22

The Killer Instinct

We went to Rat Island to kill, but it was not rats we were after.  I was ten years old, as was my companion John.  The island lay in the Bronx River just north of the Botanical Gardens in the vast and verdant Bronx Park.  It was accessed by a fallen tree trunk and held a dangerous allure.  How it got its name we did not know.  It wasn’t an official name but was known to all the boys in the neighborhood, whispered like a ghost story in the night. Some said the rats were the size of fat cats and could bite your feet off.

In those days, the park was wild and the Botanical Gardens, bordered by Twin Lakes on its north side, was not fenced in, and on our regular jaunts through it, we would encounter packs of other boys, many older, some being progenitors of The Ducky Boys gang of Irish kids from the adjoining parish of Our Lady of Refuge, from whom we would have to flee.  We were after thrills and the frisson that comes with fear.

On the momentous day I speak of, when heading to Rat Island, we carried our rods.  We were Bronx boys and even in those days we learned to protect ourselves.  I did kill that day, and this tale is my confession, for like then, I still feel guilty.  But I was also proud since it felt like a passage into manhood.

We traversed the meandering river slowly, not because the tree trunk was wobbly, but because of the fear of the fat cat rats.  We might have to protect ourselves and were very wary, like soldiers creeping up on a hidden enemy.  But all we first found on the island were a few beer bottles and cigarette butts.

When the fat cat struck, I was shocked.  I yanked him hard and he flew into the air and landed in the river’s edge on the side where the current ran fast.  When I pulled him toward me, I was appalled by his ugliness and his sad eyes and old man appearance, his whiskers that extended like wire bristles.  He was still alive but I wanted a trophy, so I let him die at my feet.

My sisters and mother were revolted when I brought the big catfish into the house, so I brought it to the yard to show my father when he got home from work.  But as I waited, I felt quite guilty for the poor creature, so I prepared to bury him with dignity and dug a small hole in the side yard and found two popsicle sticks in the garbage from which I constructed a cross.  My father arrived in time for the funeral and seemed bemused by it all.  I buried my victim, erected the cross in the dirt over him, and said a prayer.

John and I were just kids and thought we knew what we were seeking, but as I later learned from Thoreau, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.”  But what is it?

In the next few years, I did little fishing, just once a year in the Esopus Creek at Edgewater Farm in the Catskills where we vacationed for a week in the summer. There I would go alone in the very early morning while everyone slept and I could watch the mist rise over the flowing water and never kill a fish, just feel being at peace with God and nature.  The killer had become a dreamer.  But not entirely.

I then turned all my attention to basketball.  Hoops became my obsession from the 6th grade on.  It seemed clear to me then that I was after self-disciplined excellence and something else I couldn’t name, but here too a strange killer instinct was necessary.  Catching the catfish with a homemade rod seemed like an accident, just as later that year I was devastated when my six year-old cousin accidentally shot and killed his eight year-old brother with a rifle that was hidden under a bed in a neighbor’s home in Woodlawn where they were visiting with their mother. It was a year of death.

The schoolyard where the hoop action was happening was up the hill on the next block, P.S. 56.  The sound of a dribbling ball became my music, the staccato rhythm that I danced to.  To this day, when I hear some kid dribbling a ball, all my senses are aroused and I want to jump in and steal the ball.  I was a boy in a basketball bubble practicing a turn-around jump shot and a killer dribble that would leave my defender on his knees at my mercy.

That schoolyard court became my second home, the place where I turned dreams into reality.  It was pure fun, although pure is probably not the right word.  For I was manically motivated to dominate the court.  Rushing to the schoolyard after school and on Saturday mornings to be the first there, to command the court, to compete with the older guys and beat their asses.

In the following years, traveling around the city’s best basketball neighborhoods to play and make my mark. The endless hours in gyms, dribbling in the basement. The search for perfection.  The adrenaline rush, the thrill, the joy of the perfect pass, the sweet swish of the net from a shot you had practiced a thousand times, the passes left and right behind my back like Bob Cousy.  From the age of eleven until twenty-three, basketball was central to my life and identity.  It was my passion.  It brought me a full college basketball scholarship to Iona College, a Division I program.

I have heard it said that many men play basketball or golf or fish their entire lives without knowing it is not baskets or birdies or fish they are after.  But what is it?

But that is another story, one that involves my hunting fat cat rats of a different sort.

Edward Curtinis an independent writer whose work has appeared widely over many years. His website is edwardcurtin.com and his new book is Seeking Truth in a Country of Lies.

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Categories: Edward Curtin, latest, opinion
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Paul
Paul
May 22, 2024 7:14 AM

And I saw that all toil and achievement springs from one man’s envy over another.
This, too, is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes, 4:4

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: Fear God and keep His commandments, because this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, along with every hidden thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12, 4:4

rubberheid
rubberheid
May 20, 2024 3:29 PM

what is it? the will to dominate? even kill? that “alpha” shite? or is it just the hardwired warrior instinct where we know if we’re not competent in that sense, we’ll be the loser, the dominated, weak or even dead? ?? i was taken fishing since i could walk essentially; whilst catching was exciting, i was appalled by the cruelty of the hooked gub (for the wee ones that were put back) and the snapped necks with their splay of gills, or cudgelled heids. i stopped fishing. what about shooting then? you’ve got to be a good shot alphas! well i’d shot a few rabbits (usually mixi), but there was one i must just have smashed its spine… with that terrible wail, it dragged itself on front legs into a gorse thicket and i couldn’t even get to finish the poor bugger off. That bothered me. i have never shot… Read more »

Erik Nielsen
Erik Nielsen
May 20, 2024 3:14 AM

Girls? Its a substitution for hunting girls. Fishing girls.
I remember my youth walking the city dry Friday and Saturday night with a friend, looking for girls because we had not a single dime and was too under aged to get in anywhere to a dance hall.
Returning home at night with a hard one, cold feet and empty pockets.
After a couple of years walking around, we got the idea to fish, to sport, to do something else, than looking after girls.
They call me the hunter. https://youtu.be/unZr-VMGXXs

Veri Tas
Veri Tas
May 19, 2024 10:31 PM

Killing and praying does seem to go hand-in-hand.

Rara Avis
Rara Avis
May 19, 2024 10:19 PM

I’m a Bronx boy myself and I remember all the locations mentioned in this piece. We lived in the North Bronx, Woodlawn Heights, to be exact, about equidistant from Van Cortland Park and the Bronx River. A solid Irish Catholic neighborhood surrounding St. Barnabas Catholic Church (which I attended through 8th grade), with a significant smattering of Italians and a few Germans here and there (myself included). We rode our bikes everywhere. I remember bicycling with my friends to the Botanical Gardens (this was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s) and the Bronx Zoo. We would play tag and occasionally basketball in the playground behind P.S. 19, on the north side of Woodlawn Cemetery from P.S. 56. Although we didn’t fish in the Bronx River, we did float plastic models of battleships on it. For fun, we would throw firecrackers at them and pretend to have naval battles.… Read more »

Edward Curtin
Edward Curtin
May 21, 2024 12:29 AM
Reply to  Rara Avis

That neighbor is still the same. My parents lived there and my sister now does. I know all the places you mentioned and I also swam at Tibbetts’ pool. It was a great place. Rory Dolan’s and the other Irish places are still there. Go back and have a pint or two of Guiness.

Howard
Howard
May 19, 2024 5:15 PM

It’s of course so far beyond a truism to have become a cliche that kids are inherently mean. They are. Perhaps it’s the trauma of being born that makes them that way – a sensible protective mechanism for animals in the wild. But we’re no longer in the wild. Yet we’ve carried the meanness of being kids with us into our present “civilized” world. It’s just sitting there, inside, to be called forth by those given or assuming the right to summon people to do their bidding. Nature is not a goody two shoes: it’s a raging beast with pretty flowers for skin. It’s best characterized by the Venus Flytrap. It doesn’t want its species to be kind and gentle and loving; it wants killers to stalk its paths and enrich it with blood. It did, however, make a serious mistake in giving humans intelligence, which can be used to… Read more »

purgatorium
purgatorium
May 19, 2024 5:00 PM

I buried my victim, erected the cross in the dirt over him, and said a prayer.

God thanks you for your service, and I for the chuckle. Surely, the world’s greatest religion!

Big Al
Big Al
May 19, 2024 3:09 PM

Maybe it was just fun. I too spent endless hours of my youth in gyms, also got a college scholarship, played in Europe and ended up playing competitively until I was 50. I wasn’t chasing anything other than competition and fun exercise. And my next basket, I was a great shooter. Sometimes things are what they are.

NickM
NickM
May 19, 2024 2:05 PM

Self-preservation Instinct: the Dragon hugs the Bear.

https://youtu.be/CA58IXBIJcs?si=Aohzyn33xF6XFCzu

Johnny
Johnny
May 20, 2024 10:12 AM
Reply to  NickM

Great link Nick.
They’re not just hugging, they’re dancing.
Wonder when the USian Warmongers will step in.

NickM
NickM
May 21, 2024 5:58 AM
Reply to  Johnny

The EU$ian warmongers are treading very cautiously. Even if NATZO were to take on Russia OR China on their own, that would be no pushover. NATZO has fed for years on easy meat like Serbia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria — all small prey. Grown fat and slothful, NATZO has tried to snatch Ukraine from Russia, and retreated howling — no match. The very thought of taking on Russia AND China is banished from polite conversation in the corridors of Washington, Brusselrs and Whitehall.

Johnny
Johnny
May 21, 2024 9:25 AM
Reply to  NickM

And of course the USians don’t have a good ‘track record’ warring against poor nations.

Erik Nielsen
Erik Nielsen
May 22, 2024 1:17 AM
Reply to  NickM

These two guys are Putin and Xi? I dont see they give each other a hug. Fake news again again!

Erik Nielsen
Erik Nielsen
May 22, 2024 1:21 AM
Reply to  NickM

Here it was.comment image

Binra
Binra
May 19, 2024 1:03 PM

Value-fulfilment is integral to being (& thus to being you). Seeking outside ourselves is a world of conflicting or competing values. But the experience arises from a creative ‘casting out’ and being caught! Aligning our giving & receiving has an outer aspect – wherever your focus is actively manifesting-such as sport, or writing as a quest-ionic uncovering of ‘deeper fishing’ by which to undo or release ‘being phished’. Are we ready to be ‘realed in’? or is there something ‘out there’ that MUST be different than it is, because we made it an image of self-conflict. How many hoops must a man jump through… That Gorilla suit attention test comes to mind. Your mission; count how many times the basketball bounces. Identity contracts to such an external fulfilment as value ‘achieved’ – excitement! Don’t take your eyes off the ball! A spotlight hides far more than it illuminates. Such is… Read more »

ariel
ariel
May 19, 2024 7:04 PM
Reply to  Binra

I killed ‘Morning Flower’s’ (American groupie) bird, a thrush she had adopted, but a cat got it, and it was screaming and writhing. So I killed it for her, because she couldn’t. And my first real love said ‘Yes’ and I said ‘No.’ She was beautiful and perfect, 16 and I was 17, but I was still in school for at least a year, and we were separated by about the distance between Newton Aycliffe and Chiswick. We met on the seafront at Bournemouth. I just got this strong funny feeling, and there she was, standing just behind me. I went up to Co. Durham to see her. I have regretted that decision ever since. And we had the local 18 children local Irish family (with hangers on) the Walshes to contend with. In the end I to do a chicken run and mandatory fight with the Chief Walsh. Blood… Read more »

Johnny
Johnny
May 19, 2024 11:46 AM

As children we ‘think’ with our bodies.

As adults we think with our heads.

It’s a shame we forget how to ‘think’.

NickM
NickM
May 19, 2024 2:19 PM
Reply to  Johnny

It’s never too late to re-connect with the physiological basis of our thinking..

“My ideas first take shape in the form of complex muscular-skeletal sensations. It is only later, when I can reproduce the train of sensations at will, that I re-cast the ideas into a chain of equations that can be written down on a page. ‘ — Albert Einstein.

Johnny
Johnny
May 19, 2024 11:59 PM
Reply to  NickM

First things first hey Nick?

Mark Culmer
Mark Culmer
May 19, 2024 8:37 PM
Reply to  Johnny

we need to use our four ways of knowing ‘thinking’ – emotional, intuitive, embodied and cognitive, we could extend this to include spiritual.

Johnny
Johnny
May 20, 2024 12:00 AM
Reply to  Mark Culmer

The last being the most important.