John Parkin

Arthur Dickens, my Dad, and grandson of Old John Dickens, was frequently assailed by his grandchildren for tales of: “What did you do in the War, Grandad?”

Dad, naturally, loved it and told many tales of great derring-do and others; frequently making them up as he went along. He had six grandsons. My brother Tony and his wife Jean contributed three, as did Quintin and me. There were also four granddaughters from Felicity and Nicky and the girls, too, loved to join in the fun and games.  

Of them all, my son John, was the most impressionable, followed closely by Michael. Kevin, the youngest, was asthmatic and alternated between an oxygen tent in hospital or at home in bed with a book. He became an avid reader which is not surprising and outgrew his asthma which is surprising after many close calls, but obviously a relief all round.

When the whole family got together, Dad would put on his pith helmet and swing his cane and line them all up in front of him.  'Shoulders back. Heads up.. Arms at your sides ... and put your thinking caps on!'

He told them his name was O’Grady. Captain O’Grady and they had to obey O’Grady to the letter. If Grandad told them to ‘March!’ and they marched, they would get a bad mark and would be disciplined.  They could only march if he said the magic name: 'O’Grady'. He explained that in real war-time, soldiers could never afford to be disobedient because if they didn't follow their officers, they would get killed.

So, the game would start, probably with Dad eyeing them up and down and saluting them smartly.They would salute back. Then Dad would bark like a Sergeant-Major: ‘O’Grady says: Mark time!’ The children would mark time, then Dad would shout: ‘Stop!’ Most times, they would all come to a stop and Capt. O’Grady would roll his eyes and whoosh his cane in the air.

‘Did O’Grady tell you to stop?’ he’d ask.

‘No-o-o-o, Grandad!’

‘I am not Grandad. I am Captain O’Grady and you have to obey your Captain. You’re in the Army now!’

And so it went.  Left, right, left right. Mark time. Halt! O’Grady says this and O’Grady says that. Round and around the house they'd march.They all took it seriously. They held their Grandpa in great esteem but every now and then the girls would giggle until O’Grady would intervene and tell them that O’Grady says they must pull themselves together or they would be reported to the Head of the Army.

Time came when O’Grady started saying: ‘At ease’, a little more often than before until, eventually, O'Grady would sigh wearily and tell them to 'Dismiss!' The children would all stand still until Grandad got the message.

'Right!  O'Grady says: Dis-miss!'

Grandad would smile and tell them they would make good soldiers and he would amble, a tad breathlessly, into the house, hoping tea-time would be a little earlier that day.

Sometimes, even the parents joined in which really got O'Grady in a tizz cos O'Grady's offspring were not as in awe of him as were their children, and things could get out of hand with all the backchat to and fro. It was great fun. It was also the root of what made my son John the soldier he was to become.

           Port Elizabeth circa 1966 - The Neighbourhood Watch!

Clearly, the Leader and the Troop bringing up the rear are soldiers to the manner born! John in front and Michael at back. I doubt that the chap directly behind John was Kevin but if it was, he wouldn't be trying to shoot; he would more likely be telling them all that he could see the man in the moon, at which remark, John would tell him to go back to the house and do his homework.

John and Mike would gather children from anywhere in the neighbourhood, and into the streets they would spill. John made this box-thing – heaven only knows what its purpose was; probably to hold all the spare guns and ammunition - and it made a terrible noise being dragged up the road and down. We could also hear him from afar; oftentimes shouting: ‘O’Grady says shoot, aim, fire!'

John, more than Mike or anyone else, was determined to be a soldier like his Grandad. The qualities needed were always in evidence. When John was in his early teens, he started running. But John never just ran. He ran with dedication; with a stop-watch and time-record book. He would go off early in the morning before school and again in the evening; always returning breathless; not uttering a word until he had noted down his times. He was a Victor Ludorum winner in prep. school.

Brakpan High School - 1976

When he was 18, John was offered a sports bursary by Rhodes University in Grahamstown but he turned it down. He still wanted to join the army and become an officer 'like Grandad'.

Times were hard for everyone in South Africa at that time. We lived under a rigid Government; Calvinistic in attitude and convinced that they were doing the right thing for the country. They saw Communists under every bed and instilled a fear into us that if our boys did not go after them, even in another country, we would all pay the price.

People with means in those days, are today 'noble' and satisfied that they 'did the right thing' by sending their children out of the country; or to University or any other reason to prevent their sons from being called up. The present Government (A.N.C.) admires and respects those that didn't serve, as it signifies their 'patriotism'. Many of us are frequently reminded of the Vietnam vets who returned to a country who thought little of them; never mind that they had been prepared to give their lives for their country, right or wrong. Was that not patriotism? Likewise, if our South African young men had no opportunistic or financial means of getting out of it, they went one way. To prison. We lived in trepidation, waiting for call-up papers in the hope that somehow our sons had escaped.

What many people don't understand is that neither the young soldiers nor their parents had any very real idea of what the 'war' against the South West African Peoples' Organisation was all about, except that it was riddled with Communists and from Cuba, at that!  Real communists. That we were fearful goes without saying.And in many ways, ignorant. Fearful, yet hopeful. But ignorant to a great extent. We were, nonetheless, proud of our sons; we saw them as patriotic - obeying their superiors and doing what was expected of them, just as in any other conflict in the world.

A further complication was the fact that we had no television and the daily radio news and press reports were heavily slanted or severely censored. Even today, there are times when I am surprised and shocked when learning some of the dreadful things that were going on at that time. On both sides.

So John joined the Army and was sent down to Grahamstown; ironic when that is where he would've gone to pursue the sports bursary he had been awarded.

He wasn't there long, when the camp was visited by paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein; on the hunt for volunteers. I imagine John's hand was one of the first to go up. I begged him to just stick to the Infantry. He was as stubborn as he was determined.  In a matter of days, he was sent off to Oudtshoorn to complete a one year Officer Training Course. I flew down to be with him when he passed out. He had achieved the first part of his heart's desire.

                                     Oudtshoorn - 1977

Alas, within six months of each other, both his father and his grandfather died. His father Quintin at age 45 of cancer and his grandad at 79 of an aneurism. So John never had the satisfaction that he had wanted so much; to prove to his grandfather that he could do it too.

Back to the 'bats as the paratroopers were called, where he did his first jumps on that horrible jumping machine. I hated it and wanted my son back home. But he was in his element; looking forward to his first night jump into water.

In the meantime, my next 'offering' was ready and Michael was sent to Hoedspruit as a guard and dog handler in the Air Force; protecting the airfield. He attained the rank of Corporal but complained bitterly as there was nothing to do and, like so many other young men, they hated their army experience.

Two years later, Kevin followed on, and had his jaw broken twice in succession by thugs who believed in brute force. I had to intervene; I wrote to the Chaplain General and told him things he never knew and both Mike and Kevin were seconded to Air Force Headquarters in Pretoria. I felt I had enough on my mind with John now deeply involved in border warfare. The boys did not approve of my interference at all but I felt the Army was lucky to have even one of my sons and if I could've had my way I would, personally, have knocked the teeth out of the type of thug which every Army could well do without.

At that time, too, there was always the concern for our sons coming home for a weekend. Those were the awful hitch-hiking days. Or nights. At any time of day or night I would receive a phone call that they were on their way. John could've been coming from Bloemfontein in the Free State. Michael and Kevin from Pretoria. At different times. On different days. All needing lifts. And there was nothing I could do. I hated going out at night; I was, frankly, terrified. With no husband to help do the necessary, it was nervewracking until they were safely home. And then when they left to go back, it started all over again.There were many, many mothers and parents in the same position.

Stories came out from the border about this young man having been killed in action and that one. Yes, like so many wars before this one. This was the way and, like all mothers, I hated it. I lived on my nerves; always worrying, especially about John who was continuously in and out of Angola, Namibia and other places I don't even want to talk about.

Back home, we were all becoming more and more aware of the dreadful manner in which the local people were being treated and, contrary to Government policy, several wives and mothers formed 'cells' where we would hide the indigenous people from the police. It almost became a game. When we spotted the Black Mariah, phones would ring from one house to another to get the word out and get our domestic workers 'tucked away' so the police couldn't find them. I expect with my Irish genes to blame for everything, I was obstructive and made issues whenever I saw anything blatantly unfair, or unnecessarily harsh treatment of people who were 'wrong' simply by being there.We saw abhorrent behaviour and there was friction between the white language groups.

There was a particular incident when John came home on a weekend pass when I was truly amazed and enormously proud. We were standing outside a shop, chatting to friends when over the road we all observed a white man push a black man off his bicycle. When the black man bent to pick up the bike, the other chap pushed him again. Without saying a word, John who, was in combat with black people, strode across and picked up the bike for the black chap and said to the other man: 'Leave him alone. He didn't do anything to you'. I have never been more proud of anyone. We all knew how our sons had been indoctrinated by the Army but I couldn't get over knowing that John had survived the most brutal effects of that indoctrination.

But life went on ... tension in the country was palpable at the best of times. Newspapers proclaimed South African 'victories' whilst parents wondered who the enemy was. We hated our sons being involved in what we were daily seeing as an unjust war but we had no option. It was every mother's daily nightmare; especially those who were single; with no one to turn to for reassurance, at the very least.

For all that, John loved army life. He loved the discipline, the organisation; the whole military aspect of being a soldier and was highly respected throughout his army career. It was said that he had a strong personality with a tendency not to suffer lack of performance by anyone. It was also said that he led by example and that he never failed in initiative or any other such quality. He was top of the pops. He didn't see himself like this. He was, as he always said, 'just doing my job'.  A job he took very seriously.

Ondangwa, Namibia

He once told me that after all his forays into the bush as a platoon leader, not one of his men had ever lost a life. Injuries plenty, but no lives lost. This was put down to his highly disciplined methods of training. His grandfather, O'Grady, had done his work well:  'If you don't obey, you get killed'.

He did tell me, years later, that there was a quiet time in the bush when he was sitting with his back against a tree, not anticipating any action, when a bullet whizzed by and hit the tree just centimetres from his head. I was pleased he hadn't told me at the time.


      John - 2nd from Left                             All Dugged Out!

                                                 Going Batty!

The first indication that I really and truly had something to worry about was the day when I received a phone call from John: 'Mom, I have good news and bad news'.

'Give me the bad news first, Johnny, cos after that it can only be good'.
'I was nearly killed.....'  I froze.
'...and the good news is I'm going to get a medal'.
I told him to tell the Army to stick their medal and send him home at once.

In the meantime, I had just met and married Les, a Londoner by birth; and by mirth. He was a most amusing man; bringing light relief with him wherever he went. He made my life much easier in those difficult days and, sadly, like the boys' father, Quintin, he, too, did not live to old age, and passed away at only 62. 

Capt. John Parkin, H.C. - Medal Parade

Later, the national newspaper, The Star, reported:

"An Air Force officer, shot down over enemy positions in October 1979, owes his life primarily to six young paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion, based at Bloemfontein.

Their bravery will be acknowledged on Friday, when each receive the Honoris Crux.

The six are: Lt. John Parkin, Rfn. Ben Mare, Rfn. Brian Jeremy Gibson, Rfn Albertus de Lange, Rfn.Brian Southey and Rfn.Christopher Neil McNamara.

Their citations say that the incident occurred in October 1979, when the pilot of an Impala jet ejected after being hit by ground fire, landing 200m from strong enemy positions.

A search and rescue team, of which the six were part, landed by helicopter near the pilot's parachute.

The South Africans were subjected to heavy fire, but engaged the enemy and managed to neutralise their fire to such an extent that the pilot could be found and the helicopter, which was airborne again, brought in for a second landing.

Under constant fire from the enemy, the pilot was carried and put aboard the helicopter, which was hit on numerous occasions. Rfn. Gibson was seriously wounded.

The determined and courageous conduct of the six prevented the enemy from capturing or killing the pilot, which could have happened within minutes.

The pilot and flight engineer of the Puma helicopter - Maj. Paul Everard Kruger and Sgt. Siegfried Hoebel, also received Honoris Crux medals."

Not Enough!

An Army man to the core, John wasn't in the least put off by this event and signed up for the Citizen Force which meant even more bush camps. He did eight more years, before deciding that it was time he got involved in some serious girl-talk. He'd spotted his future wife, Lolly, who was moonlighting at a restaurant when he was on a weekend pass.Thanks to them, I have three wonderful grandchildren and a beautiful little great-granddaughter.

My Boys

From signing up as a rookie, John walked out twelve years later after having been A Company Commander, 3 Parachute Battalion for a number of years.

Apart from all the military generations past, I can't help feeling that Capt. John Dickens would've been very proud of his latest warrior: his great-great-grandson, Capt. John Parkin, H.C.

After all that gung-ho stuff, to see him with his little granddaughter is like being enveloped by the breath of angels; so gentle and sweet. Could this be the same man?

                           John and Granddaughter Hailey

As a result of the dark days of the border war, I was inspired to write this little poem which has appeared in many publications. I imagine it to reflect similar thoughts and feelings of every war-time mother, since the beginning of time.

Yesterday Child

Oh, wow, Johnny boy:
My yesterday child...
Standing tall in army browns
and newly-winged beret.
I wanted to rush up and hug you
right there and then
in front of the Brigadier
your buddies
and a million
denim-eyed troops.
But I knew you wouldn't approve
So I just pocketed my hands
and buried the threads of my sighs
in your boots
and carefully laced them
in taut military style:
with no ends exposed.

Yes, I am unashamedly soppy but, to compensate, here's a photograph of a never-say-die adventurer with his sons, Gregory and Kevin, setting off to conquer the notoriously rocky and treacherous Van Zyl's Pass in Namibia, circa 2004, complete with trailer attached. John wouldn't dream of doing anything the easy way.

John and family on Poppy Day at King Edward's School, Johannesburg, some years ago:

    And bi-bi from......

WWI Flying Ace Biggles & Mommy Biggles

Post Script:

In 2006 - John and elder son Gregory won the Captain Morgan's Adventure Challenge and with a trophy of a quite different nature! It can now be said of him that he has a well-rounded personality.


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