Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Five Second Nightmare

One and a quarter million people have been shot with a Taser. I’m one of them. This is how it happened:

I’m shooting for National Geographic Channel’s show Factory Floor with Marshall Brain. The show profiles how things are made, and for this particular episode, we’re in Arizona shooting at a tennis ball factory and the Taser factory.

When the team arrives at Taser, we are a mess. The first day of our two-day shoot was at Penn Tennis Balls. We spent 17 hours on the factory floor shooting hand-held with the Sony F-900, one of the heaviest video cameras currently available.

So we’re in pain. I’ve got a splitting headache from breathing tennis ball fumes and not drinking enough water the day before. Add in that one of the key features of the Taser factory is an ultrasonic welder, a machine that joins plastic parts by vibrating them so fast they fuse together. As it performs this particular trick, it emits a high-pitched squeal that makes your teeth scream. My headache gets worse until I’m pretty sure my skull is going to implode.

We suffer through the day to the part we’ve all been waiting for – the product demo. Our intrepid host, Marshall Brain, has agreed to be tased on camera. Now I'm one of those guys who got into the film business for adventure and new experiences. What is getting tased like, exactly? I feel the need to know. So if Marshall’s getting tased, hell man, I’m getting tased too.

The Taser guys tells us they’ll just tape the Taser probes to us, but Marshall is insistent. He wants to get shot with the damn thing. And if he’s getting shot, I’m getting shot. Our producer jumps on board as well, and so does the Production Assistant. We all want to “take the hit,” as they say in Taser parlance.

We set up downstairs in a conference room. My headache is really getting bad now. I’ve taken Advil to no avail. I am seriously hurting.

Marshall gets tased first. Two guys stand on either side, ready to grab him when he drops. A trainer stands behind with the Taser. (They shoot you in the back for safety reasons.) We roll cameras.

The trainer yells, “Taser, Taser, Taser,” and shoots Marshall. Marshall goes stiff as a board as the taser hits, his eyes roll up, and he gives a little “ohhhhwwwwwww,” as he is gently lowered to the floor by the men by his side. He is absolutely incapacitated, unable to do anything for those five seconds.

When the tasing ends, he looks up at the camera and gives a very concise report on the experience.

Then it’s my turn. For the fun of it, we’re going to be filming me getting tased as well.

I take my place on the mat. Terrified I might embarrass myself, I’ve invoked the “long car trip” rule and made sure to go to the bathroom first.

I can’t see the trainer with the taser, but I feel him behind me. I feel the goddamn thing pointing at me. My headache worsens, my brain boiling inside my skull.

Let me explain: up to this point, I thought the idea of getting tased was pretty cool. Even after watching Marshall suffer through it, I still thought it was cool. When people later ask me why I did it, I answer honestly: it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now, with two people holding me, a guy pointing a Taser at my back, three freaking cameras rolling, and the whole room watching, I realize it was maybe not such a good idea after all.

But when the trainer asks, “Are you ready?” What am I going to say? “Forget it, I don’t want to do it?” Like I’ll ever live that down. So I suck it up. “Ready,” I yell, and what the hell, my voice barely quavers.

They ring the bells of doom. “Taser. Taser, Taser!” The trainer yells.

I hear the thing fire, a flat pop. I can hear the darts coming at me, actually hear them zinging through the air, hear the tiny little wires spaying out behind them, angry wasps seeking tender flesh. My tender flesh.

A momentary digression on how the Taser works: The Taser cartridge contains two barbed darts - think straightened fishing hooks - attached by very thin wires to a handgrip where the battery is. The darts, or probes as they are known, sink into your flesh, the barbs are there so the probes don’t pull out, and the wires carry an electrical charge into your body. The waveform of the electrical charge is designed to make every muscle in your body seize up. I have to tell you, before taking the hit, the thing I was most worried about was how they get those barbed probes out of your back. That, I figure, is going to hurt.

That bit of nastiness is forgotten as the probes find their target. The entry of these things feels like a double bee sting, only these are bee stings delivered on the end of a well-swung baseball bat. One hits me in the lower back, the other goes right through my belt and stabs me just above the right butt-cheek. The probes are maybe 15 inches apart.

I have only a moment to comprehend that violation of my being when the charge hits and some universal elevator cable is cut – an express trip straight to a fiery hell.

The first thing you feel is actually nothing. You have no idea what in hell is going on. The feeling is so outrageous, so unexpected, so outside of your experience, so just plain wrong, that you have no way to process it. That reprieve lasts for maybe a tenth of a second. Then you notice your entire body has gone stiff. I’m suddenly standing on tiptoes, every muscle straining. I can feel the current snapping from probe to probe with the muscles of my back between them providing the conduction medium.

I now fully comprehend how magnificently awful an idea getting tased was. Imagine ten million electric hyenas set loose in your body. Each of them has a muscle fiber in its slavering jaws, and all of them are tugging and ripping in different directions at once.

Now add in some intense heat. The spots where the probes hit turn painfully hot.

I can hear the Taser clicking away. It makes this weird noise, like a grandfather clock ticking at a supersonic speed. That’s got something to do with the way the charge switches between the two probes.

It hurts like hell, and I am maybe a second into the experience when all this comes clear to me. Four long seconds stretch out before me. A single thought runs through my mind: “What was I thinking?”

Unlike Marshall, who went down with nothing more than a long moan, I manage to get a few words out. They are, of course, all curse words. “Fuck!” I say through gritted teeth. “Motherfuck! Goddamn it, this really hurts!” I’m saying this as the guys lower me to the mat. I have no idea I’m being lowered to the mat. All I know is that one second I’m standing, the next I’m flat on my belly.

The pain goes on. It’s bad, but there’s something worse, a sense of wrongness that makes the experience truly awful. It is such an unnatural, terrible sensation, as if some horrible swarm of alien insects living inside you are now making a bid for freedom.

Finally, the clicking stops. Five seconds are up, and the Taser shuts down. The pain ends with the finality of a slamming door.

I feel insanely relieved. So relieved I just shout “wow, wow, wow” several times before my brain realizes I’m repeating myself. I look into one of the cameras taping me and explain the experience. The phrase “that fucking sucked” comes up a lot.

Now the probes have to come out, the part I feared the most. But after getting tased, they can rip barbed needles out of me all day, I don’t give a rat’s ass.

With the probes out and band aids in place, I stand up to get ready to film the next victim, our producer, as she takes the hit. As I move behind the camera I realize something wonderful.

My headache is gone.

The Taser cartridge I was shot with (you get to keep it as a souvenir)

Pointy, nasty things.

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