Adventures from Back of Beyond

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Another Terrifying Moment

Another of my life's most utterly terrifying moments came when I was 21, while sleeping outdoors on the grounds of an English castle.

Three days prior, I had left my home and family in California. I would not sleep for roughly 72 straight hours. It was to be a completely experienced-filled 72 hours.

Traveling solo, my parents and good friend Dale saw me off at the LAX airport. At the gate, Dale gave me a little going-away gift that proved to be somewhat prescient. It was an ordinary box of Cracker Jax.

Later, sitting in a window seat on an Air Canada 747 somewhere over the Atlantic, I opened the box. Inside, besides the Cracker Jax, was the "prize" that was present in every box. Mine contained a fortune. Traveling with trepidation as I was, young and alone going to a strange foreign land with no set date of return, I was floored by what that simple fortune said. I remember it still today word for word:

"If you are a boy, today will be your lucky day."

Deplaning at London's Heathrow Airport, I was utterly lost and had absolutely no idea where to go or what to do next. I hadn't thought about where I would sleep that night.

I must've looked the part, because soon, while still wandering in the terminal, another American, a young man about my age, walked up and started a conversation.

This was 1973, a simpler and safer era. The clothes you wore and hairstyle immediately marked you as cool or uncool, hippie or square. Back then, young people talked to other young people who were complete strangers and made an immediate connection, much more so than in today's fragmented world.

His name was Rob Wall, and he was from Braintree, Mass. His father was a pilot with American Airlines, and he had this little ID card that functioned much like a ticket good on any airline. If there was room on the plane, he could just get on and go. So he traveled to Europe regularly, sometimes just for the day, just to do it.

Rob invited to me to tag along with him. He was visiting his friend who was studying at London College. We could stay with him free in the dorms, and probably eat free too in the cafeteria.

That sounded like a good plan to me. Especially since I had no plan. Already the fortune was coming true.

Sure enough, once at the college, Rob's friend was amenable, and all was good. It was a Friday, and we were just in time for the big concert out in the country, on the beautifully manicured grounds of a real castle. The Doobie Brothers and Allman Brothers were headlining.

Toward dusk, we took the tube to the train terminal, where we all hopped on a commuter train out of London to the Castle. The train was exactly like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Not just rows of seats in one big car but individual wood-paneled booths with seats that faced each other.

This was a commuter train, and sitting opposite was a very well dressed man. An Englishman. I imagined him as a banker. We tried to engage him in conversation, without much success. I really wanted to hear his accent.

It was dark when we got to the castle. People were camping out, sleeping under the stars. I was good to go with my backpack and sleeping bag anyway. It was now closing in on 3 days without sleep, so I zipped up into my new Timberline sleeping bag and laid down to sleep.

I had never used this bag before. It was fairly lightweight, inexpensive, nylon and synthetic fiber filled, but very functional. (I still have this bag today, by the way, though it never sees service as a sleeping bag. It does make a useable comforter though).

It was a mummy bag, designed to conform to your body to retain heat. Double sided zippers allow you to zip all the way up to the neck from the inside, and a drawstring cinches it tight. That's what I did.

What I didn't count on was how warm this bag was. It was made for maybe 20-25 degrees, and that warm summer night we probably were in the 50s, maybe 60s, on the grounds of the castle.

Still, I was exhausted and fell into a deep sleep, cocooned deeply in the bag.

Soon though, I have no idea how long, but soon, I awoke with a start, overheated and sweating profusely. Thinking I was home in bed, I tried to move the covers off to get some air. And guess what -- the covers didn't move. I couldn't move, barely an inch! I was trapped inside this thing, claustrophobic, hot, and would die in there if I didn't get out quick.

That trapped feeling my friends, in the fog of being awoken from a deep sleep after being up for 3 days, was absolutely terrifying.

Thank God I remembered how I got in there. Again I had to stop and compose myself, and remember. It only took a few seconds to release the drawstring and unzip from the inside for instantaneous relief.

The good fortune continued after that. The concert was great, I made new friends. Rob and I would meet again in Paris.

But to this day, no matter how cold it is, I never zip up all the way in a sleeping bag.