Playing dead

I enjoyed years and years of violence and killing, but I was totally unprepared for death.

Published January 14, 2002 8:20PM (EST)

When I was 11 years old, my best friend, Ben Connelly, told me about a movie he'd seen in which a bunch of people got shot. He said one guy got shot in the head with an M-16 rifle, and his brains were splattered all over the back seat of a car. Another guy got shot in the ass. "No way!" I said. I'd spend hours trying to imagine what it would look like to see someone get shot in the head or in the ass. I could only see G or PG-rated movies, but Ben could see just about any movie, no matter what. So he got to see all these bullet holes and spewing blood. I was jealous. In the eye! In the ass! Brains in the backseat!

Finally, when my family and I were on vacation in Florida, my parents decided I could see this R-rated movie about a mad sniper. The opening scene was just as I'd hoped and dreamed: A motiveless shooting of a guy riding his bike down the street. We even got to see the victim through the scope on the bad guy's high-powered rifle, with the bicyclist pedaling casually into the cross hairs. Then, BANG! And, in slow motion, a spewing of blood and the cyclist toppling over.

When we got home, I added a new dimension to my action playtime. I sculpted some of my plastic soldiers into gunshot victims. At first I just used red model paint to paint little smears where bullets had hit them. Then I started using a lighter to heat the end of a paper clip, which I then poked into -- sometimes all the way through -- the men, thus creating real entrance wounds. Then I'd dab some blood on them, creating a vivid portrait of gunshot devastation.

Ben and I used a miniature town attached to a defunct train as our backdrop for mayhem. There was a main road, lined with stores, a train station, a bank, a gas station and some regular houses on the outskirts of town. Ben and I rolled German tanks down the streets, each time catching the little civilians completely by surprise. Housewives, children and husbands carrying briefcases, they'd all get blown up or stuck under the tank treads, screaming in pain. If they were lucky, an American tank would roll out from behind the 7-Eleven and fire back.

We got most of our ideas from television. We watched war movies, Godzilla movies, outer space monster movies, murder movies, kung fu movies, cop movies and shows like "Starsky and Hutch," "Kung Fu" and "The Six Million Dollar Man." And then there was pro wrestling, which really grabbed me. We always knew when something good would be on, because the news spread through the neighborhood.

"Hey, "The Birds" is on tomorrow! They peck people's eyes out!"

"The giant ants biting people is on Sunday!"

"James Bond is on next week! The one with the car that has machine guns and the ejection seat that blows the guy out of the roof!"

We used toy guns, waging battles in the woods surrounding our neighborhood. We had secret missions behind enemy lines, or we were escaping POWs. Mostly, though, we were cops on the edge, wasting dozens of bad guys. When I'd insist we make up names for our characters, he'd always be James, which was his father's and older brother's name. I was always Charlie, my grandfather's name. From 1976 to 1977, James and Charlie killed about 100,000 people. About half of them were shot after they'd surrendered.

"Drop the gun, or I'll shoot you dead, you son of a bitch!"

"You killed Charlie! I'm gonna blow your brains all over the place!"

" I know you dropped your gun, asshole. But I'm gonna shoot you anyway!"

Lying there on the ground for a minute or two, I'd wonder if this was what it was like to be dead for real. I'd lie there on the grass, feeling the wind on my face, hearing the birds chirping, a dog barking off in the distance. It was like sleeping but still being able to hear. I think that's why I ended up dying more often than Ben. I liked the peaceful moments, the quiet time, of being dead.

Ben's two brothers, Jimmy and Don, both older teenagers, had homemade weapons. There were clubs with chains on the end, balls with spikes and metals stars, or "shurikens." The walls of the Connelly basement had figures drawn on them, and hundreds of holes where metal spears and shurikens had been thrown. There were also punching bags, both heavy and speed. Every time we went there it seemed like someone was practicing how to beat the hell out of a guy.

Jimmy, Ben's oldest brother, was the coolest. He had posters of Bruce Lee all over his room and dozens of magazines about fighting and killing. He gave demonstrations of how to properly punch and kick. "You get someone in the eyes, or the balls, and they scream and can't do anything," he said. Don was pretty cool, too. But unlike Jimmy, Don used to practice his violence on Ben.

Ben had a hearing aid, and between getting cuffed by Don and our regular roughhouse playing, it was always falling off. Sometimes just the headset would fall off and dangle, or the whole thing would fall off and get tangled up. Sometimes the battery would pop out of the transmitter, and we'd be on our knees, in the grass or on the floor of his toy-cluttered room, looking for that tiny thing.

One time Ben and I both got to see violence ourselves, in real life. His father and older brother got into a street fight with the man and his teenage son who lived across the street from them. Ben and I heard his dog barking and knew something was up. We ran down the street and saw his father and the neighbor in the street. The other man held a two-by-four, and Ben's father had a smaller stick, and they circled each other taking occasional swings. The guy's nose must've been hit, because it was purple and bloated.

Ben's brother Jimmy was rolling around on the ground with the other kid, who, after a minute or two, broke away and ran into his house across the street. We found out later that Jimmy, while rolling around on the ground with that kid, had picked up a rock and was bashing it into his head, opening up a big gash. We had missed seeing most of the action, and after the kid ran inside, the guy with the purple nose followed. Ben's mom, watching from her bedroom window, screamed when she saw blood all over Jimmy's face and shirt. "Don't worry, Ma," he yelled to her, "it's not my blood!"

Ben's father was at the top of his family's "tough guy" food chain. Mr. Connelly had been a boxer; he looked like a mob henchman in the movies. He drove a Mercedes and he kept a pistol in the glove compartment. Ben and I would sneak in his car and take turns holding it, talking about what it would be like to shoot someone with it. One time, when Ben and I were riding in the car with him, Mr. Connelly pulled over next to some woods, took out his pistol, and fired it out the window for us. We shook and giggled with delight. Mr. Connelly laughed. He was nice that way.

When Ben and I were in the sixth grade, Mr. Connelly got shot in the face while walking out of a doughnut store. He didn't die but was partially blinded and lost some hearing. Ben stayed at our house for a few days after the shooting. According to the papers, Mr. Connelly was shot five times with a .22 caliber pistol, but Ben kept insisting it was a .38 caliber.

The next year, when I entered junior high, I sought out weak, loser kids and fought them so everyone would know I was tough and cool. First I beat up a kid on the school bus. He tried to fight back but didn't stand a chance. I punched and punched and punched until he was crying and the bus driver pulled over and made me stop. My friends cheered me, and all day long at school kids I didn't even know were coming up and congratulating me.

Ben picked fights, too. We made friends with two other kids who lived nearby, and together we formed a gang. We smashed mailboxes, threw tomatoes at houses and put firecrackers in caterpillars' nests, blowing their guts all over the place. We made Molotov cocktails and threw them on the rocks down by the ocean, watching the flames shoot into the air.

In the winter, we made snow forts by the road and threw snowballs at cars. Sometimes the car would skid, then stop, and the guy would get out, swearing, and chase us. Around Christmas we picked houses with lights on the bushes and unscrewed a bunch of the bulbs and smashed them. We usually ended up just picking the houses at random.

During my first year in high school, I started to drift away from my neighborhood gang. I played football, and the other guys didn't. So I made new friends with guys on the team. I was still friendly with Ben and a few of the others, but it wasn't like before. I only saw Ben a few times before I graduated from high school, and then I didn't see him again until he died.

Ben was 25 when he died of a brain tumor, of all things. I was in college at the time. I'd heard he was sick, but every time I asked about him everyone always said he was OK. Then I heard from my sister that he was dead.

When I saw him at the wake, lying in his coffin, he didn't look real. He didn't look dead, exactly, or like he was sleeping. And, in the suit he was wearing, he didn't look like someone who'd been shot by bad guys and was lying on the ground. What he looked like, when I thought about it later, was a life-size Ben action figure.

By this time, I knew that all the things that had seemed so cool and awesome were not really so cool and awesome. I no longer wanted to be a soldier or policeman. I wasn't sure exactly what I did want to be, but at this point I was convinced that life was pointless, people were selfish idiots and there wasn't much that could justify killing someone. I was preoccupied with questions about God, death and free will -- the typical English major stuff. I hadn't thrown a punch in 12 years.

I stood there in the funeral parlor, while Ben's family cried and thanked people for coming, and Ben lay in the coffin. What I kept thinking about was the two of us on our knees trying to find a piece of his hearing aid while he's still sobbing from having hurt himself or been smacked by his brother. And I thought about how neither of us would say anything when the other one was crying. You had to go on as if nothing was happening. So Ben would be sobbing and sniffling, and I'd just keep looking for the piece of his hearing aid.

The sound of Ben crying was as vivid as anything from my childhood. I wondered if he had cried when he was dying. Had they told him he was going to die, or did they wait for him to ask? Was he in pain? I wondered if he'd slowly wasted away. Did he spend his last months like a trembling, bony old man? Was death like sleeping and still being able to hear?

I had no idea. In all the scenarios we acted out, in all the movies we saw, in all the bashing and bullying we did, no one -- not James or Charles, not the nerd or the bad guy -- ever died of a brain tumor.

By Douglas Lang

Douglas Lang lives in Salem, Mass.

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