Friday, September 24, 2010

The Day I Learned To Play Dodgeball

Remember that silly old game they constantly made us play in the lower grades of elementary school? A smiling teacher would lead us to the playground, a half-deflated leather ball in one hand, and then divide the gathered children into two opposing teams: the pitchers and the dodgers. To the utter disbelief of my more competitive friends I would invariably volunteer for a dodger - and then stand like a statue in the middle of the field for the rest of the game. Or as long, that is, as it took some eager pitcher to hit me through the flock of running, screaming children.

Then I would happily trot back to my London or Sjenkjevich, and spend the rest of the PE class blissfully lost in reading. Had I known that in the subsequent years I would come to need the faculties other children pursued with such zeal, perhaps I would have shown more enthusiasm for the game. Then again, maybe not…

~ ~ ~

It was late spring in 1999, and life was a never ending source of fun. I had just turned 22, was working for an art gallery as an acquisition manager, my 2nd year exams at English literature department were under way and... As a reward for an exquisite series of tricks a certain ape in Belgrade had performed, my country was chosen to provide the fireworks for NATO's 50th anniversary.

Oh, goodie...

“You think this was a smart move?” Daemiel asked as we rode the 5-mile bus line to the city center with a bottle of red wine in the backpack each. It was our friend O’Milyana’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate a friend’s birthday than getting royally sloshed while watching the firecrackers?

“Why not?” I shrugged; the absence of sirens throughout the long hours of early afternoon had left me unusually optimistic. “It’s not like I’d be wrapped in cotton if I stayed home, either.”

The street I grew up in was one of the most peaceful in the town - at that point, however, it boasted the presence of assorted high officers in the local army and therefore could be considered a legitimate military target.

“True”, Daemiel consented absent-mindedly, looking out past the row of empty seats and onto the street below. “Our stop comes next.”

We got off the bus and into the nearest liquor store. “God loves variety”, Daemiel nodded her approval as I emerged behind the counter with a bottle of dry gin and Indian tonic water.

“I think we’ve got everyone covered now”, I mused as we walked out of the store - while O'Milyana and her mom were wine persons, Daemiel and myself preferred the sparkly aroma of good old gin&tonic. But just as my friend opened her mouth to profess her enthusiasm for the forthcoming festivities, a loud bang echoed off the surrounding buildings.

“You don’t suppose it’s…?” Daemiel searched my face, her pupils acquiring the quality of miniature flying saucers.

“Nah…” I shook my head with a scowl. “If it were, the air-raid alarm would have already gone off.”

I turned to continue on my way when, just to spite me, the damned things did go off. The air filled with the wailing of a thousand horny cats from Hell, and within seconds Daemiel and I were alone in the street.

“Great…” I grumbled, looking for the nearest shelter. “Now what?”

“I think we better get to O’Milyana’s place…. Fast”, my suddenly monochrome friend spat out and hurried towards the 14-storey-building which harbored the birthday girl.

By the time we entered the building the electricity was already out, and we were facing the threat of panting up the 10 flights of stairs in complete darkness. Fortunately, the preceding couple of weeks left us well-trained for this sort of emergency and we promptly produced our compact flashlights out of the backpacks.

At the third floor we almost collided with a frenzied group of tenants clutching supplies of food, clothes and covering that would see a lees ambitious party through a fortnight in the Andes.

“Watch your fucking way!" Exclaimed an elderly man with a battery-operated TV set under one arm; he almost knocked Daemiel down with the bird cage he hung over the other.

“What’s wrong with these people?” I muttered as we approached the door that had our friend’s last name printed on it in capital, bold letters.

Before I could raise my hand to knock the door flung open, and we were all but shoved inside by O’Milyana’s mother. “You kids are crazy”, she glared at us, motioning for O'Milyana's room. “She’s in there, but we are leaving for the shelter so be quick.”

We stumbled across the narrow corridor, completely baffled by the lady’s words. "Be quick… What the Hell did that mean?” I wondered as I kissed my friend to wish her many happy returns.

It turned out it meant Daemiel and I were not invited to the little underground party tenants of the building threw whenever they heard the cat call. “You know how it is…” O’Milyana shrugged, plump cheeks red with embarrassment. “No one likes strangers in the shelter.”

Sure, we already suspected as much. To the untrained eye, Daemiel and I could indeed look like two members of US special units on their way to kill off the unsuspecting civilians with a bottle of drink and a flashlight.

We trudged our weary way down the staircase, and found ourselves back on the street where we came from.

“Now what?” It was Daemiel’s turn to inquire.

Unfortunately, O’Milyana was telling the truth: unless you were a resident of the building in question, or a relative close enough for someone to stick his neck out for you and face the edgy crowd, there was no way to gain entry into the classified circles of shelter-dwellers. We could either sit it out, or walk it out.

We decided to drink it out.

“There goes another plant!” Daemiel raised her bottle as a stifled detonation reached our camp at the base of a gray skyscraper.

“Mm-hm” I nodded as I performed the astounding feat of mixing gin and tonic straight from the bottle. I would have broken the world’s record too, but for the second explosion that sounded too close for my liking.

The contents of my mouth came splashing all over the pavement as I grabbed the backpack with one hand and the sleeve of Daemiel's shirt with the other.


We ran down the empty street, debating whether the word “civilian” would be more effective written across our backs or on our foreheads and whether a deserted playground would prove more secure of a shelter than an empty bus station, when the monotonous tone of the siren announced that the air was finally clear.

“What the…?” I glanced up, almost toppling over a trash can some idiot of a dustman left at the end of the pavement.

“Saved by the siren…” Daemiel laughed. It might’ve been me, but I could’ve sworn there was something wrong with the wine Daemiel was drinking back at the base camp; she didn’t seem a least bit drunk to me.

We caught the bus back home only to be informed half-way that we could either turn back or walk the rest of the way: a two-mile area stretching right across the only road to our home town was strewn with cluster bombs, and there was no bus driver depressed enough to brave the crossing.

“How long will it take to clear it away?” We asked the police officer securing the scene.

“I’d say three hours, at least”, he shrugged.

Daemiel exchanged glances.

“But the road is clear, yes?” I tried again, hoping beyond hope.

“Sort of…” was the helpful answer I got, so we decided not to push our luck any further and got back on the bus to the city center.

That night, as we returned from a friendly game of yamb at Daemiel's boyfriend’s place, we heard the air-raid alarm go off again.

We were standing at the end of a treelined path leading through the park that separated us from the relative safety of our respective homes. We were expecting to hear distant detonations, like we always had in the past, but this time the explosion was much closer and the air blast broke the boughs of several trees along the path. Too close.

“It’s the transformer” Daemiel whispered. It was rumored that the power supplies would be the next “legitimate military target”, and the said transformer was situated less than a mile away. She crouched beside the road with her arms around her knees, and started rocking back and forth; there was a look of genuine terror in her eyes.

I caught myself thinking about earlier that day, the old man with the cage and O'Milyana's mom, the sobbing young mother with a feverish baby and belligerent pensioners on the bus we caught back home. I could have sworn I heard something crack at that moment, and found myself taking a step towards the park.

“What are you doing?!” The utter stupidity of my act shook Daemiel out of her hysteria. “You will get hit!” Whether she was referring to the boughs or the bombs, she didn’t say.

“Nah…” I smiled to dismiss her worries. “I’ll dodge”, I winked and started walking down the branch-strewn path with my eyes firmly set on the finish line.

And so I’ve been walking ever since.
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