It didn’t take long before we were piling out of their car and heading into what I had always considered one of the mellowest pool halls I’d ever been in. (You can get an idea of what I was used to if I considered a pool hall mellow.) In short order we had a table and a pitcher and had settled down to the sort of trivial chatter that seemed so deep at the time. I’d noticed a couple of crusty types a few tables over who were giving me the hairy eyeball, but since they were about 10 years older than me I shrugged them off. All in all we were having a good, relaxed time.
I was leaning over to take a diagonal cross table shot and had paused in position to exchange banter with the girls. Returning my attention to the table, I was purposely ignoring one of their snide (but accurate) summations of my skills as a pool player when I heard her break off mid sentence. I looked back over my shoulder to see one of the crusties had walked up right next to me without me n oticing.
“What kind of knife is that?” he asked flatly, referring to the dagger on my belt.
“A Holden dagger,” I replied, starting to straighten up. A lot of people mistook it for a Nazi dagger, but it had been around a long time before (as in Viking times long time before) the Goose Stepping Brigade had stuck a backward swastika on it. My time in college was still a few years down the line, but even then I had a thing for history. Still, I’d jammed with a few folks over the knife who thought it meant I was a Nazi despite my dark hair and skin.
Without warning he whipped his right arm and I heard the snap of a buck knife opening. I saw the flash of stainless steel reflect wickedly over the green felt top of the pool table, and I knew I had better do something fucking quick.
Before he could bring his hand back from his overly wide and dramatic opening, I dropped the pool cue and lunged forward, my left hand grabbing his wrist and my right dropping down somewhere around his belt buckle.
With a loud “DON’T,” I heaved him up and slammed him down onto the pool table. Now don’t ask me how I managed the next few dribbles, as I really don’t have any idea except that it’s incredible what your adrenal glands can talk you into when someone pulls out a knife. I distinctly remember bouncing the guy three more times. He dropped the knife on bounce number three, but I must have thrown one or two more in there just to make sure. When he came to a rest, his arm was outstretched over his head and the knife was way down near his chest, so something must have happened that I don’t remember or I just didn’t notice. Anyway, he wasn’t going anywhere quick.
I whirled around to face his buddy, who had already decided that they had made a serious mistake and was backpedaling with wide eyes and hands held out in front of him. I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye as the bartender came barreling into view holding something down near his leg that I really didn’t want to know about…
The bartender looked at me and said, “You didn’t start it. You can stay.”
I thanked him, but told him I’d be leaving as soon as I hit the head. You don’t hang around places like that after a fight in case the suckers backed up on you with some serious firepower. I swaggered to the bathroom and locked the door. About a second later I was bent over the toilet barfing my guts out from adrenaline and fear. Once I’d washed up, we scurried out the back door to the car and got the hell out of there.
Consider also Officer Stacy Lim from the Los Angeles Police Department, whose story is legendary among professional police warriors. It began when she pulled into her driveway after an enjoyable evening of softball practice. When Lim got out of her personal car, she was immediately confronted by a group of gangbangers who had followed her with the intent of carjacking her vehicle.
Her first response was to call out that she was a police officer. They responded by firing a .357 magnum round into her chest, which penetrated her heart and blew a tennis ball-size exit wound out her back. Stacy Lim stayed in the fight. She not only returned fire, but she also became the aggressor as she pursued the man, shooting him repeatedly. The remaining gangbangers suddenly remembered previous, pressing engagements and very wisely fled for their lives.
After she dealt with her attackers she turned around and headed up her driveway toward her house to call for help. She does not recall doing it, but as she was losing consciousness, she stripped the magazine from her pistol and threw it 20 feet away where it was found the next day. She did this because in the academy she had been taught, “Don’t let them use your weapon against you.”
Her attacker died and Stacy Lim died twice on the operating table. She required 101 pints of blood, but she survived, returning to duty eight months later. Today, she still works uniform patrol on the streets of Los Angeles, and her training philosophy is, “You need to prepare your mind for where your body may have to go.” Do they make them like that anymore?
From On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen
They prepared and equipped their boats, with twenty men on each. Kveldulf commanded one, and Skallagrim the other. They rowed of in search of the ship, and when they reached the place where it was moored, they put in to shore.
Hallvard and his men had covered the ship with awnings and gone to sleep, but when Kveldulf and his men reached them, the watchmen who had been sitting by the gangway at the prow lept up and called out to the ship, telling the crew to get up because they were about to be attacked. Hallvard and his men rushed for their weapons.
When Kveldulf and his men came to the gangway, they went up it to the stern of the ship, while Skallagrim headed for the prow. Kveldulf had a gigantic, double-bladed axe in his hand. Once he was on board, he told his men to go along the gunwale and cut the awnings from the pegs, while he stormed off back to the aftergaurd, where he is said to have become frenzied like a wild animal. Some other of his men went into a frenzy too, killing everyone they came across, and so did Skallagrim when he ran around the ship. Kveldulf and his son did not stop until the ship had been completely cleared. When Kveldulf went back to the aftergaurd, he wielded his axe and struck Hallvard right through his helmet and head, sinking the weapon in right up to the shaft. Then he tugged it back with such force that he swung Hallvard up into the air and over the side. Skallagrim swept the prow clean and killed Sigtrygg. Many of the crew threw themselves into the water, but Skallagrim’s men took the boat they had come on and rowed over to them, killing everyone in the water.
More than fifty of Hallvard’s men were killed there, and Skallagrim took the ship which had sailed there and all the riches on it.
They captured two or three of the most paltry men, spared their lives and asked them who had been on the ship and what their mission had been. When they found out the truth, they examined the carnage on the ship and had the impression that more of the crew had jumped over the side and lost their lives there than had died on board…
It is said that the people who could take on the character of animals, or went berserk, became so strong in this state that no one was a match for them, but also that just after it wore off they were left weaker than usual. Kveldulf was the same, so that when his frenzy wore off he felt completely exhausted by the effort he had made, and was rendered completely powerless and had to lie down and rest.
From Egil’s Saga, translated by Bernard Scudder
Fight or Flight
According to Lt. Col. Grossman, when confronted with the threat of violence we are limited to four potential options. Fight, flee, posture or submit.
The nature of the human animal is such, however, that we are not very capable when it comes to making these decisions in the heat of the moment. Once the adrenaline starts pumping, your rational cognitive ability drops sharply, so you need to make your decisions about how you would like behave in the face of violence before it happens.
People who have lived in denial about violence, or are unwilling to become violent themselves, are the most likely to simply freeze, submit, become victims and suffer the consequences.
But most people most of the time are not so willing to be pushed around. They’ll attempt to posture and bluff their way out, even if it means some yelling, screaming, pushing and shoving to get there. They typically are still not willing to really hurt anybody, and so if the situation does escalate to an actual fight they’ll resort to non-decisive tactics, designed to cause pain in the hope of scaring their opponent away. Often, a punch to the face is just another bluff in the game of escalato. Against a committed attacker, the pseudo tough-guy will be forced to fold or switch to a more effective option.
The street-smart survivor focuses his strategies primarily on avoidance and escape. He’ll fight like hell to get out of tight corner, but only until he gets enough distance to make a run for it. A true survivor will do absolutely whatever it takes to stay alive.
The warrior is a different breed, because he has chosen to stand and fight when others would fold or flee. The berserker, more than any other warrior, is committed to the principle that offence is the best defense. The berserker attacks without pause, without mercy and with little to no though for his own safety. The berserker is not a “cold blooded killing machine” like your favorite action movie star, but a raving lunatic, a mad dog entirely focused on the destruction of the target in front of him. Ironically, it is his extreme aggression that saves him. Opposing warriors are forced onto the defensive and ordinary mortals trip over each other in the scramble to escape his fury.
Berserkergangr is your natural, primal combat mode. It is a phenomenon that has occurred throughout history and across cultures. Berserkergangr is not therianthropy, though the two appear to be related, and it is not what eastern style martial artists call “no-mind” either. Berserkergangr does not require the use of any drugs or specialized training, though training will certainly help. The capacity to go berserk is something that is within you already.
The physiological effects of adrenaline and the “fight or flight response” have been scientifically documented. The heart rate becomes elevated in response to stress, and progressive more elevated as the situation becomes ore stressful. Other symptoms of mild to extreme stress may include the loss of fine and complex motor control, diminished cognitive function and loss of higher reasoning, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. The redirection of all energy resources to the vital organs and large muscle mass can lead to vomiting and loss of bowel and bladder control.
On the up side, brute strength and gross motor function are enhanced. The pain threshold is raised and vasoconstriction decreases blood lost from injuries. A berserker can run faster, jump higher, hit harder and tolerate more damage than anyone could under normal circumstances. Time may appear to speed up, or may go by very slowly. I personally have had several “out of body experiences” while fighting and have once had my conscious mind black out completely while my body went into full-bore attack mode.
In the oriental martial arts, heavy emphasis is usually place on learning to control and minimize the effects of adrenaline through deep breathing techniques. Deep, slow abdominal breathing helps you to calm, ground and center yourself. And this can be effective even in a hard contact sparring match or a low risk physical confrontation. I personally find it hard to believe, though, that anyone can remain calm, grounded and centered while facing down single, knife-wielding crackhead, much less a trained medieval army.
It seems to me that the correct strategy for the berserker warrior is not to fight against his own nature, but rather to embrace the madness. Accept the adrenaline rush. Take it and run with it. Plan your tactics to exploit the strengths of the battle-rage, and avoid the weaknesses. Take on the rage and run with it. Charge headlong into immortality.
Hail Chaos! Viva Loki! Aum Wotan!