- I can joke about that time in the future “when gophers will be delivering my mail. “
- Nothing makes me laugh harder than the old Cheech & Chong routine about playing “Beat the Reaper”
- The same goes for the sketch in the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life: “I AM DEATH”?
- An academic discussion about whether the expression “bought the farm” came about in the War Between the States or World War I is interesting…
I don’t write about death.
I imagine that reluctance is common to us all, but the age at which I started to gain an understanding of death and pain was un-commonly young so you’d think I would have had time to build up some tolerance. I was not quite nine years old and my mom took me and a couple of my friends to see “Jet Pilot” at the Billiken Drive-In Theater. “Jet Pilot” has a remarkably low body count for a 1950’s John Wayne flick, especially for one with commies as the villains, but even so most of my buddies spent the ride home talking about all the death, destruction and mayhem they were going to be spreading around when they grew up and were jet pilots just like the Duke. I guess it was at that point that I realized that while I was shooting missiles and machine guns at the enemy, they would be shooting them right back at me, and though I was lacking experience with gun-shot wounds, the previous winter I had three bones broken in my right foot during a sledding party at Cub Scouts . I was pretty sure a 20mm cannon shell from a MiG-15 would hurt a whole lot more than my foot impacting a large fence post.
From that time on my intent was to avoid pain and death as much as possible but as my life has unfolded I have come close to departing this earthly life more times than I like to think about. Face it, as a young man growing up in Alaska, playing contact sports, working in an oil field, engaging in technical rock climbing as a hobby and serving as an officer in the military with duties involving aviation and parachuting…well, you have to wonder if some Freudian death-wish was at work in my head. Whatever the flavor there was some kind of deep thinking going on because each time I have come out of a near death experience I came out in possession of a very profound life-lesson.
I’m not talking about those times when my activities included death as one of the possible outcomes as in perilous duties or attempting a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I am talking about those times when the Grim Reaper sneaks up from behind, taps you on the shoulder and whispers “Boo” while you’re just doing every day stuff. The added shock jumpstarts your brain.
The first time this happened was during a rare opportunity for some overtime work in the summer of 1978. I was working as a roustabout at the Swanson River oil field and we were preparing to go back to school for my final year of my bachelors degree studies. Lori was pregnant which brought on added worries about finances so I jumped at the chance for some extra work at the compressor plant for a couple of weekends
The project dealt with a problem that came about because of incomplete climate data that Atlantic Richfield consulted when they established the field twenty years earlier. The entire oil field was engineered with a maximum summer temperature of 60 degrees in mind, but by the time of this story the summer time high would regularly exceed the 80s, the added pressure causing all the pipelines and pressure vessels run at about 150% of their rated maximum pressure. I was cleaning the surface of these pipes in preparation for repairs the welders would make in the fall when the temperature (and pressure) went down.
It was not easy work. I had to get down underneath a grating and crawl to my work site, which wasn’t very far away at first – but as the project progressed the crawl got longer and dirtier. In order to reach the large diameter pipes I was working on I also had to squeeze between another set of pipes and the posts supporting the grating above. Once in place I had to reach around the pipe and work by touch, snipping off retaining bands, removing metal cladding and insulation then chipping rusted areas of metal away with a cold chisel so that repairs and spot painting could be performed later on. It was nasty work, very dirty but very lucrative so I didn’t think much about all the fluids rushing through the various pipes I was wrapped around until one of my chisel-strokes came away with a piece of pipe that was big enough to make me stop and notice
As held up that bit of corroded metal a wave of nausea swept over me as I did the math. At this point the metal on that pipe in that spot could be no thicker than a piece of cardstock. I thought about the oil, gas, sand and water running at 475 p.s.i. (pounds per square inch) through a pipe rated at 300 p.s.i. and how all that separated me from that high-pressure muck was a small layer of very thin metal. I craned my head around to map out a quick escape only to find that there was none to be had so I carefully gathered up my tools and steadily crawled back down to the opening up to the grating above.
When I got up on the grating I was still a pretty precarious situation if a wash-out were to happen, but I was shaking so bad I could move no further. It took me another 30 minutes to stumble to the HOA office where I told the operator on duty what had happened and immediately the whole complex was shut down so a welder could make emergency repairs.
My actions ended up saving Chevron USA millions of dollars and many lives by averting an explosion that nobody would have known was coming. I wasn’t thinking about that though. I was thinking about how close I had come to death and even though it wasn’t the first time I had “beaten the reaper” it was the first time I had been in such a dangerous situation as a husband and a father to be. Lesson #1: My life was no longer my own to trifle with – I had a family to take care of and it was time for me to curtail activities that might prevent me from doing so.
My next educational near-death experience came in the summer of 1986. My family had grown and we were living in Orem, Utah where I was making a living as a freelance illustrator, supplemented by the pay I received as a captain in the army reserves. I was at a point where business was starting to take off (I call this time of my life “the Elvis years”) but it all came to a screeching halt after returning home from Boy Scout Camp in July of that year.
Towards the end of camp my right foot started to hurt and while at first I thought it was a stone bruise the pain and swelling soon spread to the other foot and then both lower legs. I been putting off going to the doctor because we had no health insurance at the time, but when the pain and inflammation got to my knees one Friday afternoon I promised Lori I would go to the doctor first thing Monday morning. Unfortunately when I woke up the next morning the pain and inflammation had reached my hips and was headed towards my chest and I couldn’t move.
I now know that this was the initial phase of Ankylosing Spondylitis but at the time all I knew was that I was in horrible pain, with wrenching spasms knocking me about every hour or so. I was able to do nothing between spasms but lay on the bed, and as I lay there the thought came to me that I was going to die. I felt sad – not so much for myself but for my wife and my two sons. I was sad that I would not be able to spend more time with them here in this earth life. I was also sad because I had wasted so much of my life trying to perpetuate meaningless relationships. When I woke up not-dead the world and my life became razor-sharp and crystal clear and on that day I learned to stop crossing oceans to help those couldn’t be bothered to step over a puddle to help me.
The third near-death lesson came just less than a month ago. I have been struggling with an epic upper respiratory infection this winter and at 60 years of age I have not been able to battle it very successfully. More than once I have gone into asthma attacks that completely closed off my windpipe and had my sweetheart not been close by with treatment I would have died of suffocation just as surely as if I had been hung with a noose.
One night early last month it almost went to that point. I had three such attacks during the wee hours of the morning and as I lay curled over the top of a pile of pillows I thought “I’m not going to make it”. Well, obviously I made it or I wouldn’t be typing this post but the incident did cause another change in my life. After that last every negative thought I dozed off, then woke again to have breakfast with Lori – but when she left I didn’t fall back asleep. Instead I just lay in bed and just thought for a while.
I wasn’t very happy with myself. Yes, it had been a close call but I’d made it – y ET I was still unhappy. I thought of Arthur Dent’s reaction in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when he finds out that the earth is going to be destroyed to make way for an on-ramp for a galactic thru-way. His reaction: “I don’t want to die now because I have a head-ache, and if I go to heaven with a headache I will be cross and not able to enjoy it –or words to that effect. We want to think that resurrection means that we get instantly twinkled with no worries or pain, but as I get older I am realizing that the same attitude that envelopes you now will persist with you first arrive in the next life. Cynical earth-life will get you cynical after-life.
So – as the old mission handbook taught, I took a fearless inventory of my life, considering what was good and what was bad. What things I thought were good and what things I thought that were bad. What actions yadda-yadda-yadda. At the end of all this thinking I felt like smoke was coming out of my ears, but I also came away with this gem: “I have a good life…it just isn’t a very easy one.”
That one has stuck and I am glad that it has. I still have trouble breathing. Simple movements entail excruciating pain. My cars break down more often than I wish they did and it looks like Futurama is gone for good but I have a wonderful wife and family, I have a great team of doctors and nurses caring for me and I have more friends now than I have in the last 25 years. I am at the apex of my creative talents and I am just going to get better at what I do. I will be able to make any toy I want!
My life is good – it just isn’t easy…and that’s how I want to look at things.