Tag Archives: panic

Fanny’s Surprise (# 36)

pCaptain Mokoena is about 180 km North-East of Upington, trying to complete one of his fuel-consuming circles, when there is a sudden loss of power. There is no way he can keep the craft level any more as the nose dips slowly towards the ground. Mokoena, an experienced fighter pilot, knows: this is it. Either he finds a suitable spot to try and land the stricken plane, or he’s going to kill them all.

Towards his left and right, the Kalahari stretches away to the horizon. Even from this height, the surface doesn’t seem suitable for an emergency landing. The uneven veld, the little hills, the rocks and the sand dunes… The angle of descent is more acute now and even the closed door of the cockpit can’t keep the muffled screams of the passengers out. If he doesn’t spot a potential landing spot soon…

***

Doc Woodcock opens his mouth to scream, but he produces no sound, no word. The aircraft is clearly going to crash. His worst fear, his most terrible nightmare is happening here, now, as the cold sweat starts rolling down his brow. He wants to open his eyes and discover it is all only a terrifying dream.

But…when he forces his eyes open, he can see the other passengers in various stages of panic as well. Some seem to be praying, others are screaming and a few sit, ashen-faced, staring straight ahead in the paralysis only fear can bring. As the floor angles more and more, Doc feels himself being pushed back in his seat – and his life flashes by in a series of pictures.

Almost irrationally, it seems like a Powerpoint presentation.

His first memories of his mother and the cottage they lived in, is followed by scenes of his school years, his miserable attempts to compete in athletics and the praise of the headmaster at the academic prize presentation. Then the years of study, the solace of burying himself in work. Molly smiles at him briefly, before her image fades and Gertruida appears in his mind. In contrast to the other images, her picture doesn’t fade; it become brighter, more focussed better defined. He can hear her laugh – the soft chuckle she has when she wins an argument, proclaiming yet another victory.

A hand grips his shoulder so hard, it hurts.

“I don’t want to die!” It’s the woman sitting next to him, shouting at the top of her voice.

***

“Ladies and Gentlemen, will all people waiting for the Cape Town flight, please assemble in the cafeteria? Immediately, if you please. We also respectfully request all other customers to leave the area. We have an important announcement to make. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused by this. Thank you.”

The woman next to Gertruida sighs, throws her hands in the air and stomps off towards the cafeteria in a rather dramatic way. Gertruida, however, stands rooted to the spot for a while. She knows… Something inside her shrinks to a painful little ball of sadness and loss as she makes her way blindly towards the gathering point. This, she knows, will be unpleasant.

The cafeteria was never designed for something like this. The crowd gathers in silence, like troops waiting for the first shots in an ambush. There’s a collective feeling of doom, making conversation impossible.

A dishevelled man in a rumpled suit climbs on a chair, holding up an unneccesary hand for silence; in the quiet, you’d hear a pin drop, anyway.

“I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you.” Now a collective murmur sweeps through the small crowd. “We’ve lost all contact with the flight carrying your loved ones.” The murmur becomes a buzz. “Please people. there’s no easy way of doing this.” He waits for the uneasy silence before continuing. “We had a sort-of Mayday about fifteen minutes ago. The undercarriage refused to come down, and the pilot notified the tower. Subsequently, all communication with the aircraft has ceased.” He pauses to let it sink in. “However, we kept track of the plane by radar. The pilot seemed to be doing the right thing, flying in wide circles to burn up as much fuel as possible. However, the last sighting on the radar was almost two hundred kilometres away, to the North-East of Upington.

“We’ve notified the authorities and they are busy – as we speak – scrambling emergency personnel and resources to engage in a search as soon as possible. Aircraft and helicopters will leave from Kimberley as soon as possible.

“Now I suggest that you await further developments in the lounge of the Kalahari Oasis Resort, where a special area is being prepared for you. Alternatively, you can go home – but please leave your contact number so we can notify you as soon as we’ve got anything new.

“I’s sorry, that’s all I can tell you now, because that’s all I know. Please remain calm, and don’t speculate. Please refrain from spreading rumours. I’m sure the media will have a field day on this, and we want to limit the trauma to loved ones.

“Thank you… Oh, there will be counsellors and clergymen available at Oasis. Pleas talk too them.”

With that, the man hurries from the area. This is the biggest emergency he’s ever had to handle; the worried faces of the crowd are almost too much to bear. Who, he wonders, counsels the counsellors and other workers?

Gertruida doesn’t follow the rest to Oasis. It’s no use to sit around with a lot of uncertain, anxious people telling each other how worried they are. She leaves her number and gets into her car to race back to Rolbos. Besides, the last know position of the plane puts it in the vicinity of Rolbos…doesn’t it?

As she reaches the tarred road to Grootdrink she wonders about the woman with the De Vil face – was she smiling when the man spoke to them? Or was it dismayed grimace? She can’t decide.

***

Fighting the controls with all his might, Captain Mokoena feels the nose of the aircraft lift ever so slightly. And then there – THERE! – is what seems to be a gravel road, straight as an arrow, cutting through the desert, Banking slightly to line the plane up with the only potential landing area, he glances again at the dead instrument panel, hoping to get some help from it. Without an indication of speed, height, wind…nothing…he’d need a miracle to get the craft on the ground.  He guesses the altitude to be about eight hundred metres above the ground, tries the landing gear again, crosses himself, and the opens the flaps to lose speed.

In the cabin behind him, an eerie silence settles amongst the passengers. They can see the ground now; the shadow of the aircraft racing across the stunted bushes and trees of the desert. White-knuckled hands grip the arm rests. Somebody starts whispering: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven…

And Doc Woodcock, chased by a thousand nightmares and fears, feels sanity drain from his mind. The human brain is a finely-tuned machine. Like the aircraft, it has numerous safety mechanisms and backup systems to cope with almost any input it receives. The condition we  define as ‘sane’ or ‘normal’ depends of minute amounts of neurotransmitters being released at the right time, to maintain a balance between primitive urges and logical reasoning. Even so, sometimes the brain receives such a surge in input, that logic falters. We call that: ‘panic’. Should the inflow of terrifying information be even more overwhelming, the rational though-process may be damaged permanently. This is called ‘madness‘.

In Doc Woodcock’s troubled brain, the overloaded circuits experience a similar situation to that which happened to the much less complicated controlling systems of the aircraft. One after the other, they short out. He can’t…can’t…be living through this. He’s going to die. Logic and reason has no place in his brain any more. He doesn’t notice the wetness on his seat as he bites down, hard, on his wrist in a desperate effort to believe he can still wake up from this dream.

Then the blood starts flowing the pain becomes unbearable- and he starts screaming.

This time, his shrill voice mingles with the noise of the reverse thrust Captain Mokoena manages to engage as the rutted tract to Rolbos rushes up to meet the belly of the plane.

The Curious Disability of Society

Credit: Independant.co.uk

Credit: Independant.co.uk

“He won gold in the Paralympics in 2004. It wasn’t enough. He was 18 years of age, and determined to make his mark in the Olympics – the real competition, against men with real legs.” Gertruida is in her lecture-mode, her tone of voice grave, knowledgeable and informative. The patrons at the bar know this is not the time to interrupt or ask questions. “One has to remember he’s a born competitor. He only started running at the age of 16, because he tried to rehabilitate a knee he injured while playing rugby. Imagine that? Playing rugby with no legs. It makes you think.”

“Now remember: his legs were amputated at 11 months of age. His parents divorced when he was six. To compete with normal kids was a natural instinct and he showed athletic promise early. He boxed, wrestled and played cricket. One can assume his disability served to encourage him to prove himself.

“Now, psychologists will tell you this is more common than you’d like to think. Many disabled people find a way to the top by sheer grit and determination. Part of the picture is overcoming insecurity. You have to accept who and what you are, and then find ways to compensate for the specific handicap you have. Combine a genetic disorder, an unhappy childhood and obvious physical deformity, and there are a thousand reasons why somebody might just give up and allow life to sweep them along. But not this chap. He used his heartaches to be the fuel in the furnace to build up steam. He was going places – despite what Life dished out to him.

“To do that, he learnt to trust his own judgement. What other people thought or said, didn’t matter. Initially he was viewed as a curiosity on the track, but soon his determination started paying off. The small-town nobody became a part of Olympic history. Reporters loved his story. Disabled people right across the world were encouraged to rise above adversity by his efforts. He became a hero…

“But deep down, the scars of the past remained, like they always do in all of us. The struggle for so-called normality. The broken home. The loss of his parents. Maybe that was the source of a gnawing insecurity – or maybe his achievements compensated for them. In the end we get to the 12th of February. He found the love of his life. Oh, I’m sure he knew his athletic ability won’t last. No athlete goes on forever.  But love…now there’s something to accompany you on the journey through life. This was something he couldn’t bear losing. This was something he’d want to protect with his life.”

Servaas holds up a hand. “No, Gertruida, you can’t be sure of all that. You’re guessing.”

“You’re right, Servaas. I am guessing. But in contrast to public opinion, I’m trying to paint a different picture.”

“You’re still assuming things you have no right to.” Servaas can be extremely obstinate.

“Okay.” Gertruida sighs. “Let’s assume then. Let’s assume we have to do with a fragile personality that’s used to losing the most important people in his life. He has achieved the impossible on the athletic track. Lets assume he’s looking ahead at the future, and will lay down his life to protect the love he’s discovered. And lets assume he picked up the gun, just like he said, to protect the woman in his bed.

“Lets assume he fires off the shots, and turns back to talk to her. Let’s assume the horror of the realisation of what he’d done. And let’s assume it is the one single moment that’ll haunt him for ever more.”

“Too many holes in that argument, Gertruida. Why didn’t he call the police or security people. Why didn’t he wake her up first? Why didn’t he know she’s not in bed?” Servaas shakes his head in disgust. “The pieces in your puzzle doesn’t fit.”

“Sure, Servaas. We have the luxury of thinking and analysing and being terribly clever. People around the world have mulled over this for endless hours.

“But he didn’t have the time. He acted. He got out of the starting blocks so fast, he completely forgot to check the basics. And he made the most disastrous mistake of all. Why? I’ll tell you why. I’m assuming it was a subconscious, automatic action to protect his love. He panicked. His thought processes stalled. He became the caveman, protecting his possessions. He stormed the lion with a club and wrecked his life.

“And once again, he lost what he desperately wanted to preserve. Broken home, dead mother, murdered love. And that’s why you saw the face in the court. He’s devastated – only this time, he was responsible for the loss.”

“You’re a good Christian, Getruida. You look at the bright side, searching for a nice answer to a terrible tragedy. I respect that, but I’ll wait for the court case.” Servaas isn’t convinced, but some of the things Gertruida said, gnaws at his conscience. “You can’t possibly say he wasn’t responsible for her death, though.”

“Sadly, no. He’ll have to face the wrath of the law for that. You can’t kill somebody and then argue innocence. All I’m trying to do, is to understand, that’s all.

“What I don’t understand, is the public outcry. If this was just another horrible mistake or some family tragedy, CNN and BBC  and Sky wouldn’t have bothered. But because of the man he is, and because of the woman she was, it has become world news.

“Society loves drama. They dress it up and dissect it. They love to see a hero fall. Sometimes I’m convinced about a universal disability – we just don’t do compassion any more. Find him guilty, if you want. Send him to jail, if you like. If it was premeditated – let him feel the force of law. But if this is a case of an insecure man who panicked and made a disastrous decision…well, then I feel for him. He is guilty of shooting the girl. No question. But what was in his heart when he pulled the trigger? And that, my friends, is what the judge must rest his sentence on.”

“I don’t know, Gertruida…”

“Look, Servaas, you’ve made up your mind. It’s your right to do so. I’m just saying Oscar isn’t the only disabled person in the accused dock right now. We – all of us – are suffering from a variety disabilities right now. We don’t know enough. We can’t see the suffering of the two families. We don’t want to hear any other explanations. And we avoid feeling the pain of those directly involved in the tragedy.

“They say you must walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes to understand him. Society, Servaas, has never balanced on those blades. That’s their disability. They didn’t hear the roar of the crowd in London when he ran that race. They can’t hear the scream of pain when he stands, head bowed, in front of the cameramen. And society – with nothing better to do – will rather condemn than be compassionate. That’s our disability, Servaas, and there’s no prosthesis for that.”