Conversations with a Spitfire Pilot

Hennie flew spitfires for the South Africa Air Force in North Africa during the Second World War. He always remained quite debonair, and I could imagine him in his khakis with those bomber jackets on in a bar somewhere north. It wasn’t hard to imagine him in a bar.

He was an inspiration for my father on many accounts. He was an Afrikaner in an English bank (Barclays). He was a Spitfire pilot. He survived the loss of his first wife and child who were killed by a car while crossing a road in Paris behind him. He then survived Lucy’s death in another car accident in Sandton and his last wife succumbed to breast cancer. Throughout his demeanour was soft and firm. He never appeared bitter, always grateful to be alive and with friends.

One year my brother and I went to Greece alone as teenagers and stayed in the village house, it was a few months after my father had taken Hennie with and they had had a ball. Every cupboard we opened, including the little one in the bathroom had an Ouzo bottle present at various levels of emptiness. They must have been like two varsity students, hanging out till all hours at Keza’s cafe. I think that year they even had a party with the gypsies down in the valley..

Hennie was a close friend of my father. He started out as a manager at one of the big banks and on his return from a stint in London got to know my father as a client and opened many doors for him. He remained in control of powerful directors that opened doors that would have been shut to a young Greek upstart who was over geared. A  young Greek upstart that was looking to consolidate and optimise the debt that SAHETI, the dream Greek school held.

When I was in first year varsity ( the first time) my father and I tried to do the lads and dads thing. We made arrangements to go to Hennie’s farm on the northern slopes of the Magaliesberg for the weekend. We drove along the sand road scented with citrus to his house. He had a huge mansion on the left for Lucy, his wife, and a small hunter’s lodge on the right, for the boys. All three of us settled in there, amongst his game trophies and open braai area under a big shady tree. He braaied some game that he had hunted and drank some wine with my father. I managed to convince my father that we should sleep out in the bush the Friday night, so we hiked up the mountain in through the thorns and over the rocks and bedded down on the ground under the stars. I was sober, not drinking in those days, and chose my spot carefully. My father found as he sobered up that he was lying on rocks in the most awkward places. Stiff the next morning we made our way back to Hennie for breakfast and boerekoffie.

After that my father said we should walk along the main road. We walked a good 30 km  there and back to a hotel, he had a beer and ended up at Hennie’s with huge blisters on his feet. They started drinking, and by late afternoon as I was sober and bored. Hennie took out his hunting rifle with telescopic sights and I was allowed to target shoot. My father was chatting in the background  how at school cadets he could shoot the head of a match at 20 yards with a pellet gun. We were shooting uphill and no one told me to watch the recoil as the telescopic sights cut into my forehead. Blood poured. I was bundled into the back seat of my father’s blue two door Fiat 128 and the three of us sped off looking for a doctor. Mind you, I was doing engineering at the time. We eventually found one at Maanhaarrand who stitched me up with no cleaning. He and the Spitfire pilot and my father got on famously, as they were all drunk!

When we got home the next day mom thought we were playing a  joke on her. I had a bandage around my head and my father had bandages over his blistered feet.

What I remember is Hennie’slast landing: he drove his big Mercedes down the main runway on Virginia Airport after our wedding at the Italian Club. It was a safe landing!

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