Another episode of Memorable Moments, my “blogging a book” project about life in Africa.
For generations, before political correctness spoilt so many kid’s games, whole armies of boys, and some girls, played Cowboys and Indians, soldiers and other games using toy guns, pretending to guard wagon trains, save damsels in distress, defend property and kill the bad guys.
As we grew older and graduated to war and police type programmes on TV or big screen movies many of us wondered how we would stand up to a real life-or-death violent incident.
My generation of baby boomers living in Southern Africa were to discover that answer when we were called on to defend our countries against terrorists. Just as the same generation of Israelis did. Americans shared the same experiences but for a different cause in Vietnam, as did regular soldiers from many other countries in conflicts from the Falklands to the Balkans. More recently, American and NATO service men and women are facing their own fears in Iraq and Afghanistan
It is difficult to describe the initial feelings of fear and apprehension we experienced when we were sent into the combat zone or “hot” areas for the first time. No matter how good the training, no matter how many hours on the rifle range, taking part in exercises, mock attacks with live rounds or studying strategy in the lecture room, it is still a shock to the system the first time it is for real.
The shock soon wears off, it is possible to be alert but relaxed in dangerous situations. If you do not learn to cope with the danger, you would soon be overcome with anxiety. Some were, but very few, most people soon adapted, learned to control the adrenaline rush until something actually did happen. Complacency can become one of the biggest dangers, learning to live with incrementally increasing levels of stress and becoming unconcerned about the possibility of an attack.
I was fortunate in that due to a combination of age – being in a unit that did not do as many tours of duty as some others, and pure luck or fate, I saw almost no action myself. I only got shot at twice, both times from so far away that I did not see the enemy, nor did the rounds or mortar shells land anywhere near our patrol. I wrote in an earlier post that my only war wounds came from falling off a cavalry horse and stepping on a broken bottle.
Despite spending 10 years in and out of the army as a territorial (part-time) soldier, I did not find out how I would stand up to the test of being shot at from close range. Many others in my unit and amongst friends, had been ambushed, blown up by land mines, some had been injured, a few killed. A last-minute change of mind by our platoon commander saw another section commander sent out instead of me, his patrol was ambushed, he took a bullet through the radio on his back. (Those old radios were big). But he survived, shaken but unhurt. My younger brother survived several close range “contacts” and at least one serious ambush on a vehicle convoy which resulted in casualties.
I carried that question with me for another 13 years until my own slightly different test came. It was to be the first of many but the others must wait for another chapter.
In 1990, I moved from Westville in Natal, South Africa, to Jukskei Park, a suburb of Randburg, a city in the huge conurbation known as the PWV triangle for Pretoria – Vereeniging – Witwatersrand in the Transvaal. The commercial, industrial and administrative heart of South Africa. International readers would recognise the names Johannesburg and Soweto which were included in this area of several million people.
It was the period when the ANC were trying to make the country ungovernable, they did not succeed but South Africans are still suffering badly from that attempt today, over 20 years later. The area was plagued by violent crime, armed robbers would shoot first and then determine whether the victim had anything worth stealing. Armed vehicle hijackings were daily occurrence, often with the driver left dead or seriously injured. People would be robbed of jewellery, watches, cell phones, even shoes and clothing at gunpoint in broad daylight.
Most business people carried guns, I lived with either a 7.65 (.32) or 9mm pistol in a holster on my belt for every waking moment and the 9mm was in my bed at night. My wife carried a 38 special and knew how to use it.
Unlike in urban North America, most South African houses had fences or walls and securely locked gates. Many had remote control opening mechanisms, getting out of a vehicle to open a gate left a driver vulnerable to hijacking.
The house I was living in at the time had a brick paved courtyard leading to double garages set into the perimeter fence so that there was no need to open a gate to enter the garages. There was a small pedestrian gate on one side of the garage and a larger vehicle gate on the other. Unfortunately the garage doors had not been fitted a remote control mechanism.
On the way to my office one morning, I heard a report on the radio of a motorist in the next suburb being shot and having his car stolen as he stopped at a stop street. He survived, but it was a reminder that stuck in my mind all day.
That evening I was later than usual getting home, already dark, for some reason I approached my house from the opposite direction. A few houses away from mine, there was a group of black people on the side of the road. This was unusual as it was a predominantly white neighborhood, some black gardeners and domestic workers did live on the properties, but did not normally congregate during the week. They appeared to signal me to stop as I drove past, but because of the earlier news report and the unlikely scene, I suspected it could be a ruse to get me to stop, making me an easy target for a car thief or worse.
I was driving my red Mazda Miata MX5, one of the small batch imported into South Africa, still very much a rarity and very noticeable. I drove across the brick courtyard and parked in front of the garage. Still suspicious, I walked back to the kerb and looked up the road. There were no street lights on our street, but as far as I could see, there was no danger. I opened the garage, drove the car inside, switched off and got out. As I was taking my briefcase out of the trunk (boot) I heard footsteps racing across the brick paving. As my suspicions had been raised, I thought I was about to be attacked, I thought my day of reckoning had come.
That day I had worn a suit, because the 9mm pistol was a bit bulky under a suit, I had taken the smaller 7.65. That weapon had an unreliable safety catch so I did not carry it loaded with a round in the chamber. Without thinking, I had the pistol out of its holster, cocked, round chambered, checked that the safety was off, the sights squarely lined up right between the eyes of a man running towards me while he was still 5 paces away and the slack taken up on the trigger. I yelled at him to stop, then realised there was something wrong with the picture in front of me.
What was wrong was that there was a woman and small child slightly in front and to the side of the man. The criminals had little regard for human life, but I thought it unlikely that a criminal would deliberately put a small child in danger. (They did with no remorse in other situations). I also noticed a crowd of people at the edge of the road behind them. I still though that my gun would fire so I swung the barrel away from the man and released the pressure on the trigger. My wife and sons had heard me shout and come running down with an assortment of weapons and our large rottweiler leaping around like a mad thing.
I asked them to call the police while I held the man at gunpoint and tried to work out what was going on.
Within minutes 2 police vehicles arrived, 12 or so armed policemen surrounded the crowd and we worked out what had happened. It was pay day, the woman was a house maid at a house up the street, the child was her son. She had been paid and the man, her former husband or boyfriend had come along to relieve her of her hard earned cash. She had understandably objected and resisted, whereupon he had started beating her up. She had run out to the road and screamed for help which brought the others out to help her. Undeterred, the man continued attacking her. When I drove past, she recognised my car and ran down the road to seek protection in the knowledge that I almost certainly had a gun or at least would call the police for her.
I passed my test, I found out how I would react when the crunch came. Even after 20 years, my basic military training kicked in. I did not panic, I did exactly what I needed to do and in slightly different circumstances that could have saved my life. More importantly, a history of military service, familiarity with and responsible handling of guns, taught me to be 100% sure of my target before firing. That training and a fraction of a millimetre movement on the trigger saved that man’s life.