I suspect that I’m approaching the Guinness World Record for the highest number of adolescent behavioral modification assemblies attended by a member of the species homo sapiens sapiens. I saw my very first around 1970 when I was a high school student myself. It was an anti recreational drug film with a plot about as believable as Plan 9 from Outer Space’s scenario of ETs resurrecting the Earth’s dead to prevent scientists from producing a doomsday weapon that would destroy the universe.
The high school film featured predatory pushers who give away cannabis so they can hook their victims on “harder stuff,” more lucrative drugs like LSD. They snare two victims, air-traffic controllers. Of course, eventually in the control tower during the descent of two planes, our acid-addicted protagonists suffer flashbacks featuring vintage psychedelic special effects – woo-WOO-woo-WOO . . .
Note the year, 1970. Some kids in my high school were not unfamiliar with cannabis when they were herded into the auditorium to watch the film. The idea of people giving it away would have been a fantasy-come-true for them. Not surprisingly, feeding students inaccurate information tends to make them dismiss the entire message, even aspects that are true.
Like that 1970 didactic school assembly, many of the school assemblies I’ve sat through in my 29 years as a high school teacher have been misguided. Over the years, I’ve been bombarded with slides of chancre-encrusted genitalia as the physician describing the abominations reminded us that he didn’t take Medicaid patients, I’ve squirmed in my seat as a highway patrolman walked us through horrific photographs of mangled corpses who would have been lucky to have been pulled over for a DUI, I’ve listened attentively as a paraplegic described the sickening feeling of realizing he had no feeling in his lower body, and perhaps worst of all, I’ve suffered through forty-five minutes of a one-armed woman in a tank top running up and down the aisles of the auditorium to show and tell us just how one “bad decision” had robbed her of not only an arm (thanks to the tank top we could see all too plainly the gnarled stumplet at her armpit) but of a promising volleyball career.
On the other hand, I have also witnessed a very effective anti-recreational drug assembly conducted by a neurologist from MUSC who leveled with the students and admitted that cannabis did not necessarily lead to harder drugs and the odds of their dying from smoking it were negligible. However, she did convincingly portray via x-ray images how recreational drugs can adversely affect the amygdala, that wonderful compact cluster of neurons “up there” that triggers pleasant feelings. She argued that prolonged use of drugs like marijuana essentially destroys a person’s ability to feel joy. In fact, mighty Keith Richards more or less says the same thing in his autobiography. He quit heroin, he says, because he spent almost all of his time figuring out how to score but didn’t even get off anymore. To get off, the abuser needs more frequent and stronger doses and eventually ends up incapable of experiencing pleasure, and even if the abuser were to quit, his ability to experience joy may be forever impaired.
I thought of that assembly when I learned Sunday of the death of Dean Potter, a dare devil extraordinaire who got his kicks free-climbing precipitous rock faces, often solo, using only his hands and feet, i.e., unaided by ropes, safety harnesses, etc. He did carry a parachute in case he fell. Once he reached a summit, he might leap off and parachute down or jump off in a suit equipped with Rocky-the Squirrel wings and glide through the air like a superhero until he had to yank the ripcord and parachute to safety. This very extreme sport is called “wingsuit-flying,” and if you’re unfamiliar with it, check out the video below of Potter in action and the next one of someone named Alexander Polli threading the needle so to speak.
Alas, with his friend, fellow wingsuit flyer, Graham Hunt, Mr. Potter died last Saturday trying to replicate a “flight” they had taken earlier. Like the video just above, they attempted to negotiate a notch, and according to news reports, Hunt hit the side of the wall while Potter cleared the notch, but then crashed. A witness reports hearing “disconcerting, loud sounds in succession that suggested impact.”
I know very little about adrenaline rushes outside of the relatively safe experience of dropping down the face of an overhead wave in a hurricane swell, but to Potter that would be the drug equivalent of a cup of decaf. Did each accomplished unbelievable feat with its requisite adrenaline rush spur Potter on to attempt even more audacious exploits? Was his thrill-seeking analogous to needing stronger and stronger fixes?
Maybe not. Potter had done the flight before, but whatever the case, he died doing what he loved, and how many of us can claim that?
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.