Why are We at War?
I was out in the garage the other night, riding my exercise machine
in the August ninety degree heat. I got off the machine and headed around
the Ping-Pong table to fetch a cold drink out of an old refrigerator we
keep in the corner.
Then it happened. I stepped on a frog. All one hundred a eighty
pounds of my six foot frame. The frog and I were moving in opposite
directions, but I got him straight on, squished him open so that his
juicy parts splayed out in a star pattern on the dusty cement floor.
You know how it goes. Something unexpected happens, and small though
it appears in the cosmic order of things, your balance gets thrown off.
You start losing it. If you get a call that your grandmother has died,
you can handle it because she’s up in years and you expected it to happen
sooner or later--but something violent and sudden--even if later you
realise it’s minor, well, that event can throw you off, make you dark and
questioning, set you off to a dim bar to wrestle with angels.
One time I got thrown for a loop just because the large, usually
solitary woods where I often went hiking was on a Sunday full of dirt
biking suburbanites. Maybe a hundred of them on that Sunday, ripping up
and down my lovely and secret trails on their four hundred dollar
machines. I know it’s silly, but each time one zipped around me shouting
“right” I wished for an AK 47 and a good ambush point--and I’m a
suburbanite myself! Why couldn’t they be satisfied with their golf
courses and football fields? I remained miserable, melodramatic, off my
equilibrium, for the rest of the week. All I could think of was the greed
of our species, our mad locust chewing up of the planet.
But the frog, the frog that I stepped on, I knew that frog. He
hunkered in the bushes outside our bedroom window and sang to my wife and
I, it seemed like, every night before we drifted off to sleep. He took
moonlit baths in the wading pool I kept in the back yard for our Golden
Retriever. Some nights I’d find him exhausted, unable to climb out of the
plastic pool, and I would have to rescue him with a shovel. The frog was
a member of our family, like the cat who slept in the van parked in the
driveway but didn’t like to be petted. I loved that frog. He was charming
and beautiful in his knobbed and warty way.
I was alone when the frog accident happened. My wife and daughter
were visiting relatives and friends in Japan. When I am by myself, I
always grow cranky and confused. I called friends long distance to share
my story, hoping they could allay my grief.
“It was an accident, I tell you. I didn’t mean to step on the frog, I
didn’t even know it was there!”
My friends listened and tried not to laugh. I told colleagues at
work, I told the drama student at the kiosk on the first floor who sold
me a decaf latte in the morning. “I stepped on a frog. He was a friend, a
part of the family. I loved that frog.”
I avoided the dead animal on the garage floor for nearly a week. He
was pretty dried out by the time I took a shovel and buried next to the
Texas sage in the front yard where the dog wouldn’t dig him up. I built a
cross out of two sticks and said a long prayer.
You know, here I am living in Texas, yet I don’t own a gun or rifle,
have never been hunting, and have never served in the military. My
parents were doctors, dedicated to saving lives. They taught me to be the
kind of person who traps June bugs under a glass and sets them free
outside in the grass.
I am not anything like the great musician and biblical scholar Albert
Schweitzer, who became a doctor and moved to the Africa to dedicate his
life to healing the diseases of tribal people. I will swat a mosquito
sucking blood from my arm, I will kill a fly buzzing my apple pie desert.
I do believe in self-defence and protecting the food supply. Still, I
maintain a firm if moderate faith in Schweitzer’s teaching of “reverence
I read his famous essay on the subject decades ago while in college.
For three years I was a vegetarian--not once did I miss the taste of
meat--but I had to give it up when I got ill. I tried a second time,
attempting to be more careful in regulating diet, but got sick again, in
a much shorter period of time.
Behind my interest in Albert Schweitzer is, I suppose, a rather
typical childhood that is oddly cause for a strong substratum of guilt.
When young both my parents worked and I was left alone much of the time
after school to fend for myself. I spent long hours out in the old and
damp wood garage by the side of the house, pulling the legs off daddy
long leg spiders that climbed all over the walls and ceiling. When five I
hit the new family Beagle puppy on the head with a hammer I found in a
kitchen drawer. I did not desire to cause pain, but was just child
curious how the puppy would react. Snappy we called him. The beagle was
playful, warm and affectionate, but after the hammer blow he’d bite
anyone who reached out to touch him.
But that’s not all. I had a BB gun, a Daisy pump action, given as a
Christmas present in the forth grade, and I used to wander the swamps and
piney hills around my North Carolina home and shoot to kill any bird
standing still long enough for me to sight. When in high school, I worked
during summers in a hospital animal laboratory where animals were used
either for scientific experiments or for training young surgeons. My
father got me the job. I saw rats and cats, monkeys, prairie dogs and
mutts, cut open and cut apart, stuck with tubes for chemicals to drain
in--or blood to drain out.
One of my tasks, in a small out of the way room at the lab, was to
tie down dogs, stomach up, onto a wooden frame. We’d insert a catheter in
the carotid artery, and slowly drain the blood out of an animal until the
creature died. Flesh blood was needed, I was told, for the young surgeons
to practice new operating procedures, and the only way to get fresh blood
was to drain the blood from the dog while alive.
I’d raise the front of the wooden frame holding the dog up so that
nearly all of the dog’s blood could clear out of his body. I hear today
the cries of these dogs as their strength ebbed away. I remember this one
beagle, brown and black and white, whimpering and licking my hand as she
slowly died. It gave me a final kiss as it passed away; it gave me--dare
I say--its blessing. Laugh if you like, but that dog was and is to me
Jesus Christ, and forty years later, in my dreams, I still see that dog’s
pink tongue and deep brown eyes.
Of course I fail, fail every minute of the day, but I am atoning.
Daily I am practicing kindness and trying to regain my balance.
Daily--can I say it?--we who are adults would like to regain the balance.
We dream to save our own souls and save our earth, never again injure
another frog--or any other living creature.
Chuck Taylor won the Austin Book Award. He was CETA poet-in-residence for the City of Salt Lake, and worked in the poets-in-the-schools program in Victoria, Galveston, and Beaumont. He and friends operated a co-operative bookstore in Austin, Texas living in the basement from 1980-88. He has published two novels, two short story collections, one book of essays, and seven collections of poetry. From 1989 to 2015 he taught creative writing at Texas A&M University.