Saturday night, I went out to look at the Super Moon, the one closest to Earth, and thought about the one farthest away. That would be Voyager 1, a satellite launched in 1977, back when gas was 65 cents a gallon, the World Trade Center was completed and Jimmy Carter was still a Southern Baptist.
Voyager 1 is now about 11 billion miles away from us, headed out of the solar system at the rate of a million miles a day. It stays in touch with the home office at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, though it takes about 14 hours for a call home from Voyager to arrive. All five of its scientific instruments are functional and could be operational for eight more years, at which time Voyager 1’s nuclear batteries will run out of juice.
Should it ever be found by somebody out there in interstellar space, Voyager 1 carries a special prize for its discoverer. Besides a state-of-the-art 1977 computer, the craft is hauling another piece of vintage technology: a golden phonograph record. (Okay, gold-plated copper, but still.) Along with a cartridge and a needle and illustrated directions on how to play it, the record contains sounds and images from Earth. There’s music, from Bach to Chuck Berry; spoken word in every language from Akkadian to Wu; and analog photographs of places, people and things from around the world.
The experts who compiled this data thought they’d covered every means of explaining to an alien race what Earth was about. However, were I launching a probe into deep space today, I think I could sum up mankind in the 21st century placing just one video aboard. I saw it on YouTube the other day. It was Chuck From The Bronx eating a ghost pepper.
In the annals of cinema, I think this ranks with William Heise’s The Kiss or Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. In contemporary terms, consider it a mashup of Jackass with the collected works of Samuel Beckett. It is a scenario worthy of Warhol or Godard, and this mook caught it on his laptop in his apartment. Go figure.
Chuck From The Bronx is the handle of one Chuck S., purportedly a longshoreman who works in Manhattan. On this particular day, he set up before his computer camera with a singular task at hand, to consume a pod of the plant Bhut Jolokia, the hottest pepper on Earth, a sweltering goodie that rates 1,000,000 Scoville units. (By comparison, a poblano rates 500 and a jalapeno 2,500.)
As the video begins, we see that Chuck From The Bronx lives in an apartment Ralph Kramden would be proud to call home. The gray walls are unbesmirched by decoration. There is an old large-screen TV behind him for furniture. Sweet.
Chuck appears to be in his late 20s or early 30s, with close-cropped hair and dark eyes disinclined to blink. He tells us that a viewer has challenged him to eat the ghost pepper, despite his personal disaffection for spicy food. “Basically, I can’t stand it,” he says in a dialect straight out of the Five Boroughs. “So this is gonna be very interesting.”
That it is. “I’ve been in bad fights before, I been in prison before, I been in all kinds of messes,” Chuck explains, but the pepper clearly makes him nervous. He holds the ominous red thing up for examination, then without further ado, pops it into his gob.
The ghost pepper gets his immediate attention, evoking a Bronx-worthy expletive, then another. As he silently chews, Chuck’s eyes begin to glisten. Without raising his voice, he notes, “Oh, *@#!, I swallowed it.” He breathes deeply several times, says, “I’m shakin’,” then grabs a gallon of milk for the first of many long pulls to ensue. His nose seems to be turning crimson. Though surely many thoughts are running through his mind, the only one he chooses to express is, “Oh, my God, that’s hot.” After another glug from the jug, he exclaims, “It’s like purgatory in my mouth!”
There is more drinking, more gasping, plus sinister noises begin to emerge from Chuck’s alimentary canal. Suddenly he realizes the milk, doubtless touted as the surefire curative for pepper ingestion of any sort, has become problematic, or, as he puts it, “This ain’t helpin’ either!” He shows us his coated tongue and realizes his sin has pushed him farther down the River Styx: “It’s like I’m in hell!”
Moisture materializes on his brow and slides south to fill the bags beneath his eyes. Chuck’s tongue and lips are numb, but he keeps guzzling the moo juice, finding time among his torment to warn young viewers not to emulate his example. He is beginning to writhe a bit between drinks, his mug ever more expressive, then he anthropomorphizes, “I wish this pepper was right back here; I’d beat the hell out of him!”
Chuck realizes his milk supply is running low. Suddenly, he sits a little straighter and cocks his head, saying, “I don’t feel good at all.” There can be only one resolution of this dilemma, and it is spectacular.
Extraterrestrials viewing this video 40,000 years from now will cackle as loudly as you will today. The most dominant life form on the third planet from the Sun, with access to the knowledge of the ages and globe-spindling technology, is humbled by a plant. Build a Taj Mahal, paint Mona Lisa, send a satellite past out past the heliosphere, but no one eats the ghost pepper with impunity.
If other life forms want to know about the aspirations of Homo sapiens, I’m going to get to work building another Voyager. In this one, all I’m enclosing is Chuck From The Bronx’s video and a great old line from Beckett: “There’s man all over for you, blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.