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  • Max Brown, PhD

The Bad Back*

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

A fellow novelist I know recently blew out her lower back. She lamented, from the depths of her pain, that it seems to be a rite of passage for the 40-somethings. She was surprised at how unpleasant the experience is (almost everyone is unprepared for the discomfort and immobility), but accepted it as just one more inconvenience visited on us by a capricious universe. That response may hold for women; for guys, it's a different story:

First, a guy blows out his back doing a guy thing: impulsive, daring, a little stupid, but in the eyes of other guys, admirable.

Second, the back episode doesn’t indicate a weakness or flaw. Real guys have no flaws. It has to be an injury. Never a soft mattress or sign of age.  Third, although more painful than anyone else’s back blow-out ever, he never loses his sense of humor, or slows down.

And like any guy story, it has to be told in an awe-shucks, self-deprecating, but fundamentally boastful way. You’ve seen Top Gun, right? Everyone’s seen it. Tom Cruise flies recklessly and smirks from start to finish. Although he does doubt himself. Real life is different. Great Pilots never doubt themselves. Here’s my real life story.  Like Tom’s character, Maverick, I was, for many years, a jet pilot. I say this with no hint of boasting or pride. (Well, no, that’s not true. I am proud of the fact that I can do things with an airplane that would cause most folks to wet themselves.) I have always been a Great Stick and this is important to the story. A Great Stick can do endless rolls without losing his orientation. He can fly upside down for long periods with ease. And he can pull as many g’s as are experienced in a rocket launch and do it day after day, hour after hour. And never black out. A Great Stick is first in every class or competition. That’s how choice assignments are awarded and it determines who is the center of attention. Very important: a Great Stick never says no to a flight or a dare.  G’s are hard. At 6 g’s every part of your body weighs six times as much as normal. Your 12 pound head weighs 72 pounds and presses down on a neck built to support, well, 12 pounds. My 170 pound body weighs half a ton at six g's. Naturally, the back takes a beating. But we do it because that’s what jet jocks do. Jet jocks play hard, especially around other jet jocks. If you're the best pilot, this is evidence of innate superiority, superiority that should show up in anything you put your hand to.  In this case my hand fell to waterskiing. I had not done this before, but if lesser pilots could do it, I could as well. The setting is a USAF party at a lake in Arizona. After a few embarrassing tumbles trying to get launched I was up on the skis and bouncing across the small waves. My fellow pilots in the boat opened more beers, increased speed and started cutting across wakes. Bigger bounces.  Swallowing pride I signaled for a reduction in speed. No dice. The boat’s throttle was pushed forward. The intention of my friends/competitors was to up the difficulty until I fell. Which, of course, I did. The ski tips went into a small wave, I went over them, landed on my chest and skidded across the lake, and kicked myself in the back of my head.  That backward fold up, that’s how I blew out a disk.  Normal mortals take to their beds. Great Sticks go out to the plane and resume pulling g’s. It wasn't just pilot ego. I was first in my pilot-training class. If I paused to heal and dropped back one or more classes, would my #1 ranking go with me? I toughed it out, finished first, got my pick of the assignments, and America is a safer place today.  But my back does kick up from time to time. Please don’t tell the other jocks. 

*If you google 'back problems' you'll get 5.6 BILLION hits. Google 'heart problems'; one-tenth that number.

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