Gladstone High School, 1962.
Sammy Beale wasn’t a bad guy, fundamentally. He was 15 going on 16, I guess, when a teenage boy’s self-confidence can way outstrip his judgment – especially a good looking boy with no pimples, creamy slicked hair, a natural deep suntan and a perfect duck’s tail.
No doubt many a teenage girl’s heart missed a beat when he prowled among them. I had no complaint against him, except perhaps for the niggle that the flutter in the teenage girl’s heart translated much more readily into a fluttering of her eyelashes at him than it ever did for anyone like me. He was taller than I, played a bit of Rugby League [the only known football code in Queensland at the time outside the private schools in Brisbane] and pretty muscular for a city slicker, I had to admit grudgingly. We had little to do with each other, which suited us both. Roger Berry had arrived at Gladstone High late in the winter of 1962, when we all wore long trousers as the bottom half of the school uniform instead of shorts and sexy knee-length socks. This was Gladstone Queensland, remember, and anything under 20 degrees was regarded as heading towards Antarctic conditions in terms of nippiness. He and his sisters had come from Melbourne, a place that seemed to most of us tropical denizens as almost unbelievably far to the bottom of our land girt by sea. Such exotic creatures from the deep south were rare novelties for us. Roger went on the bus that I took each day with the other kids from the Beecher-Barua-Calliope area, as his parents had bought the Crossroads Service Station a few kms in from Calliope on the main northern highway. I got to know him quite well and I liked him. To us, the Berrys had a strange translucent pallor to their skin, unlike normal people like us who remained lightly toasted all year round. But the extent of the alien translucence of the Berrys did not become fully apparent until the weather warmed up to its usual brisk 25 degrees or so and went up from there. Like everyone else, Roger shed his long trousers in favour of the standard shorts that we were glad to get back into for the remainder of the year. He was tall and gangly and had a crewcut. The latter did not come against him as some of the toughest kids in the school had crewcuts, but it highlighted his pallor and seeming fragility. He was also smart academically, which did come against him, of course, and he had a very quiet, unruffled temperament. But the khaki shorts revealed for all to see the terrible handicap Roger suffered. His legs were milk-white and virtually hairless. You can guess what this is leading up to, and now that I’ve begun, I must see the story through. Sammy Beale took one look at Roger’s legs and burst into fits of scorn and mirth. Roger was offended, but bore the taunts stoically for some days, even though the sneers and jeers were now spreading to the Beale acolytes amongst our classmates. Strangely, the girls did not come in on the teasing. I didn’t know why. Nor did I join in the taunts, mainly because I did feel sorry for anyone burdened with an affliction so horrendous as hairless white legs, and, as I said, I liked him. Such matters did not weigh heavily on Sammy Beale’s mind. He was having way too much fun. After a week or two, he had a cunning plan. The usual taunts were losing their novelty value, as Roger refused to be sufficiently goaded by them. So, during recess, Sammy sidled up to him in the quadrangle. There were a lot of us around. With his open hand, he smacked the inviting expanse of white upper leg. Hard. The imprint of his hand was vividly pink on the mottled white surface of skin. ‘Don’t do that again.’ It was almost a gentle request, but there was an edge to the tone that Sammy Beale missed or ignored. ‘Or you’ll do what?’ he said, cupping his hand to plant a symmetrical handprint on the other thigh. Roger said nothing but simply waited, his arms loosely by his sides. The second smack did indeed complete the symmetry of the marks on the thighs. With his open left hand, Roger smacked Sammy’s right cheek, then backhandedly with lightning speed repeated the operation on the left. The sound was a bit like paper bags bursting almost simultaneously, if you can remember the days when there were paper bags we’d blow up and pop loudly. He then took Sammy Beale’s chin in his hand and forced his face upwards to make close eye contact. Very close. ‘Now what are you going to do?’ Sammy looked in flushed astonishment and outrage at Roger. Things had suddenly changed. There was no backing out from this one without massive loss of face; a face now crimson against its natural tan for several reasons. He put up his fists. That was the point, I think, where his epiphany occurred, a second or two before the first blow was struck.
|"The Toorak Tap"|
illustration by Watto
Roger took the classic pose you see a trained welterweight boxer assume just after the bell rings for the first round. Several things immediately became crystal clear to Sammy Beale. Roger had nearly 6 inches reach on him, his fists were amazingly large and the hands were hardened by weeks of working on engines at the family Service Station. He was a southpaw, and there was no way a punch from Sammy was going to get through his guard. Pale though the body was, it wasn’t soft at all. In short, it was what I later realised was a classic Aussie Rules body, not that any of us had a clue at the time what that meant, as none of us had ever seen that strange game played. Those of you who want a blow by blow description of what happened next will be slightly disappointed, but let’s just say the contest was all too predictable - short and sharp, and never again were there any derogatory comments about white legs from the Beale faction. Roger could have worn high heels thereafter and there wouldn’t have been a peep out of the Beale boys. Not that Roger was the high heels type, I should add. On the way home on the bus, I couldn’t resist asking. ‘When you jabbed him in the belly, his jaw stuck out a mile,’ I said. ‘You could have uppercut him there and then and that would have been the end of it in two punches. Why didn’t you?’ ‘I know,’ he grinned, ‘I could have, easily – but without gloves on I might have done him some real damage. I didn’t really want to hurt him.’ He looked me with a glint in his eye. ‘And,’ he added. ‘I did want to play round with him a bit before I let him off. In the football off season I used to spar in the gym every week with some pretty good boxers down in Footscray, and I would have liked a little workout. But I wanted it over before the teachers got wind of it.’ ‘Not much chance of them doing that. By the time they might have got to the window of the staff room, Sammy was on his back and not keen to get up. He would have just said he tripped.
‘Hey, you looked like a pretty good boxer,’ I said. ‘I won a prelim bout on a TKO a while back. Nothing special.’
‘It was only reserve grade,’ he replied, ‘but I wasn’t too bad.’
‘Why don't you play footy here?’
‘This stuff? Rugby League? I don't like it.’
It took me ages to work out how come he could say that. In most of Queensland in the early 1960s, that simply didn't make sense.
What a great story - it's interesting to reflect how this would play out in the school year now...Not for the better I would add...in my opinion.ReplyDelete
YAY! I was a tad worried about the title, wondering if you had really decided to let rip with some ancient murky scandal, but that wouldn't have been as 'fun' at all (phew). Isn't it interesting the way that as soon as someone who is not exactly in the accepted mould arrives, they are considered both weird and suspect! Outsiders..I remember a few of those at primary school, completely 'normal' children who were marked out because they had, perhaps, a different school uniform. This made them exotic. Even when they were kitted out in the 'proper' one, they went on being 'outsiders' - forever, basically.I think the world is made up of two kinds of people -those who scorn outsiders, and those who are immensely chuffed at the variation they bring. Another great story (on many levels!) You are helping me relive my life.ReplyDelete
Anne, I think you're quite right - even a fight in those days had rules that wouldn't apply in the school grounds now. Julie, I was still appalled at the time by the white legs, but look at me now.... white, hairless legs!ReplyDelete
Anne, your Mum just reminded me that there is a terrible postscript to this story. Roger, and one of his sisters are now dead. They lived in the house above the service station, and it is accepted that the constant fumes from the petrol night and day made them all develop cancers at an early age. Is that not appalling? Our lives are cursed by this horrible disease.
Great stories Den. Thanks!ReplyDelete
In high school we had a new guy arrive from Scotland, not dissimilar to your story. Smart guy, tall and solid but pale and 'spoke funny'. For some reason he hooked up with myself and a couple of other nerdier friends.
There were also a couple of real trouble makers who would harass us endlessly at lunch times, the bane of our existence, but they meet their match within a couple of days of his arrival. They made the mistake of calling him a 'skirt' one day, and he decked two of them with a single punch a piece. Instant hero in our eyes! We never had trouble from them again.
They learnt belatedly that "ya never mak' fun of a Scotsman an' his kilt"!