I was a high school Junior at the time the Merusi residence suffered an early morning fire in our Central Vermont village. While the home survived the fire and probably few if any residents even remember the event these days, it implanted a very clear image which remains as visible as yesterday in my mind. As a few of us watched from a safe distance, the outside kitchen door opened and Mr. Merusi - the proprietor of a retail store which was a town institution - emerged from the smoke-filled interior carrying in his arms a brand new family-size refrigerator which he carefully deposited in the back yard. A short and rather portly middle-aged Italian immigrant, he appeared not even to be breathing hard. An avid weight-lifter myself I knew I had just witnessed an “impossible” act.
As I was waiting for the inspiration which led to today’s subject, a news story from Philadelphia hit the wires: a city police officer named Jesse Hartnett had just been the shooting victim of an ambusher who had attacked him as he sat in his police car, firing thirteen 9mm rounds at close range, 3 of which had struck the officer’s left arm, severing an artery in the process. Not only did officer Hartnett, while bleeding profusely leap from the car immediately in pursuit of the fleeing attacker, but managed to get off several accurately fired rounds from a difficult stance and increasing distance which hit home, leading to a quick apprehension. Quite a feat!
The story brought to mind a 68-year-old memory. My father and I had taken on the project of creating a small fresh-water pond on our farm property, first bull-dozing a basin, then building an earthen dam across Ayer’s Brook. The final step was the construction of a spillway which would permit us to control the flow of escaping water, thus maintaining stream flow and pond level. It was a warm summer day as I worked alone, installing cleat boards inside the log-faced spillway. I was wearing heavy waist-high rubber boots as I drove metal spikes into the partially submersed log walls. Due to the noise of the rushing water I never heard the sound of gunfire, although I did hear something fall into the shallow stream at my feet. When arterial blood, nearly black in color, began to shoot from my left arm into the water I deduced that my hammer blows against steel had somehow caused a metal fragment to penetrate the skin and pierce the large artery which curves around from the top of the hand and up the inside of the arm. The distance to the farmhouse was at least 700 yards, the first part up a hill across which a brand-new and tightly strung, triple high barbed wire fence had recently been erected.
To say that I was motivated falls short of describing my run. All I know is that clad in hip boots and running uphill I easily cleared three strands of barbed wire. As I passed our Farmall tractor I grabbed a blue bandana hanging from the seat and, adding a carpenter’s pencil from a work bench, I had an effective tourniquet in place and working by the time I hit the rear steps of the house. The eight-mile hospital run in the family Olds driven by my older brother was almost an anti-climax. But not the .22 caliber bullet hole the ER Doc. identified. Nearly spent, the bullet had apparently bounced back out (the “plop” I had heard in the water) when it struck the bone. (Reconstructing the entire event which began with a ten-year-old neighbor boy disobeying an abusive father, we decided to keep it all a family secret.)
What ties these stories together is a pair of triangular hormonal glands attached to the top of our kidneys, which together react to “a cry for help” sent by the human brain. Known as the adrenal glands they trigger a cascade of wide-ranging physiological and mental changes that prepare us for action – commonly known as the fight or flight response. What we refer to as adrenalin is actually the powerful hormone epinephrine which delivers a state of hyper-arousal in the face of danger and threat, increasing heart and lung action, suppressing immune function, dilating blood vessels flowing to muscles while liberating fat and glycogen for increased muscular action. Blood pressure, muscle tension for added speed, and an increase in the blood clotting function all act to give a human near-superhuman capabilities.
Somehow, in ways I cannot explain, the human brain adds to all of this, the ability to compare the threat which is happening now to a recorded memory somewhere within the cerebral cortex, of lessons accumulated in the past.
Throughout life, in peace and in war I have had frequent reminders of the power of this extraordinary human gift.