Saturday, August 10, 2013

Risking Death: Why Do We Do It?

One of the biggest annual motorcycle rallies in the world take place in one of the tiniest towns in the Midwest, Sturgis, South Dakota. This tiny community tucked into a fold in the Black Hills plays host to more than a half million bikers, and from I understand the excitement never ends as the area campgrounds and businesses compete to hold the attention of this temporary city. All kinds of big names perform here, including Bob Dylan in 2010, whom is well-known to have had a lifelong love affair with motorcycles.

This week, the famous Buffalo Chip Campground played host to a daredevil show in which a number of extreme stunts were to be performed. Evidently there is no end to the number of people willing to risk their lives in order to become memorialized as the next Evel Knievel, who holds the Guinness Book World Record for most bones broken in a lifetime. Unfortunately, the spectacular tunnel of fire world record attempt got too hot to handle resulting in daredevil Chip Ewing choosing to crash through the wall rather than being cooked to a cinder in the intense 2900 degree heat. The stunt went bad, but he'll live to ride again even if his bike has become a heap of charred debris.

Reading this story made me ask myself why people risk their lives in this way? What is it that these people are seeking? Recognition? Fame? Thrills?

Ewing survived his experience but not every daredevil is so lucky. In June a stunt plane at an airshow in Ohio crashed and burned killing its pilot and wingwalker in front of an audience who paid money to have their hearts get lodged in their throats. That is, they go to see death being defied, not to actually see it happen. It's a horrorshow that can potentially happen every week of the year in circuses and stunt shows.

In this instance Jane Winker, the stuntwoman, described her act as "managed risk." And that's probably how most of these people think about what they're doing. I don't know the number off-hand, but there are quite a few bodies that have been left on the slopes of the Himalayas. When Richard Branson famously circumnavigated the globe in a hot air balloon, he had no certainty that he would come home alive. He already had riches and fame. Why would he do this?

Every NASCAR driver knows that next weekend could be his or her last race, even with the extreme measures being taken to ensure driver safety these days.

My guess is that for some daredevils death just doesn't seem that real and the thrill one gets is far more real. When stuntmen do flips on snowmobiles they assume that a worst-case scenario will be a painful hospital room recovery. They look at Evel Knievel and think to themselves, "Well, if he could survive that, so can I."

Maybe there has always been a fascination with taking risks (human cannonballs, for example) but with the advent of our celebrity age the tendency seems more pronounced, as the temporary fame associated with being listed as a world record holder forms some kind of validation of one's existence.

Or maybe Evel Knievel and others of his ilk simply loved the thrills and saw it as a route to personal fortune.

Then again, what about our soldiers in combat? They put their lives on the line, as well, but it's not for personal glory. For many it is duty to country or something nobler. Or they believe it to be so. 

Bottom line: a stuntman got burned this week in Sturgis; fortunately he'll live to ride again. The story of his accident gave us something to think about. 

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