The odds are very high that you and I will both die in a simple, boring, predictable manner. Hopefully, when our time is upon us, it will be quick and it will be painless and we will have gotten the chance for goodbyes. But, as there are billions and billions and billions and billions of human beings on earth, there are going to be plenty of spectacularly bizarre statistical outliers, manners of departing this mortal plane that are truly stranger than fiction.
I, for one, sometimes hope that (at a ripe old age) I will be shot out of a cannon over a city, strapped with fabulous fireworks, and, with a lit metropolis and a flabbergasted populace beneath me, to be struck by lightning, igniting a pyrotechnic display that makes everybody go “Aw!” However, given how clumsy I am, I will most likely just trip off a curb or choke on a piece of toast.
And while I certainly mean no serious offense to those of us who have passed over in spectacular, stupid, hilarious ways (as they still leave grieving loved-ones and heartache), I would like to take a few moments to salute the idea of a mind-blowing death.
Folks often hope to be doing something that they love when they depart. This was the case for the world-renowned baritone, Leonard Warren, who, while performing “La Forza del Destino,” at the New York Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1960, suffered a massive stroke and died on stage. The tile of the work is translated as “The Force of Destiny.” In fact, it wasn’t the only on-stage death at the Met Opera. In 1996, Richard Versalle suffered a heart attack and died on stage at the Met after singing the line, “Too bad you can only live so long.” Apparently the Metropolitan Opera is a pretty dangerous place to work.
Li Po, of whom you probably haven’t heard, is easily one of the two or three greatest poets in the history of China. If you haven’t had the pleasure of his language, please enjoy the following, entitled, “Alone and Drinking Under the Moon.”
Amongst the flowers I
am alone with my pot of wine
drinking by myself; then lifting
my cup I asked the moon
to drink with me, its reflection
and mine in the wine cup, just
the three of us; then I sigh
for the moon cannot drink,
and my shadow goes emptily along
with me never saying a word;
with no other friends here, I can
but use these two for company;
in the time of happiness, I
too must be happy with all
around me; I sit and sing
and it is as if the moon
accompanies me; then if I
dance, it is my shadow that
dances along with me; while
still not drunk, I am glad
to make the moon and my shadow
into friends, but then when
I have drunk too much, we
all part; yet these are
friends I can always count on
these who have no emotion
whatsoever; I hope that one day
we three will meet again,
deep in the Milky Way.
One night, Li Po fell from his boat and drowned in the Yangtze River while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the water. He was probably pretty drunk.
There is the tale of J.G. Parry-Thomas, a British racing driver, who was decaptitated by his car’s drive chain, which, under duress, snapped and whipped into the cockpit. He was attempting to break his own land speed record, which he had set the previous year. Despite being killed in the attempt, he succeeded in setting a new record of 171mph. That’s 171 miles per hour in 1927! High fives in heaven J.G.!
Or there’s the story Nick Piantanida, a truck driver from New Jersey who, among other things, climbed the highest waterfall in Venezuela, was a semi-pro basketball player, ran an exotic pet store (in New Jersey!) and wrestled with a cobra snake in a boxing ring. He was also a family man. He also became an amateur skydiver and eventually attempted to break the world record for free-fall. This entailed charming the U.S. military into building him a space suit and getting a crack team of engineers to build him a state of the art balloon capsule.
A lot has been made (including a movie) about the splendid Lawnchair Larry (also a truckdriver!), who got himself up to 15,000 feet in a lawnchair tied to weather balloons. Here, a top-down photograph taken by special cameras for an issue of Life Magazine captures Nick, also a civilian, at the height of 123,500 feet.
On his third attempt, diving from the stratosphere, his space helmet developed a small leak and he died of hypoxia on his way back to earth. My friends and I at the Satellite Ballet and Collective wrote a triumphant and tragic song-cycle called “Cosmonaut,” loosely based on Piantanida, which was debuted at the Baryshnikov Arts Center last fall and was sung by the amazing Kaylee Cole.
Or what about this? In 1953, a horse jockey named Frank Hayes, died in the midst of a race. And yet, while dead on horseback, he still came in first place. His horse was named “Sweet Kiss,” and Frank is the only deceased jockey to ever win a race. And how would you feel if you had won money on that bet?
Then, there are amazing deaths that are fairly predictable. We all know of Steve “the Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, who made his living yanking crocodiles around by the tail, wrestling anacondas, poking sticks into nests of rattlesnakes. He was about as Australian as any human could be and was stabbed in the heart by a stingray while filming a show called “Ocean’s Deadliest.”
Similarly, was the death of the strange environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, whose riveting and surreal story was respectfully related in the mind-boggling Warner Herzog documentary “Grizzly Man,” which you should absolutely see. Here was an odd, flamboyant, moody, joyful, surfer-type dude who traveled out into the wilderness to commune with wild grizzly bears, who he considered to be his friends and family, all the while filming himself for “educational” purposes. Here are a few (of the many!) jaw-dropping lines he delivers to his own camera:
Timothy Treadwell: “And I’ll tell you something, if Saturn was a female human, I can just see how beautiful she is as a bear – I’ve always called her the Michelle Pfeiffer of bears out here.”
Timothy Treadwell [while petting a fox]: You can see the bond that has developed between this very wild animal, and this fairly wild person.
Timothy Treadwell [while chasing a fox that stole his hat]: If that hat’s in the den, I’m gonna fuckin’ explode!
Timothy Treadwell: I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals.
Timothy Treadwell: I’m out in the prime cut of big green. Behind me is Ed and Rowdy, members of an up-and-coming sub-adult gang. They’re challenging everything, including me. Goes with the territory. If I show weakness, if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there is weakness they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead. But so far, I persevere. Persevere.
David Letterman [interviewing Treadwell]: We’re not going to open a newspaper one day and read about you being eaten by a bear, are we?
Timothy Treadwell, after a decade of living in staggeringly close to proximity to wild grizzlies, was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear, along with his girlfriend Amie Hugenard, in 2003.
But then there’s just the truly strange deaths. A man in Seattle died in 2005 by submitting to anal sex with a stallion! The man who invented (the ludicrous) Segway vehicles, accidentally plummeted off a cliff on his Segway. In 1989, a kung-fu student in Melbourne went to the zoo and tried to fist fight a lion in one-on-one, man vs. cat, combat. He lost. In 2006, an electrician in Belize, attempting to recreate Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment, flew a kite with a copper wire for a string into a power line and died instantly. Austrian Hans Steininger, had the longest beard in the world (four and a half feet long) and, while running from a fire, tripped on his beard and broke his neck. Geez, Hans! I mean… COME ON!
In 1991, a Thai woman, Yooket Paen, slipped on cow poop and reached out to catch herself and grabbed an electric fence, which killed her instantly by electrocution. Soon after the funeral, her sister, Yooket Pan, was showing neighbors how the accident happened, also slipped in cow poop, also grabbed the exact same electrical wire and also died.
In 2009, a German subway driver found the body of Yasin A. along the tracks. It took a long time for police to reconstruct what happened. After an extensive investigation, here’s what they discovered. Yasin was on an empty subway car and, in a wild and inexplicable fit of testosterone, swung his body from the upper hand-holds and kicked his feet at the window of the car. The window broke and Yasin flew out the window to his death. What? WHAT!?
Or how about this freakish tale? In 1891, a train wreck in North Carolina killed two-dozen people. Legend told of a ghost train that would ride by on the anniversary. So, about 100 years later, a large number of ghost hunters went on the anniversary to check it out. With cameras ready, a very real (and scheduled) train came bulleting through and, while most of the people were able to leap clear, a 29-year-old ghost hunter was hit and killed on the exact anniversary.
In 2009, two men entered a Sprint store in South Carolina (actually, a lot of stupid/amazing deaths happen in the Carolinas) and pulled guns on the people inside. They stole wallets, purses and credit cards. As disguises, they had… and I am not making this up… SPRAY-PAINTED their faces gold! Can you please, re-read that last sentence? Unsurprisingly, all the victims were easily able to identify the robbers. Unsurprisingly, the men died shortly thereafter… OF SPRAY-PAINTING THEIR OWN FACES!
A man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair, successfully appealed. Then, sitting on his metal prison toilet while trying to fix his television, electrocuted himself.
But this is even more amazing. Clement Villandigham was a very successful defense lawyer who had, among other things, been elected Governor of Ohio in absentia during the Civil War. In 1870, he was representing a man charged for shooting another man in a bar brawl. In attempt to show how a gun might accidentally go off, he grabbed the murder weapon and, believing it to be unloaded, reenacted the events in front of the jury and then shot himself in the chest, right there in open court. Even though he died, he made his point so effectively that the jury found his client “not guilty.”
This is to say nothing of heroic, noble deaths. This is also not to say that hilarious, fabulous, weird deaths negate the wondrous, singular and meaningful lives that preceded them. For example, the man who invented the Segway was a generous patron of many important charities and his family was too crushed and heartbroken to give interviews after his death. Nick Piantanida was survived by his wonderful wife and beautiful children and I have stood before his grave in New Jersey. Timothy Treadwell’s best friend received his wrist watch and she exclaimed, “It’s still ticking! I can’t believe it’s still ticking!” Li Po’s poetry will live forever.
… I hope that one day
we three will meet again,
deep in the Milky Way.