My cousin George and the medals
Saturday, the day before yesterday, I was working on my book. (Yes. It’s almost done.)
Tapping away on my laptop I was visited by a memory of my cousin George.
George is 87.
His mother, Anna, was my Fathers sister. Anna died about 48 years ago. I remember her well. She had old photos from Egypt in which I saw, for the first time as a young boy, a picture of a beautiful young woman. My first awareness of that concept. A beautiful woman.
On the day in August 1971 when my father was buried in Westcliff cemetery in South Africa, under the bottle of soil I had only weeks previously carried from my symbolic visit to the family home Sfakia, unbeknown to me at the time, for the purpose of spreading over his burial place, ensuring that he would rest under Cretan soil, I was left with my Aunt Anna.
I was not included in the funeral ceremony which I believe was Aunt Anna’s decision and for which I thank her to this day.
A funeral with wailing religious Greeks in Black. At the age of ten – with an open casket?
Phew. Am I grateful I was spared that. I had already been to the funeral of one uncle. Open casket. You approach the embalmed corpse and must kiss the cheek. I was nine when Uncle Algieri died.
Nine years later, at Wits medical school, I recognized the smell of formaldehyde from that memory. Yuech. Why would you visit that nasty experience on a young child?
As a method for processing death and coping with profound loss, from a mental health perspective I can say, there are many superior options.
Thank goodness someone in my family had the prescience and care to make that call for me on the day of my fathers funeral.
I had a great affection for my aunt Anna. I remember all too well sitting with her that traumatic day. Dropped off at her house in Benoni. It was just me and her. Everyone else, including George, was at the funeral in Westcliff. She made me tea. Weak tea, with milk. And showed me photos, with the stories behind them. She smiled. And made small talk. And asked me questions about a future I never knew I had. Neither of us cried. She modeled something very Cretan for me in the matter of coping with profound loss. A day that lives in my memory. When I learned to smile my way through sorrow. And much more besides.
Sometime after Anna died, (And no, I never went to her funeral either) her son George moved south, to George, in the Western Cape.
I have actually visited George (the coastal town), during a garden route trip in the summer of 1975, right after Knysna and Sedgefield.
I was especially curious about its most famous resident, in Wilderness, 9 miles from George, known as ‘die ou Krokodil’, Afrikaner Apartheid supremo, outspoken racist leader and member of the elite ‘Broederbond‘, P.W. Botha. He of the smelly bum. The guy I met in 1980 when I was a troop in the Army and he was Prime Minister and head of the Army responsible for all I opposed in my South African time.
In my eyes, the Prime Minister was an awful, cruel, racist pig, who sold out my entire generation. I took my opportunity on the occasion of our personal meet to express my disgust for his malodorous politics. A meeting between us that worked out surprisingly well. The racist Afrikaner and the liberal Greek teenager. That was 35 years ago.
I expect in 35 years many a Trump fan and Brexiter will look back with the same confidence South Africa’s NP (Right Wing Apartheid Party) voters do now.
In those days – the seventies – the period when I received my father’s WW2 medals from my cousin George – South Africa was the 3rd richest economy in the world.
I knew this. Most of our generation knew this. 85% of the worlds gold meant a lot back then.
I knew the mineral resources revenue gave the South African leadership economic choices from a position enabled by enormous quantity as the Gold price soared. This small group of specially chosen individuals had a unique opportunity to invest in the education of a disenfranchised majority.
I could see – as clear as day – that there was one Boolean choice. This was not rocket science.
I was outspoken on this point from the first awareness in my early teens. It was that obvious. So why did the Country follow the slaphead racist into its own oblivion? Ignoring the very obvious facts that common sense placed to the fore for every white South African at that time?
This idiot, slaphead Botha and the idiots around him and the idiots who voted for the NP were wrong not to listen to good sense, available with very little effort, to even a 13 year old Greek.
Easy to say now, that’s true, but I was saying it then, just as clearly as my recollection here.
They, the national Party led by the Broederbond and the Dutch Reformed Kerk, chose to spend what became the record per capita on military expenditure. Costs affected by the arms boycott brought by first world governments (Kennedy in the US) preventing arms dealers like the USA, the UK and France, from business as usual. Instead, the work around for the supply and demand of war products and political boycotts, was to quadruple their prices, paying to buy armaments as well as highly paid hired killers, mercenaries, to assist the resource of their own conscripted boys.
Instead of investing this economic windfall from mineral wealth on education, they decided Blacks should not receive an education. Blacks would not learn any sciences from their Nazi era Afrikaans-speaking lessons because; they would never need education.
The Broederbond leadership were assured by Biblical scripture which guided their every decision, that Blacks would never need education.
Blacks were born to ’till the soil’. Labor for life, by right of Black birth.
The Bible is very clear on that point. And these guys sure were Christians. Apartheid is a Christian relic.
My first great sense of how stupid people are – and how foolish the religious are with their dangerous delusions, came from watching these christian bastardized-Dutchmen with maggot sized intellect spend the budget that would have given a complete comprehensive education to every black child, on uniforms and guns and laws to divide and forcibly conscript every white South African born male into the racists uniform to go and kill those Blacks boys who did not know their place was to be silent and till the soil for a dollar a day.
While the people around me voted National Party and called Blacks Kaffirs. And saluted the flag that united them all in a common purpose. Easy to observe now? It was easy then. These guys had vast resources and a population of over 50% who were illiterate and without basic facilities like water and electricity. Instead of spending the money on uplifting them, which was a simple challenge really. Just allocate money towards a world leading education system. Instead spent obscene amounts on creating a killing machine to brutally suppress any resistance to their odious political will.
Meanwhile, us kids had to recite the Lords Prayer every morning and forced to sing “Uit die blou van onse hemel‘ all lined up every morning while the flag of the Apartheid regime fluttered cheerfully in the South African school courtyard.
Receiving a Whites only education in which spending money on guns to kill Blacks made more sense than spending money on education to end the need to kill Blacks. Where pointing out this transparently ridiculous folly soon made it impossible for me to remain in the Country at all.
The righteously wrong can be extremely nasty in their defensive position. And boy, did I come under constant attack throughout my upbringing by every South African I shared my idea with. “What about Government buying books instead of bullets.”
Ironically, having never fired a gun in the army, after the army I carried a gun 24/7 , loaded, with the skill to use it, such was the real and present threat to my life as a critic of the system.
My like minded friends would serially disappear. Read about the 11th floor of John Vorster square. I was never going to go there voluntarily. Unless they sent 8 SAP crewcuts to arrest me. I had a six round magazine and one round in the chamber. 9mm. In a superb example of a 9mm handgun. And a marksman’s skill after target shooting many thousands of round with that gun . I fancied my chances with seven shots finding a one inch space on a moving target. My practice was the space between the eyes. Where the skull is most vulnerable to a 9mm round. “They better send 8, because the first seven are going down.”
As it happened, I escaped South Africa before my claim that I would rather take my chances on a self defense charge than visit the 11th floor of JVS ‘detained without charge’ was tested.
Tangentially, because medals is the subject:
The highest award for service by White South African’s defending the choice of ‘apartheid war’ over the ‘education of the illiterate Black majority’ is called The Honoris Crux Gold (Gold Cross of Honour) which was instituted in 1975.
It was awarded to members of the South African Defence Force for ‘outstanding acts of bravery while in extreme danger.’
Only 6 were ever awarded in total.
Here is the story of one of the six. Arthur Walkers story, being the most decorated soldier to serve in the SADF at the same time as myself.
How differently Arthur and myself saw the business of medals. Although, for the avoidance of doubt, I was aware of his enormous courage in going back for his brothers in arms and I have the utmost respect for his character. I believe any one of us would do the same thing, if placed in the same set of circumstances. He took his helicopter back down for his troops, cowering under enemy fire, when he could have just skedaddled home as the safer option? To live out his years knowing he left those two guys depending on him to hot extract them?
Captain Arthur Walker was cited for the award for landing in enemy territory to search for on foot and rescue the crew of a helicopter which had been shot down. He is the most highly decorated SADF member of the 1966-1989 Border War.
This event happened the year after I was in exactly the same location. Apologies for how poorly written it is. I wish I could locate the account of the two guys he picked up. But all I could find is this official version.
Official citation: “During December 1981 Captain Arthur Walker, from KES in Johannesburg, was again requested to provide top cover for the evacuation of a seriously wounded soldier. On take-off with the evacuee his number two helicopter was hit and crash-landed. Without hesitation and with total disregard for his personal safety Captain Walker landed near the wrecked helicopter and immediately searched for the crew. Eventually the situation became suicidal compelling Captain Walker and his crew to withdraw. When he was airborne he spotted the missing crew and yet again, without hesitation and despite the fact that virtually all enemy fire was now directed in his direction, he landed and uplifted the crew to safety. Through this courageous deed he prevented the loss of two men. His distinguished actions, devotion to duty and courage make him a credit to the South African Defence Force in general, the South African Air Force in particular and makes him a worthy recipient of the Bar to the Honoris Crux Gold.”
Arthur Walker died of cancer at age 63 in 2016.
I suppose his medals will be left to his son? Who can work out what they are worth. As I did with my dads medals. There is some comfort in knowing your dad is a man of courage and integrity. Who, when tested, did not take the course of least resistance. Placing honor above life itself.
I haven’t seen cousin George for maybe 20 years. But I have him on my phone contacts and I generally speak to him from my mothers home on those occasions when I visit her in Johannesburg. My Mother remains close to George and the family some thirty five years after I emigrated to England. A gun free society with some freedom of personal expression on offer.
In those calls he invariably asked “When are you going to come and visit us in George” and I would always answer “Not this time, but I will come one day.” That now will be remembered as a broken promise. Unusual for me. Possibly unique.
Apart from never actually getting to George to visit George, making the matter of my admittedly deficient cousin consideration worse still, I have never actually messaged or emailed George; other than to reply by return with the traditional courtesy of a messaged thank you for his good wishes.
I had always intended one day visiting George, possibly going with my friend Craig De Villier’s when visiting his home in Sedgefield, just a short drive away from George. But there is no apple-watch function to remind one of the time-limit on matters of this nature. The time never came. And now it never will.
BUT……… hold on. What does all this have to do with what happened some six hours before George died?
Five years back, when I moved to California, where I lived somewhat privately following the extreme harassment I experienced from criminal elements within British Family law, George persuaded my mother to give him my unlisted private US number.
George has used that to text me twice annually ever since.
Once in November, on my names day, the biggest of days in the Greek Orthodox memory.
And again on my birthday, in September.
Always, articulate, compassionate messages of above average length for texts, always referencing my two boys. John and Byron. Even though he never met either.
On Saturday, George, the man, not the place, came into my mind. One moment I was deep in chapter 27, paragraph five, pondering a grocers apostrophe and the next I was slapped out of my focus by an image of my cousin George. Flashing across my conscious memory like a hawk in the updraft of a Santa Ana wind. I put my pen down, took a sip of coffee, and thought.
“He is getting up there now. I have never even introduced him to Byron although he has asked so many times for a photo, I just never could do that much for him. I’ll bet he would get a charge out of a happy message from me. I will send him a positive message to tell him I am thinking of him. A little ‘love from California’ note“.
It was, I reflect, the first time I have initiated a message to George.
This morning, as usual, I spoke to my mom, who said
“I have some bad news for you. your cousin has George died.”
Thank you xxxg
I have known George all my life. He was very close to my father, Manos Broulidakis, up until his death in 1971 when I was not yet 11 years old. I understand it was my father who brought the majority of his family from Egypt to South Africa after establishing himself there. And George was his favorite.
About 1973, when I was 12, one day George arrived at my home in Bryanston asking to speak to me personally. Although we are cousins, through the vagaries of the time, there is an almost 30 year age difference. George introduced our agenda by presenting an envelope. I remember the meeting as if yesterday.
He said. And my memory of his words is pretty much verbatim as is common with seminal life events.
“I have something that was given to me. It is very valuable, but I don’t think it is right for me to keep it and I think you should have it. I would like to give this to you.”
He showed me an envelope, the original envelope, from the British War Office. Drawing my attention to the seal. He opened it to reveal three medals. One was an Africa Star, awarded to all participants in WW2’s Africa campaign. The other two were awards for valor for Captain Manos Broulidakis. My dad. They were super shiny medals. One with white bits and brass bits that looked like they came off some cannon somewhere. With slick cloth attachments and some writing on them. “To reward individual instances of meritorious or distinguished service in war.”
Wow. My dad was a war hero?
But Wait. I already knew he was in the war and he never mentioned any such thing. “Son I was a war hero.” Quite the contrary. His comments on war such as they are available to my memory, were objective and academic. Informed without the romance of political delusion. And especially, critical of the British command structure. In fact, I remembered his take on war very clearly. He had an entire library of books about Rommel and Hitler and Metaxas and Churchill and Stalin. Books by Patrick Lee Fermor. Volumes of encyclopedias about WW2. But no books about medals and flags and heroes?
“It was sometime in 1946 or maybe even 1947. Your father received it, opened the envelope from the War office, saw what it was, and his expression went black as thunder. he handed this envelope to me. He said. ‘George take this please. I do not accept this nonsense. Who do they think they are sending medals?’
He was angry about it, but I was a young boy and I was so excited to have the medals. I remembered the war and your father was gone for along time. I have treasured them. But now I have to give them to you.”
Not only did I ceremoniously accept the medals from George with open minded indifference; I received the story and it had a profound influence on me at 12 years of age. Still reeling in a day to day lifestyle from the loss of my father at such a tender age.
Here was a real tangible thing to remember him by. Behavior he modeled for me to learn from. I had means motive and opportunity to put war, medals, fascism and my father into experiential perspective.
And plenty of time as I was a 12 year old in South Africa in 1973. There was not much going on on the cultural education front. I had little else more interesting to occupy my days and nights than thinking.
(Apart from acknowledging as I must the enormously marvelous De Villier’s family, Graham and Lynette, who staged an intervention in my life when my father died to gift me a privileged childhood, without which I can say in all certainty, I would not be who I am today.)
But for those times when I was not with the De Villier’s family, (who coincidentally took me to visit George before George moved to George) I was on my own in my room, with books and my medals. Developing critical thought. Working at that process, much of which took place prompted by and interest in understanding the significance of my fathers war medals.
Why he won them.
Why he why so annoyed by them he gave them away. Like Muhammad Ali throwing his Olympic Gold in a river.
Why did they even exist? What purpose did they serve? Why did George give them to me? Chattels that belonged to him.
And that’s where many synapses sent accelerated messages for young Andrew.
Medals and flags and nationalism? Deceits to be scoffed at. You act with valor and dignity because it is the right thing to do. Driven by your own sense of right and wrong. Not for validation by faceless bureaucrats safe in their Ivory towers, untroubled by the inconvenience of having to shoot Nazi’s themselves. The positioning in this award system is all wrong. They do not get to decide what you did was worthy of reward. It is a political deceit. One whose purpose is to seduce young men into the idea that heroism and valor validated by government is a cause worth blinding your own common sense to. Worth dying for as a Fallen Hero in the alternative to being a clueless victim of exploitation in a class system where you have died in service of nothing higher than the profits of those who put you in uniform and sent you to war. Your choice, should you act with valor and dignity because you are a human being, outraged by injustice, with a sense of value, is made by yourself in good conscience, for your own self esteem. Giving your warriors strength to protect those unable to protect themselves. Not because a political consensus forms, awarding your achievements towards their own benefit; specifically to mislead some new recruit somewhere into thinking he could be a hero too.
George left the story there. I accepted the envelope with the three medals, said thank you. And that was the end of that. Thank you for your thoughtful gift.
The medals went into a drawer with my personal stuff, yet the gift did not lie dormant in that private space in a pre-teens bedroom. It took on a life of its own. Every now and then I would get them out and look at them. Hold them in my 12 year old hands and think about what they represented.
Through this experience I began to understand much of my fathers character which the misfortune of his early death prevented me learning directly. It began the nascent early awareness of political and ethical views that impacted profoundly on my formative character. That included philotimia.
Medals? I scoff at that deceit. As worthless as any vanity jewellery. As any blood diamond worn by a made up woman voluntarily choosing the life of a chattel. Metal objects fashioned from some old gun used for some nefarious purpose in some historical point sold to young boys as adventure stories of brave heroes.
Governments want to recognize some individual feat of courage appropriately?
Don’t send them a piece of old metal with a few bits of white and red and a dodgy back story. Like the Victoria Cross, moulded from melted steel from the guns used in Crimea.
For American soldiers, how about – a condo in new York, with all HOA fees paid for 50 years. Or for British troops, instead of a DSO, a flat in Chelsea with all Council taxes paid for 50 years.
How about, for example, the guy back from Vietnam with no legs and no hands and a heroin habit, lets say. No.
Sorry, no Purple Heart for you. Instead, here is 50 years (to life) of all medical bills paid? Thank you for your service?
Nationalism? Look at how that worked out for the Germans. Seriously. Read some history books. Nothing works more effectively than nationalism for making doff people salute flags and stay silent while all that controlling direction so easily turns the kindness in human nature into machined hate that will kill children on command without knowing why. Read about the German boys who worked in concentration camps. Proud to salute the flag. Proud to follow the fuhrer. He was a genius. The best. Country first.
Fascism? Let it go unchecked and you will see the same outcome history has already written. Like millions of dead people in the forties killed by by racist manipulation of an under educated majority. Look at Italy in the thirties. Jewish Italians were stripped of citizenship. Fascism is built on racism. White Christian supremacy is the key. That handsome mutherf%cker, Benito with his stunning, frequently knickerless cohort, nude model Clara Petacci by his side, enthralled all of Italy’s right-wing with flags and smart designer uniforms, stylish hats and fancy speeches about God and Country. And look how they ended up Benito and his right-wing clan.
Hanging by rope, upside down, in Clara’s case, with no knickers on, being urinated on by the same Italians who woke up one day and realized what it means to be played by a right wing fascist con.
Look at how Italy reacted after realizing they were mislead by a narcissist fascist leader. We have much to learn by the example of Italy, and the Mussolini years and I did that work in my early teens.
I learned that when you are being sold the question of fascism, the answer is; No. Not ‘No thank you’.
Like my dad, when you see fascists come into power, you get an Orange Armband, a British rifle, a Belgian sidearm, and you go and fuck them up. In his case, 6 years of slogging as an infantry captain in the British Army.
For which, 6 years of infantry slogging to defeat Hitlers best efforts, he was awarded a British Citizenship as well as the medals. A certificate of naturalization as a Brit. So, in 1984, when I decided to move to the UK I decided to use my fathers British citizenship to qualify for residence. I took the original certificate and showed up at the Home office to apply for UK Residence. Guess what that document, awarded along with the medals was worth?
Lucky for me, Greece was then a half member of the EU and so I was able to live in the UK as a Greek. But not as a Brit. Turns out, all those commonwealth troops and officers who were awarded British Citizenship for their fight in the war, in British Army uniforms, under British Army command, were given a worthless piece of paper. Along with a few medals.
As a principle, I concluded from my time spent holding my dads war medals and thinking; you do not passively watch fascism rise around you while offering a fence sitters opposition unless you are happy to accept the outcome history has already shown.
That was me at 12.
Imagine my joy reading Trump/Brexit fans posts 45 years later?
Later, in 1980, after I was discharged from the South African Apartheid military, I inherited the gun Manos carried throughout WW2. His Belgian sidearm. A work of art in terms of its machining and its design. Maybe one of the most emblematic hand guns ever made. A Browning 1910 handgun. Chambered for 9mm cartridges. 6 in the magazine. One in the chamber, an option. Identical to the one Gavrilo Princip used to execute super wealthy Archduke Franz Ferdinand and start WW1. Which I only then learned through our shared gun choice, was no more than a class struggle. The rich, wiping out the poor. The majority who went over the top and under the mud at the Somme had one commonality. They were the poorest. War is only ever about money. Decided on by the rich, spending the lives of the poor to entrench their position as the wealthy elite. The things you learn shooting the same gun that Gavrilo Princip used.
The medals and the gun formed my fast track to awareness of war. When I myself was (forcibly) sent off to War for 2 years, I succeeded in never firing one single shot with my R1 rifle. An automatic weapon known as ‘NATOS right arm’. 7.62mm. Twenty rounds per mag. A fearsome weapon. I was issued one and had no choice than to accept. (I did technically have choice, but that was 6 years in Detention Barracks for conscientious objection, so I chose to make my objection less obvious, in a two year spell.) In those 2 years of service in the SADF I never fired one round. I know of no one else who served, as my entire generation did in the war of Apartheid, who were G1K1, visited the border, but never fired one single shot in the uniform of the SADF.
In fact, slightly tangentially, although I was not awarded any medals for heroism in the SADF, I was court martialed for ‘losing’ my R1 Automatic Rifle. An award, experientially, that I wear with pride. I experienced a court martial for losing my R1. Which could, in a time of war, have had serious consequences. If I wasn’t such a smart ass with such a well-informed awareness of military cognitive thinking. The ability to articulately fight my own corner, all because?
I thought many times about George giving me those medals. And the layers of awareness that process set in process. He attached a great value to the medals. I am quite sure he had no intention of starting me off on my road towards whatever it is you call someone as outspokenly anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-theist as myself.
His motivation was really kind. And that was the second part of that lesson in the medal handover.
George was above all, a kind man.
That is how I will remember him.
I am glad our final words were of love and joy and gratitude.
Ends. (5,300 words.)
Footnote: The envelope and the three medals remained in my bedroom drawer in the Bryanston house when I was sent off to war in 1979. Two years later, when I returned to pack my belongings, the medals, along with all my other personal valuables were gone. The occupants in the house in this period were my Mother, my sister Christine and Alfred, the gardener, who lived in the servants quarters and also did house cleaning as a part of his job. Alfred, my mothers residential garden keeper, was later fired after being found to have been a serial thief. Sadly, the Browning 9mm too is also no longer in my possession. But the stories they leave behind is where I inherited far greater value.
Footnote 2: Alfred, who worked for my mother for thirty years was not just fired for the missing medals. That theft just passed by. Obviously, it was explained to me, my own fault for leaving valuables not under lock and key with Black people in the house. Eventually, after years of finding things missing, my mother realized Alfred had to go, after some 30 years of service, serial theft notwithstanding. She placed a number of twenty rand notes in her wallet and marked them in ink. When she noticed they had been filtched, she confronted him. She made him turn out his pockets. And there appeared several of the numbered notes. So what happened next in Apartheid South Africa, with the thieving ‘garden Boy’?
I learned, my mother put in place a pension for him that kept him financially empowered the rest of his life. She had set up a bank account for him in his home village where he had a monthly deposit for the rest of his life. I learned too that he did not steal because he was a greedy thief. He just knew no better. Alfred could not read or write. He could barely speak, with a vocabulary in English that I counted at under one hundred words. So stealing my diaries (which I really missed because I was writing 1,000 words a day every day since the age of 12, documenting my new life as head of household at age 10) along with the medals was not done for any reason other than; he knew no better. And for that I felt sorrow for him and not resentment. The final lesson those medals had for me. In life, the circumstances of our birth and opportunities for education determine much of what happens next. Maybe more than just ‘much’, Most of what you life is is destined by the accident of where you are born.