A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Stones: a Memoir

“You can throw stones only if everyone aims out across the water and no boy stands in front of another,” I say. “Okay?”

A wide azure sky, a glassy lake and a chorus of kookaburras in the red gums to each side.  On school camps like this I feel the same vigour and sense of freedom that I see in the kids.  The boys cannot resist the billion or so smooth pebbles covering the shore; a sort of magic draws the hand to them, impels the arm to throw at something.  I am feeling what they feel – or is it a faint echo from my childhood calling through my body?

Other echoes from very recent events ring in my mind, such as the staff meeting in which we tried to thrash out the issue of whether boys need a different education from girls.  The proposal to ban some potentially injurious games in the yard was a particularly hot potato.  “We have to give boys scope to be themselves, to find themselves,” I recall saying to colleagues.  “Yes, they also need to learn how to respect others, to empathise, to express feelings the right way.  But they’re wired to take risks and to push and shove and throw and jump and all the rest of it.  Try to repress all that and it’ll break out in ways we can’t accept.”

The thirty-odd boys in my charge are waiting on the lake shore for the rest of the campers to collect us in a bus.  I’m weary after a long hike.  I would love to sit for a while, but the bus is already over half an hour late and the kids are aching for physical activity.  With sixty feet crunching deliciously on a thick carpet of pebbles, I know that before long some boy will pick one up and it will be on for young and old. But I have to prevent them from hurting each other.  So, cursing the bus, I try to direct the urge constructively.  I show them the water-skipping technique.

Decades ago my father would walk my brother, sister and me along the beach and show us how to send pebbles bouncing across the surface of the sea.  He dissected the whole routine – finger-grip, arm action, stance, type of pebble.  Whenever the chance came I would lose myself in endless practice.

It was simple repetition with an effort to discover tiny variations that could make the difference between the satisfaction of achieving a clean skip and the ecstasy induced by a perfect triple-skipper or better.  And occasionally all the heavens would ring with triumph when my little missile happened to leap off the crest of a smooth wave and soar high into an arc undreamt of.  It was a quest every bit as heroic and compelling as that of the alchemists and the seekers of the grail.

As rapt as when I listened to my Grade 3 teacher read the story of David and Goliath, I acted out a myth living deep in the human unconscious.  The myth adopts you as its own, ennobles you and infuses you with its power.  And somehow, swelling with this hubris, you believe that you are beyond moral reproach, that whatever you aim for must be the right target.  Most boys are seduced thus at some stage of their lives; adulthood, too, brings the occasional relapse; some men even seem to live the myth constantly.

There is something about the stone itself, the feel of it in your hand, stirring the hero within.  Pondering this recently where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet Australia’s coast, I walked over massive granite boulders that taunt the green mountains of water into furious white suicide.  The scene has continued for millennia.  One gigantic eruption of spray follows another, and the long lines of the waves keep coming from over the horizon towards the same fate.  The only variation from one day to the next is in their size; the action and its direction never changes.

There was little more imagination or self-questioning among the military master-minds under whom my grandfather fought in the Great War.  They would send wave upon wave of men in attacks against the German lines, knowing full well that most or all would die without taking any enemy ground.  The war of attrition: just keep attacking for however long it takes to wear the bastards down, regardless of how many of your own you lose.  But now the rock, not the sea, seemed to epitomise my grandfather and all those whom the war claimed.  They and their stories and their sufferings, like the boulders I stood on, endure in the collective memory of the generations.

I clambered across the granite shoulders just above the water-line.  The rock, so cold and hard, gave deep comfort, offering a sort of unconditional, perpetual stability.  A sort of love, even.  I remembered how, as a boy, I would picnic with my parents at Port Elliot and Victor Harbour, in another State some thousands of kilometres to the east along the same coastline.  At the first chance I would run away along the sand, past all the idle sunbathers, run until no other human voice could reach my ears, to where brilliant fingers of spray leapt from the outcrops of boulders with one huge roar after another, and go to a spot where I could feel cradled by the granite all around me.

I was the child of this savage, elemental world, and its wisdom and power were passed on to me through contact with the rock.  Here, as huge swells loomed and the southerly wind whipped my face, I could cry irresistible commands to humanity, knowing that the words came straight from the heart of creation.

From trips like this I would inevitably bring home pebbles and sometimes bigger chunks of stone to add to a collection scattered in nooks and crannies of my room.  Certain pebbles became very special: a smooth, ovoid piece of conglomerate, mostly blue-black but orange-brown at one end; another piece of conglomerate like a shiny, buckled plate, pale brown with a couple of dark grey pieces and a set of wavy lines like some ancient script.  And there were many others, and often I would take one to school, where I could escape from the tyranny of some boring teacher by fondling the pebble to be empowered anew with the natural force that was my birth-right. I would polish it lovingly.

The stone linked me with my origins.  I had come from a past so distant that it could be timeless, a past that hummed in my mouth songs with no words but with meaning that I could feel in my belly.  It was like the euphoria that follows a delicious meal after a laborious day of fast.  Daily life and its people were not enough to quell the hunger pangs I felt; succour came only from a source to which time was irrelevant.

Thus could stone empower the spirit, but it could also become an instrument for seeking worldly power.  In my primary school years I yearned to belong to a certain neighbourhood gang which roamed the local paddocks.  They were an exclusive group with high status who made and played with “stone guns”, wooden catapults shaped like small rifles or pistols.  The hierarchy of authority that boys lean towards was explicitly based on the quality of each person’s gun and shooting.  The idea of owning such a weapon captured me. Though far less able than other boys at hand-craft of any sort, I spent hours at Dad’s work-bench, driven by desire to rise in the estimation of my peers.

It was a hopeless product that I turned out.  When I took it out to play with the gang they were aiming at targets like boxes and posts. The device which released my elastic and the stone it propelled just wouldn’t work.  I resorted to pulling back the elastic and holding it between my fingers like an ordinary shanghai until I was ready to shoot.  This made the aim very unreliable.

I let go and there was a scream of pain.  My mate Roger was on his knees with both hands clasped to one eye!  On all sides the fingers of scornful accusation immediately pointed at me.

I fled home in bewildered shame.  Roger came to school for a day or two with a bandage over one eye, but the injury was not serious.  As far as I can remember I didn’t know what to say to him.  I think it was the first time I had ever caused a perceptible injury, and I was too shocked to think of an apology. The rest of the gang, I felt, were quite hypocritical in using me as a scapegoat.  They ostracised me permanently.

It’s in most of us from birth, the urge of boys to throw and hit things, embedded in the brain like rock-bound fossils from aeons ago.  I wonder if neuroscientists Bill and Ann Moir had some such image in mind when they wrote about “brain-sculpting” – the way hormones released in the third month after conception shape neurological structures into male or female, homosexual or heterosexual forms.  Certainly the evidence presented by the scientists is as hard as granite: in general, boys are better at certain things than girls, and vice versa.  Because of innate brain-structure, males tend to excel in such areas as judging size, distance and spatial relationships, along with gross motor activity.  Little wonder that they want to aim at targets, propel, jump and climb, run over much bigger spaces than most of the girls. 

Such knowledge was still to reach me when, at the age of twenty, words bruised like rocks as spectators hurled them at me and my companions walking down the middle of city streets.  As when the gang had ostracised me in childhood, I was again the target of abuse – but this time for refusing to shoot guns.  I had registered as a conscientious objector against conscription into the armed services fighting in Vietnam, and now marched in protest.  Many other marchers surrounded me, but the accusations of “Traitor!” and “Coward!” stung.

Were my birth-date to be drawn from the conscription barrel I would have to become a soldier unless I could defend my beliefs in court.  While not completely pacifist, I vehemently opposed Australia’s participation in that war.  This was not a basis for a defence according to law, so I doubt in retrospect that I could have argued my case successfully.  In the end I was not conscripted but discovered that several of my mates had been.  And two, perhaps the gentlest and least defensive of all, had been killed.

Now, nearly forty years later on the shore of this lake, the boys bubble around me with glee, competing to see who can get the most skips out of a pebble.  Glad that I introduced the idea, I squat down to show them some stones of superior shape and size.

And then my head explodes.  Stunned, I see that my hand has found sticky blood oozing from just above one eye.

The rock came from slightly behind me; it did not travel directly towards the water.  An innocent child’s clumsy technique, perhaps?  I hardly try to find the culprit, because somehow it seems wrong to relate the cause to the boys around me here and now.  The pain in my head feels many, many years old.

“Sorry, Roger,” I groan.  “Please forgive me.”

© Stephen Crabbe 2002