28 Days of Inspiration – Day 24

Robert Cook

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Robert Cook and Kimberly Dear. Photo from Sobify

On July 29, 2006 a chartered skydiving plane experienced engine failure and began a fall to earth with eight people on board.  The plane crashed, killing 6 of the people on board – one of whom was 22-year old instructor Robert Cook.

According to ABC News, there is an average of five small plane crashes each day, resulting in approximately 500 deaths annually. Obviously the numbers vary from year to year but the over arching theme is that it’s not infrequent a small plane of this kind crashes – it happens every day – nor, sadly, is it infrequent someone dies in a crash.  What is infrequent is that a survivor can tell the tale of someone like Robert Cook.

Kimberly Dear was on the plane to do a tandem jump with Robert, and as such was harnessed in with him.  She reports that when he realized the plane was going to crash, he harnessed her to him, and held her to his body.

A few days after the crash, her father reported to a local newspaper that:

“He said to her: ‘As the plane is about to hit the ground, make sure you’re on top of me so that I’ll take the force of the impact.’

“The plane actually hit, they believe, a power pole or a power line and it went into a vertical situation, and she became a little bit disoriented, but she felt Robert actually twist his body around until Kim was on top of him and when the plane hit the ground.”

“He took the full force of the impact.”

They had just met that day – she was on vacation from Australia and he was on the planet to instruct others how to skydive.   Yet, he made sure she was going to survive the crash.  Who knows, maybe he knew there was no way he was going to survive.  Maybe he thought this was his best chance of survival.  Maybe his training kicked in.  Or maybe, just maybe, he did what he believed was the right thing to do: to protect someone else from as much harm as possible. He voluntarily gave his life – by any account I could find – so that someone else could live.  In March of 2008, the Australian government awarded him The Star of Courage, an honor for conspicuous bravery in times of peril usually reserved for Australians but is also awarded to foreign nationals acting on behalf of an Australian and is ranked second in the Australian civil bravery decorations in the Australian Honours System.

It took years of rehabilitation, and her body was severely broken, but her spine was not.  She learned to walk again and lived her life.  She married and started a family because of this man she had met only hours before a fateful plane crash protected her and allowed her to continue living her life.

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28 Days of Inspiration – Day 22

Witold Pilecki Auschwitz Prisoner 4859

Unless you’re a particularly studious student of the second World War, you’ve not likely heard the name Witold Pilecki.  He was a Polish solider who was executed in 1948 for espionage and his story was largely supressed by the Polish government until 1989.  If you’re particularly astute, you’ll remember the Communist hold on Poland collapsed in 1989.

“The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors,” Storozynski explains. “About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating.”

NPR Story September 18, 2010

While his trial was largely a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome, he after all WAS a foreign agent if you’re a 1940’s Stalinist – he remained loyal to the Polish government in exile – and given that the Stalinists did take over Poland for the better part of 50 years, if that had been all Pilecki had done I would still consider him to be an inspirational character; giving one’s life for the greater good while resisting injustice is always going to be a call for selflessness and to be better, which is a good reason despots wish to quash such rebellion.

But he had a greater role in the history of the 1940’s and indeed arguably saved the lives of millions of people.

Pilecki created a plan by which he would be incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp and would then report back what was happening. It was through his work the world outside the Nazi diaspora learned that these were in fact not internment camps, but rather death camps.  While he was there, he joined an underground movement, built a radio transmitter built from smuggled parts, reported to the Polish resistance what the camp was, number of prisoners, conditions, and more. After three years of backbreaking work, he managed to break out of Auschwitz, with documents stolen from the Nazis in his possession.

I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.

— After the announcement of the death sentence, Bartłomiej Kuraś, Witold Pilecki – w Auschwitzu z własnej woli, „Ale Historia”, w: „Gazeta Wyborcza”, 22 kwietnia 2013.

Consider that he was a highly skilled operative who used his skills to build morale among the prisoners, and to provide the Polish government the information it would need to first defeat the Nazis, then the Communists, with the hope of returning to power.  When it became clear that the post-war would not see the return of the exiled government, he was ordered to cease his information gathering on the Communists and escape – orders he declined and was ultimately arrested.   He was tortured, but never revealed information on his fellow operatives.

Clearly he was a patriot of Free Poland, but because of his heroism, the world learned of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and galvanized the world against such heinous acts…by volunteering to be imprisoned.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 4

James Stockdale

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Rear Admiral Stockdale in full dress uniform; US Navy File Photo  www.navy.mil/iew_image.asp?id+25931

The 1960’s are remembered for high profile assassinations, Beatles, love-ins, and Vietnam War protests. A lot is taught in school about the decade of the 60’s but never once did I learn anything about Admiral James Stockdale.

While young men here in the United States resisted military service, perhaps fled to Canada, Stockdale was imprisoned in North Vietnam.  He spent eight years in captivity from 1965-1973 after being shot down and was the highest ranking officer to be held captive there. To put that in perspective, as it turns out eight years was just about 10% of the man’s life.

On September 9, 1965 he ejected from his disabled plane over North Vietnam, landed in a small village, was beaten and taken prisoner.

He relied on stoicism to keep himself grounded and to keep from being defeated.  He was beaten with his shoulders dislocated, legs and back broken, and his will assaulted.  Yet he never gave an inch.  Consider this: as an admiral, he led prisoner resistance.  According to his Medal of Honor citation, he resisted participating in prisoner exploitation by deliberately disfiguring himself; he did this with a razor to cut his scalp and when the Vietnamese tried to cover that wound with a hat, he literally beat himself in the face until it became so swollen as to be unrecognizable.  He slit his own wrists, a near mortal wound, to demonstrate he would not capitulate. He was kept in solitary confinement in a small cell, lights on 24-hours a day, in leg shackles for the majority of those 8-years in captivity.

In Good to Great author Jim Collins talks about “the Stockdale Paradox.”  Simply put, it boils down to this quote:

“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — James Stockdale.

Those who didn’t make it out were the “optimists.” The men who retained optimism with the groundless belief that they would be out by Christmas, were continually defeated and eventually lost faith that they would make it out.  The idea was that in order to be able to be resilient and see what may lie beyond, one has to acknowledge the current situation objectively.  He knew how dire his situation was, but he still had the faith to believe he was going to make it through.  More to the point, he had to accept his situation as what he had to endure and what he was fighting through.  This wasn’t a temporary situation that would resolve itself with time, it was a static feature that was only going to change with his action.  And it wasn’t going to be overnight, there were no simple fixes.

He returned home, willed himself to health – presumably via the same force of will demonstrated in the paradox quote – and resumed his military career becoming a university President and scholar.

Whatever hard time you’re going through, I urge you to consider the lessons of James Stockdale.  Honor, integrity, resilience.

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 1

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace , daughter of Lord Byron, is considered to be the first computer programmer, albeit not without some controversy around that moniker; because Babbage’s ego was too big to allow her credit, or perhaps more precisely too big to allow a woman to share credit .  She is, however, the first person to write an algorithm to be carried out by a computer – in this case Charles Babbage’s analog general purpose Analytical Engine.  Oh, and by the way, this was in the early part of the 1800’s.

Her mathematical prowess enabled her to annotate a transcript of Babbage’s seminar at the University of Turin, annotations that were vastly longer than the transcript itself.  The notes, categorized A-G, were published along with the transcript.  Note G in specific is known for being the first algorithm to be written specifically for a computer to carry out.

She died at the age of 36 of uterine cancer, a diagnosis which today can often be cured. In 1852 however, it was a painful, terminal disease.

October 11 is Ada Lovelace day – a day dedicated to women in Science and Technology with the stated purpose of increasing awareness of the contributions of women to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathmatics) sciences and promote the hard sciences to young women considering their future.

ALD as it’s abbreviated, is based in the UK, but the mission and belief system should be universal.  Why wouldn’t you want to invest in young women making a difference in hard sciences?

 

28 Days of Inspiration

I cannot remember a Presidential election where I was as despondent about the candidates and what the future looks like as I am in 2016.  It’s hard to say if it’s the vitriol from the campaigns, the news of the world around us, general political machinations, or just reading friends’ posts on Facebook – as much as I enjoy fighting with strangers on the internet, I’m finding after a while it takes its toll even on me.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to make the time honored choice and opt out of the nonsense.  I’ve made my mind up about the candidate for whom I’m voting and it’s not likely your Facebook post is going to change that, and it’s not likely one more argument with a stranger is going to make my candidate receive any more votes, and while I can’t change anyone else’s tone, I can change mine; as such I will follow Gandhi’s teaching and be the change I wish to see in the world.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

When there’s too much negativity, you have some choices.  You can opt out, you can participate, or you can endeavor to change the direction of the conversation.  Today, I’m going to make the choice to endeavor to change the conversation.  You’re welcome to join me in my goal to spread inspiration instead of negativity for the next 28 days.

Here are my days of inspiration, the subjects chosen in no particular order.  The order of their appearance doesn’t mean any one is any more inspirational to me than any other; my hope is that you find some inspiration to move you forward, it’s not to rank order the relative merits of any one subject’s worthiness.

Day 1 – Ada Lovelace Day
Day 2 – Maurice Sendak
Day 3 – Joel Chavez
Day 4 – Admiral James Stockdale
Day 5 – King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Day 6 – George Washington Carver
Day 7 – O’Connor Valor Fund
Day 8 – Giving Dap
Day 9 – Apologies
Day 10 – Acting with Intention
Day 11 – Julie Creffield
Day 12 – Foster Parents
Day 13 – The 2016 World Series
Day 14 – Because I Said I Would
Day 15 – Rucksgiving
Day 16 – Team With a Vision
Day 17 – Paul Baran
Day 18 – The Principles of Unitarianism
Day 19 – New Horizons
Day 20 – Daniel Kish
Day 21 – Patrick Downes & Jessica Kensky and Adrianne Haslet-Davis
Day 22 – Witold Pilecki
Day 23 – 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg
Day 24 – Robert Cook
Day 25 – Setting Goals, Working Plans
Day 26 – Cliff Young
Day 27 – Nana Asma’u
Day 28  – Family by Choice: Adoption