Gene Martin is a son-of-a-bitch. That was my first thought when I realized that he had inadvertently made me party to a joke with no punchline for about 20 years. In fact, though, Gene Martin was a very kind man. Father to my friends Corinna and Rory and my Scout Master for a brief time.
It was in his capacity as Scout Master that he first drew me into his web of lies and engendered a disproportionate amount of sympathy from me for nearly two decades. We were gathered around the campfire when Mr. Martin showed us kids how he could pull his finger off…
DISCLAIMER: I had never seen the ‘Watch me pull my finger off’ illusion. This trick involves bending the index finger on your left hand and tucking your thumb behind your index and middle finger on your right hand. You then place the thumb in front of the index finger joint on your left hand and move it away giving the illusion that you’re pulling the tip of your left index finger away from the rest of the finger… Back to Gene, the son-of-a-bitch.
Mr. Martin claimed that he had suffered some accident that had left him with a prosthetic finger tip. He then proceeded to pull his finger off using the technique described above. I was devastated. Now, I had no crazy uncles or engaged father to teach me the ways of the Dark Arts. As a result, while most ooh’d and aah’d at Mr. Martin’s trick, I found myself feeling sorry for our beloved Scout Master. What sort of accident did Mr. Martin suffer? Was it painful? Did it bleed a lot? Did the absence of feeling in that finger affect his ability to throw or catch a ball? If Corinna or Rory wanted to buy their father a pair of gloves, were there certain restrictions? Was he strictly a mitten man? I was a seven-year old with too many questions.
It must have been during my mind wandering that I missed the reveal – where Gene shows the trick and everyone has a good laugh (or maybe he never demonstrated the reveal and there are others, like me, suffering to this day). You see, for the next twenty years I occasionally thought of Mr. Martin and his ‘disability’. I remember a time in the Army when I was deconstructing a sand bag bunker. There were a couple hundred sand bags to be moved, cut open and drained of their contents. This took several hours and, at one point, my hands began to bleed. In that moment I recall thinking of Mr. Martin and how he was able to do so much with only 9 1/2 fingers that I felt guilty for lamenting my current situation. My thoughts of Mr. Martin on that day were also somewhat inspiring.
I was 27 when I finally saw somebody repeat the illusion and I realized (without much effort) that it was just a trick. I then thought of Mr. Martin and had a good laugh on the outside (and rage on the inside) at how much sympathy and thought I’d given to Mr. Martin over the years. With a newborn son of my own at that time I set out to master this illusion of the netherworld. As my son got older, the trick was a big hit with him and his friends. The key to success was really selling it. I would grit my teeth and fein a strain in attempting to ‘remove’ my finger. I was very popular at the kindergarten drop off circle. I had no idea that my biggest performance would be to an international audience several years later and 6400 miles away.
I found myself in the country of Senegal in 2007 doing stuff and things. I was headed into a local school when I passed three young boys about 9 years old. I threw a ‘What’s up fellas?’ their way (because OF COURSE 9 year olds in Senegal speak English) and was met with the reply of ‘What’s up, man?’. The chatty young man was rather pleased with himself for having such a casual conversation, in English, with a man four times his age. Seeing an opportunity, I called back to them and proceeded to show them my slight of hand from the Hogwart’s House of Slytherin. The reaction was as expected, a mix of amusement and bewilderment. Having a meeting to attend I hurried off and didn’t give the encounter a second thought for the next two hours.
When I emerged from my meeting there was now gathered almost fifty kids waiting for the White Devil who could conjur spirits and also pull his finger off. The spokesman for the group (my talkative friend from the earlier encounter) had apparently told his friends about El Diablo. As he was tugging at his finger coaxing me to perform my trick again, you could tell that the assembled group was divided. Some had gathered to see the Beast from the East remove a perfectly good finger from its rightful place while others gathered to mock the boy who told such tales. I was not about to let my friend be called a liar. At first I feigned reluctance. Then, with a little prompting, I put on a show that would have impressed David Copperfield (or at least Carrot Top). Eyes widened. Mouths hung on a hinge; and then all hell broke loose. The children scattered as if they’d been shot out of a cannon. They ran screaming from our jamboree. I don’t speak French, but I’m confident I recognized the speech pattern of The Lord’s Prayer as the children ran away. I was a little perplexed at the response then began reasoning how the heck they’d have ever seen something as absurd as a grown man pulling off his finger. Maybe they don’t have crazy uncles in Senegal. Surely they don’t have the Boy Scouts of America in Senegal. It had taken nearly twenty years, but I had now become a son-of-a bitch in my own right and I was a son-of-a-bitch to an entire nation of youth!