Two of my best childhood memories (and there were but few) should have remained in a recessed state, asleep in my history only to be revived with moderate pining or intense yearning. One thing I have learned as an adult, is to let places you loved slip into the deep of your reminiscence and to not go and seek them out again, because things change. And when they change, they become other things entirely and they shun you for being naïve enough to think that you were as special to them as they had been to you. But we forge that, to places, we are but insignificant phantoms, fleeting shadows in their eternal steadfastness and they move on or they wither, selfish in their way, to become nightmares, spoiled leftovers of a once magnificent feast and leave you nauseated in their decay.
Some places should not be sought out in an attempt to relive fond encounters. They tarnish pristine memories…but sometimes it is not their fault, but the error of their keepers.
One such place is President Park in Vereeniging, South Africa.
Since my first memories it had been part of my life. My grandfather, Oupa Ronnie, was the caretaker/ superintendent of this compound in the center of the large town and since my parents could not afford daycare for me, I was dropped off at my grandparents’ place every morning at 6.30am and all I, quite literally, did all day…was swim.
Now let me explain the structure of this wondrous, kingdom of my Grandfather and the Municipality he used to tend it for.
In the center of it all was a double story house, so old that its balustrades were laid in stone and cement and my grandfather being a perfectionist as a landscaper and handyman in general, he painted all the walls white and the roof, gutters and window panes black.
The house always reminded me of a chess board, either you’re one or the other. As one entered the front door of the enormous house – and it is in fact a cozy 3-bedroom, but I was six years old! – one would be in direct line with the double glass doors that led out of the house on the other side…my Shangri La lay beyond those doors.
Stretched majestically on the perfectly groomed rolling lawns, was the “Olympic Pool”, light blue with black stripes marking ten lanes for gala’s and provincial competition. This was also where Oupa Ronnie trained life guards for certification and I recall them being a ludus of delectable muscular gladiators in their late teens, sporting Speedo’s the way Speedo’s were intended to fit and their playful majesty as my grandfather’s henchmen.
Next to the pool was a compact pavilion and behind this, where the lawn mounded, were the built-in trampolines, to the south. To the west was the house towering as nerve center and to the east was the “public entrance”, comprising of two heavy wooden doors reminiscent of those used by castle citadels in the times of medieval siege. The entire compound was walled and fenced in. Between the Olympic pool and the entrance, stood a beautiful light blue cement fountain, spewing crystal water endlessly.
To the north, past its heaving lawn, was a division wall with locked gates to the two football fields on the other side! On the other side of the house, by the front door’s side, was a rugby field with a massive constructed pavilion which played host to the Rugby Club Hall which used to be a perfect venue for wedding receptions and piss-ups of a corporate nature.
But back to the trampolines…past them was another division wall like the football fields’ and if you walked through the narrow gate between the pump house and the wall, you would enter the magical play park where I spent all my time when I was not allowed in the big pool.
And it was magical.
It had four cement pools of varying depth and from one ran a canal (all built and laid in blue painted cement) just big enough for a child to fit in and I used to swim along the winding man-made rivulet, moving myself along on my hands and gliding all the way to a splash pool which ended in a seven foot rock face with a waterfall that worked as diligently as the fountain at the entrance.
The entire park was lawn and trees amongst the light blue ponds and canal. On the other side of the park, hidden in a stunning overgrowth of ivy and creepers, lay Aunty Hopkins’ domain. A small office with an FM/AM radio playing British news casts and 70’s music all day is where she poured her tea in the most peculiar apricot glass tea set. She oversaw the park and the children who played there. Just outside her office were more change rooms and a combined slash stone stoep, completely possessed by potted plants and Delicious Monsters so big that they dwarfed my mother when she stood there.
From Aunty Hopkins’ vigil one could see the other extreme of the fence that bordered the aforementioned rugby field. There was a petting zoo and a park with see-saws and roundabouts and a slide that would scare the life out of me. If you peeked through the wrought iron fence you could see the rugby field and the far reach of the club house.
This was the magnitude of my childhood home during the day. It was my place. I was the princess of King Ronnie’s Realm. He allowed me to assist him at 7am when he taught kids to swim and after that, the Olympic pool and its surrounding pleasures were mine to have. This is where I cultivated my underwater Dolphin speech (don’t ask) and challenged myself each day to try and touch the bottom of the deep end, where my ears would sting and the black stripes would vanish in the murky blue depths, rendering me a coward.
On Christmas and New Years we’d be closed to the public and my father’s seven siblings, their wives, husbands and children would all congregate.
At night my braggart grandfather would pack out amplifiers and the whole family would sit outside on the lawn with electric guitars and play Boeremusiek (traditional Afrikaner music) for all the surrounding buildings and houses to hear. People in the 20-floor building across the street would come out and lean on the balconies and at the end of each song we could hear them clap and cheer. Sometimes they’d call out requests, and, being an entire family of musicians, we’d usually be able to oblige with some Pussycat, CCR, Johnny Cash, etc.
Everybody knew “Baas Ronnie”, as the Blacks called him. They adored him, because he spoke fluent Sotho and although he was as powerful, loud, stern and robust as his voice, he was loved by everyone. He was the big old soldier who took nobody’s shit, an old bar fighting, tattooed, dark tanned, super-fit fifty-something tyrant who ruled his large family with a boisterous voice (which, in song, could rival Pavarotti himself) and a regal fairness. I remember always watching him storm at the Black workers and say something ferocious in their language, waiting for trouble, when suddenly they’d scream with laughter with him. He loved telling them dirty jokes and playing with them.
A heart attack silenced him in 1995, and since then it seems his absent spirit had left President Park in peril.
In the hands of the new ANC government everything has fallen to corruption and the municipality and whomever was entrusted to the care of this majestic and magical playpen for social gathering and fitness had failed miserably….if they even tried. This is what I found on satellite pictures and, not normally being a nostalgic martyr, found it hard not to cry.
The fountain, the splash pools had gone dry and bleached to white in the sun. The iconic gala pool is now a glorified scum pond. The sports fields are overgrown with weeds, and dehydrated, found themselves at the mercy of the blistering sun and heat – burnt to crisp. No more animals in the petting zoo, because all this ridiculous maintenance costs money, funds from taxes that could be put to better use for bigger cars and houses for officials.
|The street view of the once well kept grounds behind the pavilion and rugby hall.|
Of course children don’t need parks. They don’t need to learn to swim. And teenagers don’t need a place to hang out in summer, they have clubs and drug alleys. Mrs Hopkins is long gone, her potted plants smashed and withered and the town does not have a swimming league anymore. What for? Who needs any other sport than soccer, right?
|This used to be a perfectly groomed sidewalk which led into the rugby hall.|
The laughing and teasing with the workers had gone quiet, some of whom taught me some solid insults in good cheer so I can swear at my cousins. The chickens and pigeons my grandpa kept no longer roam amongst the sunbathers, because there are none. The place is closed. And the house is painted and ugly blue to discern it from the disrepair of the fences and the creeping assault of an unkempt garden and weeds.
|Where the blue posts are, is where the massive castle doors are hidden.|
|The uncut grass of the rugby field, overgrown with weeds, where it used to look like a golf course!|
|The house is now a horrid BLUE (???!!!) and the rugby field in disuse.|
|Aerial view of the whole place. Look at the decay and abuse of what was once a paradise for all the locals.|