Lesson #08 – “The stories we tell ourselves”

by | Jul 8, 2022

“Forever Young ” – Youth Group. Capturing everything about skaeboarding with your friends.

My parents were very young when they were married. Mum was sixteen and Dad nineteen. Mum was still sixteen when she gave birth to my older sister Jennie. They spent the first years of their marriage living and parenting in a bungalow behind my grandparents’ home in Burwood.

Almost three years later, I was born, with my brother Brendan arriving four years after. In the meantime, my parents bought a quarter-acre block on subdivided orchards in Swayfield Road, Mt Waverley. They built a small weatherboard home on a dirt road with no sewage and an old-fashioned dunny in the backyard.

Many young couples shared my parents’ baby-boomers ideal of the ‘Great Australian Dream’, and the streets filled with kids, most going to a large local primary school, Essex Heights, bursting at the seams as it tried to keep up with the quickly-growing population. It was, in the main, a white bread, meat-and-two-veg, billy-cart riding, tadpole catching, street football and cricket playing, suburban childhood.

When it came time to transition to secondary school, the natural progression was one of the local high and tech schools. Only a few went to private schools, of which I was one. I found myself at Camberwell Grammar based on a recommendation my father had received from someone in his network.

All of my closest mates went to one of the local schools, which was my preference, but I trusted my parents’ wisdom and certainly knew no better.

I recently had a primary school reunion with my year group from Essex Heights and learned that only a few kids who went to the local schools went beyond Year 10, but this was not unusual.

I once asked mum about the decision to send me to Camberwell Grammar. I assumed it would relate to their desire for me to finish my secondary schooling and perhaps go to university. But her answer was telling, “We thought you could go either way”, she said, referencing some of the trouble local kids in the area were finding themselves in, me included, mostly just mischief and boundary testing but with a high probability of escalation.

Most of the trouble emerged when large groups formed, which for me and my mates increasingly centred on a new fad, skateboarding – chalky clay white wheels, skinny trucks and five-ply wooden decks that you’d carve out yourself in woodwork class at school.

Not surprisingly, there are some good hills in Mt Waverley – speed wobbles and a lack of traction would kick in down Highbury Road, and soon you were knocking the scab off a graze that was never given time to heal. But we loved it. The freedom, tricks, camaraderie and capacity to injure, all alluring for a pack of pre-teens.

Local skateboarding legends abounded. There was a kid in our neighbourhood called Snake Mason. To this day, I don’t know his real name, despite his younger brother Greg being a good mate of mine at Essex Heights. Snake was a local legend because he could do a handstand on his skateboard. These were the people we now looked up to.

It was very much a surf vibe, although none of us had ever surfed. Long hair, Levi jeans, and Adidas Rome runners, but the look was only completed if you had a particular brand and type of t-shirt, the ‘Golden Breed’ surf shirt.

There were, however, other groups forming with a far more sinister overtone. Organised gangs, the most dangerous and ubiquitous being the Sharpies, very distinctive with bleached rat-tail haircuts, homemade knuckle tattoos, conny jackets, tight Staggers jeans and big platform stomping boots. They were also very territorial, and violent, the local branch being the Jordy Boys from the neighbouring suburb of Jordanville.

In terms of my transition, I wholly underestimated the adjustment to a mid-70s private boys’ school in the heart of the leafy and affluent suburb of Canterbury.

It felt like I was at Hogwarts. There was no school uniform at Essex Heights, and most of us dressed as we did on weekends, and I am now wearing a blazer and tie and receiving a Saturday detention if caught doing otherwise, including the travel to and from school, which for me was up to three hours per day on tram, train and foot. Your uniform ‘crime’ was most likely to be reported by a fellow student, an older kid who carried the title of Prefect, some of whom took far greater enjoyment from the power they wielded than the responsibility their leadership role mandated. An early leadership lesson.

There was also the school environment, defined mainly by a cadre of aggressive male teachers expecting to be called Sir, yelling at you for what seemed no reason, mostly how pitiful some of us are, yet should feel privileged to be in this school.

Then there was the student dynamic, the hormonal soup of teenage males in various stages of puberty and a broad range of emotional and physical maturity, many with a great sense of entitlement, second and third generation Camberwell Grammarians, most of whom were nothing like the group I’d grown up with.

I was now living two lives and struggling to belong to either. I had all the expectations that came with being a student at a school with an all-or-nothing compliance and rules-based philosophy, including not being allowed to play local club footy, something I’d done since I was a six-year-old, sequentially squeezing out the mates I’d grown up with, who couldn’t relate to the peculiar world I was required to negotiate.

They were also stretching their legs, and had taken to riding their skateboards beyond what you would consider the natural childhood boundaries, those familiar places between home, school and the local shops, only to find there are almost identical versions of our neighbourhood a few miles away.

The closest of my mates was Mick Brownlie, that’s him in the photo with me in my Richmond jumper, a couple of years older, ‘small in stature but big in heart’ would be the sporting parlance that would best describe him. He was a leader and risk-taker, and I admired him greatly, and still do almost fifty years later. Those childhood years were built around a narrative of “Me and Mick” when describing any activity, and I just tried to keep up with him. Having entered high-school two years before, this was often a bridge too far, physically and emotionally and I was being left behind.

One Sunday morning, I managed to join my mates as they went on one of their neighbourhood journeys. I was twelve years old, clearly the younger of the group, denoted in part by my date of birth, but certainly physical maturity. I wasn’t small, just average height but a little bit pudgy, and most of my mates were in the early phases of puberty reflected in mood, physicality and attitude, and I was some years away from this threshold, and I felt it.

From memory, there were around six of us, and we stopped outside some shops on an unfamiliar main road. I remember a few of the group lighting up smokes as we sat on our skateboards, and I was offered one, and I duly obliged and did my best to feign drawing back so I wouldn’t gag.

Not long after, we saw another group of young blokes coming up the road. Unlike us, they didn’t have skateboards, and they were jostling and play fighting, pushing and shoving, putting each other in headlocks. They were loud, boisterous, and threatening, at least to me, but I was unsure if any of my group felt like I did, but I knew they were not about to move away or retreat.

There was an air of inevitability in this. Firstly, some verbal, but of an ilk I had never experienced. As the groups drew closer, I did my best to stay at a safe distance, or at least close enough to a friend from the next street, Russell Stratton, already well into puberty and a gifted sportsman, a no-fear competitor, and whilst quietly spoken, a natural enforcer and protector, but not a peacemaker.

As the groups found themselves inching closer, the banter started to dry up, and with the prospect of physicality growing by the second, I sensed my inadequacy for this conflict. I would do anything to be in my bedroom, reading comics, drawing footballers, or playing with Lego with my younger brother Brendan. That place, however, might as well have been another state, another country, a different universe.

I caught the eye of one of the kids in the group, who was eyeing me off. He had a tight brown t-shirt with the word SLADE flocked on the front. At least, that is what I assumed it said. It was missing the A, and the E was half peeled off. I tried not to meet his gaze, but suddenly, he was running at me, straight past Russell Stratton. Before I could make any sense of what was happening, the SLADE kid punched me flush on the nose with a straight jab before sending me to the concrete footpath with a right hook that made my head ring and flattened my left ear.

I remember looking at the concrete as I lay there, its cracks and its texture, familiar but foreign, feeling the blood drip from my nose and again I thought of my bedroom before feeling a hard kick to my back, then another, and then another and wondering why they didn’t hurt.

Then it stopped, and I could hear the noise of people fleeing the scene and my mates giving chase, and now I am alone, lying on the concrete in a mix of blood and snot.

My head was ringing. It was the first experience of real fist-on-face and head and all of its brutality, giving context to the thousands of TV fights we had reenacted with this same group of friends in our respective houses, what only seemed like yesterday. I remember closing my eyes, trying to stop myself from crying, forcing the tears back into my head, still laying on the concrete, warm and blindingly white in the suburban sunshine, red dots shining and getting darker as I lay there.

I cannot recall any pain as such, just a feeling of head ringing and ear and nose swelling but I remained pinned to the place where I had fallen.

My only solace was my solitude; I wanted it to last forever, but I knew it couldn’t. I sat up, and as I straightened, what seemed like a cup of blood gushed out of my nose and down the front of my prized Golden Breed surf shirt.

I sensed my friends returning, but I could not face them. I looked over at a bunch of abandoned skateboards, mine included, thinking that only a few minutes earlier, my only worry was how to fake the drawback on a Marlboro Red.

I stood up a tad wonky, such that I did not want to get back on my skateboard, the riding skills, long since mastered, having deserted me. I started walking, not in the direction of my mates, but the opposite direction. Soon I was running, as fast as my skateboard-encumbered, head throbbing, chubby, preteen body could go.

I was running away from my shame, my feebleness and cowardice exposed, laid bare, previously suspected, now known.

I hoped I had enough space from my mates that they may well give up on their chase given the energy they’d expended in the previous minutes, or they recognised my desire to be alone.

But, before I knew it, Mick caught up and grabbed me. I tried to escape him, but he held on. He was on his own, but I couldn’t face him. He is a few inches shorter than me, and I remember thinking, why didn’t the SLADE kid punch Mick? But I knew why. ‘Small in stature but big in heart’, and he sensed it. I was the soft target, the easy kill.

I couldn’t get the image of the SLADE kid out of my head. He was also smaller than me, roo-dog skinny, and looked my age. Just how good would that kid be feeling now? The respect amongst his peers, the reenactments and pats on the back. The friendly headlocks from the older kids, his place in the folklore of his friendship group now secure.

Mick kept trying to meet my gaze, but I couldn’t look at him, my face red hot, tears and snot and blood. I turned to go another way, but Mick kept getting in my way.

“It’s okay mate,” he said, “It’s okay.”

I couldn’t look at him, let alone tell him it wasn’t okay. It can’t be okay. It would never be fucking okay.

Mick held me long enough for the rest of the group to catch us. They were energised, buzzing with adrenaline. They admired the big splash of blood on my shirt, and talked over each other as we made our way home, walking with skateboards in the crooks of our arms. The talk focused on what strategies and tactics would be employed for the return bout, which in their minds, was inevitable. It was something to look forward to, as you would your next game of football.

I played no role in this conversation, and without saying it, my friends realised that I brought nothing to this group in this context. I understood. It was a world I was not equipped for and had just proven such.

Mick stayed silent with me, but I also knew he’d be there for the next round with his mates.

As we walked home, I felt a deep sense of self-loathing. It wasn’t for the first time, but now it had been exposed by some skinny SLADE kid from the next neighbourhood who had smelt my fear and saw my weakness.

I got home as the streetlights were coming on and was able to sneak into the back door and my bedroom without seeing anyone. I was able to clean myself up under the guise of readying myself for the next school day, amazed at how little discernible damage there was once the dried blood had been washed away.

I picked up my bloodied Golden Breed surf shirt off the bathroom floor and shoved it to the bottom of my Camberwell Grammar schoolbag, under maths and science books, pencil cases and gym clothes.

The next day I got up as usual, tied my tie and put on my school blazer, and embarked on my long trip to school, a journey that took me from my suburban life into the tree-lined streets of Canterbury.

As I got off the tram and started my way up Mont Albert Road, past the pillared mansions, I made a left-hand turn into one of the streets, looked around, opened my schoolbag and dug out my Golden Breed surf shirt and stuffed it and my shame into its darkness of a street drain.

I continued up Mont Albert Road and walked into the school, amongst the throng, just as the bell rang.

——————

“Mick, there is something I’d like to talk about from when we were growing up”.

“You want to talk about the fight?” he responded.

“How’d you know that is what I wanted to talk about? I can’t believe you remember it”, I reply.

“I remember it. I remember it well.”

I’m on the phone with Mick Brownlie, my mate of fifty years. He immediately starts recounting his take on the story.

I’m speaking to Mick in my car as he lies in the Royal Melbourne Hospital. When he tells me where he is, I feel dread and immediately think the worst. Cancer, I thought. He seemed pained, like he was mid-treatment or similar.

But before I could respond, to my ‘relief’, Mick explained he had four broken vertebrae and three broken ribs and had shifted around a few internal organs, having come off his mountain bike several days earlier.

“Fucking rock,” he says.

“Not the rock’s fault”, I responded as I picture this fifty-something-year-old doing what he had always done, and being who he had always been.

We had not spoken for five years, but it was like we were in daily conversation, slipping straight into the idiom of our youth.

“Yeh, It was on Huntingdale Road near the golf course”, he explains.

“We were out skateboarding, and then we were surrounded by the Jordy Boys”.

“The fucking Jordy Boys”, I say.

“The fucking Jordy Boys”, he confirms.

“How do you know”? I asked.

“I knew because a few of them were at school with me at Mt. Waverly High, and we would come across them over the next few years. A few of them ended up in jail, I think.”

“Are you sure it was the Jordy boys?” I again asked.

“I’m certain.”

“And you put yourself out there”, he says.

“I did what?” I respond.

“It was clear that we weren’t going anywhere unless there was a fight, and from memory, it was David Hallas gobbing off”, Mick says.

“David Hallas”, I repeated.

David ‘Chooka’ Hallas. I hadn’t heard his name for over thirty years, but I could picture him. A tall, wiry and mouthy redhead, well-capable of talking himself, and whoever he was with, into trouble.

“One of the Jordy Boys stepped forward, had one of those sharpie haircuts, not that big, but dangerous-looking. You must have fancied your chances because you put yourself out there to fight him”, Mick said.

“I did what?”, repeating myself.

“Yeah, you stepped forward to fight him. He came straight at you and punched the fuck out of you before you could raise a hand. Then you hit the ground. He started kicking you, and the rest of us jumped in, but they took off.”

“That’s not how I remember it Mick. I thought he’d picked me off, and I got belted”.

“Nup. You put yourself up. Not sure what you were thinking, but this kid could fight, and he knew the best way to win a fight is to get a few in early, and he did.”

Mick continued, “I’ve told the story to a lot of people over the years.”

“Told the story?” I asked.

“I tell them the Jordy Boy story when people know I know you. Your name would come up around the footy clubs I played for when you were in the news. I’d explain we’ve known each other since we were little kids, and I tell them you’re the type of bloke who would put yourself out there, take one for the team, and you did when you were a kid, and you’ve done it ever since. I always loved that about you, mate”, he says.

There is silence as I try to reconcile what I am hearing with the story I’d been telling myself for four decades.

Mick breaks the silence. “Better go. I’m hurting like fuck. Time for some drugs”.

“Love you Mick.”

“Love you too mate. Watch out for those Jordy boys.”

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