By Eben Alexander, MD
196 pages; Simon & Schuster
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A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
When I was a kid, I would often dream of flying.
Most of the time I’d be standing out in my yard at night, looking up at the stars, when out of the blue I'd start floating upward. The first few inches happened automatically. But soon I'd notice that the higher I got, the more my progress depended on me—on what I did. If I got too excited, too swept away by the experience, I would plummet back to the ground... hard. But if I played it cool, took it all in stride, then off I would go, faster and faster, up into the starry sky.
Maybe those dreams were part of the reason why, as I got older, I fell in love with airplanes and rockets—with anything that might get me back up there in the world above this one. When our family flew, my face was pressed flat to the window from takeoff to landing. In the summer of 1968 when I was fourteen, I spent all the money I'd earned mowing lawns on a set of sailplane lessons with a guy named Gus Street at Strawberry Hill, a little grass strip "airport" just west of Winston-Salem, the town where I grew up. I still remember the feeling of my heart pounding as I pulled the big cherry red knob that unhooked the rope connecting me to the tow-plane and banked my sailplane toward the field. It was the first time I had ever felt truly alone and free. Most of my friends got that feeling in cars, but for my money being a thousand feet up in a sailplane beat that thrill a thousand times over.
In college in the 1970's I joined the University of North Carolina Sport Parachuting (or Skydiving) Team. It felt like a secret brotherhood—a group of people who knew about something special and magical. My first jump was terrifying, and the second even more so. But by my twelfth jump, when I stepped out the door and had to fall for more than a thousand feet before opening my parachute (my first "10 second delay"), I knew I was home. I made 365 parachute jumps in college and logged over three and a half hours in freefall, mainly in formations with up to 25 fellow jumpers. Although I stopped jumping in 1976, I continued to enjoy vivid dreams about skydiving, which were always pleasant.
The best jumps were often late in the afternoon, when the sun was starting to sink beneath the horizon. It's hard to describe the feeling I would get on those jumps: a feeling of getting close to something that I could never quite name but that I knew I had to have more of. It wasn't solitude exactly, because the way we dived there actually wasn't all that much of that. We'd jump five, six, sometimes ten or twelve people at a time, building freefall formations. The bigger and the more challenging, the better.