|Jan/Feb 2004 • Miscellaneous|
I once held a man's head steady while another man cut his throat with a glorified exacto-knife. When I heard air whistling in that gruesome hole the celebratory yip I made almost caused the doctor to cut his finger off with his own scalpel. I'd been sure we were going to lose that poor bastard with the crushed larynx. Of course, since the bastard in question was a member of a gang and got himself messed up doing deadly damage to someone else, I'm queasy about whether we did the right thing in saving him. Still, that was the job, and we fulfilled it; about two weeks later I wheeled his rump out of the front door of the hospital under the watchful eyes of a pair of guards and handed him over to The Man.
Sometimes I wonder if that man hurt anyone else after that. There's the ageless medical question: Do the doctor and I bear some responsibility?
I'm a part of a large group of friends who get together at least once a year for a group camping trip. We're an eclectic bunch with several members who are ex-military and quite a few who have worked in the medical field over the years. Some times we even combine the two in one person.
Most of us have hobbies that include working with our hands. There are a couple of wood carvers and a carpenter as well as a blacksmith and a weaver in the group. We all are passionately interested in tools and one of the most often repeated subjects of campfire conversation involves them. Two questions usually come up at some point in the evening.
Does the intent behind a tool's design affect its overall beauty? How responsible is the designer and maker of a tool vs. the responsibility of the person who ultimately uses it?
I once saw a string of those black iron boxes that southern prisons used to use as a tool to discipline prisoners. Inside each box a bed was attached to the walls on three sides and it filled most of the space. It and the walls were all made of black metal, and everything was carefully crafted to be one piece. The whole box was about four feet wide, six feet long *on the outside* and even standing at 5', 6", I could look over the top. If a prisoner was thought to be unruly he was locked in a box. I've experienced summer days in Memphis and I know what it's like to be locked in a small closet. The tour guide didn't have to spell it out to me. This thing was intended and used as a passive torture device using heat conduction. The cost in inflicted pain that had gone into every aspect of its creation and use was staggering. I wondered how anyone could bear it and still consider themselves whole human beings.
If you painted it another color and took out the lock and chains it would look like a child's play house.
Have you ever seen a pair of rib shears? They're graceful and elegant and look scary as hell. They're designed for one thing, to cut through human bone as quickly and efficiently as possible. The whole intent behind them is to save lives.
Years ago, I got to hold a two hundred year old trepanning tool in my hands and examine it up close and personal. "Trepanning" is a medical procedure where a hole is bored in the skull to relieve internal pressure caused by a head injury. The technique is thousands of years old and it was only in the mid-1900's that reliable non-invasive procedures were developed to mostly replace it.
This thing was close to being the ugliest piece of ordinance I'd ever seen in my life. It looked like some sort of bizarre cross between a saw and a war ax. For days afterwards I'd find myself absently touching the bumps on my head where the cracks from my own head injury had healed.
Damn. I'm glad I was born in this end of the century. That instrument probably took as many lives as it saved, even though it was created to help people. Did they wind up on some poor earnest healer's karmic bill?
I've always been fascinated by knives, not just for their deadliness and beauty but because I'm firmly convinced that cutting implements and fire are at the roots of everything, for good or ill, we've managed to achieve as a species. I remember when the archeologists found the oldest musical instrument awhile back—I think it was in China, and it was a pennywhistle made out of a bird bone. A knife of some sort shaped that whistle, I'd bet. Knives shaped our first writing tools, from styluses to quills. Blades are also killing tools, of course, used for bringing down food animals and processing them or murdering your neighbor in a quick and efficient manner. Or preventing your neighbor from murdering you.
I'm a wood carver, and my medium is a hard, beautiful wood called Lignum Vitae. I've carved and sold several different styles of lignum knives by now. My intent is to honor both the wood and the knife, and up to this point my work has only been used to open letters and sit somewhere in a collector's house. Make no mistake, though, these things have sharp points and the wood is dense enough to sharpen into a dangerous edge if you wanted to. I know for a fact that you can take lignum through a metal detector without a peep. What if someone uses my work to hurt someone? Once it dawned on me I stopped putting edges on the blades, but I haven't stopped making them.
So, I might wind up with that on my bill as well. How much?