Learning to Kill – don albertson
Learning to Kill
It’s way too easy
It doesn’t usually happen overnight or in a typical school classroom. It’s an iterative process with multiple pathways. There are gender differences but probably based on cultural influences and not human psychobiology. My experience was probably average, which means that it was unique to me but archetypal.
For me it began with an ax. We were born and raised on a farm. Our parents, aunts and uncles made some judgment about when a child was ready to witness the process. When I was about four, we were at my mother’s sister’s farm. My mother Pearl had a long stiff wire with a bend in the end making a hook that was effective in grabbing a chicken by a leg. She retrieved the chicken from the wire hook and then grabbed both legs, holding the bird upside down. The bird did not seem pleased and was making quite a racket with outstretched wings. Mother shifted the chicken to her left hand and then picked up a hand ax. There was a large block of wood nearby that I had not noticed before. This white bird was trying to escape, but with both legs held together, wings straight out & head extended, it was assuming a perfect position as Pearl approached the block. She laid the bird’s head gently on the block and then “thwack”: the bird’s head fell away from the block. The wings kept moving for a while as blood ran to the ground from the body still being held by the legs. But the most amazing aspect was that the head, now quite alone, kept moving, eyes open, beak opening and closing repeatedly for what seemed to be too long, perhaps 10 seconds. I had a totally new feeling about Pearl at that moment, an inarticulate, unformed vague sense of terror, which I much later related to our species’ history of goddesses that had their own chthonic power. This moment was followed by the then more mundane tasks of dipping into boiling water to make plucking feathers easier, blow torching to remove body hair (who knew?) and then the demonstration of anatomy as the recent chicken gradually became recognizable drumsticks, thighs, breasts, neck, liver, heart and gizzard. The memory is indelible, but as in a movie. I was spectator.
Of course, children usually are OK with swatting a fly, stepping on an ant, even toasting ants with the magnifying glass. No real issue with baiting a hook with a night crawler worm. The worms didn’t like the experience, but the catfish thought they did. Bringing home the bucket of catfish was one thing, but learning to “clean” them required attention to important details. How to eviscerate. How to decapitate by carefully holding the back without contacting the two pectoral and one dorsal spine that contained a weak toxin that hurt like a bee. My fishing buddy and I had agency. We were directly responsible for removing those fish from the world of the living.
We were finally old enough to be given a BB gun. It was not a Red Ryder, but a nice pump action with a large magazine of BB’s. We were taught by our fathers (and mothers) about gun safety via some combination of didactic information, threats and anxiety. Songbirds were off limits, but sparrows were not. They were considered airborne vermin by most farmers and shop owners because of their penchant for raiding stores of seed.
Backyard practice with throwing knives became part of my fishing buddy and my use of time waiting for a nibble on a fishing line. One had to learn to be the right distance and to have the wrist just stiff enough so that the knife would turn a predictable number of times so that it would hit the target blade first.
Archery. There was always something about this ancient forerunner to artillery, powerful, meditative and yet intimate with the target. After a bazillion target arrows tore up several cloth bullseye targets on straw bales, the fantasy grew of actually hunting something. I did not have a mentor or instructor in archery or hunting for that matter. There was no apparent access to an actual hunting arrow or two, just my target arrows and a fantasy of bringing home meat. The arrow is let fly and with luck the animal is transformed into cuts of meat. Empathy for the hunted was stunted. We lived in town, but our cousins lived on farms. There were trees in shelter belts around all farms in the Midwest. These miniature forests usually had rabbits and not much else. One summer’s day we decided to go on a hunt. My cousins and siblings were younger. I was the oldest on this day and did not really want to have any company on the hunt since I was worried that they would be noisy and scare away any potential prey. But they promised to be very quiet and not break sticks afoot. So, we were off: This silent trek of the great hunter and his entourage of acolytes. It wasn’t long before the rabbit was spotted about 30 feet away sitting very still. The sun was to the left and there were no obstructions in the way. I motioned for silence and very slowly nocked a target arrow with my 30 lb-draw bow. The arrow flew…directly into the rabbits left eye. I had been vaguely hoping to miss since I didn’t really know what to do if I had hit him. But it was a lucky (or unlucky) shot. The universe was teaching me the simple lesson that there are many steps along the way from prey to rabbit steak. No simple transmutation. No magic. The rabbit went into an immediate generalized seizure. It began convulsing horribly, probably making some screaming sounds. But the rabbit’s death cries were drowned out by the chorus of screams and accusations coming from my siblings and cousins: “Stop it…How could you do that…Aiee…”. I was obviously responsible…but what to do?? Without thinking about it I advanced to the shaking rabbit, grabbed the hind legs and swung the animal so its head struck a tree and the arrow fell out…after 2–3 attempts. Finally, the seizure stopped. The chorus of horror from the hunter’s acolytes took longer to abate: From some pinnacle of desire for a successful hunt to becoming a barbaric murderer. The cousin chorus was drowned out by the explosion of empathy that occurred within me. The violence that had transpired became an early adolescent intimation of the violence that our species has had to learn over countless millennia.
By the age of 20 in 1968 the war in Viet Nam had become an engine of destruction that had affected the entire country in one way or another. The deaths, the angst, the political turmoil had their effects from the boardrooms to the streets. I knew by then that I could kill. I knew from my father that fighting in a war could be honorable. But I had no delusions about romantic adventures in becoming a warrior. It was clearly a brutal and violent enterprise. Our political leadership was wrong then in its strategic assessments and benefited from the resistance to its continued prosecution. Sadly, however, our leadership has continued to demonstrate how misguided it can be when violence seems to be the first and preferred action.