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Saturday, May 14, 2011

The White Russians of Yarwun (pt 2)

pt 1 | pt 2 <<< you are here | pt 3 | Stories from my past | Home
They were of course the objects of curiosity because of some of their strange ways. I'll give you an example.

    The Russian women who came into Gladstone hospital to have their babies amazed staff and friends of the nurses at how, when the babies were just a few days old, the young mothers would be stuffing their bellies with nearly as much porridge as breast milk (and there was plenty of the latter, by the look of those women!) Maybe that's why most of the White Russians were so solidly built, boys and girls, by the time they went to school. Like all migrant groups with another native language, it was always the kids who broke the ice and did the integrating.

    So it was with my friend Alec Guerassimoff. I met him at Rural School in Gladstone every Friday, when we were in Grades 7 and 8 (primary school). Just close your eyes and picture the stereotypical Russian boy. There, now I don't have to describe him, do I? But just to make sure, he had that creamy-brown complexion, blond curly hair, and sky-blue eyes that must be just as they are in that picture in your head. He was simply another kid in the class, built like a tank and good at sports, especially any form of football. The school case he carried was made of pine, unlike ours made of more fashionable rubbish, beautifully crafted with the skill of a master cabinetmaker. Home-made, needless to say.

    Any other kid would have been teased because his school port was different to ours. Not Alec. Not unless you were feeling a bit suicidal. Alec was built about 90% of pure muscle, in a stocky non-aggressive way.

    Though now I come to think of it, there was one incident where he did defend himself on the only occasion I witnessed someone foolhardy enough to take him on. He was a high school boy about three years older and much taller than either of us, approaching us on the path with a couple of cronies between high school buildings. He shoved Alec hard and ordered him out of the way. Alec rounded on him in a flash, clasped his arms and body in a bone-crunching bearhug, and hurled him down the two metre embankment beside us. I don't mean pushed. I mean threw him, in an arc with a radius of close to a metre, from top to bottom of the slope.

    Well, I was impressed. So was the idiot who took him on, feeling his ribs gingerly and not willing to get up till we were long gone. His mates chose not to intervene.

    I called him Baloo after that. You know. Kipling's brown bear in The Jungle Book. He didn't know who Baloo was till I told him, and he just grinned.

    We'd stroll down to Fritz Deitie's store at lunchtime to buy finger buns, and chatted about all sorts of things. His brother Jules, he told me once, was going to Queensland University the following year. That was unsurprising as the Guerassimoffs were all clever as well as athletic. But generally, our conversation would be no different from that of any other teenage boys. Why should it have been, after all? That's simply what we were, just boys at school, with the same interests. How I wish these people who fear those who've grown up in a different cultural environment could see that, and not rabbit on about some community's failure to integrate.

    Just give it a generation. It always works, if people don't get too silly about it. But where was I?

    There was one thing that was very different about the Russians. When there was a service at the little weatherboard church in Calliope, which was about every two weeks in the 1950s, the Russian men used to file in; bushy-bearded fellows who smiled very briefly as they entered, but uttered not a word thereafter. 

    This was the Church of England, which must have been closest in form of worship to what they were used to wherever they came from. They did not attend every time. I now suspect there were special days on their religious calendar to be celebrated - ones we didn't know about.

    In Calliope, very few local men went to church - it was the women who supported it in every way. So it was quite a novelty to see these men come down to the front pews, where as men they obviously expected to be seated, with the rest of the church full of local women and children. They didn't bring either their women or kids, and the men were usually middle aged or elderly. Clearly the women weren't part of the programme. I suspect they were having a good time on those Sunday mornings revelling in their own company, free of the senior men, who apparently didn't regard the women's salvation as their particular concern.

    How much they put in the collection plate during the service I have no idea, but the minister was always very pleased to see them come in the door. I have the feeling they were generous when it came to their spiritual welfare. Or then again, I could be doing them an injustice: maybe they were doing the necessary religious observance for the whole community. I doubt if they followed a word of the service in English, given the archaic language.
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: ... Amen.
I guess I'll never forget the prayers for the entire service in their identical order every time. Each one was a gauge of how long I would have to stay there and sit still until the service was over.

    But then, a lot of Catholics at the same period of our history wouldn't have understood a word of the Latin Mass, so what's the difference, really? It was the rite, the keeping of the tradition as best they could, in a place far in every way from where they had been born.

    I have one more short tale about the Russians of Yarwun, and then that's it. No, two. Next time. Really short, I ummmm promise...
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