Over the past two weeks I have been under violent attack by a virulent, persistent virus. It would seem that the gods of winter decided to seriously take revenge on me to such an extent that even regular doses of the best Cape Red could not overcome the onslaught!  I have had to resort to regular medication to enable me to function even somewhere close to normality. This sojourn into the depths of the winter chills has made me realise, once again, the value in my lifelong friend, the humble handkerchief.

But, as Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start”. Like most little boys growing up in the carefree environment of a small “platteland” town, my early relationship with a handkerchief was not developed out of natural choice but rather as a result of the insistence of my caring mother that I was never to leave home without a clean white handkerchief. I certainly was not allowed to leave for school each morning without a washed face, carefully combed hair, clean, clipped fingernails and my sparkling white handkerchief carefully folded into the top pocket of my school blazer. I soon learned that, my mother (having been a school teacher herself), was resilient against any amount of protest to this “pampering”. So, over the next few years, not only was I taught to take pride in my personal appearance, but also learned, through practical experience, to value the constant companionship of my friend, the handy handkerchief.

Remember that I am of the vintage that was first taught to write in ink using a dip-pen and a bowl of ink. Now can you imagine what became of your best writing efforts if you sneezed all over a page of writing which had been painfully constructed using a scratchy nib and lumpy blue ink?…… a runny, blotchy disaster! So I soon learned the value of a quick draw for my handy handkerchief to cover my face when sneezing! Long before the discovery of Carlton paper towels, there was nothing like a handkerchief to wipe away the evidence of spilt ink, glue or water in the classroom.

In the playground Mr Hanky really came into his own when it came to wiping away evidence of a bloody nose, a grazed knee and any number of cuts and abrasions suffered through the robust activities of little boys. Ah! The soothing coolness of wiping a hot, sweaty face with a dampened handkerchief after running around the playground in the midst of a hot Karoo summer!

After school activities saw Mr Hanky come into his own as a starting flag for a running or cycle race, flying proudly in the breeze above the tree-house and even as a white flag of surrender when losing at a game of “kleilat”!  In our childhood games of “cops ‘n robbers” or “cowboys and crooks” the handkerchief was a basic necessity to serve as a mask, Indian headband or cowboy scarf. As the proud owner of a Raleigh sports bike, I made full use of my hanky to polish the silver bell, buff up the mirror or clean the wheel spokes. The corners of the handkerchief could be knotted together to serve as a useful little bag to store those extra few marbles won unexpectantly at a quick neighbourhood game of “fish”,  as a little money purse, or for safe keeping of a couple of sweets! Mr Hanky served well as a net for catching tadpoles or holding a slimy frog. So, you can well imagine that in those early days of my youth, no handkerchief of mine retained its white brilliance for too long and new handkerchiefs became a standard item for my birthday gifts or Christmas stocking!

Although they date as far back as the 14th century, handkerchiefs have never enjoyed much prominence as a fashion item. In the days when men wore powdered wigs and tights, handkerchiefs were large, elaborate, frilly, embroidered, squares of linen or silk displayed publically with fancy gestures. However, nowadays you would be hard pressed to find them displayed prominently in any men’s clothing store and you usually have to ask for them specifically.  At best they might be made of silk to be worn in the top pocket of a suit jacket to match the colour of a silk tie. However, for the most part, they remain simple, predominantly white, squares of cotton material possibly with a striped pattern. To personalize them they may bear the embroidered initials of the owner.

Sometimes, Englishmen watching cricket can be seen to be wearing a dampened hanky as a cooling hat by knotting each corner and pulling it over the top of the head.(particularly suitable for baldies!)The past President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda made a public statement with his ever present, large, white handkerchief in hand. I notice that our own President Zuma is not shy to whip out his handkerchief to wipe his sweaty brow in public. By and large, the humble handkerchief remains a functional, personal item of clothing rather than a showy, fashionable one. Unlike the Madiba Shirt, Mr Hanky has no illusions of achieving fashion fame!

For ladies, handkerchiefs have been dainty little things emblazoned with petite patterns of flowers, butterflies etc, to be tucked away discreetly up a sleeve or folded neatly under a watch strap and only brought out in emergencies. Funny how in all the old movies the tearful little darling of the show would never have a handkerchief at hand  to wipe away the tears, but there would always be a handsome hulk available to offer her a sparkling clean white one in her moment of need. “Mr Hanky” to the rescue again!

For most of the “Mama’s” that shopped in our pharmacy in the small rural town of my birth, the handy hanky served as a purse. Their few, meagre pence were tied up tightly in a small handkerchief which was then buried in the depths of their copious bosom for safe keeping. This being the case, you can appreciate the patience needed in finalizing any transaction as the payment phase would involve a whole exercise of firstly, locating the “purse”, untying the knots of the handkerchief, counting out the cents carefully and then performing the entire procedure in reverse to return the change to its safe haven!

As a youngster, somewhere along the line I heard a story that it was customary for a lady to drop her handkerchief in the path of her suitor as an indication of her approval of his affections. This recovery and return of the handkerchief would afford the suitor the opportunity to approach the lady in a socially acceptable manner. Based on this myth I lucklessly followed a number of girls that I fancied at the time like a sick puppy in the vain hope that a dainty little hanky might be dropped my way!

However, having been blessed with a rather large body with lumps and bumps in all the wrong places I have never been able to indulge in fashionable clothing, so for me the hanky has remained a most useful, practical tool rather a statement of style. Apart from their conventional use, my handy hanky friends have seen me through a number of crises over the years. Who was there to act as an emergency bandage /tourniquet when I split my finger open to the bone down at the Breede river, miles from any medical care, or, when a friend needed a soothing cool wrap for a scorched hand following an accident with a burning camp stove in the middle of the Cederberg? Who else is readily at hand to wipe away a tear, snotty nose and any number of other spills which are an inevitable consequence of having children (and now grandchildren) around?  Who better to clean and polish glasses, wipe computer screens or a misted up car windscreen, or surreptitiously mop up that spilt red wine before it stains the table? Mr Hanky does all this and more and, after a quick wash and dry is ready and willing to tackle the next task without complaint. Now, despite the best promotional efforts of the Kleenex company, including the launch of the so-called “mens” tissue using the name of my more famous namesake Gary Player, I will never be persuaded to abandon my loyal servant, Mr Hanky, in favour of some disposable, temporary tissue who cannot even come close to saving lives like my hero, Mr Hanky!

But , time waits for no man,  and so, after a lifetime of hard work and regular wringing through the wash, Mr Hanky (like all of us)  starts to wear a bit thin and become tattered at the edges so that eventually he can only be used as a small polishing rag. His useful life is often extended in the garage workshop until sadly one day, he is finally confined to the rubbish bin to be interned and buried at the municipal dump. What a sad, ignoble end for a lifelong friend! Surely such loyalty and service deserves better? Personally, I like to believe there is a giant wash line in a corner of heaven where these friends hang, flapping happily in a gentle breeze after having been miraculously restored to their original, colourful brilliance. What else would our great God of love use to ”wipe the slate clean” other than his loyal friend, the Handy Hanky?

Ek vra maat net?

Gary S Black