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Monday, 01 March 2010

A little older, no less energetic

This is Kiff, 2010 model. Same, but better. He rekindled enjoyment through his presence at a picnic lunch reunion in Addo Elephant Reserve, Eastern Cape, February 2010.

He says he’s now 68, but there’s still a boyish quality to him. The stories that pour forth show it. Like recounting his underhand tactic as a 13-year-old in a Happy Acres dormitory – effectively forcing his counsellors to let him join their after-hours escapades. “I told them that if I was left behind, someone would have to report to Ma Holland that the counsellors weren’t there”.

It always was a puzzle how Kiff managed to be part of the gang, and yet not be seen as a spy for his mom. Not that there was much to spy on anyway – the escapades entailed sneaking off the property late at night to perform a sequenced-step march (with girl counsellors!) along the main road. When the lights of Magaliesburg were visible, Kiff says, they turned around and went back to camp. Daring stuff!

Someone at the Addo lunch recalled that Pa Holland once hid under a ping-pong table to try and catch counsellors playing vagrant. Presumably Kiff was never one of those “arrested”.

Somewhat greater dangers lurked at the happiest of acres, according to the reminisces that flowed:

* Like counsellors like Frances Sutton falling down crevices at Tonquani; Lesley Brennan (now Randles) getting bounced off a fence when it was hit by lightening (the zigzag later captured by Kiff in the t-shirt logo for that week’s camp).

* There was the camper called Pinkerton or Pernickety (or similar name) who complained unconvincingly on a hike that he had broken his arm, having fallen off the Lone Tree – after being forbidden from climbing it. After lugging his kit back to camp, it turned out he had indeed broken the bone. Kid had to spend a week in the Krugersdorp hospital till the swelling went down.

* Then there was Jurie from Romania, who did indeed, break his arm. It was pretty evident from the way it was dangling – although he wasn’t entirely convinced himself.

* Digby Prior took no chances: he was dubbed “sauna” because he wore an anorak non-stop, except for swimming. To manage campers in the pool was pretty challenging for counsellors, even with the buddy system enforced. But all survived.

* Dangers abounded like scalding wax and red-hot ancient irons for batik-making. Even crossing the road with campers and a three-legged dog. Once, a homesick seven-year-old camper absconded and ended up in Krugersdorp - safely.

* Ma Holland showed how it was done, by getting stung by a scorpion she was showing campers – she had let it run around her bare hand.

Son and mum

Maybe because Kiff wasn’t strict like Ma, the counsellors who experienced the two consecutive “regimes” at Happy Acres in the 60s and 70s, were predisposed to favour the son over the mum.

But Kiff indirectly reminded the Addo lunch that it was Ma who laid down the foundations. She had been the one, he recalled, who introduced the “sputnik” blast off to campers.

Liz Palthe, stalwart and counsellor supreme, described to the people at the Addo lunch how Ma’s clogs would beat out the rhythm on the dining room floor, stepping up the pace to reach a frenzy that in turn would be punctuated by the hissing of the firing engines.

I think Ma would have approved of the Addo gathering, despite the peals of laughter that disturbed the environs. Little wonder that our host Cheryl van der Schyff (now Momberg), put us at the far corner (she works at Addo – one of the few of us who managed to keep a connection to nature).

But from time to time, through the rich spekboom bos, and some people brazenly boasting about the Latin names of plants that they remember, the occasion was frequented by birds. Brave olive bulbuls and boubou shrikes ... intrigued by the shrieks of mirth as the memories poured out (faster than campers used to have to run through the showers).

The lunch event with Kiff, all the way from wintery Vancouver, stimulated seriously funny, but also sentimental, memories about the amazing experience it was for 15-year-olds to be harnessed to Kiff’s dynamo in his days as a 30-year old enthusiast for life and living.

No counsellor at that time regarded Kiff as their “boss”, although of course he was indeed in charge, and decisive, and his word was final. Lucky are those of us who later in life had bosses who were even half as lively, inspiring and energetic as Kiff. Even luckier are those, I guess, who were able to emulate the man’s character and style when and where we moved into managing people other than campers.

Don’t be a spectator in life, be a player, Kiff once told us. It sums up his philosophy.

Cheryl illustrated this by telling the lunch that she still has a counsellor’s handbook which reminds her of the message Kiff once gave her: “When you draw a picture of a crab, don’t colour it brown, use purples, yellows, greens, etc.”

Lesley “spaghetti legs” Brennan was at the Addo lunch, and she recalled the atmosphere of peace, awe and emotion at the final counsellors’ meeting at the end of every camp. Kiff, she recalled, would dish out envelopes with your honorarium, and give you feedback about the quality of your counselling. Lesley always had a buzz about her person; she still gives Kiff a run for his money, even approaching 40 years since she first gave him stick.

A broken nose

It was one of the evening counsellor meetings way back, Liz related one of her stories. She had, she told the lunch, dodged making tea by claiming that she wanted to check her restless dorm. Upon arriving there, she heard a “helluva” (hear her voice?) commotion, including someone saying “We’ll call Liz”. Swinging open the door, she loudly announced her arrival, her tone signalling her unchallengeable intention to sort things out.

Someone, it seemed, had snuck into the girls’ thatched-roof dorm, and been terrifying them by throwing lit matches around. Sensing that the intruder was behind her, Liz swung her arm around and bashed hurled the culprit– an older boy who lived in the neighbourhood. The blow hurled him out the door and against the wall. She whistled for help, and was heard by her brother Bert at the counsellors’ meeting. The police were called, but the teen had run away.

Some time later, Liz overheard someone asking the lad responsible if he had ever been to Happy Acres. “Nooit,” he replied. “Daar’s ‘n vroumens daar wat my neus gebreek het!” She felt quite proud of that.

But Liz' soft side appeared when she sent an MMS to Joy Garnett (now Mullin) who so wanted to be at the lunch, but couldn’t make it. And she had come along with her mom, Mrs Palthe, a familiar friend to many counsellors.

Cheryl had been one of the campers in the girls’ dorm that night when Liz bashed the trouble-maker. She remembered another story, less dramatic, but also dangerous. She and her fellow campers would push broomsticks through the thatch, and send someone outside to monitor just how successful they were. Imagine if Ma H had have caught them doing that!

I reminded people how Ma had particularly disliked the destructive side of kids – especially when they broke plants out of pure wantonness. Lucky she never knew about the teen witches with their broomsticks.

On another occasion, Cheryl and Lesley were counsellors in charge of a group of boys. When they wanted to abdicate responsibility and take it easy, they would simply call on their male counterparts under the pretext that they weren’t allowed in the boy’s dormitories. The guys never knew they were being manipulated.

All that took place down in the dorm block (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) with the upstairs Sing Sing and Treetops. Lesley remembered that that Adam Glaser had once dramatically appeared in a high up window at Sing Sing, when the campers were choosing costumes for plays. He called out authoritatively, “everyone hold it right there!” It was effective: everyone froze. And the image stuck in her mind.

It was Lesley’s sister, Karen, who at the lunch told of a camp time when there were just two 13 year-olds, not enough for a group. They were enlisted as reporters, recording the doings of all the other campers. One thing they may have missed, though was how the girl counsellors couldn’t get enough of Ian Mitchell. “We’d watch him swimming, and think – hey, stay in one spot,” said one of the luncheon gang.

This is the way of life

But time takes its toll and no one could fully meet Kiff’s request for the range of rainy day sports… beyond Beetle and the tossing of tennequoits around a small pole.

Kiff narrated a story of how a onetime counsellor buddy had agreed to source him a good watch to take along when he decided to emigrate to Canada. There was much protestation on Kiff’s part because the “Rolex” that he was brought looked highly unconvincing: it had no writing on the back about the number of jewels, waterproofing depth, etc.

Years later in Canada, and long after he had replaced the timepiece for a battery-operated (as opposed to wind-up) job, the erstwhile Magaliesberg boy went to a jeweller to have the device serviced. He was offered $2000 for it.

True value, it seems, appreciates over time. It’s now, so many years later, that we can look back longer and appreciate how much Kiff’s influence shaped us for the better.

Today Kiff has a new partner, Janny, who has an 11-year-old daughter called Ali. They were also at the lunch. The pair join a long line of people enriched by a wonderful person, an artist of people (and paint) whose contribution to the planet is cause for increasing pleasure as the years tick on.

- Guy Berger

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