Childhood Shorts – Chapter 31: Hartmann Hill Sheriff
Childhood Shorts – Chapter 31: Hartmann Hill Sheriff
January 01, 2020

Among the films daddy brought home during the 1980s, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) was probably the first in the cowboy genre we ever watched on VCR. Just for that reason, we played it repeatedly. John Wayne’s character, J.D. Cahill, is a lawman of incorruptible integrity and saddlebags of style. His true north is justice and his life’s work is bringing the purveyors of wrongdoing squarely to their knees.

In the opening scene, Cahill is quickly established as courageous and cavalier. We see the hooves of his horse plant and uproot themselves gracefully in the snowy bed of a covered path. He is somewhere in the woods, striding confidently into the campsite of a band of bandits. The camera brings him into focus. His brown leather boots sit firmly in the stirrups of the chestnut stallion he rides. Reins are in his left hand, and a shotgun is cradled in his right. It leans from his waist at an angle acute, with double barrels stationed, silently saluting the sky. His fingers rest in brown leather gloves, and a fashionable double-breasted tan coat covers his torso. Around his neck is wrapped a kerchief, and what looks like a deep brown Stenson coolly crowns his brow. Cahill retrieves a star-shaped metal badge and affixes it to his coat. It is engraved with the words “U.S. Marshall,” and he taps it twice as he informs the outlaws of his intention to make an arrest. A volley of bullets follows the volley of words. The action freezes as the soundtrack, A Man Gets to Thinkin’, bursts in, and the opening credits begin to roll. You get the idea Cahill is calmly in control.

Perhaps of his job, but certainly not of his boys. While Cahill is away, as he is frequently, his two sons, Danny and Billie Joe, get mixed up with the wrong crowd. They find themselves accessories to a bank robbery and the murder of the local sheriff. An ill-conceived decision on their part. Influenced by bad actors, yes, but fueled largely by Danny’s frustrated feelings of abandonment by his father. This is an act of rebellion, a direct slap in the face, a symbol of Danny’s rejection of J.D.’s authority. Billy Joe is complicit, but only by virtue of being the much younger sibling trying to look out for his older brother. Not because of any resentment toward his father.

Cahill is not the very best of John Wayne’s films, but it resonated deeply with us on several levels. The movie serves as a cautionary tale for young boys and offers a series of both transparent and obscure messages. Firstly, children should not join gangs or rob banks. Especially if their father is not a U.S. Marshall who can scoop in and rescue them from the bad guys. Secondly, getting the sheriff killed is neither an appropriate way nor a proportionate means to express youthful angst. Thirdly, fathers should strive to achieve balance between the call of their careers and the mandate of parenthood. Fourthly, brothers should stay together through thick and thin. They should be each other’s keepers and find ways to defend one another from trouble and from foolishness.

Danny and Billy Joe present beautiful portrayals of this fourth principle at several points in the film. At the beginning, we see Billy Joe trying to talk his brother out of the huge mistake he knows they are about to make. Failing to convince him, Billy Joe buys time in hope that Danny will come to his senses.

Billy Joe’s faithfulness is reciprocated as Danny stays by his side and tends to his needs when he falls sick with pneumonia. Danny even stands up to the lead villain, Fraser, who breaks into their room at night during a thunderstorm and threatens Billy Joe’s life. Danny further hatches up a plan to get them both out of the clutches of the gangsters, to give their share of the money back, and to confess their crimes to the authorities. Danny saves Billy Joe’s life, and Billy Joe plays a huge role in Danny’s repentance and redemption.

Bongai and I admired Danny and Billie Joe. Their bond reflected ours as we were deeply committed to each other. It was so throughout our early childhood and into our preteen years. After primary school, however, the fabric of our mutual reliance gradually began to fray, lacerated largely by choices I made and allegiances I forged that left my brother exposed.

I started at St. George’s in 1986. Bongai followed four years later in 1990. Being a student at St. George’s was both stretching and engaging, a tribute to the eclectic, yet committed cohort of staff members who tended to our development. Among them were those we revered for their brilliance. Father Ross was our mad-scientist of a mathematician. Mr. Pugh, our English teacher, was a pedagogical spitting image of Robin Williams’ John Keating from Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Tiernan was our Latin teacher. He made learning the language such dynamic fun.

There were also those we admired for their investment in our wellbeing. Mrs. McLoughlin, the French teacher, was doting and affectionate. Mr. Katsukunya gave himself fully to geography so that his very body became a compass and his classroom a chartable globe. Mr. Ajello simplified the complexity of physics for us. Mrs. Poulos allowed us to dissect frogs. Mr. Chigaadzira organized our soccer teams and made us laugh with all his wonderful turns of phrase as he creatively indigenized much of the Queen’s English.

There were others too. Some we loved, some we tolerated, and some we tried to make quit. But one staff member was in a category of his own. His role and the way he carried it out struck fear in the heart of every single student. His reputation was such that we seldom used his actual name. Instead, we mostly called him “Jets.”

Now, it was better to see Jets from a distance than not see him at all. You were at your most vulnerable when you did not know where he was. We had a code, a survival system of sorts, a pact to alert each other as students if ever we caught wind that Jets was on the prowl. There were hand signals, winks, nods, and other gestures. Fake coughs, whistles, screams, and other covert and camouflaged messages were also incorporated when necessary. If you crossed paths with Jets, it was best not to make eye contact, and better yet not to speak. For, his eyes were steely and intimidating, capable of causing nerve-induced mishaps that might result in some errant statement or other self-incriminating confession. This was serious business. Jets was serious business. He was the director of discipline at St. George’s College. In some ways, by proxy and proximity, that made him a type of father figure to us all whether we thought of him that way or not.

Jets was a man of stature. Thick set, but not overweight. Strong looking, but not muscle-bound. He had the type of physical presence that comes from a wiry, active, and persistent life. He was old Rhodesia. You could tell. Even the wrinkles on his face were difficult to look at. It was as if each one had been wrought in place by some horrific event. Something either experienced or precipitated by him. He had Veldskoens on his feet sometimes, or boat shoes, or sneakers that were brown. His trousers, baggy and oversized, were khaki when more casual, and russet and pleated when not. He wore long-sleeve shirts, a plaid collection mostly, of green and brown or blue and chocolate patterns interspersed with white. Whenever the heat demanded, he donned a polo shirt from a set that was frequently also brown, or some other dark-looking hue. For headgear, a floppy boonie hat was his choice and, at times, a military-style slouch. In either case, it was coffee or tan, the crest of his earth-tone pallet.

You could hear Jets when he approached and smell him in his wake. His brown belt dangled a jangle of keys that bell-rang whenever he walked. His chain-smoking effluence, intermingling with the breeze, left a trail of pungent tobacco. His gait was that of a cowboy and his confidence, of a lawman to boot. He carried with him the weapons of retribution that made everyone cradle in fear. You got the feeling he was made for this work, to terrorize boys, and discipline teens, and make the school function in lockstep.

His punishment protocol was plain, composed of feds and cuts. Feds for fingers and the palm of your hands. Cuts for the flesh on your butts. He might administer feds in public, but cuts were a private affair. They mostly took place above the gym in the heart of his dungeon-like lair, his office. There, he kept his collection of canes made all of bamboo, thin and polished. The thwacking they gave would leave lines on your skin, that would sting much long after he had finished. With Jets, judgment came in multiples of two, two feds or cuts, up to six, usually four. Feds were apportioned quite equitably, each hand earning at least half of the score. For feds, he had a paddle, a breadboard of sorts with a handle. Down it would come on your back-arching palm with a force that could blow out a candle. For cuts, he would demand you lean over a chair, as he limbered his cane for its work. There was not a child that he did not scare, not a boy that did not think him a jerk. Like it or not, whether he loved it or not, this was the call of his gig. To “go get ‘em”, whenever we students transgressed, was his mandate and, therefore, he did.

Related Posts

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 38: Greater Glory

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 38: Greater Glory

Aside from the title, any writing assignment we did at St. George’s College required inclusion of the date and the initialism A.M.D.G. (abbreviation for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam). The latter was a reminder for us boys. A prompt to help us put into practice a foundational principle of our school community.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 37: Man in the Window

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 37: Man in the Window

Mommy was nowhere to be seen. But a group of orderlies rushed out to the parking lot. They took hold of the man and ushered him into the building, back to the solitary confinement of his ward. Our chests were still heaving when mommy finally returned.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 36: Latchcar Kids

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 36: Latchcar Kids

I spent a good portion of my early childhood in the car. Babysitting options were rather limited back then and we were too young to stay home alone. Mommy therefore took us everywhere. On visits to see friends, to appointments, and on her various tours of chores.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 35: The Beast

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 35: The Beast

I continued to prioritize basketball even after I completed high school. Zimbabwe had a budding men’s league that boasted competitive teams. I first joined Hellenics Basketball Club where Sludge and a few other St. George’s College graduates were playing.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 34: Gone to the Dogs

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 34: Gone to the Dogs

Ross once told me it was possible to die from breathing in a single strand of a dog’s fur. I believed him. Not because it was necessarily true, but because Ross was the one who had said it. When he wanted to, the kid could be awfully convincing.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 33: Puppy Love

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 33: Puppy Love

How could I not fall for her? She was gorgeous. I loved her from the first moment I set eyes on her. She was shy and a little timid in her surroundings. But I think she noticed I was smiling and that helped her settle.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 32: School Police

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 32: School Police

Jets was not alone in the execution of discipline. He had help from prefects. Prefects were deputized agents of the school’s system of control. They were a small body of boys from the sixth-form (twelfth-grade) called out to preside as watchmen over the broader student body.

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 30: The Real Fall Guys

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 30: The Real Fall Guys

(Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash) There is a chorus of crickets and frogs, and other creatures as well. Its sounds pierce the silence of night just as the light of the new day begins to perforate the darkness. The calls are joined by the noises of birds, and of...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 29: The Good Old Days

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 29: The Good Old Days

Our starting point guard was Clive Rugara, a wizard with the ball in his hands. For a guy who shuffled his feet, Clive was super-fast on the dribble. He had a Magic Johnson type of game. It came with full-court vision that spanned 365 degrees. Clive could see...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 28: Ting, Ting. Round One

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 28: Ting, Ting. Round One

Two separate walls of cheering students flanked the basketball court where the final game would be played. On one side, an army of red blazers. On the other, a battalion of purple blazers. Between them, air that was thick with tension, excitement, and anticipation....

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 27: Rise of the Wolf Pack

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 27: Rise of the Wolf Pack

The shift from “Saints Basketball” to “Saints Wolves” was subtle. But for us schoolboys, it was a micro-reflection of the sentiment that had captured the nation in 1980 when the country's name changed from “Rhodesia” to “Zimbabwe.” In 1991, we broke the seal on our...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 26: A Bullish Makeover

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 26: A Bullish Makeover

If you were a basketball fan from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, you either loved or you hated Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The NBA third draft pick behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie, Jordan joined the league from North Carolina in 1984. His entry into...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 25: One Basket, All Eggs

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 25: One Basket, All Eggs

(Photo by Autumn Mott Rodeheaver on Unsplash) At St. John’s Prep., I was a relatively big fish in a small pond. When I arrived at St. George’s College, I realized that I was a rather minute tadpole in a significantly larger body of water. The pool of talent was...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 24: Hustle and Grow

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 24: Hustle and Grow

(Photo by TJ Dragotta on Unsplash) “Again.” Salty streams of sticky sweat slipped and swept along my brow. Dripped and dropped their drenching dew, down my eyelids and through my lashes. They irritated with their splashes the saline surface of my corneas. “Again.”...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 23: Unfinished Business

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 23: Unfinished Business

Although only sixteen years old in 1986, Sludge emerged as the top scorer on the first team. He amassed a total of 214 points by the last whistle of the final game. He brought a different level of skill, flair, confidence, and style to the play of Saints basketball....

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 22: Finding Nemesis

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 22: Finding Nemesis

(Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash) Vernon Williams pulled up at the three point line, to the right of the top of the key. He pump-faked. But the defender was too experienced to take the bait. The guy stayed planted, doing exactly what his coach had instructed....

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 21: Homies R Bad.d

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 21: Homies R Bad.d

(Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash) “Ask me what I’m doing!” “What?” “I said, ask me what I’m doing.” “Ok, Jerry. What you doing?” “Me? Just minding my business.” “Great.” “Now, ask me what my business is.” “Come on, man. I’ve got better things to do.” “No. Ask me...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 20: Fly Guys, Fly Girls

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 20: Fly Guys, Fly Girls

(Photo by Melody Jacob on Unsplash) Post-colonial colorism also made dating complicated. At the top of the girlfriend wishlist of every teenage schoolboy was a musikana mutsvuku (light-skinned girl). Even among us bantu-black sub-Saharan Africans, melanin, or too much...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 19: Wannabees and MaNose

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 19: Wannabees and MaNose

(Photo by Calvin Lupiya on Unsplash) The 1980s were difficult if you had no rhythm, but brutal if you had no style. If you fell into the unfortunate category where both were true, then staying asleep would probably have been the safest way to get through the decade...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 18: How Many Left Feet?

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 18: How Many Left Feet?

(Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash) Before the end of my first year at St. George’s College, I was grafted into a small, gritty, and eclectic posse of boys. Tavona Chihambakwe, Garikai Maphosa, Nelesh Gulab, and Vusimusi Nondo. We were bonded together by our compatible...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 17: Chop and Hop

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 17: Chop and Hop

(Photo by Ben Wiens on Unsplash)If it was at all within your power, you would do well not to miss late night television on Fridays. Particularly those final two hours of programming before the midnight shutdown. The timeslot drew a large, faithful, and near-cultish...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 16: Boogie with a Disco Queen

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 16: Boogie with a Disco Queen

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash The Bees Knees became my go-to move. Much so for the next ten years. I pulled it out every opportunity I had to dance. I went from novice, to expert, to one-trick pony with this singular aspect of the Charleston. It worked for...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 15: The Bees Knees

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 15: The Bees Knees

No matter where we lived, whether in Zambia before independence or in Zimbabwe afterwards, our lives were invariably filled with music. Daddy was always listening to something or other from his collection of long-play vinyl records. And mommy, our songbird, could...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 14: Red Blazer Nation

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 14: Red Blazer Nation

I believe I cried on the first day of school at St. George’s. Possibly the second day too. I was overwhelmed and rather intimidated. The college is a sprawling empire of a campus, with fields that stretch out like interlocking plantations. It has courts, and pools,...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 13: More than Blazer Thin

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 13: More than Blazer Thin

St. John’s Prep. was not just a school. It was and still is an admired institution across Harare and Zimbabwe. The school first opened in 1956 with 13 students. Its initial mission was to provide a “sound system of education in an atmosphere conducive to the growth...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 12: A Race for Relevance

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 12: A Race for Relevance

Let go of Superman? Not a Cadbury bar’s chance at a chocoholic’s convention. Giving him up would essentially be abandoning comics. Losing Superman meant forsaking Clark Kent. Which I was not at all prepared to do. In my mind, it was Clark who made Superman super....

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 11: It’s Not About the Cape

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 11: It’s Not About the Cape

(Photo by Zbysiu Rodak on Unsplash)If we were not reading Asterix or The Adventures of Tintin, we were huddled by the television watching a variety of new shows and reruns courtesy of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s TV1 channel. The station brought joy to...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 10: Ice Cream and Skin

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 10: Ice Cream and Skin

(Photo by Mark Cruz on Unsplash)Asterix was by far my favorite hero. A shrewd, crafty, defiant, and plucky little warrior, living in about 50BC. In the stories, Gaul, his homeland, is occupied by the Romans, except for one small village where he lives. Asterix’ best...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 9: Blame the British

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 9: Blame the British

Our first twenty-four months in Zimbabwe were like one prolonged episode of the reality documentary This is Your Life (1952 to 1961). Except a better title for our experience would have been something like “This is Your Parent’s Country.” Almost every day was a...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 8: The Grasshopper Instinct

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 8: The Grasshopper Instinct

(Photo by Bradley Feller on Unsplash)During those early years in Zambia, I generally paid attention only to those things that directly affected my little life. After all, there was plenty to keep me busy in our dynamic, unpredictable, and oftentimes perplexing...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 7: The Life of Bugs

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 7: The Life of Bugs

(Photo by Manlake Gabriel on Unsplash) Nothing unnerves me quite like snakes but bugs I do not like. If I am being honest, I have never really appreciated them. I find them to be totally creepy, crawly, and vexatious. Having said that, I do not abhor them all equally....

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 6: Snakes and Robbers

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 6: Snakes and Robbers

(Photo by David Clode on Unsplash) “Mubuso. Wake up. Go to our room. Be quick and hurry up.” Our household, like many others in Olympia Park, had a burglary-preparedness protocol. If a home was ever invaded, children were to scurry into the safest room in the house...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 5: Fried Chicken Fridays

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 5: Fried Chicken Fridays

(Photo by Léo Roza on Unsplash) Daytime in Zambia was carefree and charming. It was filled with games and gladness and all the wonderful things that make childhood delightful. Nighttime, however, was the exact opposite. In many respects, the dark was disturbing. On...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 4: All Things Nice

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 4: All Things Nice

Despite them taking advantage of me in vexing ways, I could never stay angry at my two sisters. My blood should have boiled, watching them roll over each other on the floor laughing, tickled by the success of their mischief. But their cheeky chuckling was deeply...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 3: Super Nudge

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 3: Super Nudge

Quarreling is certainly one way to demonstrate to the world the depth of your foolishness. Another quite effective method is to show yourself to be impressionable. Granted, I had the excuse of childish naivety in my early years, but I must admit that I was as gullible...

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 2: Hot Ross Summer

Childhood Shorts – Chapter 2: Hot Ross Summer

We were a sorry pair, but by golly, what good times. My brother and I were regularly rendered into two convulsing, spluttering, blubbering, blue-faced, and half-conscious heaps of wide-eyed crazy. We experienced many such episodes during our childhood. They were...