An old college buddy, now a lawyer, called me–I think it was 2006–to tell me that the prop plane out of which I had jumped a couple years earlier had crashed, killing two people. There was a wicked undertow to his voice, a mocking “I told you so” mixed with righteous validation and spread over sarcastic derision for the deceased. Stupid assholes deserved it, apparently.
I said it was too bad.
Flash back to 2003 and said lawyer was watching from the ground as I flailed–literally flailed, like an exaggerated swimmer–as I fell unhindered through clear sky from 6,500 feet. High wind. Straight down. From that height you can see the crosshatching of farms. You can see cars moving and tiny people, just dots. But they never seem to get any closer.
My chute deployed, and the nice man on the radio told me when to pull right, when to pull left, and what followed was arguably the most exhilarating five minute chunk of my life.
I have been in multiple car accidents and felt the electric awareness of the post-shock adrenaline surge. I have felt the rush of more than a couple illicit substances. I even damn-near shat myself as someone died in front of me. I was in London in 1996 and England was playing Scotland in the European Cup. The city was insane, and Trafalgar Square was the burning heart of madness. I was there with friends, including my lawyer buddy, who was calling home from a payphone. (This was in the days before cell phones with international plans.) A blue-faced reveler stumbled off the curb as he tried to make his way around the phone booth and the crowd. He was struck by a car and died.
Hitting the ground after skydiving was like none of these. Other folks’ experiences may vary, but I felt. Full stop. FELT.
I had panicked in the air, ignored the day’s training and flailed about like a junkie at a rave. I was in full-on fear for my life and my body responded with a massive dose of adrenaline. I remember it vividly. I was aware of everything. I felt like a superhero. I felt supernaturally strong, like I really could lift a car. I was aware of the smell of the grass and the rustle of the parachute and a thousand other stimuli.
But that’s not what’s amazing. What’s amazing is that we’re bombarded by that every moment of our life, but our dull senses and our dullard brain filter most of it out.
It was as if I had suddenly been pressed so close to the source of life that I could feel the throb of its pulse. Every sensation surged with intensity.
I told my girlfriend, who landed right after me, “I feel like I can do anything.” And it wasn’t hyperbole. I really did.
Later, at the debriefing, the hunky instructor scolded me for my failure. I hadn’t turned into a human shuttlecock like I was supposed to. I had flailed. I had put myself in real danger. If I twisted the wrong way, my chute might not have caught the air, or worse, I may have gotten tangled in the lines, rendering the secondary chute inoperable and almost certainly ending my life (and probably his job).
After telling me off for my own good, the instructor praised my girlfriend and then asked her out right in front of me. It was a warning. I was seriously considering skydiving as a hobby–I still do sometimes–but then that asshole was the paradigmatic adrenaline junkie. He’d clearly jumped out of a plane too many times. He had not only lost all fear, he had lost all boundaries as well. Like a syphilis poster, he was an effective warning. I didn’t want to become him. I’m not sure if he was one of the people who died in the crash or not.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the scholar of myth and religion Joseph Campbell:
People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about.
Standing on terra firma after a free fall is the closest I’ve come to the rapture of being alive (although the first time I saw the Milky Way is a close second). I don’t think anything short of the specter of death can do it, but plenty of people want to argue with me about that, usually from a fortress of suburban safety.
Here’s the thing: seeing death is not the same as facing it. I’d seen death a lot during my stint as a volunteer in an emergency room. (I was heading to medical school, and that looked good on the application.) Friday nights were the best, although every night involved lots and lots of waiting. Nothing happens fast in the the ER, which you know if you’ve ever been.
This was in Oklahoma City, and one of my first nights there was during the Red Earth Festival. Because of the legacies of history, Native Americans are disproportionately poor, even compared to other minorities, and it’s not uncommon for them to get high by huffing paint. Gold paint apparently gives the best highs, and so during the Red Earth Festival, people would come into the ER with a Midas mustache.
One such man was strapped to a body board. The paramedics were worried he might have a spinal injury. He couldn’t feel anything, but then he was very high. He also couldn’t move, which was not necessarily surprising considering that his friend had run him over with his car. Twice.
They were all high, and the poor guy fell to the ground as his friend was leaving. The car rolled over his body. The nearby crowd warned the driver, who got confused and thought he was still on the body of his friend, so he shifted gears and drove forward, running the man over a second time.
The guy was freaking out. But then he was strapped down, immobile, which will freak anyone out. (There’s a reason the S&M folks like it.) And the nurses left him alone in the X-ray room. They had other patients and the doctors weren’t going to say anything until the film was developed. They sent me in “to calm him down.” I was just supposed to talk to him. I was wearing a red shirt and white pants.
He asked me if he was going to die. I said I didn’t think so. He asked me if he was paralyzed. I said I didn’t know. He had the Midas mustache. The paint was dry. It probably itched, but since his hands were strapped, he kept licking his upper lip. He kept asking me if he was going to be okay. Standing there in the white room in my red shirt, red like the color of lipstick, I felt so very inadequate.
As it happens, he wasn’t paralyzed. His muscles had been crushed, however, and were locked from the shock. Hence he couldn’t move, but his x-rays came back clear, and I’m told he walked out of there on his own two feet the next day.
I witnessed a number of episodes like that, and worse–ask me about the dude with the baseball bat sometime–and not a single one was ever the same as facing death, which was basically what a pedophile ex-Navy Seal once told me after pissing off the roof of a monastery in Italy…
But that’s another story.