My friend Kym reminded me the other day of something that happened to me during the summer of 1983, when I was still young and (more) naive. I’ve told the story a few times with the intent of portraying for people what it was like to grow up a geek boy on a backwater farm, or as part of a run-down of my past physical injuries. The context today will be different… but, first: the story in brief.
My dad had a couple of bulls he was raising for slaughter. One - the older, larger one - was named Napoleon (the other, incidentally, had the less inspired name of Roscoe). You may recall that 1983 was the year George Lucas released The Return of the Jedi, and if you know me, you know how much that impacted my summer and my upcoming teenage years.
My dad also had this peculiar device called a “hog prod”, which was essentially a metal cylinder with a plastic grip on one end and two prongs on the other. A bunch of D batteries in the cylinder gave it its power, and the prongs gave it its purpose. All you had to do was jab the prongs into a pig, and Ned Beatty’s worst nightmares came true.
It also looked remarkably like a small light saber.
Well, one day the week after I saw Jedi, I climbed the tall fence that held Napoleon and Roscoe. I was reenacting that scene in the movie where Luke went berserk and swung at his dad again and again until he was sweaty and Vader had lost a hand. For some reason, I chose Napoleon as my avatar for Vader - I walked up to the bull without fear, said a few lines from the movie, and gave him the point of my “light saber.”
There’s a reason they call it a HOG prod and not a CATTLE prod. All I did was piss Napoleon off, and since he’d never seen Return of the Jedi, he didn’t know he was supposed to cow before me (pun intended), and help me destroy the Emperor. Nope. Instead, that fucker charged me. He caught me in my ribcage with his small but still formidable horns and tossed me a few feet backwards, flat on my back on the ground. Then he put his head/horns against the bottoms of my feet and pushed me along the ground for about 10 feet, apparently in an effort to reenact that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy drags himself under the Nazi truck. Which was bullshit (no pun actually intended here), because I’m pretty sure Napoleon hadn’t seen Raiders either.
After pushing me along, Napoleon backed off, ran around in a wide circle for another pass at me, and then stopped, confused, because I wasn’t there anymore. While he was circling back around, I’d jumped to my feet, crossed the 30 feet back to the fence, VAULTED said fence (which was seven or eight feet high), and run halfway back to my house, where my mom would access my injuries and conclude that I’d probably cracked a rib (which hurts, BTW), and maybe broken a toe (which doesn’t hurt quite as bad).
So, here’s the thing. As a young boy, I was for several months after that absolutely TERRIFIED of Napoleon. And he knew it. Whenever I went to do my farm chores near his pen, he’d come up to the fence and bellow at me. A few times, he’d rear up, and I was sure he was going to leap the fence and come chase me down. I had nightmares wherein Napoleon escaped his pen and was on the fucking porch of my house, waiting for me to come out.
Still (and here’s the context of my story for today - aren’t you LUCKY), if you asked me if I regretted prodding a bull with a hog prod, or if I regretted reenacting a fantasy story in a less than fantastical setting, I’d tell you no. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it. I’d even accept the nightmares and the broken bones - and here’s why.
1) It makes for a great story. Kym heard it when I was in grad school at NYU, and he remembered it. You’re hearing it now, almost 30 years after the fact - and I bet you chuckled. I’ve told the story quite a few times, mostly successfully. We as humans make mistakes, and it is those mistakes which make us stronger individuals and give us stories to tell. I mean, how good would Snow White’s story have been if she hadn’t eaten that apple? Jonah’s if he’d done what God told him to do in the first place? Tony Montana’s if he’d shown restraint and a lack of hubris? Hell, Walter White’s if he hadn’t felt so loyal to Jessie?
2) The nightmares gave me insight into the power and nature of nightmares, which makes me a better horror writer.
3) Regardless of how scared I was of Napoleon, I still had to do my chores. Facing him EVERY DAY after he charged me made me face my fears - heart racing and pissing myself be damned. In later years, that made me more fearless - more CAREFUL, mind you, but more fearless. It gave me the ability to do this.
4) Ultimately, we ate Napoleon. This in and of itself gave me a sense of justice and vindication. Fuck you, Napoleon - you charge at me, no matter how stupid I was being, and I WILL EAT YOU.