Gently, Not

“… Do not go gentle into that good night.
… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
– Dylan Thomas

I still have a dear friend since childhood.  We’ve been friends and stayed in touch for nearly six decades now, although he lives over 1,000 miles away.  We’ve visited a few times, but most contact is through a news-blurb he publishes via email nearly daily. It contains the day-to-day comings and goings of his life and thoughts: everything from health, to work, to mundane errands, to weather, to politics, and, of course, his grandchildren. [1]

Sometimes he talks about the daily newspaper: what’s in it?; is it on time?; or is it wrapped in plastic for possible rain?  (precipitation is a big deal in Arizona.)  We share a sense of old-fashioned desire for the tactile experience here: we both like to get an actual newspaper, with ink, holding and folding it with that enjoyable crinkle of the paper as we manipulate the pages.

He recently divulged that his wife also enjoys the hardcopy newspaper, but for different reasons than he.  Whereas he checks weather, sports, local and national news (usually in that order, I have deduced), she goes right to the obituaries, and often limits her perusals to those.

Although they live in fairly good-sized city (now about 60,000, even though the municipality is younger than each of us), they live neither in, nor even near, any major metropolitan area.  Therefore, between the two of them, they know a majority of the long-time residents of the region.  So, it’s a way to get news, I suppose.  Mostly, I think, she doesn’t want to learn weeks or months later that a close acquaintance or long-lost friend has gone “into that good night.”

I’ve confessed before on this site that I like to wander through cemeteries.[3] My digital photo album has pics of the final resting places of people both known and unknown to me. The headstones with carved letters, the family plots, the funerary art: all suggest stories.  The details of those final resting places – withered bouquets, trampled grass, cracked stones with the weathered letters of names and epitaphs, two dates with a dash between them , or a few tiny pebbles perched upon a tombstone – are the outlines of those stories; our imaginations are challenged to fill in the rest.

Another confession. Like my friend’s wife, I also peruse the obituaries, especially on Sundays. The Sunday paper usually has a collection of obits from the previous week.  Here I can check to see how many are younger than I am. Weird?  I suppose. Sometimes I get a catch in my breath when I see a name I know. A full week when every Reaper’s Visit is to harvest someone older than I is a good sign.  Such weeks grow ever fewer. When the deceased are younger, I am often amazed at what full lives they lived and how very accomplished they were – I can’t help but feel a bit small and wasteful of my own time and talents in comparison.  Few have gone gently into that good night.

_______________________________________________________

This morning’s Sunday paper brought some very sad news from Houston, Texas.  “Crowd Surge Kills at least 8 at Houston Music Festival.”  Evidently hundreds, perhaps thousands, pushed up against the stage during a performance by rapper Travis Scott.  Never heard of him until now. All of those who perished were young, aged only 14 to 27.  Many more are in hospital.

This is not a unique occurrence.  Human crowd behavior is bewildering; it’s even a scientific area of study.  It’s almost like we’re grasshoppers: a few of us hanging around is no big deal, interesting and a bit ugly up close, but once we get into huge crowds we change – chemically, hormonally, pheromonally, irrationally – and any behavior, whether destructive or otherwise, becomes acceptable.  Are we like locusts?

Cute grasshopper, not so pretty in real life, especially as part of locust swarm

I am but a poor ignorant grasshopper, yet yearning for wisdom, as in the series Kung Fu.  I simply don’t understand it. Twice I have been caught in such crazed crowd situations.  Even though I am not normally claustrophobic, my instinct both times was to simply get away and go against the throngs. Rather like a rat, squeezing myself out from a collapsed building.

Once was at a Summerfest concert, along Lake Michigan, in the summer of ’73 or ’74. [2] One of the featured acts was the Doobie Brothers, already famous by this time. With anticipation of the big act, the crowd grew in size and rowdiness through each of the warm-up acts. I guess half the audience was stoned.  There were no chairs or benches, just blankets and people on grass.  By the end of the last warm-up group, there was no space left at all.  Thousands of people, shoulder-to-shoulder, most pushing this way and that to get a better view of the stage.  The more pushing there was, the more pushing and yelling ensued.  Most wanted to get closer to the stage. Some yelling was for the Doobs to finally get their butts on stage, some yelling at other attendees for pushing so much.

With the sweet smell of colitis floating through the air my companion and I grew a bit fearful and decided to leave.  At this point our going against the flow was still possible – the space we evacuated was quickly consumed by the grateful pushers.

I learned the next day that a riot occurred shortly after we left.  Concert attendees pushed so hard on the stage that it collapsed.  As I recall there were no fatalities or serious injuries.  I don’t think the Doobies even made it onto the stage, although I wondered later if the roadies could salvage the equipment they were setting up.

The other time was about 15 years ago when I attended the Phoenix Open, a regular PGA Tour® event held annually in early February.  It had been for some time, and is still today, regarded as the loudest, rowdiest, rudest, drunkest and (for many) the most fun of all PGA events, which are usually very quiet and reserved affairs.  [Of course there’s always yelling at any event when a fan favorite is making a run, but that’s after the shot is struck, or the putt is holed].

Rowdy crowd at Phoenix Open

As a result of this reputation, the Phoenix Open is usually the most attended of all PGA events.  The big day is usually Saturday; often around 200,000 in attendance.  If you think golf is a game of manners, politeness, and properly behaved respectful fans who remain quiet during preparation and execution of a golf shot, you’ve not seen or attended the Waste Management Open (ironic name), the current moniker of the Phoenix Open.

Continuous hoots, jeers and cheers are common, especially on the 16th hole.  On the 17th too.  It’s not uncommon for this behavior to spill over to other holes, as ethanol fueled fans seek other views. To be honest, I’d be surprised if many attendees even witness two shots during the day they are there.

On this particular Saturday I was attending “alone”, with about 180,000 strangers, and I just couldn’t take the heat (even though only early February) and obnoxious crowd behavior.  Mid-afternoon I went “against the flow” toward the exit, only to find I was not alone.  Not even close. A vast throng of patrons had also decided to depart early.

In their (lack of) wisdom, the tournament officials set it up so that the main exits from the golf course had to weave through large merchandise tents, like cattle channeled through a feedlot.  In the tents were booths of many sizes and types, selling tournament memorabilia and golf paraphernalia of all sorts.  Most of the thousands of people just wanted to get out; but just enough people stopped at booths to shop that they impeded – in fact stopped – the entire flow of foot-traffic.

We simply stopped moving.  I had no interest in golf hats or visors, shirts, slacks, balls or ball markers.  People pushed upon me. I then pushed against others. It got hotter and hotter in the tent (it’s Phoenix).  Fresh air was non-existent.  After 10 minutes or so people started shouting: hey, let’s get moving.  This was anger.  This was locust swarm behavior.

In a flash of panic-motivated brilliance I hit upon an idea.  I pushed to the edge of the dammed-up motionless river of people and crashed through the barrier of a display booth.  I was then able to dash about 50-75 yards, going from booth to booth, sometimes crashing through the tables and banners that separated the display booths, until I was within a few yards of the exit.

Some people saw my successful tactic and followed.  I’m pretty sure more than one display area was out-of-commission for a while.

Once out  of the tent and at the event exit, I essentially cut-the-line for cell phone retrieval, since everyone else was back on the golf course, stuck in the big tent, or behind me weaving through display booths.  [Back then cell phones were not permitted on the tournament grounds; you checked your phone upon entry and retrieved it when leaving with a unique chit.] I ran to my car.   I’m not sure what happened thereafter.  No deaths, but I wouldn’t be surprised if ambulances showed up. The shouting, screaming, pushing, threats and hyperventilating was scary.  Humans.

I simply don’t understand crowd behavior.  Whether it’s F Joe Biden, Let’s Go Brandon, or crushing people to death at concerts, at soccer matches or during a Hajj, … or putting crass bumper stickers on your car because you just know that everyone in your community thinks the same way you do.  These are things that reasonable sane people wouldn’t normally do.  It’s like our brains flip to Locust-mode when we are in crowds.

Houston and crowd deaths. When people die young like this, they don’t go gently. They’ve not had the opportunity to rage against the dying of their own light.  To tell their story.

Live your life!  Rage now!  Soon enough, the sun sets over the horizon.  Live full, so that, as the Kung Fu teacher said: “Death has had no victory, grasshopper.’

The poet Dylan Thomas himself, whom I quoted to begin this essay and alluded to throughout, managed an impressive life and obituary, despite resting his bones forever, barely aged 39.

Grasshopper’s master teacher, from Kung Fu

As always, my best wishes for you.  And avoid crazed crowds.

Joe Girard © 2021

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

[1] I’ve written about Kevin a few times in this blog and other blogs.  A few I can recall are here, here and here.

[2] Summerfest bills itself as the largest Music Festival in the world.  And they might be right, with attendance approaching one million annually. Although the Donauinselfest (Danube Island Festival) in Vienna has drawn greater attendance in recent years.

[3] I’ve written about my fascination with cemeteries here and death here, among other times, which I cannot find right now.  My mom wrote this nice piece.

 

Finally, here is Dylan Thomas’s poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas, 1914-1953. The years are close together, but his “dash” contained a full life.

7 thoughts on “Gently, Not”

  1. Steve Rolfe

    Lot’s of interesting thoughts in your post!

    Dylan Thomas died young from alcoholism. Perhaps he couldn’t control his rage. Famous poem, though. I first learned it while in high school.

    I get the local paper in hardcopy. I see it as the price of getting independent journalism. Without our paper, local news would be left to Facebook and much worse. I also get the electronic version of the NY Times and WA Post for real journalism and honest reporting. Sure they have a point of view, but they tell the truth. Hard to find among some of the largest sources of “information” today that literally lie.

    I find obits inspiring. So often the story is about great accomplishment and great family life. We can all learn from the well spent lives of others.

  2. Mary Schweitzer

    Hi Joe! After reading your essay, I feel grateful I never attended a high-strung, drunken concert. It gives me claustrophobia just to think about it. You are a good writer….keep it up as long as it is fun.
    Did you ever make it to the NW? It is never too late to visit.

    1. Joe Post Author

      Hi Mary. Thank you. NW? Not lately. Covid. I suspect we will get there again; probably sooner rather than later. Pullman, right?

    1. Joe Post Author

      Thanks Rob, Thanks for reading and replying. All good stuff except the first sentence.
      Duisburg is not in eastern Germany. Nowhere near. It’s an industrial city solidly in the former West Germany, quite near the Rhine. Odd mistake to make. I’ve been there (to ride the Paternoster elevator). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rvvbn7O1nus
      You can tell it is in/near the Ruhr district of west Germany by the road signs in the picture: Essen, Dusseldorf, Oberhausen.
      Joe

  3. Peggy Gutmann

    Wow Joe! Crowds haven’t been good to you, very scary indeed! I remember when our Brown Deer Middle School opened the doors for our first day of school & I got caught up in a very scary push & shove situation! I can only imagine a much larger crowd going crazy. I also enjoy spending time in the cemetery, reading the epitaphs & loving the wildlife who live there in Evergreen Cemetery.

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