The Inside Man

Thanks to a deep friendship with an extraordinary person, OBIE OBERHOLZER discovers the joy and richness of an indomitable spirit

Sometimes during the setting of the blue moon and the running of the gauntlets I have to stop and remove the flotsam that has gathered around me. Not the little bits-of-wood kind of flotsam but all the debris of ill-conceived thoughts and actions. Those of us who walk our paths on earth with the froth of life’s impurities and limitations have to dump them sometimes – cleanse ourselves of the bullshit to see the real again. I know a guy who makes me see beyond the daily, makes me realise life’s values, makes me clarify my mind and re-energise my soul. He is 38-year-old Julius van der Wat, who lives his life in the Valley of the Beautiful Road.

This first time I saw him I was heavily under the influence of Bacchus’s fermentation. He appeared as a half-focused, odd figure tied to the inside of a wheelchair. I peered down at him and said, “What on earth is wrong with you?” During the silence that followed I could hear a Boeing pass overhead, up heaven’s way. Then he said, “I have spastic quadriplegic palsy.” Just like that, just like it was, how it is and how it will be till the end of days. That was 20 years ago. Through the years that followed I slowly realised that inside this man grew a field of flowers beneath the sun; that inside his outer shell of captivity, his physical jail, buzzed a beehive of intelligence, creativity and humour.

Once, I found myself driving around on large saltpan in the Northern Cape. This wasn’t a place for the bacchanalian or the dagga smoker or the flotsam gatherer. This was the place for the existentialist, the truth chaser. I wanted to find what happens when you separate the body and the mind. This is not new; this is the ancient quest of trying to fly the mind, separate it from the physical restraints of the body. I achieved this by using my Willie Nelson bandana as a blindfold, then driving my bakkie on that saltpan at full speed until the physical loosened its grip on the mental, till the body floated away from the mind. After six minutes of darkness at 150 km per hour on the Verneuk Pan a kaleidoscope of images flashed in front of me, a thousand thoughts overtook my body and for a short time there was a sensation of floating, a feeling of knowing.

When I stopped in a sweaty panic, when all my parts had filtered back into a single me, I understood just a little the feelings of Julius van der Wat, whom I have come to call “the Inside Man”. He must know this way of separation, the way his stiffened body holds a mind straddled by a great hall of thoughts and a different interpretation of life. I came to realise that these thoughts were mere extensions of my awkwardness, my feelings towards his outward oddity and not the greater being that resides within his mind. He speaks to me. I watch only the expression in his eyes and not the light that clothes his deformities. “Disabled means broken, but I am not broken, I am ‘differently abled’ and I just do and see things differently,” he says.

Being born a twin to his abled-bodied brother Koos and one of five boys, Julius often reflects on the frustrations and hardship of growing up. He fought not only society’s standards of expected normality, but also the prejudices towards his disability. He looks odd, so people stare at him without engaging him. They often speak only to his helper. Once, waiting outside the toilets in a shopping mall, he was approached by a young, unsupervised child, who touched his spastic hands and asked him why they were different. Julius, delighted to be recognised beyond his wheelchair, replied: “This is the way God made me.”

The boy’s eyes reflected his wonder and fascination. Is there a standardised normality in the society that we live in? “Yes and no” is the broad answer and in that lies the abnormality of normality. Julius’s “normal” is foreign to most able-bodied people. His difference was especially highlighted when he was growing up with Koos. During his teen years, he often questioned God: “Why me, why not Koos?” One night, he remembers God’s reply: “Why are you pestering me? I have a purpose for you in your wheelchair and when that purpose has been fulfilled, I will take you up to heaven and you will walk.”

I want to say something but I don’t. I am not so tuned into the ways of the Lord. Then the observational genius of Julius the Inside Man says, “I know what you are thinking, just remember that the voice came to me and not to you.”

Now 38, Julius is content with who he is. His youthful jealousy is something of the past and although he still has daily frustrations, as we all do, he has coping mechanisms. He sees a psychologist regularly and he can discuss his frustrations. His way of life, or rather his advancement beyond his limitations, has been nurtured by the love and dedication of his parents, brothers and family. His previous and present helpers, Jacob and Jafta, are entwined in his life like a creeper that hugs a tree. They are his arms and his legs, his wheels, his assistants, his feeders of food, his bathers and where he goes they go.

Julius van der Wat with his faithful companion – Jesse the Boerboel.

Koos married a Frenchwoman and it all went suave – fashionable clothes, a lilt in his gait and a smile on his face. The wedding was held in Paris, so the whole Van der Wat family went to Paris. Jafta wheeled Julius down the Champs-Elysées.

Technology has contributed tremendously to his empowerment. He has been computer-literate since Grade 2 and now, thanks to a headset designed by his brother Izak, he punches the keys on his touch-screen iPad using a stylus (a plastic or metal stick with a conductive tip to which an iPad reacts in the same way as a finger). Every time I’ve seen him do it I’ve been humbled by this remarkable achievement. Just imagine typing out a letter with your head.

Of course, the Inside Man wanted more. Something much deeper and visual was lurking within him: something locked inside needed liberation. He wanted to illustrate his feelings, his love and often his sadness in graphic images. And so he found another voice through digital illustration. Using the app called Sketchbook Pro 1 for an iPad Julius can now draw his art works using the touch-screen stylus pen on his iPad. These illustrations are not Photoshop creations or computer-generated art: these artworks are drawn and designed from a blank screen. They spring from a mighty heart that feeds a unique mind. They are laments from the soul. They are laborious to execute, but they move mountains in the mind of the creator. Jesse the Boerboel comes to lie under the chair next to Julius. I take a photo. Far above, close to heaven, a Boeing rides the sky to Europe. The Inside Man and I just sit. Sometimes sitting together means more than words. After a while Julius tells me a quotation from one of his famous teddy bear books, Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”

*Obie Oberholzer, a photographer by trade, has been a family friend of the Van der Wats for many years and has always been inspired by Julius’s enthusiasm.

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