I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this. The G-woman scared the bejeesus out of me and consequently the whole project was put aside. It was 2005, just after my book A History of Nougat was published. It hadn’t done anything by way of sales so I was casting around for some freelance magazine work.
“Human stupidity has a long tradition,” I said without much idea whether that was true. “For example in 1567 Hans Steininger died when he broke his neck after tripping over his own beard.”
“Go on.” This is Ed Montalto, founder of Fandango Magazine where I’d once been an intern.
“Sweden had a king who ate himself to death in 1771 – the meal concluded with 14 servings of his favourite dessert hetvägg.”
“Is it poisonous?” he asked.
“No it’s some kind of cream bun served in hot milk.”
“My doctor says dairy will get you,” replied Ed dryly.
“In 1871 Clement Vallandigham, a lawyer defending a man on a charge of murder, accidentally shot himself while demonstrating how the victim might have shot himself.”
“Where did he shoot himself?” asked Ed.
“In the courtroom.”
“That’s gotta hurt. Say, is that irony?” asked Ed.
“Maybe if he’d shot the defendant?” I offered.
“I bet you could do a whole article on ironic stupidity.”
“You want irony?” I asked. I rummaged through my research folder. “Jose Luis Hernandez died at an illegal cock fight in Tijuana when he was stabbed by one of his fighting birds.”
“Man that is ironic.”
“Wait until you see where it got him.” I showed him the police file photo.
“Woah, right in the little Jose!” said Ed, pulling his knees together. “This is great, but I’m not sure I can publish that photo.”
And so it started, my journey into the heart of darkness, or rather the head of fogginess.
After a week of research I met Ed at the Fandango office.
“Killer robots,” I began enigmatically.
“There’s no such thing,” replied Ed.
I laid a file on his desk.
“In 1979 a maintenance engineer working at Kobayashi Heavy Industries in Minato Japan became the first human to be killed by a robot. He failed to turn it off and it tried to assemble him into a, I don’t know what do you call that?” I asked Ed, showing him the photo.
“Looks like a flange,” said Ed rotating the photo, “or maybe a bell housing?”
“And lots of people get killed by fish.”
“What swallowing bones?”
“No rock fishing; it’s the deadliest sport in the world.”
“There’s also drowning when your waders fill up with water. And then there’s the hand grenade fishing crowd, mostly in the former Soviet bloc where it’s easy to get your hands on military surplus.” I pulled up a You Tube window and swung my laptop around to show Ed. Two men were in a 15 foot runabout on a lake. They stood on opposite sides of the little boat amidships. Each held a hand grenade at arm’s length over the water. One of the men was counting down so they synchronised the pin pulling. The plan appeared to include letting the grenades cook for a few seconds before dropping them in the water. No sooner had the grenades hit the water when, BOOM! the boat is lifted into the air on a waterspout. When the mist clears we see the two guys bobbing around in the water screaming and holding their ears.
“Where’s the boat gone?” asked Ed.
“Wait for it,” I replied. A few seconds later the overturned boat falls from the sky on top of the two men.
“Holy crap!” said Ed.
“And wait for it,” I added. A few more seconds and a dozen fish bob to the surface.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Ed, biting down on two knuckles.
“Wait ‘til you see Dirty Dancing fails,” I announced.
“That’s a thing?” he asked.
“It’s totally a thing. Couples all over the world injure themselves trying to do the Jennifer Grey/Patrick Swayze dance lift from the movie.” I’d made up a compilation of six of the best on my laptop.
Ed looked at the video clips, enthralled. He couldn’t help commentating, “oh don’t do it honey … shit that’s a broken nose right there … no, a bridal gown is a bad idea … Jesus he’s lost his footing on the parquetry, do you think they’re still married? She’s too big my friend … oh his back’s gone on that one … ooh watch the chandelier you idiot … oh Christ she head butted him right in the teeth!” Ed took a moment to wipe the smile/grimace off his face.
“Okay,” said Ed, “keep going with the research.”
Later in the week I met Ed at his favorite red sauce Italian place.
“What else you got?” he said as he tried to attract the waiter’s attention.
“Agricultural Accident Digest,” I declared. This periodical had left me wondering why farmers were so prone to mind-numbing acts of misjudgment. Was it the boredom, the loneliness? “This is the case of Tad Flatley,” I said, sliding over some 8×10 photographs. “He was pulling out a white oak stump from his property in Maine using his Ford F-250 truck.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked Ed.
“The rope he used was slightly elastic.”
Ed flipped through to the last photo. “Jesus, that’s a convertible.”
“And the emergency room is a rich source. There’s apparently this whole thing about men getting their dicks stuck in various things,” I said.
“Like what?” asked Ed.
“It would be quicker for me to list the things they haven’t got their dicks stuck in. Take a guess.”
“Okay, vacuum cleaners?” proposed Ed, taking a wild stab.
“Yup, lots and lots of vacuum cleaners, Dyson is a particular favourite.” I flipped through some photos on my phone and showed Ed.
“Wait, that’s a man? Where’s the … oh meat and potatoes, wow you’re right those Dyson’s never lose suction!”
“Frankly I’m a little worried about having these images on my phone.”
I looked solemnly at Ed.
“I’m thinking this is more than a series of magazine articles. There’s enough here for a book. Maybe even an annual. You remember annuals?”
Ed stared off into the middle distance. He ran his tongue around his lips. “I’ve got it!” he said slapping the table with his hand and pointing at me, “The Guinness Book of Stupidity.”
The waiter took our lunch order.
“Got anything from overseas? These American stories are getting me down,” said Ed.
“China. I managed to get some unofficial reports from the People’s Bureau of Fireworks Safety. The short summary is it’s very hard to give up smoking. And I found this in a 1968 edition of Aviation Mishap Quarterly: six skydivers in Queenstown New Zealand died when none of them opened their chutes. Investigators determined they were all high on marijuana at the time. Apparently the human body bounces under such circumstances.”
“Kinda the opposite of HALO,” said Ed. “What would that be, LANO?”
I looked through my notebook. “Oh, do you know what happens when you put a Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke?”
“No, what?” asked Ed.
I showed him a video on my phone. Exploding Diet Coke bottles were ricocheting around a room like rockets, hitting people in all sorts of places, “you can lose your teeth, immediately.”
“I guess that’s a variation on losing your teeth gradually,” replied Ed. He was thoughtful for a moment. “Have you noticed anything common about your research?”
“What?” I asked.
“They’re all men. Stupid, stupid, men.”
A week later there was a knock at my door.
“You don’t look like a G-man,” I said.
“Because I’m a woman?” she asked.
“No, no, that’s not what I meant.”
She had wild fuzzy hair and slightly threadbare clothes – like a psychology professor, and piercing brown eyes like a Hindu holy man. I had to look away. Her identity card and Homeland Security badge looked legitimate. I gestured for her to come in and she sat in my office visitor chair.
“I’m from the Special Psychological Operations Team,” she said.
“And you want to put me on the SPOT?” I quipped. She didn’t smile.
“Know what a meme is?” she asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Well this research you’re doing. If it ever got published, our evolutionary psychologists believe it might bring the whole thing undone.”
“How did you know I was working on..? It’s just a book,” I said incredulously. “And what do you mean by ‘whole thing undone’?”
“Tell me how you feel after a day of researching human stupidity?” she leaned forward and looked deeply into my eyes.
I had to admit the project was getting me down. I’d begun to feel hopeless, bored, reckless. I’d stopped bathing.
She smiled. “I thought so. It turns out stupidity is contagious. You’d think it’d be hereditary. But it’s more like a virus. Ever hear about the Knoxville Effect?”
“Knoxville, Johnny,” she clarified. “In the months after the release of each of the Jackass movies, hospital admissions across this country go up by an average of 15%. That’s statistically significant.” She opened a file and showed me a map of the USA with bubbles over major metropolitan areas. In the file was a collection of emergency room photographs. She flipped them onto the table like playing cards. “Home-made rocket bike injuries, paintball gun eye losses, backyard water slide failures. And this,” as if putting down the last card in a straight, “people glued together with super glue.”
Part of me wondered if I could get a copy of her photographs. Part of me knew she was right.
“Humans are highly suggestible. Our experts call it ‘accelerating, catastrophic copycatting’,” she said. “Like a chain reaction, whale suicides, lemmings over the cliff, that sort of thing. Remember planking on Instagram for goodness sake? If you were to make some kind of annual competition for stupidity, well…” She watched her words sink in – again with the eyeballs. “Do you know anything about kurdaitcha?”
“No,” I replied, looking away again.
She opened her shoulder bag, took out a leather pouch, removed an old white bone and reverently laid it on the edge of my desk. It was about as long as a human forearm and sharpened to a point at one end.
“Kurdaicha is ritual execution in the Australian aboriginal culture. When the elders determine someone should die, the kurdaicha man hunts them down and kills them with a small, sharpened bone.”
“What they stab them?” I asked.
“No, no, just pointing the bone at the victim is enough. It’s not uncommon in other cultures as well, voodoo-death and the like. The victim believes they will die, and so they do, usually within a couple of days.” She indicated the bone with her eyes. “Would you like me to show you?”
My mouth became dry and I felt the blood drain from my stomach to my limbs and face. “That won’t be necessary,” I managed to squeak.
She looked me hard in the eye. “Do I take this to mean you’ll reconsider the publication of your book?”
She reverently put the bone away in her shoulder bag and stood up. “Thank you. In exchange for your co-operation the department will purchase the remaining copies your nougat book. By the time you wake up tomorrow I think you’ll find you’re on the Amazon best seller list.”
“You’d do that?”
“Consider it done. And if you’re ever tempted to re-open your research, you might give some thought to whether Turkish Delight needs a history book.”
As she walked out the door she turned eyeballed me again, “Do you remember the bone?”
“I do,” I replied.
She stepped off lightly down my concrete path, took in the weather and called back cheerily, “Bye now! It’s been emosh.”