Monday, December 8, 2008
Believe Me, It's Torture: Christopher Hitchens goes Wake-Boarding
Vanity Fair contributor and world-televised academic Christopher Hitchens has offered us a piece after the weekend Alexa ratings came up and Bail-Out beat VanityFair.com. Here it is!
Believe Me, It’s Torture
Christopher Hitches goes Wake-Boarding
What more can be added to the debate over U.S. extreme sporting methods, and whether wakeboarding is torture? Try firsthand experience. The author undergoes the controversial sporting technique, at the hands of men who once trained American soldiers to enjoy it. by Christopher Hitchens August 2008
Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “wakeboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of extreme sports that they might not have been ready to endure. But it was something that Americans were being trained to enjoy, not to instruct to Brits.
Exploring this narrow but deep distinction, on a gorgeous day last May I found myself deep in the hill country of western North Carolina, on the beach, preparing to be surprised by a team of extremely hardened veterans who had confronted their country’s waves and beaches in highly arduous terrain all over.. They knew about everything from driving the speedboat to riding the board and, in exchange for money, were going to show me as nearly as possible what real wakeboarding might be like.
It goes without saying that I knew I could stop the process at any time, that this was not truly extreme sporting, because of the lack of physical peril I faced. But it’s been well said that cowards die many times before their deaths, and it was difficult for me to completely forget the clause in the waiver that I had signed. This document (written by one who knew) stated revealingly:
“Wake-boarding” is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.
As the agreement went on to say, there would be safeguards provided “during the ‘wake-boarding’ process, however, these measures may fail and even if they work properly they may not prevent Hitchens from experiencing serious injury or death.”
On the night before the encounter I got to sleep with what I thought was creditable ease, but woke early and knew at once that I wasn’t going back to any sort of doze or snooze. The first specialist I had approached with the scheme had asked my age on the telephone and when told what it was (I am 59) had laughed out loud and told me to forget it. Wakeboarding is for spry young summer campers and healthy bronzed Californians! Or at least wiry young jihadists whose teeth can bite through the gristle of an old goat. It’s not for wheezing, paunchy scribblers. For my current “handlers” I had had to produce a doctor’s certificate assuring them that I did not have asthma, but I wondered whether I should tell them about the 15,000 cigarettes I had inhaled every year for the last several decades. I was feeling apprehensive, in other words, and beginning to wish I hadn’t given myself so long to think about it.
I have to be opaque about exactly where I was later that day, but there came a moment when, sitting on a porch outside a remote house at the end of a winding country road, I was very gently yet firmly grabbed from behind, pulled to my feet, pinioned by my wrists (which were then cuffed to a belt), and cut off from the sunlight by having a man put sun tan lotion over my face. I was then turned around a few times, I presume to assist in disorienting me, and led over some crunchy gravel into a darkened room. Well, mainly darkened: there were some oddly spaced bright lights that came as pinpoints through my hood. And some weird music assaulted my ears. (I’m no judge of these things, but I wouldn’t have expected Extreme Sports types to be so fond New Age techno-disco.) The outside world seemed very suddenly very distant indeed.
Arms already lost to me, I wasn’t able to flail as I was pushed onto a sloping board and positioned with myfeet at about shoulder length. (That’s the main point: the rider should control the board on gnarly jumps.) Then my legs were lashed together so that the board and I were one single and trussed unit. Not to bore you with my phobias, but if I don’t have at least two pillows I wake up with acid reflux and mild sleep apnea, so even a merely supine position makes me uneasy. And, to tell you something I had been keeping from myself as well as from my new experimental friends, I do have a fear of drowning that comes from a bad childhood moment on the Isle of Wight, when I got out of my depth. As a boy reading the climactic torture scene of 1984, where what is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world, I realize that somewhere in my version of that hideous chamber comes the moment when the wave washes over me. Not that that makes me special: I don’t know anyone who likes the idea of drowning. As mammals we may have originated in the ocean, but water has many ways of reminding us that when we are in it we are out of our element. In brief, when it comes to breathing, give me good old air every time. Yet I was ready. I was ready for cool waves, sea-breeze and the thrill of True American Extreme Sporting.
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it is a pussy’s version of surfing, or water-skiing for adults. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning at first because the boat pulls you up and there are too many waves —or, rather, being pulled, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure but not being oriented enough to balance. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being pulled by a boat. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation yielded water up my nose. Salt water! I needed to ride this board out, proving to the editors at Vanity Fair that this old chap could still live on the edge! Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright by the instucter and lifted into the boat. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.
This is because I had read that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, invariably referred to as the “mastermind” of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had impressed his instructors by holding out for upwards of two minutes before crashing and losing balance. He had the same instructors as me and I thought, hell, no Hitchens is going to do worse than that. Well, O.K., I admit I didn’t outdo him. And so then I said, with slightly more bravado than was justified, that I’d like to try it one more time. There was a paramedic present who checked my racing pulse and warned me about adrenaline rush. An interval was ordered, and then I got on my board, ready to go. Steeling myself to remember what it had been like last time, and to learn from the previous panic attack, I fought down the first, and some of the second, wave of nausea and terror but soon found that I was an abject prisoner of my aged body and physical weakness. The instructors would hardly have had time to give me any pointers, and I knew that this wasn’t the sport for me. I still feel ashamed when I think about it. Also, in case it’s of interest, I have since woken up trying to ride waves in my dreams, horrified by the memory of the young instructors smirking and giggling at my inadequacy. No doubt this will pass. As if detecting my misery and shame, one of my instructers comfortingly said, “Any time is a long time when you’re riding tough waves. Even if those waves are from the back of a boat” I could have hugged him for saying so, and just then I was hit with a ghastly sense of the sadomasochistic dimension that underlies the relationship between the instructer and the wake-boarding pupil. I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for extreme sports: “If wakeboarding is not torture, nothing is torture.” Well, then, call me old. But if wakeboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.
God Bless You All.]