Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ever the recalcitrant digit

The old man inched along the wall, a huge smile splitting his weatherworn creased face, one hand trailing the rough planks of the wall as if to support his fragile frame and the other wagging back and forth feebly in a cheery wave. A crowd shoved against a low barricade, shouting, jostling one another, small point-and-shoot cameras flashing like miniature arcs of lightning. Each explosion seemed to set the man back, to freeze him in his tracks, and his wave a plea for the crowd to back off.

I leaned across the railing and lined him up in my viewfinder. He was close now, ten feet at most, half-veiled in a forest of arms and cameras and outstretched hands. The people beside me drew back, intimidated by the bulk of the Nikon or sensing a professional and allowing him room for his craft. It’s a common occurrence and laughably comic considering the size of a camera is no measure of its worth.

My finger rested lightly on the vertical shutter release. The man was a decorated WWII veteran or a celebrity or something out of the ordinary but obviously wildly popular, and I had one chance to capture him before he passed. Almost in slow motion he doddered forward, two steps closer, three, and the arms pulled back leaving a clear space and he saw me and smiled and slowed slightly to give me time for the shot. I calmly exhaled, steadied myself against the barricade and pushed the shutter.

Nothing happened. My finger steadfastly refused to budge. A drop of sweat trickled down my cheek as the crowd roared and I pushed harder but still my index finger remained motionless, unfeeling and wooden, in stark contrast to the other digits whose motility remained unaffected. The old man shook his head and moved forward and I tracked him until only his back was visible. When I lowered the camera I noticed a woman staring at me with a puzzled expression. “Why didn’t you take his picture?” she asked. It was a good question, and one I had no answer for.


It was, I suppose, bound to happen.

For decades one of my most common nocturnal imaginings involved coming face to face with danger, usually men, singular or plural, though occasionally to spice things up a zombie or two. The latter always surprises me because I’ve always avoided horror movies as being too over the top and cheesy, nor do I read horror or supernatural fiction. There are a few exceptions, notably the original I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, which featured vampires, plus the movie adaptation, and there was a comical British movie about zombies that proved entertaining as long as you didn’t think of the two hours of your life you’d just squandered, and for what? Maybe on some subliminal level these filtrated into my nightmares to replace the mysterious faceless men haunting the dark alleys and shadowed recesses of my dreams.

And always, with stunning regularity that nevertheless managed to retain a unique freshness and authenticity, there followed the usual confrontation, the instant slam of adrenaline, the sweaty palms and fluid motion of unsnapping holster, shucking heavy revolver and bringing it up in a tight arc to blast the offender. Except that in every instance my index finger refused to do my bidding. I could feel the other fingers slippery on the rubber grip, I could even feel the gentle curve of the trigger—but the finger obstinately refused all entreaties.

It’s a common scenario to law enforcement officers and probably soldiers as well. Some psychologists suggest its roots lie in feelings of inadequacy or fear of being unprepared, and others blame it on stress. I took it simply as part of the job but curiously never asked my fellow employees if they had the same nightmares. Looking back on it now I realize we never really communicated or even saw one another much, but roamed the streets of Denver in our solitary confines. Some retired afterward to a local bar to drink it off but I was rarely among them.

Not long ago I realized something else: my camera has taken the place of my pistol. I’m not talking dreams here but actual carry. My mode of choice is a Black Rapid strap which crosses my torso and lets the camera dangle upside down at hip level. It sounds unwieldy but isn’t, indeed, it’s the first camera strap I’ve ever used that really works, plus it transfers the weight off my neck. To use it I simply grasp the camera and swing it forward; it rides the strap in an arc that brings it directly to the eye.

The difference between raising the camera and drawing a service revolver are exactly nil. Each consists of the same motion using identical muscle groups with the same start and finish position. For someone used to drawing a pistol the act is as natural as breathing, which might be why I find it so intuitive.

When I finally got around to making the comparison I wondered how long it would be before my nightmares reflected the idea. As it turned out, a matter of a week or two.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. The brain is an amazing thing but ultimately backfires or runs on several cylinders short of a full load. (Where did I put my glasses?) Dreams may be a secret language that if deciphered would unlock our truest natures or nothing more than an unruly two-year-old playing with building blocks. That we’ll never understand them doesn’t stop people from trying though I mistrust their reasons for doing so. I simply go along for the ride. After all, in these latest iterations missing the shot takes on a whole new meaning than in the past. I only hope that the next time my shutter finger refuses to budge I’m tracking a Hollywood starlet rather than some old geezer. The view would certainly be much finer.


Wes said...

When we lived in El Paso, and I was a Border Patrol Agent, I too had the same type of dreams. Mine involved a knife-wielding man breaking out our dining room window. In my dream, I would hear the window break, grab my .45 pistol, and confront the man. He would always laugh at me and advance. No matter how hard I pulled the trigger, it would never go off. The funny thing is, later we got wrought iron bars on our doors and windows. After that, I only had that dream once more, and that time I shot him over and over. I wonder what psychiatrists would say about that?

Tom Parker said...

They guy deserved it. For years I thought I was the only one, but now I know it's a universal trait. Thanks for chiming in.