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Fight or Flight or . . . What?

I was still awake, but barely. Like the others in the car, I had been awake all night, after putting in a full shift at the bag factory. We were on swing shift, from three until one, and when our shift was over we decided to drive to Port Angeles, about an hour away, to an all-night restaurant. Jay was driving. A woman sat between Jay and me in the front seat, sound asleep. Jay was the youngest of the group, but he had his dadís Buick, which was big enough for all six of us. We werenít going very fast. But the mountain road back to Port Townsend, in the dim light of dawn, was not the place where one wants to doze at the wheel.

And Jay, it seems, was dozing. Rounding a bend, I noticed that we were drifting across the centerline. I donít know why I didnít call out. I felt no panic, more like annoyance. Even as I was hoping that Jay would notice our situation and turn the wheel, however, another part of me was wondering where we would end up. A movie of that moment would show us in slow motion, easing over the centerline, bumping a little as we left the pavement, the left wheels finally slipping over the embankment so that the undercarriage of the big car bit into the dirt and stones, and that small sapling ahead of us getting closer and closer.

Jay woke up when the left wheels left the pavement, and he jerked on the steering wheel to try to get us back on the road. But it was too late, and we skidded along the crest of the embankment amid screeching of metal against stone and dirt, and thudded to a stop against the sapling. The car perched there at a steep angle, and we (all of us wide awake by that time) sat, stunned, for what seemed a long time.

Those were the days before seat belts. The woman next to me hit her head on the rear view mirror. I had been awake enough to brace myself against the sudden stop. The others in the back seat had been thrown against the back of the big bench-type front seat that cars had in those days, and lay in a tangled pile on the floor.

"Donít move!" was the first thing anybody said. Out the left-hand windows we could see down through the trees to a creek, a hundred feet away. Several large trees would keep us from going that far if the car tipped over, but it was a scary place to be.

After we had checked to make sure nobody was seriously hurt, we decided to try to get out the right-hand doors. I had never realized how heavy car doors were. I struggled to get the door next to me to open. One of the people in the back seat managed to push their door open and climbed out. As the others followed him, climbing almost hand-over-hand, he pulled open the door next to me. It was all I could do to scramble out of the car and up onto the gravel. Getting my bearings, I reached down and helped the woman and Jay to extricate themselves. When they were out, someone let go of the door, and it slammed shut on my fingers. The sole casualty of the wreck. We were very lucky.

A passing motorist stopped and took us on into town, where Jay had to try to explain things to his father and arrange for a tow truck to bring the car home.

Iíve thought of that incident many times in the past fifty years, wondering why I hadnít called out to Jay when I clearly saw that we were going off the road.

Another incident, forty years later. I was taking pilot training out of the Ann Arbor airport. Iíd had a number of lessons from the ex-navy pilot instructor, and felt that I was making progress. I had the feel of the little Cessna, and could make s-turns across a road below us, keeping the road centered in our turns, and I passed the small tests for climbing, descending and maintaining altitude. I quickly picked out a field on the ground when the instructor suddenly shut the engine down and told me to find a place for an emergency landing. He was now showing me how to recover from a stall. Slow the engine, pull back slightly on the wheel until the plane lost flying speed and the nose suddenly dropped. Center the controls until we picked up enough speed to fly again, and then ease back on the wheel as he pushed the throttle forward, and we were again flying level, a few hundred feet below where we had been. A simple maneuver, with a rather thrilling elevator feeling as we dropped, and then a heavy feeling in the seat as we pulled out. We climbed back to five thousand feet.

"Okay," he said, "You do it."

Palms sweaty, I eased back on the throttle. Pull back gently on the wheel and watch the airspeed. The stall warning horn seemed much louder this time than it had when he demonstrated the maneuver, but I didnít panic. Suddenly, the nose of the plane dropped, and all I could see in front of us was the ground. The elevator feeling again, and my stomach rising into my throat. I managed to center the controls, but I could do nothing else. I sat there, frozen, while the ground sped toward us.

The instructor calmly pulled back on his wheel and pushed the throttle forward. Embarrassed, I couldnít speak. Nor did he, for some minutes. We headed back to the airport. Finally, he told me that it might take me more dual-control time before I could solo than we had expected.

Freezing at the controls of an airplane is a common thing for student pilots, especially in maneuvers that upset the visual orientation and kinetic sensations in our bodies that tell us that weíre right-side up. Usually, it just takes time and experience to get past that tendency. I was embarrassed, but I wasnít ready to give up.

In the magazine Time for May 2, 2005, Amanda Ripleyís analysis "How to get out alive" reported on the results of a National Institute of Standards and Technology study drawn from interviews with hundreds of survivors of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. It seems that many people resisted or simply didnít believe what was happening.

"People caught up in disasters tend to fall into three categories. About ten to fifteen percent remain calm and act quickly and efficiently. Another fifteen percent or less completely freak outóweeping, screaming or otherwise hindering the evacuation. That kind of hysteria is usually isolated and quickly snuffed out by the crowd.

"The vast majority of people do very little. They are Ďstunned and bewildered,í as British psychologist John Leach put it in a 2004 article published in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine."

Neither of the incidents Iíve described in my own life were anything like the profound situation of 9-11, but I can see that my reactions to sudden stress are like those of most people. Iíd like to believe that Iíd deal with a major crisis the way I try to deal with lifeís ordinary situationsówith reason and calm. It seems unlikely. Whether I like it or not, itís a good thing for me to know.

Other research on human behavior in crisis situations suggests that there are ways one can lessen the almost instinctual reactions of freezing in the face of major threat. Much of the research has been done on aircraft accidents. That industry, naturally, has a large stake in reducing the number of casualties resulting from accidents. Theyíve found that those people who are mentally prepared in some way are better able to override their instinctual tendencies. For example, if someone has been in a previous crisis situation such as a fire or accident, they might program themselves to do what should be done, and when the new crisis appears, they can follow their program. Even one who has never had such an experience can mentally prepare for the more obvious situations. For example, after boarding an airliner, taking the time to read the safety brochure in the seat-back pocket and looking around to locate the exits has the effect of preparing to some extent, for the worst. Those pathways in the brain, so recently set down, are better guides than a general confidence in oneís ability to figure out escape routes in the midst of chaos.

So Iíve made a mental note to do just that the next time I board an airplane. I depend a lot on well-formed habits, so I intend to make the safety check part of my routine, like fastening my seat belt, when I take my seat. Iíve been successful in developing a firm habit of fastening my seat belt when I enter an automobile, something I found very difficult at first. I now feel naked when Iím not buckled up. Thatís good.

I could do the same thing in anticipation of other crises, such as a fire in my home. What should I do first? Where do I go? What should I grab in an emergency? In the 9-11 disaster, some people in the towers even stopped to call home before heading for the stairways, or they rummaged through their desk drawers to salvage valuable belongings. Those minutes of delay were often fatal.

When every moment counts, we may act against our better judgments, sometimes even to the extent that we are aware of jeopardizing our lives. Fire drills in school used to be fun for me, because they were always held in good weather and always provided us with a break from the routine of class work. I never had to depend upon what I learned from those drills, but the lesson is clear to me now.

It may be reassuring to me to know that Iím not the only person who tends to do nothing when I donít know what to do. And the probability that Iíll be in a situation as drastic as 9-11 is very small. Still, if I am, Iíll improve my chances of making it through if I exercise my decision muscles now and then.

 

April 26, 2005

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