In a Sling
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In a Sling

When this originally happened, I was young and fearless. There were no thoughts of children I would be leaving behind or other involvements of my current incarnation. I did not have the perspective, the training, or the talent to analyze it at the time, and much of the experience is now lost to inadequate memory.

First, the objective details. We were operating our old diesel submarine out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 1971. A British cruiser passed by and her skipper wanted to engage in some ad hoc war games with (actually against) us. For political reasons, they did not want to enter our base. We went to sea, and they sent a Lieutenant over with a briefcase containing the operation plans for the day. He was lowered in a sling on a cable from a Royal Navy helicopter that was based on the fantail of the cruiser. When he stepped out of the sling, I stepped in. The plan, we thought, was for me to tighten and lock the sling, then reach for my briefcase, which I was to take to the cruiser.

That was not the plan that the British were following, however.

I disconnected my lifeline to the deck of the submarine and I put my arms through the sling. Before I had a chance to position it, tighten it, and lock it, I was flying through the air. The sling crossed my back above my shoulder blades, not below. My weight was carried by my upper arms, not by my trunk. The locking ring was just far enough up the sling that I could not have reached it. My only option was to turn loose and fall into the Caribbean.

The British did not know that I was scheduled to go to their ship.

The cable retracted fully, and I was suspended under a pod on the starboard side of the helicopter. I was twisting slowly, slowly in the wind. When I faced the helicopter, I could see that the door was closed, and no one inside could see me. When I faced other directions, I could see that we were headed for the open sea, and not for the cruiser.

Have you ever seen the old newsreel footage of the U.S. dirigible that did not quite make a landing? One member of the ground crew held on to his line for too long, and wound up hanging from it for over an hour, before he fell to his death. It was all on film. I thought about this a lot as I hung from the British helicopter.

I have no objective way of knowing how long I was hanging there. I was mildly surprised later to find out that Nixon was still president, and his reelection was still a year in the future. My arms and upper back set my personal all-time record for charley-horses. Eventually, while I was facing directly away from the helicopter, I heard the door open behind me. Someone grabbed my belt and pulled, while the hoisting cable was extended. I then sat in the doorway of the helicopter, with my legs dangling. I could not pull myself the rest of the way into the helicopter with my arms. My muscles were like jelly.

We went to the cruiser, and I was immediately examined by their medical staff. Then we went to the officers' wine mess and I was treated to some good whiskey. (Scotch, of course.) I was given a delightful tour of the ship, including what they referred to as their Chinese laundry. It was staffed with citizens of Hong Kong.

Much of this incident will stay with me forever. If it were to happen to me today, I would go immediately to a tape recorder and just talk, free associate, get an interviewer or facilitator to help stimulate the flow, and get it onto a more reliable medium than exists between my ears. Still, occasionally, I wonder what was going through my mind, other than that image of the dirigible crewman. For at least ten years, it never occurred to me that those lost memories were valuable, if only as a definition of a facet of my own character.

In traffic and at construction sites I have experienced split seconds of terror, before and since. This was the only time that I have ever had a length of time to anticipate death, to expect death, to contemplate death, unable to influence events except to hold on for dear life. There was plenty of time to think of something profound or profane. I remember nothing of value from my thoughts at the time. I don't even dream about it.

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