The greatest unknown. Its constant presence forever shaping our lives.
It breeds uncertainty, it forces us to think, and gives us an excuse to deny ourselves the greatest pleasures possible.
It has a symptom, and that symptom is Fear.
It also has a cause.
I used to be scared of death, but I’m scared no more.
All my life I’ve enjoyed what are usually termed “Adventure Sports”. I’ve been called an “Adrenaline Junkie” many times – a “Risk-taker” or “Speed Freak”.
It had its genesis in my childhood.
Back in the ‘60s I religiously watched a show on black and white television called “Ripcord”. I remember it as being a bunch of heroic trouble-shooters who would parachute into situations to save the day. The original “Team America” Fuck Yeah!
I would often be found drawing “Roundie” parachutes on my school books, only to be viciously chastised by my frustrated teacher. Apparently arithmetic and comprehension were subjects of far greater importance in the grand scheme of things, entitling her to rap my knuckles with a ruler to painfully force me see the light.
When I wasn’t drawing them I’d be making them, using sheets of plastic or Dad’s big hankies and suspending one of my Toy Soldiers as a reluctant volunteer.
I’d climb onto the roof and launch them skywards, marvelling when the parachute actually opened allowing a silently grateful soldier to float safely to earth. Sometimes, however, there’d be a malfunction, and I’d have to watch helplessly as the mute passenger came crashing back to reality. I’d witness his horrific death, trying to imagine his last moments in freefall, and wondering if he felt the pain as his body slammed violently into the ground.
Life continued its relentless path, eventually depositing me into young adulthood, with all its testosterone-enriched adventures.
I bought a motorcycle, and taught myself to ride – crash after crash eventually honing my practical skills to a point where I could gain my licence and throw myself at the mercy of the traffic (I could only hope my survival skills would develop enough to save me from myself).
Work promotions brought more disposable income, funding enough to perhaps enjoy one’s leisure time in an exciting way, and I eventually found myself at a sand dune learning how to pilot a hang-glider.
After one day’s training I decided it was perhaps too difficult for me; and too expensive – my technician’s wage wouldn’t stretch as far as I’d hoped. It was also scary and painful – a chest full of gravel rash from landing face first on the stony beach bearing witness to my ineptitude.
I also tried skydiving. In 1982 I started static-line training, but twelve jumps later left the sport after a couple of scary jumps made me think twice about my desire to become a human anvil.
Life eventually found me at one aerodrome learning to fly gliders and another learning to fly ultra-light aircraft. Real piloting in real aeroplanes!
Flying became my new passion and I took every chance I could to get airborne, eventually achieving instructor ratings in both sports.
I tackled instructing with a vengeance, effusing madly with my students, passing on every thing I knew with such enthusiasm as would exhaust me.
Until one day it happened.
Using one of our two-seater gliders I was tasked with training an aged ultra-light pilot in the subject of spins – preferably how to avoid entering one, but, should he ever find himself in one, recovering from it quickly before he suffered catastrophic airframe failure. Unfortunately when it was his turn to perform the task he panicked, nearly killing us both. The intense sense of my own mortality was overwhelming.
Racing motorcycles came next, and again, pushing my limits brought pain and misery. Not enough to stop me from riding, but enough to have me realise that life hurts, and choices need to be made. A huge crash at Eastern Creek brought home how quickly one’s life could be ended, but Physics was on my side that day and I walked away with only concussion and a repair bill.
And finally back to skydiving. A tandem jump rekindled my desire to try again, and eventually, on my 51st birthday, I found myself in freefall as a Stage 1 AFF student . That first AFF jump was all I needed, and over 1100 jumps later I’m still at it – again, sharing my passion as an instructor.
There’s probably no other sport where you could actually state that from the moment you start the activity you are going to die, unless you save yourself.
Think about that – from the moment you start the activity you are going to die, unless you save yourself.
You don some equipment, ride an aeroplane to height, and deliberately step into freefall. From 14,000’ you have around one minute to decide whether you’ll deploy your parachute and live, or do nothing and allow yourself to “bounce”. That’s the term we use, because that’s what happens when a human body impacts the ground at terminal velocity.
Certain death, and it’s in your own hands. Sobering thought, yes?
At the start of this blog I said that death no longer scares me, and that’s a true statement. No hype, no bullshit. Just my truth.
And here’s the reason.
I’ve seen much in my fifty-six years on this planet, and in the past two years have experienced the sight and sound of death up close and personal on too many occasions.
And it’s changed me.
I was first on the scene when a motorcyclist, a complete stranger, was killed right in front of me on the Great Western Highway. One minute he was enjoying the ride, the next he was dead on the ground. As a trained First Aider I tried to assist, but he was already gone.
Paul’s life ebbed away when he landed head first during a crash at the start of a motorcycle race at Eastern Creek. He hit hard, and the medical staff could do nothing as his life drained onto the bitumen.
I saw seventeen-year old Oscar lying in pieces on the cold, hard surface of Phillip Island’s racetrack. His young body had been traumatised – sheared apart as bike after bike ran over him at high speed. His right leg was torn away at the hip and travelled fifty metres down the track, and his internal organs spilled from the gaping hole onto the green grass. Strangely, his sweet young face had a peaceful, almost angelic appearance, as if asleep.
Last year a man I met in 1979 died in hospital after a long period of ill-health. Stan and I were friends for over thirty years, and on more than one occasion talked shit over a bottle or three of Penfolds wine. I miss him.
In March this year I said goodbye to my friend Jeremy, the Editor of 2wheels magazine. He’d just returned from an overseas bike test and became ill. In less than a week he was gone.
Jeremy gave me an amazing opportunity to ride many different motorcycles and write articles for the magazine, and that five year stint as test rider will stay with me forever.
And so to my lost skydiving friends. There have been so many of late.
Fiona, who died after a mid-air collision in Queensland, hitting the ground with three tangled parachutes over her head. Nicole, who impacted during a jump at Perris without activating her reserve parachute, and Buffy, whose ten seconds was insufficient to deal with her BASE jump emergency. Lucas, whose BASE jump from an antenna went tragically wrong, and Orlando, who somehow collided with another jumper over the drop zone and fell 100’ to his death.
Last week it was Timmy, whose massive internal injuries could not be repaired after a high-speed landing accident at Picton.
All of these people were here one moment, and gone the next. Laughing, smiling, hanging shit on each other. Making plans for tomorrow but living for today. Jokingly telling each other “Don’t fuck up!” before every jump.
And in an instant they were gone.
And that’s why I no longer fear death. Many of my friends have tried it, so it can’t be that bad. They have blazed the trail, and perhaps opened the door just a little to give me a tantalizing peek at what comes next.
For me, the fear of death is now illogical. It happens to us all, and we can’t stop it.
For me, it will be like having a general anaesthetic, something I’ve experienced a couple of times recently. As the chemical cocktail reached my brain I was transported from a knowing, experiencing, feeling being into, well, nothing. No thought processes, no dreams, no rapid eye movement. Nothing at all as the light faded from my eyes.
And when I woke up, no recollections. Time, as a concept, has ceased to be valid for me. For however long I was unconscious the clock had stopped, and there was a big black hole in my brain.
And that’s what I think death is.
My consciousness is here now, typing these words, but in the next moment “I” could be here no more – the victim of a heart attack or stroke. The physical presence would be found slumped motionless over a laptop, perhaps with a facial expression that inquired “what the fuck was that?” but the thing that was “me” will be gone. For “me”, well, the train that is consciousness has just left the station…
My next skydive could be my last. I know that, but so could my next car trip or commercial aeroplane ride. We train for emergencies, but the laws of Physics are immutable, so when things go wrong all you can do is your best.
As they say in the classics, “Shit Happens”.
If I died there would be some people who would cry, some would mourn deeply. Shit, some might even cheer!
And some would simply ask “Why?”
If you’re afraid of the greatest cause of Fear what hope is there?
How can it be possible to enjoy anything in life if you’re paralysed by the fear of death, always wondering what might go wrong, whether it will be ok, worried about the chance of failure and the consequences that might inflict.
Fear is the symptom of Death. The greatest cause of Death…. is Life. It’s been proven time and time again folks – living causes death.
Do not live in fear, for to live in fear is to be dead anyway. Slowly but surely infusing yourself with a cocktail that can only lead to the final unconsciousness.
Go and live your Life, embrace its challenges, stand up to whatever it throws at you and perhaps even revel in it. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.
Give yourself every opportunity to really Live, and when it is finally over, go in Peace.