Submitting all my surveyor experience, I just managed to qualify for my Certificate of Registration (ST0120) Survey Technician, 11 Dec. 1986.
With the Majuba Power Station road contract coming to an end, there were no other sites that warranted my supervision. Therefore, after some weeks of being stranded in head office in Pretoria, calculating quantities, tracing drawings and other boring chores, I was told that I had been seconded to the Transvaal Provincial Administration (TPA) Roads Department’s last remaining construction unit under Oom Tommy du Plessis, down in the Lowveld. They were re-building a road through Nelspruit.
Again, it was home to Sheila in Warmbaths only for weekends.
My initial accommodation was a small room in a park-home belonging to the TPA. Tommy du Plessis was a warm, kindly character in his sixties, with a great sense of humour. My duties were weird, in that I set out the levels for the road, as a construction surveyor would, then checked the completed roadworks as a consulting engineering surveyor would.
I was so used to the accuracy required by the private sector companies with tolerances of 25mm down to 8mm, depending on the layer, that it was a shock to find the TPA grader operators making waves from -70mm to +70mm within a 20m chain! And this on ‘crusher-run’ base course which demanded the tightest of tolerances.
Tommy told them to cut it again, with another operator, which they did. I retook the levels, only to find it even worse. I reported to Tommy, who was in despair. He instructed the main Roads Foreman, an ex-grader operator ,to cut it himself. The foreman told me with pride that he had been a final-cut operator in his day and he would fix it up.
A couple of days later, to my horror, I found them dumping more loads of crusher-run on top, but the foreman said he knew what he was doing. However, when I levelled it, the results showed, yes, it was now around 150mm too high!
I don’t know what Oom Tommy said to him, but that night the Foreman hung himself from a tree down by the Crocodile River. Both Tommy and I were shattered, but perhaps there were other reasons that we were not aware of.
The roadworks in one place ran beside the Crocodile Valley Citrus Estate, where old family friends of my parents had moved to, years before, from Warmbaths. Bernie Friedlander and his wife, Peta, had managed a citrus farm next door to my parents up until I was nine or so. Like my father, Bernie had served in WWII and was a member of the MOTHs. (Memorable Order of Tin Hats)
I finally found their house, next to the road, but Peta told me that Bernie had passed away the previous year. He had been pack-house manager since their move. Their two daughters had grown up in Nelspruit and now were married and living in the Johannesburg area.
Peta had been allowed to remain in their Estate house until the MOTH cottage, in a village of homes for ex-servicemen, was completed. She and Bermie had been very involved in the construction of these cottages and were hard workers with local charities. When the young tenant occupying her spare bedroom went on leave, she asked me to keep her company, as she had a heart condition.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there. Evenings were often spent playing Scrabble, which she loved. One night I was awoken by a groaning sound. When I blundered to her room I found her in her bed, gasping for breath and clutching her chest. I tried to keep her upright and phone her doctor at the same time. He told me he did not do house-calls, that I should get the ambulance.
I swore at him and told him to ring for the damned ambulance himself. Shocked, he did so, and it finally arrived. Peta was not able to speak and I was at a loss as to what to do, but they got her onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. I followed in my own vehicle. Suddenly I was left behind as it accelerated away, and I knew that something bad had happened.
DOA. Now I really knew what the letters meant. When I got to the hospital, I found the doctor there. He apologised for not being more helpful, earlier. The doctor left, then the nurse, and I was alone with Peta’s body. Still in her night-dress, her mouth hung open and her glazed eyes were open. It looked so undignified, and I got angry again. I went and closed her eyes for her, but didn’t know what else to do. The medical people came back. When the doctor saw her, he shat on the nurse for leaving her like that. Told her to close her mouth with a bandage and cover her with a sheet; that she was not just a body, she was a longstanding stalwart of the community who deserved respect!
When I got back to the house, I phoned her daughter, Judy, whom I’d met when she visited. She asked me to find a local Jew who might be willing to sit as Shomer with her mum until she or her sister could get there. There were very few Jews in the area, but eventually, I found a Jewish hotel-manager’s wife who agreed to go to the hospital in the morning, and I stood in in the meanwhile, even though I am a gentile. Needs must, and it was an honour, as she was a lovely person.