Bullets in the Fire
Doug types too much...
January 23, 2018
I can be an enabler of the worst kind.
When I was 14, I convinced my younger brother Burt to do a lot of stupid stuff under the guise of entertaining ourselves. We were unwanted stepchildren isolated on a farm in a hostile environment.
Our stepfather was a stern man. He was a milk inspector. He raised broiler chickens, cranking out 60,000 birds every 8 weeks. And he was a mink farmer. Yeah, the things they make coats out of.
Thousands of mink were fed daily with a ground mush. The base ingredient was Purina Mink Chow that looked identical to dry dog food. The Chow was mixed with ground horse meat, slimy goose remnants, and frozen tripe.
The tripe was delivered in flimsy wooden crates held together with bailing wire. After emptying the crates, the containers were discarded because the wood was infused with a nasty stink.
My stepfather ordered the crates to be stacked in a 10-foot tall pyramid and burned once a week on a dirt circle safe for a large bonfire. My brother and I were in charge of executing the fire. My brother was only 8, so I was pretty much the boss of him.
We were without adult supervision. Out of view of the main house.
We both thought fire was pretty exciting. But you get bored after doing it a few times. The fire is still exciting, but couldn’t it be even more exciting? Of course it could.
I convinced my brother we should up the ante by throwing gas on the fire. Before throwing the match, we doused the mountain of wood with a cup or two of gasoline pilfered from the riding lawnmower can.
The WHUUMPH was killer.
So Burt and I did the hurl-gas-onto-the-fire thing for a while. But even that got boring.
I wanted to kick it up a notch. My brother wasn’t so sure. But I was the boss of him.
Inside a bench drawer in a nearby shop building was my stepfather’s .45 pistol and a half-empty box of bullets.
Burt lit a match. We got our WHUUMPH. When the fire was a roaring rage shooting flames 15 feet into the air, I tossed a bullet into the center of the inferno and dared my younger brother to play bullet-chicken.
“Let’s see who runs first.”
This wasn’t a one-time deal. My brother and I did this several times, until I worried my stepfather might be counting his bullets.
My brother usually broke before I did. Probably because he was inherently smarter than me. But sometimes we broke together, where even I got scared. Within seconds of us running for cover, the bullet would explode.
I live to tell the tale. And may I say if I ever caught my own kids doing this horseshit, I’d seriously kick their asses.
I’ve done stupid stuff since. In my defense, not always by my own design. On one memorable occasion, my wife Judy cajoled me.
It was winter and we were newlyweds.
We ventured out on a Saturday to a swimming complex in Germany. 7 pools – some heated, some not so much. Co-ed nude sauna. Women walked around topless. Men sported the tiniest of Speedos. And believe it or not, Judy cajoled me into wearing a Speedo, which is hard to imagine now, but I was in my 20s. Things hung differently. Still, much cajoling.
The star pool was outfitted for Olympic diving with a 10-meter board. For those of you who may be metric-ignorant, that’s 33 feet up. THREE stories.
Oh, and then when you’re standing up there on the end of the diving board looking down? Yeah. You get the full import of the danger.
It doesn’t look that intimidating from the side of the pool. It’s only when you’ve climbed the ladder, legs getting shakier with each rung, that you start getting that “huge mistake” inkling. All of a sudden, I feel like my brother Burt must have felt.
I wanted to turn back. I didn’t care if I embarrassed myself or not. This was too crazy.
It was also too late. The narrow ladder behind us was jammed with a string of Germans glaring at us to move it along. These were real divers – guys that wore Speedos on purpose – annoyed that we were holding up the show. There was no way they were going to climb back down to let stupid Doug chicken out.
No, this was an actual sink or swim moment.
Judy smiles at me and says, “It’s okay. We’ll hold hands and jump together.”
So we held hands and stepped off. No diving. We went down vertically postured.
Water is hard anyway, but it’s harder when you don’t know what you’re doing. It seemed like it took a while to make the drop. Judy almost lost her bikini top. I was so stunned by the smack that when I surfaced, gasping for air I couldn’t seem to get, Judy had to help me to the edge of the pool where one of my trembling skinny little arms struggled to keep my head above water, while the other reached around in my Speedo looking for a lost testicle.
Judy still laughs about it. About how she had to rescue me. And that’s all true.
But she has not always been there to rescue me. Sometimes I have to rescue myself.
My last intentional date with danger was in 1990. And for the record, Judy had nothing to do with it.
I was 35. Judy and I had been married for 5 years.
I’d just flown into Frankfurt, Germany on a red-eye from New York City. Business trip.
It’s early Sunday morning. I pull my muscle BMW rental onto the autobahn.
I was punchy from the flight, but not tired. More relaxed than anything.
The car growled and gripped the road like Velcro.
I was on a flat multi-lane smooth-as-glass autobahn stretch. No speed limit. I was literally the only car on the road.
That’s when my Steve McQueen kicked in. I wanted to throw the bullet in the fire. Check off the box.
So I put pedal to metal. Part of it was the car’s fault. Because it acted like it didn’t care.
“How fast do you want to go?” it asked me.
I replied, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
The whole experience lasted less than 2 minutes. I distinctly remember looking down at the speedometer that registered in both kilometers and MPH. I was cruising at 220 kilometers. 149 MPH.
The devils that sit on my shoulders put thoughts in my head. They spoke to me.
“All it’s going to take is the slightest variation in how you’re holding the wheel – a twitch – and that would be it. You could flip this car, be dead in seconds, and then what? Who would explain this to people who knew you?”
Sometimes it takes a lot of slaps with me before you get my attention.
Thoughts flashed by in rapid succession. I’m not supposed to be Speed Racer, I’m supposed to be a writer. Somebody who just types fast. One who can occasionally spin a cautionary tale. Typing. Yeah, that’s more my speed. I’m supposed to warn others about acting stupid instead of being stupid myself. Live to tell the tale!
Plus Judy would be mad as hell.
I let up on the gas and allowed better judgment to slow the car down to a pokey 100 MPH which sounds like a lot, but on a graceful piece of road, it doesn’t feel like it.
And during the rest of my drive that morning, I reflected on my luck at not twitching at the wrong time. My luck. Period. At my age, I’ve known a lot of people who did twitch. But I don’t have to be them. I just have to learn from them.
I realized I could let up on being Steve McQueen.
No more throwing bullets into the fire and driving 149 MPH.
And if I dive off a 10-meter board, I will remember to keep my legs together.