When others' pain seems like our gain.
One August afternoon several years ago, our volunteer fire department responded to a high-velocity boat collision on a local lake. The initial page from county dispatch directed us to a popular landing.
From there I could see a tangle of boats far out on the water. I heard screaming. It was a hot Sunday, and the lake was churning with pontoons, personal watercraft and runabouts.
PJ, one of our emergency medical technicians, arrived at the landing just ahead of me and a sheriff's deputy. A private "party barge" was passing by, and the deputy hailed it on the PA of his squad car.
The boat swung in and we hopped aboard. As we neared the scene, my stomach clenched.
"PJ, this doesn't look good," I said. The deputy was pale.
Through a screen of onlookers we spotted the two boats. A 16-foot aluminum Lund was capsized and partially submerged, its white hull painted with blood. A small jet boat was right-side-up, but only its sharp bow poked above the surface.
We later discovered that six people had been aboard the jet boat, and when the collision launched the Lund into the air, its propeller struck three of the jet boat crew. They were three couples, and each lost a partner.
A middle-aged male had been dragged to the nearest shore, and we steered that way. Someone had started CPR, and when our pontoons hit the beach, PJ hustled to relieve them.
Joe, another of our EMTs, arrived and joined him. The man's wife, a passenger on the jet boat, knelt nearby, sobbing and moaning.
It was clear the man was dead -- his skull breached, face mangled; he'd been retrieved from underwater. Chest compressions pumped fluid from his ears. It was "courtesy CPR" in the presence of a loved one, futile and unpleasant.
I'd performed similar duty on a corpse several years before, and I question its value, but once CPR has been started ...
Mercifully, a local physician showed up a few minutes later, and Joe said, "Doctor, will you please pronounce?" With a glance, he did.
The deputy was trying to comfort the victim's wife, and once her husband was officially dead, her trauma seemed to ease. We tried to cover the body, but despite his horrendous wounds, she resisted, perhaps still seeing him as whole.
In the end, three were killed and four injured. A fleeting somberness suffused the community.
Next day, our crew assembled at the fire hall and conducted a critical incident stress debriefing, talking it out until almost everything was said.
What wasn't verbalized, but what we all knew: This was one of the best things that had ever happened to us.
Novelist and philosopher Walker Percy, in his book "The Message in the Bottle," wondered, "Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane? ... Why is it that the only time I ever saw my uncle happy during his entire life was the afternoon of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?"
One hundred years ago this week the ocean liner Titanic, touted as "unsinkable" and then the largest mobile machine ever built, set sail from England for New York. A few days later it sideswiped an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank.
It was her maiden voyage. In all, 1,513 people died, many of them nightmarishly. And we've not stopped relishing it since.
Robert Ballard, the explorer who first visited the wreck in 1986, descending through 2 1/2 miles of water in the submersible Alvin, said, "It's one of those stories that will always be told."
Yet it was hardly the most important event of 1912. More crucial to history were Sun Yat-sen establishing the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party; or Lenin making an early connection with Stalin; or Montenegro declaring war on Turkey and preheating the Balkans for World War I, or the founding of Britain's Royal Air Force.
But only serious students of history (or current members of the Taiwanese government or the RAF) associate any of those events with 1912. Titanic rules.
Part of the fascination is the sheer drama. It took 2 hours, 40 minutes for the liner to plunge beneath the waves, allowing ample time for 2,208 passengers and crew to stage and perform in the face of danger and death.
In a recent issue of National Geographic, Hampton Sides wrote: "The captain stayed on the bridge, the band played on, the Marconi wireless radio operators continued sending their distress signals until the very end."
Another strand of memory views the loss of the grand ship as the first blow to the pre-World War I optimism that would soon be brutally shattered in the trenches of the Western Front. Moviemaker and explorer James Cameron said, "The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble.
There was such a sense of bounty in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down."
And we love it. First, it's the narrative. Novelist Robert Stone said that for humans, stories are "almost as important as bread."
An engaging tale draws us out of ourselves; it is vicarious experience that breaks our routine, and most absorbing stories feature high challenge, life-and-death conflict, danger and disaster -- components that do not decorate our customary slog through the ruts of another workday.
We think: Look what happened! Look what those people did! What would I do?
We're enraptured by drama because whatever the story might be, it could also be our story; daydreams and fantasies help keep us alive.
Another lure of disaster, the other side of the dramatic coin, is change. We are seduced by novelty. Percy's uncle, and millions of others, realized immediately that the attack on Pearl Harbor would change almost everything.
Our human status quo is birth, then, after a time, death. A big event upsets the grim calculus; we are excited and hopeful, distracted from the prospect of our demise -- things will change, and most things are surely in need of change.
We are energized by momentous events, feel like kids again. On Sept. 11, 2001, how many people feverishly phoned friends and relatives to urge them -- almost gleefully -- "Turn on the TV!" Over and over we watched the airliners smashing into the World Trade Center and were at once appalled and thrilled.
Like our crew was at the boat accident. The thrill? These people are dead and we are not. Ask a firefighter, a cop, an EMT, a survivor -- there is a certain euphoria in being that witness, in the tingling surge of natural chemicals flushing your body.
In the (too few) lifeboats of the Titanic, some 500 people watched the ship disappear. And you may rest assured that for many, if not most, it was the happiest night of their lives.
We know that and seek to share it. We read the books; we watch the movie, popcorn in hand, and enjoy.
Is this perverse? A religious believer might view it as confirmation of mankind's frailty and wickedness, of the need for redemption and salvation. If you savor lurid stories of mayhem, it's tough to beat the Bible.
From a secular, evolutionary point of view, our mixed reaction to tragedy elicits the question: is our titillation useful?
Since much of human history is a tale of woe -- even the United States, for example, has been at war for 50 years of its relatively brief existence -- perhaps our often ambivalent response to disaster is a naturally selected survival trait.
A few years ago, a newly minted EMT, age 19, pulled me aside for a talk. He'd just made his first two emergency responses.
One was to a snowmobile mishap so spectacular and ghastly it might lead one to wonder if the laws of physics are entirely neutral. The other was a suicide via shotgun blast to the head.
The rookie -- I'll call him Mike -- was distressed, but not about the gore and death. He was sheepishly struggling to express his new feelings, and I held up a hand.
"Mike," I said, "you liked it, didn't you? You were charged up and engaged."
"Yeah! I felt so, so ... alive!"
"It's OK," I said, "Don't feel guilty. It just means you're cut out for the work. Society demands that somebody deal with these messes, so it might as well be you."
His face was washed with relief. "So, I'm not weird?"
"No, you're just human."
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the fire chief in French Township and is a fire technician for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He is the author of "Ghosts of the Fireground," "Letters from Side Lake" and other books.
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