Five months and three weeks after arriving in Cape Town (seven months since we left our home in the northeast Belgian Congo), my parents were seriously talking about returning home and I was filled with the fear that I would never get on board a ship.
Then there was a call from the agent at Cooks saying there was a ship going to South America that could accommodate all six of us. There had been possibilities in the past that two or even four of us might get passage, but my father had always insisted that the family had to stay together.
The first problem with this wonderful news was that the ship was in Durban, a thousand miles away and passengers were to be aboard within seventy-two hours.
The second problem was that it was now 2 PM and the one daily train to Durban had all ready left. The next one would be at ten the next morning, 20 hours from when my parents were talking with the Cook’s agent. The trip over the mountains from Cape Town to Durban would take forty-two hours. That was sixty-two hours of our seventy-two hours used up before we had even arrived in Durban, let alone onboard. The agent assured my parents that would be plenty of time.
I was not so sure. I didn’t want to miss the first steam ship voyage of my life. Although he wouldn’t tell us the name of the ship, or where it was docked, he promised that a Cooks’ agent would meet us at the train and take us to the ship.Waiting to make your first ocean passage is not easy especially when your father does not take getting there on time as seriously as you do.
During the six months in Cape Town my father had spoken in several churches, some of them rather large and my mother had spoken at all kinds of women’s meetings. Consequently when it came time to board the train there was a hundred or more people on the platform to say good-bye.
After getting us settled in our compartment, my father went back down to the platform to talk to the people. He was not making a speech or anything but was darting from one person to the next trying to make sure he shook hands and said something to everyone.
My mother sat on the end of the berth talking through the window to people who came by. My two younger brothers kneeled on the berth across from my mother leaning out the window, looking back and forth, waiting for the train to start moving. My sister sat next to my mother and occasionally leaned forward to reply to someone who had spoken directly to her. I sat in the middle of the berth from which my brothers were looking out the window, looking straight ahead, not interested in talking to anyone. All I wanted was for the trip to get started.
The conductor walked along the platform calling, “All aboard!”
Still my father kept talking to people.
I pushed my two brothers aside and hung out the window. I watched the conductor walk along the platform calling out his warning. At the last car he climbed onto the platform and leaned out waving his flag. He disappeared into the last car and there was a jolt that shook the car. Another yanking lurch and the train started to move.
“Dad! Dad! We’re leaving,” I shouted in desperation. Couldn’t he see the train was leaving?
He turned and smiled, waved to me and then went back to talking to the people around him.
I bounded from the compartment, along the passageway to the car’s rear platform. I got there just as it got even with my dad. The train kept moving. I crossed to the forward platform of the next car and through the door. The passageway ran along the side of the car away from the platform and I ran past the compartments. Halfway through the car the passageway crossed over to the other side and through the windows I could see him on the platform ahead of me. The car caught up with him and I walked along the passageway keeping even with him on the platform. From the back platform I called again, “Dad, we’re leaving!”
I was desperate. He was the one that had saved me from falling to my death into the Lucilubi. He was the one that had shown me at least twenty different trails to the top of Table Mountain. He was the one who had told me how wonderful it was to be at sea, and now he was just standing there talking to all those people as thought going to sea didn’t matter. I wanted to get off the train and be with him if he should not get on in time, but I didn’t want to miss getting on the ship.
“It’s alright, Son,” he called back.
As far as I was concerned it wasn’t all right. Maybe a little bit right in that the train had not yet pulled out of the station without him on board, but it was not ALL right.
I ran through the cars, keeping even with him on the platform, until I got to the last car. Still he kept talking. The train was pulling away. He turned then as thought he had suddenly noticed what was happening and ran along the platform. He caught up with the train, grabbed hold of the handrail and jumped onto the bottom step. He climbed the three steps and put an arm around my shoulder while he waved with the other hand to the crowd standing on the disappearing station.
He stopped waving when the train went around a curve and we could no longer see the station. He stood there with his hand on my shoulder and the other one on the wooden capped railing of the rear platform and said, “Well, Son, I guess we really are on our way.” He shook his head a little as though he couldn’t really believe it was happening and I knew he wouldn’t have missed this train if President of the United States had been on the platform and wanted to ask him a question.
Ramblings of a Wanderer
Copyright © 2000 by Paul J. Stam
All rights reserved