••• The International Writers Magazine: Pages from New York
Give Me A Break
Walli F. Leff
Here’s me gasping for air in this Trump-Nazi-KKK-white supremacist-climate-change-denying-would-be Mexican-wall-building- Muslim-hating democracy across the Atlantic. I got sucker-punched by the fake election and haven’t been able to breathe properly for a good, long time now.
An invitation from readers of a book club to answer their questions about my novel and exchange thoughts prompted a quick trip to the Jersey shore. The break would also give my husband and me some comfortable familiarity — a chance to spend time with dear cousins, play with their dogs, and enjoy a long walk on the beach. Toward the end of the ride we phoned to say we’d be at their house in ten minutes.
“Great, but the thing is, we’re out now and it’ll be a while before we get back,” our cousin told us. “So come join us at Stumpy’s Hatchet House.”
(Hatchet? Stumpy? Hope they don’t have to chop any of their trees down—they love their trees. Weird name for a tool store. Maybe that’s not what it is. Could be just an odd name for a restaurant. Awfully early to be eating, though.)
The detailed driving directions that followed included two highways and a left turn we were supposed to make by turning right first. The call ended with, “Can’t stay on the phone—got to get back inside. Call again when you get here.”
||A few blocks after the automotive do-si-do of making that key left turn by turning right first we spotted the parking lot for “Stumpy’s Hatchet House.” Our cousin emerged from the building and ushered us through a crowd at the entrance into another swarm of people in the lobby, a small room where all the furnishings were made of rustic wood and two wooden armchairs upholstered in rough, red and black-checked, lumberjack-patterned wool occupied a prominent place. There was no indication of tools for sale. No menu was posted.
|We jostled through the scrum to the big back room, super-noisy with raised voices, raucous laughter, and loud, loud whacking and pounding sounds. The space along the room’s rear and side walls was divided into distinct areas, about eighteen feet long by eight feet wide, each labeled with a name printed on what looked like a broken-off piece of orange crate—Brad Pitt, Pit Bull, Peach Pit, Pittsburgh, Mosh Pit. Some of the pits were occupied by young adults only; in others the age range varied from eighteen through senior citizen.
Two large structures made of strips of that orange crate-type wood stood at the end of all the pits; each structure had a large painted target with a bull’s eye center. Two at a time, the players stepped up to lines about twelve feet from the target. They alternated turns flinging—you guessed it—a hatchet—towards the bull’s eye. The other members of their group, mingling a safe distance behind the throwers, watched and cried out encouragement and other comments—“nice try,” “aww, too bad,” “go again, go again,” “oops,” “good throw”—after every thundering bang.
Most of the time, the hatchets smacked against the wood backdrop and clunked onto the floor. Sometimes they landed in the wood—occasionally within the target’s perimeter—and stuck there. Our cousins and their friends had been playing for quite some time before we arrived and had already racked up scores. While I was watching I saw them hit three solid bull’s eyes. Maintenance staff came by to replace target slats that had been hit so often and so hard they were splintering. After repairing the targets, they held out the replaced slats as souvenirs. The players eagerly snatched up the mangled wood.
||A crossed pair of American flags stood on a barrel centered a short distance from the front wall. Covering much of the wall on the right, a huge forty-eight star American flag powerfully invoked one of the two motifs operating as strong forces in this hatchet-throwing setting: patriotism—or nationalism, if that’s your political bent. Players at Stumpy’s Hatchet House threw hatchets with an inescapable view of modern history’s best known symbol of U.S. patriotism and hegemony, the version of the U.S. flag that flew between 1912, when Arizona was added to the union as the forty-eighth state, and 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii became states forty-nine and fifty. Cushions covered in fabric that mimicked the flag’s upper left hand corner of white stars on a blue field graced the chairs in the pit area.
Nothing evokes patriotism as obviously as a flag, and the forty-eight star U.S. flag represents the war-torn era that encompassed the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War (called a “police action,” not a war, at the time it was fought). The U.S. also had other military engagements during those years:
1: The Seventh Fleet’s blockade of the Taiwan Strait to prevent armed conflict between the Republic of China, whose capital was then on the island of Formosa, and the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.
2: The U.S. Marines’ occupation of the Beirut International Airport and the port of Beirut to stave off internal strife within Lebanon and threats of military action by Egypt and Syria.
3: The commencement of the build-up of the U.S.’s force of “military advisors” in Vietnam.
Competition, the second motif, is the sine qua non of sports and an element of many games, as well. Even an objective realist who recognizes the chances of becoming the highest scorer in his or her group are laughably remote will fantasize about beating out the other players. Developing skill at landing the hatchet in the target and scoring bulls-eyes is another important motivating factor in this game, but no matter how strong your desire to refine your technique may be, when others are throwing hatchets along with you, competition rules.
Jenga towers, another form of competition, dot the room. A jenga tower consists of fifty-four rectangular wooden blocks arranged in a stack of square layers, three blocks per layer. The blocks in each layer are placed at a ninety degree angle to the blocks in the layer below it.
Using only one hand, the first player removes a block from within the stack and places it on top of the tower. One by one, the players continue modifying the tower’s construction. Block by block, the infra-structure weakens, the top becomes a haphazard pile of blocks, and the tower loses stability. When it falls, or if any block other than the last one placed on top falls, the game is over. The person whose turn came before the move that causes the tower to fall is the winner.
Standard jenga towers are a little over two feet high. Adjacent pits share a tower that rests on a table between the two pits. With only two people per pit able to throw hatchets at any given time, those awaiting their turn at the target are open to being distracted and an inherent condition of jenga play—every block removal introduces suspense—sucks people in. At each player’s turn, everybody wonders whether this will be the move that brings the tower down. That tension makes the game especially engrossing.
Jenga towers come in large sizes, too. A giant tower, over five feet high, stands next to the long table in the middle of the room. Anyone from any of the pits can take part in a giant jenga game. In the contest I watched, the noise of the collapse when the final, fatal move was made dwarfed the pounding of the diehard hatchet throwers still going at it in the pits. The person whose move caused the giant tower to collapse was rueful; the other participants chortled with “ha, ha, it wasn’t me” pleasure.
Both the appearance of the room and the act of hatchet throwing struck my husband and me as madness. Served up as a sport based on skills that require well-practiced eye-hand coordination, hatchet throwing really amounts to giving yourself over to a fantasy-based scenario based on an underlying threat of destruction. The skills it hones have little practical use outside the game. The movements that go into playing it have little aesthetic appeal—a hatchet smashing onto a target does not offer the pleasing satisfaction of an arrow flying gracefully through the air and piercing a bull’s eye dead center. Given the wildness of flinging and splintering your way through the hatchet throwing learning curve, neither of us considered signing the required waiver to absolve Stumpy’s of liability for any harm or damage that might occur. My husband was glad his injured arm kept him from even being tempted to play.
The atmosphere was mad, but, paradoxically, being at Stumpy’s Hatchet House was a lot of fun. The hatchet throwers were friendly and congenial. We didn’t see any resentful or nasty behavior. I did observe a spirited hatchet throwing session related to politics, but that wasn’t a personal competition, it was a fanciful way for like-minded people to express frustration and let off steam.
The U.S. Senate was preparing to vote on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare system Congress enacted during the Obama administration that the Republicans vowed to dismantle. At one of the pits, the hatchet throwers attacked the American Healthcare Act, the Republican Party’s replacement bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated this legislation would cause up to 23 million people to lose the health insurance coverage they already had.
The hatchet throwers wrote “American Healthcare Act” on a piece of paper, taped it to the bull’s eye, took turns flinging their hatchets at it, and did the paper in. The next paper they taped on the target read “Mitch McConnell,” the name of the Senate Majority Leader, orchestrator of the Republicans’ legislation attempt. Gleeful, laughing, they bludgeoned that to smithereens.
At another pit, I saw players grimly hurling their hatchets with all the strength they could muster. I commented on their seriousness and, without giving any particulars, one of them told me they were venting their fury toward a person they detested and thought of as an enemy. They left the session quiet but relieved.
These examples of hatchet throwing as catharsis are not unique. In the private accommodations section of their advertising circular, Stumpy’s Hatchet House lets people know they can act out hostility and rage: in addition to various functions such as bachelor/bachelorette parties and team building, it specifically mentions “Ax Your Ex” divorce/break-up parties.
In these rough times, providing a context for expressing anger and frustration through a physical act makes good business sense. It would be no surprise if hatchet throwing emerged as a treatment for the psychic wounds many U.S. voters have been nursing since Election Night 2016. Within days following the official tabulation of the vote count, psychotherapists’ offices overflowed with patients seeking relief from intense, uncontrollable anxiety. Millions of people radically changed their media habits to avoid feeling pain that not only did not relent, it worsened. They stopped reading newspapers, watching the news on television, and listening to it on radio; they self-medicated their raw, tattered consciousness by playing reruns of old Seinfeld comedy programs and watching “Saturday Night Live’s” devastating comedic takedowns of Trump and his administration. Some sought refuge by working out vigorously at the health club in hopes that exhaustion would lull them to sleep and give them needed respite that was eluding them.
Pairing hatchets with the U.S. flag is a natural. The hatchet, that curious, ungainly tool, has had a strong, historical association with patriotism since the U.S. became a nation. It gained mythic status for the role it played in clearing forests and enabling the settlement of the western frontier—think Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Its association with George Washington turned it into a symbol of presidential probity. As legend has it, as a child, the venerated general and “father of his country” demonstrated the unbending honesty and courage for which he became so well known by confessing to his father that, using the hatchet he received as a gift, he had misbehaved. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said,” I cut down the cherry tree.”
The story gained wide currency after Mason Locke Weems, an Episcopal minister, book agent, and author, featured it in his biography of George Washington, published immediately after the first president’s death. Weems, intent on portraying Washington as a role model to be emulated, enthusiastically celebrated his subject’s virtues. Many historians, including President Woodrow Wilson, believed that the anecdote had no foundation in truth and, for the most part, the legend has been dismissed as an unsubstantiated myth. The authenticity of the story of cutting down two cherry trees in a courtyard adjacent to one of the driveways to the Mount Vernon estate has never been disputed, however. Washington wrote the anecdote himself, in his own diary. The account of this adult act of destruction had nothing to do with his reputation for honesty and courage. He clearly explained that he had chopped down these trees he owned in order to improve the views.
Washington was not the only president whose honesty turned his reputation to gold. Among the other examples, two, in particular, stand out. People believed what Abraham Lincoln (“Honest Abe”) told them and held him in esteem for his moral principles, steadfastness, and courage. When they elected him to the presidency, they rallied behind his leadership and, committing themselves with passion to the Civil War, carried on the terrible struggle to preserve the union the Founding Fathers established when they wrote and signed the Constitution of the United States.
Grover Cleveland’s unshakable honesty and uncompromising battles against corruption won him great admiration. When it became public that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, the unmarried presidential nominee, who had contributed to the child’s support, admitted to the affair, urged his supporters to tell the truth if asked about the matter, and was elected president, not only once, but also to a second, non-consecutive term.
The lies Donald Trump told during the 2016 campaign and election and has continued telling since he became the forty-fifth U.S. president made presidential probity a virtue of the past.
By acting out physically, and grappling, if only temporarily, with the anger and helplessness that now pervade the U.S., some hatchet throwers have been able to reduce their stress and reclaim that present-day rarity, a good night’s sleep. Call this a twisted way for Stumpy’s Hatchet House to provide a public service, if you will, but given the condition the country is in, you can’t knock it.
© Walli F. Leff Sept 2017
Walli F. Leff is the author of the psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, and the co-author, with Marilyn G. Haft, of Time Without Work. She writes articles on psychology, science, political and cultural affairs, and travel.
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