The Buffer and the Bad Blood
J. Francois Barnard – 28 December 2019
More than 22 years ago, I held my baby boy on my lap and looked at his sweet face. Absolute perfection! A perfect baby born into an imperfect world.
As I reminisced about my childhood, I wondered about what my boy would face in his life? What impact would this imperfect world have on a boy born so perfectly?
My paternal grandfather was born after the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). His father, my great-grandfather, used to be a wealthy horse farmer in the Rustenburg district. President Paul Kruger bought thousands of horses from him for the war effort and paid in gold. My great-grandfather buried his gold pounds in his horse kraal when the war broke out and went off to war. The British interned his wife in a concentration camp and burned their house down. The British then confiscated the remainder of his breeding herd of 800 horses.
After the war, they restarted their lives with nothing, except a bag full of gold pounds. In the beginning, gold did not mean much. All the shops’ shelves were empty.
He and a farmworker dug a canal with a buffalo horn to irrigate a newly planted citrus orchard. He also helped his neighbours to get on their feet again, buying their land and later selling it back to them, interest-free.
My grandfather was thus born into this post-war era when everybody was poor and struggling. The automobile arrived, and horse breeding declined. They struggled to get a citrus farm going.
I know nothing about the relationship between my grandfather and my great-grandfather. Maybe it was good? Perhaps it was bad? I cannot tell. I imagine that the timing of his birth when everyone was poor, must have had some effect on them. Also, the British tried to destroy the Afrikaans language in the schools and treated the Afrikaners as second-class citizens.
But my grandfather did well at school and was sent to a university. He became a teacher and excelled. With an M.Ed. degree, he soon became the principal of a school.
His wife, my grandmother, was also a teacher. It was in this academic setting that my father was born in 1930. It was right in the middle of a worldwide economic crisis. The struggle against poverty was repeated in this next generation.
But there was another struggle too.
My grandmother had more children, but they had Hydrocephalus and required a lot of attention. My father craved his mother’s attention, but she could not give it. He overheard a conversation one night where his father told his mother to show her son more affection. He made his logical deduction: “My mother does not love me.”
Of course, it was not true! But when you are little, you easily believe these lies. Although he had brothers, he grew up alone. His siblings died young, and much later, a sister was born. She was highly gifted and their father’s darling.
While still at primary school, a doctor misdiagnosed my father with a heart condition. His parents forbade him to take part in any sports and told him that he would run and drop dead. He was energetic, athletic, and highly frustrated. One day, unbeknownst to his parents, he ran the mile and won the school’s star athlete. A teacher was very excited and told his father, the principal, about it. His father gave him a beating he never forgot.
While at high school, my father was in an accident where he fell several meters out of a high tree and hit the ground with his head. He was in a coma for about four days. His recovery was slow. Where his school marks used to be high, it now dropped, and he scored low marks.
He was far younger than his peers. He entered his final school year at the age of 15 and turned 16 during his final exam. He did poorly but was awarded a “second-class matric with exemption.” It meant that he could go to university, but barely. My grandfather said to him: “You can go and study, but do not waste my money!”
He went to the South African Railways as an apprentice patternmaker. He always did well in woodwork, and patternmaking was, at the time, the highest woodwork qualification one could get. As an apprentice, they did six months of practical training and six months of academic training. It was during these academic months that a full recovery from his head injuries realized, and he started to excel again.
He approached his mentor at the South African Railways and entered a plea for a bursary to study engineering. He had favour with his mentor. This man asked him to write a letter which he would forward higher up in the ranks. The letter ended up on the desk of the Minister of Transport, and the South African Railways established an engineering bursary. Two students, my father, and another young man were the first recipients of these bursaries. After them, hundreds of engineering students followed in the road he paved.
My father craved recognition from his father, but little came his way. I am sure my grandfather was proud of him, but he never said so. There was this misconception that praises cultivated pride. They did not want their children to be haughty and arrogant. No one considered that children needed recognition.
I was about eighteen months old when my grandfather died. By then, my grandfather was a prominent figure in his community as a school principal, the chairman of the Kempton Park rugby club, a town councillor, and for two terms, the Mayor of Kempton Park.
My father was in his mid-thirties when he worked at Iscor (Iron & Steel Corporation) and designed a tool to extract molten steel samples from the rotary oven. He wrote a thesis on this tool for his M.Sc. Mechanical Engineering degree. A little later, he designed the oxygen lances that would turn Iscor’s steel production around. Some people at Iscor said: “Hendrik van der Bijl taught us to make steel. Jan Barnard taught us to make money!” He successfully sold these oxygen lance vehicles to the British steel industry and was a made-man.
His next project was the development of friction materials for braking railway rolling stock. He wrote his D.Sc. thesis on these products and later received numerous awards and recognition for his work.
I was about five or six years old when there was a year-end function at our house. One of my father’s staff, a lady, asked me what I would like to do one day when I grow up. I blurted out an answer which would haunt me for years to come. I said: “I am just going to be a regular man, not like my father, who works and works and works!” Everybody laughed.
Whenever I failed at something, he called me the “regular man.” This went on for years until my mother confronted him with it and told him to stop belittling me.
The problem was that he heard my words but not my heart. As a little boy, I chose not to be like him. He neglected his family by working all the time. I saw what I did not want to be: A negligent father.
Someone once told me that some fathers have sons, and others have disappointments. My father had both: My brother, the son, and me, the disappointment. I am glad for my brother for having had a much better relationship with our father. At times, their relationship was strained too, but at least my brother was an engineer. I was the “varsity drop-out.”
By the time I held my son on my lap, I knew that I did not want all the poor father-son relationships of the past repeated in the future. I decided there and then: I would be the buffer between the generations of the past and the generations of the future. I would not allow the bad blood of the past to be repeated in my son’s life and anyone after him.
I can already hear those who read this and think, “bloodline curse!”
I disagree. There is no such thing as a bloodline curse. “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.” Nobody has cursed us. What went wrong was the result of unintentional poor decisions. It is as simple as that.
To counter it, I make intentional good decisions.
My father alleged that I did not honour him. He did not consider that he went out of his way to make that part difficult for me. So, I had to counter it.
I did my best to live honourably. And I started to honour my son. I honoured him the same way as I would honour any other man of high esteem living in my house. That way, he learned respect because he was respected.
Like my father, I worked hard. But I did my best not to neglect my family. I intentionally decided that in my house, it will not be “my way or the highway.” I still make mistakes. But I rectify them as soon as possible. I do not ignore them.
My son was about four years old when I built a timber playhouse on stilts for him. It was under a huge tree, and a hang-bridge gave him access to the door. He helped me wherever he could. My wife brought us some sandwiches, and we sat down to have lunch. As we sat on a platform, eating our sandwiches, he said: “One day, I will have a son. I will call him Simeon. Then I will build him a house like this too!”
I realized that I was doing something right. My son decided to become like his dad. He had no reason to counter his father’s actions.
The Buffer successfully blocked the Bad Blood of the past.