A Missionary Doctor's Autobiography
The start of the second world war did not affect us much in Lesotho. Dad received a form to complete, but was never called up for service, probably on account of his diabetes, which required twice daily insulin injections.
What was of greater significance for me was a visit by a family called Mitchley, who lived in Bethlehem, in South Africa, about 55 miles from Emmanuel Mission. During conversation it was suggested that I could board with them and attend the church school in Bethlehem. So in September 1939 I went off to a proper school for the first time. Previously, my mother, a trained teacher, taught me at home.
Mitchleys lived on Cambridge Street, which is on a rise, overlooking the Jordan River.
(I know it sounds strange, but it really is Bethlehem on the Jordan river!) Paul Mitchley, was about three years my senior and we used to ride our bicycles down the hill to school every morning, our fingers and noses almost frozen with the cold. (Bethlehem is one of the coldest towns in S. Africa.) However most days are sunny, so we would then pedal our way back in the heat of the early afternoon. If only we could have gone up to school and down home!
The school consisted of one room, in a double-storey building, which also housed the church on the ground floor and a family upstairs. There were ten students ranging from grades one to eight, all taught by one teacher. I started in Grade 3, joining a girl named Cora who was in that class.
Adjustment to "proper" school was more difficult because we had three different teachers the first three quarters. Admittedly, I started in the fourth quarter of the school year and our new teacher got married after the first quarter of the next year, changing her name - so it was really two teachers with three names. Another problem was that initially it took me at least three times as long as the others to copy notes from the blackboard, as I was a slow writer and had never had to copy notes before.
The Mitchleys were a rather unhappy family. The father did not share his wife's religious beliefs, as she, although very sincere, was a very strict disciplinarian and rigid in her outlook. She told me one day how she had boxed her son's ears for disobedience. I felt sorry for Mr Mitchley, especially when we all had to eat cold boiled potatoes for Sabbath lunch because "it would be a sin to cook on the Sabbath."
If one of us boys caught a cold, he would be put to bed for the day and given a good dose of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate). I still cannot understand the rationale for the treatment - especially as Epsom salts is a purgative and the toilet was out in the garden!
I learned to swim in a concrete reservoir about 20 feet across, used for irrigating the large garden, which was attended by Johannes, a faithful old gardener. Before we could swim, we had to clear away the algae floating on the top - the frogs kept well out of the way. I never could swim well, but at least managed to keep afloat. Paul and I made a model village, using bricks for houses and incorporating my model train into the landscape.
Another pastime was bicycle touring -- we organised our own tours. The bicycles became our "cars" and we went on imaginary holidays with our "wives and children", exploring many miles of country lanes. When we took part in a Pathfinder honour in cycling we easily completed the requirement of "cycling 50 miles in under ten hours."
Sometime during the following year, for reasons which I cannot now remember, it was arranged that I should board with Mrs Garne and her three children. She was a widow, a plump, motherly person and I enjoyed my time with them. Geoffrey was about my age and was the third member of our bicycle touring club. His mother had a stock of firecrackers, which she used to scare away unwanted dogs from her garden and one afternoon Geoffrey and I, without permission, were setting off firecrackers in an open field behind their house. We were having great fun, but noticing that our box of matches was almost empty, we decided to make a little fire, so we could light the crackers from the blaze. What we had overlooked was the fact that the empty field was covered with dry grass, which soon caught fire and took off toward the neighbour's hedge. This caught alight and was only put out when the fire brigade arrived. We were not popular!
A few months later Mrs Mitchley decided that I was being subjected to harmful influences. So one day, Johannes, the garden man, arrived to take me back. My few possessions were loaded in a wheelbarrow and trundled up the street. I was not overjoyed at the turn of events, but being only ten years old, I had no choice but to walk along beside the barrow.
It was after this that I became a "problem" to Mrs Mitchley. She asked me to take an envelope containing church money to the Misses Van Huysteen, who were two old maids and the church treasurers. I put the envelope into the pocket of my shorts and set off on my bicycle. On arriving at my destination, no money could be found! I painstakingly retraced my course, looking in the gutters to see if the precious envelope could have been blown there by the wind but it was gone!
"If you were my son, I'd give you a good thrashing!" Mrs Mitchley told me. (I was glad that I was not her son!)
When I later told my Dad about this experience, he said, "Son, do you remember all those stories of people who were at their wits end and they prayed and when they opened their eyes, there on the ground was an envelope containing money? Where do you suppose that money came from? Maybe God used that money you lost to answer somebody's prayer." That explanation helped me, but I did not tell Mrs M. as I was sure she would not appreciate it!
Bethlehem was only 55 miles from Emmanuel but it could have been 500. The journey took over two hours and so I did not see my family often. Dad used to phone about once a month - from Ficksburg which was the nearest town. Having a phone at the Mission was unthought-of of in those days. Once I received a telegram from Dad for my birthday. It arrived two days late and only then did I remember that it had been my birthday. The telegram said, "Happy Birthday Hold Horse". ("Old horse" was a pet name my father used for me.) I wonder if the telegraph operator assumed that the addressee was a jockey!
Mom used to joke that she and Dad had their family on the instalment plan, as my sister, Nita, was born when I was five and my brother, Brian, eight years later. Having to go away to school did not foster a family feeling. I was the "big brother" and felt it was my responsibility to care for my younger siblings. It was only when Brian and I were both married that I really felt brotherly feelings toward him.