Saturday, September 7, 2013

Clip Half-Full: The Real-Life Implications of Virtual Marksmanship

My father recently passed away at the age of 63, leading me to juxtapose his life with my own. In his terms, I will be approaching my midlife crisis sooner rather than later, and I decided to make an effort to take steps out of my comfort zone, to do the things that I would normally scoff at. Since I try to avoid needless risks in losing my life—such as skydiving—I figured the next best thing would be to do something I’m morally at odds with. Cannibalism is illegal, so I thought the next best course of action might be learning to operate and fire a weapon.

As a bleeding heart liberal, I have a natural unease regarding guns. The thought of holding the power to take a human life in your hand may invigorate some or bestow a sense of power, but it’s not the responsibility I’d prefer to have—I’m barely capable of baking a cake, for Christ’s sake. Of course, in this world where everyone has to hate everyone else over everything, it is hard to have any gray areas in your head for any issue. For most folks, it’s hard stances on every issue. The fact is, I am uneasy about guns, but I’m not necessarily anti-gun. I don’t think people should carry guns, as the thought of an O.K. Chorale on every corner when an inebriated argument escalates is senseless. I’m also a realist who understands that people who are nutty about guns will always have them no matter what.

In a controlled environment, you could label guns as fun. This is what I aimed to take part in, while also quelling my curiosity on the age old fact of video games—something I am obviously skilled in, to a certain extent—being used as a training method to better hand-eye coordination. What better way to test the knowledge of what I have learned about guns in gaming than to put them to practice at the shooting range?

Games have been the product of increased hand-eye coordination for well over a decade, according to advanced studies, and are often used for military training—for better or worse—in the U.S. and abroad. As many lives that are saved with video games as training manuals by better equipping our troops for potential threats, there can be an argument as to video games being used as a tool to desensitize those doing the killing. While I would argue a rational mind can differentiate between reality and fiction, I also recognize the sad fact of many unstable minds being implemented into military ranks—an argument for a later date, I suppose. Instead, let’s focus on one question at a time: Can shooting in video games make you a better shot in reality, right out of the gate?

I called my friend Jesse, another avid video gamer and newbie to firing guns. Jesse is the guy I usually get in touch with when I want to try something new, as he is a single guy with expendable cash. “What if they find out we’re vegetarian-lesbian-liberal-Muslim-Obamas?” I pondered. “They’ll kill us,” he surmised.

We took out a deal at the Top Gun Shooting Range via Groupon, $62 for the rental of a gun, a box of ammunition, four targets, and a lesson with a certified NRA trainer. This was particularly amusing, as the NRA is a frequent punch line to my left-wing humor.

We arrived and immediately looked out of place from the customers popping into the store. Unattractive, lumpy white men around my age or better, with the facial hair to match the cliché, made up the majority of customers. Okay, so maybe we fit the bill upon retrospect. A few elderly white men in standard plain-white-Ts filled out the ranks as we gawked around at the numerous springs and doodads being sold in the cleanly retail portion of the store. “I don’t even know what any of this stuff does,” Jesse said.

“What type of gun were you looking to use today?” The clerk was polite and could see right through us. “How about something easy?” Jesse pulled no punches. “Well, we could start you on a .22… They can barely break through a winter coat and do not have much recoil as a result,” the clerk explained. Jesse nodded, “we’ll try that one.” We were ready and set to fire the sissiest gun known to man.

Our NRA-certified instructor greeted us with a warm demeanor and a friendly smile. He asked what brought us in, and I explained the passing of my father and my desire to do something out of my comfort zone as a liberal nancyboy. He took us into his office and revealed what he had something special in store for us. “I don’t normally do this,” he explained, “but with what you said about your dad… It made me feel like doing something special for you guys.” His gift was the use of a 9mm Glock 17, a far cry from the .22 caliber we were going to tinker with. Jesse gulped. A big step up, but one in the right direction for this field test I was anxious to perform. Withdrawing ammo from his personal stock after a shortage failed to produce any for purchase, I began to realize and appreciate the trust he had in a couple of buffoons looking to do something goofy.

After thorough instructions on how to treat the gun (like it is always loaded) and how to transition your aim as to not to point at anyone at anytime, we spoke small talk with our instructor, going over zombie apocalypses and the various strategies against various fictional zombie archetypes (such as Dawn of the Dead ‘78 zombies versus motion picture-World War Z zombies), I felt comfortable with our instructor and realized that my incessant belittling of every single person in the NRA was just as close-minded as the types of things I rally against. We’re all people in the end, and our instructor was clearly a nice person both at heart and on the surface. Lesson learned. I was relaxed and ready to have some fun.


The Resident Evil CODE: Veronica rendition of the Glock 17.

Most video games have a 9mm as a standard handgun, seeing as how they are police issued. Chances are if you are starting a game with a pistol, it is a 9mm. The Glock 17 was immediately familiar to me based on its use in one of my ten or so all-time favorite video games, Resident Evil CODE: Veronica. I was very happy to learn we’d be using the weapon due to this, as I’m quite familiar with the digital counterpart to it. It has also made appearances in the likes of Battlefield 3, Half-Life, and one of the precursors to the modern shooter, Duke Nukem 3D. I refrained from using Duke’s catch phrases (“I’ll rip your head off and shit down your neck,” for example) during my trials.

We were led past all of the pros shooting their pieces as our protective head gear made the gunshots all around us feel as though they were next to our heads as opposed to inside of them. Intimidating as this was, it melted away once we were escorted to our private “beginning” lane. I was elected to go first. It was a sweltering 102 degrees outside, and the still air of the range—combined with the jitters of what was about to happen—made the sweat pour even harder.

The gun was about as heavy as I’d imagined. In most games, even assault rifles are treated to be light as a feather, quickly stored or thrown over the shoulder like an empty purse. I figured before I had ever held a gun that the density would be pronounced, and I was correct. Aiming the gun was a gift taught to me from video games, making me immediately realize the correlation first-hand. Certain games opt not to use a reticle or anything in addition to the natural alignment of the handgun; what you see is what you get. This was the case with the Glock 17. The target was placed thirteen yards out.

“Lightly and slowly squeeze the trigger with the cushion of your finger,” the instructor said. Aiming for the dead center for a solid fifteen seconds before pulling the trigger, I locked in and focused solely on my target. My hands were calm and steady.



The above picture is my first of what wound up being three targets. The farthest northern bullet hole was my first shot, a bulls-eye shot placed exactly where I had planned. You only get one first shot in your life, so I was proud that I managed to mark it exactly where I wanted it. The recoil was completely satisfying; my hands were loose and my stance was confident, allowing the gun to bop after each shot. This was very similar to what I had anticipated from Resident Evil CODE: Veronica’s character animations; it felt and looked right, fluid. My second and third shots were in the dead center of the target, and my fourth was directly between the two of them (leaving, essentially, two holes for three shots according to the target itself). As adrenaline and excitement of my success took over, my shots became clipping an inch or two south of where I aimed, but still close enough to be considered a great first attempt at shooting a weapon (“keep it in the area of a clinched fist,” the instructor directed).

The instructor chuckled. “What’s funny?” I asked. “Oh, I just get a rush when people are naturals,” he replied. “Yeah!” I rung out, holding my hand up for a high-five that never happened. Ouch.

Jesse went next. He was slightly apprehensive about the whole thing and anticipated the recoil of a magnum, by the looks of things, and his first few shots showed as much. Once he realized the power of the gun and the satisfying recoil, the jitters melted away and his shots began looking very similar to mine. It became clear to me that it’s simply true; if you’ve had experience with certain shooting games, you can apply that experience to real-life scenarios if you can quell your anxieties. I like to think for most, shooting at paper targets and shooting at living things greatly change those anxieties; I know for certain that I could not target anything alive—be it armed thug or possum—the same way I could an inanimate object, nor would I want to in the first place.

My second target teetered off by comparison to my first, while Jesse only got better. My second target was in the silhouette of a person, and I began aiming for chest shots to similar results as my initial session. Things went south when I began aiming above my line of height, targeting the neck (and hitting the chest) and head (and hitting the neck). This was a caveat I was not anticipating with our experiment; I figured aiming a gun top-to-bottom was as simple as left-to-right. Squaring up your shot is something that’s depicted as seamless in the world of gaming, and is a far cry from reality. As I began to sweat from the heat, my grip on the weapon loosened and the smoothness of my trigger finger faltered as a result—another variable than does not translate whatsoever to the digital world. All of my final shots were slightly lower than where I aimed, though still where I wanted from left-to-right.

Jesse’s second target was similar to my first with his accuracy, if not better. He shot up a zombified gigantic fly for his target, and put on quite the show for the instructor and myself. “Aim for the milk carton in the background.” Jesse would make the milk spill. “Shoot for the maggot-infested sandwich behind the fly.” Maggots were turned to dust. As we made requests, Jesse fulfilled all of them with ease. He was great this time around.

With time remaining and no ammunition left for the 9mm, we opted for something a little different than what we were using before. Our instructor brought out the AR-15 for us to toy around with, a semi-automatic rifle with a scope and laser sight. This was closer to the video game world due to these two very key features. We chose some new targets, opting for oversized spiders this time largely due to my disdain towards them, and took to the range.

The AR-15 as depicted in Dead Island.

“Now, this one will have a little more kick,” our instructor said with a grin on his face. “This is going to send me to the back of the room,” I thought to myself. “This gun will break the sound barrier, so make sure you have your ear piece on at all times.” Okay, color me intimidated. “You can go first,” said Jesse.

I noticed my hands wavering, though never trembling or shaking; the distance made its presence known. This likely had to do with my lackadaisical posture, something that is neither my best nor worst character trait. The AR-15 reminded me very closely of the sniper rifles from Far Cry 3, a game where you start off very bad with focusing on targets and gradually learn to control your nervous system to allow for pinpoint accuracy via a series of attribute points and rewards the further you progress. In other words, the game will correct your natural flaws for you. Needless to say, my stance and aim resembled the earlier portions of the game opposed to the latter, as no artificial intelligence was there to hold my hand. Luckily I had recently played the game and outsmarted the A.I. by timing my wavering shots. I’m known as a man with excellent rhythm and used this, combined with my knowledge of timing my shots, to ease my nerves. The target was from twice as far as our previous target due to having a scope and laser sight, as we attempted to shoot from 25 yards out. I eased my trigger finger and aimed for the head of the large spider…


“HOLY SHIT!” I screamed as the burst range out and echoed through the range. Our instructor cackled. “I always like seeing a shooter’s first reaction to that one,” he said. The gun jolted back upon blast into the snug grip of my shoulder. This was a gun that exceeded my expectations of recoil. My shot was precise, nailing the target directly in the dome.

Shooting with a scope and laser sight obviously made targeting easy, though the distance meant that every slight movement greatly threw my intended target off by a lot; the slightest twitch could turn a headshot into missing the target altogether. It reminded me of sniping in the Metal Gear Solid series without the use of diazepam to calm your nerves and steady your hands. Concentrating on my own breathing patterns and timing my shots mid-inhale—just as I would have in-game via my avatar’s virtual breaths—allowed me to cheat my inexperience and abilities to conquer my shakes. My results were well, though I missed the baby spider’s head by this-much. Jesse’s previous injury to his collarbone kept him from zeroing in with this rifle too much, as he risked damaging a pin in his shoulder. He still shot valiantly, given the risk.

“How did we do?” “Great,” the instructor replied with a wide smile across his face. “I thought we’d be so terrible that we’d be kicked out,” I replied, “so I’ll take that.”

Jesse and I celebrated our most ‘Murican adventure by downing some double cheeseburgers afterwards, which will inevitably end our lives as we did the imaginary lives of those flies and spiders. “It reminded me of shooting in Mass Effect before you know what the hell you’re doing,” Jesse stated. Every game we brought up had a common theme: they are games that are not known for their gunplay. The experience did not remind us of a seamless, satisfying shooter such as Call of Duty, Halo, or even Gears of War; it reminded us of games where the use of guns was secondary and not the preferred option to fight.

The Resident Evil series is derived from conservation; you’re encouraged not to use your weapons unless you have to, as ammunition is scarce. Metal Gear Solid is a stealth series where sneaking in and out without being detected—and thus not taking lives—is a less messy and preferred option. Mass Effect relies heavily on the use of bionic powers to immobilize enemy threats. Far Cry 3’s introductory mission involves escaping imprisonment from a hostage camp with the use of sneaking and throwing nearby rocks. Most of these games do not even use guns as a focal point, yet these were the examples we kept coming back to.

The reason behind this is that operating a gun is not a seamless action sequence where clips are thrown into the air and reloaded with the swipe of a hand. The likes of Call of Duty and such know that the more smooth the animations, motions, reactions, and the like of their gunplay, the more fun they will be to play. In real-life, the use of guns is a slow, methodical process—one that is even a little bit clunky—and thus we relate it to games where the use of guns are not embellished. The model on the cover of that magazine is not perfect; she is Photoshopped to look better. Not all sex resembles what you’ll find on the Internet. The image of the sandwich on the sign board at the fast food chain looks nothing like what you just ordered. Likewise, not every use of a firearm will be as silky smooth as the video games you’re used to. It's gritty and based upon precision. Throw it on the pile of American myths we love to believe, even if we know they’re probably not true.

While it might bum some out to learn that some things are false, the things we proved to ourselves to be truth far outweigh any disappointment. You can use video games to become a great shot in real-life. Everything that I’ve utilized since video games evolved to three-dimension scope in the mid-‘90s until now was relevant to my success as a first-time shooter.


“So I was thinking,” Jesse added days later, “that was pretty fun. Let’s do that again.” We are only twelve experience points from Call of Duty-smooth. We can’t stop now. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Of Socks and Sapphires: A Love Story


Thirteen years ago, I was speaking with a good friend of mine on my computer about wrestling. We were discussing our favorite performers in the ring. I remember it vividly, for whatever reason. “No, I don’t like him,” my teenage friend Valerie said of someone whose name faded away over time. I asked, “What about Foley?” “Of course, everybody loves Mick,” she replied. “He’s such a nice guy.”

---

Val and I love wrestling. No, no… Not the Olympian-style of wrestling, but the kind that used to light the world on fire in the late 1990s. The kind where grown men oil themselves up and roll around with other men in tights and pretend to hurt each other with their fake wrestling moves, so say the non-fan. It’s not an easy thing to admit to enjoying in our society, given the fact that it is an elaborate ruse and people do not like being tricked. To partake and revel in an outright lie means that you’re stupid and you fell for it, right?

I see it in a different light. Wrestling is a form of art, in the same way that dancing or figure skating is a performance art. Nigel McGuinness, a brilliant pro wrestler who was unfortunately forced into retirement due to injury and never once made it on Monday Night television, said that the pinnacle of the art is to suspend disbelief. Bret “The Hitman” Hart, a childhood idol of mine, said that the very best pro wrestlers land blows that look real without leaving the scars to prove it. It’s walking a fine line, where your forearm hits a man in the chest so hard that he flips backwards and lands face-first, yet never harms him. It’s a rugged man’s form of magic, and the trick is to never let them see you fake it.

I was brought up with the stuff, like a lot of wrestling fans. My grandmother regaled me with stories of lining up to see the legendary Lou Thesz take on all comers, including Everett Marshall. I started with Andre the Giant tossing Big John Studd around in the ring. It was more entertaining than it ought to have been, as the two hated one another behind the scenes and it showed in the ring. Unaware of the man behind the curtain, I cheered the good guys against the bad guys. It differed little from my comic books; for a true good guy to exist, an equally impressive villain loomed in the distance.

Like any awkward teenager in the age we live in, I pecked away at a keyboard trying to impress a pretty girl from a state I’d never visited. Little did I know that it actually worked. I’m funny, admittedly so, and I’d make wrestling jokes to make the pretty blonde giggle.

She got my wrestling jokes, which was a miracle in itself, but the fact that she appreciated them and found them amusing was like catching lightning in a bottle.



Fourteen easy years from those conversations, the ring was purchased. Locked away amidst my sports cards collection (baseball cards and wrestling—ladies, try not to be seduced, I’m officially off the market), I conjured up numerous plans that fell through or just didn’t seem right. At the ballpark? It wouldn’t work out. At the sea lion show? Nah, overdone these days. I needed something unique, something personal.

It hit me at 4:42AM on a Friday night when I should have been sleeping, but anxiety got the best of me. I was going to recruit the talents of the one, the only… Mr. Socko.

Mick Foley is “the Hardcore Legend.” He depicted deranged characters such as Cactus Jack and Mankind. He dove off of cages, took steel chairs to the back of the skull, fought in barbed wire death matches, and even lost an ear in a contest. Wrestling never looked faked when Foley was in the ring, because it never was. “Fake matches” became coordinated destruction. The man billed from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico could have suffered far dire consequences over the years with the risks he took. I was never into the blood lust, which became popular in my teenage years within the world of wrestling. I empathized with the talents and knew they had families waiting for them outside of the ring; I did not want to see them so broken down that they could not hold their kids, let alone play with them. Unfortunately, not many others saw my way of thinking.

Thankfully, Foley is a smart man—a New York Times best seller, no less—and saw that he could not keep up with nearly dying on a nightly basis. He was fortunate enough to be born as arguably the most charismatic presence in the history of wrestling. While his “hardcore” personas cut deep in their interview segments, getting the attention of his audience with a proverbial grip to the throat, he was equally entertaining—and more likeable—as a good guy. And by good guy, I mean just that: He played himself, a good man who you wanted to see succeed and wanted to walk out of the ring unharmed.

He used his uncanny sense of humor to create Mr. Socko, a deranged puppet made out of a dingy old sock and a marker. Socko took off, and wound up being a fine piece of merchandise for the then-WWF machine to produce. It successfully helped Mick get over the hump of being the heap of man disfigured on the mat.

He was presented as he should have been all along. Unlike the situations of past, Mick didn’t require a dastardly villain stalking in the background to make people like him, nor did he require sensationalist team mentality that made luminaries such as Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan icons in the past. Mick was a good person. That is why you liked him. He was also a great wrestler. “You always want to give him a big hug,” Val thought aloud about the man whose wrestling catch phrase is “Have a nice day.”

My plan was made: Create an alternate Twitter account from my own so that Val could not witness these interactions; follow Mick Foley; wait until I saw he was tweeting and thus looking at Twitter; try to persuade him into helping me out by offering a $250 donation to RAINN, the charity closest to his heart. I was at the grocery store when it happened. My tweets were sent out as I checked out. My phone vibrated as I walked home. I fumbled for it to find a Twitter alert telling me, “tell me more … sounds like fun.”

That is when I fell down with all of the groceries in my hand. “Splat,” went the frozen yogurt on the sidewalk. Dammit.

Over the course of the night, I spoke with Mick. He said a donation was not required, though I plan to make it with my income tax refund once I receive it. He agreed to make Val a personalized Mr. Socko with a note enclosed asking her to try it on. I would get to the package first, as I usually get the mail, and slip the engagement ring inside of Mr. Socko. I would take her to our romantic spot in St. Louis, the Grand Basin in Forest Park. Upon Socko’s arrival, I sprinted blocks and blocks to find suitable gift wrap. I ran home and threw everything in the basement, wrapping it and storing it in the trunk as she showered.

I presented the idea to her. “We should go for a walk at the Grand Basin after dinner.” “Okay,” she replied, “I’ll put my purse in the trunk.”

Eep!

It all went according to plan, however. I placed her purse in the trunk, “like a gentleman,” and presented her with the gift at the waterfront on a bench. She was taken aback. “You got me a present!?” She feverishly tore into it, revealing the signed 8x10 from Foley.



“Go ahead, try on Mr. Socko,” it read. “You got me a Mr. Socko!? Oh my God!” She slung the Socko—ring enclosed—around as I panicked at the thought of it being flung into the murky water of the Basin and advised her to take his advice in trying it on. She motioned at me with Socko for a moment like a child with a new toy before thinking aloud, “Wait, there’s a ring in here…”

I took a knee—the same injured knee from the fall, mind you—for twenty seconds as she marveled at everything that just happened. She seemingly ignored my purposely-mispronounced question of “Will you be my husband?” She looked back at Socko, and back to the ring.

“You got me the prettiest ring on the planet! And a Mr. Socko! A real Socko!”
“Will you please answer? My knee hurts!”



She said “Yes.” Passersby offered congratulations. The cloudy skies literally went away for a while between an impending storm to give us some sunlight. Happenstance is fun like that.

---

We are dorks, which is why we work together. We like the same music, the same movies, the same television shows. We've become adults together. And yeah, we are wrestling fans. If I've learned one thing in life, you shouldn't be ashamed of what you enjoy and you shouldn't surround yourself with people who make you feel ashamed of what you enjoy. We didn't. We're happy.

I think I still impress her occasionally today with my dorky incantations, reciting a match with my own play-by-play and successfully naming most wrestling maneuvers off the top of my head. I suppose it’s a lot like language, in that it’s ingrained seamlessly into your vocabulary at an early age. It’s harder to learn if you weren’t a toddler growing up with it, but that’s okay: We’ve got plenty of years to learn everything from arm bars to Emerald Fusions together.

P.S. Mick, if you’re reading this, you’re sort of extended family now. Sorry buddy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Cat in the Duffel Bag: How I Learned to Never Change My Seat at the Airport

The following is a true story, partially written one year ago. Every conversation and action actually occurred in this story, which has been fragmented to encompass the most noteworthy of incidents aboard Flight 914, Phoenix to Saint Louis, on U.S. Airways. The date was March 12, 2011. I still have the boarding pass.

Flying is one of our greatest achievements. We defy logic with every time a gigantic metal bus leaves the surface of our planet, performing what could only be considered a miracle in the time of the Renaissance. I often think back to points in the human race’s past, where the technologies we have today were impossible by and large, and think of how fortunate I am to live in the era that I do, where musical recordings can be captured and their brilliance cherished forever, or where the Internet allows us to talk to would-be friends on continents we may never grace with our presence.

We are a lucky species living in the best time period the world has ever witnessed, laughing in the face of logic with every time those back tires leave the ground, soaring through and above the clouds until they resemble breaking waves skimming the top of the ocean, a sight so beautiful that our ancestors would have shed tears of joy to behold. Now, don’t you feel like an asshole for bitching about paying $2.50 for a bag of pretzels?

I love flying, and I fly frequently. The spontaneous nature of my occupation as a freelance journalist sends me across the country on a regular basis, but I never dread flying. Sure, the airports themselves are a pain in the ass, but isn’t it worth it for the act of flight? It’s sort of like an amusement park: nobody likes waiting in line, but by the time you’re flying around at breakneck speeds on the roller coasters, you’ve forgotten all about it.
In March of 2011, I was invited to visit San Francisco, California on business with Facebook gaming mega-giant, Zynga. It was but for a brief 36-hour period, but memorable times were had. After my business meeting, I decided to pack it in and arrive at the airport around 4pm; I slept grimly on the eve of the Japanese tsunamis, knowing several acquaintances in the country with whom I had yet to hear from, and looked forward to resting at the airport prior to my departure several hours later. Upon arriving and checking in, I decided to move my seat down from the middle of the plane to the very last row, swapping my aisle seat to a cozy window view during a very long red eye flight; after all, I rarely have the chance to see multiple cities’ skylines during the early AM hours, as I would be in the air from 9pm until 6am with a minor stop-gap in-between.

Up until this point in my life, the mistakes I have made have been miniscule. With three taps of my index finger against the touch screen, I ruined every positive experience I have undergone and will undergo in the future while defying logic 35,000 feet in the air.

The flight to Phoenix, Arizona was peaceful. The darkened cabin of the aircraft provided the comfort needed after a long day of boardroom meetings on little sleep. The city skyline of San Francisco lit up the blackened ground like fireworks in the night’s sky, and in-between lay millions of street lights, porch lights, and headlights, resembling the stars of the sky that gravity kept to itself. Once the clouds lay at our feet, the moon greeted us in all of its remarkable, natural beauty, casting light upon the clouds as it does against beds of water. The dreams of our ancestors, so far from their realities, yet so similar to the visions they had from the outside. This is why I enjoyed flying.

We landed in Phoenix on time. All around me was the chatter of newfound acquaintances – if only for the night – taking in the tranquil flight and properly-conceived small talk. A nearby pair of strangers playfully flirted, bonding but for a brief moment before never seeing one another again. Me? I sat alone in my row, stretching my legs across the center and aisle seats while taking in my view. As we docked, I took in the final moments of what could only be described as one of the best flying experiences I have ever experienced.
Yin, meet Yang.

The Phoenix terminal is my least favorite in the country. The bland brown and silver color scheme and sharp design resembles a 1960s decorating disaster that has been renovated to accommodate the fashion of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – possibly the worst of both areas. It is one of the few terminals where I know something will go wrong, even at midnight.

Everything went according to plan: I deboarded from my plane slightly before schedule, a bathroom was located immediately across from where we docked, and connecting gate was not too far from where we arrived. Unlike an O’Hare jog from one side of the airport to the other in fifteen minutes (I do not recommend it), I was surrounded by fellow sleep-deprived zombies who shuffled their feet to their respective gates, the slow rotating clicks of wheeled suitcases being pulled at a walking pace, and the occasional nighttime cleaning crew’s vacuum, all passive in nature and the exact opposite atmosphere you would typically associate with airports.

The calm before the storm.

I did not notice them when I arrived at my gate thirty minutes before our departure time. Reading “The Stranger” by Albert Camus while also warding off sleep, I blocked off everything and everyone around me without the God-like credentials of a public announcement speaker. I would not realize why I had not come across the perpetrators who killed my love of flying until wedged against the window, hoping for an asteroid to somehow collide with the plane, approximately ninety-two minutes later. The gate was crowded, but not impossible to find some time to relax; everyone around me was equally exhausted as I, and it seemed as though we came to a mutual understanding that we would all keep our voices low, and drift about the next five hours as passively as humanly possible.

“We would now like to greet those customers flying with us to Saint Louis, Missouri sectioned in Boarding Class Three,” said the deity over the intercom. This is code for “You’re at the lowest tier of how much we give a shit about you,” as the First Class passengers and frequent fliers with American Airlines received the initial treatment of fake hospitality and painted-on grins. Me? I was in no rush; sitting at the very back of a red eye flight will leave you without worry on exactly how soon you board. The sooner you’re on, the longer you have to sit and wait. Being the (seemingly) last person aboard the plane, I noticed my row was empty once again. With a smile, I pulled out my secondary novel, World War Z by Max Brooks -- a lengthier read for a longer flight back home -- and sighed with relief at the prospect of having another row to myself. “Good choice,” I thought to myself in reflection of swapping seats at the airport.

It was then that I heard a scuffle. I raised my head from my book to find a woman taking up the light of the aisle, like a drug-drenched lunatic in Charles Manson’s family blocking the sun from the desert. At forty-two years of age, the woman stood around five-ten and was several hundred pounds overweight. She was with her acne-laced teenage son, whom looked as solemn as a scorned puppy that has been bruised at the hand of his master for no apparent reason. Many people remark on love at first sight, how they knew that their beloved was the one person they would love for the rest of their lives the second they laid eyes on them. Likewise, they claim that when they first laid eyes on the man who robbed them at gunpoint, they knew he was trouble; they talk about how he had a bad vibe about him, or how he acted odd. I am an optimist, one who attempts to find the good in all and gives everyone their fair shake. I am not one of those people. I made no such connection. I never saw it coming.

The pair sat down across the aisle from me on the left side of the plane. I attempt to continue reading, but found it hard to concentrate over the undecipherable babble hitting my left ear like an infection. It was whiny and high-pitched with a southern twang in a woman’s voice, while the young man spoke in hushed tones, almost parent-like in attempting to contain the squeals. My curiosity, at this point, had peaked; exactly what was going on over there, anyway? Why did it sound so risqué? Was the young man embarrassed by his mother? Was she saying something embarrassing about him?

“Excuse me, sir, but you have my seat.” My train of thought was cut off abruptly. I looked up to find a man in uniform, presumably going to war, as I saw his wife and child saying their teary goodbyes prior to boarding and made a mental note of it; it is quite hard to enter a terminal without a boarding pass. The Marine was not speaking to me, however, but to the embarrassed young man to my left. “Oh, I’m sorry, we’ll move,” said the teenager.

“Just who the fuck do you think you are?” bemoaned the mother. “We got here first, so these are our seats.” My pupils had to have dilated when the terror of the situation dawned on me. They had two seats, but were misplaced. The plane was near capacity, and as I began counting heads in the twenty-one rows ahead of me, I slowly came to the realization that there were but two empty seats together on the plane, and they were beside me. “Ma’am, I do apologize, but my ticket says that your son is in my seat,” said the Marine. Right as I began to invite the military man to sit in one of the two empty seats beside me, the woman obliged. “I’m sorry son, you’re fighting for our country, I shouldn’t-a snapped at you,” she mumbled in accordance with fulfilling his request.

The young man, who I would come to know as Moochy, sat beside me in the middle seat. His nameless mother, who has been burned into my memory as “Momma,” hung out over the aisle seat. Moochy was pressed firmly against my left hip, removing the option of accessing my iPhone beyond the basics of turning it off prior to the flight.

“I’m sorry, mister,” Moochy said with slight enthusiasm, “Momma is taking up a lot of room. “ I explained that my best friend, who I had flown with in the past, was also heavyset, and I did not mind his intrusion of typical airplane space etiquette; in fact, I sympathized. He smiled out of what I would soon learn to be relief as Momma reached into her carry-on bag.

“Those no good fuckers STOLE my other bag, so I had to keep this one with the sandwich in it,” she explained to no one in particular. “Momma, please keep your voice down, there’s a baby up there,” Moochy begged of his mother. “You can’t be swearin’ like that with li’l ones around, they’ll pick up on it.”
“Can you believe him!?” Hell hath no fury like a Momma scorned. “My own son, my Moochy, telling me to shut up!” She nudged the seat in front of her, occupied by a sleeping middle-aged woman. “Hey lady, I’m sorry to wake you up, but can you believe this?” My pupils focused on the carnage at hand. “I’m sorry, I was asleep… What did you need, ma’am?” This woman was more polite than she had any right to be, given the situation. Momma asked again, “Have you ever in your life seen a boy so disrespectful to his own mother?” Moochy sulked in his seat, cheeks blazing with embarrassment. “Oh... Well, I really don’t know. I’m sorry,” the bewildered woman replied.

“Momma, you got to stop this, you’re embarrassing me,” Moochy once again begged. “You had too many drinks, why did you do this again to me?”

“Don’t you tell me what I can or can’t drink,” Momma snapped back. “I only had seven martinis, it’s not like I’m drunk!” If this is her sober, Heaven forbid. “Besides, when did you get the balls to speak to a lady like that? You ain’t never had a girlfriend! You hear that, everybody? My son thinks he’s got the balls to speak to me and he’s never stuck his willy in nothin’!”

“Momma!” Moochy was livid at this point, and rightfully so. “Why don’t you try to go to sleep?”
“I ain’t tired! Boy—I mean, sir,” she was addressing the Marine from the former incident. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, I love America,” she confessed through crocodile tears, “but I got a question for you.” The Marine nodded and smiled, likely reconsidering his commitment to the military, given the specimen he now knows he is protecting. “Have you ever seen such a pathetic panty-waste of a boy than my son? I bet you get a piece of ass a lot ‘cause you’re good lookin’ and all, but my boy has never been with a woman.”
“No ma’am, I am happily married and have a son,” the Marine replied. “Your son looks like a fine young man.”

Blowing spit in the wind through an exaggerated brush off to what the Marine said, Momma instead began crying real tears after a small, precious moment of silence. “Why did Robbie have to move to this Godforsaken city we’re going to?” Momma addressed the question to Moochy, who had been playing his Nintendo DS. He ignored her question as he directed his attention into disappearing into his outdated Pokemon game, being the iteration of 2003’s Pokemon Ruby.

Moochy leaned in to me with a question. “Have you ever played Pokemon?” I nodded, explaining what I do for a living as a freelance gaming and movie journalist. “Oh wow, so have you caught them all?” I began to take a liking to Moochy, a fifteen-year-old-ish outcast who life had spit at, given his living environment. He was polite, albeit simple, but anything beyond his mother was a success in my eyes.

“Moochy! Stop ignoring me!” She threw a light punch, connecting to his stomach. “Momma! Stop it, that hurt!” Moochy dropped his portable gaming device onto the duffel bag lying at his feet in reaction to the punch, clutching his stomach. Momma gasped in fear. “How could you do such a thing!?” Her face contorted in horror, as mine would soon after. “Kitty’s in that bag!”

“Kitty?” I butt into the conversation. I should have kept my mouth closed.

“Yes sir,” Momma replied, her eyes rolling from the alcohol like a seasick, brandy-infused pirate. “Our baby kitten, Kitty, he’s in our bag. Moochy had to keep him instead of the one with our snacks because he just had to have a goddamn kitten,” she said through a half-lit scowl.

“Prepare for take-off,” said the pilot. Our journey was beginning. “Please stow all of your personal electronics away until we are well in the air,” continued the flight attendant.

Moochy reached for his Nintendo DS, which Momma quickly snatched from his hands. “Did you not just hear what the lady said!?” Her eyes were more demented than before. “You have to turn this off!” Moochy looked terrified. “Momma, that’s why I grabbed it, I just wanted to turn it off.” Momma held the long, slender portable device sideways like that of a quarterback holding a football and threw it with her left hand into the floor of the plane, the Pokemon Ruby game cartridge jostling loose from the system and scattering underneath the second row to the left of ours – or so I assume from her pointing when Moochy asked what happened to his game. His Nintendo DS’s casing cracked on the lower right-hand corner.

“I shut it off for you,” Momma said as Moochy’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re too unresponsible [sic] to do anything by yourself.”

Moochy began to silently cry to himself. Pokemon clearly meant a lot to him in a life riddled with pain and the death of aspirations. I felt awful for him. In retrospect, I should have stood up for him then and there; hindsight is a wonderful thing, however.

As the plane hit high speeds and shook near the back—a common occurrence when sitting in the rear of an airplane—Momma began to panic. “Oh my God! Oh my God! We’re going to crash!” Momma began screaming aloud, attracting the attention (mostly annoyance) of those in the nearby three to four rows. Moochy was too destroyed to lift his head from his lap.

After thirty minutes of silence from Moochy, who continued to look sullen from the possible destruction of his beloved video game, I decided to take initiative in cheering him up. “Hey, do you like zombies?” I presented Moochy with the book I was failing to read over his mother’s inane mutterings to herself, or anyone she pretended was listening to her. She began inquiring as to how much longer the flight would be fifteen minutes after take-off. “Yeah, I sure do!” Moochy perked up in a jiffy at the subject. “I’m a bit of a zombie buff, myself,” I explained, “I know all the ins and outs in case of a zombie invasion.” He took a liking to the jovial conversation, a far cry from what he had grown accustomed to. “Yeah, I love zombies,” he beamed, “I often daydream about what it’d be like to be in a zombie apocalypse.” Oh, Moochy. I don’t blame you.

“Just what the Sam Hell do you think you’re doin’, Moochy!?” Momma was roaring. “Quit pestering that man, he can’t read his book with you interrupting him.” I take the blame, citing that I asked him if he had read it. “Oh Lord naw, Moochy can’t read,” she revealed. Moochy looked stunned. “Yes I can,” Moochy refuted the claim. “You just never pay attention to me enough to know it.” I handed Moochy my book, mentally noting the page I was on and giving him free range to escape the Hell of his mother’s scorn.
“Moochy, why don’t you love me? You know how nervous I get when I fly and I didn’t want to move to this awful place and your brother made me,” Momma whined. “You shouldn’t have let me drink so much, you’re letting your poor mother become an alcoholic.”

“But I tried to tell you to stop, you just don’t listen,” Moochy explained to his understanding and kind parent. “You told me I can’t tell you what to drink since I’m not old enough to drink myself.”
Momma let out a loud scoff to declare her victory by seniority over her offspring. “That’s right,” she said. “You ain’t no man yet, boy, so don’t you tell me how to live.” Was this really happening? “Now I want another drink, where’s that waitress at?”

I was fully expecting—and hoping for—the pilot to announce that this whole flight had been an elaborate prank on me. It certainly did not seem plausible; everybody became more cartoonish and preposterous by the literal minute. How would I honestly tell everyone about this with a straight face? Who in their right mind would take this as truth? Could you even begin to make up something so terrifyingly bipolar? This flight had become a stream of consciousness similar to that of a life-altering drop of hallucinogenic substances. My third eye was open, thanks to a couple of rednecks relocating from Bumfuck, Washington to my hometown.
“Hey lady,” Momma knocked on the seat in front of her. The woman had been rattled by her last interaction with Momma to the point that sleep was no longer an option, especially over the incessant whining of the beleaguered whale behind her. “Do you know why I call my son ‘Moochy’?” The woman thoroughly ignored her question, but Momma carried on as if she needn’t a person to direct her inquiry to. “It’s because he ain’t done a goddamn thing—I’m sorry, Jesus, I love you, I did not mean that—but he ain’t done a gosh darn thing except use me for my money since he popped out of me.”

“Well, I believe that’s the purpose of having children,” the woman finally responded. “You have them and raise them right, and hopefully they will be able to take care of themselves once they grow up.”
“Yeah but ol’ Mooch is a pain in my fat ass, I tell ya that,” Momma retorted. “He won’t ever turn out to be nothin’.”

“Momma, shut your mouth!” Oh Moochy, don’t. Just stay quiet and take the punishment. “All you’ve been doing all night to these people is spouting your loud ass mouth and they’re all sick of hearing it!”
Hooray, he said what we were all thinking.

The thud could be heard over the engine, though my hearing in my left ear has always been sharper than that of my right. Her knuckles connected with Moochy’s left arm. I was shocked, though I could not figure out exactly why; was I shocked that she just legit punched her son, or that she could contort her overly large body to the point of actually making it happen? Mooch let out a shriek of pain as the skin broke on his arm, bleeding slightly. His mother held out his arm as a trophy. “See what I did? Hah, that was good,” she said while holding up the ring on her finger, now engraved across the flesh of her child.

A flight attendant was called to the back after the incident. The demands for her to control her voice—not anger—were directed at her teenage son rather than her. Clearly, the flight attendants wanted nothing to do with Momma, nor did they feel like addressing the public display of affection that we all just witnessed. Judging from the bleeding arm of her spawn, I’m fairly certain he could not control her actions or verbal communications to no one in particular.

Momma interacted with said flight attendant, asking her how much longer the flight would be. “Forty-five minutes to an hour,” she said. We had barely been in the air that long. As someone who travels to and from the Phoenix airport frequently, I knew that was a blatant lie. Roughly three hours remained in the flight.
“I wish you didn’t hate me, Moochy,” Momma began crying—sobbing—aloud. “I’ve tried so hard to raise you into a good, caring man.” Moochy followed her lead with the tears this time instead of brushing her off. “Momma, I love you. I don’t know why you think I don’t.” Momma slapped him, albeit lightly by comparison to her precious blood-bringer. “Don’t you lie to me, I can tell by the way you talk to me that you’re embarrassed by me.” Who wouldn’t be?

“I just think it will be different once Robbie’s around,” Moochy said of his presumed-elder sibling. “Once we get to Robbie’s and get used to everything, it’ll all be good again,” he explained through the tears. I envisioned Robbie in my head and shrugged off the vision steadfast. This family need not expand in my mind. Momma finally settled down for a while.

Thirty minutes or so had passed since the last audible conversation between the now-sleeping Mooch and his pouting mother. All was finally quiet in the bubble of the plane we had been exiled to. I catch a fleeting glance of the woman in front of Momma, comfortable with her head drawn to her husband’s shoulder. The Marine sat erect with tremendous posture, something miniscule that I admire and envy in military personnel. All seemed fine, at last.

“Moochy! How dare you!”

Some things are too good to be true.

The once-asleep teenage boy sprung up from his nap in a daze, seemingly forgetting where he had been. Back to Hell, son. With a swing of her fist, Moochy laid back to slumber. What was intended as abuse for Moochy instead connected with my left shoulder, absorbing the blow for the sleeping beauty. I’ve been punched by stronger beasts than the Mommasaurous. I’m just happy that she was, in fact, not attempting to tenderize me for a later serving.

“Look what you made me do! I just hit that poor gentleman over there because you ducked out of the way like the coward you are,” Momma laid into Moochy, who was beginning to come to realize the situation’s gravity.

“Momma, I swear I was just sleepy,” pleaded the Mooch. He turned to me. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” I replied, “just stop punching your kid, please.”

If glares could kill, I’d be put out of my misery at the pupils of Momma. She obliged and did not strike Moochy again throughout the flight. Between her cries of how long the flight was, it became apparent that what she was infuriated by was Moochy’s ability to sleep on the plane. She could not get comfortable with her large frame on an aircraft, and thus could not fall asleep. If she couldn’t sleep, then poor Moochy sure as hellfire would not catch a wink for the remainder of the flight.

“I need a piller, [sic]” she said in reference to a pillow. Moochy obliged in forking over his own for her comfort. “No, you dumb fuck, I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout this. You know the drill.”

“Aw Momma, I don’t want to, you’re too heavy,” he replied.

Her forceful stares eventually made Moochy cave in to her demands, as possibly the strangest thing of the evening unfolded before my very eyes. Moochy unbuckled his safety belt and curled up across her protruding belly, his upper body working as a cushion for her mound of flesh from the waist up. She dug her elbows into his sides strenuously, as if to watch him writhe in discomfort.

“You’re an awful piller, [sic]” she laughed. “Be still, asshole.”

Fed up with his squirming from her jagged bones carving into him, she requested his hand. Upon receiving it, she put his middle finger to her lips and bit into it. Yelping in pain, Moochy jerked back into his seat as her laughs awoke the poor woman in front of her. “You fuckin’ crybaby,” she exclaimed as Moochy used his napkin to wrap the finger, which was likely bleeding.

“Why did you do that for!?” Moochy was once again angered. His mother laughed harder at his reaction to her act of cruelty, stirring even more nearby passengers from their slumber.

“I did it because you never listen when I tell you to do things,” she calmly explained for the first time of the night, as if she were teaching her child a fundamental lesson. “I told you to sit still and be comfy and you just couldn’t do that, you kept wigglin’ back and forth.”

All remained quiet over the next fifteen to twenty minutes, with Momma eventually bothering her northern neighbor once again. “Hey ma’am, I’m real sorry to keep bothering you,” she said through a false smile, “but what’s Saint Louis about?”

The woman seemed as puzzled as I was. “About? As in the history of Saint Louis?”

“I guess so,” Momma said. “Have any historical figgers [sic] been through there, like Christopher Columbus or John Wayne?”

A yelp of laughter escaped my mouth as the woman replied through what I could see was a smile between the head rests, “I don’t believe John Wayne was a historical figure, dear. He was an actor in western films.”
“Oh,” Momma said before laughing at herself. “I don’t see a lot of movies.” Or pay attention in a lot of classes.

Soon after this conservation, Momma began to squirm like that of her son’s pillow adventure. “I’m going to shit all over myself,” she expressed exuberantly. “These bathrooms are too little for me, Moochy.” Moochy sighed again in disbelief, as though even he could not believe the size of the tumor Momma was causing in my brain.

When she arose to attempt to squeeze into the bathroom once more, I made my break for it. I smiled at Moochy and told him I’d be right back. I hoped to be wrong in that assessment, more than anything in my life before it. My eyes frantically searched the aisle, counting heads among the seats, hoping for an empty spot anywhere but the Hell I left behind. Twice my hopes were high only to find slouching passengers, sleeping uncomfortably with their necks against the shoulder rest. The third time was a charm.

I feverishly asked the man in the center seat if the unoccupied space beside him was taken. He answered honestly by saying that it was not. I plopped down beside him and shook the hand of both him and the lady to his right. They were the exact opposite of Momma and Moochy, a young twenty-something couple comprised of good looks, culture, and rational thought. A foreign blonde bombshell and a scruffy, snarky smart-aleck; these were my kind of people.

I explained exactly why I had to move up to their row. Their eyes lit up in the fashion of meeting someone who—somehow—is in on the same inside joke that you thought to have created. “You had to sit next to her?” They saw her exploits prior to boarding, all the while this unsuspecting victim of his own circumstance was zoning out. “Did you see her carry-on?” The man asked with his eyes still wide with excitement of the stories I had to tell. “Be sure to check out her carry-on when she comes back through, it’s see-through luggage loaded with boxes of tampons.” I cringed.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet,” the flight attendant said to me after a tap on the shoulder. I suppose I am an easier target than that of an angry, hungry four-hundred-pound gorilla who tries to literally eat her offspring several rows back. I was so bewildered by the order for obedience that I could not reply. I sat mouth agape at the logic in asking me—who was speaking in a hushed tone—to calm down, all while a woman abused her child and assaulted a passenger for three hours without a care.

After an hour or so of talking with probably the best flight companions I’ve ever had in my journeys on a myriad of topics from politics to religion to child-abusing she-beasts, the plane had docked. My lifelong travel angels and I held back and waited for the stars of our discussions to deboard the aircraft. Moochy quickly piled out at the craft, leaving his mother to shamble amongst herself.

“Praise the Good Lord, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior,” Momma shouted in happiness.

“Hallelujah,” said my newfound friend to my right.

I walked with the better pairing of the two I had sat beside on Flight 914 out of Phoenix to the luggage claim and said our goodbyes, parting them with souvenirs I had picked up on the promotional wing of my business trip. They earned them for offering me asylum from the wicked. As I obtained my luggage, which was lucky enough to have been spared such a terrible adventure, I walked to the exit only to find Moochy, Momma, and Robbie, who looked exactly as I imagined him: tall, big, nasty. Ten or so boxes of Playtex were pressed up against the clear luggage atop Robbie’s gargantuan shoulders.

I still have the boarding pass for Flight 914. I am planning on framing it as a testament to my ability to survive. I only wish I would have helped Moochy more than I tried to.