Life and Death

When we lived in Austin, the “lake” was a couple of hundred feet outside our back door.

There was our back door, then a little patch of dirt that would be the back yard in a nice neighborhood, then a gravel track, not a street, not an alley, then a short embankment that led down to the polluted water. Everybody in town knew not to go in it, because the Hormel packing plant was using it to dump their waste. Whatever chemicals and entrails they didn’t put in the Spam went in the water. The lake was brown and lifeless.

When I was a little boy, I killed a frog back there. I remember it was a cloudy morning, and wet, I think. I found the frog near the gravel track. I must have been afraid of it. I held it by one leg and threw it into the air as high as I could. Again and again. I was laughing, to convince myself that I was having fun. After a while the frog stopped writhing on the ground when it landed. I threw it in the lake then. Walking back to the house I had a strange, empty feeling, with all the mirth drained out of me.

I had to tell someone I had killed a frog, and how funny it had been, to see him flying so high, spinning out of control, then falling, falling helplessly and splat! Hitting the gravel, or the dirt, and bouncing, and then the stupid thing couldn’t get away from me, so I caught him again and threw him up again, ha ha. I wanted it to be so funny, not serious at all.

My mother was shocked. The look on her face told me what my heart already knew: I had sinned against Nature, snuffed a life. I had been the ultimate bully, torturing and killing for no reason at all. When my father came home, he suggested that the frog might have been a father himself, and there might be a frog family waiting for him to come home. But he would never come home now. I pictured our family, my mother and me and my brothers and sisters, waiting for my dad to come home, not knowing what had happened to him. I was devastated.

Years later, when I was living in California, I heard that Hormel had cleaned up the lake, and promised not to dump any more poison in it. I don’t know. The maps I’ve looked at don’t show poison or death, only streets and buildings. But I know there are some things you just can’t clean up.

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6 Replies to “Life and Death”

  1. It’s curious, how childhood epiphanies arise every now and then. We may go decades before they re-speak to us and sometimes they linger from the moment of the initial triggering. Our brain is a curious place, a stuffed hallway closet and crammed bookshelf of odds and ends. From it all, we somehow develop personal values as life-lessons and haunting experiences drive us forward.

    I have memories of senseless BB gun adventures., mostly I plinked at small lizards in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the one and only time I shot a bird I was instantly engulfed with guilt, grief and an instantaneous resolve to never do it again. And I never did.

    Too bad so many living things have had to die in order for little boys to “get” the value of life.

  2. And not only little boys, Bill. I think it simply takes most children of both genders a while to get a mental grasp of what death is, even without the complexities we attach to the same concept as adults. As a five year old, I found a baby bird. A sparrow, I think, though my memory isn’t real clear on that. It was summer, and I had a red wagon that I filled with water from the hose. I put the little bird in the water, thinking it would swim like a duck. When it didn’t I tried to teach it. That poor baby bird spent hours in those five inches of cold hose water being handled by a child. It died, finally. I was horrified. And it was then that I realized that life could be ended. I felt terrible about that little bird and never told my parents what I did, but like Larry and his frog, I’ve never forgotten it. My whole worldview — including the discovery that life is very fragile — was formed that day.

  3. You don’t have to kill to show a disregard for life. As a teenager, I decided that the gerbil craze going on was just the thing for me and I ended up with two of them in a glass case like an aquarium (but no water). I put them in my bedroom. Everything went fine until I realized they were nocturnal and I had to listen to them scritch-scritch all night long as they played about in their straw or whatever it was. I’d go shake their little box angrily as if they’d know I’d been asleep and they should feel guilty! I’m sure they only felt terrified. And they only quieited down for a little while. I don’t know how many nights of this occurred before I had the sense to stop torturing them and give them away! I don’t think that it’s much of an expiation to know NOW how wrong that was. It wasn’t many years later that I learned of J.D. Salinger’s quote about how it was well enough that authors would CONFESS to such adult things as cheating on a college exam, etc. but he wanted to know how often anyone confessed how in a fit of pique he’d murdered his pet hamster!!! I knew I was a criminal, then.

  4. thanks for sharing this, Larry (and the rest of you, too).

    My nephews are getting a different lesson–my brother hunts, and my older (11) nephew does, too, now, though he didn’t get a deer his first time out. They’re certainly learning that things die, and that, if you’re going to eat them, the dying is part of it, but I’m hoping they don’t learn it from the guilt that results from casual cruelty.

    Lessons about our own power (and weakness) are always difficult.

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