By Frederick B. Philander Growing up at the height of the apartheid Karoo era in the late Fifties and the Sixties was one helluva struggle especially for people of colour. Being able to possess a bicycle, which almost cost me my life, was a greater achievement than having had food to eat as a child in those days. Yes, the Karoo at the time was considered to be a haven for white tourism, but was in actual fact an oasis of poverty for people of colour daily facing unemployment and hunger. Being the son of a railway policeman was considered to have been a privilege and some sort of higher status among the local community. People still had respect for law enforcement, unlike today. But what my contemporaries did not know was the fact that we, like many other families, struggled to make a living. Anyway, I vividly recall how proud I was when I bought my first bicycle through hard work as a part-time casual worker at the local Merino Korporasie winkel, the biggest shop in the town in which the world-famous heart transplant pioneer – remember Doctor Chris Barnard? – was also born. The bicycle, also known as an ‘iron-horse’ as a mode of transport, was a rare but essential possession for anyone in town, black, white or coloured at the time. As children, we used to fool around with our bikes in the township, executing dare-devil moves to impress the girls, but to the dismay of worried parents. “This ‘iron-horse’ will one day cost you your life, if you are not careful with this bloody bicycle,” my late father paternally used to warn me. He was right because it almost did cost me my life, but not because of the bike tricks and stunts, but a near-death accident. I was sent on an errand to buy meat at the local butchery one cold wintry Saturday morning. Now for those who know, winters can be freezing cold in the barren Karoo, and this particular morning was no exception. Barefooted, I rode the ten-minute trip from the township to the business centre in the town. Now to get to the CBD at Beaufort West from our township, one had to cross a steep bridge over the main railway line between Cape Town and Johannesburg. In my haste to get to town and back home for an important rugby match to be played on that day – yes, you guessed right, I also played rugby, between us coloured children and our white counterparts, I descended at high speed from the bridge like a rocket. At the last moment I realized my bike’s brakes had failed… I was travelling at 50 miles an hour in the middle of the road, wildly ringing the bicycle bell and shouting to warn pedestrians to get out of the way and at the same time evading oncoming cars. Going for the only robot in the centre of town, the half-mile felt like an eternity. Some 20 metres from the red light I managed to grab on to the side of the town’s only garbage truck, almost losing my left arm in the process. As fate would have it, through the sudden pressure on my arm, I miraculously landed under the wheels of the truck at that moment gearing up to drive right over me, bike ‘n all, on its way to catch the green robot and irreparably damaging my bicycle. From underneath the truck I summed up the perilous situation in an eyewink. My only way to prevent myself from being crushed by the four double back wheels of the truck was to swing my body over the greasy axle that was coming closer to my protracted body on the hard surface. With a conserted and desperate last effort, I managed to slide over the axle and with a thud landed on the hard tarred road at the back of the moving vehicle, unharmed. It all happened at the speed of lightning. Unaware of my near-death experience, the truck driver drove away towards the robot. There he was fortunately stopped in the nick of time by the town’s ever-vigilant and only traffic cop before he was able to execute what is today known as a perfect hit-and-run accident – the first in the annals of the Karoo town’s history. The rest is history, I’m still alive and intend to be for a long time to come. *If you have a near-death experience, pen it in no less than 600 words and mail it to Art/Life for possible publication consideration. Short stories used will be paid for. The address is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline is Monday, January 22, for publication on Friday, January 26.
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