You know the old cliché about your whole life flashing before your eyes? Not true. As I flew off the 80-foot cliff the only thought in my mind was I had just saved my portable camera.
Six months earlier I was in Diyarbakir, Turkey for Operation Provide Comfort. Our company of Chinook helicopters from the Aviano Air Base in Italy was tasked with helping the international community in aiding Kurdish refugees who had escaped to the mountains between northern Iraq and Turkey. Stuck in mountains they had no food, no shelter, and were drinking melt off from the surrounding snow.
It was a hectic time which exemplified that diametrical fact of military life; complete inactivity and moving at Mach two.
I was fortunate to take part in a humanitarian mission with noble intentions. I also came away with a profound appreciation not only for being American, but for my privileged middle-class upbringing. As it was, the whole mission’s excitement was packed into the first two weeks of being there. The other five and a half months were spent honing my spades and hearts skills and keeping the Army’s equipment hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Towards the end of the mission, by way of a slight misunderstanding between the unit maintenance officer and I, he offered to make up for it by inviting me to fly back to our home base in Italy with the helicopters. This was not a difficult choice; either fly home with all the gear and the work involved on an Air Force C141 for a long twenty-five hour day or fly back with the last two helicopters of our unit with two overnight stops on islands in Greece. Strange to be given a choice in the military. Even stranger that one of the two was actually pleasant.
Our first stop was the Aegean Island of Rodhos (Rodos) and our last at the western end of Greece on Kérkira (Corfu). We were weathered-in for an extra day in each location, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has vacationed in Greece. In Army aviation the lead pilots make the call whether to fly the day’s mission based on various information but generally weather is the biggest threat. Flying helicopters under the best of circumstances is inherently dangerous so you do your best to avoid unnecessary risks. Bet you didn't know that Greece has some of the sunniest locations in the world. But clouds are clouds and that single little white one way out on the horizon of a big blue sky must have looked pretty threatening that next morning. I admire those who keep my safety in mind.
Stuck for the day, we decided to shuck off our disappointment and make the best of it. Two crewmembers and I decided to rent mopeds and see some of the coast of Corfu. The island was gorgeous; crystal blue water against white rock, colorful houses spotting the coast, and lots of scenery. Scenery!! My visual system was overloaded after staring at dull green canvas tents against gray rocks for the last six months. And that wasn’t the only scenery. Corfu was rather touristy I would say. I was used to gazing at shepherds and their flock against a lunar landscape with the adzhan calling out from the town’s minaret five times a day — and here Corfu’s local watering holes were glitzy, glamorous, and played music. Music!! Like moths to the flame we stopped at a few just to get the feel of the place.
Maybe it was me after looking at Turkish sheep and goats for six months. Maybe there were other forces at work. Like stepping into a telepod and exiting somewhere in Soho or Clapham or King’s Cross, I was stunned by the amounts of English women in these pubs. Flabbergasted. It was as though half the population of London decided to go on vacation. The easy-on-the-eyes half. They were like air — everywhere — with really cool accents. All that extra oxygen must have made me light headed. I did not know it was possible to fall in love. Repeatedly. All before lunch.
Not surprisingly, several hours and pubs later we had dates for that evening. Excited, we decided to head back to the hotel to freshen up before our night on the town. With hindsight, I wonder what would have happened if I had decided to follow the prudent course of action? Prudent meaning getting a taxi? Who knows where I might be. Married and living in England? Captaining a Greek charter boat? Living amongst street urchins? Developed into a full grown hedgehog? I suppose anything is possible but the path I choose was on the road using my moped.
I admit, I was not in complete control of my faculties. But, this did not interfere with my photo-taking technique. Doesn’t take much to look through a camera and snap a picture but it’s probably best not to do it while driving. It’s the camera’s fault. Well, that and the moped. The moped did not have a basket and the camera was just too big to fit in the pockets of my shorts. Just as well; hard to look cool on a mopeds with baskets. Stopping to actually take a picture never once crossed my mind.
So, I tucked the camera in my waistband. Portending of things to come, the camera refused to stay put and kept slipping down a pant leg. I kept readjusting it. This is a great example of the law of averages and there was only one eventuality to prepare for, and I met it with poise. Finally, it slipped out, caught air and I, in one swift move, snagged it. A perfect moment — time, space, and chaos got together and unfortunately avoided all attempts to be videotaped. I know given three lifetimes I would never be able to repeat that feat despite what all the Like A Boss videos on YouTube would have you believe. I had saved my camera from certain death at thirty miles an hour and tucked it back into my pants.
Imagine my surprise to see the road I had been following was no longer in front of me. Instead, the shoulder of the other lane was just about to pass under my front tire. I don’t know what the Department of Transportation in Greece calls those parts of their roads but this one had as much use as an emergency stopping lane as a snake’s clavicle. There wasn't even a ditch unless you consider the Aegean Sea to be carrying away water. I flew over that idea of shoulder and out into space, space which was about eighty feet above that huge ditch. Like most of you, jumping off a diving board will prove I’m better at treading water than treading air but I had only one thought. I saved my $130.00 camera.
But the fates were smirking. Two houses along side that cliff had a collective outhouse between the two of them. Built upon stilts and stuck to the rocks in a fairly haphazard fashion, it sat out in front of me. I was filled with happiness to see it. Odd since that particular happiness usually corresponds to another sort of fullness and why you would want to share a bathroom with the neighbors was not a question that came immediately to mind. Despite my joy it was still six feet below the level of the street. I crash landed, the moped’s handlebars twisted as I slammed on top of them and continued over in a somersault-type move coming to a stop against the outhouse door. Everything hurt. My first thought was that I had ruptured my bladder. The sudden urge to ‘go’ had nothing to do with being conveniently splayed against an outhouse door — I realized the handlebar had jabbed me in my stomach. So I used the toilet. Number one it was there and number two . . . well, I had to check for blood, okay? By the time I was satisfied I had no immediate damage and stepped back out, inhabitants of both houses stood outside their front doors, arms crossed and brows furrowed. My first thought was HEY! You guys are SHARING a toilet with neighbors what real difference if a stranger uses it! and my second thought was HEY! You just about kicked their facilities out into the drink so let's not start casting aspersions! but my attention was directed towards my two good friends. In that most caring fashion of twenty-something young men, they were taking pictures of my skid marks. With my camera.
I took me a few minutes to catch my breath, get my moped lifted back up to the street, and collect all the little plastic pieces that decided they’d had enough of being a moped. The ride back to the hotel was positively uneventful due to my two miles an hour top speed. My buddies weren’t too happy with me. They were eager to get back out. And they did. Without me. My enthusiasm had been rightly curbed and I think it was probably a wise choice all things considered. On a positive note the damage to the moped totaled only $20.00 which I could not pay quickly enough. The next day, confident that single stationary cloud presented no threat, we took off for home. We passed through Bari for a refueling stop and arrived back to our base in northern Italy late that evening. I had some muscle soreness and a small knot on my gut where I had hit the handle bars and I thought that was that.
Three days later as I was taking a shower after my morning physical training I screamed.
This was not one of those manly type of screams, if such a thing exists. Something in the low octaves is what I imagine, with a definitive bass sound. No, this was definitely a girly scream. A teenage type scream. But, I would be forgiven by all my masculine brethren. As I glanced down couldn’t help but notice that those parts that define me as a male of my species were now black. Little Johnny and his two buds. The whole package. Larry, Moe, and Curly. Don’t ask me who is who but they were completely and unerringly black.
I think most of us do not expect our body parts to change color. Not suddenly at least. Gradual I could probably live with — a little color here, a little there allowing one to get used to the idea that they will have colored extremities. Start slow and work up to it. Mine was overnight. Maybe it was the color, now that I think about it. Red or yellow. Orange even. Neither of those would have the same effect. Black is pretty universal in its medical significance regarding human tissue. I doubt even a simple layman would have trouble understanding the future course of events. Black equals falling off.
I couldn’t get to the clinic fast enough. The doctor there explained that blunt-force abdominal injuries often result in these types of bruising. Gravity somehow got involved. As if I hadn’t noticed. You cannot imagine the relief that I felt. He did inform that it would go through several color changes and let me assure you, he not kidding. I should have taken advantage of it at the time. John Bobbitt turned his misfortune into a brief acting career. I am sure some sector of the film industry could have used a body double for a zombie scene. Pretty sure I could have played that part.