the fire scene was too scary for me.
I remember coming into Rio de Janeiro early in the morning as the sun was rising. The water, which had been brilliant blue, was brown as we entered the river mouth and the Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ Statue looked over the city.
I remember bits and pieces from that trip. The hot Coco Cabana Beach sand, so hot, I couldn’t walk on it. I remember the castle in Uruguay, the yummy steak at the BBQ by the river in Argentina.
I have flashes of other memories as I write this, one being the Crossing the Line Ceremony on the ship. The sailors all dressed up as women with wigs and balloons in their shirts and were tipped into the pool after having shaving cream (I think) pies shoved in their faces. It was a big fanfare with Neptune being the judge and jury. Of course all the travelers were watching and laughing and applauding. Being only 6 I took it more literally.
Two tastes have stuck with me from that voyage. Thousand Island dressing, which I’d never had before, and Hearts of Palm which I just loved alone and also in a salad.
I remember one night late, close to the end of the trip, when I came out of the cabin to go to the bathroom and the whole ship was alive! My parents had put me to bed about 6:00 and I had no idea that anyone else was awake. I felt totally ripped off.
Food was an interesting thing for me in those days.
I usually ate millie pap and gravy for breakfast made by the maid. She used sour porridge and made the yummiest savory stew to go along with it. To this day I still prefer a savory breakfast. For lunch I often had a cheese sandwich or a hot dog sandwich or my favorite toasted cheese and tomato. Yum!
We also had a puffed wheat cereal that I ate dry by the handful.
My mom used to say that I “only ate three things” besides. Lamb chops, grilled prawns and Chinese food.
Sunday nights we usually had chops and chips (lamb chops and French fries) – I loved those meals, still do.
We had a formal dining room and ate dinner as a family served by Abbiott, the Gardner by day, white coated waiter by night. My mom had a little bell and would ring for the servants to bring the next course or take away dirty dishes. We literally ate 3 course meals every day. Nobody was allowed to leave the table till everyone was done and I always struggled to finish what my mom dished up for me. I Remember people sitting staring – glaring at me really – saying “eat Neil” over and over while I ignored them. I sometimes would get my cold dinner from the night before, for breakfast the next day. It wasn’t always like that. We all used to fight over the bone marrow in the soup, the roasted potatoes, and the bread-and-blood drippings when Meat was carved. I still have a serious craving for those tidbits.
In those days I went to Bramley Primary School. I played soccer, cricket, ran track, swam and dived, and then in high school I added squash, tennis, fencing, gymnastics, rugby and field hockey. My life was one sports season to the next. My best friends at that time at school were Martin Hurwitz and Graham Rodin and Eddie Sender, in addition to my neighbor friends Grey Stead and Anthony Glass.
On Sports Day, we assembled in our House (think of Happy Potter) and the House I was assigned to was Roan – we were the red house.
My dad was always present at the school. Here he is dealing with the trophy’s on sports day. A friend recently told me that he still remembers my dad at the school.
You can see me as a 6 or 7 year old in these two pic, I am leaning forward in the first one
And waling with a classmate here
I loved sports day. It was so much fun
We used to fly kites in the afternoons at the school, go swimming and diving at the Kingfisher Pool around the corner, play soccer on the play field and play Gaining Grounds (a rugby ball kicking game), and ride races on our bikes when we weren’t playing organized sport. We also played tons of board games, monopoly especially, and we had a Spirograph that I loved playing with. We did puzzles and played cards. The main card game we played was Clubby Ace (more on that later). It was a complicated game that emulated the Bridge that my parents played. We also read books and magazines and listened to the radio.
At home I had plenty of time to get into mischief because school ended early enough and my mom and dad worked so we just created our day.
I remember my dad had embarked on a mission to build a swimming pool at the school. After that, I always thought the pool belonged to us, I mean it had his name on it. Here is a photo of Selwyn with the principle Mr. Kitchenbrand.
My dad had a Dry Cleaning Facory called Swift Dry Cleaning downtown, and it was always a treat to go to the factory. Mom worked in her rooms (what clinics were called in South Africa). What I remember about visiting her practice “Hosey and Chasan” that was her partner, Francis Hosey. She was always very nice to me and although I never knew her well, she did have the most amazing collection of matchbooks in her house. They had a bar that they had stapled literally hundreds of match books floor to ceiling on every vertical surface. Anyhow, the elevators in my moms building had mirrored walls and they were just out of alignment enough so that you could see thousands of iterations of yourself. I used to ride up and down in the elevator to stare at that. The dentist I used to see was also in that building…as well as the dried fruit place.
One time when Derrick was home from high school before he went off to college, I took a one Rand note (a dollar) I found on the desk in our room (he was asleep) and went after school to the corner cafe, where I became the yo-yo champion, to buy soccer cards.
I used to collect soccer player cards. They came 3 to a lucky packet which cost 3 cents each. I spent about 66 cents and purchased all the lucky packets they had. My little suitcase was filled with cards and gum!
I had a stack of cards and came home feeling a little guilty. I “hid” the change around the back of the house and hid the cards in the Wendy House. Rebecca, the maid found me out back and took me by the hand dragging me inside. She spanked me with my mom on the phone yelling “hit him again” over and over.
By the end of the night, Rebecca, Derrick, my mom and dad had all spanked and beat and whipped me. It was the most severe beating I recall receiving as a kid. Literally hours of getting beat by multiple people. I spent a lot of time under my bed the next few days.
At school we played this game where we would stand 20 feet or so away from a wall and have to flick the card to the wall. Whoever was closer, would keep both cards. I got really good at flicking cards so eventually nobody would play me. And I had a fat pile of soccer cards. I was a big fan of Powerlines at that time. They were a great side with a Brazilian midfielder named Santoro who was tricky as hell. My love affair with Powerlines lasted till high school when we got season tickets to Highlands Park.
Coke, Fanta and Sprite made branded yo-yo’s and had these Brazilian guys, who were ridiculously good, run yo- yo competitions outside the cafe. I was often the winner, I could do all the basic tricks and do loop-the-loop over 200x. The prizes varied. Usually it was yo-yo strings, or vouchers for a soda, or even a new yo-yo, which I wanted badly because my yo-yo was always so beaten up.
I spent hours and hours playing with the yo-yo. I picked one up recently and could still do many tricks! I’ve still got it! LOL
(This guy is who I always imagined I was…I could do some of what he does but he is insane
But in reality, this guy is demonstrating the tricks I did.
One of my pure joys from that era of my life was to go to the professional soccer matches. My uncle Anthony was the radio commentator of Highlands Park, and I used to go to the games with John, and we would get to sit in the commentary box. Often at half time, John and I would go down to the dressing room and ask the players to sign our cards, and we often got lucky. My strongest memory for some reason, is the side Addington FC, a team from Durban that wore white like Leeds.
My auntie Stephanie was involved in show jumping, and I spent many an afternoon with John and Mandy at the show jumping events. We used to search for horseshoes and play throwing games with those. I loved going to those events…the horses were magnificent and I still enjoy watching show jumping having been so close to it as a kid. Sadly I discovered I was allergic to horses and so I was never able to ride much.
I did have a tendency to get “up to no good” as my mom would say. For example, When I was 9, I was playing a game with a friend in my room pretending something or other and I had climbed on top of the cupboard – about 6 or 10 feet tall – Sandy, my dog, got excited about me being up there and put her paws up against the cupboard with all her force causing the cupboard to rock back and forth. Well I lost my balance and fell to the stone floor breaking my left wrist one more time.
My mom, bless her, heart, heard the screaming, came running and assessed the situation the conversation went
Mom: (screaming) “What are you doing?”
Me: (bawling my eyes out) “I fell off the cupboard”
Mom (spanking me) “What were you doing on the cupboard?” (Spank)
Me: (sobbing) “I think I broke my arm” (holds arm up)
Mom: (spank) “serves you right, get in the car” (to my friend next) “Go home!”
Another 6 weeks in a cast.
During my primary school days, my dad seemed larger than life. He took us on trips, like to Durban where I caught my first fish on the pier, got exposed to the wonders and creatures of the ocean at the aquarium, ate ice cream on the beach, and played in the surf always wary of the shark nets.
Or when we went to Paradise Island off the coast of Mozambique where we snorkeled, water ski’d and went deep sea fishing. To get there we drive to the coast then flew with Iris and Laddie on his small plane to the island. That was an adventure. I loved the island. Everything about it. I remember climbing a palm tree to pick a green coconut. A local yelled at me but I plead innocence because I had permission. He took his machete and cut the green coconut open and we shared the water.
Paradise island was magical. Azure blue water. Crystal clear. Abundant fish and cowrie shells..in the evening the local fisherman would lay their catch out on the beach and we would barter for fish. The hotel chef would prepare the fish for our family dinner.
I went out on the deep sea boat one day. It was mostly boring (I was 6) but I have one great memory. My dad was fighting a fish. I looked over the side as the fish neared, and the deck hand reached over to gaff the fish with a long hook. I watched as the red fish on the end of the line was gaffed. But instead of impaling his hook into a red rock fish looking creature, he gaffed 150 pound Hammer Head Shark that took the fish! All of a sudden it was mayhem as he held on to his hook with all his might and the skipper pulled out a shot gun and shot the shark allowing them to muscle it onto the deck.
The next year we went to Barazuto on the Mozambique coast. It wasn’t the same as the island but it was still fun.
We went to Durban and stayed at the Surf Crest Hotel on the beach. I almost broke my neck on the trampoline there. But i loved swimming in the salt water pool, eating Red Toffee Apples, and playing in the surf. I got stung by blue bottles though. Painful. The aquarium was astonishing. The Grouper are really massive fish, and I remember those and the tiger shark in the tank. I caught my very first fish at the pier in Durban.
Durban was cool. Natal, the province where Durban is located, is the home to the Zulu Nation. The Zulu are a proud people who are decedent of Shaka, King of the Zulu. They are very colorful people and one of my enduring memories is of the Rickshaw Rides on the beach front in Durban. The bead-work on those Rickshaws and headdresses are amazing.
I LOVED going to the game reserves to see the big game. We always used to count the big game we saw. The best was to see a kill, or at least a chase. You get really good at looking for animals. Its hard to see them sometimes since they are so camouflaged. You learn littl tricks, like if a leopard is in a tree, it forgets its tail and its tail hangs down, so you look for the swinging tail.
I remember being chased by elephant while my dad filmed his 8mm film of the elephant crossing the road getting as close as he dare. Imagine my mom backing up while my dad hung out the open passenger door with his camera mounted on the door yelling “Faster! Faster!”
My dad was vibrant in those days. He raised money for the school to build a swimming pool that they named after him. He ran, as I recall, to try to win the Mayor of Johannesburg seat. He lost. He was the President of Allenby Country Club where I swam and he played Lawn Bowls. In short, he was larger than life to me then.
I have this memory of a big crate of oysters arriving and us all sitting and shucking oysters and eating them at a big table in the yard. I remember that day because my brother Derrick was home from the army camp, which I thought was cool. I wore his helmet all day, and he had brought his rifle home which was very impressive. My dad shot it aiming at some eucalyptus trees off in the distance. It was very loud!
We went on a trip with our standard 5 class (6th grade more or less). We went to the caves at Unhabgla rocks and to the Kruger Park. What I remember is that my parents gave me 3R for a weeklong trip. I spent it at the first store we stopped at about 3 hours into the trip. So i was….. deprived… my friends all had pocket money but I didn’t. It was my first awareness of being poor. Well I say poor, but i mean in comparison to my friends. We had so much more than the native Africans, that it was hard to feel poor. It really was colonial living. I am somewhere in this picture…
My progress in gymnastics had my parents bring me to a diving club that met at Ellis Park on the other side of town. I more or less hated it. We had to get up super early and the water was really cold. I wasn’t fond of diving. The pool was impressive. There were 2 one meter boards one on either side of a 3 meter board, and on the deep end side of the dive pool there was a 5 meter and a 10 meter concrete tower.
One of my worst experiences as a child was when I was standing at the edge of the 10 meter platform trying to get my courage up to jump when I was pushed off the board … I fell a little awkwardly trying to get my feet underneath me and luckily wasn’t badly hurt. My ego was mostly bruised. I’ve struggled with height since then.
At that time, we had two servants who were resident, Abbiotte, the Gardner, handyman and server, and Rebecca, who cooked and cleaned and did laundry. We had another servant named Rose, who cane weekly to do the ironing.
To be fair, I had a very rudimentary appreciation of Apartheid’s impact on everyone. I knew then that black Africans needed to have a “pass” book to be in “white areas”. I was aware of the “whites only” signs everywhere, on busses, in movie theaters and so on. I had it that blacks were not so much inferior, but rather, they were the “servant” class. To be sure, I had many interesting conversations with the servants, and got their wisdom in those talks. In many ways, Rebecca was my surrogate mother. She made me breakfast, made my lunches, made my bed, and cooked for our family. I spent many hours in the kitchen watching her cook and chatting with her.
Our yard was my playground and Abbiotte kept it up beautifully. I remember him mowing the lawn with that green electric power mower, watering the flowers, pruning the trees and the rose bushes. I learned a lot about gardening by watching him work.
The other adults in my daily life were my sisters Sue and Carol. Derrick was off at boarding school till I was 5 and then he went off to England to go to college after spending a year at home, but Susan and Carol were in high school. They both went to Waverley Girls HS, and wore their blue school uniforms to show it.
Sue had a yellow room just off my room, and Carol’s room was pink just beyond Susan’s room. Susan and Carol used to fight like crazy. I remember hair pulling, shoe throwing, screaming, biting and scratching fights between those two.
My mom and dad used to argue a lot in those days. And if my mom was mad, she would say “don’t call me mom, I’m not your mother! Call me Matilda”… my dad would go silent for days or even weeks. It seemed like someone was fighting with someone most of the time.
As I reflect on what it was like to be a small child who is so confused by the mixed messages of being told you are loved, then fear experienced during the violent beatings, then the feelings of abandonment as love is withheld, in sort of a circular pattern that occurred more or less randomly, I can see now, how that ongoing experience impacted my life in predictable and sad ways.
When the girls were a little older, and started dating Malcom and Rex the fighting between them died down a lot. I loved Malcom and Rex. They were like big brothers to me. Malcom was cool. He had a cool car he used to drive too fast. He was a big Arsenal fan and obviously a big influence on my allegiance to AFC. Rex was cool because he was super chill, and he had a great sense of humor. He and Malcom got along great and made us all laugh so hard.
When Derrick came home from boarding school to finish his last year of high school at Damlin College (kinda like a community college), he slept in my room, and his friends Peter Stayne, Howard Petrook and Isaac Misrache were always around. Howard was like another member of the family. So between Derrick and Carol and Sue and Rex and Malcom and Howard and others, there were always lots of people at our house, and I was the kid hanging around and watching and listening and participating where I could.
I was much younger than everyone so I had to grow up fast, which was possible with everyone around being much older. I got exposed to what they were talking about, what they were listening to, and what they aspired to. And because everyone was concerned with themselves, I sort of skated along under the radar.
My parents often had cocktail parties and there I was mixing drinks for all the guests. What’s weird now is that nobody seemed surprised that a 9-year-old kid could run a bar, make a scotch and soda, or a gin and tonic. It was, I suppose, where I first developed my current interest in mixology. The first drink I was allowed to have as a little kid was a beer shandy. Basically half beer and half 7 Up. I think I was 10 when I tried my first one. It’s what all the kids drank at social events all the way until I graduated high school (the drinking age in South Africa was 18 years old.
Life was pretty idilic during my primary school days. We weren’t wealthy, but we had a nice house in a nice neighborhood, we had servants. We belonged to the Country Club, and my dad was a popular figure both there and among their friends. We went on great vacations, we ate well, and we lived a life of privilege. Not wealthy, but well off. As a child I had no worries other than when I’d see my friends and what sort of mischief we would get into.
Then everything changed.
I came home from school one day, age 11, and heard the unusual sound of someone crying coming from upstairs. Curious, I went upstairs, and followed the sound to my parents room. I opened the door to find my dad sitting there alone, on the edge of his bed, tears streaming down his face.
It took me a minute to take in what I was seeing. He sat there not seeing me, crying hard, with a gun to his head. He kept a small pistol next to his bed. I knew about it and had taken it out to look at in the past, but there he was, gun to his temple, and his finger on the trigger. His eyes were closed and he had tears running down his cheeks as he sobbed.
I dived at him and wrestled the gun from his grasp, and I was easily successful in doing so luckily. I set the gun down and held my dad tight. Then a broken man, although I didn’t know it just then, he sobbed uncontrollably on my shoulder for a long time.
We didn’t discuss the situation ever again.
He was deeply ashamed, I’m sure.
After that I learned that my dads business had failed and his partners had left him holding the debt. The story is that his brother and a friend had walked away Scott-free but we lost everything. Including our house.
I am struck by the similarity to my own experience right now. Losing everything in middle age and having to start over. My dad never really recovered. He spent most of the rest of his life depressed. He never really achieved the stature he had earlier attained after that. When he died at age 79, he was a shell of himself.
Right around the time things went bad for our family, I had started Hebrew school and began studying for my barmitvah and the Temple had a Big Walk to raise money for their building. First prize offered was a brand new bicycle of my choice. Well the bike I had at the time was a crappy 3 speed red bike with straight handle bars. I wanted a green banana seat bike with chopper handle bars. I set my sites on winning that bike and I raised the most money of all the kids by getting sponsored for about $20 per mile and I walked 10 miles.
One of the highlights of my young life up to that point was going to the factory and choosing the exact bike I wanted and then riding the 15 miles or so home following my dads car. I remember that ride. There was a long hill and I fell far behind, which was a problem because I didn’t know the way home, and it was getting dark. But at the top of the hill I saw my dad had pulled over and waited for me. I was relieved. I was so proud of that bike, and rode it to school every day till we moved to a small apartment across town.
During my last year of primary school there were two situations that happened while on the soccer team that had an impact on me.
The first situation occurred after a game where a kid had scored an own goal. I was the goalkeeper and I had an emotional reaction to being scored on by my teammate. It wasn’t anything that I took off the field as I recall, but the coach, a Mr. Muller, was exorcised that I had excoriated my teammate on the field. He pulled me aside at the next practice and told me that I needed to apologize to the team publicly or he would drop me off the A team onto the B team. Well at the team meeting, which took place in a classroom, Mr. Muller was speaking about something related to the tactics of the team when he suddenly asked me if I had “anything to say”. A little confused, I thought he was referring to the conversation he was just having, and I said “no sir”. He said “Fine. You are dropped”. I was stunned, I had written a speech to give to the team about sportsmanship and teamwork and an apology for being out of order during the game the past week. But there it was. I got dropped to the B-team. I resolved to be the best player I could be even as I was dropped. The lesson in that experience, which was really to be appreciated later. was that I had as much fun on the B-team as I did on the A-team, if not more.
The other experience actually occurred when I was on the team bus heading to an away game. Mrs. Muller (not related to the coach) was driving the van and my neighbor Grey and my friend Gary were in the front seats of the van. I was at the back of the bus. We were getting close to the field, the van slowed as we came to an intersection. I leaned over the back seat to put my watch into my kit bag. Then the world started spinning. We had been hit by a truck. When the vehicle stopped moving, I was on my back with a small cut in my head. I jumped out the now broken window and ran to the front of the vehicle. Mrs. Muller was in the street up against the curb. She had been thrown out of her door. Gary and Grey were in the front but seriously banged up. Both kids had broken bones. I stayed with Mrs. Muller till the ambulance arrived. Looking around, I surveyed the scene and the weirdest scene was that the truck had gone though a fence and spun around and fallen on its side, but the contents of the truck, a single cow, was actually standing in the swimming pool of the house whose fence was breached. I got real lucky.
The school year, which in South Africa was January to December, came to an end and I went off to summer camp. When I came back two weeks later, we had moved. I went with my mom to shop for my new school uniform. It felt like I was growing up because instead of shorts, we wore long pants, and instead of a shirt with short sleeves, we had long sleeves. It was kind of exciting.
11 Marin View 1970-1972
My experience of the move was that I went to Jewish Summer Camp hosted by our Temple youth group leaders, in Margate, near Durban in among the sugar cane fields. I met my first ever girlfriend at camp. Simone Sylvester, who I used to go to movies with when we got back home. I remember our first date was to see the move “A Man Called Horse” and we sat in the front row because even though it was a matinee, and even though the theater was empty, those were the tickets we had, and there was an usher who literally stood two rows behind us watching us for the whole movie! Only 12 years old, we were so shy and innocent that we took pains to pretend we were siblings so people wouldn’t think badly of us.
Going to camp involved a two day train journey to Natal. There is something magical about train travel during those days. The clack-clack, clack-clack sounds that became a rhythm that persisted. The smell of train coffee, so sweet, in the morning. The passing wilderness that changed constantly given South Africa’s scenery. The puffing of the steam engine. There is nothing quite like falling asleep to the rocking rhythmical sway of the train as it steamed through the darkness. Waking up in Natal, tropical temperatures, palm trees, sugar cane fields….made the arrival special. I remember pulling into the station in Durban, and in the excitement having to wake up the deaf kid in our compartment because he slept through it all and was going to miss the bus ride to camp.
Camp itself was fun too. There was a meal Hall, where meals, and singalongs, and movies were shown. The campers camped in canvas tents, 4 to a tent. There was inspection every morning and the tent had to be spotless, every article of clothing perfectly folded. I hated inspection. The camp counselors always found some small defect to punish us for. Punishment tended to be carrying a big log back and forth across the soccer field for an hour while the other kids had fun. I hated that, and I seemed to be unable to avoid punishment literally every day for the duration.
One night, I woke up literally covered in ants. My cot had sunk one leg into an ant colony and I ran screaming from ant bites to the shower and washed millions of ants it seems, from my body. I was traumatized by that experience. The trip home seemed really long. The train stopped for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages. People, mostly Africans riding in the less than luxurious third class cars, would get off the train and play soccer nearby till the guard blew his whistle, and then everyone would clamber aboard as the train slowly gathered momentum.
Sadly though, when I returned from summer camp, a two week stay, we had moved from our home to this second floor apartment in Glengazel. The biggest impact on me was that my dog, Sandy, had been given away. I was devastated. The apartment, a 3 bedroom two floored apartment, was about three quarters of a mile from the high school, and the bus stop was on our corner of the apartment, so I could roll out of bed, grab a slice of toast with fish paste on it as I walked out the door, and jump on the bus to get to school in minutes. I had a harder and harder time getting out of bed as I grew into my teens, and catching that bus always seemed much harder than it should have been.
Anyhow, that first day, I put on a brave face and went off to school at Northview High school. I was a little scared and a little excited for the new adventure.
High school was actually very scary at first. It was big, much bigger than the primary school. We moved around between classes. There were both lots more kids and most of them were bigger and older kids. It seemed like every older kid was a bully who bullied younger kids. For example, on my first day at school, I went into the bathroom and there were about 10 big kids in there smoking (actually giant kids in my eyes).
“Hey kippie , come here” an ugly giant kid said
I walked over to him shaking in fear
“You gonna tell anyone you saw us smoking?”
“You better not or I’ll fuck you up, understand?”
He looked at me standing there shaking in my brand new school uniform. Spotless with a shine on my shoes. I looked at his scruffy jacket, stained shirt and threadbare tie. Then he reached down and buttoned my jacket, suddenly and forcefully he pulled my jacket down over my shoulders so my arms were pinned. He picked me up (I think I weighed about 80 pounds dripping wet at most) and he hung me on the hook on the back of the bathroom door.
The boys all were guffawing as they snuffed our their cigarettes and left me alone hanging on the back of the door.
The school bell rang and I could hear feet heading down the hall to class. Then it was quiet. I had tears in my eyes as I looked around the empty bathroom thinking about what I should or could do.
I was about to yell for help when the door swung open and the gym coach,Mr. Bam, came into the bathroom. I didn’t know him as the gym coach or even his name yet. I caught his eye and he gently took me down.
“Who did this?” He asked kindly.
Me: “I don’t, I don’t know sir. It’s my first day” I stammered trying not to cry.
“Ok laddie, go to class”
“Yes sir” I brushed away my tears and went off to find my class.
High school scared the shit out of me.
The game the school played was rugby. There was no soccer team. The rugby coach, who was our PE teacher, said “this is a rugby school, don’t even say “soccer”, understand?” It was intimidating but we learned how to play rugby during PE. I liked the contact although I was small, and I took to the position of scrum-half in part because of my size and in part because I got to run the game. The PE teacher was also the rugby coach, and he told me to turn out for rugby.
The school uniforms were different too. At primary school we wore short pants, a short sleeved shirt and a tie. In high school we wore long grey pants, a long sleeved white shirt, a navy stripped club tie and a navy blazer. Being 12 years old in the same school as 18 year olds wearing the same uniform was very intimidating. I literally walked around terrified.
We were placed in a class and we had 2 years to get oriented. Standard 8 was the first year you could get school colors (like a letter for a sport). All the blazers were navy blue, but “half colors” were illustrated by a yellow striped navy blue blazer. Full colors was represented by a white blazer with a ribbing of yellow and navy string. Very few students had either half colors or full colors.
In addition to a class, we were assigned to a House. In primary school the houses were named after antelope there was Roan (red), Kudu (blue), Eland (green) and Sable (yellow). In primary school the big house rivalries were track and swimming. At the track meet the tug of war was the most fun to cheer for.
In high school, the houses were named for great men of science there was Lister (blue), Edison (green), Newton (red) and Fleming (yellow). In high school the houses competed for everything it seemed. I was assigned to Lister. Blue. I had been in Roan in Primary school. Red.
You got a small colored pin to wear to denote your House. The House used to meet occasionally to learn cheers and establish team spirit .
There were so many things I was interested in. All new for me, I played rugby and cricket and field hockey, I did gymnastics and track. I fenced and I joined the cadet band playing the bugle. I sucked at the bugle, so I switched to the snare drum. We used to form up and learn to march and play every Friday morning. Plus we had to wear a cadet uniform. We were being trained to be in the army.
I turned out for fencing. It seemed magical. Those trippy uniforms with that wire mask and we got to fight with swords (foils)! Loved it.
I joined the chess club. Weekly tournaments against other schools and a weekly meeting to learn new strategies.
I turned out for cricket and actually was a reasonable off-spin bowler. I took extra coaching in a batting cage to become a better batter and bowler. Mr. McCorkhill was the cricket coach. He was the groundsman who took great pride in keeping the fields immaculate. Its hard to emphasize this enough. The way the school was organized was that you had the buildings at the top of the hill, then there was an embankment with steps down to the cricket field. The cricket field doubled as the track and also as the hockey fields. At the far end of the field as you sat on the embankment, was the tuck shop to the right. The tuck shop was upstairs and there were change rooms downstairs. To the right of the Tuck Shop was the swimming pool. Below and down the hill of the Tuck Shop were the two rugby fields oriented end to end. On the left side of the cricket pitch were the practice nets and the maintenance shed. It was common to watch the workers, often Mr. McCorkhill himself, mowing the lawn to keep the pitch in perfect shape.
Mr Mac, as we called him, was a Scott with a thick accent, and he could not pronounce my name easily, so he just changed it to “Hole-in-the-ground” or “chasm” variously depending on his whim. He was a good cricket coach who encouraged me to develop my spin bowling. Through the years, I played on the A and B teams variously depending on who was there and who was missing.
I was low in the batting order on the A team and a late game bowler. In cricket, the fast bowlers generally bowl first and the spin bowlers later as the batsmen are less skilled. My best batting outing on the A-team was to score 38 runs to win the game coming in 7th in the order, and my best bowling outing was to get 3 out in 4 overs to win the game. In my senior year I was on and off the A-team and when I was on the B-team I captained it. In one game, we literally got the entire side out for 3 runs. We got lectured for being too gleeful for our celebrations on getting the whole side out for only 3 runs at the next practice. Sportsmanship and all that.
I joined the photography club. The club was organized by Mr. Bowie, the Biology teacher. He was an excellent photographer who was nationally recognized. We used to enter slides into a slide club that was judged by experts each month. I fancied myself as a fashion photographer and my friend Isabel Gariezzo was my model. In the club itself, we met weekly but had monthly black and white competitions with judging of images from the shooting assignment and guidance for composition and contrast. We were also strongly encouraged to submit slides for the judged events. It was out of this participation that my friend Eddie and I put in dark room at my brother Derrick’s house in their servants quarters (they didn’t have servants.)
I turned out for gymnastics. The tryout was in the Hall, there wasn’t a formal gym just then, but one was being constructed. There were lots of kids at the tryout.
They had us trying out doing some basic tumbling tricks. Hand springs and head springs for example. All of this was easy for me. Then he asked those of us who could do do flick flacks (backward handsprings) and only a few kids would even try. Of course I nailed it.
Gymnastics was coached by John Bam on the men’s side and by Lynne Boardman in the women’s side. The tryout was being managed by some of the older kids, and it became pretty obvious right away that I stood out. Pretty soon the coaches and all the senior kids were watching me execute the tumbling passes. After the try out the coach came to me, and he recognized me from being the kid was hanging on the back of the door, and he said “hey Kippie, you going to come do gym?“
I nodded, and that was the start of my gymnastics career really. The gym club met every afternoon after school for a couple of hours, and the practices were with boys and girls. Once the new gymnasium opened, we used to go at recess and either do some practice, if an event was coming up, or are we used to play one-bounce over a volleyball net with a soccer ball. My friends Errol and Eddie and Jeremy and I used to play soccer or do gymnastics pretty much every recess. By the end of my high school career when I was a top-notch gymnast representing Southern Transvaal and South Africa, I would often have several girls come to watch me practice, which I found kind of enjoyable. I was as bit of a show off. I’ll have more to say about gymnastics later but suffice it to say that gymnastics was an important part of my life in high school.
There was built in fear turning out for rugby. We felt tough pulling on the jersey but there was definite nervousness too. I remember the coach who called rookies “Kippie” saying “when that ball comes out, hit him kippie, wrap him up” – I was trying out for scrum half – number 9 – the link between the forwards and the speedy backs. Kind of like a quarter back to the fly half – the central back who ran the team.
I enjoyed youth rugby. I liked the contact and enjoyed the strategy, and I was smart enough to run the game. I remember one game, our first match with another school, and I was the scrum half on the A team.
In rugby, one weird thing is that when the other team scores on you, the restart is to give them back the ball in good field position.
We got our asses handed to us by the other team. It was like 60 to 0. We got humble very quickly, and our fly-half, Clive, broke his collar bone. He was a tough guy too and it spooked all of us!
The first two years of high school were uneventful. I figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like French or Latin and so I went into the sciences. The track I chose was the Math/Science track. This meant that over the final three years of high school, I took a year or algebra, a year of trig and a year of geometry. I also took a year of botany, a year of physiology and a year of zoology. I also took a year of geology, a year of meteorology and a year of physical geography. In addition we had to do English and Afrikaans which included literature. composition and vocabulary. Additionally we had to do South African and world history as well as physical education.
Two events stand out for me during those first two years. The first was my Barmitzvah. I had taken extra lessons, gone to Hebrew school and prepared for ages. My Torah portion was Deuteronomy Chapter 4 vs 1-24
The barmitzvah itself was remarkable in one respect. I remember getting my tallit from my dad and him hugging me and kissing me on the cheek. It was the only time I remember my dad showing me affection up to that point or since, and it quite surprised me. Temple Emanuel was a reform shul so we read rather than sang the prayers. I completed the experience which was really to run the entire service and felt a great sense of accomplishment for doing so flawlessly. There was the Barmitvah Party where we had a DJ host a dance and I got to kiss a girl… I remember kissing either Gail Lashanski or Belinda Finch that night, but I cant recall which. We called it “getting off” as in “Gail, do you want to “get off”?” Then we would go outside, find a spot on the grass and lay down and kiss….we were so immature and it was very naive, but cute. I still have two gifts I got for my barmitzvah. One is the Guinness Book of World Records that I thumbed the pages ragged, and the other is a book called the Twentieth Century which I read cover to cover many times…its a big coffee table book, and it really informed me. In the Guinness Book, I especially loved reading about the crazy records people were up to in the Human Endurance and Endeavors section. You have to remember that this was LOOOOONG before the internet…so this sort of thing was magical.
The other major experience I had in the first couple years of high school was to go on Soccer Tour. This was organized by Benny Stalson at our temple, and he pulled together a bunch of kids from all over. Mostly kids who were from “the wrong side of the tracks”, and we would get on a train and go to Natal to play in soccer tournaments. I played my natural position as a central midfielder and captained the U-12 and then the U-13 teams the following year. The tour included kids up to U-16, but I only went those first couple years. It was a relatively inexpensive tour, so my parents could afford it. The journey was amazing. About 100 kids, many of whom were the kind of kids to look for and get into trouble, on a train, staying in hotels, free to roam a coastal town….We played in Durban, East London and also Port Elizabeth. It was so much fun. I remember the gambling on the train playing Klaverjas (pronounced “Clubby Ace”), a game that looked like, but was nothing like Bridge.
I had great experiences traveling with and playing on these soccer teams. I met and made friends with kids I would never encounter. Hardscrabble kids, many of them. They came to my defense once in East London, when I got picked on for being a Jew and some big guys started pushing me around. My soccer buddies stepped in and sent them packing. I came back thinking I was a tough kid. I remember that there was this kid Alan, who lived in our apartment building, and he was always looking for a fight. So I agreed to meet him outside one day and have that fight he wanted. I remember being nervous standing there feeling like I was going to get hit, but I balled up my fist and hit him in the nose before he moved and he ran away crying. It was a relief. I don’t even think I hit him very hard. I felt bad about it though, and later I sought him out and took him to the cafe around the corner and got him an ice cream.
The cafe around the corner was run by a couple Greek guys who I became friendly with because I literally spent all my free time there playing the pin-ball machine Doodle Bug. I still look for that machine whenever I see pinball machines.
I became a master of that machine and could ratchet up the games super fast. If someone was playing, you would put your tickie (5 cents) on the table top indicating you were next. I used to laugh because some people would put 20 coins on the table, and I would put one. I literally could play for hours with one coin. I would often sell my games to the next person.
I also used to spend my afternoons when I wasn’t doing gymnastics playing soccer in the park across the street. There was always a game. Typically, there were about 20 African men, local workers, who would play and I would join in. That’s where I learned a lot of my footy skills.
I have two main recollections of my time in the Marin View building. Neither of them happy. The first was that my dad was depressed. His business had failed and he knew himself as a lesser man. He took a job with the Jewish Board of Deputies, which was essentially a fund raising job that he did at night. He spent most afternoons taking a nap. We were not terribly engaged, except we had dinner each evening and he did come to watch me perform in gymnastics. I remember that he tried to make a go with a multi-level company called Holiday Magic and he gave me Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich” which I read (and applied) much later in life. For most of my teen years, my dad occurred to me as sad and depressed. A shell of his former self.
The other memory was ultimately sad. I took a call on the phone one day from a stranger to hear the caller say that Pixie was dead. Pixie was my dad’s younger brother. He had been a big game hunter and was killed hunting elephant in Zambia. Pixie and Iris had three daughters, Cindy and Shelly who were twins, and Linda who was a couple years older. I told my dad that Pixie was dead and the anguish that caused him made me cry.
4 Hiawatha 1972-1977
My mom wanted to garden. So when an apartment opened up next door that had a yard, she saw an opportunity. We moved into the apartment building next door, going from being on the second floor of an apartment building to a townhouse with a yard. This was important for many reasons, the most significant being that my mom had a green thumb and loved to garden, and the other reason being that we loved to have people over for Sunday lunch and it had been difficult to do in the apartment. One of the first things I did there was cultivate an avocado seed to get it to root in a jar of water, then I planted the avocado tree at the bottom of the garden. In a few years we had avocados!
You can see in the picture above the apartment building on the corner, that was Marin View. Next door, to the left is Hiawatha. You can see the park to the left with the trees. That park had no trees when I was there and we used to play soccer and fly model airplanes there. The park to the right was a river valley really and not much good for sport, although I hit golf balls there. The building on our block to the left with the white roof on the corner, was a bakery where they made the best kooksisters. and the red roof on the opposite corner from Marine View was the corner cafe.
I had the back bedroom with a porch off the back that was glassed in and it overlooked the garage area. My parents said I could make it mine, which was awesome. One day soon after we moved in, my dad said to come with him. I jumped in his car and he took me to a pet shop and be bought me a 2 ft fish tank, the odds and ends that go along with needing fish and a few fish. I quickly became expert at tropical fish. I read all I could and I spent as much time at the fish store talking to the proprietor about how to put a good tank together. I got sort of mental about it and found a 6 foot tank, and also bought another smaller breeder tank. My friend Eddie also got a 6 foot tank and we become super close around our fish
I started breeding purple cichlids
These were Egyptian Mouth Breeders and quite hard to breed. and I sold the fry back to the fish shop for a Rand each. I had about 20 at at time to sell them.
I painted the porch a shocking green to complement the fish. I had a Tropical Fish Factory. I was breeding Black Mollys, and guppies and had this amazing algae eating “shark” that I loved to watch.
I missed my dog, so I got a budgie. Not a fair comparison, but I loved my budgie. He used to ride around on my shoulder. He was this green and yellow love machine.
I loved this little guy and even though he lived on the porch outside, I played with him every day. He used to crouch on my shoulder while I rode my bike and he chirped little love songs in my ear in a tone that was one of recognition. Later, I got him a mate when we moved into the apartment at Hiawatha. His mate was blue.
And I used to look in their cage every day for an egg. And sure enough, one day she had laid a couple of eggs.
I was excited, and watched the incubation period with amazement and anticipation. One day I came home and there was a beautiful little turquoise budgie sitting on the stick next to his parents. I had not disturbed the eggs once I saw the mom incubating them, so I had no idea what the baby looked like. I had heard him, but not peaked. The delayed gratification was worth it.
Gradually, the parents died and I was left with the baby. He was being trained to be out of the cage and being the little one, flew away one day to my great sadness. I looked for him daily for months, but he never returned. I stopped keeping birds after that. One day as I was getting ready to leave the country, I heard budgie song and looked up into the avocado tree I had planted so many years before, and there was a turquoise budgie being a wild bird. Was it him? I don’t know…but it could have been.
I had other hobbies.
One day I went with my dad to a crafts fair. I am not sure why, but I got mesmerized by a woman making water candles. I immediately came home and purchased a bunch of wax, and Eddie and I started making water candles. I showed them around and a gift shop ordered some and also a Chinese restaurant nearby purchased several for their tables.
I earned Half-Colors in Form 3, the first year I was eligible to earn the equivalent of a high school letter. I remember it being a pretty big deal. The announcement was in front of the school at the school assembly, which happened every morning. We would gather in the quad (the netball courts) and the teachers would all stand up on stage. The entire school would then recite the Lords Prayer and sing the national anthem, and then there were announcements. I got my colors handed to me in front of the school in the morning. Then, I was called out to the front of the class in Biology the first day I wore the blazer (it wasn’t common to get high school colors, you had to be on the regional team Southern Transvaal to make it) and asked to tell the class about my accomplishments that had me earn a letter. I had made (won) the Southern Transvaal championship that year and been on the team the previous two years.
Between my second and third year of high school, for summer holidays (Christmas time), I am not sure how, but I got a job with a toy wholesaler to go into the major department stores and demonstrate a construction toy called “Plastikant”
You literally could build anything. It was only limited by your imagination. But is was during this time, sitting in the department store, near the Santa that I got to see Christmas in a new light. Being a Jew, up until then, I had only interpreted Christmas as a holiday where people put up lights and had cocktail parties. We used to go see the Zoo Lights as a Christmas treat. I never really understood Christmas gifts. I had only received one gift in my life till then. It was a bag of candy packaged in a stocking shaped bag that my grandma Frieda gave to me because she didn’t eat that candy.
We used to visit Grandma Frieda on occasion. She was my dad’s mom. She used a cane and mostly I just played with her colored coasters when I was a kid. I never really knew her.
The other thing that happened during those first couple years of high school was that Derrick, Malcolm, Rex, Howard and I got season tickets to see our favorite local team. Highlands Park
1973 Highlands Park. I LOVED this team. We had seats 5 rows up at the half way line behind the team bench and were quite intimate with the players. In fact, the back up goal keeper, not in this image, Eugene Kleinhans (which ironically means “small hands”) was a student teacher in the gym class, so I got to know him quite well. My favorite player on the team was Martin Cohen, who, besides being Jewish, was a great midfielder. Good on the ball, tireless, great vision and good shot. A great box to box player. The only drawback for Highlands, was that they wore Man United colors. I prefered them in black and white…LOL
This team, little later, with Albert McCaan and Barry Bridges was a couple years later and just such a good side.
Eddie and I also used to build and fly airplanes. We started with U-line powered planes. We started with the P-51 Mustang Trainer
It had a little gas engine and about a 30 foot line that let you control the elevators. The rudder was set to have it pull away from you and it flow round and round and you could do various tricks with it.
This led us to start building balsa wood airplanes and eventually on to radio control airplanes. It was great fun.
Once I was in Form 3, about 15 years old, I started to get really good at gymnastics. I remember playing rugby for the high school U-16 team, and there was a situation where the play was on their 5 yard line. As the scrum half, I would put the ball in. The ball popped out on the blind side and with only one player to beat, I picked it up and made a dash for the line. I was sure I was in. What I didn’t account for, was that their flanker would spot me, disengage from the scrum and hit me from the side. He more or less crushed me. Naturally, I dropped the ball and then the 16 pairs of legs of the scrum more or less ran over me, kicking me in the head and knocking me out cold.
When I came to, the ball was at the other end of the field, and they were waiting for me to put the ball in. I staggered toward the scrum, and then I felt a hand on my shoulder. My gym coach Mr. Bam had walked onto the field and grabbed my by the shoulder…he said, walking me off the pitch…” Ruby is for watching, nobody should play it”…That was the last game I ever played.
That year, we had to do a project in Geography on were we would live in future. I had been looking at pictures of Vancouver, BC over at Frankie and Jan’s homes. They were Canadian girls who’s dad worked for Pepsi Cola in South Africa and they were friends with my sisters. Howard married Jan and Frankie married Barrie and they all lived in the same apartment block as Susan and Carol. Well I loved what Vancouver looked like and I did my project on living in Vancouver BC. I took a ration of shit about that from people who objected to the idea of leaving South Africa.
The other thing that made hanging out with my siblings significant to me was that Sue and Rex had a great record collection and the soundtrack of my youth was born there. I listened to Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, Cat Stevens Tea For the Tillerman, Gethro Tull Aqualung, Dave Mason Alone Together, Van Morrison Tupelo Honey and other great albums that really sourced my interest in Rock and Roll and the Blues. Malcom’s Dad, Jimmy, was the RCA rep in South Africa, so I used to get his samples and by the time I left the country I had like 200 records. I brought the best of my collection with me to
In my Junior year, 1975 I was selected to the Gymastrada Team. A team of about 450 gymnasts from around the country of all colors. We went to this gymnastics display event in Berlin, West Germany. The reality was that South Africa was banned from international sport at that time. So we could not compete, but we could do a display. They selected 4 kids, two boys and two girls from each region. I was the best age group male in the Southern Transvaal, so I got picked. This picture is my high school pic of the kids who were selected to represent Southern Transvaal at regionals.
We did a display of floor activities with about 180 kids on the field. It was great. We flew into Berlin on a 737. At that time, West Berlin was surrounded by East Germany and you flew in on a specific corridor and dived into the city almost straight down. Being in West Germany was amazing. It was a super liberal city. Hash everywhere, porn everywhere, hippies everywhere, pubs serving kids and so on. At the same time, we were staying across from Spandau Prison where Rudolph Hess was still a prisoner of war.
The event occurred in the Olympic Stadium. It was quite dramatic. To march into the stadium knowing that Hitler stood there and Jesse Owens marched there…it was surreal. Especially while we were getting ready to march. The statues outside the stadium were definitely fascist in nature. Marching into the stadium was a trip. The country was announced and there were massive protests to our entry. It was a bit crazy watching police hit people with batons for protesting against South Africa in Germany.
The event was cool, but touring into East Berlin across Checkpoint Charlie was special. The city literally looked like the war had just concluded last week. There were still bombed out buildings, and Russian flags hanging everywhere.
Check point Charlie was interesting too. Barbed wire and very serious guards who looked very very very closely at your passport
The flight home was eventful too. First we stopped in Greece and I had a window seat so I got to see the Acropolis as we came in to land.
We refueled there, and left for Johannesburg. I sat next to a girl I had a crush on and we cuddled the whole way back under a blanket…it was kinda fun. As we approached Johannesburg, the plane seemed to be running out of fuel. I say that because the pilot would gun the engines, then seemingly shut them off and glide, then gun them again and so on. It was like being on a long roller coaster ride. People were tossing their cookies all over the plane, but we eventually landed and the Captain said “sorry about that, the co-pilot was practicing” – a likely story.
At the gymastrada, I met my Austrian friends, Barbara and Gunter and Suzi. I went to Austria to see them when I graduated high school. More on them later.
I had a couple of great experiences in high school by participating in a couple of camps. One was a gym camp that I went to after I came back from Germany. A lot of the kids that went to Germany were there, and I was as good as or better than most so I got a lot of respect as a gymnast. I remember one day the boys having a competition to see who could climb the most flights of stairs on their hands. About 50 boys participated. I managed 4 flights and won the event tied with another fellow who’s name escapes me. the camp was an an army base. At gym camp one night, we were horsing around and this man in full military uniform came and told us to be quite because the men in the barracks had just returned from the border. We didnt understand why that was significant just then. A couple weeks after I got home, I was goofing around on my Short Wave radio searching for a station when I got Radio Moscow broadcasting to South Africa.
The reporter talked about how South African Troops were fighting Cuban Troops on the border of Angola and South West Africa (soon to be Namibia). I called my dad into the room to heart this and he was incredulous. But sure enough, over the next several weeks, we started to see news reports about how bodies were coming home in bags. Not long after that, Malcom and Rex were called up and Mal, being the good guy he is, kept Rex from having to fight by pretending he had cavities and needed dental work. We had all registered to go into the army and I was later called up to the Airforce, but with the country at war, it was an ominous future we were facing.
I continued to participate in gymnastics after Germany, and won the Southern Transvaal competition with 6 gold medals and I also won the trophy for the highest overall score and I was awarded Full Colors in gymnastics for a second year. I was captain of the gym team, a prefect and a high school senior. Even so, I was not in the best mental state for the Nationals where I was a favorite. I had not slept well, and had no mental energy. In many ways I had peaked at the S Transvaal meet. But I went to the Nationals thinking my chances for meddling was very good even though I had recently torn my rotator cuff on the rings. In fact, I remember thinking “I wonder what its like to do this without shoulder pain?” Dealing with daily pain in gymnastics was part of the experience. I had broken my sacrum, had a few hard falls, sprained ankles, fractured my wrist and so on. Being in pain all the time had me develop a little mental trick to manage the pain. I imagined that pain was a red pyramid or triangle, and without pain was a blue circle or sphere. The game was to capture the red triangle, that expanded with increased pain, in the blue circle and then compress it down to a small little circle. It was something I got good at.
I arrived and greeted many of the kids I had seen at various camps, and we launched into the event. I fucked it up. I started the rings competition with the wrong move. I fell off the high bar and the pommel horse, and I stumbled on my landing on the parallel bar. I did manage a silver on the floor and a bronze on the vault. All in all it was a disaster.
The thing about being in top flight gymnastics in South Africa is that the sport was dominated by the Afrikaans.
You have to get that South Africa, as far as the white population was concerned, was really two countries. One a former British Colony, and part of the family of nations. The other, the Promised Land. The Afrikaans came to South Africa as settlers in 1652 or so, sent out of Holland by the Dutch..they were originally French Calvinists and the Dutch disliked them, so they put them on ships to South Africa. As far as they were concerned, South Africa was the Promised Land and they are the Chosen People.
When the Brits ruled, they rebelled. There were two Boer Wars (a Boer is the Afrikaans word for ‘farmer”) They largely kept to themselves. The countryside was mostly Afrikaans, and the cities, other than Bloemfontein and Pretoria, were largely English. The bottom line was that as the nation started to experience the spasms of revolution, the Afrikaans become sort of insular. It was for this reason that being part of their club, as I was naturally because of my gymnastics prowess, I got to be friendly with many Afrikaans boys and girls and was at one time fluent in the language. I remember my friend Errol had an Afrikaans girlfriend that he met somewhere, and he couldn’t speak the language fluently. So like Cyrano de Bergerac, I translated his phone calls in real time, expressing his love for her and hers for him.
When I was in Germany, many of the Afrikaans boys had never been close enough to a black South African as a young man to explore their hopes and dreams. I recall being in a compartment on a train in Germany with two Afrikaans boys and two African boys and being the translator. Although the African boys spoke Afrikaans, there was already a protest movement to stop using the language of the oppressor, so I “translated” for them, but more for the Afrikaans boys. Its fair to say that there was no understanding by the Afrikaans boys of the upset that the African boys had for the status quo. Everything was “as it should be” for the Afrikaans boys. They believed that God ordained them as the Chosen People and that everybody “had their place”. They literally could not see the injustice in the status quo. The two black kids looked at each other, exchanged a knowing glance and got up and left the compartment…I went after them and asked if they were OK. The one kid turned to look at me. He was clearly angry. He said softly “they will learn when the country burns”. With that, he turned and went after his friend. More on this fellow later.
When I came back from Germany, my parents went off to Seattle see Eric and June who had recently emigrated there after living in Johannesburg for several years. While they were there, I stayed with Carol and Malcolm. I had an experience with the Police that I will never forget. I was in the back of their car and we were waiting at a light to turn as oncoming traffic came by. There as a truck behind us, and I paid no attention to who was in the truck. The driver of the truck was being impatient and revving his engine and flashing his lights. Malcolm was not going to go ahead of oncoming traffic. The driver of the truck grew more impatient with his engine revving and light flashing…so I flipped him off….
We turned the corner, and the truck behind us followed but he turned on his blue lights…and we got pulled over. This young Afrikaans cop got out and and went after me saying “get out of the car, I am going to take you to the police station and teach you a lesson!” Mal was calm and he said “never mind officer, I will discipline him, thank you” and this went back and forth for a while…I was shit scared! Finally the cop relented and we went home…Malcolm, in only the way Malcolm could said “Now about that discipline, go get me a coke!” and then he laughed the way he did.
The other experience I had in High School that was formative was that I was named a Prefect. The Prefects more or less were the school cops. We had our own lounge and we got to give kids detention. We strolled the hallways and essentially were given the privilege of power that other kids didn’t have. It was a real insight into how the world actually worked.
As a prefect, there was a Head Boy and a Head Girl. They were invited to a leadership camp where other prefects from other schools were to gather for leadership training. Larry, our Head Boy chose not to go and it was opened up to other. I volunteered for this week long training experience. It was probably the most significant High School experience I had. For one thing, I got to know myself as a leader. Not only that, but I was a standout leader at the Camp. I was a leader of leaders. The prettiest girl, a girl named Karen, who went to a High School in a nearby town, was infatuated with me and became my girlfriend. I knew myself as potentiality lovable only because of her. Up until then I had lived inside of a story that I was not really lovable, I was more of a clown who made girls laugh. I had not really had a steady girlfriend up till then, although I had dated and kissed a few girls. Karen kissed me in a different way. I remember meeting her at the train station when she came to see me. She threw her arms around me and hugged me and kissed me passionately in a way that completely took my breath away. I was head over heels in love. It was a short romance though. Her parents were very very very conservative and forbid her to see me (a Jewish boy). Nevertheless, I had a glimpse into what it was like to be the true love of another human being and it was magical.
One thing that happened at that camp was that an Army General came to talk to us. He reminded us that South Africa was fighting communism and that “our enemy isn’t black, its red” as he put it.
Back at school I sought out girls who had shown an interest in me. I briefly dated Shaney James who was a gymnast, and a girl named Jenny from the year behind me who used to come watch me train in the gym every day. I was growing up. Even so, I never got passed first base. I was totally naive even though via my brother and my trip to Germany I had lot of girly magazines. Sex was entirely a fantasy to me.
I lost my virginity with Pam at a party one night when I was looking through the records choosing music to play. The stereo was in this boys room and the party was mostly outside. So I went in to select the next album and Pam walked in behind me and locked the door. She took off her shirt and said “I have been waiting for this moment”… I was shocked, and surprised and happy and scared and worried that I would ejaculate in her hand ….. it was a moment that I will never forget. Pam is still a good friend and is as beautiful as she was then. She actually came through Seattle soon after I had left South Africa and spent the night with me up at my Uncles cabin in the mountains. It was so great to see her and recreate that experience together.
High school was really intense the last three years. The classes were hard. I was constantly taking extra math lessons to master Algebra, Trig and Geometry. My extra lessons teacher was a polish woman who was brutal and assigned the hardest work for me to do. I almost dreaded seeing her, but I appreciated her patient way of teaching me the difficult concepts. You need to understand that there was no such thing as a calculator when I learned Math. We actually learned with a slide rule. I remember the very first calculators that came out and they were simple, but could add, subtract, multiply and divide and they were the size of a good size book. I had gym almost 3 hours a day, I played soccer in the park seemingly daily. I played pinball at the corner cafe, I built airplanes and managed my fish tank. It was a busy couple years, and inside of that I was trying to figure out who and how to date girls.
While I had collected soccer cards as a kid, in High School we had Car Cards. We knew everything about cars. We quizzed each other and one upped each other and we knew it all. We were growing up! And soon all of us were driving.
When I was in my first year of High School, my cousins Terry, Joanne and Nicola came back to South Africa from the USA. Erica and June my Aunt and Uncle had earlier moved to the States and Eric , and anesthesiologist, had been recruited to come to South Africa and work on his incubator development. He returned and I got reacquainted with Terry and Jo and Nic. Terry is a year or so younger than me and Jo a couple years, Nic was more or less a toddler when they came back. Terry and I become fast friends and we played and played. Terry had this amazing collection of matchbox cars and Hot-Wheels tracks that we used to play with (that I inherited for my kids)…my interest in cars started when I was about 12 I guess. Partly because of playing Hot Wheels with Terry, but mostly because my dad always worked on cars when I was a kid.
When I was about 16, I worked at the local movie rental place. My job was to rewind movies. The owner, a big fat gruff guy named Jeff used to give me all kinds of shit. He hated that I was in such good shape. He always tried to get under my skin. One day he called me to his office and said. “Do you have a gun?” I told him I didn’t. He said, pulling out a high-powered pellet gun – a Gecado – 50, and said “50 Rand”…I was surprised, it seemed cheap. (I just looked it up and found one on line for R5000 – about $400).
I said “deal” and went over and took the gun from him. He said, “Take it. You can work it off.” I asked if he was sure and he said he was.
That presented a problem. I had not asked my folks about having a gun. They were sensitive about guns because of my dad almost committing suicide. So rather than ask, I snuck it into my bedroom and hid it under my bed. To get it out to play with, I would put it out of my window, climb up onto the roof and go and get it. And to get it back inside, I would do the reverse.
It was a powerful pellet gun. I could accurately shoot a target within the size of a quarter as much as 60 yards away. Eddie had a pellet gun and the two of us used to go to the park to shoot at targets. I eventually gave the gun to Eddie when I left the country. More on guns a little later.
At about that time I was getting ready for my Matric Finals, These were 3 hour long final exams that covered 3 years work per subject. I had finals in English, Afrikaans, Math including Algebra (pre-calc), Trigonometry and Geometry , Science including Physics and Chemistry, Geography including South African Geography, Meteorology, Geology, and Biology including Physiology, Botany and Zoology. The exams were brutal.
I used to walk home with Heather Mirk. She was an English girl who was beautiful, soft spoken, really funny and super warm. She was the girlfriend of a guy named Barry who I think she married in the end. Heather and I used to talk about this and that related to classes we were taking on our walks. I loved Heather and had a huge crush on her and was insanely jealous of Barry. And even so I enjoyed walking her home and chatting.
Heather and Kathy Kaplan were friends. Kathy was the one girl who got caned in class. The teachers used to hit the girls on their hand with a ruler and Kathy refused. She used to sit in front of me and we used to kid around…One day the teacher called her up to punish her and she simply refused to hold her hand out and demanded that the teacher cane her. She was 17 years old, sort of a plane Jane but super bright. She literally bent over in front of the class and took a caning. She didn’t say a word. She walked back to her seat in front of me and sat. The teacher was speechless, as were all of us.
A couple of months before the matric exams, I was at a Highlands Park soccer match one Saturday afternoon in June. After the match I was walking across the field and a black kid grabbed my arm. It was the kid I went to Germany with who I sat with on the train. He said to me “Its time to leave” I asked why and he said “we are going to burn the country now”.
I was taken aback by that but I didnt really understand.
On Monday morning our assembly was interrupted and all the kids were sent home.
Soweto and Alexander Township were on fire.
The tensions were incredibly high. There was a massive police presence. At night you could hear machine gun fire in Alexander Township on the northern boundaries of the city. People were scared. Everybody. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
I talked to Philemon, the worker at the apartment building were I lived. He said it like this…”I wont be killing you Neil, because I know you and you are a good person, but the boy next door, he will kill you, and I will kill his baas (boss)”
Everything had changed.
Where ever you went after that, shit was tense. You looked over your shoulder. You were less likely to walk around alone. It was not good.
And it was in that backdrop that we were getting ready to do our exams. Suddenly, the army seemed like it was seriously some place you didnt want to go. I mean we knew that you could get sent to the border, but that war seemed to be winding down. Nevertheless it was unsettling.
The African’s were angry and more free to express themselves. I got into an argument with a black man at the corner cafe one day. I don’t remember what started the argument, but it was most likely an argument over the pinball machine. All of a sudden he attacked me. He was a street fighter and he came at me kicking and punching. I had never been in an actual fight before so I did what I could to defend myself. I blocked what I could and punched and kicked where I could. I had rudimentary karate skills having been trained by Errol who was a black belt a little, so I hurt him on occasion with well aimed punches and kicks. I was really lucky though. He was kicking my in the nuts using his right foot, which swung up and to his left so he kept kicking me in my upper right thigh in the groin area. It turns out that I was wearing a bathing suit that day, and my nuts were hanging down the left side of the suit while my penis was on the right. He kicked my penis about 20 times hard. Finally I hit him in the throat hard enough that he backed off and two guys grabbed him and pulled him away because someone had called the police. I limped home and put ice on my penis.
The next day or maybe a day or two later, I was on a tour of the nuclear power plant with the school and I was in the bathroom taking a leak when the teacher came in. Mr Dal Bianco. I showed him my blue penis and he laughed his ass off. I really was very lucky…and he was too because I never called the cops or threatened him. I saw him again a few days later and we shook hands and made apologies….crazy.
After the rioting started, the country settled into what felt like a siege. The news from the townships was shocking. We were living in a war zone. You could see smoke and hear gunfire sporadically. It was very stressful.
My uncle Eric, who had moved with his family to Seattle after being recruited by Children’s Orthopedic Hospital (now Seattle Children’s Hospital) became a US citizen and applied for Green Card status for us. The riots had been ongoing for a couple of months when we had a family meeting, and there was no end in sight. At that point, mom and dad had been to Seattle the year before and fell in love with the city, my sisters Susan and Carol were both married to Rex and Malcolm respectively, and because both had English passports, they were going to head to England. My brother Derrick lived in Capetown, and was thinking of leaving the country too. I had received, with Eric’s assistance, an invitation to do gymnastics at the University of Washington. So I was committed to leaving the country too. My mom wanted to go be with her brother who she was very close to, and my dad was not having a great go of it in Johannesburg after his business failed, thought “why not?”. We took a vote and unanimously agreed to make our way to the United States.
We had tea with my Aunt Helen Suzman, who was the only Progressive member of Parliament, and she told us that she was privy to the plans that the government had to commit genocide if things got out of hand. Those were dark days. She said “I can’t leave, but if you can, you should.” With her blessing, we set about making application.
You have to get that in addition to being in a revolution, we were on a META scale, in the middle of the Cold War at the time. There was fear of the domino effect of communism taking over Africa. There were communist insurgent movements in Mozambique and Angola, both former Portuguese colonies, Mugabe was turning Rhodesia into a fascist state and was confiscating farms of white farmers. One of my high school buddies, Mike Cowan, was a Rhodesian ex pat. The ANC was partly managed by and aligned with the Communist party and that was all wrapped up in the fear that the government played on. The South Africans fighting Cubans in Angola was really a proxy war between the CIA and the KGB. So this was the backdrop of my final year of high school.
The matric exams were brutal. There was a lot of stress. You went into the hall, where desks and chairs were assigned. You were allowed to have a pen and a pencil and a ruler, and a slide rule for math. Thats it. All the work you did to work out problems before you answered were to be in blank workbooks that they handed out. Then you turned everything in. I wrote pages and pages and pages. Once the exams were over, we were done. No more school.
Before the matric exams at one of our final assemblies, several kids rigged the speaker system to play Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” loud and the entire song played. We were pretty care free.
I remember only one thing about the graduation ceremony. The speaker gave us the best advice. He read Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and he implored us to follow that advice….I have had that poem in mind since then.
The Road Not Taken
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After the exams, I took off and went to Europe to see my friends. I had a Euro-rail pass, a few hundred dollars in my pocket, a couple of places to stay in England and in Austria, so I took off from the South African summer to the bitter cold of the Western European winter. It was shocking….
I arrived in London and stayed in a youth hostel. I saw my cousins Alan and Revely and our friends Colin and his wife Linda who put me up.
I explored London and fell in love with the city. I saw Arsenal play Newcastle at Highbury and was so happy. I pretty much spent all my money so I buggered off to Europe. In Europe I went first to Paris where I got horribly lost then onto Geneva, then Grunewald and then Zurich. I stayed at a youth hostel in Grunewald that was closed, but since I knocked on the door and had nowhere else to stay, he let me stay there. I wore everything I had and kept the light on and used all the blankets there were …it was still freezing…In Zurich I met Suzi Schmid the cousin of a high school classmate, and I purchased some snow boots. I went off to Austria to meet Barbara and Suzi and Gunther. It was so great to see them. Barbara and Suzie were beautiful and wonderful people and Gunther was an amazing skier. They took me sledding and skiing and I failed at both, but we had a blast and we continued to stay in touch.
When I came back from Europe, I had matriculated and I started at the University of the Witwatersrand or “Wits” (pronounced “Vits”). I was only able to get into the College of Education because of my grades. I mostly hung out with my friends Errol and Eddie and Ruth. We were thick as thieves. We did everything together. Errol and Ruth had an on again off again love affair but we were all good together.
Errol went to the Yeshiva College and played on their soccer team. I was playing for the Arts and Sciences College team at Wits. We were a good side, and several of our guys played for the University side that was promoted into the National First Division of professional soccer a year or two later. Anyway, Errol’s team made it into a cup final and he asked me to come play for them that game because they were short handed. It turns out to be one of my all time favorite games. There was a big crowd, about 5 deep all the way round the field. We were playing in yellow/orange jerseys and the other team was in blue. A late game situation occurred when Errol, who was a good dribbler, took the ball down the right wing. I trailed him as he got into the other half. He was confronted by two defenders and I called for the ball. He back heeled the ball to me and I looked up to see David, a tall blond kid in the penalty area in good space. I hit a curling cross with pin point accuracy and he rose above the defenders to thump a perfectly timed and placed header into the near top corner. The crowd erupted. David and I were mobbed by the players and the fans. It took a minute to clear the field and the game restarted. After two minutes the ref blew the final whistle and we were Champions!
At university I took classes in Economics, Biology, and Human Anthropology mostly for shits and giggles because our Green Cards had come through and we had committed to leaving in September so I could arrive in the USA in time for the start of the school year at the University of Washington.
So while I was at University, I mainly worked with a magazine called “CRISIS!”. The premise was that there were atrocities occurring in South Africa all over, but they were not being reported widely. For instance, there might be a column inch in a local paper that said “Black woman killed by white farmer” and a short paragraph about it. That story would never get widely reported, and it was happening all over the country. The editors pulled all of those kinds of reports together into one 8 page magazine that we distributed around the city. I was involved in distribution. The paper was banned and the editors and publishers were disappeared.
When I went to get fingerprinted by the police for our Visa application, the cop said to me “We know who you are. Get a one way ticket”.
I went to class to hang out with my friends and to get a taste of university life, but it really was a break from reality. Mostly I just goofed off, went to parties, played golf, and fooled around with the girls I was dating, and I also worked on distributing the CRISIS magazine and I got involved with the RAG committee. Rag was a parade that the University Students ran through the streets of Johannesburg to raise money for charity. All the students would get dressed up in crazy costumes and they would parade around on these elaborate floats throwing candy at the kids and collecting small change from the observers. It was fun, and a really good cause.
With months to go before we left, my dad and I worked out a month long vacation in the bush at my Uncle Ernie’s place near the game reserve.
Gong to the bush meant there were going to be guns.
Guns were ever present in the culture. My friends all had pellet guns and by the time I was 16 many had more powerful rifles. Most of us hunted. I had not had the experience of hunting until I went to the bush with my cousin Harold and my Uncle Ernie and my dad. Ernie was an amazing man. He had suffered polio as a kid and had one gimpy leg. But he never let that interfere in his life. We went boating with him at the Vaal River and he took me and Harold to Mozambique one year to go fishing in Baseruto. We had to dig for a little crustacean called Gafoof to use for bait. One time Harold and I were walking through the forest by the beach and we came across an old man who looked sad and hungry. He rubbed his belly and asked in Portuguese for food. All we had between us of any value at the moment was a coin worth about 25 cents. I offered it to him and he indicated that he could not eat it by biting on it. Shaking his head, he walked off. It was really sad.
Anyway, Ernie had this land he called his “farm” up on the border of the Kruger Park. He had built a house on the top of a hill literally within site of the fence to the park. The fence itself was a 3 strand barbed wire fence about 6′ high. We had to take Landrovers over pretty rough roads to get into the area he called his “farm”. What was amazing about his place was that he had built a pond down below the house so you could sit on the deck and watch the animals come and drink during the dry season.
We saw some amazing sites. including Kudu, Baboon, Giraffe and many more animals.
The most incredible experience Harold and I had, was a moment that I will never forget.
Harold and I went down in the Landrover to the dry river bed nearby. Ernie had a team of men digging river sand out of the river bed to bring up to the house in order to fill in around the pool he had recently installed.
Harold and I were armed to the teeth. We had buck shot, snake shot and an elephant gun, a 458 rifle.
We parked the vehicle and walked the 30 or so feet to the rivers edge to greet the workers and ask if they needed anything. They were about 10 feet below us digging sand and loading it into a truck and so could not see behind us. We chatted with them a few minutes and then turned to walk back to the Landrover.
Under a tree, no more than 30 feet away was a pride of about 12 or so Lion just sitting and laying around under a tree. it looked about like this…
My heart started pounding and I stopped breathing. The lion looked calm and non-threatening, but I said to Harold “don’t make eye contact, walk slowly and confidently to the Landrover…shaking in our boots, we made our way to the car. As we walked away I called down to the men in the river bed “Lion!” (they scrambled for the truck). Harold and I laughed as we drove back….What was incredible about that walk back to the Landrover was that the lion had passed between us and the car. We could tell because their spoor were present…they had literally passed 15 feet away from us and we never had any idea.
Another scary moment at the farm was when we spotted a Black Mamba in the tree by the house….Scary because the Black Mamba is nominated as the most venomous snake on earth.
Ernie shot it with snake shot and the laborers cooked it up and ate it. I never got to taste it though.
Anyway, one day (we were there about a month) Ernie said “Lets go get an Impala!”.
We loaded into the Landrover and the servants came along behind in a flatbed. We drove for a while till we spotted a herd not too far away. We parked and using the hood of the car as a rest, Ernie shot a buck with a single well aimed shot. The workers raced out into the field, cut its throat to kill it for sure and dragged it back. We loaded it into the flatbed behind and headed back to the house.
There we butchered the animal and hung it to age for a week.
We then made the best venison Stew and ate like kings the rest of the time we were there.
I had a moment of authenticity with my dad one evening. We were drinking heavily for me really, (I had only been drunk once before) and the national drink Cane, Lime and Lemonade (Cane Spirits are like Vodka, and by “lemonade” they mean “Sprite” which we called lemonade) was brutal. Ernie, who had massive arms since he walked around of forearm crutches, challenged me to an arm wrestling contest…it was an epic battle that I won in the end (I was pretty strong in those days). My dad was drinking and cheering us on along with Harold.
My dad was as drunk as I had seen him…and after the battle he said to me …. “are we doing the right thing?” meaning leaving the country for Seattle.
I had made up my mind I was leaving. I was facing 5-10 years in the military, which meant fighting to defend the White Supremacist government of the time. I had no intention of staying and defending the apartheid government. But for dad, I can see now, at his age, which is about how old I am now, that it would have been a big risk, and very scary.
I told him “yes, definitely!” but I could see that he was doubtful.
The next day, Harold and I were sitting on the deck watching a large Kudu Bull surveying the fence. The three strands of barbed wire topped out at about 6 or 7 feet. This Kudu wanted to get to the water hole (it was the dry season). He stood there for a few minutes looking and then suddenly he leaped from a standing start, cleared the fence and went to the water hole. It was amazing to see an animal that weighed over 1000 pounds clear the fence.
After I came back from the Game Reserve, I almost immediately went to Cape Town to spend a month with my twin cousins, Cindy and Shelly, a couple of sexy twins a year older than me, and their big sister Lynne and my Aunt Iris.
It was magical. We stayed on Clifton Beach in a swanky apartment on the cliff and we had a blast. We took a weekend and went to Umhlanga Rocks where the people who’s home we were staying in had beach cabin and a dune buggy.
A month in the bush and then a month at the coast made me love South Africa in a way that I really didn’t before I left.
We packed our possessions into a container. We gave a lot of our things away. We said our tearful goodbyes and we left on an adventure.
First stop, London, England!
Destination, Seattle, WA in the good ole USA!
Some Thoughts on Living in and Leaving South Africa
Living under apartheid in South Africa as a kid was a little confusing. As a youngster, we had servants Rebecca and Abbiott. Rose used to do the ironing. Rebecca often had her kids staying and I played with her kids till I went to school. I don’t remember their names and I never saw them again.
Everybody had a servant or two. There were lots of African men and woman in the white neighborhoods, and I learned later that in order for them to be there, they had to have their “passbook” – papers – in order.
I also saw police, white and black, arresting, almost exclusively, black men for no apparent reason (usually their papers were not in order).
Whites had red buses, blacks had green buses. Red buses often had a conductor collecting tickets and there was always a seat…the buses were mostly empty. Green buses were crowded. There were fewer of them, none were double decker, and there were fewer stops where they gathered which meant that people had to walk miles to get to and from work.
Amenities throughout the city were segregated. Drinking fountains, toilets, movie theaters, restaurants etc. I remember when I worked as a waiter at Mr. Steak and all the kitchen staff was black…every single person. Not one black person ever ate in that restaurant.
There was a palpable fear of black Africans among white people. I remember one time when my dad was lost on the way to the game reserve. I was in the back of the car. He stopped to ask an African man directions. The man made an effort in broken English to explain. My dad was having a hard time following. The man said “I can show you” and instead of letting him get in the car, my dad simply gunned it and took off. I asked him why he didn’t take him up on his offer…he said nothing.
I got to go to Soweto one time in my life. My uncle, Anthony, was making a movie for a black audience and there was an on location filming that I was invited to. I got to help hold the microphone…which made me a Grip for the day.
The experience was interesting. The part of Soweto that we were in was made up of small seemingly well kept houses. Not middle class by my standards of the time, but certainly not the tin shanty town that Alexander Township was. You could drive by Alexander Township and see it from the highway, and it was really poor.
The Africans were tribal, and there were lots of languages…the most common, Xosa, Zulu. and Bantu – and in addition to speaking several languages, African’s often also spoke English and Afrikaans. We used to go to the mines to watch tribal dances from time to time. It was a nation of so many cultures. There were all those African tribes, and there were the Cape Coloreds, and the Malays, and the Indians, and the Afrikaners and of course, the English…and then there were also Chinese and Japanese immigrants too.
Nelson Mandela was a mythical leader to most white South Africans. he had been in prison for most of my awareness. But Robben Island where he was in prison became known as Mandela University. In fact, the prisoners, many of whom became South Africa’s leaders, used the formation of a football club, Makena FA to formulate the government in exile.
Ghandi was the source of inspiration to Mandela and also Steve Biko, who was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement, which had started holding sit down protests. Peaceful, non- violent activism. Well the weekend I left the country, Steve Biko was arrested, tortured and murdered.
With all the unrest and institutional racism, and the coming civil war where I would have to defend white supremacy, I was relieved to be leaving that place behind. At one level I was glad to leave and at another I wanted to see justice. It was a relief though to get on that plane and have it take off.
I am from South Africa, but I did not align with Apartheid at all, and I was glad to be leaving.
We let South Africa on September 1st 1977. We arrived in London and spent the weekend seeing our cousins and touring the city. I made my way to Highbury to watch Arsenal play Southampton. We connected with Alan and Rev and Ian and Janice before we boarded the Pan Am flight across the North Pole to land in Seattle. It was a spectacular 9 hour flight on a Jumbo Jet.
University Travel Lodge
We arrived in Seattle on September the 4th of 1977. It was a beautiful day. Going through Customs as we entered the country, we dealt with an immigration agent who was an old hippie. He went through the forms one by one and when he came to one particular form, the one that said that if there was a draft, I agreed to be drafted. He took 10,000 pounds off my shoulders. Or at least if felt like that is what he did. Instead what he did was tear up the form saying ” we don’t have a draft in this country”. It turns out that just prior to our arrival, Jimmy Carter had cancelled the draft, and it had an amazing impact on me. I had grown up with the idea that I would serve in the military for most of my 20’s and now that was gone as a consideration.
We went through customs and came out of the door to see Nicola, Terry and Jo along with Eric with a big bunch of balloons welcoming us. We got into Eric’s big green station wagon and he drove us to his home in Laurelhurst in the NE section of Seattle. We went on the Express Lane which was largely in a tunnel so I did not really get a glimpse of Seattle until we emerged and I could see lakes and water and green everywhere.
We pulled into their neighborhood and it was very clear that people were milling around, playing with Frisbee’s in the street, washing their cars, and so on…my impression was that the whole city was on vacation. I didn’t know that it actually WAS a public holiday.
Eric and June had a beautiful home in Seattle, with a wonderful view of Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier. They had invited friends, Bob and Marilyn, Beth and Marty, Gene and Rachel, who my mom and dad had met the previous year and we got adopted into the extended Seattle family. Eric and June had a spectacular view of the Lake and the Cascade range, and it felt really good to be here.
We lived in an apartment in the University Travel Lodge across from the University Village shopping center while my parents searched for a house.
I got a job painting the interior of a big old house in the University District with a woman in her 50’s named Virginia. She was wonderful. She had a southern accent and was married to her psychiatrist husband who practiced in the house. I hardly ever saw him. But Virginia and I talked and talked as we prepped and painted. She introduced me to a French Press for a delicious coffee blend she had concocted from this little coffee store in the U Village – Starbucks. At the time, there were two stores. One in the U Village and at the Pike Place Market. Who knew?!
I loved Seattle immediately. It’s a beautiful city, in a beautiful region, and there were no troubles like existed in South Africa. People were seriously chill by comparison. Terry and I hung out, we trained together. Terry was a top ranked cross country skier and was getting ready to head to the East Coast for college. It was really great to have my cousins in town.
Eric told me that I had to “show up for a test on Saturday” at an address he gave me and an appointed time. I didn’t know what it was, but it was the SAT. and I had no idea what that was. I completed the test and scored well enough to secure my entry into the UW. I went to the college to register for classes.
My dad and I had an interesting experience that sort of illustrates what the change in culture was like for us. We went to buy a car and he and I were both amazed that every person we dealt with was a woman. South Africa was as sexist as it was racist….so the bus driver, the car sales person, the insurance sales person, the bank loan officer – all women. My dad and I actually talked about both that that was the experience and also that we were amazed by the experience of seeing women in those vocations.
My first day of school was the next day. The very first person I encountered on campus was a carpenter. She was a woman too and I realized what a different country I was in.
My first class at the UW was The History of the United States since 1940 lectured by Otis Pease. It was a brilliant class that gave me a context for the United States that I had moved to. You have to understand that in South Africa we had no American history at all. All we really knew was what we had seen in Hollywood movies. American history since 1940, the war years, WW2, Korea and Vietnam as well as the shifts in culture here at home with the Civil Rights moment and Title 9 made for an interesting introduction into the then current context.
I will say that I found the Seattle Times and Seattle PI to be very regional newspapers with little international or national news. Growing up in South Africa had made me hungry for news of the larger world.
I also registered for Math 101. This was a lecture delivered in Kane Hall…There were 1000 people in the class. It was really hard to get my head around a class that big – bigger than my entire high school. I made the point of sitting at eye level with the professor so that when I had a question, he would see me.
It was hard trying to get used to dealing with foreign grad students who didnt speak English. In my Chemistry class, for instance, my first TA was from China and literally spoke no English. My second one was from Italy and barely spoke English. I almost failed Chemistry as a result.
I used the money I made painting Virginia’s home to pay for school and to buy a bicycle and I rode my bike to school every day for 5 years. It wasn’t a long ride, but it finished with a stiff up hill climb both ways. The campus was huge. There were 35,000 students there every day and lot and lots of buildings.
As a Freshman, I had to go see the Freshman Adviser….a meeting that had a profound influence on my life.
I don’t remember the name of the woman I talked to. She asked me what I was interested in? I said “sports medicine and computer science” she said “There are no jobs in computer science”. And that was that.
I mean this was 1977 and at the very moment there probably were not that many jobs in computer science…but she directed me to PT where there were presently 40,000 jobs open in the USA. I figured that because my parents were struggling to get settled. My dad was having a hard time finding work, and my mom didn’t have her license yet, it made sense to go into a career where I could get employment quickly, so I agreed with her assessment and made the decision to pursue the pathway to PT.
I can’t help thinking how differently my life might have gone if I had pursued computer science back then.
6046 29th Ave NE
My mom and dad purchased this home in 1978 for $40,000. It was a crazy house that had 9 doors in the kitchen. I lived upstairs in the finished attic and there was an unfinished basement that I worked with a couple different contractors to finish off as a rental unit.
I had two rooms upstairs. I built a desk into one and slept in the other. I grew pot in the cupboard for a while till my dad asked me not to…actually what happened was that I came home from school one day and saw my dad sitting on the steps outside. He was literally green. I asked him what was wrong and he said “I discovered your pot plants”, I said “Oh, is that all?, I thought someone had died!” He asked me to stop smoking pot and I said to him “tell you what, I’m not going to stop smoking now, but if in future, you see my behavior changing, and you ask me to stop, I will”. He accepted that since I was an A student, held down an job and went to school.
At that time I worked as a furniture refinisher with a couple guys about my age and the owners Floyd and Max who were in their late 60’s. Dave was the son and Dan was a worker like me. I was the new guy, so I got the dirty jobs of stripping furniture and sanding it down. I learned a lot about how furniture went together, and how to refinish it. I also got to meet some interesting people.
At the time, the Sonics were a big deal in Seattle, and I refinished Paul Silas’s living room furniture. Bringing the item to his home was interesting. First of all, meeting him. He is a very large man. I think I took him up to his belly button! Second, he literally had a half court in his living room. Seriously.
I loved school. I was meeting people, learning a lot and earning an income to pay for school. I also met and enjoyed a relationship with Sue Newcomb who I met at a Halloween Party in one of the Dorms on campus. We dated for about a year. She was a lovely girl form Portland and she introduced me to American ways of life. It was a fun fling. I got cold feet when she asked me to marry her in a back handed way. She said she could make me a citizen….if I wanted.
After a couple of years I took a job at Sax Floral, a nursery, where I made potting soil, maintained the greenhouses, watered plants, and delivered flowers. For both the furniture refinishing job and the nursery job I made minimum wage of $3.00 an hour. During the Fall I used to spend the daylight hours fixing broken glass on top of the greenhouse. I remember writing physics equations on the glass so I could memorize them.
I went to see the movie Deer Hunter with my friend Josh. I was sitting next to a girl on my left, who was sitting next to a friend. Her partner and Josh both left at the same time to go get refreshments or use the bathroom, so I struck up a conversation with her. As she was leaving, she slipped a piece of paper into my hand – her name and phone number.
I called her and we agreed to meet for a date. A BBQ at her place. What was weird about that was that the guy who she went to the movie with showed up…they had an argument and he left….it turns out he was her fiance! She had just broken up with him….It was a little awkward at first…but Maryellen and I got along great and we were together for a couple years. We went to Vancouver one weekend to stay with our friends Frankie and Barry. We explored the city and on our way back, we were in a long line at the border. We were smoking pot and the car was full of smoke. Maryellen asked “why do they have borders anyway?” I answered “Oh you know, smuggling, drugs that sort of thing” We looked at each other and laughed. We were about 3 cars from the front. We opened all the windows and Maryellen put the small amount of pot under her seat. The border guard took one look at us and told me to get out of the car. I got out. He said to open the trunk. I opened the trunk. He went through our stuff and walked to the front of the car. My door was open, so he climbed in. He started poking around and finally came up with the little box I had made when I worked at the furniture refinishing place with a small amount of pot and a small pipe. Maryellen was crying. He said “Pull over there” so we did. They told us to get out.
Once out he said to me “we are going to go through the car. Are we going to find any more pot?” I said “no”. He said “If we do, you are going to prison” I told him that I understood and “no, there was not any more”.
They put Maryellen and I in a room together. About every 20 minutes, someone would come in and say something endearing like “we are going to throw the book at you”…Maryellen was not coping well. I would tell her “think of whales swimming, think of eagles soaring” to try to keep her calm. I was freaking out too. I only had a green card and it could be revoked. But eventually a senior officer came in and asked me where we got the pot. At that time, in Seattle, it was legal to have an ounce.
“I got it on the street in Seattle” I told him
He said “you can go, don’t be this stupid again”
I said “yes sir, and we left before they changed their mind”
We laughed all the way back to Seattle.
Maryellen was a PhD music major who played early music on the piano and old instruments like harpsichords. She finished up at the UW and went off to UCSB to complete her PhD. and she invited me to come down to visit her…I never had the money to go since I was paying for school on minimum wage, so I didn’t go. But years later, when I finally did get to Santa Barbara, I realized if I had gone, I would never have come back. Its amazing down there.
Working at the greenhouse one winter, I was sweeping snow off the glass when one of the owners kids threw a snowball at me. It hit me in the face and I took a step back only to fall through the glass. I was up about 20 feet off the ground…it was going to hurt….I was falling and as I fell I saw a pipe going past my face so I reached up and grabbed it. It was a hot water pipe, but it wasn’t scalding hot. I swung a second and then dropped the remaining 5 ft down to my feet. I suddenly appreciated my gymnastics experience. Needless to say, the kid ran away and I got fired for “playing dangerously on top of the greenhouse”.
Maryellen asked me to make a commitment to her, but I just couldn’t. I was in school and had just been accepted into PT school and she was done. Plus she was in California pursuing her PhD, and she wanted me to come down to be with her. She gave me an ultimatum. Either come or she was going to join the Peace Corps. I said no, so she joined the Peace Corps and went to Kenya for two years. She ended up marrying a fellow Peace Corps volunteer she met while in Africa. We lost contact during the time soon after she returned.
I continued to ride my bike to school along the Burke Gilman Trail and I rode everywhere. My mom had a little Subaru that I got to drive around and then later a Datsun B 210 they gave me when I graduated.
After I was accepted to start in PT School the Fall, I took some classes that I was interested in. I took Astronomy which was amazing and I took Philosophy which I excelled in and I took Child Psychology which I enjoyed as well. I took the summer off and worked at Tasty Home Bakery where I made 1000 croissants before breakfast each day. The baker was this 80 year old guy and he was married to a 20 year old woman. When they hired me, they said “we have two rules. Rule 1. Don’t eat the profits and 2. do NOT hit on the owners wife. I laughed at the time, but she had said this in all seriousness. One day I met her. A seriously beautiful and super flirtatious girl who got the attention of the baker because she could literally crack 4 eggs at a time. She used to follow me into the walk in freezer and tease me…but I needed the job and I always thought she was setting me up. So I never bit.
While I was in my freshman physics class, I met Karlene who was this amazingly beautiful half Indian girl that I was in love with. But she was seeing a boy named Stephan. Karlene and Stephan and I became fast friends, and spent a lot of time together. Karlene and I used to study physics at my place weekly. I was so infatuated with her. She knew how beautiful she was and she loved the attention I gave her. I never one time hit on her. I just adored her. She became an MD and married an MD and has and MD son. They live in Spokane now and all is well with Karlene.
Stephan invited me over one night to his amazing Queen Anne home that had floor to ceiling windows that looked over the city from the top of the South slope of Queen Anne hill. Karlene was there and it was the first time I smoked pot. I remember getting so damn high.
Stephan was an amazing skier. I had taken the “graduated length method” at Fiorini Sports in the U-Village. Learning this way, you got slightly longer skis each week until you were able to ski on regular skis. I went up on a bus with the program each week in the winter to Snoqualmie Pass, and bit by bit I learned how to ski. Then I asked Stephan to take me skiing. He did. To Alpental.
We went night skiing. I drove up to the pass. Stephan smoked pot. Once I got there, I did too. It was strong stuff. We got super stoned before we got tickets. I managed to get my ticket and stuck it carefully to the wire (It was the first time I had bought a ticket), only to realize that the wire needed to be on your jacket. Oops! Anyway we got to the lift I managed to board it without too much trouble. Everybody seemed to know Stephan. Well the lift went up. And it went up and up and up and up and then it turned a corner and went up and up and up and up. I was terrified. I literally fell down the mountain that night. Stephan in the meantime, was killing the moguls, taking jumps, doing tricks and so on. I went into the lodge cold and wet and embarrassed. Later, when Stephan had had enough, we went to the car and I discovered that in falling down the mountain, I had lost my car keys on the hill. Luckily, I knew there was a spare set and my folks were home so we called and asked them to bring us the spares. We hung out and got higher and higher waiting for them to arrive. They had never driven to the ski slopes before so it was a treat for them.
The other activity I took up while at University was sailing. I loved being on the water and I loved sailing. I started with Lasers at the UW sailing club, graduated to 420”s and 505’s and learned spinnaker sets on an E-scow. I met Brian Williams who got me a ride on fast big boat called Bravado, which was an Islander 40 that was super competitive. We used to go on weekend long races around the Sound. I was the foredeck monkey because I was small and agile, so I handled changing the head sail and the spinnaker and then I was in the cockpit grinding or tailing winches or just being ballast on the high side when we were on a longer leg. Over time I learned how to fly the spinnaker and how to read the shifts and manage the luff of the sail. I also started to pick up on racing tactics especially around the start and during the race as well. I loved racing. We had so many occasions where we were tacking up the beach to avoid the current that we would run aground and have to use the spinnaker pole to push ourselves free. I became masterful at repacking the spinnaker below deck once we rounded the downwind mark.
So I started PT school and was enjoying class a lot. It seemed like I could get interested in PT as a profession. I had my first neuro test, but had forgotten that we had a test scheduled so I came to class super stoned. In those days I was smoking 5 joints a day. I was so high that I totally bombed the test. When the results came out, the teacher called on me to stay after class and she asked me if everything was OK because I was very much active in class and obviously was interested in the material. I told her I was high and she suggested that I stop smoking pot during PT school. About the same time, I had an argument with my dad and he said “Its time for you to stop smoking pot”,
I stopped. It was hard, I had to first smoke less and then gradually stop altogether. It took about 6 months to quit completely. It was hard because all the girls I dated smoked pot. I was playing soccer with a bunch of stoners on a team called Homegrown, and it was literally everywhere. But I worked at it. I had been doing Ti Chi and so I used my Ti Chi practice to distract myself. I remember dong long super slow form walks up the middle of the street at night for study breaks.
The first year and second year kids took some classes together. In one of those classes I met Bobby who told me that her and her husband Roland were going to buy a boat to race. She asked if I would be interested in being a crew on a Thistle. It sounded interesting, so I said “sure”.
i arrived at the dock at Leschi, and there Bobbi and Roland were with the Yellow Bucket. The Thistle is a flat bottom 17 ft long boat with a retractable centerboard and a 30 ft mast with a fractional rig (which means that the head sale and the spinnaker dong go all the way to the top of the mast).
We practiced and practiced and practiced. We practiced mark roundings, sail changes, tacking and jibing and capsizing and righting the boat. We practiced in light air and heavy air. In rain and sun. We were a good team. We raced every Tuesday night through the Sumner and Fall and we took the boat down to San Diego for the Midwinter regatta.
In that regatta, there were a couple of experiences I had that were memorable. The first happened in the open ocean during the Olympic Course Regatta. We were sailing under the spinnaker. Now keep in mind that we are really close to the water and the boat is flat as we are going down wind. I glance down and see a massive grey whale heading the other direction right next to our boat about 3 inches below the surface . I put my hand on its back as it went by us and the it dived right behind the boat, its tail fluke being larger than our whole boat. It looked like this…(I didn’t take a picture at the time).
The other event was very stressful
After the race he and Roland had words….
We continued to improve and sailed together until I went down to Portland for my clinical internships. I was dating a girl named Karin who was a year behind me in school, an athletic girl who played basketball. We were just starting to get close as I left for Portland. We lost touch pretty quickly then
I drove down to find a place to stay and I got a killer apartment near the Rose Garden on Vista drive. It was the 3rd floor of a big old house inhabited by a retired doctor and his wife. They had had twins, and they built out the upstairs for them. I worked at Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children for 6 weeks and then the University of Oregon Health Sciences Center. It was there that I met a girl named Vicki that I fell head over heels in love with. When I came back to Seattle, she came and spent a week with me and I asked her to marry me. She said no. (Ironically she was in a long term relationship at school – she went to Stanford – with boy who’s name was also Neil. Anyway she felt like she had promised herself to him, and so she declined.
Back in Seattle I did my last internship at Harborview Medical Center. I had worked there on weekends as a PT Aide, so I was familiar with the PT clinic on the rehab floor. But my clinical was rotation was on the Burn Unit and it was there that I met Melissa. The way that meeting went was like this. I had noticed her because she was beautiful and she seemed to laugh a lot. She was the ward secretary and I was a student PT. I had patient I was working with who had a closed head injury and one day she was alone at the desk as I walked Charlie by. He said to me randomly looking at my name tag “Say, did you ever try those Neil Chasan drugs?” I laughed and said to Charlie, “No Charlie, but see that nurse sitting over there behind the counter? (we all wore scrubs on the Burn Unit) Go ask her that!”
So he walked over to her and asked her….”Did you ever try those Neil Chasan drugs?” She said “what are you talking about Charlie?” I jumped in and said “He is talking about me…he is asking if you have tried me…”
Later, I asked her out on a date. She was tall, 6′, blonde, and beautiful. Kinda my dream girl. We agreed to go see the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman“. Well I picked Melissa up at her condo and we started to head to the movie but it was a beautiful late summer afternoon and the lake was golden like On Golden Pond, so we decided to get teriyaki to go and to go have a picnic.
We were laying on the blanket talking and getting to know each other when we discovered we had the same birthday. I mean exactly the same birthday. Well we worked out the time difference and we figured out that we were born about 10 minutes apart. We smooched a bit and we talked till dark, then I took her home. When I got there and was getting ready to go she said “dont leave”.
We literally had one date. I moved in and that was that. More or less. Melissa was going to school in Spokane and I was not quite done with school, well I was, but I had to take my Boards and get a job and find a place to stay and so on. So for the next 6 months or so we dated across the state. One week I would drive over and one week she would. He had this little 1600 chevy that ran out of oil one day up at the pass and I had to go tow her into town.
Probably the most significant thing that occurred during that time was in 1982 I became a US Citizen. The process involved taking a class to get familiar with US Civics, American History and to take in the culture. I remember the final interview at the State Department one day. A dour and very humorless man asked us questions like “Who is your Representative in Washington?” and “What at the Cabinet positions and who are the Cabinet members?” and the question I guessed at but had no awareness of the answer to “what do the colors on the American flag stand for?” (“The colors of the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”). Well we passed the test in spite of my wrong answer, and we went to a Chinese Banquet hosted by a Dr. at Harborview, who loved my mom and me. The banquet was amazing. One amazing dish after another, beautifully presented and shared at the table by the dozen or so people in attendance. By the end, I think the 10th course, the waiter would bring out an amazing platter of food and show us and we would all murmur our appreciation, then he would take it away. It was the most incredible eating experience of my life to this day.
I graduated from college and took off to see my friends in Switzerland and Austria. It was a great trip. I got to see my sisters who were living in London and then I took a boat train to Europe where I had the following experience. The day started out crazy. Rex, my brother in law, drove me to the train station. But he took me to the wrong station. So we had to run a few blocks to the right station. He was wearing sandals that had an opening on the top of the foot and a pigeon shit into that very spot as we were running…he was cursing and running carrying a bag for me. Anyway, I got on the train and transferred to a ship and off we went. I met this amazingly beautiful French girl, Natalie Cohen, and we got a along great. She invited me to meet her parents when we landed. So we landed and she had a heavy bag which I carried for her. She took my camera bag and was ahead of be because of customs. Well I didn’t have a French Visa, so they stopped me. I had her bag and she had my camera….I waited till she made her way back and we exchanged bags, hugged and cried and we went on our way. On the boat on the way back, connected with a Greek fellow who had a big bottle of Ouzo and he got me and several people around us seriously drunk. A full 24 hours passed and I was back in London. I rebooked my ticket through Holland and tried again.
I arrived in Zurich and hung out with Suzi Schmidt and then I went on to Austria to see my friends and I met Suzi at the train station. She looked sad and I asked her what was wrong. She told me that Barbara had accidentally shot and killed Gunther when they were playing with her dads Luger that they had found. It had a single bullet in the chamber and it had pierced his heart. He had died pretty much instantly. She was in an asylum and I could not see her. I was devastated.
Suzi was in school and I went and talked to her class about life in America. I went to parties with her and then her boyfriend drove me to Heidelberg in Germany where I could catch a train. The Train ride along the Rhine was amazing. The castles are really quite incredible.
I had the good fortune to sit next to a man who spoke English, and who, it turns out, was an historian. He told me the history of every single castle along the voyage. I returned to the states after saying good bye to my sisters in London. I remember the last night in London. I had made friends with the neighbor, she was 19 and super cute and she came over to say good bye. She hung out with me for a while and we shared all sorts of stories.
I came back and applied for a job in various places.
I planned on staying at my parents at least till I got a job, and I was lucky to get a job pretty quickly at Harborview Medical Center as a first year PT. My job was interesting. I was replacing the Chief who was out on leave and I got to have several rotations. I was to spend 3 months on the Rehab floor, 3 months on the Acute Orthopedic floor, 3 months on the Burn Unit and 3 months on Outpatients. The funny thing is that my first rotation was in Rehab replacing my mom, who was moved up to Acting Chief and my very first patient, Sheri, was an acute polio patient who contracted the disease from her baby’s live virus inoculation. It was crazy. She was in a lot of pain at first and I remember her crying…”I don’t want you, I want your mother…” It’s funny now, but then it was very scary. Nobody in the hospital had ever seen acute polio and nobody knew what to do for her. She and her amazing husband Rusty and I became good friends.
I continued to sail the Yellow Bucket with Bobby and Roland, and race Bravado on weekends again, but now there was a new twist. I was seriously dating Melissa and so my weekends were often occupied. Melissa finished school and moved to Seattle. She shared a house with a few nurses and I often spent the night there. Eventually, the home owners son came back from school so Melissa moved out I was in a house with a couple guys, Dave and Vern that Melissa had found for me, and Dave decided to sell the house so we were both homeless at the moment. We decided to get a house together. So we found this tiny little house on 81st in Greenwood, I cant remember the address. We lived there for a while.
Anyway, we campaigned the Yellow Bucket around the western region and qualified for the National Championships. In our last race of the series, we were out in front with a new suit of sales, and as we rounded the final mark just as we were taking down the spinnaker, a screw sheared off the diamond spreaders and our mast folded in half. It was a wooden mast and so the sharp splinters tore through our sails. Melissa happened to be watching us through a telescope when it happened. We were devastated. Well Roland secured a new mast and got the sales repaired.
We drove to Flathead Lake in Montana, stopping in Spokane to stay at Melissa’s parents home. It was very intimidating meeting Melissa’s parents. Her dad was a Presbyterian Minister and quite religious and I was this short Jew from Africa. Bob, her dad, was a recently retired Commander in the US Navy. I was quite intimidated to be honest.
We drove on to flathead and camped out while we raced.
The first day we got there, there was a lot of measuring of the boats. Thistles are a one-design class which means that every boat has the same stuff. Nobody has a technical advantage and so the result is due to boat handling and tactical skill. It was fascinating to watch this process both as an observer and also as a participant. We had a new mast and a newly repaired set of racing sails that we tore up when we demasted during the last race, and so we had to sail the boat to tune it up. The trouble was that there was really heavy air. It was howling.
Flathead was a long lake and as the mountain sides heated up, the air was sucked up the lake caucusing massive rollers at the end of the lake where the race was. So we had this 6 and 10 foot rollers coming in and 40-60 mph gusts and it was hairy!
At one point were heading down wind wing on wing with all three of us literally standing on the stern to keep the nose out of the water so we didn’t pitch-pole . The gust died a little and I dived to the mast to let the Main down. Like the other boats in the water (there were a few), we just rode out the worst of the storm.
The first day of races had us racing an Olympic course in the morning, which meant light air. The cold air tumbling off the mountainsides set a steady breeze of about 10 knots with little variance and that meant all 100 boats on the starting line wanted to be at the same spot of the line at the start. We jockeyed for position but got skunked in dirty air at the start and finished 52nd overall. The Olympic class racers who were there crushed the race. The next day, the race was divided into two fleets. We were in the second fleet of 50 and as a result our races were very competitive. In fact, we won the last day light air race as the pictures below illustrate. It was very gratifying to be so competitive considering it was only our second year on the boat. ‘
These pictures were taken at the Nationals on Flathead Lake. In the image on the left, we are in the middle leading the race and in the image on the right we we are on the right covering the boat behind us. We won the race, our only win of the week. Melissa and I went on to Glacier National Park since we were all the way over there. It was amazing.
Over the next year or two we more or less lived life. I took the engine of my car apart when it started blowing blue smoke out the exhaust. I picked up a Haynes Manual and diagnosed that I had dropped a head gasket. I took the head off and took it to a shop to get skimmed and reinstalled it. I started the car up feeling accomplished and blue smoke came out the exhaust. I was stumped. With sense of failure, I drove the car down the street to the gas station to put gas in the tank, and as I was going in to pay (you could not pay at the pump in those days), an old man sitting on a coke box said to me as I walked by “you need a new automatic transmission modulator”. Just like that. I was like “Huh? what’s that?” so I went home and pulled out the Haynes Manual and looked it up. It was a little piece attached to the exterior of the transmission housing that took me a few minutes to remove and replace once I had a new one, and it cost about $23.00. I installed it, and cautiously started up the car and VIOLA! no blue smoke. I felt great. This is pretty much the color of the car I had…kinda ugly, but a very cool car.
My brother had started working at Chateau Ste Michelle, and so I bought a couple of cases of wine…Melissa freaked out. She was worried I was an alcoholic… it was sort of funny in retrospect when it actually took us years to finish the wine.
My relationship with Melissa continued to grow. We were living together in that little house in Greenwood. I had started my own practice doing home care after my stint at Harborview came to an end. My class mate, Tim Cavender, who worked with me at Harborview, and I had taken a couple of classes on starting a private practice together, so we set about creating our business identity. My parents were freaked out. “Where are you going to get your patients” they fretted. But not knowing what I didn’t know, I pushed ahead undaunted.
One day, Melissa’s sister Carol and her husband Ray were over and I had been shopping for a diamond for Melissa and I gave it to her as a gift. She freaked out. We were engaged.
Now to be fair, Melissa and were struggling to get to clarity in our relationship. We loved each other and at the same time, we struggled with the Christian/Jewish thing. We struggled with our different way of arguing. I liked to argue and was righteous about it, and her family didn’t argue and were righteous about it. Melissa was very controlling and I hated that. I found it very hard to overcome, and add to that, that half her family were hard core evangelical Christians, I was dealing with an up hill battle to be complete about it all. In truth, we didn’t fight “well”. At times we would go on long car drives in order to make us sit next to each other and talk.
One time, we drove down to Disneyland, the happiest place on earth we got mouse ears. We had a blast. We liked the Oregon Coast, so we went car camping along the coast, almost dying one night from stupidity.
The situation was that we parked the car at the top of these cliffs. We walked down the stairs to the beach. The high tide line was a really long way away from the foot of the cliffs. There were lots of logs and then the tide was well out. We hiked around the cliffs to a slightly higher spot where it looked like the sea had not been in ages, and we pitched our tent. We went to sleep and at about 3:00 a.m., I had a dream I was on a submarine. I woke with a start and heard water. I went out of the tent and the ocean had filled the bay, we were stranded. The water was kissing the little hill we were on and occasionally a wave would push up on the mound where our tent was. I didn’t know what to do. Melissa was asleep. Should I wake her? What would we do? I sat there watching the waves, thinking at best we could hug the foot of the cliff and make our way back to the stairs leaving our stuff behind so we could move quickly. If the water started to fill in, we would have to go now. I watched the water closely, it seemed to have reached its high mark. Over the next 3 hours I watched thankfully as it gradually receded. The logs that were so far away had moved up the beach to almost the foot of the cliffs. We were really very lucky.
I had taken a communication course by Bob Weyant at Harborview called “Communication Skills for Supervisors”. Bob was an Industrial psychologist, and his work was super interesting and well conceived, so Melissa and I tried to practice the communication techniques for ourselves. But it wasn’t enough, so I asked Bob for a referral, and he referred us to a counselor. A guy named Gill Sandy who was not terribly sympathetic to our struggles and more or less said “You are not compatible, you should not get married.” I remember the last occasion we saw him, sitting in his office, Melissa taking off her ring and handing it to me and leaving the room in tears. I went after her and asked her to reconsider. “We can work it out” I said. She agreed to try to work it out. We loved each other and we wanted to make it work. I should have listened to him.
4323 43rd Ave NE 1984-1986
We rented a big old house in Laurelhurst, 4323 43rd Ave NE the same neighborhood as Eric and June, Tim moved in and we located an office there. It worked for a little while. We learned how to bill and Tim and I tried to find a way to work together. In the end, it didn’t work out so well and we decided to go our separate ways. Tim was from West Virginia and he went back there. Melissa and I moved into the Laurelhurst house. I changed the name from Orthopedic Physical Therapy Associates to Chasan Physical Therapy and launched my career.
One of my very first patients was a home care patient that I had treated through his initial care on the Burn Unit . His name was Frank and he had suffered a terrible injury when he had fallen off a roof he was working on and pulled a large bucket of hot tar on top of himself. He had 80% second and third degree burns, and he lost his right leg in a high above knee amputation. It was working with people like him that had me really appreciative for my fitness, vitality and well being.
At this point, Melissa and I were struggling with our relationship. Melissa wanted to set a date to get married and I was really reluctant to do that till we worked out the many issues between us. We found another therapist, this woman, Dawn Gruen, literally saved our relationship. She was incredible and we loved her. Sadly she died after losing a fight to cancer at a young age. She really had us look at what we were dealing with in ourselves and with each other over the years.
With Dawn’s help, we finally hit a good rhythm, seemed to be on the same page and set a date to get married. We made the decision to go on a “Dive Honeymoon”. So we registered for SCUBA classes at Underwater Sports, and started learning about diving. We initially got certified as PADI divers by completing the required skills and we embarked on a series of shore dives. Next we committed to the Advanced Certification course. It was interesting. We had to learn some advanced skills and pass skill tests including search and rescue, underwater navigation, a deep water dive, a current dive and a night dive.
Of the skills, the deep water dive and the current dive were the most interesting…the night dive was just, well, spooky. For the deep water dive, we had to dive to 90 feet. The dive boat we were on took us to where the depth was 90 feet and in we went. Up until then the deepest we had dived was 40 feet. There is really not much life in the Puget Sound deeper than that since the light doesn’t penetrate that far. But the dive was a 90 foot dive so we started to descend. What happened to me was that as I got deeper, and my BC (Buoyancy Control vest) compressed, I started to sink faster and faster. I was adding air to my BC as fast as I could but I just kept sinking….I hit the bottom with a thud and always wondered what would have happened if there was not a bottom at 90 feet. It took a minute for my BC to fill enough to lift me off the bottom.
The current dive was interesting too…in this case the boat dropped us on one side of a channel between two islands where the current was moving. We dropped down to about 40 feet and the and current swept us along the wall. It was kinda like being on a conveyor belt.
The night dive was so crazy. We put glow lights on our snorkels, and we swam out to the end of the oil dock at Edmonds Underwater Park. About half way out, Melissa freaked out and “dropped” her weight belt….so she could not descend. She went back to the shore and the next day we came out and I did a search and rescue to find her weight belt. For the night dive you realize as you descend that you are in the darkest dark you can imagine. It is PITCH black. Then you turn on your flashlight and BOOM color everywhere. There is a fish in the Puget Sound called a Rat Fish. They use the oil from it for gun oil. It has a poisonous spine on its back and it is a nocturnal fish. I had never seen one but when you turn on your light underwater, it turns and comes straight at you….it’s spooky
Well the instructor felt bad for Melissa, who definitely had the skills to get her Advanced Certification, so he awarded her the certification in any event. We were ready for our honeymoon.
By the time our wedding arrived, on August 4th, 1985, we had been together for 3 years. Our wedding was planed for SeaFair Sunday. We got married on the grass, outside of my cousins place in Broadmoor on the golf course. We were serenaded by the Blue Angles flying over our wedding.
We went from the wedding to a downtown hotel for the night and then on to the airport in the morning. Next stop Kauai.
We had a blast in Hawaii. We LOVED Kauai. We did two dives a day for two weeks with every 3rd day off so we could degas. It was amazing.
There were two situations that stand out in my memory from those dives. The first, we were diving a dive spot called Kitchen Sink. It was in about 90 feet of crystal clear water where several items from dismantled old ships had been dropped to create a graveyard of shorts that formed a false reef years before. It was well populated by fish, moray eels, shells etc. Imagine a 40 ft reef, sort of circular in shape, in 90 feet of water in the open ocean.
Melissa had opted not to dive that day. She suffered from motion sickness and the ocean was a little choppy. So she stayed ashore. I dived with the Dive Master as my dive buddy. We were down exploring the reef when I looked up to see the Dive Master with his hand on his forehead, indicating a shark. I turned around and behind me about 30 feet away was a shark that looked to be about 15 feet long and about 2 ft wide.. He was big…he was coming toward me lazily. My blood pressure skyrocketed. The shark came closer. I crouched in among the reef making myself as small as I could. The shark swam around the reef a couple of times before flicking its tail once and disappearing. I mean it was gone. I have never felt so out of my element as I did at that moment.
The other experience occurred while I was diving with Melissa as my dive buddy. We were in about 60 feet of water. We spied these amazing shells – a really nice cone shell that looked like this:
I picked it up and it was alive…there as clearly a snail in the shell, so I put it down. Melissa was not satisfied with that so she picked it up and handed it to me to put in my goodie bag. I shook my head no and set it down.
I swam off. She followed. What I did not know was that she picked up the shell again and slipped it into my BC pocket.
What Melissa had forgotten ( I think, and maybe she knew LOL) was that the snail is poisonous and has a deadly spine it uses to kill things…like divers who are stupid…and who put them in their pocket…
Well we got on the dive boat and Melissa said “Hey, why did you keep putting that shell down, I was trying to give it to you?” I said “Well it is alive so we can’t take it”. She cocked her head and said “Oh, I put it in your BC pocket”…I was like Startled…and looked in the pocket and this is what I saw…
The snail had extruded it’s poisonous spine and lucky for me it had gotten caught in the webbing of my BC pocket and was pointing parallel to my trunk and had missed me by millimeters! I was very, very lucky.
I have it that my new wife tried to assassinate me on our honeymoon! In any event, we loved the experience. We took helicopter rides, we went to a Luau, we dived the beach called Tunnels where we saw Black Tipped Reef Shark.
We had a great time. We were young, we were in love, we were on an adventure and we sat in a restaurant on the last day having lunch before we head to the airport to come home and we seriously debated staying. We almost did.
I had just started my practice, I had signed a lease to move my office into a medical building on Pill Hill, and Melissa had a great job on the Burn Unit. She was super close to her sister and her other sibs and her mom, so she wanted to come back. So we reluctantly came home.
We set about buying a house and we ended up making an offer on a house on Superbowl Sunday of 1986. Melissa met Tom and Heidi and we really got along with them. They accepted our offer and we had our first home.
8853 Ashworth Ave N 1986 – 1993
At about that time, I was nominated and elected to be the Treasurer of the Washington State Physical Therapy Association and to serve on the Board and the Executive Committee. I looked at their finances and committed the Association to purchasing a building in Olympia for their offices. It was a bold move that made the Washington State Chapter one of the most financially stable chapters in the country. At the time of this writing, the building is paid off and the chapter is healthy.
Melissa and I got used to being married and we continued to dive for recreation. We also ran in occasional 10K races and I continued sailing on both the Yellow Bucket and also on big boats, specifically Bravado, the Islander 40.
Tom and Heidi and done some work on the house. They had installed a deck in the back and put a hot tub downstairs in a glassed in porch. The room had been lined with cedar planks and the hot tub was a circular wooden tub about 8 feet across. They also made the family room downstairs hospitable by installing a brick hearth and a wood burning stove.
We used to go diving with our buds and then come home for a crab and sea cucumber fry and a soak. I remember a shore dive on the peninsula in the Hood Canal region we went to with a group of friends, and we all gathered sea cucumbers and Dungeness crab. We came home, everybody skinny dipped in the hot tub to warm up and then we cooked up the feast. It was fun.
The sea cucumber has 4 strips of muscle in the shell. So you slice it open and strip out the muscle layer, slice it up, bread and fry it and its a lot like calamari.
Well Melissa and I turned the downstairs into the Master Bedroom. The house was a split level with two bedrooms up stairs and a tiny bedroom downstairs. So we built out the shower downstairs to make a double shower, and we re-carpeted and painted. The one bedroom upstairs was a guest room and the other became a study since it had doors going out to the porch.
Later, we updated the kitchen, opened the wall up, installed a table and new cabinets and lighting.
I did a lot of the work but we also paid a neighbor, Jack, who was a contractor to do a lot of the work. I remember one time being in the attic when I accidentally set fire to some insulation with a light getting too warm. I snuffed it out but that was close.
We took a few trips during this time. Probably the most significant was to London where we stayed with my sister Carol, and then when I came home, Melissa went on to Europe with her mom. We also went skiing in Canada at Big Sky, we went to Hawaii, we went to Oregon, we went to San Diego. But mostly we were home bodies working on being home owners.
During this time, I was racing big boats on the Sound, and my friends Mitch and Brad invited me and another fellow on a “Macho Cruise” so called. The idea was that we would sail Mitch’s boat, a 34 ft Sloop, out to the open ocean and back without stopping. This was ambitious. Mitch and I and sailed, and Brad had not, plus he couldn’t swim. Mitch’s other friend he invited had also never sailed overnight.
We met on Lake Union and we went out into the Sound through the Ballard Locks.
We made it through the locks in the dark and we sailed out into the night…our first encounter was with a giant freighter as we crossed the shipping lanes and Mitch fired up the engine to get us out of the path of the vessel. It was a bit scary. We realized we were in trouble when I said to Mitch…”whats that green light” and we looked across from east to west before we saw the red light on the port bough…He said “OH FUCK” and gunned it….we got safely out of the way, and sailed North in light air.
I went to sleep about midnight, finding comfort among the sails below.
In the morning I woke up and went up on deck to find Brad manning the wheel. “You drive” he said as he went below.
I was single handing the boat in light air as we crossed into the Straights of Juan De Fuca. It was blue sky and the Olympics were out in all their splendor. It was magnificent.
I sailed along and then noticed an aircraft flying back and forth…..it was an Orion prop plane and it seemed to be flying back and forth in a pattern.
I watched it for a while and then it suddenly flew off….I didnt think much of it until a Trident Submarine surfaced nearby heading South into the Sound towards Bremerton.
I got quite a surprise. Those things are HUGE!
We sailed on and crossed the Straights with some fanfare….it was windy and the tide made it choppy. I was lying at the bough at one point, watching a Dalls Porpoise playing in the bough wave.
They look like little Orca…and they are ridiculously good swimmers.
We sailed out to the open ocean and turned around and started to work our way back. The wind was too strong and the waves too big. Brad went below and I ventured onto the foredeck to take down our jib. I sat on the bough pulpit and wrapped my legs around the structure and pulled the sail down as we plunged through the waves…. I was soaked when we pulled into Victoria.
We spent the night and then in the morning started to make our way back. We returned without much excitement compared to the journey out.
Our lives changed when Melissa got pregnant, or at least she thought she got pregnant. She had all the symptoms but it seemed like she miscarried around the 6 week mark. She seemed to be super tired leading up to when she lost the baby. She was heart broken. We had been “trying” to get her pregnant for going on a year.
Then, well, we just kept trying and then finally, she got pregnant with our first born, Sam
Our life really did change at that time. We were no longer a happy go lucky couple. We had a child on the way. All of a sudden, everything had changed. We now started getting ready for a child in our lives. Nesting level 10! As the impact of that reality set in, we thought of ourselves differently. We were going to be parents.