“I still remember the first time I had to kill someone. I can still see his eyes. I was not proud of killing my first man and then there were more. I never got used to killing, even though I killed men who wanted to harm me as much as possible. But I was in a war situation. A war, full of brutality and destruction, that never should have been a war.”
THE FOOTPRINTS in the dust diverged, with two sets going one direction, four in another. Corporal Bruce Grobbelaar peered at the trail from his knees, trying to divine its true meeting, knowing the danger it represented. Did the group he was tracking actually split? Or was it an ambush?
A man in camouflage suddenly stepped onto the trail, levelling his rifle at him.
“I looked at him, my pulse pounding in my ears, and the first thing I had to do was just pull the trigger, then drop, because there were others hiding in the bush,” Grobbelaar wrote in his new book, Life In The Jungle.
The former goalkeeper with the Vancouver Whitecaps wasn’t even a man yet, just 17 years of age, a child soldier, really.
It was 1975 and he was in the first few months of compulsory military service in his native Rhodesia, a mandatory one-year stretch that was extended twice.
The country was embroiled in what would later be called the Rhodesian Bush War, a 15-year conflict between the government and various rebel factions, all fighting each other, with the government fighting to keep the white minority in power.
The battle that day, on the banks of the Limpopo River — the border between South Africa and what’s now known as Zimbabwe — was the first time Grobbelaar killed someone.
It also wasn’t the last.
“How many people did I kill? I couldn’t tell you,” he told the Guardian newspaper earlier this month.
“This is why I’ve always lived my life for today. I can only say sorry for the past. I can’t change it.”
The scars and horrors he suffered never left him. But the healing and coping began 20,000 kilometres away — in Vancouver.
“My first time was at dusk. As the sun sinks you’re seeing shadows in the bush. You cannot recognize much until you see the whites of their eyes. It’s you or them. You shoot, you drop and there’s overwhelming gunfire.
“You hear voices on your side: ‘Hey, corporal, I’m hit.’ You whistle to shut them up otherwise we’re all getting killed. When the firefight is finished you see bodies everywhere. The first time everything in your stomach comes up through your mouth.”
The Odd Couple
Carl Valentine was a self-admitted naive young man with a bad Afro and no fashion sense when he signed with the then-NASL’s Whitecaps in 1979. He’d never lived anywhere but his parents’ house. There was no internet, no Google, and he had no idea where Vancouver was, except that it was somewhere in the nebulous confines of Canada’s border.
The Whitecaps’ coach, Tony Waiters, had called him just weeks before he departed his hometown of Manchester to let him know they’d found him a roommate.
“He said ‘he’s a white South African. Are you OK with that?’ And I went … ‘Yeah?’ I never thought anything else about it,” Valentine laughed. “I was still living at home, 20 years of age … I wasn’t very worldly.”
Grobbelaar — met him at the airport, and, after mistaking a random 6-4 black man for the 5-9 Valentine — the two drove downtown. He’d arrived in the city on a typical Vancouver day — in a torrential downpour — and wondered if he’d made a mistake as they meandered down a rough-and-tumble Davie Street.
His worries quickly dissipated the following day during a sun-drenched practice at Empire Stadium, the mountain vistas overlooking the storied park. He became a fan favourite, being named the most popular athlete in Vancouver the following year, and enjoyed a city he had embraced so much that he had people impersonating him on the club scene.
And the racism he’d faced in the United Kingdom didn’t follow him to Vancouver.
“I’d played a couple of places where you got quite a bit of abuse being a coloured player,” he said. “Coming to Vancouver, it just seemed a lot bigger and I was received really well. It was a lot different than being in Manchester … a lot more pleasant.”
It was the time of Apartheid, and plenty of people wondered if Valentine felt uncomfortable around his roommate — one who’d spent the previous two years of his life hunting and killing people with a similar skin colour.
“The media hit on it, and they nicknamed us the ‘The Odd Couple,’” said Valentine, who roomed with Grobbelaar for three years in an apartment near what’s now Lougheed Mall.
“And remember, I’m still pretty naive to a lot of things. The reporters, I guess it was more uncomfortable for them than it was for me. One reporter said kind of half-joking ‘Do you have a knife under your pillow?’ And I was like … ‘Uhh, no.’”
Grobbelaar had been raised in a racist society, trained to kill blacks — his boot camp superiors had him scream ‘I’ll kill you, you black bastard!’ during bayonet training — but it never stuck. How could it? He was the Jungleman.
Enter the Jungleman
Rhodesia was a country steeped in institutional racism. Whites had the better jobs, schools, owned most of the land, and more importantly, could vote.
This was the world Grobbelaar grew up in, and while it shaped him, he didn’t perpetuate its past. It was probably why the country embraced him, eventually to become one of its biggest stars.
At the age of 15, playing for the all-white Salisbury Callies, he faced an all-black team — the Matabeleland Highlanders — in the BAT Trophy quarter-finals. Called into action in front of 45,000 “hostile black faces” after an injury to the first-team goalkeeper, Grobbelaar was electric and an acrobatic dynamo in the 3-1 win, winning over the crowd.
“This is not a white man! This is a black man in a white man’s skin,” he remembered the crowd saying.
“This is a Jungleman!”
The name stuck, as did the adoration.
The following year, he joined those same Highlanders on loan, with his transfer fee including a sheep, a cow and a goat. The team had a witch doctor who would dip a goat’s tail in a bucket of water, cow dung and grass, and anoint players before each match.
Playing with a team that had just one other white player was revelatory for him. The bonding, the friendships, the relationships with the fans.
The team played and practised in a township where whites rarely strayed, even during daylight hours. A police officer stopped the young teen as he cycled to practice one day, and began escorting him to the stadium before he saw fans pour out of their homes to greet Grobbelaar: “Hello Jungleman!”
And it was the jungle that was to be his next home.
The Bush War
For two years, this was Grobbelaar’s life.
The leader of a four-man recon team, he’d be dropped by helicopter into enemy territory for weeks on end.
Bathing and brushing teeth with fine sand, because any scent of personal hygiene products could be smelled up to a kilometre away. Further, one would smear themselves in animal dung to get the “bush smell.” He frequently slept in trees to avoid being trampled by elephants. The deathly silence of the jungle was disquieting, not soothing.
You always had to check your sleeping bag for snakes; Africa is home to some of the world’s most venomous. You could eat them, too. Puff Adder was a favourite; cobra, too. You couldn’t eat green mambas, but the black ones you could, as long as you didn’t chop too close to the head.
There was marijuana — wacky tobaccy, in that era, locally called dagga — the drug of choice, as alcohol’s debilitating effects could be lethal in a firefight. Grobbelaar told stories of being around a campfire while a fellow soldier used a gaping knee wound, torn open by shrapnel, as an ashtray for his blunt.
Friends being shot in the head, dropping soundlessly. Fleeing an ambush with injured comrades, trying to make the border 25 kilometres distant, the enemy crashing through the bush just yards behind. Bodies, or parts thereof, smouldering from bombs and incendiaries. Helicopters with huge nets of bodies slung underneath, ferrying mounds of corpses back for burials. Fighting off crocodiles underwater as you pulled the dead from rivers and streams.
“The vehicle in front of you hits a landmine and three bodies blow out of the side of it, right before your eyes. It could have been you. Three metres ahead of you, a friend is shot. Not you. A helicopter dives toward the ground, trying to pick you up while others are shooting at you. The guy next to you is shot through the leg by a machine gun. It could have been you. There are so many things that could have happened to me, but didn’t.”
One of his squadmates, farmer Doe Herbst, was full of hatred and a cold desire for revenge for the suffering his family and farm had endured. He’d cut the ears of those he killed, put them on a string, and took them home to put in a jar.
“And he had a lot of jars,” said Grobbelaar. Herbst would cut notches in the barrel of his machine gun to keep track of his kills, and once, after surviving an ambush that killed their friend, he used a knife to castrate one of the wounded attackers.
Home from the front, three days from the end of a stretch already extended by six months, Grobbelaar’s unit was told they had to serve another six months. Two of his unit members took their rifles into the bathroom, and simultaneously splattered the ceiling with their brains. Deployment was delayed, but only for as long as it took to clear the ceiling.
Those memories never leave. It’s why Valentine would frequently find his roommate awake in the early hours of the morning, eating cold baked beans from a tin in the glow of their TV.
“I’d guess he was only sleeping four, five hours an night,” said Valentine. “He’d gone for two years basically living day-to-day, and I don’t think he stopped living that life. … Where he’d come from he never knew if he was going to wake up the next day or survive that next day. That’s the way he was.”
The player, the legend
Grobbelaar’s career is the stuff of legend. The Clown Prince of Football’s crazy exploits — from his hand-walking, crazy warm-up routines, to his spaghetti legs — were part of a career that started in Vancouver before becoming part of Liverpool FC lore.
This was a man who was so committed to succeeding in his professional soccer career, he stole a hotel clerk’s car so he could make a tryout with Waiters and the Whitecaps in England.
His long, successful and storied career was tainted by accusations of match-fixing, charges that he was later found not guilty of, and his psyche was further traumatized by the Hillsborough Disaster, watching from feet away as 96 fans were crushed and 766 injured in the worst disaster in British sporting history.
He coped by partying, as he did with gusto alongside Valentine during his days in Vancouver. Grobbelaar talks about it in the opening of Life In The Jungle, which is part autobiography, part image-washing, part therapeutic.
“He wouldn’t openly talk. It wasn’t a topic you’d bring up; ‘What was it like, What was it like to kill people?’” Valentine recalled. “So maybe this book is something he feels he needs to do, because it’s the most I’ve heard him talk about what happened in the war.
“When you read (his stories), it’s hard to make it realistic. You have to sit down and think about it. At a young age, 17, 18, you’ve got a gun, and you have to kill people — or be killed. You just can’t imagine that. It’s something that he went through that obviously it’s something he’s had to live with the rest of his life.
“He’s got such a big heart. He’ll do anything for anybody, and that’s why it’s even harder to imagine. People having to do what they need to do to survive, but you just can’t (imagine) him in that place.
“I just admire him even more for getting through what he needed to do. It wasn’t like he enlisted; he had to serve or he would have been arrested. It’s not like he had a choice in the matter. He did what he needed to survive.
“You wish, now, because you’re older and more experienced, how much I could have helped and been of guidance. Hopefully I did help get through those times.”
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