Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Dead

Over the past three weeks I have had the disturbing chance to have crossed three dead bodies on the road. Outside of funeral homes and cultural relics, these were the second, third and fourth dead bodies I have seen in my lifetime.

The first one came on a late summer afternoon in 1980.  I was crossing the Milwaukee River on the railroad trestle that connects my childhood neighborhood to Kletzch Park, the undisputed jewel of Glendale, Wisconsin.  I cut grass for the local school district and the quickest way home was to dart across the park and walk the bottom rung of the trestle as if it were a balance beam.

I’d crossed that beam so many times that I could do it backwards and blindfolded.  But on this Chamber of Commerce day, my world got rocked when I saw a middle-aged woman lying next to the cement mooring on the east bank of the river. I wondered why she would pick a wooded place to sun bathe, but when I got closer I noticed her clothes were tangled and a line of ants crossed over her exposed abdomen. She was dead.

Up to that point, my experience with corpses came from the awkward viewings of my elder relatives who seemed to pass on during the ugliest months of the Wisconsin winter. With all lack of respect to the morticians of 1970s Milwaukee, you were horrible at your jobs. None of my relatives looked anything like their sleeping selves. They were completely different people. There was no reason to walk up to the casket and see some imposter inhabiting my grandmother’s body.

I’ve been to a half a dozen funerals since my childhood, but I never go into that viewing room. My mom once told me they do that so people who travel in from out of town are assured that the person is actually dead. I need no such assurances. I’ll take your word for it. And if the person isn’t dead, then they certainly don’t want to be seen by me.  I’ll just leave them to their new life.

The Tibetans have an odd way of dealing with their loved ones. They chop them up into bits, walk them up to a scenic spot in the mountains, then toss the bits in the air where they are consumed by vultures. I guess it sounds kind of noble, but I’m not so sure I want my last remains turned into bird droppings. I also would be really worried if someone in my family volunteered for the task. That doesn’t sound like someone I’d like to hang around with.

I have opted to be burned to a crisp. If it’s at all legally feasible, I’d love to have my ashes spread in Les Avenieres, France. It’s a beautiful place nestled in the foothills of the French Alps and that’s where life was at its’ peak for me. If not, Punchbowl Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail will do nicely.

And that brings me back to the three bodies I’ve seen since arriving in Nepal. Two weeks ago, while I was on the Asia Try protest, I looked at the side of the road and saw a man in nearly the exact same condition as the woman in Wisconsin. He was lying in a weedy hill just off the highway. His clothes were disheveled and bugs were crawling on his exposed abdomen. I looked to see if he was breathing, but after 30 seconds, I saw he was not. I looked to one of my co-workers on the walk and before I got any words out he said, “He’s dead. We see him on the road all the time. He’s always drunk and out of it.”

I asked him if we need to call the police and he said they were on their way. Naturally this made me think back to the summer day in Wisconsin. In that case, the woman dove to her death off the top tier of the railroad trestle. In this case the guy went for the longer, more painful vehicle of acute cirrhosis.

The lowest I’ve ever been was the year following my spinal cord injury. I was so depressed I had not one, but a half dozen suicide schemes. For most of that year, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when.” And “how” of course. I would try to imagine how my life would play out, and suicide seemed the better option than any of the scenarios my ravaged psyche could muster.

The only thing keeping me from delivering on the promise I made to off myself were my nieces and nephews. They really didn’t give a shit if I was in a chair or not. In fact, the younger ones preferred it. They were never allowed to push an adult around and now they had a big huge toy on wheels. They were having a blast around me and the only bummed out person in the room was me. The more I thought it over, I realized that if I offed myself it would literally ruin those kids. It would be something they would never got over. They wouldn’t even be able to understand until they grew up to be jaded adults with an excuse to quit life. I just couldn’t have that happen.

It also occurred to me that most of my suicide schemes were actually thrill-seeking ideas which meant I probably did have a decent thirst for life. I wanted to roll up to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia Gorge and do a 400-ft header. I wanted to plow my car at 110 MPH off a Cascade mountain view point. I wanted to track down my old ass-hole boss who fired me from Adidas, break into his house (hadn’t figured out how that would work in the chair…) wake him up in the middle of the night and yell, “Here’s your 30,000 fucking T-shirts!” then pop him in the forehead. I’d try to get away, but get blasted to bits in a hail of gunfire as the cops chased me down. Apparently very few of those scenarios actually work and I’d most likely end up one of Frank Zappa’s suicide chumps. Disappointing FZ just can’t be in your best interests.

Which brings me to the next two bodies. Yesterday as our bus approached the bottom of the hill from the hospital we saw a mob of motorcycles, trucks, cars, busses and people forcing traffic to be stopped in both directions. I couldn’t see what happened, but I did catch a glimpse of a guy running for all he was worth along a road next to an empty field. Several locals were giving chase and, as he approached the side of the hill, he was confronted by a mob coming from the homes above. They grabbed him and waited for the police to arrive.

As our bus got closer to the scene I saw that a Tata truck had careened off a bridge, broke through the railings and its’ cab was jammed into the banks of a small creek 20 feet below. Also in the creek bed were two motorcycles and two lifeless bodies. Before we left the accident, a police SUV raced up to the scene. Five officers jumped out and ran towards the mob who had the driver of the Tata in a headlock. The mob handed over the driver as we slowly rolled away.

The morning after. No need for anything more graphic in this post. 

A few of my coworkers had leapt off the bus earlier and hopped back on as we neared clear traffic. They reported that the truck driver was lit; he swerved into traffic; then off the bridge taking the two bikers along with him. He survived the impact – they did not.

I’ve been involved in several car accidents; from rolling a van full of clowns to taking a header into the grill of a 14-wheeler. On every instance time has slowed to a crawl and I’ve been uniquely aware my life was about to drastically change. As the bus pulled away from the accident I strummed a little air guitar (which is the first thing I did after breaking my back), pounded my thighs and thought, “Damn, I’m glad my life is going to be the same tomorrow.”  

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