ON MY LAST NIGHT in Windhoek, I chose a popular bar for dinner, Joe's Beerhouse, situated near the intersection of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street. I sat at the bar and sketched out a timeline of goals in a notebook, a nice straight line with little checkpoint hash marks along the way. This season in Namibia had gotten me absolutely nowhere and I had to get somewhere, anywhere. A straight line would take me there and I was drawing it out in firm ink.
Two white men in their late sixties sat to my right and talked at length in German. One man departed and the remaining one, a slight, frail individual, turned to me and said, “You don’t talk to people, do you?” I told him that sounded like a painfully obvious pick up line and that he and I were both far too old for those.
He introduced himself as Heinrich and asked what business brought me to Namibia. He seemed harmless enough, so I told him. From there, I spoke little and he told me his story, one of those Ancient Mariners who was there because he had an albatross and I had an ear and no choice but to listen.
Heinrich immigrated to South Africa from Germany in 1964 to avoid the draft. He arrived in Johannesburg, but his job fell through upon arrival. He applied for a glass cutting apprenticeship in Windhoek, Namibia and was accepted.
He and a friend started walking northward, hitching a ride for the first leg of the journey. They were dropped them off at the intersection where the road led to what was then the League of Nations mandate territory of South-West Africa, which is today, Nambia. Many cars were driving on the main road to Cape Town, but not one turned North. At the wasteland crossroads, there stood only a thorny bush and a tattered billboard, upon which someone had written a message: “My name is John and I am from Australia. I have waited for a ride for two days.” John was nowhere to be seen.
The young men waited for two days, and on the third morning, a bakkie turned onto the road, sheep tied in sacks piled in the back. The driver and his servant were heading north and offered them a ride. They hopped in the truck bed with the sheep. It was winter, and the animals kept them warm.
Some hours later, they stopped at a roadside guesthouse in the middle of nowhere. The young men were drunk for two days straight while the driver conducted surreptitious diamond business with the innkeeper. Here, I interrupted to ask if the diamonds were smuggled in the fleece of the sheep. Heinrich shrugged his shoulders in exasperation, indicating that this was not the point of the story.
They caught another ride and made it to the capital city in the middle of the night, walking toward the lights of the town. They asked a man on the street if he could please point them to the town center. The man scoffed at them and said that where they stood was the center and kept walking on his way. They wandered into the bush, finding a clearing upon which to sleep.
The two boys awakened in the morning with a crowd of people standing around them. As it turned out, they chose a plot of ground in the Apartheid District, having bedded down along the path leading from The Location to town. The people laughed at them, gave them food and pointed them in the right direction.
He became a glasscutter, but still, still, he was terribly broke. He finally made a little money toiling day and night as a draftsman. He decided it was time to return to Germany as he had planned. SWAPO was gaining momentum with their fight for independence and it seemed a good time to make an exit.
He started the journey by car with a group of friends with the intent to drive across the African continent and catch a ship to Europe, but the vehicle soon broke down. His travel companions bought plane tickets, but Heinrich couldn’t afford one and remained trapped in Namibia.
He became one of the most successful businessmen in the country and opened a home for war orphans. He still wished he had lived a normal life in Germany, explaining, “I’m not very religious, but sometimes these very hard things happen to you and you survive them and it is very powerful.”
Heinrich continued to drink and I stopped long before, always the temperate soul in a sea of drunks, but always the one to miss the appropriate time to exit, hovering longer than I probably should, seeing and hearing things that I probably shouldn’t. He wound the conversation to racism and to raising cattle and to how he shot and killed a taxi cabbie because the driver was threatening to kill other passengers in the car with a knife. He gets very drunk and sad, very sad.
He turns to me with a sober thought: “When you see something that you know is wrong,”—here he points to his gut and his heart—“do you tuck your head in your shell and hide like a f*cking turtle or do you fight?”
“You fight, Heinrich. You fight, dammit!” I said it because it sounded feisty and like the right thing to say and I even pounded my fist on the bar for emphasis. But I wondered if anything I had seen thus far in my small niche of existence was worth getting that feisty over.
“I took a stand and shot a man. Yes, I shot him.” Just like a Jimi Hendrix song.
A military psychiatrist once told me of a patient with PTSD. This man was in Vietnam, riding in a convoy, seated in the back of an open-topped vehicle with a file of important documents set next to him. A young Vietnamese boy ran by and snatched the file. Without a thought, the soldier stood, pulled his pistol and shot the running boy in the back, not knowing if he were killing the enemy or an impish child. It was this single moment, the snap of the boy’s body and the confetti of paper thrown from the manila file, that the soldier replayed over and over in his memory without respite. It wasn’t the horrific theatrics of Bouncing Betties or air strikes—just a boy falling to a dirt road and papers fluttering through muggy air. These are the small details of purely gray acts that haunt people for a lifetime. I did not press Heinrich for this minutia.
He slumped his shoulders and dropped his head to the counter, onto his folded arms. My cab driver showed up at that moment and the German haphazardly stood from his bar stool, shook both my hands in his as if we were diplomats, kissed my cheek and crumpled to the floor.
(This is an excerpt from my essay, Anatomy of a Wolverine Trap.)