Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thinking two ways about reckless youth

Posted By on 11.26.13 at 09:45 AM

Jessica Dubroff
  • AP Photo/Wyoming Tribune-Eagle/Kevin Poch
  • Jessica Dubroff
I gave some papers to the Newberry Library last year, and whenever I have a few free hours I go down there to make a little more headway in the endless task of putting them in order. It's interesting work because I find myself looking at notes and drafts for columns written years ago that I'd completely forgotten.

The last time I was there I came across something I'd written in 1996 commenting on the death of seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff—who was, at least in theory, flying a single-engine Cessna across the United States in order to become the youngest person to do so. The overloaded plane went down in bad weather in Wyoming, killing Jessica, the flight instructor sitting next to her and sharing the controls, and her father in the backseat. I tried to offer a somewhat different way of looking at the tragedy, which the media were calling reckless folly.

Every commentary I've read on the death of Jessica Dubroff has found her parents irresponsible and their New Age philosophy that can so casually celebrate a short life ending in "a state of joy"—as Jessica's mother put it later—harrowing. The family's notion, reported in the Tribune, that life is about "being," rather than thinking or even feeling, sounds like the kind of existential gibberish associated with the ecstasies of the Third Reich. But I've learned as a reporter not to put much stock in the first responses of mourners desperate to make sense of tragedy. And as for that fearlessness that Jessica's parents refused to wean her away from, society demands it and exploits it.

Obviously the men who died with Jessica made very stupid decisions. But someone has to grow up to be a test pilot. Someone has to grow up to be Picabo Street, hurtling down mountains while the rest of us wave flags.

Someone has to run the physical and intellectual risks that scare off everyone with a lick of sense about how great those risks are. Was it a failure of parenting that inspired Winston Churchill to assert, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result"?

Bravado is infuriating in the young, and when we think adults are encouraging it we want to wring their necks. Yet if we want our children safe we also want them bold. The little Jessicas lucky enough to grow up moral and in one piece and still scared of nothing may not be much like you or me. But they're indispensable, and they have to come from somewhere.

Is that what I thought then? Not that I would change a word of it, but it's very different from what I had to say 14 years later, when again I addressed the subject of children and risk.

Jessica Watson, 16, had just sailed around the world solo in a 34-foot yacht and been proclaimed a hero in her native Australia. I thought there might be another way of looking at her feat, and I consulted a high school classmate of mine, Webb Chiles, who has sailed around the world solo several times. Chiles shook his head at Jessica's assertion, made at some point during her adventure, that "I understand the sea." On his blog he predicted, "I expect that these attempts will continue with ever younger participants until one of them is killed, or, considering that they are closely monitored puppets on a string, gets into serious trouble and has to be rescued, at which time I believe the parents should be prosecuted for child abuse."

In 1992 Chiles survived 26 hours in the water when his sloop sank off the Florida coast. He expected to die. "I was calm," he wrote later in A Single Wave: Stories of Storms and Survival, one of his many books. "I was Socrates after drinking the hemlock, waiting for the numbness to move upward from my feet, asking, 'Why should I fear death? For when I am, death is not. And when death is, I am not.' Courage did not enter into this. I had lived a certain way, and it had brought me here. 'Live passionately, even if it kills you, for something is going to kill you anyway."

Then he thought about the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote about surviving a crash in the Sahara. "Dying is simple, a natural act, Saint-Exupery said, as he struggled not to die. . . . He survived the crash, only to die flying in World War II. I wondered what Saint-Exupery thought in his last seconds, if he had time to think at all. Dying might be simple. Drowning might be a sailor's death. But the animal wasn't having any." What Chiles discovered, as exhaustion set in, was that "Saint-Exupery was wrong: dying is neither natural nor simple; and that the weaker and more exhausted I became, the stronger became my will to live."

My point was that Chiles was temperamentally and philosophically equal to the crisis. "To understand the sea is to understand the risk, and perhaps Watson does, but at 16 it's unlikely," I wrote. "What I cannot imagine her possessing is the equanimity to accept death, if it comes, as the price she was willing to pay for the life she chose. Did her parents prepare her by drilling her in Socrates and Saint-Exupery? I doubt it. Alone in the water, Chiles abandoned Socrates and Saint-Exupery, but not before they did him a world of good. He didn't ask, why me? And he didn't panic."

I wouldn't change a word of that essay either. Yes, they contradict each other. But each said something worth saying and each cut against the grain. The first is important and the second might be more important.

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