Savage

I am a violent man.

In any given conflict, thoughts of physical violence stalk through my mind like wolves in a dark forest. My words slow down. My voice softens. My body relaxes in direct proportion to the snarling in my skull. My teeth clench. My hands sometimes do their old trick, fingers curling under, thumb wrapping around them, tucking them tight, thick knuckles lining up in a broad flat surface. These little details suggest something is moving there in the darkness, just beyond the firelight. Their meaning is as clear as paw prints in muddy ground for anyone who knows how to look.

Most of us don’t. As violence becomes more and more common on the screens we humans spend so much time watching, it seems the average American is less and less comfortable with it in their actual lives. I suppose this is a triumph of civilization. Society has reached a point where most people live their entire lives without giving or receiving a physical blow. A couple of years ago, when I was teaching my 12-year-old nephew wrestling basics, I told him, “You want to keep your body relaxed but ready. Like you do when you’re in a fight.” He stared blankly at me before telling me he’d never been in a fight. “Never?” I asked. Nope. I was shocked into silence.

On one hand, I was happy his life has been so peaceful. By the time I was twelve, I’d been in more fights than I could count. In third grade, a kid on the playground pulled my hair hard enough to take some of the roots with it. I saw it after a red haze receded from my vision. Little bits of skin and blood clung to the ends of nearly invisible whitish blonde hairs still clenched in one of the fists he was using to protect his face as he lay groaning on the ground between my feet.

It didn’t matter how much older or bigger my opponents were. When one of my bus drivers told her son, who was two years older than me, possibly more, to stop me from getting off the bus, I made him pay for following her orders. He tried to crush me into the seat using his weight and size. Bracing my shoulders against the window and using the high seatbacks for added stability, I stomped out with both feet. He weathered the first few blows, but then a boot heel to his jaw knocked him back a bit. I used the additional space to gather my feet under me and lunged forward, cracking an elbow into his temple, slamming a knee into his ribs, anything I could do to hurt him, to keep him from trapping me in that seat.

Cousins, kids on the playground, kids at the bus stop, kids in the neighborhood, I fought them all. When my older brother tried to teach me boxing, he ended up losing one of his teeth. My only rule was that I couldn’t start the fight. This might have been because the violence in my life wasn’t limited to my own fighting. I’d seen it between my father and my mother, my uncles and my aunts, and in scraps at various redneck parties I’d managed to observe by staying up later than any other kids and finding unobtrusive places from which to watch. All of this before age twelve.

I was glad my nephew hadn’t needed to deal with all of that. However, what was going to happen when he bumped into someone who had? What would he do when someone decided to bully him? How would he protect his little sisters if someone ever threatened them? For me, this last question was the most important. One of the ways I’ve managed to spin the dangerous wind inside me is by defending the people I love. Standing there on the wrestling mat with my young, innocent nephew, I had to keep myself from asking him the same question Tyler Durden asks the protagonist in Fight Club: “How much do you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

My sophomore year in high school, after I confronted this giant, sketchy guy for creeping out one of my female friends, he snapped and charged me with his head lowered. This is the worst way to charge, in case you were wondering. I’d put my back to a signpost while we were having our conversation, so just before he got to me, I took two small steps to the left. As he bounced off the metal post, I stepped in with a textbook right cross, all of my body gathered behind the fist, his cheekbone a point along a vector beginning at my shoulder and ending about a foot behind his head. Impact. His knees unhinged, and he sat hard on the sidewalk. I stepped back. I might have talked shit. I can’t really remember. I do remember the cop commenting that I was bleeding as he started to put the cuffs on me. I looked at my knuckles and realized the blood wasn’t mine. I didn’t get charged with anything. The handcuff and backseat break were just part of the disciplinary dance.

I did get suspended, however. I’d thrown a punch. Even though I hadn’t started the fight, defended myself only after being attacked, and stepped away after the situation was ended, the school’s zero tolerance policy for fighting required me to take a three-day vacation. That was seventeen years ago. I don’t know how the scene would unfold these days.

What I do know is that two days ago, the fifteen-year-old son of a dear friend, a kid I’ve known since he was four or five, stood up in front of his high school English class and shot himself in the head. Apparently, bullying was the reason. This kid is over six feet tall, studies mixed martial arts, and has good, strong, solid parents. What he didn’t have was the freedom to kick the shit out of the little assholes who were bullying him.

Nearly everyone knows the formula for solving the bully problem: Bullies, by virtue of their actions, are cowards. Confront the coward. Show this person that you aren’t afraid, won’t back down, and will hurt them. Do so. Bully goes away or gives respect. Sometimes, it’s a matter of showing a guy you’d rather take a beating than take any more shit from him. I don’t know if this is universally true. I do know this technique has worked for me every time I’ve used it. Popular culture constantly reaffirms it. Sometimes, the collective wisdom is correct. I don’t know whether or not zero tolerance policies have reduced violence in schools. I do know that kids are killing and attempting to kill themselves over being bullied.

Violence makes me sick. That’s the funny twist to this whole thing. Sometimes, I shake for hours after intense arguments. My body doesn’t know the difference between a disagreement and a brawl. Realistic depictions of violence keep playing in my head long after the film ends. My memory, which is normally a blessing, holds a catalogue of gruesome images. Lacerations, fractures, tattered meat, split skin, yellow hanging fat, white wet bone: Human anatomy learned from the outside in. Yet, the fact remains, I am a violent man. I have accepted this. It has taken me most of my life to do so, but I have. It has its benefits.

As a violent man, I am aware of the damage my actions can cause. Therefore, I pay attention to what I do. I slow down on the highway to let the reckless idiot merge into traffic. Spiders, beetles, and crickets get a free ride out the front door. When offended or insulted, I do not say the first thing that comes to mind. I accept my temper as a seriously destructive force, a Kali spark, flaring incandescent if allowed free reign or fed the right fuel. So I lock that shit down. Not permanently. Swallowing fire is a dangerous practice. I just don’t let it control me. I’m constantly surprised by how many people I’ve met in this contemporary reality of peace and litigation who have never mastered their anger. Many seem to have a hard time even admitting they have a temper. My temper never allowed me that option.

As a violent man, I tend not to avoid or ignore emotionally charged or socially awkward situations. Like a fire, the smallest things can grow quickly out of control if they aren’t addressed. There is a principle in Aikido called Irimi that I used for years before I ever studied the Japanese art. Irimi means entering, and its physical expression is to step into an opponent’s attack in such a way that the attack is rendered useless. Rather than blocking or seeking to avoid the attack, you put yourself in a place where even if the attack lands, it won’t have enough power to cause harm. You move close so that the problem cannot gain momentum. The problem doesn’t have to be a fist.

Let’s say you have to call your mom. You know she thinks an inappropriate amount of time has passed since the last time you called, and she always gives you shit for not having found the right job or partner or friends or whatever. Avoided, this situation is just going to get worse. More time will pass. You’ll spend more time thinking about it and distracting yourself from thinking about it, and soon she has every right to be pissed because it really has been forever. Or you could just engage with the situation. Enter into it, pick up the phone, and have the conversation that probably isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Irimi.

This technique, which I only learned as part of my violent nature, has helped diffuse numerous explosive situations. It’s made me a good security specialist. I also do parties. Just a few months back, at a friend’s decompression party, I escorted a man off the property with his hand held softly atop my left. My right hand covered his as I listened to his disjointed, paranoid ranting. I nodded where I thought it was appropriate to do so. His wife followed behind us, silently mouthing her thanks each time I looked back. At the very moment when he could have harmed himself or a guest at the party, I’d stepped forward and engaged him in conversation while leading him away from the crowd and towards the road. My peaceful friends appreciated that I’d dealt with the drunk, unstable guy who’d been putting out weird vibes. I appreciated not having to dislocate his thumb, elbow, shoulder, or all three to make sure he couldn’t use the knife I suspected he had inside his coat. I kept this detail to myself.

All these experiences and thoughts contribute to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Amidst the subtler violence of poverty and consumerism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, my path has unerringly led to communities where peace is valued above most other concerns. The first of these was an improbably located spiritual boot camp in South Georgia. Back in 2003, I was the manager of that particular madhouse. Every Friday night for nearly ten years, long before I’d arrived on the scene, this community had performed the ritual of piling guests from all over the world into vans and buses and driving down the road to the Juker, one of the last real juke joints in the South. At the Juker, a short, 80-year-old woman named Essie Mae would sell you forties and double-deuces for slightly more than you’d pay at the Lil’ Champ gas station a couple of miles away. There was a jukebox with lots of old R&B and a couple of Hank Williams Jr. songs, two pool tables, mismatched and scratched furniture, missing floorboards. The men’s room was the field about 20 paces out the back door. Closer, if you were too drunk to make it that far.

I was in my early twenties, just a few years out of West Point and going through a transitional period in my life. The brawling of my youth had led into martial arts, then football and wrestling. I’d wrestled for the Army team while learning how to set ambushes and calculate the aperture size necessary to safely fire projectiles across vast distances. My eighth concussion, sustained during a bout in boxing class from a punch to my third eye, resulted in a medical discharge and a radically altered path. The third eye is the chakra responsible for clear vision, for seeing through the veil, for perceiving the subtle and the invisible. By the time I was waving goodbye to Essie Mae and stepping out the Juker’s front door into the humid August night, I’d reached a place in my existence where I refused to even crush mosquitos when they landed on me.

I was a peaceful and happily drunk poet as I stepped off the first of three steps, noting a tall white guy leaning against an extended cab pickup truck’s tailgate a few feet from the bottom step. He and his friends had drawn my attention earlier, mostly due to their whiteness. The people who came with us were typically the only white folks at the Juker. I’d tracked these boys for a little while, something about their vibe, but I had friends visiting, and we were drinking, and one of them had spotted a snake in our lake at sunset, and we drank more beer, and we decided we should go relocate the snake so we could go night swimming, and we drank more beer, and well, I got distracted. As my foot settled on the second step, the guy asked me, “Are you Travis of The Forest?”

At this point, I was a gentle heart-centered being. The left foot, the one swinging down towards the first step, that foot was the foot of a man who had stilled the violence inside himself, who had obtained a seemingly unshakeable faith in love as the binding force holding all of reality together. All you need is love. Love is all you need. La ilaha ilallah. And so on. A smiling mouth opened, responding to his question. “Yeah, I’m Travis. How can I — ”

Something hard slammed against the bone and soft flesh just behind my ear on the lower right side of my skull. The impact caused my left foot, the one that started its most recent journey as an instrument of peace, to miss the step. I stumbled sideways off the porch, churning my legs to keep from falling flat on my face and to get distance from whatever hit me. I managed to catch myself on my left hand and knee. Looking back in the direction of the porch, I saw five snarling rednecks charging across the grass, one a few steps ahead of the others. Maybe this was the fucker who’d punched me from the shadows. There wasn’t enough time to get all the way to my feet before he arrived, so I pivoted and lunged forward from my knees as he came into range. It shortened the distance just enough to throw his balance off when he needed it the most. I wrapped my arms around his thighs as they hit my chest. His momentum rocked me back, lifting my right knee off the ground and putting both my feet under me. A photograph of that exact moment would show me crouched frog-like, ass nearly brushing the earth, hugging this guy’s thighs to my chest, perhaps tilting back just a bit as if I’m about to get bowled over. It certainly felt that way. At the perfect instant, a sliver of a sliced second when this might actually work, I surged with my legs and hips, directing force up and back. After years of wrestling, I had finally performed a textbook suplex. We formed an arch with my feet as one base and his face and neck as the other.

I rolled left, holding onto him, trying to twist him into the earth like a screw while using him to stay on my feet. When I let go and stepped back, I noticed that my foot was nicely aligned with the face he was lifting up off the ground. I did my best to punt his head right off his neck. It didn’t happen, but there was a very satisfying, wet crunch as the bones in my foot met the fucker’s face. As he slumped again, his friends arrived. Things got a bit busy after that. It’s hard to remember all the details of a scene so filled with bodies and adrenalin. I remember using the guy I’d kicked to minimize their angles of attack. There was a lot of blocking and spinning, and every time I had a chance, I punched, kicked, or stomped the poor fool who had gotten to me first. On a primal level, I understood that if I damaged one of them enough, the others would hesitate before attacking again. None of them wanted to be the guy on the ground. Eventually, things got too hectic, and I pushed away, creating some distance, standing with my back to the two lane highway. Some of them helped their friend to his feet. I screamed something while blood dripped off the knuckles of both my hands. I was later told by a witness that I’d screamed, “Fuck you, you bitch ass motherfuckers.” Sounds about right.

Here’s the rub. That peaceful guy who’d stepped off the porch? He was gone. I stood there in his place, maybe twenty, thirty seconds later, baring my teeth and seeing very clearly the way the next exchange was going to unfold. This time, I wasn’t going to just damage the first sonofabitch to get within reach. I was going to do my level best to kill the bastard. Infinite probabilities swirled around me like shadows. Every possible combination of movements led to shattered bones, popped cartilage, and split skin. Wrist, thumb, knee, elbow, balls, ribs. Throat. I could see the damage and hear the sounds. And I loved it. I wanted it. The veneer had finally been scraped away. Let’s do this. I smiled.

They took the one path I hadn’t even considered. They bolted for their truck, dragging their injured friend, jumped inside while I stood wearing what must have been a very stupid expression, and drove away, flinging mud and chunks of grass. The tires barked when they hit pavement. Rubber smoke joined the blood and sweat smells hanging in the night air. They were gone.

I calmed the panicked hippie kids and got everyone back to the house. I spoke the words they needed to hear until I couldn’t anymore, and then I wandered out into the forest. I had questions for my newfound gods. Why would any benevolent force do this to me? Why had I done all of this work to still my restless demons? Why bring me to this place of peace? Why open my heart and my hands only to close them once again into fists? Why? I didn’t get any answers before I fell asleep. None were waiting for me when I awoke.

A quality answer didn’t come until several years later. When it came, it didn’t come out of a god’s mouth, but instead from the mouth of a one-legged Vietnam Vet who called himself Manelqua and loved to cause trouble. I’d stayed late on Manelqua’s land, waiting for my ride after closing down a festival I’d just helped facilitate there. He took a liking to me immediately, our humor and work ethics aligning, so we were both glad to have a few hours to talk after everyone else had left. I told him the story of my fight at the Juker and how it still haunted me.

Manelqua was a devotee of Brigid, a threefold goddess from Irish mythology. Brigid takes the forms of maiden, mother, and crone, and is associated with home and hearth, poetry, healing, and skill in warfare. Manelqua was one of the most devoted pagans I’d ever met. The old man had a relationship with his goddess that reminded me of a few small-town preachers I’d encountered over the years. His every action was simply devoted to her. It wasn’t something he affected or even called attention to. Why would he? He didn’t much care what anyone thought of him. They couldn’t influence his relationship. It was between him and her. Personal.

So, I asked him. “Why would the gods do that to me? I was trying so hard, Manelqua. I don’t get it.” The sun was starting to sink behind the trees. A breeze came in, welcome after the day’s heat.

“Well, Travis,” he said, “I don’t know which gods are your gods, so I can’t say for certain.” He said this while giving me a look my favorite uncle used to give me, one that said, You sure are dumb for a smart kid.

He reached down and scratched at the place where his prosthetic leg met his flesh. He took a drag off his cigarette. “But if I had to venture a guess, I’d say because you could handle it.”

“Huh?”

“Could anyone else in that place have done what you did?”

I gave it some thought. “No. Maybe? I don’t know. Probably not.”

He waved his cigarette as if that explained everything. When he saw I was still confused, he went on, speaking slowly, as if to a child. “It’s like this, boy. You were the only person who could have stood against those guys and not gotten badly hurt or killed. Someone had to stand there, and the gods knew you could handle it. So they put you there.” He took another drag. “You aren’t a pacifist. That’s okay. Neither am I. You’re a peaceful warrior. A peaceful warrior is willing to fight but doesn’t have war in his heart. You make things safe for the pacifist to be a pacifist. It’s no good, you trying to be what you aren’t. Doesn’t help anyone.”

Just like that. A few words. The knot untangles.

I wish I was a dinosaur. I’d like to see a world where my particular skillset is obsolete. I’m not sure it’s possible, but I hope it is. I know we aren’t there yet. So, I’ll breathe deep when a rude waiter reaches across my face and over my plate. I’ll take my foot off the gas pedal when I get cut off. I won’t stomp the brakes when I’m getting tailgated. I’ll resist the urge to throat punch drunken dudebros when they get in my face on 2 a.m. streets. I’ll also continue to stand when someone needs to stand, a violent man, ready to do violence, so you don’t have to.

The above essay was the winner of the 2016 University of New Orleans Samuel Mockbee prize for nonfiction. If you would like to support me in my efforts to get to Ireland for MFA Study and for research on a future book of nonfiction, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/neur3uyk to donate. Thank you for your time and support.

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