Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mad Bee Flies By

My father spent his entire working career at Ethyl Corporation, the company that made the anti-knock compound -- basically of lead -- for automobile gasoline. When I was a boy and you went to the gas station, the attendant would ask, "Regular, or Ethyl?"

Sometime in the late fifties or early sixties, the company formed a recreation association for its workers. They collected dues, bought some property, and built a big swimming pool out the Old Hammond Highway, in what was then the country. The ERA pool was open to workers and their families. Well, as long as you were white or could pass for such.

I worked there as a lifeguard for three summers as a teenager.

The summer I was seventeen, the guards all got together and took a trip to Mike Scanlon's grandparents' house, which was around Thibodeaux, Louisiana. The family home was on the edge of a swamp and bayou, Mike's grandparents had several flat-bottomed boats, called bateau (French, for "boat," I think) with outboard motors, and a house full of rifles and shotguns.

We divided up into two groups of three or four boys, got into a couple of bateaus, and, bearing .22 rifles, went out to cruise the swamp to drink beeer and harry the alligators. The biggest of the gators were twelve or fourteen feet long, and you could skip a .22 bullet off their backs without damaging them.

I had a little Beretta pistol, chambered in .22 short, a Minx. Not much gun, but the first handgun I'd owned outside BB-pistols.

Most of us were country boys or raised by parents who were, and knew how to shoot and the safety rules. There was one guy, call him Wheeler, who had no experience with guns -- though we didn't find that out until later.

Wheeler wasn't in my boat.

We cruised up and down the bayou, shot at big wasp nests, and floating beer cans, the latter of which we tossed into the water once we had emptied them, like that.This way the hell and gone out into the swamp, miles from any houses.

Then, on the opposite side of the waterway and maybe sixty feet away from my boat, Wheeler decided to shoot at something in the water between the two craft.

The gun safety rules, more or less, are these. 1) Never point a loaded gun at anything you don't want to see destroyed. 2) Guns are always loaded. 3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. 4) Know what is behind your target in case you miss. There are other rules, like keeping the gun pointed downrange and like that, but those are the big four.

Wheeler cranked a round off. The bullet hit the water at a shallow angle, bounced off like a skipped rock, and smacked into the side of my boat with a nice metallic clunk!

In a very loud and agitated voice, I indicated that Wheeler's intelligence was on the low end of the human scale, that he had engaged in sexual congress with his female parent before he switched to homosexuality and began to enjoy fellatio.

Before anybody could reach up and take his rifle away, Wheeler laughed and fired another round in our general direction.

I heard the bullet go past my ear like a bumble bee on speed. Six inches to the left, it probably would have killed me.

I wasn't afraid -- I was royally pissed off, and it was everything I could do to keep from pointing my little pistol at him and emptying the magazine. I wanted to do it. I came this close. I was enraged to the lip of deadly violence, the proverbial red haze.

At which point, Mike, or his older brother, Pat, grabbed Wheeler's rifle, jerked it away from him, and offered their own choice words as to his parentage and lack of intelligence.

So, no harm, no foul, but aside from the lesson that teenagers who drink beer shouldn't have access to guns at the same time, the big one that came home had to do with the hindbrain. The reptile part of us under the reasoning mind, where the basic operating hardware and software lie. Where that primal beast that dwells in the cave exists, ready to deal with the essential survival questions: kill-or-get-killed, go-or-stay.

And what I realized, then, and more so later, is that when that beast steps out, all bets are off.

That at our core, no matter how much civilization we have tried to pave over it, the apes still have pointed teeth, and can be like the gators: killers. We might regret it later, it might cause us emotional pain, but when the beast is awakened, it rules until it does its job and goes back into the cave.

King Kong versus T.Rex? Put your money on the gorilla ...


Rory said...

You describe it well. The hormones hit the system. You felt the red rage, the desire to kill... you had the tool to do it, every piece, and yet you didn't.

The thing is, most if not all people feel that rage and most don't act on it.

In retrospect, how can you tell if you didn't, or if you couldn't?

When we get a chance, I'll show you a video of a young man being murdered. He knew what was happening, knew what he had to do, but he couldn't make himself do it.

There's a leash on everyone- conditioning, societal expectations, our own beliefs in right and wrong- that constrain the ability to flip the switch. Most people go their whole lives and never learn how strong that leash is. Far too many people are confident with an untested certainty that they can consciously slip it.

To use an analogy, when you felt the rage, you felt the power of the engine under the hood- but did you not put it into gear? Or was the handbrake on?

If this killer machine is just under the surface, why do humans kill so rarely? And if the rage is that close to the surface, why do so many crime victims meekly submit?

Rhetorical questions, old man. If it had simple answers we wouldn't be playing with it for decades

Steve Perry said...

I didn't shoot the idiot in the boat because there was no need -- my friends disarmed the silly bastard. (At that range, with that piece, I could have just as easily hit them as him.)

Danger past, epinepherinic tides ebbed.

I have had occasions where I perceived a real threat to my person. Only one involved a knife, and in retrospect, I believe the guy holding it was stoned to the gills, but in the moment, I didn't know that and I did act. I could have frozen, run, or attacked, and I did the last.

I should have run, that would have been the smart thing. Given the same choice today, I'd hope that I'd make like FloJo as soon as the light glittered on the blade.

Now, one robin does not a spring make, and every time you come up to bat is different, but percentage-wise, I'm batting a thousand.

I come from a family in which the men have terrible and short tempers and are prone to let fly all too quickly. I have that temper, and after some years of putting my fist through walls and kicking lawnmowers to death, I sought to control it. Lotta exercises in a lotta disciplines over a lot of years, and I pretty much have a handle on it. But, like an alcoholic is always an alcoholic even if he stops drinking, that darkness is always there.

No matter how tame you think that tiger is, he is always going to be a tiger.

It's not a matter of me thinking I can loose it. I *know* I can. I've done it before and there is no reason to think I can't do it again. It is, in its own way, comforting.

I think humans kill so rarely because it is hard to kill somebody with your hands if you don't have some training at it. Humans are both woefully fragile and extremely durable. I worked a stint in an ER, and I saw guys walk in under their own power with injuries that would fell an ox.

Consider instead the numbers of aggravated assaults and batteries, rapes, and murders as a measure of that rage, not just homicides, and the count is close to a million and a half cases reported by the FBI in the Uniform Crime Stats for '06.

48 of whom were LEO's feloniously killed.

Wolves, sheep, and German Shepherd Dogs, and maybe the difference is how big a leash holds each in check.

I'm not a wolf. Nor a sheep. So that puts me somewhere between. I have teeth, I can bite, but I'm maybe less wild than a wolf. I can live with that.

Dan Gambiera said...

That "wolf, sheep, sheepdog" has got to be the stupidest piece of self congratulatory cop tripe masquerading as homespun wisdom I've ever heard. The real purpose is for police to pat themselves on the back and say "We are a breed apart, the Elite. We are not part of the common herd. The bad guys aren't human, and the regular citizens are stupid and defenseless without Us, the Boys in Blue." Of course, it follows that the law for the herd can't possibly apply to the police, anyone who's been designated vermin really should be exterminated, and citizens who can defend themselves are strange and unnatural. If they could and were good guys they'd wear tin. If they can and aren't police they must be criminals or something like it.

And you've implicitly bought into it.

We're not wolves. We're not dogs. We don't have wool and go "Baa". We're neotenous, oversexed balding monkeys who don't knuckle walk.

Why don't people lose it and kill each other more often? Most people get conditioned from toddlerhood on not to. And there are pretty strong natural inhibitions against risking your own life or killing someone who you recognize as "one of us". A huge part of every war is convincing the troops that the enemy isn't human. We're pretty wimpy by monkey standards, but we're dangerous enough that there are mechanisms built in to avoid really bad fights most of the time.

Can people be moved to killing violence? The Army can do it in a few months. During WWII maybe one out of three soldiers could shoot in combat. By the end of Vietnam it was over 95%. There are places where people are a lot more casual about pulling the trigger or using the knife. So I'd have to say that a lot of it is what you're used to.

Steve Perry said...

Well, having known a lot of people and a few German Shepherd Dogs, I'm good with that identification.

More I learn about people, the better I like dogs ...

Dan Gambiera said...

Who was it who said "If there is a heaven most dogs and very few of their owners will get in"?

Ronnie Owens said...

That "Wheeler" you speak of is that Wayne Wheeler?

Steve Perry said...

No, the names were changed to protect the guilty.