I’m busy with real life this week. This story was original published September 5, 2009, with the title “Chapter Four”.
I remember watching the nature show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” with host Marlon Perkins. My family watched it fairly regularly, actually. To me, it was a chance to see the worlds of Kipling and Stevenson made real. I completely missed the humorous significance of an adventure show sponsored by an insurance company, or the somewhat mysterious mid-season replacement of sidekicks. The sidekicks actually DID the alligator-wrestling, the rattlesnake-catching, the venturing into dark caves. The sidekicks were thicknecked monosyllables, and Perkins would always introduce a particularly harrowing moment by saying “Steve is heading into the shark-infested waters…” or “Rick figures if he can just distract the wild bonobo for a moment, it won’t rip out his testicles.”
My mother, ever the protector, would warn us against trying anything we saw done on the show, as if we had mountain lions lingering on the patio waiting to be tagged. She assured us that we were watching staged re-creations, and that when Bill was being wrapped up by the 12-foot anaconda, he was not really in danger.
“If he was really in danger,” she advised matter-of-factly, “he would be keeping his arms above the coils. Then he could grab the snake’s head and push in its eyeballs with his fingers, and crush its brain. That’s the only way to survive an attack like that.”
We assured my mother we would remember the lesson, and my sister for weeks tried to get me to wrap myself around her like an anaconda.
I remember when I was a little older, perhaps twelve, the family was watching one of the thousands of action-buddy movies that came out in the 1970s, when a bar fight started (in the movie, not in our cozy den). The bad guy upped the stakes by breaking a bottle on the edge of the bar. He advanced slowly on the hero, making wide, sweeping, slashing motions with the broken bottle. It looked scary. My mom scoffed. “Listen,” she told me, “the right way to fight with a broken bottle isn’t to wave your arms around like a maniac. You punch the bottle forward like this, in a jabbing motion right into the other guy’s face. Then, you give your wrist a sharp twist.”
I gave my father a horrified look. He shrugged. “Navy,” he explained.
“Ends the fight in a hurry,” she said helpfully.
There were other lessons. Always make a fist with your thumb on the outside of your fingers, or you’ll break your thumb when you land a solid punch. Go for the knees. If a big group of kids is threatening you, hit the biggest kid in the group as hard as you can in the face, even if he isn’t the worst one. Make him bleed, and the others will be afraid.
I was calmly reading a book one night when my mother commanded me to watch The Rockford Files. Here was the entire popular media condemning television, and my mother was telling me to drop my book and watch James Garner as the hard-luck private investigator. She’d taped the show on our fancy new top-loading VCR.
“Watch this part,” she ordered. “See that? He’s got a roll of nickels in his hand. Remember what I told you about coins being cheap brass knuckles?” She hit play. “Pow! That guy is not getting up. This show is so realistic, I love it.”
I didn’t know my mother was about to die when I was called to her bedside in the spring of 1990. My family, probably at her insistence, had shielded me from the seriousness of her condition. But as we sat talking, her face distorted and her neck swollen from the drugs she was taking, it dawned on me that the end was near, and this would be it.
Her speech was labored and colored by morphine. My father had decreased her drip enough for her to communicate with us, but a few oddities still crept out. She called me by the wrong name a couple of times, and insisted on hearing me read a poem I’d never heard of, “one more time.” We covered everything we could think of, and eventually reached that awkward point where there is simply nothing left to say except goodbye. She smiled at me and said “If you ever find yourself in a knife fight, turn your knife over so the edge of the blade is up.” Then she looked out the window and said “I’m hot; would you mind doing the laundry?”