Our Mutual Brain Damage (Special Guest Star: Clyde Edgerton)

categories: Cocktail Hour


I was on our creative writing hallway yesterday chatting with my colleague Clyde Edgerton. We both like to talk, and we’re not terrible listeners either (able to mimic the appropriate facial expressions: all the head bobs, nods, and laughs that indicate interest) and sometimes a brief stop by his door can last upwards of half an hour. We also share a similar rambling not-entirely logical style of talking and, as it happened, this time we may have hit upon the roots of that mutual style. As it turns out, we both have brain damage.

I’m serious. At different points of our life we both had our oxygen supplies cut off (could this have something to do with our career choices?). Anyway, I’ll let Clyde tell his story first:

* * *

Thanks David, this is my first time on a blog. I understand, first of all, that this is not a place to plug your work, like the novel THE NIGHT TRAIN-mine-coming out in July. 25th to be exact. So I’ll get right to the point of, ah, Oxygen Loss causing brain damage. When I was about twenty-two years old in US Air Force pilot training (1966), a requirement was to go to high altitude in an “altitude chamber” to see what your personal response to a loss of oxygen might be. The “altitude chamber” sits in a building and seats about 15 people (as I remember-can’t remember it too well) on a bench around the perimeter of the inside of the chamber. Someone outside the chamber can reduce oxygen in the chamber to simulate the amount of oxygen at 18,000 feet above sea level and so on up to above 30,000 feet or so. I think I cover all this in my memoir, SOLO, published in 2005, available in most bookstores, still in print, etc. I make a small royalty off copies sold even today. So . . . you’re in the chamber and while you’re wearing your oxygen mask you get a full supply of oxygen but if you take it off, you get the oxygen available in the chamber-corresponding to a specific high altitude set on the meter outside the chamber. I don’t cover any of this in my new novel, THE NIGHT TRAIN, due in July of this year, 2011. Did I forget the year of publication when I think I mentioned it earlier. Anyway, first off, they take fifteen of us up past 18,000 feet (where the amount of oxygen is about one-half of what it is at sea level), and after a few minutes we each experience say a head-ache, or tingly finger-tips or some other personal response to the lack of sufficient oxygen, and then later, after we become full-fledged pilots and start flying a real airplane at height altitudes, if our oxygen-unbeknownst to us-stops coming through the mask for some reason (it has no smell, feel, etc.), we can detect this certain idiosyncratic sensation or sensations and say to ourselves, “Hey, I must not be getting oxygen through my mask.” Then we can descend our aircraft to a lower altitude and save our ass. I thought about covering some flying stuff in my new novel, THE NIGHT TRAIN, due in July, but decided against it. Well, here’s the deal. After that first little exercise when you learn how you, personally, respond to a loss of oxygen, they say, “Can we have a volunteer?” (I forgot for some reason to tell you that they show everybody that the skin beneath your fingernails begins to turn blue as you lose significant oxygen.) I, being eager to please, said, “Take me.” That may not be a direct quote-but something like that. So, here’s what they do. They tell each pilot to put on his (no women pilots yet, in 1962-many years before my first novel in 1985, RANEY) oxygen mask except me-I’m the guinea pig– and then they put a flat board in front of me with a bunch of round and square holes in it. Beside me on the bench is a box with pegs, some square, some round. I’ll bet you see what’s coming-in part because you’ve never suffered oxygen loss to damage your thinking capabilities. I don’t mean to make light of it . . . Now, a term we’ve learned in our training, and I remember it well, is T.U.C. It stands for Time of Useful Consciousness. We had been taught that at about 30,000 feet without oxygen your T.U.C is about a minute. I think that’s right. So, here’s what happens next. People watch me fill the round and square holes for thirty seconds or so until I begin to get confused, trying to, as you might imagine, fill square holes with round pegs and vice versa. I was feeling no particular pain and I was serving my country by showing other pilots-to-be how stupid you can get without oxygen. Chances are if you try to fill a square hole with a round peg you’d be unable to safely fly an aircraft (that’s not on automatic pilot). So at just about my T.U.C somebody strapped my oxygen mask over my mouth. If they’d handed it to me, I would have tried to put it in one of the little holes. I recovered, but now believe my brain was damaged and my memory suffered. Before that day I had memorized THE ILIAD, which I did not write, and ULYSSES and such. I had a great memory, but a few weeks after the oxygen thing I forgot who my girlfriend was and started dating another girl and that kind of thing went on for several years, and so on. Other things happened which told me that my brain was damaged that day in 1966 because of loss of oxygen. So that’s the story. Thanks, David.

* * *

Thank you, Clyde.  I admire both your service to your country and your shameless self-promotion.  My story is not merely as dramatic. Birth, like most of my beginnings, wasn’t pretty or easy.  My oxygen supply was cut off by my umbilical cord strangling me.  Since I couldn’t breath, they tried to get me out fast but coudln’t.  After conventional methods failed, the doctor grabbed my cheeks with forceps and attempted to wrench me out, leaving pockmarks on my newborn skin that you can still see today.  (“He’s beautiful,” my grandmother lied to my mother, at which point she burst into tears.)  When the forceps failed, they resorted to a brand new device, a sort of high tech bathroom plunger, to extract me from the womb.  Clearly I did not want out. I’m not sure how long I was without oxygen and I’m pretty sure they didn’t make me put any square pegs in round holes or any of that.  No, it was straight to the incubator for me.

What I wonder now is: who had it worse, you or me?  You, to have soared so high only to have been (metaphorically) grounded?  Or me never having known flight at all?  Or, to switch up metaphors: me, blind since birth, or you, having lost your sight at twenty-two?  Unlike you, I will never know what it was like to have memorized the Iliad or to have ever remembered my keys….

But maybe there is a happier way to look at this.  Maybe our brain damage helps define us.  In William Manchester’s biography of Churchill he writes of “zig-zagging lightning in Churchill’s brain.”  Maybe our brief lack of oxygen helped us putz up the logical part of our brains, and helped us zig and zag, and maybe without it we would have ended up mere nuclear physicists or brain surgeons. Maybe….

Anyway, I cover all this in MY GREEN MANIFESTO, due out in July with Milkweed Editions.

  1. Britta writes:

    Hmm … I think I want a brain damage too, if that can make you write like this!! Well, I think I already have one, being from Denmark!!

    Love this blog, I will certainly read more …

    Thanks …

  2. Patti writes:

    I found this via Clyde’s site. Love this blog! If you want more fun, and in the spirit of shameless self-promotion…www.anothermonthofsundays.wordpress.com

    It’s stories about my crazy JoCo Family!

    Can’t wait to read more from ya’ll!!!

  3. Bill Diskin writes:

    I bet Faulkner never got much oxygen…

  4. Rebecca writes:
  5. nina writes:

    Wonderful guest spot by Clyde. If sentences read like this after brain damage, bring it on!

  6. Dave writes:

    Thanks, Henri. If we meet we promise to keep it short.

  7. Henri writes:

    I hope I never cross paths with either one of you – or if I do- that I am spared a conversation that lasts more than 20 seconds.