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Skydiving forces reflection of one’s attitude toward death

Donald Clegg

It’s hard for me to imagine anything much more unnatural than intentionally jumping out of a plane. So, naturally, I planned to do just that while on our anniversary trip to – cliché alert – Las Vegas over Valentine’s Day weekend.

I had about a month to ponder my potential upcoming death.

Browsing the Web for vacation ideas a few weeks before our trip, I happened across Vegas Extreme Skydiving, a company offering tandem jumps from the “highest altitude in Nevada.”

I’d never seriously considered it before, but somehow a 16,000-foot fall fit with a first trip to Vegas, both being somewhat excessive. And when I mentioned it to my wife, she just said, “Go for it.”

So I signed up, and began to contemplate my bravado/stupidity in this real leap of faith, since I knew less than nothing at the time about the actual risks. I didn’t know, for instance, that an onboard computer automatically deploys the reserve chute at 2000 feet, should the main one fail to open. Good. I like that feature.

Still, there are about 30 skydiving fatalities per year in the U.S. That’s “D” as in dead. So it can and does happen.

And did I mention that it seems deeply unnatural to actually willingly choose to hop out of a perfectly good airplane from three miles up?

I figured that if I weren’t at least intellectually ready to die, I wouldn’t go ahead with it. I also assumed that my emotions would take care of themselves and tell me, “Cancel, fool,” if so inclined.

I never seriously imagined dying because of equipment failure. I did, however, envision both a debilitating stroke and/or heart attack. I prepared myself not to be the same upon landing as exiting.

And I jumped.

Just a few days after we were back, browsing at Auntie’s bookstore, I came across philosopher Simon Critchley’s “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” which immediately hooked me.

It details the deaths and pertinent portions of the lives of about 190 philosophers, arranged roughly chronologically in a staggering array of departures.

I think a skydiving death would be a great addition to this list – certainly a better way to go than Heracleitus, who suffocated in cow dung, or Freud, whose cancerous stench sent his favorite dog from his side. He died, however, without self-pity, only asking for morphine at the end, after which he fell into his final sleep.

Tough stuff. But something we all have to face, willingly or not. Critchley begins his epilogue by simply saying, “Death is the last great taboo.”

I personally can’t ignore the fact that for nearly all of Time I was not, or the plentiful evidence indicating that I will, in all likelihood, return soon enough to nothingness. To live otherwise is to deny, and even deny the denial, of the fact of death, often relying instead on a trust in God and the hereafter to ward off its terror.

But, hey, whatever gets you through the night. As Bertrand Russell put it, “I’m not willing to die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.”

The question is, “Does it work?” After stating that 85 percent of Americans believe in heaven, Critchley continues, “But the deeper truth is that such religious belief, complete with a heavenly afterlife, brings believers little solace in relation to death.

“The only priesthood in which people really (his emphasis) believe is the medical profession and the purpose of their sacramental drugs and technology is to support longevity, the sole unquestioned good of contemporary Western life.”

Cicero (beheaded in the wake of Caesar’s murder) wrote, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” The Roman stoic Seneca (ordered by Nero to take his life) echoed, “He will live badly who does not know how to die well.”

I have no idea how, when, or how well I will die. But the DVD of my little adventure hopefully offers a few clues.

Walking to the airplane, my instructor asks what we’re doing, to which I yell with idiotic/ironic enthusiasm, “Getting ready to die!”

About halfway up, he asks if I have any words for my wife, friends, or family. I pause a moment, then say, “It was a good life.”

And I didn’t even know that I said anything as I left the plane, but the video clearly catches me dropping with this exit line: “I’m outa here.”

Terrific last words.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at
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