I am one month away from the 30-year anniversary of a profoundly life-changing event. Something that not only affected me, but those around me as well. My closest friends and family. It changed who I was at a core level and in many ways, continues to reverberate through my life to this day. I expect it will for the rest of my life.
I have previously touched on this event. With this post, I am going to go into more detail about the experience. Some of this information I have heard from others, and I will share those moments as best I can. But most of this comes from my own memory of events. And given that it has been almost 30 years, some of those memories may be hazy. But trust me. Every word of this story is true.
Before the event: An undiagnosed disorder.
I was a pretty typical kid from a middle income family. Growing up in the suburbs, I enjoyed a life with little stress. I never wanted for anything, and my parents were both loving. As I reached my teenage years, I’d gotten unruly, as is typical for any teenager. But I faced an additional challenge that was improperly diagnosed in those days. ADHD.
For those familiar with the disorder, you know that someone afflicted, especially children, can have a difficult time. Many think, “Oh, the child can’t sit still or is easily distracted.” That may be true of some, but not of all. In fact, some people, as is the case with me, can become hyper-focused on one specific thing, tuning out everything around them in the process. And this is only a small element of how ADHD affects someone’s behaviors. Here is a very basic rundown of symptoms: https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/signs#1
The symptoms on that list are only surface level. The greater effects, especially on adults, can be things like difficulties in relationships and marriage, the inability to hold a job, criminal behavior, substance abuse, inappropriate social skills, eating disorders, etc. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/adult-adhd/symptoms-causes/syc-20350878. It is treatable to a degree with medication. And you can learn and practice techniques to adapt and manage when you are older. But as a teenager and moving into early adulthood, I didn’t know much about it. I was just overall, not a nice person. I had a few good friends and didn’t care much for others. And my relationship with my parents was strained, to say the least.
I did show some of those negative behaviors also. I enjoyed drinking alcohol several years before I was of drinking age. And I cut classes in school and I got caught shoplifting. I started working as soon as I could and went through several different jobs. However, it was two of the biggest symptoms that led to the events of that night, March 27th, 1989. Impulsiveness and recklessness. On some subconscious level, I guess I thought I was immortal, or simply didn’t care. Well that night, I got a chance to test that belief.
It was a dark and stormy night. Ok, so maybe it was only half that. The storm had come through a few days earlier, leaving the ground soft and damp, probably one of the big reasons why I am still here and able to write this. It was dark, though the sky was clear. And my friends and I decided to go to the levee outside of town, build a campfire, drink some beers, and watch the stars.
The Delta river extends from the central valley of California out to the San Francisco bay area. It is wide, though not as wide as the Mississippi, and deep, and leads to the largest inland port in the country in my hometown of Stockton. Yes, that was our slogan up there: Someplace Special. Several years back, Forbes magazine called Stockton the worst city in America, not once, but two different years! Forbes can go to hell.
I loved my hometown and still do. Just about any city in America with a medium to large population has its share of crime. I know people who have had to deal with that in Stockton. I’m lucky that I never have. And for just about any type of cuisine you want, Stockton has a restaurant that’s one of the best. Maybe not Michelin level, but seriously delicious. Let me know if you want recommendations!
The tower on Correia Road.
Because of the Delta, Stockton is at risk of flooding, so there are high levees surrounding the river everywhere. On the outskirts of town, just off Eight Mile Road, is one such levee. Far enough away from town that the police wouldn’t come out and hassle you for drinking, but close enough to see the city lights.
Another feature of the river are the power poles spaced at intervals along the way. Because large cargo ships travel along the water to reach the inland port, these towers, built to carry the power lines from one side of the Delta to the other, need to be tall. Very tall. 160 feet tall. To put it in other terms, about the height of a 16-story building.
These towers do not look like your typical electrical tower, the ones you picture standing out in a field somewhere. No, these are about three feet square, shooting straight up into the sky. There are bars going up each side in a zig zag pattern, like a ladder, if all the rungs were angled back and forth rather than perfectly horizontal. They were built for climbing! At least, that’s what this 21-year-old with no fear of heights or death thought. Unfortunately, my best friend thought the same.
A race that cannot be won.
“Hey, I climbed part of that tower before.” Those were the words I said to my best friend that night as we sat around the campfire. There were five of us, and I wasn’t lying. I had once climbed up maybe 40-50 feet because I wanted to get a look at the city lights. And if you read my blog series about cabin life, you know I love to climb. By that age, however, I had stopped falling. Or so I thought.
I pointed off in the direction of the tower and my friend looked. “Really?” he asked.
“Yep”, I replied.
“Let’s go do it!”
“Naw, I’m not in the mood”, I said. I’d had a beer and I was enjoying the campfire. I didn’t feel like moving away from the heat to climb down the small slope to the tower.
“Well, I’m going to do it”, he said with determination, stood up, and started walking off in the direction of the tall structure. I watched him go for a moment before rising from my camping chair and calling out to him.
“Wait up, I’ll come too”, I said with resignation.
I caught up with him and together we reached the base of the tower. It was built on this cement stand, probably four feet high, and starting at about three feet up, there was screen wrapped around the tower extending another five feet higher, to keep people (like me) from climbing it. It was a pathetic barrier, as it was easy enough to slip between the “rungs” of the tower and climb up the interior. Which is exactly what we both did.
After moving high enough to pass the screen barrier, I climbed back to the outside of the tower, as it was crowded in the middle with the two of us. Together we climbed, my friend on the inside and me hanging onto the outside like some ant traveling up the tall stem of a sunflower.
We stopped at the 50-foot mark, which was indicated by several steel cables attached to the tower and stretching down to the ground below, anchoring the tall structure in place to keep it from swaying in the wind. There were more cables at the two-thirds mark and again at the top. We paused and looked out toward the city and the lights glowing there. I remember it being so beautiful in that cold and clear night air. After a few moments rest, my friend said, “Let’s go higher!” And who was I to say no. So on we went.
At some point, I glanced at my friend and we both got this competitive look in our eyes. Our climbing got a little faster as it slowly evolved into a race. I didn’t know what we were racing toward, or what the finish line was supposed to be. But I won the race to the top. And I won the race to the bottom.
Floating at the speed of 12,000 volts.
I was ahead by a few feet, when suddenly my friend stopped climbing. I came to a halt as well, looking at him. “Why did you stop?” I asked.
“Because we are at the top!”
I never looked up. That was my mistake. I am sure some of you are saying right now, “That was your mistake? Out of all the bad decisions you made that night, THAT was your mistake??” You’re right, of course. But in that moment and in my head, that was my mistake.
I looked up then. And mere feet away from my head were electrical power lines. Thick and dark, they looked no different from the stability cables that we passed on the way up. Except that these didn’t extend down, they extended horizontally, trailing away to get lost in the darkness.
I had two consecutive thoughts rush through my head at that point. The first was, “I need to get down now.” The second thought was much more confusing and terrifying. “Why am I not hanging on anymore?”
I was frozen in time and space, like when Wile E. Coyote runs off the edge of a cliff and hangs there suspended for a moment, realization slowly dawning, before plummeting in a puff of dirt. I was in the exact same position I had been a half second before, except now there were several feet of empty air between me and the tower.
You know that scene in Jurassic Park where the kid is climbing the electrical fence and the electricity gets turned on. Suddenly, he is thrown backwards off the fence. Yeah, well that was me. 12,000 volts of electricity arced out from the power line, striking me in my right arm and knocking me away from the tower. I never felt the electricity hit me. All I knew was that I was no longer attached to the tower and in my mind, everything froze. I screamed out, “Oh my god!” And then I fell.
While falling is an accurate description of what happened, it is not what I experienced. Our brains are powerful things and for me, time slowed down to a crawl. I floated down slowly, giving me all the time in the world to think about my life. It didn’t exactly flash before my eyes. I saw bits and pieces, memories of good times, nothing bad. I can’t tell you what I saw exactly. But something that stands out as half remembered is the song Jerusalem playing in my head. I no longer remember if it was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s version of an old hymn, or the song from Sinead O’Connor, I only remember the title now. Read into that what you will, it happened.
In my head, it took at least a minute for me to reach the ground, though in reality it was only two, maybe three seconds. Since then, I have spoken with other victims of near-death events and they have experienced the same time-slowing phenomenon. I was so high up, there was nothing but darkness below. I came to the understanding that I was going to die, and I accepted that. My last words spoken were, “I’m dead”, softly and calmly. And then blackness.