Churchyard anger: an early lesson about bullies

It was early morning, mid-April 1971 and I was in the back seat of my parent's brand-new, shiny-white Holden Kingswood, trying to listen to Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" which was blasting valiantly from the tinny AM radio but losing to the road noise coming in through the open windows.

We were driving the 15 km or so down the dusty Riverina Highway from our "home town" of Finley to the "big smoke" of Berrigan.  My mother was an aspiring portrait and landscape artist, but living in the country gave her few opportunities to display her work.  The annual Berrigan Art Fair was one of these.

As I recall, back then the fair was held at a local church.  And, it being a Sunday in deeply conservative rural New South Wales, my atheist parents were naturally obliged to attend the service.

I remember quite clearly arriving at the imposing building, nestled in amongst tall trees, a paddock to one side.  As we walked in through the pipe-iron and wire gate, I nervously regarded the Anglo-Celtic country folk in their Sunday best: crisp white or checked shirts, top buttons done up, blond or ginger hair cut unfashionably short at the back and sides and neatly greased and combed.  This was a place the '50s had not forgotten.  

In turn, we "New Australians", with our dark Southern European looks and strange ways, were regarded with obvious suspicion, if not open hostility.

I found the service itself utterly perplexing: the little English I'd gleaned from television shows like "The Banana Splits", "Lost in Space" and "Dr Who"  (and practised with my new friend and next-door neighbour, Robert) helped not one iota:  The minister might as well have been speaking Latin for all I understood him (in fact, for some years afterwards that's precisely what I thought he had been speaking - until my mother told me it was an Anglican service).  

So against the background drone of the Minister's voice, I swung my legs back and forth beneath the pew, stared at the high, vaulted ceiling and breathed in the musty, aromatic mix of incense, polished wood and rising damp - trying desperately to ignore the glares from some of the older boys sitting across the aisle from me.

After the service the entire congregation emptied out to the front.  The adults went off somewhere fairly abruptly - I suppose to the church hall where the art fair was being held (I didn't care).  We kids were left to our own devices; some lingering in the church yard, others running amok in the paddock.

I somehow lost my elder brother - I'm not sure where he went.  So I found myself walking out towards some liquidambar trees growing in the front church yard.

I realise now that in any potential conflict there is a point of no return - a point where you "cross the Rubicon".  Over the years I have come to realise that this was it: I saw the boys who had been giving me the eyeball in the church up in the branches of a tree, yet I walked towards them anyway.

I suppose a part of me was curious.  I was very young - only four years old.  I was also very small for my age - apart from being painfully shy and timid.  I hadn't ever tried to climb a tree.  Yet here were boys who had clambered up in the branches like monkeys.  Somehow this made me feel quite safe.  After all, they were up there, I was down here.  And how bad could it be?  Surely even unfriendly people couldn't be all that bad?

"Oi - wog boy!  What do you want?"

I can't recall the exact words (I could barely speak English, after all), but I venture this is something like what was said to me.  I stared up into the tree, probably tilting my head sideways.  The boy who spoke was much older than I - maybe 8 or 9.  He shook his head and the younger boys up in the branches grinned wickedly.  I couldn't reconcile their smiling faces and the mocking tone of the flurry of words that followed.

"Did you want to come up here then?  Bet you can't.  You're a wuss.  A wog-boy wuss.  Your lot can't climb trees."

The very last bit, I understood.  Not wanting to appear ignorant, I lied:

"Yes, I can climb trees."

"So why don't ya?  Go on then!"  The older boy smiled a crooked smile and motioned to the branch next to him.  This gesture, and my obvious discomfort, was followed by a cacophony of kookaburra-like laughter from the others.  I started to step back, realising that these boys weren't going to be "nice".  Seeing this, the older boy swung down and, in an instant, was towering over me, his face still contorted by the same cruel sneer.

"Your lot should bugger off back to where you came from.  No one asked you to come here.  Get it?"

He was still "smiling", and I didn't understand him.  The tone was clearly menacing, but I suppose I wanted to believe he was being "playful"; that he was just "kidding around".  But these wishful thoughts dissolved in the very next instant.  The boy looked up at his friends with a small nod (as if to say: "Check this out!"). Abruptly, he drove a stiff punch deep into my solar plexus.

My tiny four-year-old body doubled over, totally winded.  I'd never been winded before.  In fact, I'd never been struck by anyone other than my father or brother.

At that moment my world was thrown into utter chaos: I was in the centre - on the ground, clutching my belly, unable to breath, with everything else spinning around.  My tormentor was standing over me, head tilted back, guffawing.  The others in the tree were laughing and jeering.

What happened next was entirely unprecedented in my life.  It surprised even me.  If I had been true to my "usual form", I would have simply burst into tears and laid there, helpless.  And yes - I did start crying.  But this time my tears weren't those of pain or fear.  They were tears of pure, unbridled rage - and hatred.

I picked my small body off the ground and flung it at my tormentor with all the energy I could muster, my tiny fists clenched, my arms failing wildly.  My tormentor turned and ran (albeit laughing as he did so).  I relentlessly pursued him around that courtyard through the thick veil of hot tears.  Sadly, my little legs couldn't possibly catch him.  And he purposely kept agonizingly just out of reach, squealing with delight at every blow of mine that narrowly missed.

I must have been screaming at the top of my lungs because my voice was becoming hoarse.  Abruptly one of the Aussie dads materialised out of nowhere, grabbing me by the scruff of my shirt, jerking me to a halt.

"That's enough of that, son!  Stop it!  Look, SHUT UP will ya?!"  

When I didn't stop, he shook me roughly.


I was still sobbing and couldn't speak except through hiccups.  I gestured vaguely towards the hall. He grabbed me by the ear and pulled me towards it.  I could hear the boys in the churchyard still laughing at the tops of their voices.

As we neared the hall I saw my mother and father emerge, horror-stricken.  Except they weren't horrified by my plight.  They were horrified with embarrassment.  I was crying.  Again.

"Is this one yours?  I caught him tearing into the other boys.  He's like that bloody cartoon Tasmanian Devil!  Jeez!"

The man relinquished his hold on me and I ran to my mother.  She wasn't exactly comforting.  I suppose I wasn't exactly making sense through the hiccuping sobs.  My parents said hurried goodbyes and ushered me into the Kingswood with considerable annoyance.  I was a bruka - I was shaming them in this new community.  Even my brother shook his head wryly as if to say: "It's always the same..."

I said nothing as we drove home.  There seemed little point.  After the hiccups subsided I'd tried to explain in Serbian that a boy had hit me, but no one seemed to be listening.  I don't think I've so much as mentioned it to anyone since.

But on that drive home I do recall having some important realisations - realisations that have stayed with me my whole life:
  1. Some people are just plain mean.  They don't need a reason.  They just are.  They enjoy being cruel.  You can't "make nice" with these people.
  2. When it comes to dealing with these "mean" people, you have to present a small target.  This involves some pretty simple measures.  For example, had I at least stuck with my elder brother that day, things might have been different.
  3. I wasn't who I thought I was.  Even though I was terrified to begin with, once the anger took hold the fear disappeared.  I wasn't as fearful and timid as I thought. 
  4. I had a temper - something I hadn't known up to that point.  I could be angry and wish to inflict the worst violence on those who would harm me.
  5. Anger is much more productive than fear and sadness.
  6. I felt no shame or disappointment in being "beaten" - because I had fought back, however ineffectually.  He had hurt me physically, but he hadn't beaten me in spirit.  In fact, I felt quite "pumped".  After all, he had run away from me (albeit without any sense of fear whatsoever - still, he'd run away and, more importantly, I hadn't).
  7. Even though I wanted to tear the bully to pieces, the one or two blows that landed at the beginning were completely ineffectual.  I needed to be "stronger" (that's how I thought of it in those days) if I was ever faced with the same situation again. 
  8. Getting "stronger" wasn't easy.  My friend Robert suggested eating jelly (his mother had told him that eating jelly made you strong).  I tried that for a while, hoping for Charles Atlas-style results, but nothing happened.  It wasn't until a year later when I saw my first Chinese gong fu films, including Bruce Lee's "Fists of Fury"/"Chinese Connection" that I felt I might have found the answer.
  9. Whatever happened, I never wanted to be like those mean people.  I wanted to be better than they were.  If anything, I wanted to be like my hero, The Lone Ranger, and help people against those who were mean.  I think it fair to say I've kept to my principles.  Like everyone I've said and done mean things in my life - but I've never come close to being a bully at any time, in any place and in any way.
  10. What upset me more than the physical pain of the blow was their mocking laughter.  It was the cruelest blow.  It was also the most disturbing.  I could understand someone hitting out in anger.  But hitting because it was "funny"?  This was the worst sort of person: a person without empathy.  I have little faith that such a person can "change".  It goes to core of one's nature.
More than anything, I hated the fact that the bully had had a "free shot".  This seemed most unfair to me.  To be frank, it still bothers me today.

And yet, I have to admit that I learned some important lessons that day.  In a way, I owe that bully a favour for this very reason.

So if, by some remote chance, he happens to read this and happens to remember punching a four year old foreign boy in the solar plexus in the Anglican Church yard in Berrigan in April 1971, I'd like him to know all of the above.

I'd also like him to know that, even after all these years, I'd be only too happy to return the favour.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic


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