In case you missed Part 1 on Monday, this week I’m writing about three near-death experiences I’ve had in my life, and taking a look at the psychology and physiology that dictate the way we react when we’re staring the reaper in the eyes.
In this installment, I’ll share the story of an ill-fated hot air balloon ride, an experience that, somehow, was more life threatening than my last story of nearly being skewered by a fire truck’s drive shaft.
I’ve had a lot of bizarre and disturbing things happen to me over the years–being bitten by a zebra at a drive-thru safari and being pulled up on stage by clowns at a circus leap to mind (I still don’t like clowns after that, and I’m not sure I ever liked them before the incident). But today’s tale of aeronautic error was truly scary, not merely humiliating. I am beyond fortunate to be sitting here with an opportunity to share this piece of my personal history.
My late uncle Rollins was a great guy. He was open, generous, and friendly, despite having seen a great deal of loss and hardship throughout his life. He was well off, thanks to some wise investments and fortuitous businesses, and in his later years he was living the dream. Travel, nice cars, and boundless adventure were within his financial grasp. One day, on a whim, he decided to get into hot air ballooning. I’ll never forget our first ride in his new balloon. It had all the white-knuckle thrills of a roller coaster ride, at least on takeoff and landing.
But the second trip was a different beast altogether. Uncle Rollins, my father, and I were flying over a wooded mountain near my home. I was in my late teens, maybe 20, so naturally I thought I was invulnerable. But as we flew along–“skimming the tree tops” I believe it was called–I came to realize I was far more vulnerable than I had thought.
Through some novice operator error, an odd mountain air current, or a combination of the two, our wicker basket of fun dropped unexpectedly. As we neared the tree tops–closer than intended–a large white oak loomed in our flight path. In case you aren’t aware, balloons don’t have rudders, so steering wasn’t an option. And as we continued to drop, I quickly realized that seat belts and safety lines weren’t options on this balloon, either. Before I knew what had happened, our basket had crashed into the top of the oak tree, every bit of 80 feet off the ground. As the balloon crunched through branch and bough it became snagged, and the basket flipped upside down. My uncle was dangling from the tubing that served as the “handle” of the basket; my father was somehow inside the basket with both hands and both feet bracing him on the inner lip of the basket’s rim; and I was dangling out of the basket, holding the rim with both hands. If this predicament wasn’t bad enough, my father was “standing” on one of my hands. I’m not sure how I held on, as I’ve never been that strong, but apparently adrenalin is a serious strength enhancer.
As my uncle pulled the chain that controlled the balloon’s burner, throwing flames up into the limp balloon, the basket began to move and rise. Slowly, the basket righted itself, and I crawled inside. The balloon lifted out of the tree, and we decided to go up higher until we could find a place to land. We all tried to laugh it off, with the grim humor that survivors sometimes have. But my uncle greatly curbed his flying after that, and the rest of the family never flew in the balloon again. Sadly, my uncle passed a few years ago, but I still remember our fun times and misadventures very well.
So how could a scrawny and uncoordinated man-child hang onto a basket rim in a tree top? Well, it turns out that panic and high-stress situations actually enhance gross motor skills. It has always been that way. We wouldn’t be here if panic didn’t help our ancestors climb trees, hang onto ropes, fight effectively, and catch themselves as they fell. Forget about fine motor skills in a life-or-death scenario. Intricate tasks are almost impossible in panic mode. But, thankfully, the grab-climb-swim-fight systems of our brain and body are running at peak efficiency when it’s time to survive. And I think I have that bit of beneficial biology to thank for my survival, too.
Ever run afoul of a zebra or a clown? Been in any accidents involving non-motorized flight? Let’s hear about them, or any other misadventures, in the comments.