A Missionary Doctor's Autobiography
After completing grade five at Bethlehem, my mother taught me at home for a year, using a correspondence course. It was during this year that my sister, Nita, had rheumatic fever and had to rest for six weeks. We rigged up a hammock in the large walnut tree next to our house and she spent a lot of her day there. I developed a nervous twitch (chorea) and the doctor advised that I stop school for a month. Many years later I realised that the chorea and rheumatic fever were related. I was glad that I did not have to avoid all exertion, as my sister did.
My life has been full of changes and the next year I was sent to Cape Town where I boarded with my grandmother and attended Hillcrest school in Mowbray. Because I had missed part of the previous school year, I started in grade six but at mid-year was promoted to grade seven. This required a lot of "catching up" and copying of notes that had been given during the first two quarters. For reasons which I cannot remember, another upheaval occurred about midyear - I moved from staying with Grandma and stayed with my mother's sister Jeanette Elffers. Her husband, Bob, was a florist and grew dahlias - every type from the little pompoms to the large decorative varieties, and every colour imaginable. It was farther to go to school - about a mile to walk and 5 miles on the bus. My pocket money used to be ten shillings a month, out of which I had to pay bus fares. In spite of the upheavals I passed the year-end exams well.
The most memorable event of the year was a fire in the roof of the upper grade building. It seems that renovations had been done to the roof without altering the chimney, which just went up into the roof space! When the weather turned cold and a large fire was made in the fireplace in the class room, the heat and sparks set the roof timbers alight. No one was injured and the fire brigade soon had the fire under control.
Next year I moved schools again - this time to Helderberg College, starting in grade eight and living in the junior hostel. My best friend was Glenn Foster, a class mate, who was friendly with my cousin, Shirley and whose father was a missionary doctor. He and I "took turns" at getting top marks in the class. The school had a mumps epidemic that year. Glenn got the mumps and was put in isolation in a room in the boys' dormitory. I used to surreptitiously talk to him through the window and we exchanged books and other articles. Not surprisingly, I also came down with mumps. By then the epidemic was in full swing and a whole dormitory room in the hostel had been made into an isolation ward. On Sabbath, when all the staff were at church, I sneaked out and had a bath, which was forbidden and subsequently developed "complications" which were uncomfortable but fortunately resulted in no lasting damage.
Once, toward the end of the year, when I returned from a weekend visit to my grandparents, I found the hostel abuzz with gossip. Some boys and girls had been found together in the basement boiler room and were in the process of being disciplined. As a result, I was asked to replace the previous boiler keeper.
On Sundays, we "hostel-ites" used to be given work, under a college student supervisor. The work was not very interesting or exciting. Some was definitely unpleasant - like clearing out fowl runs! After a morning of this job, the dust would be not only in one's hair but nose and ears as well. A good shower was needed before one was fit for human company again! We received the grand sum of four-pence an hour which we could not use - it was credited to your account.
It was during this year that Mom, in her quaint way, wrote - "You and Nita will soon be able to sing "We three...." It took me some time to realise what she meant .In July, Dad wrote to tell me that I had a brother, Brian.
The next year, entering high school, meant that I moved to Salisbury House, the boys dormitory. I roomed with Glenn Foster and three Bredenkamps - two brothers and a cousin. During the year, Glenn returned to USA as his father had completed his term at Maun in Botswana. We have kept up our friendship ever since, writing at least once a year, for Christmas and birthdays.
We were required to work at least ten hours a week and I was a Janitor in the Administration Building. Not a very inspiring job, so the following year I asked for a transfer and landed in the Maintenance Dept, which was under the supervision of Dr C F Clarke, who taught science and maths. My first day at work he said, "Right Buckley, I want you to go and anchor the chimney on the laundry." How was I to do it? What to use? Where to find a ladder, and tools? Somehow, with help from those more experienced, I got the job done.
Having an interest in science, I enjoyed working with electricity. When the extensions were made to the boys' dormitory, I helped install the electrical wiring. I acquired many skills which were to prove invaluable years later at lonely mission hospitals. Plumbing was also a part of maintenance. Copper tubing for connecting the hot and cold supply to baths and basins was still fairly new and so we had to learn how to make lead joints; which seemed like a combination of soldering and pottery.
During my last two years at Helderberg I was placed in charge of the boilers, a job which involved supplying hot water to both the dormitories as well as the teacher's flats. The boilers for the men's and ladies' dormitories had furnaces, large enough to crawl into, which had to be cleaned every month. Once a visitor saw me on the path between the dormitories, just after I had cleaned one of the boilers and asked me, in all seriousness, "Are you the school chimney sweep?"
There was no problem with supplying hot water for the girls, but if the hot water was left on all day in the boys' dorm, there were a few selfish chaps who stood in the showers, literally for hours. Then when those who had been working came back to wash for supper there was no hot water. So the water was turned off after meals and on again just as the knock-off bell rang. If it was one minute late, there would be bellows from the bathrooms of "Buckley! Water!"
However the job did have its "perks". A couple of friends and I could cook our own breakfast in the boiler on Sabbath mornings. Some of our culinary efforts were disastrous but we enjoyed the challenge of improvisation.
As well as doing the boilers, I also worked in the science lab, setting up the equipment for the experiments and then putting it all away after the practical sessions.
The men's physical fitness club was called the Spartans. (The ladies' counterpart was called the Stellas.) Being a Spartan involved getting up 30 minutes earlier each morning to do exercises such as push-ups, knee-bends and "chopping wood". We also did pyramids, skipping and running. Jogging down to the main gate, a distance of about a mile, was easy but the return trip was uphill most of the way. Our motto was "Spartans Bold and True"; in the winter that became "Spartans Cold and Blue".
In preparation for the annual Stella/Spartan display, I was in the second layer of a three tier pyramid. One morning I found myself at the bottom of the pile when the pyramid collapsed and there was a crunching sound as my face hit the floor. I was taken to a Specialist in Cape Town to have my broken nose repaired. He was a large powerful man, with hands like a boxer and he set to work, without any anaesthetic. Bringing me a mirror, he asked, "Is it straight?"
"No, I answered." After another session, he repeated the question.
"It's good enough," I replied, not relishing another encounter between my battered nose and his beefy hands. My nose is still slightly crooked today, a reminder of those cold, dark mornings as a Spartan.
It was almost impossible to spend five years at Helderberg without becoming "coupled". During my trips past the girl's dorm to stoke the boiler, I began noticing a lively petite girl with dark eyes and black hair, who was sweeping the front steps. It seemed her sweeping often coincided with my walking past. We gradually found chances to talk - outside the dining room, or at Saturday evening entertainments. She was nicknamed "Trolley" as her surname was Trollip. Our friendship continued until I left for University and she to take nurses' training. We wrote for a few months and then stopped.
High school ended after 12 years of schooling (standard ten) at which time one could write the Matriculation examination, if planning to attend University or the Senior certificate, which gave entrance to college. I was in the Matric group. Some members of staff regarded us with suspicion, feeling that we were headed for damnation, because we were planning to go to an "outside university." In my case, as I planned to take medicine, I would have had to go to Loma Linda (which would have been astronomically expensive) or go to a state university.
That final year was a "hard slog" but it has many pleasant memories. There was a spirit of camaraderie among the "matric-ites", as many of us had been in the same class for four years. Toward the end of the school year, we had "matric mocks" - practice exams based on old exam papers. These helped prepare us for the real exams which took place in December, after the rest of Helderberg had closed for the summer vacation. Only those writing external exams or working to earn school fees remained. Rules about dress were relaxed (we could go to meals in our short trousers and sandals) and the food seemed to be much improved. Although it was a stressful time, with revision and preparation for the impending exams, yet I look back on those few weeks as the most enjoyable part of my schooling. Between study sessions we enjoyed splashing in the "frog pond" (which was also used as a baptistry). It was not possible to do any swimming, as one could easily dive from one end to the other. We organised a farewell party, at which we had cake and ice cream, with home-brewed ginger beer, Then we all went our separate ways, having made a pact that we would keep in touch with a circular letter. The intentions were good, but the letter never materialised; at least I never saw it!
The six weeks of waiting at the mission in Basutoland for exam results passed slowly. Notification would be by letter and we lived twelve miles from the post office and only collected mail three times a week. So we had an arrangement with Peter, the son of the local government doctor, who was also waiting for matric results, that he would bring my results when they came. There was great excitement as we opened the buff envelope and read the official report - "First Class Pass; Distinctions in Mathematics." I was overjoyed, as this would almost certainly ensure a place at university and enable me to achieve my ambition of becoming a missionary doctor.