World War Two Syndrome (2009)

People over fifty are a dying breed, in more ways than one.
They carry the last remnants of a way of life that seems eccentric and weird to children born of today’s consumer values.

It’s called World War Two Syndrome*, and its initial hosts are our grandparents, living or deceased.

They survived a time when wars and sanctions limited the flow of goods in and out of South Africa. Even if there had been Spars and Pick n Pay’s back in 1943, the shelves would have been bare.
So our grandparents – being the champions of utilitarianism only they knew how to be – invented the game of rationing.

They learned to knit clothing, store leftover food in the freezer (even if it was just a scoop of gravy), keep newspapers and TV guides for rainy days, and to do it all with a sense of responsibility and love.
Conserving food, clothing and general items was about more than living frugally.
There simply was no excuse for excess during the war-time.
It was at Grandpa Swart’s seventy-fifth birthday tea that I first witnessed World War Two Syndrome in practice. I was five years old, and he was the beloved oupa of some distant cousins I’d not yet met.
Before we headed off that morning, I was told to call him ‘Grandpa’, though I wasn’t entirely sure why.
I had two grandpas already, and both were working out well.
“Just be nice to him. We’ll be two hours, tops,” my mom insisted.
“Ja, and there’ll be lots of kids your age for you to play with,” my dad added.
That’s not always the best news to hear for a five-year-old who doesn’t like strangers.

I finally surmised that the event would take the form of an interview; we were employing an extra-support grandpa.
I suspected it of being somewhat superfluous a cause, but I trusted my mom and dad’s judgment on these things.

“That won’t be necessary,” I answered in calm resolve.
“Two hours with the man alone will do. Keep the other kids at bay while we’re there.
I’ll be able to tell if we’ve found what we’re looking for.”

I made a mental list on the way there.
I wasn’t calling anyone ‘grandpa’ until I had full confidence in his grandpa-ing capabilities.

Could the man tell stories?
Do tricks?
Tickle properly?
Make authentic farting noises with his hands?
These were questions that needed answering.

We arrived at a pink house in Lorraine, where bougainvilleas hung over a wooden fence that lined the property. It seemed like an okay place for a grandpa to hang out.

My mom and dad were instantly swamped, saying hello to people I didn’t know.
A tall woman, who I would later know as Aunt Chewbacca, hugged my mother and asked for me by name. I wasn’t letting that beast’s hairy lips anywhere near my face, so I hightailed it out the room.
A child with a jittery voice and a mucous mustache tried to cut me off with a question.

“Where’s Grandpa?” she asked, sweetly.
“Leave me be, snot-face. He’s no grandpa of mine until I say so. I’m just browsing, got it!”
I snapped at her, heading towards the garage.

***

Many five-year-olds are treasure hunters.

At the time I was a humble collector of teddy bears, wood carvings, and marbles.
And if those things had captured my imagination, there simply are no words to describe how flummoxed I was by the magnitude of Grandpa Swart’s many collections.

Grandpa Swart’s garage was a goldmine.
It had EVERYTHING.

Near the front door was a chest brimming with tennis racket handles, shoe soles, electronics and broken cricket bats.
Plastic crates of magazines barricaded the walls.
Scrap wood and broken pieces of furniture were stored in the rafters above.
Bottles of pins, nuts, bolts and screws lined the edge of the work bench.

And on every windowsill, there were more bottles, filled with drawing pins, paper clips, nails, flat batteries, wallets, belt buckles, rulers and bubble-wrap.

I opened one of the drawers to find a collection of screwdrivers, of all sizes and shapes.
I opened a second one and found the same thing.
I could only count to 10 at the time, but he must have had 150 screwdrivers in total.

In one corner, stood a shelf littered with 25l plastic drums.
One overflowed with matches, another with wine corks, yet another with serviettes and straws, and a last one was crammed to the hilt with inkless pens.

The grand finale was a pile of egg boxes.
There were so many, dating from so far back, I doubted he’d thrown a single egg box away since 1957.

***

I was a bit jumpy at lunch.

I hadn’t spoken to Grandpa Swart yet, and was dying to find out a bit about the garage.
I sat opposite him at the banquet table and tried to open with a few questions.

“So, tell me, Swart, how long have you been grandpa-ing?
Would you say you’re a natural?
What’s your take on sharing treasure with children under seven?”

He was a somber man, with protruding eyelids and a perma-frown.
He didn’t answer my questions. Instead, my grandpa-to-be just sat there and mopped the soup off his spoon with his walrus lips, making dreadful slurping noises.
The closest I got to a conversation with him was when he paused to point at me, asking, “Wie se kind?”

It was during the main course, that I began to sense his disapproval of me. I was pouring gravy all over my third helping of chicken.
Never a fan of sprouts or broccoli, I cast my unwanted veggies aside and focused on the things I liked.

When the dishes were taken away, I noticed that every single scrap, off every single plate, was poured into a tower of Tupperware containers and stored in the fridge.

Dessert was even more awkward. I didn’t hold out for much back then.
I poured custard on my ice-cream like eating was for trophies.
Grandpa Swart just grunted, scowling at me when I couldn’t finish the plate I requested.

***

If Grandpa Swart did not become my real grandpa after that day, I fear it may have had more to do with the lousy impression I had made, than his performance during my imagined ‘interview’.

After getting over the loss of my future garage hoard, I was relatively nonplussed.
I had two wonderful grandpas as it was.
An extra one would have been decadent.

*James Clarke, soon-to-be lawyer and father of many cutting edge social science theories, coined this term circa 2005.

**This essay is from my 2009 collection, Notes From A Night Bus.

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