I remember in the nineties my father was visiting us in Durban and received a midnight call from Uncle Arthur in Johannesburg. Under normal circumstances nobody called our house after 8 p.m. unless there was a major crisis, usually equal to the death of a friend or family member. Imagine as well that this call came before the days of cell phones. My parents were staying in the flat in Umhlanga and would have been in the main bedroom. The yellow telephone on the land line with its round dial face would have rung shrilly at midnight, stopping their hearts. My father would have had to get out of bed to answer the call.
Even for me after many years of having doctors and hospitals calling me at all unearthly hours I still get a heart stop when I am deep in sleep and the phone rings. To be fair, most times the requests are reasonable. The call still messes you up for the next day.
So my father answered the call and he was told that he had won the draw at the fund raiser at the Alberton Hellenic Annual Ball. He always purchased tickets for this event since he started it with a small car for a prize. He would buy a ticket for each member of the family, including Uncle Piet and his mother, Small Giagia, when they were alive. The odds were certainly in his favour that he should win the big prize at least once. One of his many tickets won the second prize, which was usually a twin return air ticket to Athens on Olympic Airways. That ticket was usually donated by one of the Greeks that owned a travel agency, not the airline itself. Imagine that, Olympic Airlines is gone, buried under a mountain of debt. I hope we do not talk of Greece in the same vein in the future.
I went to one or two of the draws for the big prize as a teenager. My father, as chairman of the community, used to preside over it. They had short dowels with the numbers of the ticket on the end, all spinning in a metal wire mesh barrel. One of the dignitaries’ wives would be the one to pull out the numbers. My father increased the tension by doing the draw in reverse. He had a big board with holes drilled in it and each hole was numbered. There were at least three hundred tickets, like the Spartans at the Gates, and as each number was drawn, the dowel was inserted into the corresponding place on the board. It took some time during which community committee members roamed accruing extra donations. By the time the last five dowels were drawn the tension was like a Vasilopita with a gold coin waiting to be cut on New Year’s Day.
It was one of the few occasions in two decades my father did not attend the draw. He had handed the reins of the community over after many years and was having a break. That day my father won R 200 000. The thrill of the win was evident, but I think he gave some of the money to his children and the rest away.
The Three Hundred had passed through the Gates.