Can ye ride, son? by Rico Provasoli
“Can ye ride, son?” The leathered face of the red-nosed stable hand knotted up as he hacked up a tobacco-colored gob of phlegm. The early morning September chill in 1957 had all the horses snorting white steam. We were at a riding stable for serious riders, not like most tourist attractions at the Royal Gorge, a few hours south of Denver. I had been the invited guest of a cousin and was jacked on the adrenaline thrill of riding in the Rockies. I was barely ten years old, had only been in pony corrals in the Boston area in the 50s, but if Saturday morning cowboy movies had taught me anything, it was to fake bravery. “Sure,” I hoped the old man couldn’t read the bold-faced lie written all over my face.
The palomino stallion towered like a skyscraper. I had no clue how to mount the beast— my eyes searched for a stepladder. Before I had to confess, the old man gave me ten fingers, boosting me onto the saddle. He gave me the reins, I kicked the horse’s flank like I had seen in the movies, and in five seconds we were out of the stable yard and running full-bore down a dirt track. I didn’t know if I should be scared for my life as the stallion ran like he’d been pent up in a stall for weeks, or if I should relax and enjoy what I was sure was going to be the end of my life.
The dozen-or-so other mounts were still in the corral eating their oats. It took five minutes for the arthritic stable boss to rustle up a hungover ranch hand to saddle up and chase me. After a few minutes of terror, my instinct told me to just grab the horn on the saddle and let the stallion have his morning run. Then it became the Great Escape. The stallion’s heart was afire; he wasn’t going to get corralled and spend the glorious morning back in the stall. I didn’t know it then but rumor was that he could outrun just about any other horse around. Some five minutes into the romp, I might have heard galloping hooves half a mile behind me. The stallion just became more determined. He was having none of this business of returning to the stable. Me, I was just along for the ride now that I’d found how to sync in rhythm with the racing Palomino. I suppose looking back on this adventure it could be called Baptism by Fire. I had never been on a runaway steed and by the time it was over, if I survived, I’d be a little man who could claim that, Yep, I can ride with the best o’ them…
Some ten minutes later the Palomino spied some fresh alfalfa growing next to the dirt road we’d been galloping down. Guess it looked inviting enough to give up his race to freedom. By the time the cuss-spitting-angry ranch hand arrived to turn the runaway horse back to the group ride, I smiled broadly, tipped my hat to the newcomer and said, “Well, mister, took you long enough to catch up, huh?”
After this adventure on horseback, I’d ride any chance I could. Summer vacations I’d spend five bucks to romp a trail for an hour, always letting any steed go full throttle and then dismounting a few hundred yards from the stable to cool the horse down with a gentle walk.
In 1969, while in school in France, I got a room in a chateau in exchange for working out the pair of the Baron’s sleek thoroughbreds. I never had anything but joy as I ran each beauty some 10 kilometers four afternoons a week. I had to learn the fickle ways of an English saddle and delicate rein commands in French, but the Baron was pleased. I got a lot of invites to dinners and rode those majestic purebreds to everyone’s satisfaction.
In 1970, while in school at The University of the Americas in Mexico City, I’d heard lunchroom gossip describing a stable some twenty miles north in a national park where wild mustangs could be rented for three dollars a day. The second a man climbed in the saddle, he had his hands full. Kind of like the Wild West stories of cowpokes living to tell the tale of the wildest bronc they ever broke. Once the mustang and I got to know who was on top, we’d run for hours and hours. These breeds had massive hearts and lung capacity for the high-altitude life. Wind in my hair, a song in my soul, I could never imagine why anyone would rather sit a classroom studying Colonial History in the Spanish language than running free in the unspoiled green hills of the Mexican highlands.
A couple of years later I got married; before I knew it, my wife was nine months pregnant, and was past her due date. I’d been hired to crew a sailboat delivery from Gloucester to Key West. Hurricane season was about to come barreling up the eastern seaboard; the skipper had already paid me in advance to pay doctor bills. The baby was kicking something fierce, and the sailboat skipper was ready to hire a hit squad to get his money back. A neighbor and my wife gossiped about our dilemma. She offered us a couple of nags lolling around her back pasture. We almost needed a crane to get my missus up on the mount’s back, but we rode bareback an hour or so, then her water broke. An hour later my son slipped out into the cold world like you’d spit watermelon seeds on that hot August afternoon. My wife and I cried for joy. I stopped by the neighbors to give her the news and fed red delicious apples to the nags who’d saved my neck from a lynching party. I left the next day for Gloucester, my wife and her mother glad to be alone with the newborn.
The next horse adventure took place on a track in New Zealand. The national champion was retired from competition, but was run every morning five miles full bore. A friend of a friend introduced me to the champ’s trainer and after a few beers and me boasting of my vast experience, we were off to the races. This time, I really did need a stepladder. The thoroughbred towered above me, taller than any man could mount without a helping hand. I don’t remember the trainer giving me more than a word or two of instructions pretty much summed up as: “Let the girl run like hell.” In a minute we were running faster than I would have believed any four-legged beast could move. Hanging on for my dear life. Praying to someone to pick up the pieces and send a kindly worded telegram to me dear Irish mum about her lad’s tragic end.
https://eeeac389f36c59588638141b287cccea.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html Racing on a track now meant full-frontal-terror. The rail sped past in a blur, my eyes watered as we made the mile post. I was beginning to find my rhythm, to match the champ’s. Not that I relaxed into the ride, but I felt I understood what the trainer wanted. We were fast approaching the mile-and-a-quarter finish line. I was letting her run her heart out, a tentative smile on my face, glad that I hadn’t embarrassed myself. That was the last thought before the high-class lady screeched to a halt just to mess me up in front of the morning crowd. The bloody mare had played me! I mean, what the hell? I was giving it the old college try, my best shot, staying in the saddle for the duration, and this high-priced bitch dumps me just out of spite. I was sprawled out flat, looking up the grinning horse, worried that she might now just trample me for good measure, when the trainer runs up—matter of fact, mind you—and says, “Up you go, mate.”
“Thanks,” says I. “Now, where do have breakfast?”
“Oh no, mate. There’ll be no breakfast ‘till you mount her again for three more tours just to make her know who’s the jockey.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“There’s no way in hell, mate, that we’d let the horse throw a rider and get away with that kind of trick. So up ye go, mate.”
I wasn’t sure if I should run to the bathroom to look for brown stains, shout for a taxi and ride the hell out of there, or just obey the stern-faced trainer before I got kicked in the ribs.
https://eeeac389f36c59588638141b287cccea.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html Well, I managed the next three track runs, left with my dignity intact and was done with skittish high-maintenance thoroughbreds. Except that a few years later I was at an equestrian hotel in Sardinia, Italy. I climbed up on a magnificent black stallion, something that Zorro would ride into battle. As I readied to leave the stable an old man ran up to me, handed me a mean-looking riding crop, and said in a dialect similar to my grandfather’s: “You might need this.”
I had never needed a crop before; gentle knee pressure on the flanks, a bit of guidance on the reins and we were good to go. We started off around noon on a gorgeous Saturday in April. Spring was blooming in the air, the trees bursting with new leaf, wildflowers appearing, puffy white clouds. Sigh. Could life get any better?
I peeled off the group ride, took a trail that looked promising with an open dirt track to let this grand stallion open up and run. He snorted, started to canter and then skidded sideways driving my head into a tree limb. The bastardo did it expressly to hurt me. I thought maybe I was imagining this, so took to the open trail. Again, after five minutes, the same trick. Then I understood why another stable hand I’d passed returning with a group had called out: “If the horse gives you trouble, don’t be afraid of hitting him really hard between the eyes.”
I had never considered hitting a horse. But this stallion was mean and meant me harm. I had to ignore the two lumps on my head and focus on the killer instinct of my steed. I was on hyper-alert now. As soon as the great black stallion headed off course, I took a mighty swing with the crop, weighted with lead pellets, and gave back the same punishment. He snorted, as if to say, you can’t make me behave, stupid Americano. I pounded this black demon again and again between the eyes. Every few minutes. It was no longer a battle of wills. I had proved that I could dish it out, and the stallion was less arrogant, but I no longer enjoyed the beauty of the day.
When I entered the stable yard, I slid off the saddle, went up to the bastardo who had put me on this mean-spirited beast, and hit the guy in the nuts with the crop as I poured out profanity with raging, blistering anger—the only language respected in Italy.
Three other stable hands cheered me, “Bravo! Va bene!” They carried me to their break room, opened a bottle of chianti and toasted me. I kept an eye out for the man with sore privates, but after a glass or two of good vino, I figured my paisanos had my back. One of the guys was cousin to the stable hand; turned out he had a grievance with Americans. No one could ever determine why the young guy put me on a killer. Maybe he had just seen the Rambo movie or was jealous of his girlfriend flirting with an American soldier in the US base nearby. Whatever.
Now I’m old and brittle and can’t risk a fall. I still dream of mounting a gentle mare, galloping a while and then sauntering back to the stable. But I smile as I remember how it all began, I can almost hear the old man asking me, “Can ye ride, son”?
Published March 5, 2023. The Good Men Project
The Old Man and the Skis by Rico Provasoli
In 1968 I boarded a cheap steamer from NYC to Rotterdam to attend the University of Grenoble. The romance of life in France wore thin after a month. I was dirt poor, swept floors at a department store 6pm to midnight to eat and crash on a spare bed in a professor’s home.
One night a letter was on my ratty pillow with a job offer to ski at the world class ski resort L’Alpe d’Huez. I jumped at the chance, passed the interview, and skied my heart out for four months. College? Who needs it when you can bomb down majestic peaks with fresh powder every morning?
I remember the first descent with a local who had adopted me like he’d found a lost dog. The lift operators turned a blind eye as we made an unauthorized ascent. We changed cable cars three times to reach the summit; in the early morning it was a frozen polar region. We ate the last of our food we’d filched from the cafeteria kitchen, finishing with a bar of rich dark chocolate. We locked into our skis in the cold blue shadows and started down the north face of Pic Blanc (3330m), the highest point of the ski area.
Trying to describe the breathtaking views of the Alps including Mont Blanc, Mont Cervin, and the Meije don’t come close to the awe of feeling on top of the world. The cold air hurt my nose, I lingered a few more seconds, taking another look at jagged peaks of white majesty, and pushed off the landing area.
Jean-Patrice was already 200 yards ahead. Never a racer, I had always been happy to just get down the icy Vermont black diamonds intact; I hustled to catch up. My edges sprayed the frost on last night’s two-inch snowfall, crunching a track on the virgin snow, nearly parallel to my ski mate. I tucked into a crouch, digging my edges into a turn, the cold stinging my eyes, the thrill overcoming any complaints. I crossed a steep patch of moguls, looked for Jean-Patrice – but he’d vanished.
We’d been skidding down a glacier covered with fresh snow. I slowed to wipe the tears streaming across my face, frozen in my eyelashes. His ski tracks disappeared into the mountainside. I snowplowed to a halt, my long, narrow skis forming a barely controlled V as I came to a tunnel drilled into the massive rock.
Snow had been piled onto a wooden sled six by four feet with steel runners and a pair of handles for a pisteur to shovel three hundred pounds of fresh snow on it like a horse wagon carrying dirt. The pisteur monitoring this site had to harvest hundreds of pounds of snow every day to build up a skiable path as the tunnel carried skiers to the south-facing snowfield on the other side of the peak.
The so-called tunnel slope was notorious, I learned first-hand. Many skiers slipped on the frozen snow as they entered it at high speed. I crouched low, fearing to hit my head on the rock overhead, then carefully got back upright when it seemed safe, and in a few minutes shot out the tunnel connecting the glacier with the southern slope of the Pic Blanc.
Jean-Patrice was flying, getting air on a steep slope that took altitude differences I’d never seen. And we didn’t stop. I chased him until I was sure my burning thighs would collapse. We were on the world’s longest run at 16 kilometers (10 miles). We maneuvered down the ridiculously steep Cheminées du Mascle couloirs, the open powder field of Le Grand Sablat, the Couloir Fleur, and the Perrins bowl. We flew like birds, our ski tracks making art in the fresh powder on our 2200 m of vertical descent. We finally arrived at the valley floor and I was dead tired after skiing full bore for one-and-a-half hours without using ski lifts.
“Jean-Patrice, I can’t walk, my legs are like rubber.” “Écoutez, if you want the pisteur job, you make this run every day for training.”
We released the frosted bindings on our skis, and I limped behind him as we walked a few meters to a café where I had a double espresso and a steaming croissant flaking in my fingers. I could have spent the day licking my wounds, waiting for my thighs to come back to life, but Jean-Patrice would have none of it.
“Allez, Rico. Back to the station before we are missed.” “Can’t we rest a few more minutes? My legs are shot.” He pulled a face only the French are capable of, adding a harrumph for good measure. I staggered to the ski rack, put the long Rossignols over my shoulder as we hiked to the twelve-passenger ski bus that drove us from the valley floor back up the hairpin winding road to the base station. I slept soundly all the way.
Now I am a 75-year-old with an unhappy knee replacement, a severe asthmatic, and boast an emergency-rebuilt heart with five new coronary arteries. The Sierras are currently buried in 30 feet of snow, my new French Rossignols are waxed ready to tear down the slopes, and my 81-year-old ski buddy is bugging me to buy a lift ticket like we have done religiously for 25 years.
But the heart of wisdom has finally penetrated. The titanium knee is not flexing in the cold air, the two shoulder replacements protest when I do yoga to warm up my daily workout, and I never leave home without an asthma inhaler to suck on when my breath gets ragged.
So, these old bones are done with the extreme downhill jaunts. I put the sweetest skis I ever owned on Craigslist for sale. There’s a pang of regret now and again when I check the webcams at Tahoe. Yet the steady advance of aging is upon me; the surrender of the madcap adventures of my youth does not go willingly.
Just this morning I read a quote which has made the pilgrimage of growing old somehow more digestible:
Be like a tree and let the dead leaves drop.
Published February 2023 The Good Men Project
The Great Dissolve by Rico Provasoli
Man has buried their dead at sea since the beginning. In high school most of us learned that we crawled from the sea, that during gestation in our mother’s womb, we swam in a sea of amniotic fluid like fish, that our bodies’ composition is not measurably different from the sea.
A dear friend’s brother passed away after a long illness. His remains were kept in a drawer for a couple of years. We had spoken of giving him a memorial at sea, but the timing never was right.
And then the perfect conditions arrived, my buddy boarded my small ship with a lovely wooden box and we headed out where it is legal to spread ashes. The day was unusually warm in November, the seas were calm and the mood on board was uplifting. We motored to a water front restaurant, dined and toasted to the departed and then left the restaurant dock a little tipsy. The brisk salt air quickly sobered me. My radio was tuned to the commercial shipping channel and the Coast Guard to keep me alerted to any traffic I needed to know about. The way out to sea was clear, and we traveled to open waters, my buddy preparing himself for the plunge, for giving his brother back to the sea.
Many thoughts and feelings arose as I prepared for the final send off. The premature death of my own brother some fifty years earlier, my parents and other sibling also gone. The grief of all men and women who have lost someone, either early in life or late. And yet, the sea sparkled in the sun, the gentle ocean swells majestic, the eternal flow and ebb of giant tides and the daring of men who have left the shelter of harbor to enter the mystery of the sea and her ways somehow buoyed me.
I said a few prayers to the gods of all marine engines that she would not sputter and fail us on this most sacred journey. Eventually we came to a spot that called me. I cut the engine. We floated, drifted as my buddy prepared for the final farewell to his only family. He had given me a playlist for my Bluetooth waterproof speaker. Just as he started to pour the remains (really more like ground bone than ashes) into the great swells, Simon and Garfunkel belted out their signature song Homeward Bound: Home where my love lies waitin’, Silently for me.
Well, that was enough—we both wept openly.
And then, the great dissolve began. We both said a few words of memories of the man, now ashes. The sea accepted the remains as one of her own. The cycle of birth, life, death and return was taking place before us. The poetry of it all brought us both to more tears. It was the most exquisite moment. All the dogma, the theology, the religious discussion of the dearly departed seemed but a childlike attempt to comment on what was being revealed before us, just off the rails of the ship: the mystery taking ahold of our hearts, opening us. I felt cleansed. Reborn. In this most perfect moment, all was well with life, with death, with suffering not only for me, but for all who have ever lived. How could there ever be a problem? The sea had shown us the utmost compassion. Taking the remains of a body wracked with pain and absorbing all of it. It was not a life wasted, but an expression of the wonder of the cosmos returning to Source.
The remains looked like a milky cloud on the surface. It slowly dissipated, dissolving into the green ocean. Somehow, I’d imagined the ashes would immediately become invisible, but it was more like smoke from a fire that could be seen long after the flame had gone out. We stared and started to say more. There were no words. The end of the line for a man’s life simply floated on the surface, not in any rush to leave us. A slight breeze puffed across the cloudy water, the wavelets then finished the visual sighting. The cremated remains of a body were no longer with us. It was done.
But I could not move myself to start the engine. It seemed a sacrilege to disturb the tranquility. The great dissolve was not finished, it was working on those of us on board. What does it all mean, this life we are granted? Or are we sniffing down a false trail trying to make sense of the miracle? Are we confounding ourselves by trying to reduce the ineffable to a convenient philosophy, an explanation that puts to rest the incomprehensible? Finally, I sighed. There was nothing to do but to turn the key, the motor grumbled to life and we ever so slowly rode the flood tide back home.
Published November 2022 The Good Men Project
Before I Die by Rico Provasoli
When death comes, may it find you alive – African Proverb
Before I die, I want to be so fully alive, with so few regrets, that I will leave the party fully satiated. To have lived a life so complete, having honored marriage, the privilege and responsibility of raising and educating two children, mastering a profession, written a book or two, well, what more could any man want to have left behind?
To have crossed oceans, dove beneath the seas from France to Hawaii to Japan, to have explored the treasures below, to have skied the majestic Alps for an entire winter, to have flown paragliders in half a dozen countries, violent downdrafts leaving me weak-kneed and downright religious, and survived to tell the tale, well, what else could a man have even dreamed of?
To have knelt before holy men, to have risked ridicule by taking vows deemed pagan by his Italian Catholic heritage, to have been devoted to living a deeper reality beyond the fickle approval of others, well, what else would a man dare other than to follow a path his own heart demand?
And when he casually threw security to the winds, trusting—mostly dismissing the voice of reason—that his was a calling unbound by the chains of that false promise of a happy old age, in spite of all the young lives struck down by the whims of life’s roulette table of tragically early death, well, how else would Zorba the Greek have danced?
Once you have stepped on the path to find God
there is no turning back; and you will
find this takes tremendous courage.
For God and the Devil are in a partnership,
and good and evil are not enemies.
You will be tried and confused by this.
And you may meet men of intense passion
who dance and sing in celebration of light
as easily as they weep and lament darkness.
Yet they are not in conflict with the other,
rather it cuts loose the ties binding them
to the judgments of lesser men.
It takes a certain madness and freedom
to fly alone, to sweep your wings
in abandon toward the endless horizon.
With my energy spent, sitting out the next dance, my physical prowess diminishes. Yet I can’t help but believe, not exactly a conviction, but a greater trust in the mystery, that the infinite cosmos has an order and rhythm my mind cannot fathom.
So, when it is my time to die, my time to jump off the cliff of the living, may I muster the courage to go willingly, to dive into the boundless dimension with gusto, cheer and joy.
Published August 2022 The Good Men Project
Why, it’s a bloody miracle by Rico Provasoli
Three years ago today I had my heart stopped for five hours after the surgeons cracked me open like a walnut. The day before, when I had been rushed to the Emergency Room, I was told by the young doc, his peach fuzz looked like he might be all of sixteen-years-old, that I cut it kind of close. “Two minutes later, sir (what if I had caught a couple of red lights in traffic) we probably could not have saved you.”
While I waited for the open-heart surgery, I reviewed my life and all the turns and turns of fate, decisions and everything I had been through. Before I made much progress in making peace with myself, before I had time to prepare myself for the real possibility that I might never wake up from the deep sleep of anesthesia, I was wheeled into the Operating Room.
My blood was pumped outside of my body and after intubation, I was breathed by a machine for several hours. With my heart stopped, my lungs not working on their own, might I be clinically dead? Meanwhile, five new coronary arteries were fabricated from my saphenous vein in my left leg and ten grafts were sewn in place. The heart was jump started, the surgeon examined all his stiches, no leaks observed, so they buttoned me up. The scar still looks like a mid-chest zipper.
Recovery was worse than twelve weeks of basic training with an angry Marine drill sergeant. My daughter took time off from her teaching job, flew across the continent, and cared for me as I careened between sobbing, despair, joy, laughter (good God, that hurt the most.) And, especially poignant, gratitude.
So, today I am celebrating the miracle of being alive and profoundly thankful to wake up every morning ecstatically happy that I am not dead.
I suppose today could be called my non-death day anniversary.
No matter what may come to pass, each day is wonderful. Even if during the night I’d been to the bathroom six times with my twitchy prostate. As the winter sun slowly appears in the eastern sky, the chilly morning not slowing down the gaggle of squirrels overhead in the trees, I sip a strong Italian roast cup of coffee, sit quietly with the birds chanting, crowing and cooing, I realize, again and again, that there is no such thing as a bad day. Nope. It’s all wonderful. Just to be alive is no small miracle.
As we read the news, the constant flood of racism, voter suppression, climate change catastrophes, hand gun murders and wide spread political and corporate corruption, I don’t deny any of the information. The joy of living far outreaches the sobering facts. Instead, I realize how profoundly lucky I have been with outstanding medical intervention, good health care insurance, the means to pay for it and how the dice rolled in my favor during that mad dash to the hospital with no red lights.
For this holiday season, my heart-felt (no pun) wish is that no one has to undergo such gruesome surgery in order to learn what is important.
That is the only coin we have to spend when it is our time to leave, maybe it’s smart to practice gathering this currency before we need them. You never know when you might need it.
And especially important not to hold back the most important of all holiday greetings: All my love to all.
Published December 2021 The Good Men Project
Basic Trust by Rico Provasoli
Not that I was a daredevil, but I pushed the envelope more times than would any sane man. Paragliding in Switzerland where a pilot had recently been blown east into the Italian Alps, his frozen remains found weeks later, I flew into the wild blue. Just to prove that Leonardo Da Vinci had it right. That man could fly. That we could break free our earth-bound chains. That we might forget, for thirty minutes, that we were bipeds, sentenced to a life of plodding along a well-worn path.
Or sailing in survival conditions off the coast of North Africa, a pregnant wife on board, crewing for Italian owners in a magnificent hand-built yacht in Germany that suffered a series of almost comic failures and broken systems. Captain courageous at the helm, sent forward to save the ship, close to drowning, repeatedly, only to prove to my young bride that she could trust me.
No matter what. Even when I made regularly scheduled poor decisions. A man’s man who could pull through anything. What a fool to have believed in immortality.
Or scuba diving in the Sea of Japan on a rusty fishing boat with dive gear that looked like it had survived Hiroshima. Ignoring basic diving safety procedures, not really understanding any of the translator’s words on operating the equipment from a local who hadn’t bothered to paint his sketchy boat in decades, I needed to prove my manhood, again and again. To who? To prove my father wrong that I would never measure up to fit in his shoes? To prove to myself that I was bigger than life, like the 1950s Hollywood big screen heroes? That real men never feel fear? Or if they do feel it creeping up their spine, knotting their guts, crippling their reflexes, they not only minimize the signals, they deny the unrequited love of the human being pleading for recognition. Loving acceptance of themselves even when it is normal for fear to arise. Love themselves even when they are not the Saturday afternoon matinee hero who doesn’t flinch in a gunfight.
Real men, I learned the hard way, can weep openly when their heart breaks over the news of a friend dying from head injury when falling out of bed. Or with the news of their first grandchild. Or the election results proving that democracy is still alive. Tears are not for the faint of heart, no, they are the badge of courage. To show to all that the tender heart is the true warrior’s heart. And that trusting in our instincts, our intuition can be learned. It just takes practice.
When in doubt, be still and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelop you, be still; be still till the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists; it surely will. Then act with courage. – Chief White Eagle, Ponca
Published November 2021 The Good Men Project
Cremation can wait by Rico Provasoli
I underwent total knee replacement.
Many friends my age told me to prepare for an arduous recovery. It has been the greatest challenge in my 74 years. But after the first night home from the hospital, I asked the caregiver to leave. Zen practice has become even more central to my life. Silence was more important to me than having someone helping me to the bathroom and cooking. Fortunately, friends and neighbors stepped up to bring cooked meals and help me into the tub, sit me on a special chair, and bathe me. I was touched by the kindness. The knee rehab was highly debilitating, the PT came regularly to cheer me on, and my progress went swimmingly well.
I lay under four wool blankets, a heating pad on my abdomen, shivering like I had never known. By noon my temperature had climbed to 101. I called my neighbor, a retired EMT, and he rushed me to the ER where they measured my temp at 105. I was pumped with three units of antibiotics and electrolytes to prevent me from slipping into a coma from the severe septic pneumonia diagnosed with a chest X-ray and 42 blood tests. Many patients my age with my history of pulmonary disease, heart disease, and recent traumatic surgery, don’t survive.
I asked, repeatedly, the nurses to close the door and turn off all the lights. The practice of presence to the breath was the anchor. After a few minutes of stillness, I was startled by a regularly scheduled – every 12 minutes – blaring/dinging of the computer next to my head monitoring the blood pressure. A five-alarm fire bell going off in my eardrums was not the key to boost my immune system to rally.
Eight hours later my temp dropped to 101. I asked the doc what was next.
“We keep you here to make sure you don’t die or slip into a vegetative coma.”
“Can you disable the blood pressure cuff and the clanging alarm every 12 minutes?”
“Sorry, not possible.”
“I want to go home. Please give me discharge papers.”
“Sir, are you crazy? You could most likely die.”
“I’ll take my chances. Thanks for saving my life.”
And so a friend came to take me home and feed me a small bowl of hot soup and put me to bed. If this was to be my last night on earth, I chose to have the quietude and meditative stillness of my own bedroom. Six hours later I awoke in a lake of sweat. The fever had broken. I somehow managed to change the sheets and get into clean nightclothes. Seven days of aggressive antibiotic therapy took me out of danger.
So began the slow climb back from an alarmingly high out of control blood pressure to a heavily medicated normal BP and days of stillness. I had chosen quality of end-of-life peace over the assault on my nerves. My instinct as well as nearly 50 years of practicing alternative medicine guided me correctly. There was no fear, or worry. Basic trust arose and I followed the beacon.
I know the road to recovery has reached a more manageable phase, as I return to laughing meditation every morning before leaving the bed. And the laughter continues all day. I live on a county park and the small children running and screaming in joy actually jolts me back into laughter.
So, here’s a cheer to all of us who fight the good fight, keep swinging with all we’ve got. Even if we have two strikes against us. If this is our last day on earth, let’s give it our best.
Published August 2021
Swiss Chocolate by Rico Provasoli
I had logged five hundred hours in the 80s, soaring the cliffs near Fort Funston, the famed launch on the western most city limits of San Francisco. I hadn’t been in the harness for a few months and decided to phone a buddy, a known high-risk thrill seeker, to meet for a cup of coffee. “Al, I’ve lost my nerve. I don’t think I have the balls any more to fly my paraglider.” He was older than me, had made a boatload of dough in the commercial real estate business in San Francisco and had crashed into a cliff more than once. It felt safe to bear my heart. “You know Rico, there is a saying that comes to mind: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are not many old, bold pilots.” “So?” “So maybe it’s a good idea to hang it up if you don’t feel up to it. Nobody will think less of you, and if they do, they are an asshole anyway.” “You think?” “Yeah, for sure. Relax and go hiking. That’s better for you now.”
But a few days later an invitation came out of nowhere to fly at the First Annual Paragliding World Cup in Switzerland in 1991. I jumped on the next flight to Zurich then took a train to a mountain village where the meet was taking place. I looked out my window as we approached the sparkling peaks; the fresh snow against the midsummer sun looked like an ad for bottled glacier water. The slow train traversed the mountain passes. It comforted the squirrels in my guts. I was traveling solo, happy to sit alone in my compartment, with no need to pretend a cool indifference to the challenge I would meet the next day. The rational part of me insisted that this current adventure might be over my head. It was good to have room for my feelings to show their face. I was scared. But I didn’t linger too long in fear. It might get the upper hand and my sixteen-hour travel grind to get here would be for nothing. Anyway, it always comes down to the no guts, no glory thing. I put aside the flutters and thumbed through a magazine. The conductor signaled that my stop was coming up. As I started to get my things together, he noticed my paraglider in its neon color backpack. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked at me for what seemed a full minute without blinking. “You have flown these mountains before?” “No,” I answered. “Why do you ask? “Because I see you carry an Advance, a very high-performance chute made a few valleys east.” “I just picked it up from the manufacturer who met me at the airport. I import them to sell back in the States, mostly in California.” I explained as the train groaned, the metal brakes screeching us to a halt. “And these large boxes next to me are filled with a back protector I invented and manufactured to sell in Verbier. Should earn me enough pay for a few wings and to spend the summer here.” “You can’t be too careful in this country. Don’t fly alone. Ever.” The grandfatherly white-haired conductor patted me on my shoulder as I left my seat, goose bumps tingling my neck. I piled off the train at a small station in the middle of a valley lush with green meadows seen only in postcards. I hustled my gear and boxes into a taxi and headed upcountry.
I had come to Verbier to catch some big air, to fly a paraglider in the unpolluted, clear wild blue. When I got to the town square near the entrance to the gondola, its black cables stretching nearly 2000 meters to the summit, I looked skyward and saw what must have been a hundred bright colored parachutes overhead. The summer sky was filled with ambitious pilots, some riding hot air to the cumulus ceiling, others sinking to a meadow fifteen hundred feet further up the mountain. They were stalking the World Cup gold trophy like hawks hunting the hills for prey.
I had been humbled in the California desert a month earlier when my wing took a full-frontal collapse. Then re-inflated terribly close to the unforgiving desert scrub. It took me weeks to recover my courage to fly. Here I was, about to get back in the cockpit harness again. But I still had the jitters. I never intended to enter the World Cup competition. I just wanted to train with the world’s hottest flyers.
I was expected by a friend of a friend to show up at his mountain lodge in Verbier. During the World Cup competition, rooms were scarce so I counted myself lucky to have a bed to crash in. Hans Peter fed me, put me in a hot bath and let me sleep off the grueling trip. The next morning he took me for a sled ride behind his house. That’s glider lingo for a smooth descent down a gentle slope. I followed him on a few more flights, getting a feel for the lay of the land and gliding to an easy landing in the field at his back door. No big surprises, no violent weather. Lots of beer that night with hotshot pilots and a deep sleep after humping up the steep slopes in the baking heat with a wing in my backpack. Late in the afternoon on my third day, Hans Peter slapped me on my back. “Yuh, Rico. You have survived your initiation. And you sold all your back protectors! Really a great invention. You are ready to fly the big air. But never launch without getting the OK from a local pilot. Better to follow someone—you can never tell when conditions can change. You can’t always see it coming. Good luck. Next year I come to fly with you in San Francisco. Yuh?” Another round of guzzling—each stein a half-gallon of beer—and I was off.
For a month I followed the winding roads leading to dozens of famed launch sites in the Alps. I had a wallet stuffed with the oversized Swiss bank notes and living was easy. They were lazy August days, clear mornings frequently developing into cumulus thunderheads reaching like white skyscrapers into the deep azure sky. To have a fair chance of surviving this flighty adventure meant a launch from the takeoff area before conditions got too extreme. Not everyone survived. Death was waiting for his next victim when an unseen violent downdraft mercilessly collapsed a parachute as easily as a laborer stuffing a dirty handkerchief into his dungaree pocket. Or a wild updraft sucked a lightweight aircraft to the ceiling 15,000 feet above and spit a frozen body a few dozen kilometers to the east, across the desolate peaks into Italy. It had happened to a poor bastard from Rome three weeks earlier. When the unpredictable Alpine weather was calm enough to permit a reasonable bet on getting back to earth and living to tell about it, I unfolded my glider from its backpack and launched from some eighteen different sites.
I traveled across Switzerland to St. Moritz—a five-star resort known for majestic Alpine skiing and the pristine beauty of its finger lake, Silvaplana. I was invited to fly with Andrea Kuhn who I had met a few months earlier in San Francisco where he was being photographed doing unheard-of acrobatics in his Skywing. The California beach cliffs offered a world-perfect site with a steady breeze coming across the Pacific. The air was clean, no holes in it, fat with plenty of lift. Anyone with half a brain could fly the cliffs. And if you miscalculated or the wind got light, the sandy cliffs were as forgiving as a tumble in the hay when you were dumped back to earth. Not like the granite faces or rocky sites I was now flying in Europe. Any fall here meant ugly disfigurement or a mangled death. That had a lot to do with the flutters in my belly. Fear of flying the unkind European spires, Les Aiguilles, with only my mellow Californian experience wasn’t cowardly. It was about survival. My gurgling intestines told me that I needed a better strategy if I wanted to stay alive. Kuhn had offered to be my guide whenever I got to his part of the Alps. He was unquestionably qualified for the job having been the first pioneer to fly a paraglider in the Swiss Alps some dozen years earlier. He was somewhat of a living legend himself. Kuhn had skied for the National Ski Team in his early twenties, augured head first into a deep snowdrift, and nearly suffocated before a teammate found him buried alive and dug him out. Ever since, he was known to sing nursery rhymes to himself in the ancient Romansh tongue; he looked a bit loony to anyone on the street who didn’t know he was a real gutsy pilot. Andrea was a likable guy and quite harmless. People talked behind his back, and word has it that he must have suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen when buried alive six feet under the snow. A fearless pilot with a big heart—maybe just a little brain dead. And this is who I choose as my mountain guide? I scratched my beard that was sprouting the first few white hairs, and asked my rational self which one of us was a little cracked?
I stayed a week at Andrea’s home and daily flew the peaks, then softly glided to the landing zone in his backyard that bordered the lake. And then off we went one fine morning to Corvatsch, the eternal glacier above St. Moritz which boldly resists the glaring August sun and challenges the unwary. At the parking lot of the cable car we met his new girlfriend, Katrine, who had never flown before. But she had been convinced the night before with plenty of wine during dinner that it wouldn’t be dangerous to fly tandem with her half-crocked lover. “My wing is very large, strong enough to fly a man twice my weight. I simply attach a second harness, and off we fly across the lovely sky over my birthplace. No problem.” Andrea had soothed Katrine’s concern with a strong nightcap.
Outside the ski lift I grabbed a small pebble as a good luck token, as if carrying a bit of the earth would guide my safe return. At the ticket window of the cable car entrance an old man in thick wire-framed eyeglasses spied my glider pack and shook his head reproachfully, almost as if to say, “Mein Gott, not another one looking to get killed…” He mumbled the price of admission behind his great white beard, I gave him the cash, and he handed me a lift ticket attached to a small chocolate bar to remind tourists of Switzerland’s 700th anniversary as a republic. After boarding the little gondola, I stuffed the chocolate ticket in the hip pocket of my jeans.
The first leg of the cable car ride was picturesque; green meadows with cows clanging their bells and munching grass that would one day become aged Swiss cheese. Where the tree line ended, we changed cars for the second stage of the way up which was terrifying. The look down made me dizzy. I steadied myself on a rail in the cab. A tin box riding up a steel cable dangling in the wind a few thousand feet over jagged peaks isn’t the calmest way to start your morning. What about the headlines of gondolas that had crashed in recent years, sending dozens of sightseers to a sickening death? I tried to calm myself. Where were the pretty girls herding cows or carrying milk I had seen so often in the Swiss travel posters? Why wasn’t I relaxing in the wholesome morning fresh air? The flutters were back. My guts churned. It didn’t feel like a good preflight preparation. After thirty minutes of ascent we arrived at 10, 877 feet where the cold air slapped me to a hard reality. My eyes winced from the harsh sun. I fumbled for my Ray Bans to save myself from snow blindness. Andrea led our small expedition out into the thin air. The Everest mountaineers say that above 12,000 feet you need supplemental oxygen, but I was lightheaded after this rapid ascent to only 11,000 feet. We carried the gliders packed on our backs and continued our climb toward the launch site by foot. Andrea, his gnome-like face sunburned, started singing. “Fa la la, Fa la la we are going to fly today.” “Oui, Andrea. C’est vrai, (that’s right),” agreed Katrine, her close-cropped brown hair stuffed under the baseball cap her lover had brought back from San Francisco. Even as they spoke my eyes teared as I fought the intensity of the blinding light on the snow. “Ecoutez, my friends. We must be careful. We must pick our steps with a life-death awareness to avoid crevasses.” Our guide pointed to a red flag attached to a bamboo pole warning of soft spots. “The crevasses have taken the lives of many before us who fell through the softer snows of summer.” Andrea wasn’t dramatic—simply factual—as he stopped to put sun block on his and Katrine’s nose. This warning from my guide didn’t do much to relax my butterflies.
Up we marched another few hundred meters to the launch site. It turned out to be nothing more than a sheer cliff. Only a madman—or a skier who had lost a few billion brain cells when buried alive in a snow bank—would leap from this precipice. There would be no forgiveness for an aborted launch attempt. God blesses and protects madmen and sailors. But not glider pilots who blow their launch off this suicide jump. Or women who are lured by passion to follow their man off lover’s leap.
My mind clamored for excuses to bolt, to walk away, to go anywhere, to do anything except proceed to unfold my wing. “Get into your harness immediately before we get caught in a downdraft!” Andrea was next to me, urgency in his voice. He sometimes caught himself singing lullabies, then stopped abruptly. “It is late morning. If we don’t launch very quickly, that would spoil our chance to sail off the glacier which still has light air coming up from the valley.” Katrine looked a bit dazed. “Mon amour, you are sure that it’s safe?” “Oui, oui…c’est sure. This is the condition we have been praying for—a light breeze kissing our face,” Andrea insisted to his shapely lover. It didn’t matter what he said, I trembled on the edge of the cliff. But men are bullied by their pride… If I was going to die, I asked my if mine was a wasted life? No, I would do it again. Somehow, I remembered a few lines ofJack London’s Credo:
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
My pride had squeezed me into an impossible do or die folly as I unfolded my pink and turquoise rip stop nylon parachute, carefully clearing the eighty lines which now looked as thin as silk thread. I thought about all the good reasons that my friends and family had rattled off to convince me to give up this flying madness. But reasons don’t matter when you’ve gone to a sky space that men for thousands of years have only dreamt about. Mine was a dream come true. A taste of immortality. A bit risky, true. One that needed boldness to overcome the doubt and fear. But still a dream that had come alive. At least that’s what I told myself to steady my shivers.
I looked down at my chest to inspect my tightly packed backup parachute. The faith in the safety net of my emergency chute was nearly religious. But now my intestinal flora churned up ten notches as I realized how futile it would be to deploy it if I didn’t catch enough lift when I ran off the face of the glacier. A minimum of five hundred feet above the deck was needed for a pilot to rip open his emergency gear and pray it didn’t get tangled in the lines of his main chute. Then it might open. Or stall. And here was only a few-hundred-foot drop below me before I’d bottom out on the jagged rocks. I reached through the flap in my flight suit for the stone I had pocketed from the valley floor. After I threw it and counted four seconds until it hit the rocks below my feet, I had the rumblings of diarrhea. I had already been to the men’s room at the top of the Corvatsch station, but now I wanted to run back to pee or whatever else I could do to delay my flight.
The electricity of terror contracted my spine. I couldn’t move. If an avalanche was coming down on me, I couldn’t have run. More than anything I ever wanted, I wanted to get out of there. Staring down, just beyond my boot tops, the jagged stone abyss below flashed like teeth of a tiger shark ready to chew my head off. Every nerve fiber was aflame. The fight or flight thing had kicked in. Run for your life. But I couldn’t. Male ego, or flock mentality, had frozen my reason. I was caught up in the craziness—call it summit fever—as I tried to make sense of Andrea’s manic flight plan in his confused mix of English, French and a word or two of Swiss German. “Rico, we must get off immediately before the good conditions change,” he shouted. “Look over there,” he pointed with his black ski glove to a slate gray rock face that was hot from the sun. I noticed a brown glove on his other hand, and my confidence sagged. “That is where to catch the lift as soon as we jump off the launch site, and you must fly north, towards Italy to look for stable air once we get one thousand feet above launch.” “Italy?” I fought the sense of nausea at the mention of the frozen burial ground of the hang glider pilot recently lost. “Si, and then after ten minutes you need to check your compass direction to southwest. That will take you home.” Andrea was drooling spittle. “Okay,” I said weakly. I wasn’t writing any of this down. “Il n’est pas de problem if we follow the spine of mountain ridge toward my house nine or so kilometers to the southwest…”
It seemed more like a wild optimism to try holding to a flight plan while sticking close to Andrea with his crazed grin. My guide was a madman. It wouldn’t make sense to make this jump, not with a calm and collected flight master, never mind with this lunatic that had been brain damaged from oxygen deprivation. What was I doing? How could I let myself be hypnotized into believing that this is what real men do for fun and adventure? My mind was spewing out images of bodily disfigurement, if not immediate death, when I fell into the chasm below. So what? my pride argued. Better to live it up now. I stood on the glacier’s edge ready to launch my wing, and froze. I wanted to get out of this stupid situation alive and still be able to look at myself in the mirror the next morning. Meanwhile Andrea, who was looking more and more certifiably insane, was shouting at me in words I didn’t understand. His eyes were glowing afire like a man about to enter paradise.
I was desperate—looking for a way out—but how could I still save face? There I was strapped into my harness, my flight suit zipped up around my throat, a thermal bonnet under my full-face helmet, and my insulated gloves with Velcro straps were tightly secured. My chute was in good position to inflate with the light air in my face, my lines were clear. I felt cornered—there was no way out except to walk away as a coward. Or to risk it all. “Andrea,” I could see myself pleading, “…sorry, but I flew six thousand miles to get to the top of the world, stand poised on this glacier overlooking a spectacular Swiss valley, all systems are go, my gear is capable of the flight, I have been licensed to fly in these conditions, have been signed off by an instructor for a five hundred hours of flight in my pilot’s log book, but I can’t jump right now because I’m pissing in my pants.”
But I’d rather die than bend to fear’s paralysis. Feeling bullied again, I braced myself for a tricky launch into thin air. Now, however, the head wind had died—the crucial factor that would help my parachute easily inflate. It was going to take speed, mega-sprinting down the face of the glacier to get sufficient air in the chambers of my chute to make a successful launch. Or leave a mangled corpse.
Andrea made a textbook launch with his girlfriend flying tandem. Katrine was white as snow; the blood was draining from her face to feed her wildly flapping heart. Andrea’s wild laughter echoed off the mountain, his joy of flight no longer bounded by earth’s gravity. I was caught by the simple, intense beauty of the moment. The rainbow colors of his parachute against the rich blue sky of an untarnished Switzerland, the freedom of his paraglider lifting thirty feet per second right in front of me, the marvel that he not only hadn’t killed his woman but was taking her higher and higher as she also began to cry and laugh at the wonder of it all.
Leonardo Da Vinci was right. His design in a five-hundred-year-old notebook was sound and realistic—man could soar like an eagle with a wing constructed of very strong and lightweight materials. A tear fell from my eye. I had to go with them. No matter where my body ended up, my soul couldn’t remain earthbound another minute. And then I was running towards the edge of the cliff, fear driving me to no longer be cowered like Jack London had held as his credo. I was up in the air, my variometer, a flight instrument the size of a pack of smokes, attached to my thigh, screeched like a car-alarm siren as I gained altitude immediately over the launch site. My body was hoisted off the ice face and I sat back into my harness. In a minute or two my instrument told me that I was at twelve thousand feet and going up. I was giddy with the insane rate of lift, then I looked between my feet and saw the valley floor below getting smaller as I grew colder. After ten minutes of constant ascent, the insulation of my flight suit wasn’t sufficient. My body core temperature had plummeted. Hypothermia was no longer the subject of a question from a pilot license exam book. It was my very real here and now. I was losing vital blood flow to my brain.
I steadied myself, took in the panorama and dreamily recognized the south end of the lake eight kilometers away. Andrea’s private landing zone beckoned. But I was shivering. Now I was at thirteen thousand feet and not thinking clearly. Violent paroxysms were shaking me, sending oscillating waves up my lines to the base of my parachute that absorbed the gyrations of my quivering body as it tried to warm itself. I could hear my teeth chattering. My flight suit was useless, my hands numb, my judgment slowing, my calculation for a landing approach was getting foggy. I needed to get down from this frigid air. Or die.
I spied the alternate landing field two and a half miles under my lifeless toes, maybe two kilometers north. And then I lost my breath as I flew over the pointed needles of ageless rock piercing the blue sky. The shock of the threatening terrain below terrified me. I steadied my nerves. This was big air, an unseen vacuum sucking me up, now above thirteen thousand feet. I was man enough to admit to my limits. Andrea was still climbing but I decided to go down, balls or no balls. I tend to think kindly about the family jewels, and they’d be frozen blue in another minute anyway. The men down at the pub can call me chicken shit if they want to, but I’ve had enough of this prove-you’re-a-man crap. “Rico,” my flight instructor had warned a year earlier, “you’re an aggressive kind of guy. But be careful up in the air. A hard landing isn’t anything to laugh about. Bold pilots don’t last.” I wasn’t feeling bold at that moment. I just wanted to feel my hands and feet. I needed to plunge five thousand feet immediately if I wanted to live to eat lunch at Andrea’s. I managed to trim my wing for descent and leaned into a spiral turn to corkscrew a three-sixty, circling toward the valley floor. My altimeter reading wasn’t decreasing much, so I trimmed even more, almost going into a stall as I banked an even steeper angle of sink. The reading on my instrument was glued to thirteen thousand five hundred feet. I couldn’t get out of the hot summer afternoon lift coming off the valley. I was rapidly losing precious warmth, as my body went stone cold, I couldn’t think straight. I could find no way out of a mile-wide body of warm air rising up from the St. Moritz valley.
I had a small pulse of blood coursing to my brain, warming the gray matter enough to remember that the lake water was colder than the warm valley air rising around me. I came out of my steep bank and turned for the center of the lake. I was still going up, a thermal core had me in its grip and my variometer was still beeping its way up to nearly fourteen thousand feet. I flew out over the lake to hunt for sinking cool air and try to find a way down. I didn’t want to freeze to death. I didn’t want to die.
I was daydreaming when I should have been flying by the seat of my pants. I needed sink, dammit. But I couldn’t escape the treacherous lift. I slowly spiraled over turquoise Silvaplana Lake looking for holes in the lift, looking for sink, looking for a way down so I could warm my brain. I started making wider circles over the lake, still hunting for a column of cooler air which would be my ticket back to earth. It wasn’t working. My variometer wasn’t singing the drone of lost altitude.
You’ve heard of mantras, of praying to your angels? Well my mantra was: “Sink, sink, sink. Get me down, Lord! I’ll make it up to You. I’m sorry for all the bad names I called the Sisters at my Catholic High School. And for making fun of the altar boys who let the affectionate priests have their way with them.” But the entire valley floor was going up, like a giant elevator, and I was on a ride to the top floor. My thinking was slow; I couldn’t remember how to pilot my craft, and my reflexes were dulling.
I can’t believe it. I’d forgotten about big ears, a maneuver of pulling in a half-dozen lines attached near my chest on my harness which ascend to each end of the parachute. Yanking the lines close to my body would tuck under both ends of the wing like drooping dog-ears. This would reduce the surface area of my wing by thirty or forty percent—and get me out of the massive ascending column of thermal air. I willed my cold fingers to fumble through the maneuver; my wing tips fluttered, then folded nearly ten or twelve feet each side under the body of the parachute. Thank Christ! My variometer started to beep, then the music began—I was going down! Not a hundred and twenty miles an hour like a skydiver in free fall, but steadily my altimeter read a drop of two hundred feet a minute. I began to feel warmer, my toes, and then my fingers tingled with life-giving blood. I flew a few miles down the center of the lake, then returned to the small landing field I had spotted and for twenty minutes made tight spirals over it, like a vulture stalking his prey. How many dozen three-sixty’s I spun, I couldn’t count. I continued banking a clockwise descent to warmer conditions, toward a green pasture where a yellow windsock whipped in the breeze. In a moment I’d be making a final approach to the landing zone. I leaned on the seat of my harness, stretching my legs, working my heel-toe muscles to warm them up. My two legs, the human landing gear, were in position, one last three-sixty above the deck before I lined up for a perfect landing and I’d be home free. I was close, so close to softly kiss the rich fertile earth and thank God for getting me back on my feet.
But that’s not what the sky devils had in store for me. Five hundred feet above the deck a force-10 blast of hot air rushed me like the Swiss train I had arrived on, coming down the track at full bore. I felt the shudder of my wing as if the guns of Navarone were belting out rounds of anti-aircraft missiles. I was suddenly lost in a turquoise cloud; the fabric of my parachute was no longer overhead but was now wrapped around my body. The thirty-eight-foot-long by eight-foot wide wing had been collapsed by the fierce conditions. The air pressure in the wingspan was normally maintained by stiffened material sewn into the fabric to allow the forward movement of the paraglider to fill the chambers with air, giving the shape of an airplane wing. But when a more violent force compresses the air chambers, there is nothing holding the flight-producing shape. It’s a bit like flying downhill in spring skiing conditions when suddenly the skier hits bare earth and can no longer slide—he comes to a screeching halt and is often seriously hurt as gravity calls him back to earth. It was a similar sickening phenomenon as my paraglider wing was collapsed by loss of air pressure in the chambers. In short, I was fucked!
What goes up, eventually comes down. As the huge pocket of hot air blasted off the valley, it formed a column of updraft rising to the stratosphere like an express elevator to the moon. If you happen to get caught in the upswing, well, you would get a bit of a thrill as your body accelerated upwards until you ultimately were spilled out of the lift. But if you flew into the equally strong column of power punched air pocket crashing earthwards, well it was like rock n’ roll on a bucking bronco. That is, if you lived through it. Wham! A second downdraft balled my chute up, blinding me like a cyclist’s as he barreled down a steep hill with a windblown newspaper flew in his face. My body was thrown earthwards, helpless as gravity called me back, straight to my bloody finalé. I was caught in the mess of fabric and lines as I fumbled for my emergency reserve chute. I knew this was the end of the road. Another second and it would be over. The parachute and I went hurtling down toward my grave. I had no hopes of anyone even identifying my busted-up body, only reading some ID papers that might survive the crash.
“Dear God,” I prayed, “give Mom the strength to take the news. Kindly keep my friends from straying too far from my poorly modeled path of sanity. And please accept my apologies for screwing up again with poor judgment. I guess I’ll be seeing You soon, Lord. Over and out.”
And then, another violent explosion as the chute re-inflated. I was sucking hard for air, gasping like a drowning man coming up for his last breath, my heart thundering like a thousand bulls chasing me. Somehow I steadied myself, my pilot reflexes took over, and I flew across the meadow to gain a little altitude before I lined up for another landing attempt. Everything looked good, just one more minute and I could decelerate, then hover to a sweet piece of terra firma. Man, a landing zone never looked more inviting. I almost sighed as, with mega-relief, I approached the landing zone.
But another furious downdraft collapsed my wing—glider pilots call it going over the falls—my body helplessly plunged into the shapeless bag of fabric. And once again I went crashing to my certain death. And once again after three or four seconds, the wing cracked open with a ferocious snap that was as deafening as the gates of hell opening to swallow me. But the re-inflation was also as sweet as angels singing Alleluia. My body was swinging wildly like a yo-yo from side to side, front to back, slamming and spinning me sideways. But I was still in one piece.
Three more attempts to land and three more of the sky gods’ cruel jokes as my paraglider collapsed and harshly re-inflated. I wanted down so bad! How much more stress could me or my machine-sewn nylon fabric wing take? I don’t know if the thunderous downdrafts finally lost force, or the cooler lake air moved in but conditions calmed down enough for me to make one more landing setup. Dear Lord, I prayed more fervently than ever, whoever hears this plea, please allow this foolish man to come to earth, and he will put his brainless ways behind him. I swear by all the life left in me. I lined up my flight pattern, desperate to end this nightmare, but also aware that if I didn’t take my time and follow all the rules of correct procedure, I might still end up in a morgue. So, I reviewed my plan, ran it through my logic files, got approval and then I touched down. I was weak, or maybe melodramatic, but I went on my knees in prayer to make things right with whatever god had spared me.
All the promises I made, all the vows I would keep, came back. “This time I really mean it, Lord. No more screw-ups. No more deals that I back out of, or forget.” The terror in my dry mouth took me deeper into my prayer. I never thought I would see myself on my knees, bargaining with God, but I was finished with getting adrenaline kicks at the risk of my life.
A woman who I took to be a pilot’s girlfriend by the high-tech jacket she wore, strolled over. “Hello! I just wanted to see if you were okay”. She must have had German blood by the celestial color of her Teutonic blue eyes. She reached in her pack and offered a bottle of water. I drank deep, drained the liter in a few seconds and thanked her. “How did you know I spoke English?” I asked, catching my breath after chugging the delicious water. Everything seemed supercharged with meaning, with texture, with life. “I know the locals don’t fly in these conditions, so I decided you were a foreigner. Most of them speak some English,” she said and looked up, searching the sky for her boyfriend. “I think my friend flew across the pass.” She pointed a tanned arm, petite wrist and lovely finger towards the lesser peaks to the east. “Maybe the conditions were milder there. Ciao, see you. Glad you made it down safely.”
I gathered my chute and folded it into its backpack. So what if I had had the guts to make this flight? What did it do for me? It didn’t get me a date with this fabulous looking woman. No one else was around to be impressed. Is that what it comes down to? Bragging rights to anyone who would listen to my hot air stories about bravado? Any lunatic could do what I did. Had it been courage that made me make the leap? Or a manic need to prove that I was tough, that I could keep up with the big boys?
By now I was hot and sweating, the hot mid-day sun baking me in my black nylon flight suit. The face-to face-talk with my Maker about mending my ways flickered in the strong sun, and then faded. It had been a question of life or death five minutes earlier. But now I was down on solid ground and happy to be alive. And humbled. I climbed out of my flight suit and checked my under pants for brown stains that were not from the Swiss chocolate.
Published SKYWING Magazine UK June 2020
Brave Man, Slowly Wise by Rico Provasoli
The sun was unusually warm in Northern California that early December morning as I drove to the hospital. The concern I had voiced to an internist the previous day now seemed like a non-health problem. I felt fine.
I had crossed the North Atlantic in a hurricane, soared the needle-like spires of the Swiss Alps in my paraglider, scuba dove alone to tangle with a Moray Eel in the Sea of Japan, trekked the April blossoming Rhododendron majesty of the Nepalese-Tibet Himalayan trails after bribing my way out of my fourth foreign jail. I was a guy who had taken plenty of hard knocks, so what was I doing on this lovely morning driving to the local hospital? I felt a bit sheepish about the appointment with the Urgent Care doctor as I rehearsed the list of my seemingly imaginary complaints. I parked in the hospital garage, checked my phone for messages and walked to the main entrance. That’s where I collapsed.
Several people walked past me. It’s not that I looked homeless or dangerous; I wore clean blue jeans, a pale blue Italian polo collar merino wool sweater and my beard was trimmed. A seventy-something well educated East Coast aging hippie. I fit right in with the upper middle path of the liberals in Marin County, across the Bay from San Francisco.
I somehow got my second wind, staggered to the elevators, pushed the button and then dropped to the carpet, too weak to stand. I rode three floors up to Internal Medicine, tried to stand in line, but dropped to the floor, incapable of anything else. I crabbed my way to the reception desk, as I paid for the visit, the young woman noticed my shallow breathing. “Are you alright, sir?”
“No, maybe heart attack,” I stammered, between gritted teeth.
Maybe the Hispanic woman didn’t understand my crisis.
“Please take a seat. We will be with you shortly.”
It would be poetic to die while waiting for a doctor on the other side of the waiting room door after the dozen close calls with death as I had adventured my way around the globe. The motorcycle front wheel blowout in the French Pyrenees with no guardrail, the collapsed paraglider wing several thousand feet above the glacier at Saint Moritz, Switzerland. Or lost in a freak blizzard on a bright October day trek near Chamonix, France. But to take my last breath this close to medical intervention, well, that would be a perfect ending. The door opened with a medical assistant pushing a wheel chair. She helped me on my feet then plopped me onto the black plastic seat and whisked me thirty steps to an examination room. The Hungarian internist, white haired, Hollywood movie-star-good-looks, asked me two questions which I could only answer with a vague nod, then he produced a bottle on nitroglycerin from his white coat pocket. “Keep this under your tongue. You are having a heart attack. You will be in the ER in sixty seconds.”
That was accurate. An assault of doctors and nurses appeared like swarm of honeybees as they transferred me to a gurney. I guess early morning was a good time for a frightened white-faced senior to arrive. A young cardiologist slapped a nitro patch on my chest, a cardiac nurse set two IVs into my arm until I was flying in a cloud of euphoria. Dying, who cares if they keep pumping this into me? EKGs, CT Scan, blood tests, auscultation to my thumping heart all confirmed that I was having multiple Myocardial Infarctions.
“Don’t worry. We will get you the Cardiac Catherization lab to see what is actually going on. Worse case is you will need one or two stents. You will be up and about in two days, back to your old routine.”
That night in the ICU I was probed and prodded every thirty minutes, dinging computers sounding whenever I moved, alerting the cardiac nurse that I might be fading. At five AM I was wheeled down to the lab that was meat-locker cold. Two thirty-year old attractive and shapely techs had too much fun as they gave me a Brazilian bikini shave around my privates for the catheter to be inserted in my groin and run up the femoral artery to take pictures of my heart. I was floating on what they called the I don’t care drug which left me semi-alert. I really didn’t care what they did. I guess the drug was doing its job.
The I don’t care cavalier attitude dropped away when the Indian female chief of staff running the camera said after thirty minutes of procedures, “I am most sorry to be informing you, sir, that you have five blocked coronary arteries. You have what we call the ‘Widow Maker.’ No warning, most people simply drop dead. You are most genuinely very lucky. Two minutes later and you would not be here but your body would be in the morgue. We will be scheduling for an emergency open heart surgery.”
“Are you serious? The doc said it would be a stent and then I’m home free? What changed your mind?”
“I am most heartily sorry for giving you this information, but here are the images. Clearly, you are most fortunate to be still with us. I am sorry, I must be leaving you as I have surgery now. Good Morning, sir.”
Good morning? Are you serious? I go from a couple of stents and next day I’m back to open water rowing and getting my skis ready to bomb down the double diamond runs at Tahoe to crack my breast bone and bust open my leg to harvest a vein to fabricate five new arteries, and you say Good Morning? Really?
As I lay in my near-death bed waiting for the ride to the OR, nothing I had read, nor the clarity of insights or the forty years of meditation or the fruitful relationships with authentic spiritual teachers or multiple direct experiences of the Absolute could buoy me. No, only resting close to the bone, down to the marrow. Call it grace or spirit or soul, whatever word fails. Still alive, barely, I realized there was only one way to be carried. The expanse of Being, where no horizons can define this vastness or infinity, was the only transport capable of the task.
My job was to surrender. To allow the Intelligence Which Animates to take over. My small little world appeared at this moment to be child’s play. All my grand designs had fallen far short of the mark. I had to let go. Everything I had held sacred had to be abandoned. There was nothing to hold onto. Nothing. No God, no Devil, no Hope, no Salvation. There was only contact with limitless Being. And that was enough.
And then I remembered something a Zen teacher had said to me:
It was if I were going for a long swim in the ocean. How much stuff did I want to take with me?
As I pondered the moment, my future and what my life had meant, I dropped into a lucid childhood memory as a seven-year old. Decades and decades had spun a faint web about my first contact with what I can only call a metaphysical encounter with the Absolute. It occurred in a small town 25 miles west of Boston in 1954.
The small clear pane of glass in the center of the stained-glass window of the church cast an undistorted ray of sun on the altar, the perfume of a hundred lilies filling the air as the four dozen innocents filed up to the plush burgundy altar to receive their first Holy Communion. I had been in a hospital bed an hour earlier; my mother had dressed me in pure white. I figured that I was dead and the family was preparing me for the funeral. I wasn’t sure, but soon I was driven in a long black limousine with my twin brother to the church. The childhood bronchitis had developed into intractable asthma, the oxygen tent had become my home away from home. The steroids pumped into me to enable me to attend the ceremony didn’t interfere with the religious fervor, the anticipation of finally uniting with the body and blood of God. Ecstatic, albeit shaky on my wobbly legs, my brother had been instructed to keep his grip firm on my arm as we moved towards the altar.
The host of heavenly hosts was placed in my mouth, I had the presence to respond with the expected Thanks Be To God, and I floated, in spiritual blessing by Jesus Christ Himself, back to the pew.
My first religious experience, the benchmark of all future highs, would remain. Thank You, Sweet Lord. And now sixty-five years later, in a hospital bed awaiting open-heart surgery, I was riding the wave of another, equally poignant metaphysical event. Only now, like a mature aged wine, it was richer, more full bodied in subtle qualities.
A nurse came into the ICU to check my vitals, bringing me back to the grim, frightening now. Yet something of the innocence of the seven-year old opening his heart to the body and blood of God had pried open a curiosity inviting me to what I can only describe as a life review. More patients than they tell you don’t wake up from open-heart surgery. If this was going to be my last night on earth, I wasn’t going to waste it by trying to get some sleep.
Published in Yoga Magazine (London) October 2020