I was eight years old and Africa was in trouble. The world was mobilizing itself. At the helm, one of the biggest stars—Michael Jackson—led a chorus of other stars with the song “We Are the World.” It was unforgettable. Anyone born in the late seventies remembers this as a magical moment when the world came together to do something to help those less fortunate. Live Aid followed later. The West collectively laundered its conscience through music.
The images of malnourished black children with distended bellies and protruding ribs left a deep impression on us throughout our childhood. We felt ashamed, guilty even, because we had enough food and water, we enjoyed free healthcare and school, not to mention all the major amenities of life. But, were we also “the world?”
The 1984 Winter Olympics ended and Yugoslavia finally earned its deserved place in the world as the culmination of a dream—the dream of our Marshal Tito on a white horse, who led us to a brighter future. But he passed away, and the future began to look a lot less bright. After the Olympics, it was as if all our dreams had been shattered. And the germ that brought with it inflation, ethnic hatred, territorial claims, and war began to sprout. The bobsled track, which world champions once whizzed down, became virtually covered with moss.
But none of us children felt any of that. In the tradition of the Olympic Games, we continued to uphold the positive spirit of sport and unity. Each of us had a hockey stick, and we used a tennis ball instead of a puck. We had a real blast.
The first snowfall of the season piled up high along our street, reaching above our heads. We spent the whole afternoon tirelessly and eagerly stamping it down. And in the morning we would go outside and plunge headlong into the snow.
One day, the team from the next street played against our street. The needlessly rough visitors physically dominated us on our home turf. One of our opponents was particularly aggressive. He tripped me up several times but I kept quiet. He was bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than me. And then he tripped me up again.
At that moment, I remembered the story that my father had once told me. “I had just been enrolled in a new school,” he said. “At recess, all the kids went out into the yard. Even though I was a bit shy, I forced myself to go outside to try and make a friend. But that wasn’t easy, so I sat down alone, feigning indifference. Then some kid came over to me. The conversation began innocently enough, but he quickly asked me why I’d beaten up his brother. I made it plain that I didn’t know who his brother was and told him what he just said wasn’t true.
“‘Hey Grami, this dude’s calling me a liar,’ he yelled out, and some big lug, who looked as though he’d been ripped right out of the side of one of the surrounding mountains, stepped menacingly toward me. I got the fright of my life. But at the same time, I realized there was only one way out of my situation. When the big lug approached me, I knew that I had only one chance to strike. I slugged him in the mouth without warning, so hard that he dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. His friend turned as white as a sheet. He quickly picked him up, and they both fled like headless chickens. From that day on, no one ever picked on me again at that school.”
I lay sprawled on the pavement, and in that moment my father’s story flashed through my mind. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that I had to. I leaped from the ground as if jolted by lightning and kicked him hard in the shins. He was stunned. Then the tough boy that everyone was afraid of all of a sudden began apologizing profusely to me. No one could believe it. From that moment on, even the other team members began to tread carefully with us, and every time they ran into me they apologized. That day I became a hero among the group.
But not for long, because the group had more important heroes. Located at the end of our street was a local community hall that had pinball machines and a cinema. Every Saturday they showed films with Bruce Lee, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, and other idols of our childhood. One Saturday they were showing Rocky IV. Excitement and a sense of expectation about Rocky’s latest adventures steadily mounted.
At that time, the Cold War was coming to an end, and in the film the Russians were being portrayed as fanatics thirsty for American blood. But in the end of the film, they were presented as humane in their recognition of democratic values and human rights. However, we weren’t concerned about politics. We just cared about Rocky’s victory. He always took his fair share of punches, but was able to come back after almost being beaten to death to deliver his crushing blows. The archetypal movie character who rises up at the end of the film and heroically fights on behalf of the downtrodden exceeded all our expectations.
“Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor began to play. Rocky came back and landed one blow after another . . . the hulking, invincible bully began to totter. A wave of excitement swept through the hall and I began pounding the chair in front of me with my fists. My hands were hurting, but I didn’t stop because I wanted Rocky to win. I wanted the big bad Russian to go down, to be defeated for the sake of the poor, the hungry, and the dispossessed. In mid-trance, I raised my head and glanced around in the semidarkness of the cinema-hall. Everyone was doing the same thing. Everyone was pounding the seat in front of them. We were united, as one, carried along by a common desire, a common idea, a common dream.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015