Uncle Lenny

Retired whaler. Wills Rd, Berea.

Shaded by a large Syringa tree, Uncle Lenny’s house in Wills Road provides a refuge from the urban environment.  A thick hedge hides a secluded garden while dappled sunlight filters onto a Durban verandah.  The illusion of peace is tempered by the realities of this inner city neighbourhood.  Taxi owners clean their vehicles outside the front gate while a passerby casually smokes dagga.

In an empty plot across the road, the Cascoland team discovered a dead body – a thief murdered by angry residents. Uncle Lenny’s house wears its age on its sleeve – different shades of paint shine through in patches, the roof shows the sky in places – but the house is solid, sheltering Uncle Lenny and his memories well.”I’ve been living here for 62 years.  I sometimes went away for a little bit but always came back. This is my home here.”

Inside, the walls and furniture hold an array of objects.  The model ship a gift from an old sailing buddy, a Father’s Day card from a son living in Johannesburg, the prosthetic legs, replacements for the ones the eighty-two year old Uncle Lenny lost to diabetes.  This is a home full of reminders of an adventurous life, of love lost and a thirst for experiences.

Uncle Lenny told us his story.”It’s an exciting life I’ve lived. I’ve seen the world. I was in the Second World War where I attained the highest rank as a non-white.  I saw North Africa and served in Italy. The experience I got was tremendous. After the war, you know, I lived a restless life. I met a friend in the Cape Town docks and he said, ‘What are you doing’, and I said, ‘No man, I’m just looking at the ships’ and he said ‘Why don’t you sign on to catch whales?’ And he took me to the office there and they signed me on.

I was a harpoonist on the ship. In the army they trained me on heavy artillery so I went as a gunner, shooting whales in the Antarctic. The gun fired like an arrow. There was big money on the whalers.  I earned about R600 a month. You’d go for six months and six months you’d come back. I was a young man then and I bought a Buick and was wearing American clothes. It was a good life.

I’m not a man who could stay at home. I needed to see the world.  Sometimes, when I was older and living back here in Durban, I used to take the car and drive out to the edge of the harbour. I’d watch the ships coming in and out all night, and wish I was on them, going anywhere. Someone said I should write my life story, my autobiography. He said, ‘You would make a lovely story about it, you’ve lived, you’ve seen the world.’  And I have.”

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