Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Near Death Experience in Summer 1966

Near Death Experience in Summer 1966 -- and then memories of other near death experiences

From age 8 (1955) to the summer of 1966 (age 19), I was an intense militant atheist. The near death experience did not change my (conscious) beliefs, but I resolved not to be militant any more. This happened on a day when five of us decided to drive up from Cambridge., Massachusetts, to New Hampshire for hiking and swimming – and three of the five almost died. Here is the full story of that day as best I recall. (I will try to be a good, objective witness – just like that guy who wrote “A G Man’s Journal,” a book I recommended on my last post.) By the way, at age 12, I did come up with a kind of logical construct (similar to the core idea of the Upanishads), consistent with a mundane materialist view of how the cosmos actually works, and even sent a letter about it to the Vatican... which informed me this was NOT GOD and that I was hereby excommunicated for it.

The summer of 1966 was my second year at Harvard, my junior year. That summer was the only time in Cambridge when I lived in outside, rented housing. I was part of a group of five undergraduates, who rented the top story of a typical wooden house on a tree-lined side street off of Massachusetts Avenue, a few blocks north of the northernmost part of the university (the graduate/law school). The four other students included a German guy (a bit stronger and bigger than the rest of us), an Austrian, a half-Chinese economist from Chile, and an Ismaili guy Noor from Africa. Since I was in the economics department, maybe it was the half-Chinese guy who introduced me to the group? That I forget.

Probably it was the German guy who drove the car up the main highway going along the west side of one of the mountain ranges. No, not the Presidential range, but interesting enough for a day outing.

On our right, the mountains had a nice, moderate but interesting height and slope, and were mostly all tree-lined. The German looked and said: “Hey, great! See the trail on the right? Let’s stop here, and climb up there.”

Me: “Wait, that’s not a trail. That’s a rockslide. I used to climb a lot around here, and they told us ‘Never climb up a rockslide.’ It could be dangerous. Why don’t we wait for a real trail?”

The German laughed, and may have said something like: “Oh, that’s what they tell children. You were a child then.” He parked the car. He and the Austrian jumped out and almost ran up. The Chinese-Chilean guy and I (and Noor, I think) followed a bit more carefully.

After some time... did the German get about half way up, the Austrian just a little behind him? In any case, the movement of the German somehow dislodged a big boulder (even just a foot or two in diameter moving quickly is enough to kill someone), and it looked as if it would kill the Austrian. I forget how he barely survived. We below called out an urgent warning, which may have pulled his eyes away from focusing on treacherous footing just in time. It was a very, very near thing.

At that point, I decided to go by what I had been taught before. I turned around, and the Chinese-Chilean guy came with me, heading down. But again – this was not a real trail, not marked and organized, and it was all steep and stochastic in pattern.

I went first over a slight slope... which then put me in a wide area of loose dirt which, below, was all the lip of a very steep murderous cliff. Oops! I wanted to head back up (where my friend was still there, waiting), but the dirt was too loose to allow any upward motion. (In fact, a discussion with Luda this morning about the physics of walking on different kinds of ice reminded me of this story!) The dirt had the property that I would slip very slowly but inexorably down, towards the top of the cliff and over, if I did nothing. But if I tried to thrash, the rate of descent would be greater, no matter what I did. To my right was a kind of dirt wall, of no interest. To my left, it was a long,long way to the trees. It was obvious logically that my best hope, if I had any, would be to move in a way which would maximize the ratio between my leftward motion and my downward motion. I took that approach, but it was clear that I just could not get far enough soon enough to get to the zone of trees on my left. It was relatively slow, but inexorable and of course terrifying.

As I looked out... the first odd thing I noticed was... hearing... a troop of boy scouts at the base of the cliff far below. The troop master told the kind: “No, don’t move. Don’t
say anything or try to do anything. You are about to see something very important you need to remember. “ Hmm. Not so inspiring to me.

And then... in my mind... I thought: “Only a miracle could save me now. This is utterly impossible.” And then I reached out as loudly as I could with the thought:
“OK, God! I apologize for having bad-mouthed you so much all these years. Really, really sorry. If you can get me out of this now, somehow, I promise... I will not become a believer... h0ow could I DO that, logically?... but I promise I won’t bad mouth you any more.”

And, a little while later, as I did not reach the trees to my left, as I slid over the lip of the cliff as far left as I could get... there... just over the side... was an old gnarled but solid old evergreen tree, just the right size and shape for me to swing hard to the left and just barely reach another tree, and, in two or three more swings, get to an area which actually felt safe (if tangled and full of underbrush.... for which I was quite grateful). I was proud to be the kind of person who keeps promises, and was resolute about keeping this one. In my rational (symbolic?) thinking, I was not even open-minded about spiritual or paranormal things, let alone  God, until the spring of 1967, another story I have written up before many times. But perhaps this was one of the things which set the stage for what happened in 1967.

Did the boy scouts look a bit disappointed when I walked by past them? I think so...

When we were back in car, the decision was made to drive down to a safer place, Lake Winnepesaukee. I suppose we were in short pants, and didn’t mind getting them wet.
When I was slowly wading into the lake... just ahead or to my side... I suddenly saw Noor, floating inert. I ran out to him, and got him to shore. (Maybe this was the only time I actually used the Red Cross Lifesaving Certificate training I had received for its intended purpose.) I think a bit of CPR was part of it. I never heard anything more from him after that summer (except for his telephone bill one time)... until just a couple of years ago, he turned out to be one of the people on an email discussion list I briefly participated on!

And that’s all I remember from that specific day. I have many later memories of Ismailis, colleagues in economics, and so on, at Harvard and beyond, but that was quite a day. When I was 14, in the summer before my birthday, four of us in my family (father, uncle, grandfather and me) had a wild two-or-three day trip in their boat up the Delaware into the Delaware-Chesapeake canal which was just as eventful (culminating in my trip to Bryn Mawr Hospital for very acute appendicitis), but my thoughts in the hospital then were more about the nature of happiness and the purpose of life, from a utilitarian kind of viewpoint. My uncle was almost killed then, as he was standing on the deck of our disabled boat and a friendly kind girl on the bridge above decided to gift us with a big bag full of sodas in glass bottles which she dropped down from the bridge twenty or thirty feet above.... and lots of other wild stuff happened, within just two or three days. Thank God that the wild stuff was never quite so dangerous after about 1971.

Or wait... no.. as I reread this... the boy scout troop reminds me of a creature I think of as "the black dog of death" in Florianapolis. Luda says: "But he was such a NICE dog. He just wanted me to take him home and wanted the competition to get out of the way..." That year, Christopher was dragged away into what looked like certain death, by a rip current at a beach on the northeast of the Island of Santa Catarina (where we were visiting Florianapolis)... and my mind did enter one of those rare peak states where I could actually see the death in the future... and I charged out into that same current myself, in a way which for awhile appeared certain to kill us both. (It was certainly an acute moment of resolution when I knowingly took the risk.) There was a huge rock formation to our left, and a current pulling us towards deeper shark-infested water without any credible way back... trying to slow us down by scraping that rick was as frustrating as that loose dirt was in 1966... but eventually I found some purchase at the base of a
rough "chimney" style crack in the rock... and we did climb up the cliff to a stable place... and then in another climb to the flat ground at the top.

There were others on that beach. There was a very healthy guy with a kind of raft, who was looking at Luda with great interest. He held back, and 
paddled forward to try to look heroic just after we emphatically proved we were able to climb up the chimney. Climbing that chimney was NOT easy
it required a kind of brute force unnatural optimization of complex movements... and  I remember very bloody hands from it all, fortunately washed by salt water.
In general, I miss the days when we had regular trips to Brazil; my only negative reaction is... to remember not to take small children to that kind of beach. And do watch out for the black dog of death.   

  That trip to Florianapolis was our last trip to Brazil.

======================  Added Next Day

Last night, in my regular period of “meditation” or “cosmic consciousness” or “conversations with God”, I/we mainly focused on other topics, but we briefly noticed once again the limits of my everyday mundane consciousness. It is actually amusing how yesterday I initially thought: “I am glad I had no more of those immediate direct physical challenges to my physical body since 1971”... until by accident the boy scout troop of 1966 reminded me of the black dog of death in Florianapolis. But in just a brief moment last night... that was not the only omission!!

The first meeting between Luda and myself in the mundane world was in 1996, in a conference at NIST, in Gaithersburg. There have actually been several other physical scares in various adventures since then.

Most vivid in my mind was a trip to the Ukraine, first visiting Luda’s father, then Crimea and then Kiev. There were several scary memorable moments in Crimea, and I also learned a whole lot about many things on that trip. In truth, it really did include a full-scale meeting with Scythia under the wing of an honest to God Amazon woman living up to all the Greek myths. At one point I thought: “Hey, and this is where the myth of the trials of Hercules came from. It is an interesting courtship ritual. When the candidate is at least worthy of serious consideration, you do those trials. If he lives, he is OK. If not, no one ever has to worry about writing a dear John letter.” It would be a long post indeed to describe all the many things which happened even just in the week in Crimea.

Just a few snapshots: a moment of terror, as serious as Florianapolis (but without flash-aheads in time). On the day when we visited the ancient Italian fort, at the western edge of the famous (northern) silk road maintained by Genghis Khan peacefully trading with the Italians, I found myself alone at one point on a narrow trail I could not go back on, inches away on my right from a cliff which would make a great photo shot for a horror movie. Not just a smooth flat slab of rock, but a steep mass of sharp crags and ugly teeth, no possibility of climbing, slippery and wet on any path below, down above nasty whirlpools and craggy teeth in the water below far worse than anything you see in worst rapids in this area (which we have also visited but not climbed much into).   No escape to the right or back. Not clear how long I could survive just standing there, in a less than perfectly stable place. The only option: ahead, a yellowish old faded brick wall, about eight feet high, no handholds or footholds. On the other side of the wall, scary shouting. No flash-aheads in time, but a clear “voice of logic”: logic said my only hope of survival would be to climb over that wall and go to that scary sounding other side. I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel able. Common sense said it was rather questionable whether I would have any chance of doing such a thing. (I wasn’t an athlete or a hero, and already deep into middle age.) But logic said it was my only hope, and I willed to do the best I could to make it work.

At the top of that wall, maybe about 18 inches wide, I saw who was shouting on the other side. Part of me wanted to laugh at how utterly silly and unbelievable this scenario was.  There was a collection of about a dozen people in plate mail, waving halberds with angry shouts. As soon as I appeared they directed all their anger at me, and waved the halberds right at me, clearly waving me away, and threatening what they would do if I traipsed on their territory. But logic said to me: sorry, no choice. So, as politely and innocuously but resolutely as I could, I just jumped down into the very middle of them, trying to get my “feet on the ground” to get to the exit I could see on the far side of them. I had to project a clear sign of being utterly resolute and yet utterly innocuous, bowing but not bending... and getting the hell out of there as fast as I could without breaking the image. As soon as I was clear, I tried to reinforce the thought that I should be viewed by THEM as a brief mirage, a piece of impossible science fiction from another reality fading in time, something they could rejoice in utterly forgetting.

Actually, that day was a kind of medieval re-enactment, much more serious than Renaissance Fairs in the US. The people in that place had done their best to inflate themselves with the image of their being true medieval warriors (just like some of the candidates this week inflating themselves with images about their being true Christians, which is a lot more phony and silly than those warriors were), and the mental part of the task was to remember reality, to get past the commitment to be a real user of a halberd. Reality helped me some, but not as much as you might imagine. How much does reality help in US politics today, where virtual reality and TV (both “reality TV” and unreality commercials) come into it? Reality is crucial to survival, but not enough.

A lighter note in that re-enactment was a very attractive medium-sized woman doing displays of their Amazon woman heritage, a curious combination of powerful sex and violence, friendly but scary, half-naked with serious weapons. Being younger then, I certainly noticed that woman, and she certainly noticed me... but she also fully noticed the woman slightly behind me, fully dressed but obviously the full real thing of which the woman “on stage”  (not really a stage) was but a pale reflection, and also bigger and scarier, smiling quietly the way a tiger at rest with open eyes sometimes rests. The woman on stage was alive enough to see.

So... the day of one of the seven trials. Another day there was a moment more truly like a cross between Greek mythology and the scary scenes in “Out On a Limb” (a book my father loved in his last years)... when Luda doing her Artemis imitation told us that the cliff walk we just completed, along tilted loose narrow dirt trail, was just a beginning, and pointed to an overhanging cliff ahead, and told both me and Chris we were ready to start the REAL adventure. Logic said... this really did not make sense. I said “no,” and Chris said “no,” but Luda smiled, and that would NORMALLY be enough... but logic was pretty clear about this one. So when she next said: “Let’s go now,” at that instant a bolt of lining crashed out of the clear blue sky and hit towards the cliff. She was somewhat taken aback by that, but, after a brief delay, got it together and said “come on” again. And then immediately there was ANOTHER bolt of lightning, and clouds did race in very quickly covering that blue sky, and water started to fall. “Oh well, all right,” she said. “It will be interesting enough just going back on that trail in this rain.” And indeed it was. The dirt trail nine inches wide, tilted strongly towards the cliffs and whirlpools below, was already an interesting exercise in survival logic as we came  (not unlike the control problem of SR-71 design), but with mud... we went as fast as we could, with our lives at stake, but maybe halfway back found a bat cave where we sheltered awhile during the most extreme sudden downpour. Sudden shifts in weather do happen north of the Black Sea, they say, which is part of why I worry about the day when an outbreak of H2S from that sea might hit a lot of Russians in the night in Sevastapol. “Not our fault, really. It wasn’t us....!!! We even warned you....!”

We have also had a few physical moments in various trips in China, and an amusing misunderstanding with bears in Alaska where family lives were NOT really at stake much but it sure seemed that way. Even on our last walk up Mount Washington, a 65-mph wind came up, and I remember one moment in particular where I had to invoke full-scale will-to-survive-with-logic just like the wall in Crimea... and many moments where I had to operate my exhausted body like a puppet. I was ever so grateful that there was a bus down from the top, where Chris and I could buy seats because of their priority for stranded senior citizens and children (which fortunately extended to their mothers accompanying them).

All of this just a few seconds in that period last night, much more focused on other things... things like a flash to that book “A G-Man’s Journal” and comparative analysis of what happens when you don’t catch cancer before it metastasizes with an obvious link to what Obama and Sanders discussed yesterday, links to what some folks are thinking about nuclear physics and nuclear technology this week, omissions not to be blogged in in some discussions of cybersecurity and stuff which Orson Scott Card discusses, and folks linked in various ways to the Potomac Institute. All AFTER an earlier “assumption” period of lesser importance, really serving just a connection and background function. Now back to normal life, most notably life with Luda... as peaceful as it can get... though with possibilities for play in the deep snow. 

What else happened up through 1971 must wait for another day.


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