Getting Sprung: It's the Season for Escape : Instincts Keep the Life Force Going

T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

Spring seems to induce in us human beings a strong desire to escape. Over the past month, friends and acquaintances have lit out for Mexico, the Caymans, Belize, Baltimore, Berlin, Hawaii and London, to name a few. Here in Orange County I've run across plenty of Mexicans, Caymanians, Belizeans, etc., doing the same. It seems like everybody's either packing for a trip, asking directions to the beach or trying to cajole you into giving them a lift to LAX.

For the non-human inhabitants of Earth, things are just the opposite. Reproduction is the call of the current season, and just about everything that can--and some things that can't--is intent upon the act of mating.

Male sparrows livid with red feathers whiz through the sky after their desired counterparts. The lizards are literally crawling over each other, enraptured by hormones. Stinkbugs lose their balance and roll around, connected, legs waving in an orgy of amour and odor. Even my two retrievers, long neutered and reproductively challenged, have taken to acting out comic love scenes at all hours of day and night.

It is possible that the desire to escape and the desire to mate are actually complementary. The animals can't know that they're heading for parenthood, so you might assume that they are in it either for the pleasure--hard to believe in the stinkbug's case--or at the behest of deep instincts against which they are helpless. At any rate, they are much closer now than they will ever be again during the year. Maybe they're programmed by nature to enjoy each others' company for a finite amount of time, in their case all spring, before they escape into the liberties of summer without so much as a parting glance over their scaled, feathered or plated shoulders.

But human beings pick and choose their hours together--in some cases, at least--over the length of a lifetime. Maybe the primary reason people want to escape their daily lives each spring is precisely so they can mate unencumbered by routine and all the handy reminders--so visible around home and hearth--that mating makes offspring and offspring make future escape difficult. This might account for the large number of June weddings, and it also might not.

By far the best example of human escape I've seen this spring was that of a young man at a local fair who was fitted snugly into a canvas straitjacket, then wrapped tightly--very tightly--in maybe 30 feet of chain. The chain was snugged several times around his neck, arms and waist, then yanked up hard into his groin, around the small of his back, then over his shoulders. I watched as his tormentors cinched this chain hard, then padlocked it at various junctures to keep it chokingly taut. If they were covertly making it easy on him, I sure couldn't tell. By the time they were finished securing him, a crowd had gathered to watch him try to get out.

He was a young man, maybe 20, and slightly built. His hair was pulled back in a bun. He briefly addressed the gathering audience about this not being a trick, and it was easy to see the genuine duress he was under. Sweat beaded his face. His jugular vein stood out, as did the large blood vessel running up his forehead. His overall color quickly went from normal to an inflamed red as the sweat began running off his nose in a rivulet. He was breathing hard. His voice was hoarse. He coughed. And he hadn't even started his escape yet.

With maybe 80 people gathered close, he got down to business. First, he stood and bent at the waist, working the muscles in his arms and torso. It was hard to tell exactly what he was doing under there, but the material of the straitjacket rose and fell like a gentle ocean swell. He dipped one shoulder, then the other. He stood straight again, face growing purple, breathed steadily for a moment, then repeated the whole process. The chain didn't give an inch.

At this point a woman behind me noted that he hadn't dislocated his shoulders properly. I thought to myself that the kid was definitely heading for trouble. The canvas of his jacket was soaked in sweat, forming a large V from his clavicles to the bottom of his sternum. His hair had popped loose and was now tangled painfully with the chain. The people directly in front of the escape artist--no more than six feet away from him--began to get worried looks on their formerly festive, curious faces. Things got quiet.

The escape artist fell to the ground and went into a series of contortions. He convulsed as if his tongue was caught in an electrical outlet. You could hear the deep hiss of his breathing; and you could hear the gasps of wonder from the crowd.

The people in the front row had to look away as he writhed before them, sweat and dried grass and agony turning his face into a mask of desperation.

He jerked himself to his knees, then labored upright again. By standing on his left foot and raising his right knee as high as he could against the unforgiving chains, he managed to work one small loop of chain loose from his butt.

For the next 10 minutes he tried to get his right foot through that loop and into freedom. He shook. He fell to his back. He raised his ankle to his ear. Finally, the foot slipped through and the crowd exploded into the applause of blessed relief.

Of course, this only freed him from the right knee down, so he had to do all of that again in order to get his right knee though the loop. He did. Then, the whole process began again as he worked free his left ankle, then knee. He stood upright again, breathing very hard, the color in his face even worse from the exertion.

"This is just to show you," he wheezed, "that you can escape anything in life if you can stay calm and keep breathing. Just so you know, if a person stays tied up like this for very long--he dies. There, that's my positive-thinking message for the day."

Someone near the back of the crowd turned to go.

"Do not leave now," the escape artist ordered. "You cannot leave." The reluctant witness stopped and obeyed.

With his crotch unleashed and his legs fully liberated, the escape artist could arch his back and jackknife himself forward at the waist. Through several repetitions of this movement--all done against the strictures of the straitjacket--he managed finally to twist himself into such an angle that, when he let out what seemed to be all of his precious breath and leaned over, the layers of chains simply slid up his back, over his shoulders and to the ground, untouched padlocks and all.

The crowd went crazy. There stood the hero, breathing heavily, eyes bulging, hair matted to his face, announcing that the straitjacket, in the opinion of experts, is much harder to escape than proletarian chains. It took him 10 minutes, a contortive eternity, to prove this.

When he finally flung his canvas prison--still fastened--to the ground, the audience surged around him, clapping, smiling, breathing its own collective sigh of wonder. When you see someone bound, it's impossible not to feel that way yourself. Someone put a $100 bill in the escape artist's hat, shook his head without saying a word and walked off.

The escape artist bowed once more to the departing crowd, then collected his chains and straitjacket, the tools of his odd trade. He shook back his hair, posed for some pictures with fans, signed a few autographs. Then he slung the gear over his shoulder and disappeared into the throng, completing his escape.

He was spring itself.

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