It’s All in My Head – Elephants, The Sailor, and Bogus Gin

Elephant safari

Elephant safari (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

As  a teenager I read a book of teachings proffered by Hindu holy men.  One of them had to do with a student who had just taken in a lesson on how interconnected the word was…that he was one with the world and all living things.  Leaving the lesson, the student was walking down a trail and saw an elephant coming from the opposite direction.  Taking his recent lesson to heart, the student put a smile on his face and walked right at the elephant, which he was one with.  Later, after a bit of recovery time from his trampling, the student questioned his teacher about the practicality of such philosophy.  The teacher told him that, yes, he was one with the world, but the student should have stepped aside since elephants always have the right of way.  I think this stuck with me because it reminded me of one of my childhood heroes.

My grandfather was a boxing fan, and I often watched boxing matches with him.  One of our heroes, being from Washington state, with its large population of Scandinavians, was a heavyweight boxer named Ibar “The Sailor” Arrington.  Ibar was a local legend.  He had the seemingly suicidal habit of lowering his guard during boxing matches and challenging his foes to wail away at will on his Norwegian noggin.  It worked for him…for a while.  Most of the local meatballs he fought weren’t that good of fighters, and after they exhausted themselves wailing away on Ibar’s rock-like head, he would knock them out.  His final record was 27 wins (20 by knockout), 7 losses, and 2 draws.

Ibar’s retirement came after returning from Durban, South Africa, where he had fought a lightly regarded boxer named Gerrie Coetzee in a packed Kingsmead Stadium on December 15, 1978.  The Sailor had taken a severe beating – again – which left fans like my grandfather and I in a pitiful state.  It was featured on local news, and Ibar sat quietly, staring blankly at the microphone in front of him.  His manager did the talking, announcing The Sailor was leaving the ring due to medical reasons.  A reporter asked Ibar if he would have done anything differently during his career.

“I would have ducked more,” was all the wisdom he had to pass on to his disappointed fans.  I think Ibar would have understood the Hindu teaching about giving elephants the right of way.  After witnessing the Sailor’s demise, I have always given elephants the right of way.  My grandfather knew that giving elephants the right of way was not always a possibility.

My grandfather was another tough guy, and like most tough guys, rarely talked about the experiences which had made him so.  I always thought he was an average grandpa.  I only found out after his death that he had been sunk in the North Atlantic while serving on a convoy ship during World War I.  He spent what must have been the longest, most hellish night ever as he bobbed around in one of the most wicked patches of sea in the world, clinging to any flotation aid while his friends and crewmates screamed for help…drowning slowly…or quickly if sucked down with the ship…or succumbing to their burns and slowly slipping beneath the waves.  After being “in the water” sailors were routinely sent to the Pacific where there was little chance of deadly naval action.  He soon found himself put ashore, handed a rifle, and told he was infantry, when the United States sided with despotic Czar Nicholas’s White Army in their efforts to defend Vladivistok, the most important of Russian seaports.  He was shot in the leg, the bullet lodging close to an artery.  A veterinarian tried to take the bullet out, making a complete hash of the leg.  My grandfather refused further offers of help, fearing a future with one leg more than one complicated by a limp.

That man worked hard all his life, and I never knew what a mind over matter existence he lived, dealing with that buggered-up leg and the psychological scars of those two years.  He always preached mind over matter to me…that if things were going bad, or I was hurting, just ignore it and it will get better over time.  I always thought this was a fantastic rather than realistic approach to something as physical as the pain I suffered breaking several bones, getting burned, and even shot once.  Guess what folks…it isn’t, I received a sobering lesson in how fantastic this world really is after becoming so poor for a short time I offered myself up for medical experiments at the University of Washington.

Students in the incubation room at the Woodbin...

Students in the incubation room at the Woodbine Agricultural School, New Jersey (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

I started answering ads for test subjects during such a time of economic distress when I had moved to Seattle to become a rich rock and roll star.  One I answered – eagerly – promised $50 for an hour of my time, but I had to be over 21 years old, since the study involved drinking alcohol.  Quite a few people were lined up outside the advertised test site when I got there, but I was a frequent flyer, and got preference.  We chosen few were instructed to fill out a questionnaire concerning our attitudes toward sexual expectations following a dinner date, a movie, and various other similar situations.  We were then given three large glasses full of gin and tonic and instructed to drink them down within fifteen minutes.  My fellow test subjects seemed as eager as I was to comply, and an air of alcohol-relaxed sensibilities was soon evident.  People were more talkative, a bit more clumsy, bumping into tables and chairs, dropping pencils as we again filled out a similarly formulated questionnaire aimed at discovering the sexual expectations associated with various social situations.  There was quite a bit of cross-talking and plenty of innuendo-laced attempts at humor the second time through.  Then came the punchline  –

None of had to worry about driving home, and we need not be concerned about other safety issues…there had been no alcohol in the foul-tasting drinks.  It was a double-blind test.  We weren’t being tested on amorous expectations associated with dating, we were being tested to see if the suggestion we were drunk changed not only our answers, but our behavior.  We were all a bit stunned, and somewhat embarrassed, by the looks on the faces of my fellow lab rats.  I had wondered why the psychology department had chosen a drink like gin and tonic…something that seems more English Officers’ Club in Bombay from the era of the Raj than Rock Musician Decadence in Seattle during the Grunge Era.  They knew that none of us had probably ever had gin and tonic, and if we had, the drink is so sour it would be difficult to discern the gin-lessness of the drinks.

Since my introduction to the placebo effect, I not only understand the full-on power of suggestion, but have considered opening a bar that doesn’t  bother including alcohol in its drinks.  As long as it looked like a bar…and smelled like a bar…and the patrons seemed to be drunk – why not avoid the expense of alcohol?  After all, it’s a mental world…it’s all in my head.