Monthly Archives: April 2007

A Lesson In Geography

school-master.gifEver since I can remember I have loved reading.  This gave me the edge when I started school; my letter recognition and innate understanding of sentence structure and grammar made the transition to formal language acquisition quick and painless.  It also paid dividends for my general schooling.  A rich imagination combined with a broad general knowledge – also developed through my eclectic reading habits – soon became a tool of success in other subjects as I progressed to High School. 

Given a few facts and an empty sheet of paper, I could address most exam and assignment questions with as much aplomb as necessary to confuse and bamboozle most teachers into at least a ‘C’ grade.  Of course, this did not apply as well to the sciences and was virtually useless in mathematics but I had only modest goals at school and these were:

  1. To work as little as possible; and
  2. To achieve just enough as to keep my parents off my back.

 My talent for writing and invention carried me through most subjects and, as for maths; I figured even my parents’ expectations stopped just short of perfection.  I was young and arrogant and for years neither my goals nor strategies suffered any serious dent.  While my friends struggled valiantly to make a few hard-earned facts go to more than one page, I was happily writing screeds on the basis of pure air and vaguely related ephemera.   

Then one day it all came to an end.  I was awarded a ‘D’ for Geography, questions were asked at home about my study routine (a routine that consisted of the creation of elaborate timetables for study rather than their actual execution) and demands issued that my virtual approach to learning be abandoned for something more solid.   

And the comment on my school report card that brought years of practiced avoidance to an end?  My astute Geography teacher had written, next to the dreaded ‘D’ “Oscarandre has a wonderful writing ability.  Now, if he only had something to write about…”

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Filed under education, humour, life, school, writing, youth

Stone Fruit

apples.jpgThis time last week I was driving with my father past the market gardens and plantations that line the river near my hometown.  He points to a house hidden behind palms and Poinciana trees. There are rows of fruit trees and a For Sale sign against a wall.  “That’s Kane Johnson’s house,” he says. “He died a few weeks ago. 

“Hell, Dad, he was younger than me.  What did he die of?” 

Dad slows down.  “Cancer.” Then he adds, “He smoked like a chimney.” And he says it in that way that’s especially reserved for smokers now, that kind of detached sympathy that we save for the drowned or murdered of third world countries. 

I have this one image of Kane Johnson.  He is about 14 and dressed in the dark grey uniform of my state school.  I am in the senior class and, while everyone in the school knows us, we make it clear that we know no one but each other.  I never spoke to him.  It is the only memory of him that I have other than his name. 

And yet he has now lived out his whole life.  Married twice, Dad tells me, and kids from both.  So he fell in love at least twice, I think, and the thought makes me strangely glad.  This was his sky and his earth and his river and his road.  Unlike me, he never left the old town.  Kane stayed and planted fruit trees. 

“It’s sad really,” continues my father.  “His wife is selling up everything and leaving.” And then, as an afterthought, he says, “And he grew excellent stone fruit.”  This is something coming from my father, a mark of respect in a town that depends on fruit for its income and reputation. 

A sense of loss surges unexpectedly through me and I suddenly miss this boy I never knew and then I miss all those kids whose lives I touched for a moment and then forgot.  Or am I missing that boy I was who somehow died too? 

The stone fruit are thriving where Kane planted them.  Like a reminder that it is possible to sow more than you reap in this life.

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Filed under death, life, loss, memory, Men, youth

Irma and the Doctors

irma-grese.jpg

One morning Irma Grese woke up, as we all will eventually, on the day she was to die.  She was 21, a girl who had left school while still in her elementary years, had worked for some time on farms and then tried unsuccessfully to become a nurse.  Finally she found employment as a guard at Birkenau and then Auschwitz concentration camps. Here she carried out her tasks with alacrity. When women ran and hid from the fatal selections of Dr Mengele, Irma would seek them out, beat them and return them for gassing. 

And, as it often does, on a cold winters day, justice came marching loudly to the door of Irma’s cell.  As the youngest, it was decided to hang her first so that she would not be upset by the sound of the traps opening as the other 11 prisoners were hanged the same morning.  At 9.34 she walked to the centre of the execution chamber, apparently calm, and uttered only one word after the cap was pulled over her head, “Schnell.”  Twenty minutes later she was pronounced dead and taken down for burial. 

I can’t cry for Irma Grese; there are tears enough for the 6 million men, women and children who died before her.  She was uneducated, unsophisticated, the child of a brutish time grown fully and fitfully into a brute.  What can you expect from a pig but a grunt? 

And yet, I sometimes think that Irma Grese is only the easy face of evil; her route to the gallows paved by something quite different.  Five years earlier, in an old villa in a quiet residential street, 15 men sat down to a small conference not far from a nearby popular swimming beach.   All of them held high positions in the government; nine of them had been awarded doctorates.  Their names sound impressive yet also somehow benign – Dr Joseph Buhler, Dr Roland Freisler, Dr Gerhardt Klopfer, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger. Why, one of them, Dr Neuman, had studied law and economics at the universities of Freiberg, Leipzig and Halle. 

These smart and energetic men sat down in Wannsee to plan the killing of the Jews of Europe.  Their final solution was to create the momentum for other smart men to build railways and timetables and wire and huts and schedules of great logistical complexity.  All to stop the heartbeats of innocent strangers. 

Irma and the good scholars would have seen themselves as worlds apart and yet they were bound by a cruelty that neither ignorance nor education could dent.  

I guess there is one thing you can say about education: it can make you smart but it can’t make you good. 

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Filed under death, education, fear, life, Nazism, racism, war

Well, it’s a bit much, isn’t it?

bali_cremation1.jpgUntil I was 20, I’d never seen a dead body.  Then, one day in Bali I went with two women I’d met at the hotel to see a cremation in a village some miles away.  I suspect we did it as much for its anecdotal value back home as we did for any cultural pretensions.  Jude, in particular, was uneasy and snapping everyone’s head off.  “It’s this fucking humidity,” she said. 

When we arrived at the village, the driver told us to wait and bought himself a warm Coke from a street stall.  When I looked for him again, he was gone.  We sat in the shade of a veranda but the dense, wet air enveloped us in smells so pervasive that I felt I could touch them; rotting fruit, incense and strange cooking smells carried on smoke.  Suddenly our driver’s pink shirt appeared again and he pointed to a house across the dirt street.  “You come and see body now.” 

Jude, still seated, looked up frowning through her sunglasses.  “We can’t go in there, can we?  I mean, it’s a bit rude isn’t it?”  Karen smiled at me and pulled a face.  Our driver was earnest and a little impatient.  He ignored Jude’s question.  “You come and bring camera.  More important for family’s pride, you know?”  He paused.  “Now you get it, right?” Jude looked at Karen and me.  “OK, “ she said, “but I’m not taking any bloody photos.  I can’t believe this shit.” 

Inside the dead man’s house we entered a small passage that seemed dark as our eyes adjusted to the new light.  There were people in front of us and behind, mostly tourists.  I noticed that the driver had gone again. The body lay before us raised to about chest height and clothed in white.  It was an old man’s face that was smooth and mottled.  Cross-legged beside him was a lady who seemed to be praying as she broke water-dipped flower petals over the corpse.  The air was thick with incense and the faint smell of death.  Jude lifted her camera and quickly took a shot.  “Well, I might as well,” she said. “Everyone else is.”

Gradually we moved on an emerged again into the heavy sunlight. Later, we followed the funeral procession on foot to the graveyard.  The body was carried on a large and intricately carved wooden frame draped in flowers. It took several men to carry it while about fifty of us walked behind sweating and mumbling. 

Eventually we came to the burial site, an uneven field of mounds where bare-chested men stacked green cans of petrol next to where the pyre had come to rest.  Then two of the men began digging. “Now what’s going on?” I said.  “I thought this was supposed to be a cremation.” 

A serious Dutch girl standing next to me answered, “They dig up the poor people who can’t afford to be burned.  They put them with the rich man so that they can go to heaven as smoke.” 

“You’re kidding,” muttered Jude.  “I’m not staying to watch this.”  We walked back to the car and neither Karen nor I said anything.  The driver saw us coming and hurried from the direction of the village throwing some food scrap behind him and spitting.  Jude turned on us in the taxi, “Well, it’s a bit much, isn’t it? Don’t you think?” 

“Shit, yeah,” said Karen and then we all looked out of the window.  The driver seemed quite cheerful now for some reason.  “You make people very happy because you go to funeral.  I think people very important, yes?” 

Jude said, “Yeah.  And I think oxygen’s important but I don’t go around talking about it.” 

I felt a headache coming on and stared at a small temple peaking over the top of the jungle.   I could hear Jude haggling with the driver over the cost of the taxi ride.  “Oh, come on!” she was exclaiming. “That’s a bit too much.”

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Filed under Bali, death, life, tourists

Friday morning, scarred for life

04_14896.jpgEarly this morning I’m riding my motorbike home from a friend’s house.  My head is foggy from too much wine, too much singing into the warm night.  Back there my friend is still sleeping; the world seems to be sleeping with him. 

The low autumn sun is behind me pushing my shadow along the road like a ghost of me; me and my bike.  I glance down at my hands and shift in the seat feeling my legs against the tank; it is one of those moments when you feel everything. 

 

And with the dawn comes a dawning; I realise I am not scared anymore.  The motorbike accident, that outback road and looking up through the blood-smeared visor of my helmet, the silent longing to be, to not lose consciousness, to stay alive to the blue, blue sky above me.  And my friend appearing over a hill and speeding towards me and cutting the bloody jeans from my legs and bathing the hole in my knee.  And me too shocked to feel anything, even the fractures and the torn and bloodied elbow.   Just the empty road and the smell of petrol pouring on to the ground and the taste of dust in my mouth.

 

Now it is this holiday Friday and I realise that my hands are my hands and that wind is washing my face.  I notice that I am actually here and that I am not afraid anymore.  Underneath my jacket and pants there are scars.  My ankle is still swollen after 6 months and there are these strange indelible bruises like birthmarks. And the motorbike is scarred too, scratches and gouges in its red paint, pieces torn away and discarded.  I instinctively and gently touch the cool tank with my hand. Well, fuck me, I think. Here we are, my motorbike and me, both of us scarred forever.

 

But at least we are scarred for life.

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Filed under australia, fear, life, Men, motorbikes, self