Going to school by train


Nowadays ugly, oblong, orange diesel engines wail their way through the ancient Village of Redhouse and the dogs howl in concert. Most unromantic compared to the coal-fired trains of yore, hissing steam at every pore, their high pitched whistles and fiery fire boxes thrilling small boys up and down the line. We should also mention the clouds of black smoke that deposited flakes of coal dust all over mother’s washing on the line. So perhaps they were not universally popular.

My first memory of the Railway Station with its sign that declared Redhouse to be 17 feet above sea level is of a disastrous encounter with a tin can of boiling water intended for the gardener’s tea, which I managed to upset all over my left foot.

I screamed blue murder, the Station Master poured blue ink over the burn, and I was carted home to bed. Mrs. Bleksley, a nursing sister and sister-in-law to the famous Arthur Bleksley of Springbok Radio’s Three Wise Men team, would come around to dress the wound. Eventually I recovered my four-year old dignity and proudly bore the scar for many years.

Ten years later, my life was still intertwined with trains. I regret to say not always as innocently as my first encounter. On the northern border of the Village lived two pretty girls, a magnetic attraction to teenage boys. One dark night, frustrated in our attempts to gain access to the girls, we removed an avocado or two from their garden, and lay in ambush close to the railway line.

In due course, the Uitenhage train came thundering along. In those days, the driver or his assistant would lean out of the cab window, holding a hoop to which was attached a “tablet”; the idea was that the station master would have another hoop with a tablet for the next section of line. Both men would extend the unoccupied arm to collect the other’s hoop, sometimes delivered at a fair speed, no doubt a bruising encounter.

On this occasion, we waited for the right moment and hurled our avos at the innocent head of the engine driver and then fled for our lives. Just one of many incidents suffered by the SAR & H since the first Puffing Billy came through in 1875.

Grey boys and Collegiate girls caught the train to Port Elizabeth and at about the same time every morning Muir boys and Riebeeck girls headed for Uitenhage. We had season tickets which were clipped by George, a tall conductor with the patience of a saint.

Given that there were about 200 school days per annum, I must have travelled up and down the line about 2000 times in my time at Grey High. The train stopped at Swartkops, New Brighton, Sydenham, North End and finally at that Victorian edifice, the Port Elizabeth Station. Wherein was a miniature steam train in a glass case, which would run if you put a penny in the slot.

It also had a bar; one if its denizens decided that Collegiate girls were on the menu and found three of them in a compartment; they managed to escape his very obvious intentions and the next time he tried his luck a posse of police took him away.

When we disembarked each morning we boarded a bus which travelled very slowly up Russell Road and eventually disgorged us in Cape Road at the bus stop near College Avenue.

This bus – I wish I could remember its route number – carried not just schoolboys but large numbers of people en route to work, mainly women. One fine day, a Junior Grey boy, one Darryl Paine, well known in the Village for his collection of venomous serpents in glass bottles, mostly dead, was sitting in the front row of seats in the crowded bus.

He removed his cap, and moving in a circle around his head was a snake. The uproar was instantaneous, panic stricken passengers rushed the exit and the bemused driver brought the bus to a halt, not to mention the traffic. What the final outcome was I cannot recall.

Standard six boys sometimes had to wait until quite late in the day before a field became available for rugby practice. The Redhouse boys would sometimes have to run like the wind down Mount Road to reach North End station before the train got there.

In those days, just like these days, the country bubbled with discontent mostly, but not always, below the surface. There was a time when the trains would rush through New Brighton station at full speed, as the locals were inclined to vent their anger by throwing rocks at the carriages.

It so happened that during one of these unhappy periods, I got home very late, on the 8pm train. It was a Tuesday and I was in cadet uniform. (We wore khaki caps, not the blue berets worn so horribly incorrectly by present day cadets, so that they resemble trainee pastry cooks). Possible I was late due to being put on extra parade.

My dear mother listened with wide and glistening eyes as I told her how the townships had erupted and the only troops available were the Grey Cadets, and we had been in battle the whole day long. My heroic tale was brought to an abrupt end by my grandmother, who had lived through WWII, WWI and possibly the Napoleonic wars as well. She gave me a clip around the ear and sent me on my way.

At one stage normal carriages – those with lots of doors and metal signs saying “moenie op die trein spoeg nie” were replaced with the mainline equivalent, those with entrances at both ends, and compartments for six people.

One day on the way home cousin Louis managed to lock us in the compartment and George the conductor couldn’t get in to clip our tickets. The door was well and truly locked. When we got to Sydenham we all had to crawl out of the window and be re-seated elsewhere. This might have been just one of the occasions when the Railway Police visited my uncle to complain about his son’s behaviour.

These mainline compartments were built for trouble. Nearing home one afternoon we tied ropes, or quite possible his school tie, around Patrick Kohler’s ankles. When the train stopped we shut the compartment door and left him to his fate. The train was gathering speed in the direction of Uitenhage when we saw Patrick hopping like large ginger rabbit towards the exit; his subsequent arrival at full length on the concrete platform was greeted with howls of mirth, but not by the station master.

These tales could go on and on, but I leave them to your imagination. Steam trains were a special part of our growing up and I live in hope that one day we will see them on back on the track. After all, they don’t need Eskom!

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