Meet the Marbells Chapter 2

The Fetal Pig Incident

            Micah always had a heart bigger than his head. I don’t mean the kind of enlarged heart fat men whose customary dinner was several meat lover’s pizzas and a bathtub’s worth of beer have, but one who cares deeply about things. Things whose wellbeing other, less sensitive people would normally not look at with anything more than a passing interest.

Take, for example, the Fetal Pig Incident. This happened during the fall of our ninth grade year.  A separate facility had been built specifically for the ninth grade students, mainly so that we couldn’t inflict our paleolithic sensibilities upon much smaller students, or get the beatings from upperclassmen which we so richly deserved. Segregating the freshmen from the wider population made both middle and high schools calmer and less prone to random acts of insanity. This isn’t to say that students of other grade levels weren’t equally strangers to common sense or good taste, but the middle schoolers didn’t quite yet have the experience necessary to commit truly stupid acts of senseless vandalism or petty thuggery, and the high schoolers had already got most of the taste for stupidity out of their systems.

This proclivity for wanton dumbassery led directly to that fateful day in late November, 1992. Micah and I were in Mr. Spunknell’s life sciences class that year, and the time had come for that moment that every budding science student either longs for or dreads: dissection day. We had done frog dissections the previous year, and many of us boys had learned how to smuggle random frog parts out of the classroom after the dissections had finished. All the following week in eighth grade, detentions were up as a result of a spate of frog’s hearts, legs, and eyeballs being left in the bookbags or Lisa Frank trapper keepers of the girls who had protested the most at having to do dissections in the first place, or who were the unrequited objects of affection of the perpetrators.

By our ninth grade year, however, both the boys and the girls had learned something from their previous experiences. A group made up mostly of girls opposed to vivisection had learned that an individual protest carried little to no weight with the teachers or the administration. They decided to create an organized pressure group devoted to ending dissections in public schools. The movement was spearheaded by a cadre of proto-vegans who decided that the best way to attract attention to their movement was to hand out pamphlets to people rushing by in the corridors and harrassing people during lunch time.

This, of course, did not go unnoticed by the neanderthals among us boys, who considered any form of vegetarianism to be a crime against nature, on par with homosexuality or driving on the left. Since our town was smack in the middle of a rather rural part of a very conservative southern state, the number of boys who felt that this protest struck against the core of their being was somewhat greater than if, for example, our town had been located just outside of San Francisco. The anti-anti-dissection movement had its vanguard as well. It was led by certain recidivist elements of the FFA, or Future Farmers of America, who also made up most of the defensive and offensive lines of the ninth grade football team. Most of the members of the FFA were the scions of long lines of gentlemen farmers to whom tradition was something that must be protected at all costs, and from all attackers. The fact that the anti-vivisectionists were girls did bring about a bit of brutish debate, since most of these Southern Gentlemen had been taught since infancy to never lay a hand on any woman for any reason. It was a tradition, and traditions had to be followed, at least in public. So a decision was made to strike back against the anti-vivisectionists in a more indirect way, so that they would remember their place and be averted from a path that would inevitibly lead to the nightmare apocalypse of feminism.

Neither Micah or I were members of either faction. We were excluded from the anti-dissection league on the basis of our gender. I wasn’t asked to join the anti-anti-dissection clique for several reasons, first among which was that my dad was chief of police, and at best I was suspected of being a narc, even by my closest friends. Underage drinking and illicit marijuana use magically disappeared whenever I arrived at a party. I also wasn’t considered for membership since I wasn’t a member of the FFA or a football player. My mom insisted that I continue my cello lessons until I graduated high school, and what my mom wanted me and my sister to do was what we did. I also had Chinese and kung fu lessons at the temple on Saturdays, so pick-up football games were out as well.

Micah was a football player, though, and came from a long line of farmers and staunch traditionalists on his mom’s side. He had been made aware of the plot against the anti-dissectionists, and when he showed no interest in joining, he was left alone with only a few epithets thrown at him. Micah never let something like that bother him, though. He was kind of like the bull in that children’s story, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’. He’d rather ignore insults and gibes than let them provoke him. I used to get upset and yell at him to stick up for himself. He’d just look at me in that Marbell way, combining the glassy eyed stare of a barnyard animal with the stoicism of a Medieval saint burning at the stake. “It doesn’t matter what they say. They won’t remember it in a month, and neither will I,” was his usual response. I couldn’t ever come up with an effective argument against such lowbrow wisdom, and in any case it was his life, not mine. Other than the other members of the football team, most people didn’t call him stupid or retarded or a coward to his face, though, because he was built along the lines of the aforementioned bull. Only his family and I really knew that the seeming indifference to other people’s remarks wasn’t just a front, and that Micah would never explode into violence against his tormentors. But since he was a football player, and the Jackson High ninth grade center’s starting linebacker, he did overhear the other boys’ plans to take the anti-dissectionists down a peg or two.

It happened in this way. The day of the big dissection finally came on a late November Friday. That night our ninth grade football team, the Jackson Emancipators, was playing our rivals from the neighboring town, the Gravelton Generals. One of the leaders of the anti-anti-dissectionist movement and our current quarterback Adam Eichart had a cousin on the football team and managed to wangle some of their wornout uniforms for use in that night’s extracurricular exercise.

The administration had come to an agreement with the parents of the Anti Dissection League to excuse its members from actual dissections in the classroom. They would be placed in study hall for the class period, and they would have to watch a film explaining the internal organs of a frog. The video had been produced in the 1950’s and all of the actors were scrubbed and wholesome white kids who constantly broke into song about the wonders of the endocrine and digestive systems. We had yet to be exposed to the wonders that were the sex-ed films produced about the same time, but the video became legendary for one scene in which a frog is subjected to electrical stimulation, resulting in it flipping over and hopping away. Subsequently a number of budding mad scientists recreated the experiment with secondhand information, and that summer became known as the Summer of Exploding Frogs.

Meanwhile, we boys and the few girls who didn’t have a problem with handling a dead animal were busy inexpertly slicing up our fetal pigs. Micah and I were science partners, and as usual I was doing most of the work while he stared out the window. I looked up from my examination of the pig’s brain to see that Micah didn’t have his usual expression of amused abstraction on his face. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just don’t like the smell.”

The formaldehyde odor was quite strong. It took my mom a long time to get it out of my clothing. “Yeah. It does stink. But at least we’re getting to do something cool for once, instead of listening to old man Spunknell going on and on about Mendelian genetics or Darwin.” Micah looked at me like I was speaking Swahili. I remembered then that he had failed the last midterm when he had written that Mendelian genetics were the theory that explained Howie Mandel’s fine head of hair and that Darwin was the starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. “Never mind. Are you going to help me with this or what? Even Spunknell will get suspicious if it’s all in my handwriting.”

Micah looked at me, and I could tell that he didn’t care what grade he got on the dissection. I did. His parents had long become resigned to the fact that Micah would never be a genius, at least by the measurements used by schools. To them, every C on a report card was a major victory. My parents, and my mom in particular, were never satisfied with anything but an A in all subjects. My mom was a small Asian lady, but what she lacked in physical presence she more than made up for in ruthless determination. Anyone who had watched ‘Shogun’ back in the 80’s and who expected my mom to conform to the stereotype of the passive Asian woman were in for a very rude surprise. I resigned myself to finishing the report alone, and let Micah go back to contemplating the infinite.

Since I was the one doing all the work, I didn’t notice that, once again, portions of porcine anatomies were dissappearing from the examination dishes. This time, however, each team was secreting the same body part away inside plasic lined hoodies and the cuffs of baggy pants. By the end of the class, the only boy team whose fetal pig remained (almost) intact was ours. (I had taken one of the pig’s ribs as a souvenir.) Each of the other boy teams’ specimens were all missing their heads. Mr. Spunknell, well passed the retirement age and fighting tooth and nail against being forced out of the classroom by the administration, woke up when the final bell sounded to see students streaming out of his class and decapitated piggies heaped together in a medical waste bag. He decided not to investigate further because his next class would be coming in for their dissections shortly and he had to clean and restock the trays before he could continue his nap.

The upshot was that by the end of the day the Anti-Anti-Dissection League had gathered over a hundred decapitated piglet heads. And for some reason the cafeteria experienced a run on cherry Kool-Aid, which most students wouldn’t drink if you paid them. The lunchladies soon ran out of their doomsday stockpile of the disgustingly sweet concoction, and started offering blueberry instead. This proved much less popular.

The ninth grade team played the first game of the night. We lost to the Generals 34-3. This was actually considered something of a victory since we actually made it onto the scoreboard and none of our players were sent off for vicious fouls. Micah was the hero of the game for our side, since he managed to tackle a player who both had the football and was on the other team. The rarity of such a double triumph was something most of the fans had never thought to see from one of our players, and it made Micah the man to watch in the future.

The junior varsity squad also went down in defeat in the next game, and the senior varsity team was well on their way to joining in the spirit of things when the ref finally called halftime. The varsity cheerleading squads from both schools came out and began their routines, joined occasionally by an overly enthusiastic member of the ninth grade or JV squads.

Before we go any further, I need to tell you a bit about the makeup of the crowds that came to our football games. Back in the early ’90’s, the Internet had yet to become the timewaster’s go to outlet for all of his or her timewasting needs, and especially in the South, small towns effectively shut down on Friday nights during football season. All stores were closed, houses were dark and all the streets were empty. Towns took on the apocalyptic feel of a George Romero movie. The reason for this was that everyone was at the high school football game. It didn’t matter that the team sucked, as ours inevitably did. There simply was nothing else to do, so no matter who you were and no matter what your feelings were on the subject of football, you went to the game, even if you were sick or had a broken leg. The only exception to the rule was me. I was always at home with my cello.

Thus it was that the girls of the Anti-Dissection League came to be at the game. They sat together in their usual spot in the front section of the bleachers, chatting about whatever it is that girls chat about and completely ignoring the game being played only feet away. Most of the girls in the front rows had their backs turned to the field and therefore did not notice when twenty guys wearing Generals jerseys and helmets ran up to their section, some carrying bags and others with coolers.

With all eyes on the cheerleaders, it took most of the spectators several minutes to differentiate the screams of the girls in the Anti Dissection League from the normal roar of the crowd. By the time that the cheerleaders of both teams finally stopped their routines and turned to see what all the fuss was about, the ADL girls were covered in sticky red liquid and were shrieking  at the tops of their lungs. Small severed heads were still raining down upon them. Some of the girls tried to run away, but many slipped on the pools of cherry Kool-Aid and pig skulls, going down in the filth and adding to the chaos. The school police liasons and the ambulance crew stationed at the end of the field tried to help the girls and restore order, but it was a lost cause. Rumors started of a school shooting, and some members of the crowd swore that they had heard gunshots, and parents soon began scrambling to find their children.

The football game was soon forgotten and a riot was only just averted when my dad arrived at the scene to calm everyone down. The Jackson High ninth grade football team was discovered in the locker room literally red-handed due to the cherry Kool-Aid and in possession of the stolen jerseys. Once he made sure that no one was seriously injured and that this was all the result of an immature prank, my dad left their punishment up to the school principal, a Good Ole Boy named Lester McCracken. Principal McCracken sympathized with the jocks, having in his DNA (the existence of which he was personally dubious) a strong streak of good old fashioned American values. But the chaos and near riot at the Gravelton-Jackson high football game trumped his personal convictions, and in order to save face he decided to suspend the football program at the ninth grade center for a year. This was at first met with strong resistance from the families of the boys on the team, but since we hadn’t won a game all season anyway and the exclusion of the ninth grade center fixture from the schedule meant more drinking time at Harry’s Tavern between the end of work on Friday and the beginning of the JV game, the matter was widely considered to have been well handled.

The only one truly upset about the Fetal Pig Incident was Micah. He was not a member of the group who perpetrated the outrage against the ADL girls, and was therefore the one person who should have felt the most unfairly treated, but he didn’t really care about losing football for the rest of the year. His problem was how the fetal pigs had been treated. He hid out under the bleachers until everyone had been evacuated from the field. He then found an empty trash bag next to the refreshment stand and went over to the ADL’s Kool-Aid stained crime scene. He picked up all of the severed heads and gently placed them into his bag. The even found all of the skull pieces that had been trampled in the rush and bagged them up as well.

He snuck out of the stadium and hiked through the woods and the fields to my house. I heard him outside my window. We had long ago developed a special system whenever we wanted to get the other’s attention at home without our families knowing of it. He tossed a pebble against my window then made a sound like an owl with a bad case of laryngitis. I looked up from my comic book and went to open the window. “What do you want? Did you guys win the game?”

“Hey Andy. Come down. I want you to help me with something.”

Expecting it to be about his homework, I ran out of the house with just a quick word to my mom in Chinese. “I’m going out. I’ll be back before curfew.”

“You’d better be. Your dad has been called in to work, but you’d better be back before he gets home,” she said, the threat implicit.

“All right. God.”

When I finally made it outside, Micah was waiting with a garbage bag. Something in the bag stunk of sugar and death. “Micah, what the fuck?” I asked.

“I need you to help me bury something.”

“What did you do?” I asked, not bothering to hide my suspicion.

“Nothin’. You didn’t notice the guys in our class stealing the fetal pig heads today in life sciences, did you?”

“No, I was too busy doing the work of two people. What happened?”

Micah gave me the rundown of that nights events at the Jackson High football field. “Holy shit,” was my witty rejoinder.

“Yeah. I collected all the pigs’ heads. Now we have to go bury them.” Andy said this with a finality that meant that no problems I may have with his train of logic would divert him from his chosen course.

“I’m not gonna ask why. Where do you want to do it?”

“The graveyard, of course.”

We started walking towards the graveyard, about a mile over country throught the dark forest. The sweet death smell from the bag did nothing to make the pitchblack trees less spooky. I was using my keychain flashlight, and it was just enough to see the path by. I was worried that the smell from the bag would attract a lynx or a cougar, even though cougars hadn’t been seen in Georgia for decades.

I felt some relief therefore when we finally left the woods and climbed over the crumbling brick wall to the graveyard. Micah found an old rusted shovel behind the caretaker’s toolshed and we both took turns digging small individual graves for each of the fetal pigs’ heads. After what felt like hours we stood shivering in the cold November air as the sweat dried off our bodies. Andy started to say a prayer.

“Oh God, and the baby Jesus, please watch over these little baby pigs. They didn’t even get a chance to be borned, but what happened to them afterwards was wrong. I know that they gave their lives to make us smarter, so that we could learn something, but some of us decided to use their body parts in a mean way. It wan’t right, and I hope you and little baby Jesus and the little baby pigs will forgive us. So you know that I’m serious, I won’t eat pig meat ever again. Thanks, umm, Amen. Micah signing off.”

We stood together for a few minutes, looking at the tiny graves we had dug. I wondered what would happen when the undertakers dug up this plot for a new burial one day and found a hundred small pig skulls buried just beneath the surface, but Andy’s heartfelt eulogy had touched me. I didn’t know he was capable of such emotion. Usually he was as cavalier about the feelings of others as any normal teenage boy. But you never knew what he would care about. When he did decide that he cared about something, as in the Fetal Pig Incident, all bets were off. He would go his own way and there would be no stopping him.

He kept his promise. To this day, no piece of bacon or other pork product has passed Micah’s lips. All because of a hundred headless fetal pigs.

Next week (maybe): The Cautionary Tale of Wayne the Whelk (Finally!)

Two Heroes of the Written Word (And Damn Funny, Too)

When I was younger and didn’t know anything, my favorite writer was Joseph Conrad and my favorite book was ‘Heart of Darkness’. I looked up to Conrad as a writer because his language was simple, but his imagery and themes were complex. You could always get a good grade on an essay for English class when the topic even tangentially referenced his work, and his books were always mercifully short. Back in school, I thought that to be a good writer, you had to be in some ways inscrutable, like the Delphic Oracle making pronouncements upon the human condition, leaving most of us benighted savages none the wiser. Just try reading Finnegan’s Wake if you don’t see what I mean.

Then I got older, moved to another country, and decided to read whatever I damn well pleased. It wasn’t long before I discovered the works of two authors that would change my life completely.

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P.G. Wodehouse was a giant of 20th century English prose, but as far as I can tell, he isn’t taught at either high school (Sixth Form for you Britishers) or university level in either Britain or the US. He wrote mainly comedic novels and short stories, the most famous of which are the Jeeves and Wooster series, about an upper-middle class Londoner of the Edwardian era and his omniscient valet (butler) Jeeves. Wodehouse was a master of comedic simile and metaphor. In his first Jeeves and Wooster book, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ (1923), he describes a possible fiancée of Bertie Wooster’s  in this way:

“Honoria… is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging on a tin bridge.”

In the same book, he once again describes Honoria:

“I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.”

That gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. Wodehouse was a master of pace and rhythm, and as any comedian will tell you, telling a good joke is like playing Jazz well: it’s all in the rhythm and the notes you don’t play.

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My second paragon of literary buffoonery came from the pen of George MacDonald Fraser, a Scottish former journalist and soldier of the Second World War in the Burma campaign. After his service Fraser came home and wrote for the Glasgow Herald. In his spare time, he took a throwaway character from a Victorian novel for boys, ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ by Thomas Hughes, and created in my opinion the finest comedic character of the 20th century. Sir Harry Paget Flashman is a coward, a lecher, and an all-round horrible human being. He’s basically the Dirk Dastardly of the Victorian Age, except that his countrymen believe him to be one of the greatest soldiers of the age, rivaling Chinese Gordon and the Earl of Cardigan for military accomplishments. Fraser’s Flashman series of novels combine razor-sharp wit with impeccable historical research that will (if you’re anything like me, and you must be if you’re reading this far) leave you on the floor dry heaving with laughter while simultaneously gifting you with an intimate knowledge of the major historical events of the 19th century. Flashman ran away from every major engagement that the British Army faced from the First British-Afghan War of 1830 (which has scary parallels with the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan today, read the first Flashman book for more) to the Boxer Rebellion in BeiJing in 1900 (Flashman and the Dragon). In between, Fraser’s Flashman meets every major historical figure of the era, including (after helping escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, completely against his will) Abraham Lincoln (Flash for Freedom) and even Our Little Vicky (that’s Queen Victoria to you) in multiple volumes of the series.

I’ve gotten so much from these writers that it’s impossible to fully explain my debt and gratitude to them, but I’ll attempt it anyway. While some may say that Wodehouse and Fraser won’t do anything to enrich your soul (I disagree completely, but that would make this already long post unwieldy), I don’t believe that there is anyone that would differ with me in that their writing makes an already dark world much more bearable. Although I do believe that the world needs writers like Conrad and Joyce who hold a mirror up to some aspects of society and show it in all its horror, I do think that Fraser and Wodehouse perform an even more valuable public service in allowing us to forget those same horrors, at least for a small portion of our day. I’ll take Jeeves pulling Bertie Wooster out of the clutches of matrimony or Flashman running from a fight or an outraged husband over any ‘serious’ writer any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

For more info on Wodehouse, you couldn’t go wrong with fellow comedy genius Steven Fry’s take at http://www.pgwodehousebooks.com/fry.htm. There’s much less available on the web for Fraser, especially as concerns serious literary criticism, but there are a few fan sites out there, although the Flashman Society seems to have gone out of business since Fraser’s death in 2008 (a dark day indeed). Just go get the first book, and never look back.

Dabendan