Papillion: A Caterpillar A Butterfly and the Fight To Be Free

Living Lessons with Duke Tirschel

Several years ago, I was hired to double Steve McQueen in the movie “Papillion”. It was about a man in France who was put in prison unjustly and shortly after, escaped. They put him in a more secure facility and he escaped from there, too. The authorities tracked him down each time he escaped but even though they placed him in a tougher prison each time he was arrested he continued to escape.

Finally they placed him in the most secure penal institution known to anyone in that day. The prison itself took up the entire grounds of a small island out at sea and this movie is a true story about his escape from the infamous Devils Island.

Steve McQueen in Papillon

That was the movie, but the storyline of Papillion was about this man’s determination to be free. At some point in the movie the man had a huge butterfly tattooed on his chest because the butterfly is known to be a symbol for freedom, and thus; the French word for butterfly and the name of the movie … Papillion.

Duke Tirschel, Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen from Papillion
Duke Tirschel, Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen from Papillion

When I walk out of the garage at my daughter’s house and look across the front yard that is larger than the size of two football fields, I feel very small. Usually, I just stand there in the driveway and just look at the morning. I stand in awe at the simplicity of beauty; the sight of a fading moon dissolving into it a light blue sky, the fresh smell of the grass and the woods and the crisp feel of the early morning dew in the air. Soon, the day’s heat will rise and burn it all away.

For just a second, though, I stand in our driveway mesmerized before being drawn back to the realness of it all by a dog barking in the distance and the sound of the leaves rustling high up in the trees. At the far side of the yard is a thin cluster of pines that separate us from the neighbor’s pasture where two dozen cows are grazing. Occasionally the mooing of a cow is heard and that gives me a feeling that I am so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life, yet our house is a just short distance down a secluded road in a heavily populated suburb of Atlanta Georgia.

As I step forward and begin my morning run the thought that comes to me is the same one I have every morning: a mystery of life is going to join me somewhere during my run today; I just know it. This anticipation of what I might find along my run quickens my step and I am on my way, carrying with me the eagerness to find what thoughts I’ll have today that are going to surprise me. I don’t try to guess at what will come to me nor do I try to make it happen. I start my run with my only effort being to keep my mind clear and try to resist forcing topics or ideas into my head that I consciously think should be there.

It’s rare that an epiphany, or a foreign idea I never thought of thinking, doesn’t pop into my head and start me to exploring all possibilities that could be made concerning the subject on which I become fixed. I contemplate, theorize, and make elaborate speeches on these thoughts, I preach to every bush, bird, or fence post, or to anything else I fantasize is listening. I impress myself with what I say to the point of wishing I could make notes, but it’s never before or after, it’s always during a particularly discourse that I regret not recording what I say.

I sometimes write down parts of my speech later, but usually, what I’m able to remember and write later loses its “steam” because the gist of what I’m thinking never stays long enough for me to grasp it, and what I think of earlier abandons me the moment a new idea comes to mind.

I had no idea that this morning my thoughts were going to be about a butterfly.

I run from the one lane street I live on, Seldom Seen Trail to Lower Alabama Road and then a quarter mile to Martinique, a blacktop road that starts and ends a quarter mile up a gradual but fairly long hill. The houses on Martinique are set back at the end of long winding driveways that, like the houses assumed to be there, vanish into the trees. I run in the mornings when it’s rare to see a car go by or a person walking. Once in a while a dog will come out from the woods and run along with me for a while and then leave the road and weave a path through the trees and disappear in the woods.

I had finished one half of my four mile run and I was coming down the hill on Martinique when I saw a beautiful brown caterpillar near the middle of the road. I stopped to see what direction he was going. I watched for a few seconds and saw that he was walking in a circle. I thought of what this huge two lane pavement must mean to him without the use of a compass and I thought he must think he’s really covering a lot of ground.

I squatted over this caterpillar and smiled, he wasn’t one bit afraid about me being there, he just continued walking in his circle. This little fellow and I were very much alike. I couldn’t help but match his plight with that of mine and I saw that my life has been very much the same as what I see his to be right here. I looked up to the sky as if I expected to see who was squatting over me.

Covering the same section of road many times could look to this caterpillar that a great distance was being covered but since I knew different I thought to move him to the roads edge where he would have pine straw, blades of grass, and different shaped rocks with which to gauge his progress, (or lack of it), and possibly he would see that he was doing nothing but covering the same ground. Maybe it would dawn on him that although he was putting in a lot of work, he really wasn’t getting anywhere.

I moved him over to the very edge of the road; and then, I waited to see if my theory would be correct. But, instead of using the new terrain to help him move forward he continued over the same piece of straw, the same blade of grass, and around and over the same rocks and continued walking in a circle.

Now I knew I was looking at an exact replica of me.

I laughed it off and jogged away.

I was only about twenty yards away when I saw another caterpillar. This one was green and appeared to be trying to pull something that he wasn’t able to budge. Of course, I thought I could help and so my curiosity told me to stop and see what it was he was trying to pull. I stooped down and watched. He was about one half of an inch long and it looked as though he had an inch long string attached to his back which was connected to some immovable object stuck to the pavement. He pulled against it with all of his might and fell to the left, and then pulled again and then fell to the right, over and over again he fell in one direction and then the other, but he didn’t give up pulling. I was so engrossed in watching this little fellow’s tenacity and determination I almost forgot to take a closer look at the load he was trying to pull.

It was a green smudge flattened to the pavement. A closer inspection revealed that it was the rear part of his body that something ran over and smashed into the concrete. The long thin “string” was his intestines and he was trying feverishly to break loose from the part of his body that was smashed to the pavement and was holding him back.

I imagined that if I didn’t do something to free him his determination alone would pull this planet off its orbit. That was the power I believe he thought he had and so I believed in him, too. I believed in his power, not from the size or strength of his body, but by the size and the strength of his heart. And so I took a small twig and separated him from that part of his body that was embedded into the pavement and immediately he began walking in a direct path to the side of the road. His “string” of an intestine dragged behind him as he made straightway for the grass. He didn’t walk in circles, look around, or hesitate one bit. He seemed to know right where he was going and nothing was going to stop him from getting there.

I carefully placed a leaf on the ground in front of him so he could to step up on it, but he wouldn’t. He turned away and refused my help. I tried to help him up on to the leaf so I could move him to the side of the road, but he fought and squirmed and gave me one hellacious battle after another before I finally got him on the leaf. Instead of taking him to the side of the road, though, I took him to a cool place further in the woods where there were leaves and cool damp dirt and level ground. I lowered the leaf to the ground, he climbed off, and that’s where I left him. But the respect I had for this little fellow I remember to this day.

Shortly, I walked by another black line on the pavement that was crawling. It was a worm; a skinny little worm. I ran past it, and as I did, a question quickly grabbed me: why did I not have the slightest desire to move this worm off the pavement to a safer place? Following that thought was the idea that my passing him was just as significant as my not passing the other two.

There was a cold chill in my soul I never knew I had. I didn’t like it being there, but still, it belonged to me. I guess it had its reason for getting my attention, but whatever its purpose was, it made me feel uncomfortable.

I tried to figure what it was trying to say to me and I believe it was pointing out that all too often I’ve thrown my life away to run to the aid of a struggling worm, and this time, I didn’t. The chill I felt was telling me to break that habit. Although, it would disturb me not to help this worm I was being told that to do so would muddy the purity I offered the other two caterpillars. The thought of coldly passing this worm in trouble was trying to convince me that it was a trap and that the worm was trying to trick me. (yes, sometimes I think I’m nuts)

In the past, I’ve given so much of my life away to worms just like this and as a result I lost my friends, family, my home and my business. I lost my self respect and I lost the life I had hoped to have, all because I saw myself unworthy of anything other than to seek love from worms lower than myself. I’m reminded of all those people who I have “helped” in the past; and I can recall the times I thought I was the “Godfather” to the young men in my environment and I counseled them on who, and who not, to hurt. I remember thinking I was going to set drug dealers straight by hiring them in my business. I even married a prostitute to get her off the streets, only to later understand; I was just saving myself the trip.

I stopped and helped every black worm I came across and none of it was really for the good. There was always a dark ulterior motive for going through the motions that appeared to be helping them; the black worm nature in me was making my decisions. How simple it is to see now and how ridiculous it was of me not to see then, that no matter how much these people needed help I was really trying to “help” myself. I was able to keep my macho image and violent nature and have the access to drugs and low life women close by me, at all times, in the guise that something good in me was trying to set the weak and wicked free.

Oh, what an imposter I turned out to be.

It’s amazing that this body I’m in still breaths.

And so, I held true to my two new friends, the caterpillars, and I didn’t stop for the little worm wiggling on the black top. I didn’t get three steps past the worm before a sudden rush of soft warm air knocked the chill from my soul as if it were a breath from God. Immediately, I was overwhelmed with joy. Tears welled up in my eyes and I turned quickly away from anything visible on the road and I faced towards the empty woods to my left. I was so elated that I thought I was going to bust out crying. I can’t explain it but the feeling in my chest placed a painful lump in my throat.

What a sight I must have been.

I held both arms high over my head in the style of Rocky Balboa as I danced in circles as if I were just declared the winner by a knockout. I shouted out loud “I made it, I made it.” I had no idea why I felt the way I did or what I meant by the words, “I made it”. But I knew something in my life had changed. Because right then I decided to gauge who I was by what God said about me rather than who I hoped others would think I am. Also, I realized I can treat another person’s life with value, regardless of how worthless others might consider it to be, as long as I don’t devalue my own life in the process.

What makes it easier to go down is that it should be remembered that God does not turn away from anyone, or anything. The right person will come along to help this worm, one way or another. There will always be suffering and struggle in the world but I will no longer try to fix my struggle by pretending to fix someone else’s.

That same day I helped the caterpillars I told my daughter about what I had done. I didn’t tell her about the black worm or how I felt connected to them all, nor did I say I had hoped there would soon be a green butterfly fluttering around our neighborhood somewhere.

I kept all my silly thoughts to myself.

But, last night, I found this note from my daughter. It was on my pillow next to a vase of fresh flowers she picked from her garden:

Dad –
I think I saw “your” butterfly today –
It flew up to me today as if to say
“Where is the man who saved me?
Tell him I’m okay”
Thought you should
know this –
I love you

Life is so real when you take the time to look at every little bit of it in an open sort of way Life is such a hoot … I never thought my daughter was as wacky as me … but bless her heart, I think she is.

I can’t wait to hit the “Trail” again.

Tirschel Photography on the Martial Arts Schools & Businesses Directory or
Tirschel Photography on the Martial Arts Schools & Businesses Directory or

Writer and Photographer, Duke Tirschel owns Tirschel Photography and has been a martial arts photographer most of his life. To contact Duke Tirschel or Tirschel Photography visit his listing on the Martial Arts Schools & Businesses Directory or by clicking on the image on the left.