Evel Knievel jumped motorcycles across gorges and over parked cars. He’s in the Guinness Book of Records for having broken more bones than any other stunt person. He succumbed to lung disease at 69, but courted danger all his life. No way can I comprehend him, yet I’d say he’s an example of something everybody has which he just carried to extremes. If Humano Sapiens didn’t rise to danger, it could never have become the planet’s top predator. A six-hour drive through a blizzard—Portland, Maine to New York, NY— generated white knuckles, but I felt good afterward.
When I met my bomber crew in Plant Park, Florida, September, 1944, my first words: “Our objective is not to win the war single-handedly, but to survive it. So we will become the best crew ever trained at McDill Field.”
One day I heard another crew bragging about having buzzed a herd of sheep. My guys needed bragging rights too, so when we flew over Rock Hill, South Carolina, home town of two crew members, I dove down and skimmed the roof tops, not that dangerous, just stupid and illegal, but great for bragging rights.
Bombing missions were dangerous of course, and although no one liked them, it felt good afterwards. A complete tour was 25 combat missions, but Robert “Rosy” Rosenthal flew 53, was shot down twice, both times making it back to England. He and Evel Knievel both had guts, but Knievel simply needed to tempt death. Rosenthal had passion.
I enjoyed a modicum of danger when crossing the Atlantic—Goose Bay, Labrador, to the Azores. We had to fly through a squall line going up 40,000 feet. (The photo heading this blog is of a squall line.) I climbed as high as I could, about 28,000 feet, picked a “saddle,” a low place between thunderheads, and plunged in. We bucked like a jeep in a plowed field surrounded by gray darkness rent by lightning. My radio and magnetic compasses went crazy, ice built up on the wings so I turned on the ice boots to crack it off. In ten, maybe fifteen minutes—it seemed longer—we were through, relishing the sunshine, calm clear air, clouds receding, blue ocean beneath. It was great to be alive.
When it is vividly clear that life can end suddenly, you really appreciate being alive. It’s why amusement park thrill rides will always have customers.