Monday, June 15, 2009

Touch the Void or Reach For the Sky

I just finished a couple of excellent books that I had to recommend. I've always been a voracious reader and the last few years I've also gotten addicted to audio books so I can read (listen) while I'm driving. Most of the audio books I've been listening to are from the youth and young adult section because they usually have sound effects and sometimes different voices for the characters. I've usually got a book at work, at home, in the car in case I get stranded somewhere, and now, in my CD player. I cannot stand being somewhere with "Time on my hands." (reference to my Dad's blog, "From my thoughts and heart", off to your right on this screen.) without a good book to read.

I found out about these two books from an audio book called "The dangerous book for boys," by Conn and Hal Iggulden. It's a cute little book that's got some boring stretches but is chock full of useful information all boys should know. Basic survival, first aid, how to build a fire, some basic carpentry and mechanics, & how to talk to girls. The problem is the format is a bit dated and I'm afraid young, pre-adolescent boys who desperately need this information would not be interested enough to read it or even listen as it was in my case. You would have to add a lot of sound effects and funny jokes to keep a young man's interest I'm afraid. It's a challenge to get my son to read anything other than a comic book.

Anyway, in addition to the useful information there are some really great true stories that highlight the tenacity of the human spirit. I was so intrigued by the tales of these two men that I had to get the actual books containing all the details of these "ordinary" men doing extraordinary things.

The first book is "Touching the Void," by Joe Simpson. This is my favorite of the two because it's written first hand by the man that went through it. Two climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates were attempting to summit Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Something that previously had not been done, after enduring some horrendous weather they got to the top and started their descent. On the 2nd day of the descent, Joe Simpson fell and shattered his knee. Seemingly pronouncing his own death sentence, given the location they were in.

Undaunted, the men continued their descent with Simon lowering Joe the length of their tether rope, digging in and lowering him again. The whole time Joe is enduring what must have been unbearable agony every time his leg bumped the side of the mountain. Simon is getting badly frostbitten in his hands having to deal with the ropes.

After several "lowerings" Joe ends up sliding off an ice cliff. Simon has to make the horrible decision to either hang on and have both of them dragged over the edge to certain death, or to cut the rope and save his own life. After agonizing this decision with his strength draining away, Simon eventually cuts the rope sending Joe into a crevasse below.

Miraculously, Joe survives. By cutting the rope, Simon actually saved both their lives. Joe crashes into an ice ledge in the crevasse damaging his leg even further. He comes to and lowers himself further down into the crevasse. (his only way out) He comes out of the crevasse and finds himself finally towards the bottom. He then perseveres another agonizing 4 days hiking, crawling, & sliding, with an improvised stick/crutch. to collapse at their base camp where the others were just packing up to leave as they assumed Joe had been killed.

Now I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but I believe 2 years and 10 surgeries later, he was climbing again in the Himalayas. An absolutely amazing story.

The other book is a little long and has some boring stretches but it kept my interest so much because this guy refused to give up. Every lemon that was thrown at him just added to his inexhaustible supply of lemonade. He has this attitude of literally laughing hardship right in the face. The title is "Reach for the Sky" by Paul Brickhill. Which was also made into a motion picture. This story is a biography about a WWII ace with the Royal Air Force, Douglas Bader. In a tragic accident showing off in a training plane, Douglas crashes and has to have both legs amputated, one above and one below the knee. He refuses to leave the R.A.F. or to use any kind of crutches or other assistance with his prosthetic legs. This was unheard of with these types of amputations and the legs available at the time. After getting denied over and over again for flight status, war breaks out with Germany. England needs all the pilots it can get.

He not only proves himself an extremely capable pilot but goes on to command not one but three squadrons in active combat. After shooting down numerous German planes he "scrapes" an enemy plane in a dogfight and has to bail out over German occupied France. His fake legs saved his life as his cockpit was crushed and he was able to remove a "fake" leg so he could exit the airplane. Unfortunately the "better" of his two prosthetics went down in flames.

In a humorous turn of events, England air-drops a replacement leg on a bombing run along with several plane-belly's full of bombs. The leg safely gets delivered to Douglas at his prison camp, upon which he promptly tries to escape. He does actually get out of camp at least twice but gets caught and spends the remainder of the war at an impregnable fortress in Germany.

Incidentally I have to also mention the author, Paul Brickhill, himself an R.A.F. pilot who also spent time as a POW, wrote another book I'm reading now called, "The Great Escape." This details living conditions at a German prison camp and the unbelievably creative ways these prisoners manufacture to escape. I'm about halfway through and they've made a couple attempts and gotten outside "the wire" only to be caught, thrown in the cooler (solitary confinement), and put back in the camp. But what astounds me is that they never give up trying.

In all these stories these people speak of reaching the end of their rope where they absolutely, positively could not go on. Joe Simpson put it best when he describes arguing with the voices in his head. One voice was telling him to just give up, go to sleep, and be done with it. Another voice was constantly, annoyingly, naggingly, urging him to get up and keep moving. It was this voice that was victorious and convinced him to take yet another step when he knew there was no way that could possibly be done.

It just goes to show, there really is hardly anything we cannot do if we simply set our minds to it. It's not our strength, our looks, our financial status, that make us who we are, it is our spirit!

Now get out there and do some amazing things!


Steve at Random said...

Sounds like the foundation for a good sermon or devotions at Men's Club this fall.

randymeiss said...

Amen brother!!! :)

AZJim said...

I read the Great Escape and loved it. Rented the movie which was OK but is different than the book. These both sound like good reads. I will have to add them to my list.

randymeiss said...

You have my personal guarantee you will not regret reading or listening to ANY of these books. If you ever come across the movie, "Reach for the sky." I would dearly love to watch it.

Kristopher and Crew said...

For some reason I have a really hard time listening to books on tape, I've tried quite a few times and without fail, I end up buying the "real thing" and reading the rest...

randymeiss said...

It is a learned experience. It took me awhile to get my head on straight to truly enjoy them.