An old college buddy, now a lawyer, called me circa 2006 to tell me that the prop plane out of which I had jumped a few 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, spread thickly over a derision for the deceased. Stupid assholes deserved it, apparently.
I said it was too bad.
Flashback to 2003 and said lawyer was watching from the ground as I flailed–literally, like an exaggerated swimmer–in midair as I fell unhindered through clear sky. 6,500 feet, straight down.
From that height you can see the crosshatching of farms. You can see cars moving and tiny people, just dots. But it’s far enough away that they don’t immediately 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 exhilaratingly raw five-minute chunk of my life.
I have been in multiple car accidents. I have felt the electric awareness that follows any great shock. I have felt the delicious rush an illicit substance. I even damn-near shat myself as someone died right in front of me.
It was 1996, and I was in London with friends, including my lawyer buddy, who was calling home from a payphone. (This was in the days before affordable international plans.) As it happens, England was playing Scotland in the European Cup. The city was insane, and Trafalgar Square was the burning heart of the insanity.
A blue-faced reveler stumbled off the curb as he tried to make his way around the phone booth, and the crowd, and was struck by a car and died. I saw it. He wasn’t even hit that hard.
Hitting the ground after skydiving was not like that. I had panicked in the air and completely forgotten the entirety of the day’s training. In full-on fear for my life, my glands leaked adrenaline. The world had never been so vivid. I was aware of everything. It was as if I had suddenly been pressed so close to the source of life that I could feel it pulse and throb.
I told my girlfriend, who landed right after me, “I feel like I can do anything.” And it wasn’t hyperbole. I felt supernaturally strong, like a superhero. Every sensation surged with intensity, from the green of the grass to the caress of the breeze.
But more amazing than that, if you can believe it, was the come-down. I realized that we’re bombarded by all that every moment of our life, but our dull senses dull it. Our dullard brain filters most of it out. It’s like we live every day wrapped in a cocoon we can’t feel, our faces covered in gauze.
At the post-jump 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 and put myself in danger. If I had 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 his career).
After telling me off for my own good, he praised my girlfriend and asked her out right in front of me.
It was an effective warning. At that moment, I felt so good that I was seriously considering skydiving as a hobby — until I saw what an adrenaline junkie is really like. He’d clearly jumped out of a plane one too many times. He had not only lost all fear, he’d lost all boundaries as well. Like a syphilis poster, he was an effective discouragement. I didn’t want to become him.
I’m not sure if he died in the crash, but it seems likely.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the mythologist 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, 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 pure rapture of being alive (although the first time I saw the Milky Way is a close second).
It is not the same as facing death. I’d seen death a lot during my stint as an emergency room volunteer. (I was heading to medical school, and that looked good on the application.) Friday nights were best, although there was no night that didn’t involve lots and lots of waiting. Nothing unfolds slower than an emergency, apparently, which you know if you’ve ever been to the ER.
This was in Oklahoma City, and one of my first nights fell 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, 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 since he couldn’t feel anything. But then, he was still very high. He also reported trouble moving, which wasn’t surprising considering that his friend had run him over with a car.
They were all high, and this poor fellow lost his balance and fell to the ground just as his friend was backing out. The car rolled over his body. The nearby crowd shouted at the driver, who got confused and thought he was still on his friend, so he shifted gears and, like something out of a comedy skit, drove forward, running over the man a second time.
In the emergency room, strapped immobile to a board, the guy was freaking out. The docs didn’t want to keep moving him, so he had been left alone in the X-ray room while his films were developed. (If inconclusive, they would need to take more.) But since the nurses all had other patients, they asked if I would go “calm him down.”
I walked into the spartan, tile-walled room wearing my ridiculous, hospital-issued red shirt and white pants. He asked as soon as he heard me if he was going to die. I said I didn’t think so. He asked if he was paralyzed. I said I didn’t know. He had the Midas mustache. The paint was dry, and it probably itched, but since his hands were strapped to his sides, he couldn’t scratch it, and he kept licking his upper lip and asking me if he was going to be okay. I felt so inadequate.
As it happens, he wasn’t paralyzed. His muscles had been crushed and were locked from shock, but amazingly his x-rays were clear. I was told he walked out of there on crutches the next day.
What he faced in that tile room, what the Scottish reveler faced in Trafalgar Square, what the adrenaline jockeys faced when their plane fell, is not the same as the rapture of being alive.
But then, neither is sitting comfortably at home earning a reasonable rate of return on your savings.
Facing death makes you appreciate your life, that it is yours and that it will run out. But appreciating life isn’t the same as living it.