Everybody has a special place; a place that one calls home. For the McCleland’s it was 57 Mowbray Street, Newton Park, Port Elizabeth. It was nothing special; just a normal middle class rectangular house without any pretensions of greatness, grandiosity or style. But what it did possess was not character but some unique features which will forever be remembered by the family and associated with our home.
Main picture: The diamond shaped window panels of the patio
Our father must have purchased the house in the early 1950s. My parents got married in 1952 and I was born in 1953. Producing children post haste must have been a priority because dad was almost 41 years old on their wedding day.
Instead of the poky tiny bedrooms that most houses have today, these had ample room. Of the three “features” which make this house unique, all three were unusual: the veranda, the teak gates and the overgrown hedge. All might seem to be a peculiar aspect to warrant mention, but in each case, in their own way, they differentiated the McCleland’s house from that of its neighbours.
Very few contemporary photos survive of the original house. A number of photos were taken when it went on sale in 1991 sans the original teak gates which Blaine had already purloined. Likewise there are no extant photographs of that huge overgrown honeysuckle hedge which was the residence of countless birds such as the Knysna Loerie.
A diamond-studded veranda
Being a builder by trade, my dad decided to improve the house by enclosing the stoep with diamond studded windows. All houses of that era had a small patio protruding from the front door normally only sufficient to keep the visitors dry. Instead the original puny porch was extended into the front yard. Instead of an alfresco stoep, one could now, if one so desired, enjoy English tea and cucumber sandwiches while watching the traffic pass by.
The Hedge: Fort B
Written by Blaine McCleland
Boys love forts. Give them a few planks and a barrel and, voila, they make a fort and proceed to declare war on the world. Bush must have been big on forts but this story is about a hedge and not a bush.
The hedge across the back of our backyard was a … I don’t know, but it was large, untamed and had reddish flowers. We never had any use for it except Dad. If he got really angry with us he would whip off his belt and hit us. If our punishment was not related to an immediate anger, such as when Mom told him how naughty we had been during the day, he would sometimes go to the hedge and cut himself a nice whippy branch. He did not discriminate so Cheryl got her fair share too. He didn’t do it much hence it held no special terrors for us. It was just an untamed blot on the gardenscape throughout our lives there.
One day the Miller kids and I were playing in the Stirk’s Tree That Dare Not Speak Its Name when someone got the bright idea to throw a large plank on top. When we jumped up and down on it, it sank to a satisfying 2 or 3 feet below the top hereby making an ideal parapet wall in front for a fort. Possibilities opened up and we got hold of garden clippers and cut out a vertical hole in the middle of the hedge. Next a ‘clubhouse’ was cut out at the bottom and a rudimentary ladder fitted. We were Secure in Comfort. We declared it an ideal fort as it was impregnable, private and really secret. As kids are wont to do, we soon tired of our fort because there no one to battle with and there were no intrigues that we could plot.
A year went by and a particularly slow day found the Millers and me climbing the tree. Andrew and Keith were there and even Duncan, the youngest. We decided to play in the fort again. Andrew and I climbed inside and cleared away the cobwebs and made ourselves comfortable. Keith came in too and Duncan kept skei on top. We were chit chatting away when flies started buzzing us and for a while we just swatted them away. We didn’t worry until we realised that they were bees and quite angry too by now. They formed up in squadrons and made aerial strafing runs at us. We were overwhelmed by superior forces and sounded a hasty and ignominious retreat from our stronghold. We rapidly squeezed out of there. Being last out, the bees were really swarming by then so I just jumped straight over the parapet and crashed 8 to 10 feet below and cravenly ran into the house swatting at my head and clothing. We were all stung and, being last out, I counted six bee stings on myself.
That was Fort B. Our impregnable fort had succumbed to the invader from within and was never used again.
Dad the Carpenter I: Gates of Purgatory
Written by Blaine McCleland
I think Dad was a qualified carpenter before he studied the building trade after the War, but I’m not sure of his qualifications. [Yes,, he was. He did his apprenticeship at Murray & Strewards as it was then known] When I say carpenter, one must understand that he would be a master cabinet maker today. He only ever owned one power tool and that was a little Desoutter drill of about 250W. I counted that he had nine wood planes. There were two planes that fascinated me. One was the router that came in a dovetailed wooden box. Accompanying it were a whole lot of different pieces, guides and about 30 differently sculpted plane blades for every conceivable edge feature. I loved assembling it, tightening all the wingnuts and then taking it apart. I could never use it and still can’t. I’ll stick to my Makita although it’s noisier. The other intriguing plane was an adjustable curvature plane. It had a flexible base and by turning a central knob, the base could be changed from concave to convex. This remarkable plane will feature again later.
I never knew what became of it. I know what became of the router though. The termites got it. After Dad died I took all his tools, if not by right then by force majeure. They were in a large wooden tool box that Dad had during the war. I was living in the ‘Transvaal’ with Pat in a small cottage so it lived on the patio under plastic. That kept out the rain but not the termites. The box had been used for my tape deck and turntable in the old days and so a hole had been cut in it for cables. The termites decided that the box was nice and dry and proceeded to make a large saliva hardened mud nest inside and had cleverly incorporated the tools into their home decor. Needless to say, the beautiful router box was destroyed – I suppose they needed firewood for the cold Highveld winter. The tools were variously corroded but the router came off worst. I refurbished it as best I could and it now resides in pride of place in a shoebox in the garage. I was, and still am, mortified. I did what the Taliban and ISIS are doing to the great historical artefacts.
He made a beautiful cot, panelled wardrobe, various pot plant stands and tables. Teak was used throughout which has led to my lifelong love for teak. His achievement that stands head and shoulders above the rest was the driveway gates. This feat was a testimony to the fact that my generation had it easy. It was a live demonstration of an ox like determination to do what has to be done no matter how arduous.
Each gate would comprise two vertical and two horizontal beams tenon jointed in a rectangle. Each beam was about 50x 125mm. Vertical slats of 25x50mm, spaced about 120mm apart were to be tenon jointed to the top and bottom beams. To make the exercise more interesting, the slats were to be capped by trapezium shaped strips front and back. All these were to be cut from old distressed sleepers of about 125x250x2100mm which he had collected and stored in the rack under the garage ceiling.
A normal human would have had at least some of the basic sizes ripped by machine somewhere. He must have known someone in the building trade to help out. Not Dad, he must have been doing some unknown penance. He set to it with a will every Saturday.
That rip saw would go, “voopah, voopah, voopah” just like Bill Crosby used to say in his Noah sketch. In Cosby’s joke there would be a “ping” after three voopah’s when God wanted to gives instructions or encouragement. Dad had no use for God and didn’t need instructions. There was just this remorseless, “voopah, voopah, voopah”. Maybe he used to mutter epithets under his breath to keep going. But then again I don’t know what epithets he would have used. I only ever heard him say “bloody” when assailed by Mormons while he was weeding the front lawn on Saturdays.
After a certain number of voopahs, the saw would be clamped in a jig, each tooth sharpened with a file, their angles reset and it was back to the voopahs. In the modern milieu I am a skilled DIY carpenter but cannot cut through a 50mm thick piece of wood without the cut on the far side wandering off after 100mm. How do you cut through 125mm thick wood over 2100mm?
The gates were eventually finished and installed in the driveway. The house looked very smart. After a few months Dad realised that it was a real hassle opening and closing gates and so they stood open.
I always coveted those gates for the sheer Pyrrhic effort and I got Cheryl to bring them to the Transvaal on her roof racks after Dad’s death. I made a nice curved entrance wall with integral flowerbeds and I installed them at my smallholding, Plot 1, Crowthorne. They stood open. When I sold the house three years later I forgot to exclude the damn gates. After listening to my sob story the buyer initially demurred because that was one thing that his wife had noticed but eventually agreed to sell them back to me for R500 (That was a lot of money in 1987).
They were transported to Cape Town and they briefly made a cameo appearance when I leased a vacant erf next to my house in Somerset West. When I moved out of that house they went into storage for about 18 years as there was just no use for hip-high driveway gates in the modern South Africa. When I eventually sold up in Somerset West I gave up on them and put them down – just joking. They were still in remarkably good condition and just needed a good home. I hope they got it.