Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
Motorcycle school was just as humiliating as gun school. Not only was I inexperienced, but I was one of the few people in class who’d never even driven stick shift before.
Perhaps I wasn’t so much getting prepared for hard times as I was catching up to normal people. Driving stick, shooting guns, farming, and using tools are things every man should know. But my friends and I had never bothered to learn these basic skills because everything had always been handed to us. Public transportation, fast food, the Yellow Pages, and Craigslist had made them seem unnecessary.
Just as I squeezed triggers too hard, I throttled the bike too much. When weaving around cones, I inevitably crushed them. And during a stopping exercise, I braked so suddenly that the rear wheel locked and the bike tipped over.
It wasn’t until the last day of class that I realized what was holding me back: my sphincter. I was worrying too much—about braking, throttling, balancing and releasing the clutch at just the right times while under the scrutiny of the instructors. And the more I thought, the worse I rode.
As I approached a row of cones, I took a deep breath and decided to trust my instincts instead of thinking so hard about trying to do everything perfectly. This time I carved around the cones gracefully, without hitting a single one. Yet when it came time to repeat my performance during the final driving exam, my sphincter shrunk back to the size of a needle’s eye and I didn’t even come close to passing. To truly learn to survive in stressful situations, I’d need to take the motto of the Survivalist Boards—“endure—adapt—overcome”—to heart and learn to relax my sphincter permanently instead of tightening it whenever confronted with a challenge.
Or, as security consultant Gavin de Becker put it less scatologically in his book The Gift of Fear, I needed to learn to disengage my logic brain and engage my wild brain, which instinctively guards and protects.
To do this, I bought a book an instructor at Gunsite had mentioned: On Combat by Dave Grossman, which deals with the body’s stress response during battle. In fight-or-flight situations, I learned, one of the first things the body does is give up sphincter and bladder control (hence the phrase scared shitless) so it can commandeer every bit of available strength for battle. That’s why some soldiers actually make it a point to go to the bathroom before combat.
So maybe McNeese was right about the sphincter. It is for times of peace, not war.
Before retaking the motorcycle test, I decided to get a Rokon so I could practice on my own:
To help offset the cost, I sold some rare books, CDs, and an old computer. Since I’d gone into survival mode, my intellectual pursuits had begun mattering less to me than physical ones.
One afternoon, as I was practicing to retake my motorcycle test, Katie and her sister pulled up outside my house. Because she was too scared to drive, Katie was almost completely dependent on her sister to get around. However, her sister resented the obligation and frequently failed to pick her up. So Katie had recently been forced to drop out of college for poor attendance and fired from her department-store job for missing shifts.
When she saw me on the Rokon, her brow knitted and her fear reflex kicked in. “I don’t like it,” she said. Her fingers instinctually rose to stretch her forehead taut in an attempt to prevent wrinkles from forming. “It’s dangerous. I don’t trust anything with less than four wheels.”
For once, I agreed with her.
I drove up the street, followed a bend in the road near a neighbor’s house, and tried to practice stopping. As I squeezed the brake, the wheel began to slide out from under me.
I had forgotten the one lesson I’d learned from my wipeout on Tom Cruise’s bike: avoid braking when turning.
I panicked and, as I released the brake, accidentally throttled the bike. Instantly, the Rokon accelerated in an arc, rolled up four of the neighbor’s stairs, and careened off the ledge to the left, colliding midair with a row of garbage cans. The bike, the cans, and my ribs all clattered loudly to the pavement.
My first thought was to marvel at how easily and smoothly my survival bike had climbed the stairs. My second thought was that McNeese and Grossman were right: because I hadn’t learned to stay cool in regular life, I’d panicked in an emergency and hurt myself.
Only then did I roll up a pants leg and lift my shirt to inspect the damage. My lower body was a red skid mark oozing blood.
I was turning out to be a shitty survivalist.
In the last month I’d bought guns, started riding motorcycles, and signed up for flying lessons. In my quest for safety, I was undertaking the most dangerous things I’d ever done in my life. The chances of being injured in a terrorist attack or civil unrest were far slimmer than the chances of killing myself in a motorcycle or shooting accident.
Survivalism, I realized, is not about staying alive. It’s about choosing how you die.