On this day 30 years ago, I fell from a helicopter and broke both arms and both legs.
I lived in Colorado at the time and volunteered with the county’s search-and-rescue team. That morning, our team joined others from around the state to participate in an airlift training with a small group of soldiers from Fort Carson.
We gathered at the edge of an airfield in Kremmling, Colorado. The soldiers arrived in a massive Chinook helicopter, carrying with them a 90-pound jungle penetrator, a steel cylinder with three blades that folded out to form a makeshift seat. The penetrator made it possible to drop rescuers into terrain difficult to reach by foot and, just as importantly, to pull them out again. Jungle penetrators were used extensively during the Vietnam War.
The airfield provided ample space for team members to congregate and the helicopter to maneuver. The sergeant in charge instructed us on how to strap into the penetrator and hook to the cable that would winch us into the aircraft’s belly.
After he finished, the helicopter lifted into the air and hovered 60 feet above our heads. I could not help but stare upward, like many of those around me. There was an unnatural quality about the machine, almost mythical, the way its hulking body defied gravity, its giant blades thumping restlessly against the icy blue skies.
We formed a line behind the sergeant and waited our turns. I watched those before me being hoisted up, one after the next, and then disappearing into the helicopter’s guts, my chatter with those around me a thin veil for the mix of tension and excitement.
Then it came my turn. The sergeant helped to strap me into the penetrator and connect the penetrator to the cable. He gave me a thumbs-up. He released his hold. He waited for me take flight.
The penetrator rumbled and shifted and started to rise, pulling me up along with it, and soon I lost sight of those still on the ground, my focus entirely on my lifeline, except for an awareness of my legs, dangling beneath me into an unseen abyss—an odd sense of both falling and flying.
I hugged the penetrator tighter, not sure what concerned me the most—that the steel seat would snap off or the steel cylinder would disintegrate and splinter apart—but it remained in one piece while the cable pulled me toward heaven.
Half-way up, a shudder passed through the line and through my body, as though we struck a pocket of turbulence, and then the penetrator kicked. A moment of calm followed, so brief I might have imagined it, and suddenly I was falling to the earth.
When I hit the ground, my body exploded, and I lay in stunned silence, tasting blood and feeling the earth spin beneath me, incapable of movement even if it were possible. Soon scores of rescuers descended upon me, men and women well trained in how to deal with mangled and broken bodies. My mind slipped into a surreal sense of uncertainty, caught between pain and observation, time stepping outside what experience had taught me. I watched—or perhaps felt—as they unstrapped me from the penetrator and stabilized my broken bones and administered first aid and eventually loaded me into an ambulance.
I could not have asked for better circumstances in which to take a fall, unless it had happened just outside the front door of an emergency room. I would not go so far as to say I was lucky—if I were lucky, I would have stayed home that day—but fortune shone on me in surprising ways.
I was taken to the local hospital and temporarily packaged up so I could be shipped off to Denver, by a medical helicopter, no less, my second flight that day. I remember little about the trip, other than a brief mention of the Continental Divide. In the Kremmling hospital, after ensuring I had no obvious brain trauma, they had pumped me up with a hefty dose of painkillers, so I was well past loopy by the time I was back in the air. I have only a vague recollection of landing in Denver and my admittance into the hospital, time and space having been distorted beyond recognition. I do recall snippets of being prepped for surgery and voices with indistinguishable faces chattering around me, but soon I descended into complete oblivion and the rest of the day was gone forever.
The next morning, I woke in a morphine stupor, lying in intensive care, all four limbs elevated and in traction. I remember thinking that at some point there had been a discussion about whether I would lose my leg, but the morphine was so effective even that seemed acceptable.
The pilot of the Army helicopter estimated I had fallen 35 feet. It had felt more like 90. Friends used to joke that I was the county’s first EMT to have been drop-tested in the field.
I never learned why the penetrator had come unhooked from the cable that day. All I know is this. I had been wearing a Timex watch when I fell and it had kept right on ticking.
I spent the next five weeks in the Denver hospital, cared for by an amazing group of nurses and other medical staff who tended my wounds and changed my sheets and emptied my bed pans and administered medications and cared for me in every conceivable way. One nurse went so far as to get the attending physician to prescribe beer during my stay. Others were as equally thoughtful.
Just as important was the number of visitors who brought me supplies and edible food and squirt guns and flowers and the toy helicopters that hung from the poles surrounding my bed. Friends from around the state visited. Rescuers who had been on the scene visited. The nurse who flew with me to Denver visited. The sergeant who had strapped me into the penetrator visited. People I had never met visited. During my entire stay, I experienced only two days on my own.
Not long after the accident, a writer who lived in another part of the state published a book on mountain search-and-rescue. The author revised the book at the last minute to mention my fall. I’m sorry to say that I do not have a copy of the book nor do I remember her name—so much else was going on at the time—but I recall vividly how this woman, a stranger, wrote to tell me that she would be donating part of the book’s proceeds to help finance my recovery. Such was the nature of her generous heart, like the generous hearts of so many.
The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that “generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.” There must be something to that, given what I experienced firsthand.
At the time of the accident, I lived in a small cabin off a dirt road that a century before had been an old stage coach route. My cabin was one of a group of cabins once part of a revivalist church camp, from the days when revivalist camps existed. I lived there with my dog, Kootenai, who I had inherited several years earlier, or as was more likely the case, who had inherited me. I believe he acquired his name from having lived on the Kootenai River before showing up in the Rockies.
Kootenai was a large fluffy dog, part collie, part golden, the rest of his parts unknown. During my hospital stay, my neighbors took care of Kootenai, fed him and watched out for him, but I still worried about him and missed him a great deal. I missed his strange howl and incessant pawing and goofy mannerisms and unwavering companionship.
Several weeks into my stay, a friend brought Kootenai down from the mountains to visit me. She parked on the street near the hospital. She wheeled me from my room to the sidewalk below. She retrieved Kootenai from the car.
At first, he gave my wheelchair and casts and hardware a tentative sideways gaze. Then recognition covered his face and he howled and leapt in circles and wagged his tail like a gyrating helicopter. Several times he nearly jumped into my wheelchair, his body coiled and ready to pounce, but finally he settled down and was content to lick my fingers and nuzzle into my lap, where he stayed for the duration of our visit. When it came time to go, the look on his face was more than I could bear.
Later that evening, back in my hospital room, one of the nurses told me she had watched our reunion out the window. She was so moved, she said, it had made her cry.
After 30 years, my heart still swells when recalling the time that Kootenai visited me outside the hospital, and all because a friend was kind and thoughtful enough to make it happen, a gesture that will stay with me the rest of my days, such is the magic of life.
In the year after I got out of the hospital, friends and neighbors continuously came to my aid. My cabin had electricity, but no plumbing or heat, other than the woodstove. I needed a lot of help, especially when I was still in the wheelchair, and they were there to give it.
They hauled firewood, toted water, ran errands, and carried my portable toilet to the outhouse. They shuttled me and fed me and nursed me and entertained me and welcomed me into their homes. Without them, I could not have managed, and 30 years later, I feel more grateful than ever to have been part of a community of people willing to give so much of themselves when I needed it the most.
I live in a different community now, but I am no less reliant on those around me for sustenance and support, neighbors and friends who complete the circle in a myriad of untold ways.
The other day, I was having dinner with two of those friends, sitting in an apartment here in Seattle, the city I have called home for a number of years now. During the meal, our conversation wandered from topic to topic, as it always does when we’re together, until it landed on the poet Denise Levertov, a Seattle resident buried not too far from where we sat. One of her poems, “That Passeth All Understanding,” proved the perfect complement to the fine spring evening:
An awe so quiet
I don’t know when it began.
to sing in me.
song from no song?
When does dewfall begin?
When does night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?
When is daybreak?
When I heard the poem, I flashed back to my altercation with the helicopter and the community of people who were there to help. My gratitude continues to sing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, not only in relationship to my 30-year anniversary, but also in terms of what community means to me now, how I participate in it and how I see it played out around me, at home and in the national and world arenas.
Regardless of how we might define community, the idea of coming together in an attitude of cooperation seems an innate part of our nature, no matter how far down we might want to bury it, and what seems to lie at its core is a generous and open spirit that transcends our differences and fears and self-interests. I doubt we would have made it as far as Mesopotamia without some sense of community and cooperation.
Thich Nhat Hanh, who always has an interesting perspective on such matters, came up with this little gem:
It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.
Such an approach seems to fly in the face of much of the rhetoric we hear these days, in which community, if considered at all, is treated as nothing more than a vehicle to consolidate power for the purpose of waging political and religious warfare, pitting faction against faction, inciting the prime directive—either with us or against us.
Yet we know such attitudes are not sustainable, and we know too that not everyone subscribes to them, people who let go of their personal ambitions when faced with the need and suffering of others. We hear about these people every day, responding to natural disasters or political upheaval or personal hardships with compassion and concern, willing to help those around them, rather than hunker down to protect their own interests.
Buried beneath all the sensational headlines about celebrity entertainers and their political counterparts, we find countless examples of people coming to the aid of others in a variety of ways, whether for those nearby or halfway around the world. Their deeds might not be newsworthy by today’s standards, but they are world-worthy beyond measure, and we would not have survived without them.
When she was eight years old, Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. She witnessed first-hand how the community around her helped those whose lives had been shattered by disaster, providing food and shelter and clothing wherever needed.
Dorothy Day carried that experience with her the rest of her life, believing that such ideals could be realized in the lives of those around her. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she writes about her own understanding of what it means to come together:
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
Thirty years is a long time to be looking back, but some experiences stick with me, much like the residual aches and pains, and deserve to be reconsidered from a new perspective. What’s the point of a past, after all, if we cannot learn from it and carry that knowledge forward?
Still, after 30 years, I’m sure I’ve forgotten more details than I remember—probably just as well in some cases—but I will never forget the outpouring of support from the people around me and the gratitude I feel to this day. What greater fortune is there than to be part of the communities that surround us? What greater good can we do than give back to those who nurture and sustain us in ways we can only begin to understand?