Piercing The Membrane

So here we are again, you and I. We started from the same place (pretty much) and we are headed to the same place (pretty much). Along the way we tread parallel paths, for each of us has unique parts of our paths, and we have parts in common. I want to talk about looking death in the face and what happens when we do that.  In 1998 I saw a movie called "The Thin Red Line" about the taking of Guadalcanal in World War II.  No other popular venue has done so well to describe the phenomena that I wish to describe here.
 
The Thin Red Line has an underlying theme of internal calm in the midst of chaos, a sense of being isolated, yet totally engaged; a sort of mental eye of the hurricane. In a religious context we may call this the "peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (from Philippians 4:7). In a biological or evolutionary sense this phenomena may be seen as a survival mechanism. Regardless, we are in God's world and God help us.
 
I call this kind of altered state Piercing the Membrane. I  have experienced this more than once. I will give two examples. The first occurrence had to do with a DC-3 and I don't mean the airplane. 
 
The Rollback
 
In the fall of 1966 I was a senior in high school. I had been sent to pick up a load of hay from some late year prairie hay cutting. Virgin prairie grass had been cut and baled and my job was to bring the bales back. The hayfield was located about a mile and a half east of the family farm. It is the same location as the fictional farm of Carl and Elsie from Section Line Road. (The 90-something couple who turned out to be so full of surprises). The hill at the west side  of the hayfield is real and really steep.  
 
I was driving a tractor pulling a hayrack. I loaded the hayrack with about 80 bales.  As I started back to the farm I contemplated a short cut. South of the hill was a fence. North of the hill was wet land and I had to detour around it to get there and wanted to get back home quickly. I made a very bad decision  to go over the hill. The Douglas DC-3 was one of the best engineered airplanes ever built. Built in the 1930s and 1940s, many are still working today. I was driving a DC-3 J.I. Case tractor. It was different machine altogether.
 
The DC-3 Case was an evolutionary dead end for good reason. It was made all wrong. The steering rod that connected the steering wheel to the front wheels was on the outside of the frame of the tractor, running from the steering wheel along the left side. This made the steering rod more vulnerable to vibration and wear. The front wheels and the steering gear to which the steering rod was connected were in front of the radiator, thus lightening the front end and making the tractor prone to "rearing up". 
 
The DC-3 had a tendency to misbehave.  For instance, the steering rod could come lose from the steering gear.  When that happened, the wheels would lose alignment and jackknife. One would have to stop the tractor, use the crank to realign the wheels and with wire, reattach the steering rod  to the steering gear.
 
During days when our mother used that tractor we kids were provided with much entertainment over the evening meal. Our mother would come to supper in a mood that varied from thoroughly irritated to down right livid and it was a hoot for us to watch our Dad get soundly chewed out (rather than us).
 
As I mounted the hill with two tons of hay behind me the DC-3 misbehaved. It popped out of gear – it shifted itself into neutral. I pierced the membrane. Instantly the world changed. Time slowed down. I could see and simultaneously experience two futures. One in which I died, crushed by the tractor, one in which I survived.  I was not standing outside of myself, I was standing outside of my environment and I was in a state of bliss in which life or death was all the same. I contemplated the situation in which seemed like minutes but was in fact probably a second. The tractor was beginning to roll backwards. My choice was to either try to put the tractor back in gear or control the backward movement. I choose the latter.
 
Although I knew that the tractor had a tendency to rear up I also knew that it had a wide stance.  The front and back wheels were wide apart and gave it good side-to-side stability. The hayrack was beginning to jackknife to my right. I turned the tractors wheels also to the right and the momentum of the hayrack pulled the tractor back and brought the entire load parallel to the slope of the hill. Now the tractors wide stance was stabilizing it. Part of the hay load fell off,  but considering the alternative, it was nothing. I could now turn the tractor left and downward and I could shift it back into gear without gravity interfering with the process. Perhaps 5 or 10 seconds had passed.
 
I drove the tractor and hayrack down the hill, walked back up and threw the fallen bales down the hill, letting gravity carry them, reloaded them and headed home. I never told my folks about the near disaster until decades later. I was at least as scared of their reaction as I was of getting squashed under the tractor.
 
I recall being thoroughly exhausted when I got home. I believe that the extraordinary acceleration of my reflexes and my cognitive process took a lot of energy. I now know that thinking itself uses calories. 
 
Lost Soldier 
 
In the summer of 1975, I had recently moved to Anchorage Alaska from Kodiak.  Anchorage was a pretty wild and wooly place then. The construction of the Transalaska Pipeline was just beginning and Anchorage was a boom town with all of what that implied: There were those seeking work and those seeking to separate them from their cash. 
 
Having been told on numerous occasions that not only was beauty more than skin deep, but that mine was all underneath, it seemed that I had just become handsome. I was frequently asked for dates by well-dressed young ladies on the sidewalk. One time, when a fetching lass made such a request, I replied: Sorry, I'm booked for the next two days, but I can work you in after that and you should find my services adequate and the charges reasonable. The lady went rapidly from a double-take – to a narrow-eyed look as if she was going to cut me – to a gale of laughter – to: "Honey, you can work my side of the street anytime, just stay away from the guys".
 
Among the seekers and the separators, there were some lost souls, and I almost lost my life to one of them.  One day I had a serious case of the "munchies" and I wandered down to the Milky Way Restaurant. For those of you who are familiar with Anchorage, it was at that time kiddy-corner from that iconic art-deco landmark - the Fourth Avenue Theater. 
 
As was usual at midday, the Milky Way was about 90 percent empty. I ordered a Chimichanga, cheese enchiladas, rice and beans. I seated myself at a remote table and began to read the newspaper and to eat.  Soon a man came into the restaurant, appeared to tell the waitress that he wasn't interested in service and sat down at my table – strange, considering there were dozens of tables available. He held a bag between his knees. I greeted him and he grunted something which I didn't understand, I said what did you say? and he said: "I'm going to kill you, you ..." and referred to something that I would never do with my mother. And then he showed me the Glock in his bag.
 
My first reaction was to say: "But why?" That began an encounter which may have lasted minutes or hours.  Again, I pierced the membrane. It was as if I were in a bubble. I could experience two near-immediate futures. One was that of bullets passing through my body. One was of happily walking away. I felt fear (overwhelming terror, actually). I felt adrenaline coursing through my body. I felt a strange bliss. All at once. Then this broken stranger and I engaged in a conversation.
 
With every word that came from my mouth, a thousand thoughts passed through my head. Should I yell for help?  Should I bolt? Should I attempt to overpower him? I did none of that. In the adrenaline-circled bliss, I came to the conclusion that this fellow was almost ready to embark on a killing spree and any sudden action was going to set him off. As the conversation progressed, a story came from him of : mindlessly violent combat; separation from the army with no support; a relationship failed; a job lost; a young man that went from a paper route to a route through hell; no coping skills,  just a soldier's training.
 
Eventually he left. Minutes had passed or was it hours? I don't know. Before he left he ate my lunch. I had lost my appetite and offered it to him. He wolfed it right down.  I told him that he had spoiled my appetite and probably my entire day.  He apologized, but threatened to kill me if I told anyone.  After he left I decided to tell everyone.
 
I looked out of the door and saw him heading east on Fourth Avenue. I spoke to the waitress. She said she knew something was going on, but couldn't tell what from her vantage point. I am glad that she did not approach the table. That might have pushed him over the edge. She said that she would call the police and I headed west on Fourth Avenue to the Captain Cook Hotel with the intention of making a phone call to the police. I was afraid to be seen at a pay phone, so I spoke to a security guard about making a call from one of the offices. At first he was reluctant but soon began to escort me to an office. 
 
A woman in the lobby dropped her purse. Without thinking, I vaulted over a couch and hit the floor behind it. As I peered around the couch, I could see the security guard slipping his sidearm back into its holster.  The woman appeared stunned. I thought: Welcome to the last Frontier! Shortly, we were on the phone to the police. He had already been apprehended. I hope that he got the help that he needed.
 
Today the issue of PTSD is front and center and the military, by policy, is actually attempting to treat the sufferers.
 
I believe that this altered state that I entered into on two occasions saved my life each time. 
 
I invite others who have similar stories to share them.