Once upon a time, my family moved into a brand-new two-story house, and I was given the only upstairs bedroom with a walk-in closet. This was great for a couple of days, until my paranoid imagination conjured the possibility that some enterprising (and patient) burglar could some day break into our home, bypass our Doberman, hide in my closet until we were all asleep, and then rob us blind and probably murder us. This fear caused me to obsessively check my closet every night before going to bed.
Flash-forward a few years to a beautiful spring weekend, midday, when my mother is storing winter clothes in my closet. I, however, DID NOT KNOW THIS. All I knew was that my closet door was open a bit and the light left on. Knowing how my mother loved to conserve energy, I turned off the light and closed the door. Unfortunately, when I closed Mom in the closet, she didn’t call out. No, she simply turned the knob, trying to get out. And all I knew at that moment was, suddenly, my fear was coming true in the form of a doorknob turning inexplicably in my hand.
I’m told I screamed, but all I remember is waking sprawled in the hallway, cheek smashed into the carpet, watching my mom emerge from my closet as she yelled, “What is the matter with you?!?!?”
It is from this event that I trace my interest in real-life survival stories – I guess I hope that by reading about people who don’t faint when faced with dangerous (or potentially dangerous) situations, my faulty survival instincts might learn something.
The book that has most recently inspired me is In Harm’s Way by Doug Stanton. In Harm’s Way is about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, at the end of World War II. When the ship was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea, nearly 300 of the sailors were killed immediately, while almost 900 others went into the water. The truly horrible aspect of this disaster was that no one responded to the S.O.S., and so the sailors drifted for days, until, on the fifth day, a pilot happened to notice an oil slick in the water when an antenna broke off of his plane. Of the 900 men that went into the water, only 317 survived. The rest died of exposure, from injuries sustained during the torpedoing and sinking, drowning, or from the shark attacks that began on the second day. Based on survivors' accounts, In Harm’s Way is terrifying and heartbreaking, but also an amazing tale of survival.
For another terribly fascinating tale of survival, try Alive by Piers Paul Read (made into a 1993 movie starring Ethan Hawke), which tells of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the snowy Andes mountains, 16 of whom survived their 72 day ordeal in part by eating the remains of their fellow passengers (those who had died in the crash, or soon afterward).
Finally, if you, too, wonder what keeps a human being fighting to survive in extreme situations, try Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. Throughout Gonzales’s quest to discover if there’s something different about survivors' brains that helps them fight harder for life, he recounts many real-life stories, from shipwrecks and plane crashes, to the one that really stuck with me: the story of a man, mountain climbing with a friend, who broke his leg after a bad fall. Ultimately, the friend had to leave the 1st climber behind, in hopes of getting help. Instead of staying where he was, where he surely would have died from hypothermia long before his friend could return (yes, they were climbing in wintery climates), the 1st climber decided to descend alone, dragging his broken leg behind him, making it back to camp just as his friend was packing up to leave.
My hope is that by reading these books, my survival instinct will kick-in correctly if I’m ever in a life-or-death situation. However, if you’re ever on a ship and you hear someone stammer, “What? Did someone say we’re sinking?!? WE’RE SINK—“ followed by a thump, it’s probably me, fainting again. Do me a favor and toss me into a life boat, will ya?