Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Vent: A Coda

     Many are the mornings I awaken feeling, in Carole King’s well-known words, uninspired. I suppose a goodly fraction of my morning dreariness arises from ordinary physical fatigue; at my age it’s normal to be weary much of the time. But not all of it. Quite a bit is identifiably of the “why bother?” variety: the sense that my efforts, such as they are, matter very little if at all to anything of importance.

     I know all the aphorisms: Orwell: “Sanity is not statistical.” Thoreau: “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.” Louis L’Amour: “There’s no stopping a man who knows he’s in the right and keeps a-coming.” But aphorisms, as at least one other wag has noted, don’t put bread on the table, a shirt on the back, or shoes on the horse. To proceed with one’s work, one must feel that it has purpose and value.

     So I arose this morning after yesterday’s verbal unbuttoning thinking “Perhaps the time has come. Perhaps I’ve received the signal I require. Perhaps it’s time to pull in my horns and spend what remains of my days tending strictly to my own affairs. There are plenty of books I haven’t read yet, plenty of pretty girls I haven’t ogled yet, plenty of video games I haven’t yet sworn over. Draw the moral. Surf the Web for your own pleasure and let the world go to hell without your contributions.”

     But what do I find at the very top of my favorite colleague’s final posting of last night:

     It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare. -- Mark Twain

     And I started chugging along on all sixteen cylinders once again.

     I’ve written extensively about the transcendent importance of moral courage. All the martyrs had it. Many of the great secular heroes we honor displayed it along with the physical courage it inspired. My fiction readers’ favorite character possessed it:

     It was an ordinary July evening in Onteora: hot, damp, the air too still, the black gnats too numerous. Most of the city's residents had retreated behind closed doors and powered up their air conditioners, then turned their television sets up high to mask the compressor noise. On an unlit street in the abandoned part of the city, Joseph Follett and Lafayette Buskey were enjoying a special pleasure, raping a teenage girl who had wandered onto their turf.
     They had cut away her jeans and panties, stuffed the scraps of the panties into her mouth, and bound them there with a double winding of packing tape. Buskey knelt on her arms and held a knife to her throat while Follett violated her at his leisure. They had changed places once already. Perhaps they would do so again before the fun was over. Neither had bothered to conceal or disguise his face.
     They had been at it perhaps ten minutes when a quiet patter of footsteps from the far end of the street alerted the merrymakers that they were not alone. Both looked up to see the onrush of a short, slight figure, bearing down upon them.
     Buskey had turned toward the sound but had not yet risen when the runner braked and planted. His right foot lashed out in a powerful placekicker's arc, catching Buskey squarely beneath the jaw. The snap of Buskey's spine resounded the length of the street. He flipped backwards and lay on the sidewalk, twitching spasmodically.
     Follett had pulled away from the girl, drawing his own knife. The runner turned to face him.
     "Keep back, motherfucker."
     The runner made no reply. He advanced.
     Follett dropped into a knife-fighter's crouch. He kept both hands well out in front of him, daring the man to come within slashing distance. The runner halted and watched him, apparently relaxed.
     "So this is your idea of a high old time, eh, asshole?" The runner's voice was soft. The darkness concealed his face. "Wait till some defenseless girl wanders by, take her down, rape her a few times, then gut her like a deer? Not much to take home from it, though. Not like a Grand Avenue mugging or a good B and E."
     The young tough snarled. "What do you know about B and E?"
     The runner's eyebrows rose. "Isn't that how you make your living?" He gestured at Follett's crotch. "I mean, that thing dangling from your fly isn't big enough for you to make it as a gigolo."
     Upon being reminded that his dick was still hanging out of his jeans, Follett looked down at his crotch.
     The runner whirled and kicked again. His toe caught the elbow of Follett's knife arm. The elbow cracked and bent the wrong way, and the knife flew from the hand that held it. The young thug spun and dropped to the pavement with a piercing shriek, clawing at the rough asphalt.
     The runner stepped forward to stand over his victim. Stray rays from the headlights of a car passing on a connecting street revealed the runner's expression. It was that perfection of rage that resembles perfect calm.
     "Well, so much for the muggings and B and Es. Think you can make a living as a rapist? I mean, you're going to need a new helper and all. Maybe two or three. Big nut to carry."
     The runner straddled Follett's body and lowered himself to a squat, all but sitting on the thug's belly.
     "Who the fuck are you, man? You got no business here!" Follett's voice was an agonized hiss.
     The runner pursed his lips. "Business? No. I was just out for a walk, and it went on a little longer and farther than I intended. I don't get into the city much. It's not my favorite place. But here I am, and here you are, and thereby hangs a tale."
     He paused and sighed. "I knew you were going to kill that girl when you were done with her. If I hadn't been sure of that, maybe I would have handled it another way. Or maybe not. Not that it matters now. May God have mercy on your worthless soul."
     Follett's pain had not displaced all his fear and hatred. He surged in a last attempt to throw his assailant off him as he scrabbled for his knife.
     The runner's right hand arrowed at Follett's face. The heel of that hand crashed into the bridge of Follett's nose, driving the bone into his forebrain with the impact of a well-thrown spear. The rapist's body spasmed once and was still.
     The runner waited for perhaps a minute, peering into the slack face for any indication that the body might still house life. When he was satisfied, he pulled the jeans off Follett's corpse and brought them to the girl, who had remained where she'd been held. She seemed about sixteen, not especially pretty, and frightened beyond all ability to respond. Carefully, he pulled the makeshift gag from her mouth.
     "Where do you live?"
     "Eighty-two Devlin Boulevard," the girl whispered.
     He bent to help her stand, then offered her the jeans. "I'll take you home. Sorry I have nothing else to cover you with."
     She clung to him and began to keen. He coaxed her to step into the jeans, closed the fly and buttoned them at her waist, rolled up the legs so that she could walk, and escorted her down the street, one arm around her shoulders.
     The body of Joe Follett lay still in the middle of the street. On the sidewalk, the body of Lafe Buskey twitched at lengthening intervals as the life finished seeping out of it.


     "So that's the why of it?"
     Loughlin nodded. "Moral courage is the key. Physical courage is fairly commonplace, at least in moderation. Bravery in the face of real danger is rarer, but still common enough that you'll find a few dozen cases of it on any battlefield. But moral courage is rarer than any other human trait."
     "Moral courage?"
     "Courage enough to stand by your convictions and trust in your own judgment. That's what you showed that night. You took it upon yourself to save that girl and to execute the bastards who were abusing her. You didn't wait for some committee of designated bystanders to ratify your decision. You have no idea how rare that is."

     Malcolm Loughlin’s observation about the rarity of moral courage, like Mark Twain’s above, is absolutely correct.

     Some years ago there was a BBC production titled An Englishman’s Castle, about an alternate history timeline in which the Nazis had conquered England. The protagonist is Peter Ingram a screenwriter for a television series about the British war effort that’s tolerated (but closely monitored) by the Nazi authorities. He becomes embroiled in British resistance to the Nazi regime. In the final scene of the final episode, the protagonist has just triggered a violent revolt against the regime. He’s done so on television, using his own face and name, despite a previous subterfuge that would have made that unnecessary. He knows the Nazis will soon be coming for him. His muscles are locked with mortal fear. Yet this is his last utterance: “I shall not behave worse than any of my fictional imaginings.”

     Well, damn it all to Hell and back, neither will I. What good is it to be old, infirm, aware that death is near and ready to face it whenever the time arrives, if I can’t stand my ground before those who would shout or slander or belittle me into silence?

     That doesn’t mean I’ll tolerate abuse. Neither does it mean I’ll allow comments that abuse my Gentle Readers. So to those to whom insult and abuse are favored tools: Be warned. I’m marshaling some tools of my own. Weapons I’ve been reluctant to use. And you’ll never see them coming.

     That’s all for this morning. Perhaps I’ll be back later. Rufus has a chemotherapy session scheduled and I have a lot of home maintenance to address, so we shall see.