For a number of reasons, round about this week every year, I share this life-changing experience… writes Trevor Romain. One reason I post it annually is so that I remember to read it again because it’s something I don’t ever want to forget:
It happened a long time ago.
A time when people actually did what they said they were going to do. I was driving along a dirt road in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa with my girlfriend.
In the distance I noticed a speck on the horizon. A speck that would teach me something that, until then, I did not know even existed.
I know it’s a big word and hard to explain but I will try none the less.
You see, that speck on the horizon was a very old, toothless, African man with a white beard, riding an old bicycle.
I slowed down so that I didn’t spew dust all over the poor old guy.
I waved at him and he waved back as we passed. His smile was wonderfully warm and friendly. He looked about eighty and way too old to be driving a bicycle.
I watched him in my rear view and then looked up to see a bakkie (pick-up truck) coming toward me at full speed. It was moving very quickly. There was a dust cloud billowing behind it.
As the truck passed me I saw three young guys in the front seat. One of them had a Lion lager in his hand. (I’m embarrassed to say but I could spot a Lion Lager beer from a mile away. That’s something I learned in the army.)
I glanced at my rear view and my heart almost stopped. The driver of the bakkie was heading straight for the old man on the bicycle. I saw the old guy look nervously over his shoulder as the vehicle came up from behind.
I closed my eyes because I knew that they were going to try and dislodge him from his bicycle.
I opened my eyes and saw them swerving towards him and missing him by inches. I could also see them gesticulating and shouting at the man as they drove past.
The old man wobbled on that bike and I saw him drive off the road and crash down a little ditch.
I slowed down and turned the car around.
I got to the old man and he was sitting down in the veld rubbing his knee. The front wheel of his bike was buckled and bent.
The old man looked so sad. “Haai eh-eh,” he said, shaking his head. “What is wrong with those kids?”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I am, ” he replied. “It is just my heart that is sore.”
He told us he was a gardener at the Champagne Castle Hotel and was on his way to work.
I put his bicycle in the trunk of the car and we took him to the hotel, which was about three or four miles away. Apparently he drove his rattletrap bike to work every day rain or shine.
As we were leaving, I gave the man about forty rand in cash that I had in my wallet and a few rand my girlfriend had in her purse. “It’s to fix your bike,” I said.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, “I can’t take your money.”
My girlfriend told him to take the money because I was just going to use it to buy drinks and get drunk anyway.
The old man chuckled and told me I had a wise girlfriend. “I will pay you back,” he said, smiling sincerely.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You don’t have to.”
But he insisted that I give him my address and I did so on a little scrap of paper, knowing that he would lose it in about ten seconds.
Needless to say I had the resources to find more beer money. And my girlfriend and I had great weekend in the mountains and I forgot about the old man.
The scuffed and wrinkled white envelope arrived at my little flat in Sandringham, Johannesburg, one month later.
In it was a one Rand note! (Equivalent to about a dollar in those days.)
Yes the old man did what he said he was going to do.
I swear, at the end of every month, an envelope arrived with a one Rand note in it. No letter, no return address, just the money the old man promised to pay me back.
I was in advertising in those days and a little over a year later I went back to the Drakensberg to shoot another television commercial.
The filming took place very close to where that old man had fallen off his bike and I decided to go and find him and to tell him he didn’t need to send me the money every month because I was doing fine.
I found out that he had retired from the hotel. They told me that he lived in the village near where I first saw him and they told me where his place was.
My art director and I went to his home. It was exactly what you’d imagine. A thatched mud hut with missing windowpanes covered in Spar plastic shopping bags to keep the wind out.
An old African granny with gray hair answered the door. She had a doek (scarf) on her head that was tied under her chin like people used to in the olden days when they had toothache.
Inside the hut, the floor was hardened mud and swept clean. There was a primus stove, a galvanized tub with a bar of sunlight soap in it, a rickety old table with a clean cloth on it, a little cupboard and a bed with white sheets on bricks.
It was spotless.
The bar of Sunlight Soap was the only thing of colour in the entire place. I have such a clear vision of that bar of soap. I can see it in my mind when I close my eyes.
Other than those few items the place was spare.
The woman was the old man’s wife.
I asked if he was around so I could tell him that he didn’t have to pay the money back to me.
What she told me stopped me cold.
The old man had died six months before and she had continued paying his debt.
I was stunned. She had nothing. Absolutely NOTHING! Yet she was doing what she considered was the right thing. Paying their debt back as promised.
She kept his word. She continued sending me money every month despite the fact that her husband had died and she was dirt poor.
I told her I didn’t need the money and gave her a little more that I had in my pocket.
She was so grateful and would not stop hugging me.
As we walked away from the old man’s home, I turned around and saw his bicycle leaning against the side of the hut.
By Trevor Romain
If you have a story about your youth that you’d like to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org