Man vs. Machine (Spoiler: Everyone Loses)

I once saw a television catch fire.  The best part was that it happened at a dramatically appropriate time in the movie we were watching.  It was almost as though the movie broke the television by sheer force of awesomeness.

Of course, what actually happened was less grand, and a bit more embarrassing.  It started a few days earlier.  I lived in a dorm at the time, and a lot of the guys would gather to play video games together in the main lounge.  It became a significant endeavor pretty quickly; before too long their gatherings would make the lounge look like NASA’s mission control.  (Assuming that NASA built things by scrounging supplies from dumpsters.)

They would gather consoles and televisions from all around the dorm, wire them together into a awkward hodgepodge using enough cable to span an ocean, and then try to kill each other in some sort of vast multiplayer challenge.  It was the manly equivalent of gathering for tea.  It had everything men need: electronics, simulated violence, and something to talk about aside from feelings or serious life events.

One of the televisions they took was from my floor, from the smaller lounge just outside my room.  I was sitting in that lounge when they came, but didn’t suspect at the time that I was witnessing the beginnings of something amazing.  I just saw a pair of guys abscond with a television.  If my life had a sound track though, menacing music would have begun.  It would have been like a movie scene, with the character onscreen mindlessly doing something ordinary while the audience squirms in anticipation of the sudden and shocking surprise about to unfold.

You see, there are two primary rules for moving electronics.  First, lift with your knees.  That’s important to remember–don’t go ignoring it and then try blame me for your back pain–but it’s utterly irrelevant to my story.  The second rule, the crucial rule, is to mind the cord.

The guys who took my lounge’s TV didn’t mind the cord.  They left it trailing along behind them as they carried the television to the elevator.  It bounced along happily because, just like the guys who had forgotten it, it didn’t realize its fate.  They got on the elevator; they pushed the button for the ground floor; they left the business end of the cord on the wrong side of the closing doors.

As I understand it, the guys noticed the cord as the elevator started to move, but they couldn’t stop the elevator in time to save it.  Physics claimed another victim: it snapped the cord in half.  Physics can be brutal.

Of course, the television might have recovered had we taken it to a professional.  I imagine that a broken cord isn’t difficult to fix.  Unfortunately, that was exactly the problem: we all imagined that a broken cord wouldn’t be difficult to fix, so we tried to do it ourselves.

I don’t really know what went wrong, because I don’t really know how to fix televisions, but I imagine it had something to do with replacing a three-pronged plug with a two-pronged plug.  Who would have thought that the third prong wasn’t merely decorative?  Not six guys in graduate school, certainly.

Did I mention that I was in graduate school at the time?  See why I said this story was embarrassing?

Still, for a moment we seemed to triumph: we plugged in the television after our jury-rigged repair and it worked.  I think we might even have cheered.  (Again, without the television to distract us, we risked a conversation about our feelings.  We didn’t want to face that peril.)  The world returned to happy normalcy.

In fact, by the time movie night rolled around, we had all but forgotten everything I just described.  Again, if my life had a soundtrack, the menacing music would have started.  This time though, the surprise would involve literal shocking.

We decided to watch one of the various film adaptations of Beowulf.  It’s one of my favorite stories.  Someone could film a man sitting in a chair, just reading the book out loud, and I would be excited.  It’s good that my standards are low too, because most film adaptations are terrible.  The one we watched that night certainly was.  The awesomeness to which I previously referred–the television-destroying awesomeness–had nothing whatsoever to do with the particular film, and everything to do with the story that it was butchering.

Finally, we reached the part of the story where the protagonist introduced himself.  He did it with a burly roar and the camera zoomed in on his sweaty muscles for maximum effect.  It went something like this, where bold capital letters represent machismo:

“I…  AM…  BEOWULF!!!!!”

With a loud pop, the screen went dark, thrusting us into confused silence.  At first we thought that maybe the scene had just changed to something extremely boring–the movie was bad enough that we wouldn’t have been surprised–but then we heard more pops, accompanied by a mounting crackle and villainous hiss.  They weren’t movie monster sounds; they were the sounds of a television building up to an explosion.

When we started to see smoke, we figured out what was happening.  One of my friends tried to unplug the television, but got shocked instead when he grabbed the plug we had attached.  As a smart group of well educated men, we only had to try this about four more times before giving up.  (I believe we finally stopped when my wife started yelling at us for being lunkheads.)

After that there was general panic.  People were shouting, the room reeked like hair burning on a greasy stove, the television made sounds that aren’t usually heard outside of science fiction.  It never actually exploded, but it probably came closer than any other television of my experience.

And that was how Beowulf destroyed our television.  We even hung a sign on the broken TV set with those final fateful words:  “I am beowulf!”  We made sure that everyone who asked knew that “awesomeness” had been the sole cause (obviously) of us nearly burning down our dorm.  Our failed dalliance as electricians was clearly unrelated.

To this day I chuckle whenever I read Beowulf or hear someone say the name.  It was the most dramatic movie experience of my life, even including the time I almost got my wife to call off our wedding.  You’ll also probably be happy to know that I don’t try to repair electronics anymore.

If I did, I’d just be secretly hoping that movie dialogue would cause another fire.


3 thoughts on “Man vs. Machine (Spoiler: Everyone Loses)

    • I know, it was pretty amazing to see the timing! We couldn’t have planned it better! (I am the one who eventually told them to stop electrocuting themselves…)

  1. On the other hand …. consider the experience, knowledge, and memories that you gained! Those are not to be discounted.

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