Day 312, January 21, 2021

Bluegill

(Trigger warning, a fish meets a violent death)

Today's soundtrack: Stuff Live in Japan 1977

What do we remember from our mistakes? 

There was that time when we were at the beach at Goose Pond and there were friends of the family visiting with little kids. My brother and I had brought the kids to the beach to play and keep them out the parents' hair while they prepared dinner. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old.

The trail down to the river
just after dawn.

I think it was a strange time for me. I don't recall if it was the same summer, but around that time I made friends with a kid on the other side of the lake. His father had recently passed away, crushed by a tree he was cutting down that fell the wrong way. I don't quite recall the allure of playing with this particular kid except that he was near my age and he had been given free rein of the entire basement in his house, so the downstairs was one great playroom. I didn't notice anything particularly odd about the boy and his tragic loss except that he crushed frogs by stepping on them. Not in my presence, but when you visited his house, the driveway was littered with frogs. It was terrifying and alarming, at first sight, but after a few visits, I managed to push the fear and repulsion out of my mind because of all the fun and treasures that were hidden in the basement. 

Towards the end of the summer, after I had hardened myself to the fate of frogs, my parents came to pick me up because we were late heading to a concert or meeting someone for dinner. They pulled up to the house and I ran out to greet them and jumped in the back seat. 

"What are those things all over the driveway?" my mother innocently asked. I don't think I returned to his house for the remainder of the summer. I vaguely remember my mom calling his mother to talk, but I don't know if that happened or not.

But, I do remember that weekend evening we brought a small gaggle of Korean girls down to the beach and we helped them put worms or corn on hooks so they could fish from the shore for bluegills. We didn't eat bluegills or perch, or anything else you would be able to catch in the shallows, so it was more for fun sport. One of the little girls caught a medium size bluegill and reeled it in. I unhooked it while the girls crowded around in fascination and we all watched it on the sand gasping for air. 

I do not know what overcame me, but I happened to have some firecrackers in my pocket and I put one in the bluegill's mouth and lit it. If there is something that I will go to Hell for, it is probably for killing that fish. The firecracker exploded and I instantly knew I did something terribly wrong. One of the girls screamed a horrifying, piercing scream and ran all the way back to my parent's house terrified. Everyone else stepped away uncertainly, and after a little milling around, left the beach. I tried to cover up my shame by burying the carcass, the senseless death. I tried to steel myself against the realization I had done something horrible because I had caught countless fish before, caught and gutted, and clipped their lifeless bodies to a stringer. But this time it was different. I had violated something that I didn't realize was sacred. I had marked myself as a human being capable of atrocity. Someone who could not only do the equivalent of stepping on a frog, but do that in front of a little girl.

I think my conversation with my mom after they picked me up from the frog stomper was something about her trying to judge what our relationship was like. She understood that it was not normal, not right for a child to step on frogs like that. My mother knew that something was not right in that house where my friend's mother had not, or could not stop her son from stepping on frogs in the driveway, and she knew that whatever was happening, it probably was not a good environment for her son to fraternize with a frog stomper.

I wonder if some similar conversation happened with my parents' friends when the story of what happened eventually came out. I was the oldest, was supposed to look out for everyone else, make sure nobody drowned or got caught on a hook. And instead, I perpetuated a horrible thing.

I think back and realize that almost all the Koreans of my parents' generation witnessed and experienced intense traumatic things in the Korean War and its aftermath. One of the responses was to create highly sheltered and, what I felt was, unrealistically safe childhoods. That was never my parents' goal. I was given great latitude and freedom to wander, explore, and experience the world, I thought. And in relation to the often sheltered children of my parents' friends, I felt like I was world weary, like I had seen things they could not imagine or fathom.

But most of that was my own imagination.

A violent needless death. An indiscriminate act of desecration is a terrible thing. We do not need someone to spell that out with a rule. Do not step on frogs. Do not blow up fish. It is a thing we know not to do, and if we don't, we instantly know it when a little girl screams and runs away in terror. 

I had sullied a little girl's vision and probably gave her nightmares, the very thing her parents worked so hard to shelter her from.

I should have known better at that age, and I probably did know better, so it is embarrassing to admit. It is an admission of that capacity within myself to be something I despise. The capacity to do actions that belie an absence of empathy, emotion, care. It is beyond embarrassing, it is frightening.

I suppose the reality is that we all have that capacity within us. It is not so far removed from gutting a fish, setting mouse traps, maybe slaughtering a chicken... from doing something worse. It is what happens in war, it is how delusional children do harm to other children. It is how people can suddenly find themselves doing something that makes no sense and seems arbitrary and capricious. We all have the capacity to be criminals, murderers... if we lose sense of ourselves, of who we have the capacity to become.

That poor fish, that poor traumatized girl, helped shape my perspective on life and the living. Helped me shape an ethical stance on the value of creatures and the poison of violence. I, of course, didn't learn it all at once, and had many other embarrassing moments to reinforce that learning, but this was the seminal moment that shaped my future as a damned human soul who needed to work to redeem himself for the rest of his life.

Sigh.

Take care and be well,

Leo



A little snow fell today.


Comments

  1. Leo, I love this post. I have a similar list in my mind of life altering moments. So powerful.

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