Jump In, Jump Out
by Jake Block
“I call, you come.
You know it takes a strong man to survive.
It ain’t no accident that you’re still alive.
We stand for the neighborhood”
— The Vampires (Paul Simon)
Big Mike Kanak smiled as he rolled the red die on the hood of his black primered 1949 Ford sedan. “This car was made the same year I was born,” I remember thinking, and when the cube came to rest, the white pips numbered five. Before I could say anything, my friend, Eddie Prohaska, punched me in the right cheek, and someone else slammed a fist into my back, making it hard to breathe. The next five minutes was a blur of punches and kicks as I tried to hold my own against five State Street Boys. I remember thinking, it could be worse… Big Mike could have rolled a six! Then it was over. Big Mike reached his hand down to me, helping me up from the gravel of Hannigan’s Burger Hut’s driveway. Someone put a beer in my hand and others patted me on the back or gave my shoulder a friendly poke. Brothers now. I was one of the State Street Boys, and in an instant, the pain of the past five minutes was gone and I made my way to the men’s room inside to tend to my wounds.
Throughout the rest of the night, others would share in this ritual, “jumped in” by any number of State Street Boys, at the whim of Big Mike Kanak’s red die. This pageant played itself out every first Friday of the month at Hannigans, and guys from the State Street Boy’s Turf, spanning the Centerville area of East St. Louis, IL, from Kingshighway and State, all the way to about 89th Street and State. The boundary of our domain was fluid, dependent on how well we fared against the Warlords to the West, or the Ping Pong Mob to the East at any given time. We were strong now, having over 70 members and associates. Those of us who wore the white “Nehru jacket” and Maltese Cross were kings, having survived our jump ins standing up until we went down fighting.
The gangs of St. Louis, Chicago, New York and other large cities in the 1960s were formed mostly for protection, rather than criminal enterprises, like many of the gangs today in New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, etc. There would be plenty of time for the criminalization of gangs, once the Vietnam war was over and the government decided that drugs would be the new enemy, so the new antiheroes would be those who wrapped themselves in the mantel of rebellion against the man, while supplying ever more poison to their communities that for whom, in earlier years, they professed defense.
“When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way,
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day…”
— The Jet’s Song (West Side Story)
Well, at least until you left the State Street Boys and Big Mike rolled the die again! Jumping In or Jumping Out, you had to pay your dues!
Society teaches us to be joiners and to serve others. It’s part of the sociological framework that forms what we call civilization, and thus becomes universal (theoretically) in human experience. So, kids form gangs, or they join baseball teams, or the Cub Scouts, Brownies, or any number of clubs and social organizations that teach us socialization skills of one kind or another. In some we lead, and in some we follow, teaching us that we all have a place, and we are much better off when we know it.
And in most of these groups there is some initiation or ritual for entry and acceptance; a shared experience that is at the core of all that follows. It might not be as painful as the jumping in I received in becoming one of the State Street Boys, but there is almost always some defining moment of acceptance. In the Cub Scouts (yeah, even I was a Cub Scout/Boy Scout) the initiation ritual took place at around age six in a campsite usually in the gym of the school. Here in this darkened place, a “campfire” glowed red and was in the center of a circle formed by Scouts in uniform and those being initiated in jeans and shirts. At six, the red Christmas tree lights that made up the “campfire” looked hot and, one by one, the kids before you are led to the center of the circle and given the oath, “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” All that was left was the branding… the “SSSSSSSSSS” of the Scouts as, one by one, the inductees were “branded” with the Scout symbol, the fleur-de-lis. Your apprehension was soon eased when you realized it was just an inked stamp, and more than one child would exclaim, “That didn’t hurt!” But he would soon learn that the value was in the anticipation and relief, and he too would make the sizzling sound for future inductees.
And so it goes through out our lives, with little fanfare and tacit acceptance of the rituals of acceptance that have become part of the fabric of our cultural and societal lives. We are accepted and undergo that which others have endured for countless cycles before us, until the words of our rituals become almost meaningless as they roll off our tongues to those who demand them, although they, themselves long ago, in their duty and custom, have said and done it all before. Some are indeed devoid of depth and meaning, a simple “I do” in response to the questioned “do you?” Little consequence to our lives as we make routine declarations and receive our certificates of approval. More import is indicated in other rituals that bind us together as man and wife, place us into the custody of those who have the power to exact payment for our crimes, of those who, in times of war might expect us to give our “last full measure of devotion,” in the defense of our land, customs and policies.
There are some people for whom, because of religious of philosophical reasons, are exempted from culturally accepted ritual. They do not conform to the societal and cultural expectations, but must conform to a standard of conformity to belong to their exempted substrate. They don the habits of their nonconformity proudly, from the richly appointed cassocks of the priestly class, to rough-hewn garb and horse-drawn transport of Amish, Hutterite, and other “primitive” religionist groups, to the rags, tatters and ash-covered skin of Agori, to the black drape and ruffles of the “goth,” to the in-your-face uniform of Anarchy, to the tongue – in – cheek adversarial attitudes of those who reject it all, and make sure you know it as they band together and then begin to recruit from those in the flocks who will follow the leaders and dream of command. Yes, even in rejection there are rituals and customs that, in their own way cement the bonds between their kin.
These rituals have power. It might not be the power one expects, magically, when one swears on their Bible, or in retribution for failure, as in some Masonic rituals, or any of the often overly dramatic expectations in the oaths and vows we accept and proffer as members of our cultures and societies. What their main power is, lies in the feelings of acceptance they confer upon those who may perform them. Acceptance of one’s peers and community are great motivators for many, many people and when one makes a public pronunciation, they are most likely to keep them, even at costs to themselves. Failure in the public arena and the subsequent “loss of face” that accompanies it is dreadful to contemplate and extremely difficult to accept, but even worse to contemplate is the loss of acceptance, the loss of standing and esteem in the eyes of those of the community.
In close-knit communities of religious groups like the Amish and fundamentalist Mormons being ostracized, or shunned, by the community for not fitting in or violating the cultural norms can be highly traumatizing for many. The Amish have found that in allowing the youth to leave the community to dwell amongst those of the “modern world,” most, having tasted the pleasures and temptations of the world outside will return to the fold and spend their lives as loyal and true members of a society that, to outsiders seems tragically deprived. But to those who choose to remain with the clannish enclaves of the faithful, the closeness of community and family outweighs the conveniences most of us take for granted. They feel it is better to endure than to face the shunning, and the loss of family and friends forever.
The social and community rituals bind tightly, and they have been used with great success for thousands of years. In college fraternities and sororities, rituals bind brothers and sisters together in a mutual support pact one to another. In the military, rituals bind brothers and sisters in arms with attachments that call for each to lay his or her life down to protect and defend, and this they have done, from war fought on our own land, to Europe, to Africa, to Asia, for little thanks and little money.
As it was in the past, so it is today. Groups and their rituals come and go, nations and their rituals rise and fall, philosophies once grand and everlasting become burnt out embers as they decline, their rituals becoming as antiquated and archaic as those that they replaced, all the while assuming they were the future amongst all of the wreckage of the past. New rituals and new loyalties replace past alliances, and the world moves on and on and on.
Today it is becoming popular to condemn the rituals of others, or even those of our own heritage, all the while insisting that our own rituals and customs are simply “something else,” as if the semantics of it all changed anything. And that, I suppose is ok, in that we sometimes need to delude ourselves into thinking that we are somehow superior or “more right” than the other guy. Our philosophy elevates us and makes us so. Our world view makes us kings in a world of slaves! We are elite, while they are “mundane.”
Perhaps. But if you are shoveling shit for a living and they are shoveling shit for a living, it really doesn’t matter who gets that coveted long-handled shovel. You are still shoveling shit, and someone else in a clean office, in clean clothes and in charge is telling you where to pile it. As long as you have a shovel in your hand, seems to me like being elite or being mundane are little more than semantic terms.
Like Big Mike and his red die, your fate is at the whim of others. It always will be until you find a way to control that die!
The Orders of The Sect of the Horned God