Paris and Helmets and People We Love
The following piece was originally written for the Athens-to-Atlanta speed skating community and fellow skaters in France, following the terrible loss to the French skate community (and the family and friends) of Pierre Derud – one of the founders of the internationally famous Pari-Roller Friday Night Skate in Paris - where as many as 20,000 skaters gather weekly for a rolling tour of Paris, complete with "escorte de police et d'ambulances". In the fashion of most European skaters, Mssr. Derud did not wear a helmet. On Friday, October 8, 1999, while skating ahead of the pack to assist with traffic control, Mssr. Derud fell on a fast downhill and suffered severe head injuries. After several days in a coma, he died.
The conflict of freedom of pleasure versus the use of protective gear is a struggle waged in dozens of sports worldwide. The tragedy of Mssr. Derud's death was compounded in November that same year by a horrific pileup involving dozens of skaters at the entrance to a tunnel in the Netherlands during the Amsterdam Friday Night Skate that sent many skaters to the hospital with broken bones. Several years prior, the deaths of a number of climbers on Mt. Everest - as documented in Jon Krakauer's chilling article in Outdoor Magazine Into Thin Air and later in his bestseller of the same name - gave me long pause for reflection on the nature of risk behavior and on my responsibilities to those who love and care about me, as well as to myself. I am regularly haunted by the poignancy of Everest Guide Rob Hall . . . helping his wife name their unborn son by radio-telephone as he slowly froze to death on the summit of Everest. His body is still on Everest. His child will never know him.
With a cover condolence letter to the Pari-Roller skate group, I wrote this in the hope that it might help any one person reflect differently on their choices - whatever their decision might be. I got dozens of responses from all over the world and it was published in Holland. I include it here in that same spirit - that perhaps it might help some joyful skater, cyclist, motorcyclist, kayaker, rappeller, snowboarder, etc. - to live a longer loving and productive life, and to spare their family and loved ones from the grim sadness of living on without them, or caring for them in the aftermath of a crippling but avoidable catastrophe.
Paris and Helmets and People We Love
It's Not Just About Me
by Scott Nilsson -Friday, December 3, 1999
This may seem to meander a bit, so please bear with me –
About four years ago, I read an article which Jon Krakauer wrote for Outside magazine after surviving a horrific and ill-fated expedition up the face of Mount Everest. While his story became the book, Into Thin Air – his initial article was written immediately after the tragedy that took the lives of so many outstanding climbers. It was raw, emotional, depressive. Profound. The underlying theme haunted me for months afterwards: it was about the nature of risk behaviors, and the tremendous exposure for our loved ones. He wrote about Rob Hall, the guide, the man, the husband, and the soon-to-be-father, slowly freezing to death on top of Everest, too far away to help – talking by radio-telephone through base camp with his wife in New Zealand. Helping her name their unborn child. It was unbearably painful. Mr. Krakauer wrote of the risk he accepted on behalf of his own wife and family – of living ruined lives should he lose his own in such endeavors. Or that they should pay an enormous emotional price of providing perpetual care and perhaps endure financial ruin should he only succeed in turning himself into a severely challenged, but living, adventurer. It haunted him. The 'why' of it.
It haunted me. And started me on a year-long journey of reflection of my own choices in life. Of how I drove, aggressively but well, believing my own rationalizations on the effectiveness of aggressive driving for urban transit. Of speed skating Peachtree Road during rush hour, challenging busses down heart-break-hill; always careful, but pushing the edge of the line. Of riding my beloved Triumph Daytona motorcycle. Of seeking to fill myself with that power that only comes from pushing oneself hard to the very edge, and coming back alive.
Not a death wish. A live-life-to-the-fullest philosophy.
But death would be the victor should I miscalculate, or just be a bit unlucky for a moment... if I should - lose.
What risk to those who loved me? Selfishly, I had never given it much thought. Or that my behavior might occasionally endanger others – directly, or through emulation.
Years ago, a young friend of mine drove his German sports car very fast - and he loved to push it to the wall. One day we met for dinner and he regaled me with a tale of encountering a teenage boy in a big old Buick sedan on a twisty-windy road we both knew well, a favored sports car gunning ground in Atlanta. The kid saw him as a challenge and gunned his V-8 engine. My friend grabbed the bait, and off they flew, two-across on a two lane, pitch black road... swerving over bike lanes, where local parents walk their infants... into a deceptive turn, where another friend’s driveway terminated at a tree. A tree that had cost several lives over the years. My friend led the kid through the turn with the old Buick fishtailing wildly. But they survived. And he was laughing.
I wasn’t. I asked him if he would have felt even mildly responsible if the kid had died on Doc’s front yard tree. Eyebrows arched, he looked surprised, then shook his head: no, of course not. It was all the kid’s decision. He didn’t have to gun his engine. He didn’t have to follow him. He didn’t have to take that turn so fast...
This time last year, I had a skating acquaintance. A former Peachtree RoadRoller (Atlanta's street speed skating club), computer wizard, creative genius, truly nice guy. So nice, that he and his childhood best friend scheduled a New Year’s holiday to take their 'little sister' with them on a skiing vacation at their expense: her antique business was in recovery after an ugly divorce and they conspired to kidnap her away to Banff to help her find her smile. On Christmas day these two lifelong friends decided to make a one-day getaway before their ski holiday week: an excellent downhill skier and inline skater, this generous athlete decided to try snow-boarding. His first day, all his luck ran out. He took a fall that crushed one vertebrae and left him paralyzed.
Back in Atlanta: the endless road that would never lead to full recovery. Months in Shepherd Spinal Center. Blood clots in his legs. Intestines that will never work quite right. Opportunistic infections. Chronic pain. Depression. Relentless physical therapy. For life. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then a million. On and on. Fortunately, he is much loved, and his family, friends and coworkers rallied around him. He still has his job, and is again looking to the future.
Now his close friends’ stories...
Months later: exhausted, scared, depressed, and with no end in sight – they were all changed forever. I slipped into the shop late one night, and sat with a friend I’ve known for twelve years. A compassionate, gentle spirit who brought his family here from another country with no English among the six languages they spoke. Who built success and respect around the country and around the world. A very quiet, very determined and disciplined winner. A man who wasn’t scared to be imprisoned again and again trying to escape Communist Asia to get his family a chance at a better life. A man who wasn’t going to desert his friend just because the friendship suddenly became extremely challenging.
That night, we sat chatting while he worked, as we usually do to pass what time we spend together. But this night was different. He was obviously struggling with his emotions over the whole catastrophe. And he was often silent. He spoke of how much it had affected this man’s friends and family. How unimaginably hard it had been for everyone, as well as their now-paraplegic friend. He talked of changing clothes, and bedding, and helping him to bathe, and of hour upon hour, month in and month out, at doctors’ offices and hospitals. Of the sense of futile helplessness they all suffered from trying to help their friend to walk again, and knowing he probably never would. Then he fell to silence again. After many minutes he looked up at me and fixed my gaze, and very quietly beseeched, "Please sell your motorcycle."
Years ago, while working as weekend Leasing Agent at an Atlanta apartment complex, one resident there came to visit with me every Saturday and Sunday. Slightly learning disabled, he worked and lived on his own without many friends. He always had something nice to say. One Saturday he didn’t come. On Sunday, I asked the owner if he knew where Steve was. He was surprised I had not heard. Leaving a shopping center that Friday night, Steve slipped and fell backwards to the asphalt, striking the back of his head. A couple in the next aisle of cars rushed over to check on him – but he was already dead.
I remembered that a couple years ago, when the lead Research and Development engineer for Bell helmets told me that an unrestricted (no use of arms or hands) dead-weight body fall from a standing position would kill an adult approximately 80% of the time. Not skating, not cycling - just falling to the ground, with a unrestrained head impact. You probably die.
We all have best friends and close friends and just friends. And mothers and fathers. Many have close siblings. Some of us have children. We all work, and play and spend time with people who love and care about us.
I do believe I have a higher responsibility than only to myself. I believe I have a responsibility to those who love me. To novices who watch me. To people who are taking risks they can’t possibly understand. To children who learn so quickly, and for whom the smallest things can make huge impressions that guide their behavior for years to come. Sometimes for life.
As a group of us were skating warm-up laps in the parking lot just before a night skate, Atlanta skating ace Bruce Belden hit a car – wearing full protective gear. Dazed and badly shaken, he was taken to the hospital by master skate instructor Paul Kennedy. It was a very quiet skate that night. Every one of us was praying that Bruce would be alright. That he would recover to skate again. And that we would all continue to play and talk and argue and share a beer at the end of the evening – and share this part of our lives that we all so love.
Bruce came home. And after several weeks, he recovered fully.
The skaters in Paris were not that lucky.
Their friend, Pierre Derud, did not come home that night.
He never came home again.
His empty apartment became the scene of people who adored him sorting through the moments of his life through tears that wouldn’t stop.
Who buried him.
His family won’t celebrate Christmas with him in two weeks. They probably won’t celebrate much at all.
I’m sure there are several people around that beautiful city who still cry from the pain of losing him when they go to bed at night.
And I bet they wonder, as I do –
was it worth it.
~ Scott Nilsson
Atlanta, Georgia - USA / 2nilssons.com
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