Another world of sound was slowly but surely entering my life. While hardcore punk forever remained on the sidelines, garage rock broke out of the underground and directly entered the minds of millions of young people around the world, changing the music scene forever. Taking a cue from Nirvana, we wore plaid shirts and short T-shirts over long-sleeved ones, while Pearl Jam, with their more melodic sound, epitomized the American reality of the 90s.
“Do you know that you look like the lead singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” my classmates teased me. I was crazy about their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Alternative funk rock with shades of rap was a revelation to me.
The eclectic 90s had begun. “Give It Away” was rocking from my cassette player. I copied down the lyrics, even though I didn’t really understand them and nor did I read too deeply into the words that preached altruism and selflessness. To me they signified rebellion and a “don’t-give-a-damn” attitude. The times were mean and nasty. The war and the siege of my birthplace began.
May 9, 1992. Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II and the defeat of fascism. We had to write about the same topic for an assignment in primary school and I couldn’t restrain myself. Risking a good grade, I wrote about fascism and my sense of loss, about the death of Yugoslavia built on the skeletons of those who’d fought against fascism, which in former Yugoslavia had become even more pronounced than it had been in 1942. I wrote about my friends and the fear of never seeing them again. I got an A for my assignment, even though I digressed from the topic a bit, but what else could I do when the times were going awry?
Timur was attacked. He’d been getting harassed for some time by the nouveau riche kids—real turncoat nationalist bastards—who burned the teachers’ grade books and scrawled graffiti over the school and yet who somehow excelled as students. Classes had ended for the day, and just outside the schoolyard—a mob had gathered. They followed Timur, teasing him. He bore it stoically, but then they began shoving and hitting him. He tried to defend himself but he couldn’t stay on his feet. He fell to the ground and the others jumped him. At that moment, I forgot that they were all two heads taller than me and twice as heavy as my 80-odd pounds—including the denim jacket covered with heavy metal patches I was wearing—and I threw myself into the fray, swinging wildly at everyone around me.
Timur got up and, not realizing that I was next to him, began to run off. A few of the others gave chase but he was a lot faster and they never caught up to him. Someone shouted “You effin’ Serb!” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Some of them came back and turned on me. “This guy was sticking up for him!” they shouted, and in that moment time stood still. Moving toward me was a force of nature in the shape of a crowd thirsting for blood.
“Don’t lay a finger on him!” someone next to me said. They froze on the spot, put their tails between their legs, and left. I turned around to face a metalhead who looked dangerous and evil. He gave me a wink. To this day I don’t know who he was—maybe my heavy metal guardian angel—but I’m grateful to him because he saved me from a lynching. I’d always known it, but that day I received indisputable confirmation—music connects us regardless of ethnic, religious or regional differences.
Timur never forgave himself for leaving me alone, despite the fact that at the time and amid all the confusion he didn’t realize it was me in there, trying to defend him. Since then he’s been trying to make up for it and has always been there when I needed him—to this very day. But then, I reckon it’s because I helped him when everyone else abandoned him, and because we were different from all the others—prejudged and misunderstood. Maybe that’s why we were inseparable in good times and in bad. And the bad times were yet to come.
The next day Bobby and his brother came to school with me and hung around the schoolyard in case they needed to defend us. Both of them were big and burly, unshaven, long-haired guys. The Principal called us to her office.
“Who are those criminals hanging around the schoolyard?” she yelled at us. We were taken aback.
“M-my sister’s boyfriend,” I stammered.
“Tell them to leave at once!” she thundered.
“But yesterday Timur was beaten up, and we—“
“I’m not interested. I don’t know anything about that. And you two will be punished . . .”
Of course she knew. Of course she was interested. But not in justice. She was interested in the parents of those kids who were beating us up, in their support, their money, and their power. We were worthless insects who, squashed or otherwise, made no difference to anyone. We were punished, while the bullies got off scot-free. That was the beginning of a new era.
I was checking out the cassettes at Bagi Shop, the music store in the Mavrovka mall, when all of a sudden a thunderous sound from the speakers shook me to the core. I was electrified. I asked the owner what he was playing and before I knew what was happening, Rage Against the Machine entered my life like a tornado, lifting me up high and slamming me back down again. I felt as though I were riding a wild horse that I couldn’t control. The times were making us all feel that way.
It was the end of the school year and we were getting ready for the holidays. The physics teacher hadn’t arrived yet. The bell rang. Timur and I were arm wrestling. Even though I was leading 13-3, I still wanted to keep going. “If you bend your body, you’ll use the deltoid muscle,” we’d talked about our arm-wrestling techniques many times before, and we knew the Latin names of all the large muscles, because we lifted weights every day after school. Timur pumped up quickly and he didn’t plan on stopping. In the years to come, he became a dangerous guy who defied the bullies, the bared pistols, and the security gorillas outside the nightclubs. In the end, those who used to beat him up would run a mile as soon as they saw him.
As we were arm wrestling, I twisted my arm around awkwardly, so when Timur pressed his fist with all his might, my arm had nowhere to go and a bone snapped—just like in the movies. I lost consciousness but then came to, and saw my arm dangling. I grabbed hold of it and ran outside. And thus, the saga of my humerus fracture began.
Waiting several hours with a broken arm at the City hospital, and then being saddled with a poorly fitted plaster cast. Removal of the crappy cast with a pair of old-fashioned pliers, because the hospital’s drill wasn’t working. Broken bones that hadn’t healed properly. Vain attempt at separating them. An operation and a metal rod inserted in my arm.
Then, a damaged nerve, slow recovery, and atrophied muscles after the removal of the cast. The whole summer holidays spent at a rehabilitation center in Kozle. Every day. Massaging muscles. Hot paraffin wax therapy for a stiff elbow. Nerve stimulation, physical therapy exercises. Infrared heat lamp. All in vain. The top neurosurgeons in Macedonia advised me to travel to Slovenia for an operation.
“Listen, son, if you want to get better, you’ll have to work at it,” said a middle-aged man who attended the physiotherapy sessions with me.
“But the nerve isn’t responding. It’s dead.”
“Take a look at my arm,” he said, and raised it. “Can you see that? It moves.”
“Listen to what I’m telling you. I know all about it. My case is the same as yours—radialis nerve injury,” he smiled. “Just keep exercising and don’t stop. You can rely on either a machine hoist to lift your arm or on yourself to lift it.”
“But I can’t lift it, not even half an inch!”
“Lift it with your brain! Lift it in your mind. And put a splint on your arm before going to bed at night and sleep with it on.”
“Killing In The Name” by Rage Against the Machine was roaring through the speakers. The walls were shaking. They’re being killed in the name of who?! Suffering, death, misery, hunger, and disease . . . Are my friends OK? . . . Are they alive? . . . And my dad? Do I really care about him? . . . Has he been able to escape? I wondered to myself. But the only sound that came out from deep within me was a wild and primordial cry: “Aaaaaa!” as I tried with all my strength and mind power to lift my arm.
The sweat was running down my forehead, but I just kept repeating, “The power of the mind! The power of the mind!” I needed all the pent up anger and frustration, the noise and rage of all those fighting against the machine—grunge rockers, gangsta rappers, and metalheads—so I could defeat the metal rod in my arm; fourteen stainless steel screws that went through my bone and pinched the nerves that had previously been removed from the muscle tissue and held in the assistant’s rubber-gloved hands during surgery to bind the bones. And then finally it happened—my arm moved—a fraction of an inch.
The distance between zero and a fraction of an inch is greater than the distance between one inch and a yard. Then everything sped up. And preparations for the entrance exam for high school went smoothly. But the intricate movements of the fingers that allow one to hold a pen and write were still far from my abilities. “Everything’s in the mind,” I remembered. I learned to write with my left hand and that’s how I got into “Josip Broz Tito Senior High School.”
Had comrade Tito known what was happening to the land that he’d built, he’d be grateful that he wasn’t alive. Or maybe not?
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015