A moment’s hesitation

Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that you should never point a firearm at anything that you are not willing to destroy. But try telling that to an immature 17 year old boy in South Africa in the 1960s, especially one who had been conscripted to the army against his will and who had made a point of breaking the military’s rules whenever he could get away with it.

It all started with the lock on my metal army trunk. We all had to have locks on our trunks, but I kept mine unlocked because I had lost the key. While I was in the shower early one morning, one of the other blokes in my barracks had noticed this and locked it. When I returned to the barracks and saw that my trunk had been locked I panicked because I had yet to polish my boots and my shoe brush and polish were inside the trunk.

Only a few minutes remained before we would have to assemble outside on the parade ground for the morning inspection.

“Hey, Ewald,” I pleaded, “come and help me open this bloody lock quickly!”

Ewald was a guy with many talents, one of which was picking locks. He picked at the lock with an unbent paper clip and it sprung open just as we were ordered to assemble outside for the inspection. There was no time to polish my boots.

Tim (aged 17) in the army, August 1964

 Tim, aged 17, sitting on his army trunk and polishing his boots

Our sergeant strutted along our squad with his swagger stick under his arm, malevolently looking each of us up and down as he did each morning. He came to a halt in front of me and my heart sank.

“Bruwer,” he screamed, “your boots are dirty!”

“Sergeant, what happened was …”

“Shut the f*ck up!” he howled, shirtfronting me. “Did you hear me asking you to open your bloody mouth?”

That morning we embarked on our usual routine of drills, taking apart and reassembling our 7.62mm FN rifles at speed, and setting off on a route march. At lunchtime, somewhere out in the bush, we were allowed to sit down to have our lunch of dried biscuits and coffee.

“Not you, Bruwer!” shouted the sergeant. “You get your rifle and come over here!”

He told me to lift my rifle above my head and to run around in a wide circle which included scaling the earthen wall of an old disused dam, about three metres high. After a while I was so exhausted that I could barely move my legs and I struggled to keep the rifle lifted above my head, but he kept spewing a stream of invective at me and I had to keep going. I ran up the dam wall for the umpteenth time and as soon as I crossed it and was out of his line of sight I just rolled down the other side, totally exhausted, throwing the rifle recklessly ahead of me.

My rifle must have struck a rock in the process, because the metal plate above the trigger had acquired a few dents and scratches. I survived this harsh punishment, but its dents on both my rifle and on my psyche remained. During the months that followed I could easily identify my rifle by these dents and scratch marks whenever we had to retrieve our rifles from where we had propped them up during a break.

Towards the end of our year of military service we were stationed at an army camp outside Cape Town, where we were on guard duty. For us it felt as if we were on a holiday because we only had to do a minimum of drills each day and there was none of the daily grind of route marches and field exercises. Our guard duty consisted of a four hour stint, followed by an eight hour break.

We were required to have a full magazine of bullets on our rifles at all times, but I had emptied my magazine and always carried the bullets loose in my coat pocket.

During a break in guard duty on an icy cold, sunny, early spring morning we propped our rifles against the wall of a storage shed. Later, I got up and retrieved my rifle, which I recognised by the small dents.

A couple of soldiers were chatting to each other about a hundred yards from me. I lifted my rifle and carefully aimed at one of them, with my finger curling around the trigger. Knowing that there were no bullets in my rifle, I was just about to pull the trigger when I hesitated at the last moment and pulled the slide back just to make doubly sure that there was no bullet in the chamber. A live bullet was ejected from the rifle and fell at my feet. I stood there frozen, looking at it in stunned disbelief. I had picked up someone else’s loaded rifle which had similar dents to my own one by mistake.

*     *     *

Over the subsequent years I have replayed this incident in my mind many times. I have no doubt that if I had pulled the trigger on that day I would have shot the soldier dead, as he was within easy range and the FN rifle was a very powerful firearm. But for that short moment’s hesitation, my life would have unfolded entirely differently from what it had. I would have been imprisoned for years in a military prison for manslaughter.

I cannot even kill spiders that venture into our house. Instead, I catch them in a glass jar and deposit them alive outside in the garden. I have no illusions about the severe mental scars that I would have carried all through my life, had I killed another human being.

With such a blot on my record it would have been impossible to secure any job that required even a minimum of responsibility and I would never have been able to emigrate to Australia or to anywhere else.

That one moment’s hesitation determined the future course of my entire life up to, and including, today.

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