On the Ground: a Personal Essay on Courage

Falling off a building demands a delicate fusion of physics, psychology, and art. Not so the leap of suicide: that desperate act entreats physics alone to quell the troubled psyche and propel the soul into the theological Beyond. Art plays no role in self-destruction.

But the high fall–the mortality-defying tumble for the entertainment of spectators–requires the stuntman to play the chemist, compounding unrelated elements into a volatile, tripartite molecule. Psychology must be cajoled to convince the body to drop into nothingness, art must be created to capture the panic of a victim facing death, and physics must be calculated to cheat the lethal combination of gravity and abrupt deceleration. Let one element supersede the others, and misfortune results.

I stand on a fire escape thirty-five feet aloft, safely inside the protective grill of a wrought-iron railing, looking over the tops of nearby trees toward an indistinct purple-blue horizon. A slight breeze stirs, carrying a chill that whispers of Fall. The season’s name reminds me of my task, and I look down.

A three-story fall rates only as a moderate plunge to the experts of the stunt industry, but this particular fall is more complex than most. An assailant will shove me across the landing, and I will collapse over the railing. The attacker will seize my feet and fling my legs into the air, sending me over the rail to drop headfirst toward the ground. Much of this is acting, of course. In reality, there will be no force behind the assailant’s push, and when I bend over the handrail I will grab the balusters with both hands, gaining leverage to kick my feet up in a kind of handstand to guide my body into the fall. Eight feet above the mat, I’ll tuck my head and shoulders, rotating my body to a horizontal, face-up landing position to absorb the impact.

The laws of slant projectile motion assure us that falling bodies with horizontal velocity travel in a parabola on their descent. The momentum of my handstand will propel me outward roughly twelve inches from the fire escape; a thirty-five foot fall magnifies that lateral distance to nine feet from true vertical at the landing. My landing target is a vinyl-covered “crash pad” of dense foam rubber, measuring five feet wide, ten feet long, and thirty-six inches thick. My margin for error is over four feet on the long axis and a foot side-to-side.

There is a psychological wrinkle, however.

Because of my planned parabolic trajectory, the crash pad sits roughly seven feet distant from the edge of the fire escape. In the ready-to-fall position, the mat lurks somewhere at the top edge of my peripheral vision; I have to crane my neck to spot it. I will be doing my precarious handstand while looking down at paving bricks directly below my head.

According to Newtonian formulas I cannot not hit the bricks even if I try, but the thought starts my palms sweating anyway. Physics theorems provide a poor counter to the survival instinct shrieking I will plummet to my death. I bend over the rail, rehearsing the stunt in my mind for the fiftieth time. The bricks wait. The stuntwoman beside me, my assailant, mimes her choreography in cooperation. When her hand touches my back she can feel me shaking, and she asks if I’m all right.

“I’m fine,” I lie, “I’m just scared.” The second part is on-the-Bible true.

She nods sympathetically and reminds me that I don’t have to do the fall. I look down at the clock-watching director, the knotted film crew, the unblinking camera. I think of my contract: I am the hired Stunt Man. I have to fall.

I wipe my hands on my jeans and give the thumbs-up. The cinematic mantra begins. Quiet on the set. Places. Roll sound. Roll camera. Technicians sing out the calls, the remorseless litany sealing my doom. Tape to speed. Marker. Action.

The choreographed shove sends me into the railing. I grunt in mock pain and half-acted fear, folding double and lining myself up with the distant pad below, grabbing two iron balusters, praying my hands won’t slip at the wrong instant. Now I feel my partner’s tug on my ankles and I kick my feet overhead, ignoring the way my arms tremble. My legs reach their apogee and change my balance, swinging my center of gravity outside the railing. My mind screams a warning and my chest tightens painfully as I clutch what my mind assures me is my final breath. I can do nothing to prevent overbalancing, falling. Gravity tugs me earthward and my body reaches the limit of my arms, forcing me to release the railing. I leave the building.

Suddenly freed from the possibility of rescue, my body curiously abandons fear. Physicists tell me I am now falling at thrity-two feet per second (squared), but they have grossly miscalculated: I have minutes to analyze my descent. My eyes lock o the duct-taped “X” marking my ideal landing position, discarding every visual irrelevancy in a strange kind of tunnel vision while my arms and legs flail with precisely rehearsed abandon to simulate a panicked victim though I am confident and relaxed, my breathing regular and deep as I listen to the wind rushing by serenely, assuring me I am not falling after all: I am flying.

The pad looms. I snap my head and shoulders down. The world spins: mat, building, sky. I straighten out.


The vinyl surface greets me in a single touch from head to heels, embracing me in a foam sigh as kinetic energy squeezes the remaining air from my lungs. The shudder of deceleration runs through my body like an all-over massage; I ride the bouncing recoil until all motion stops. Relief floods the vacuum of vanished fear.

I roll off the mat into the handshake of the director. Congratulations, he says, we got the shot. Set for the next scene, everybody. The hurry-up-and-wait bustle lurches back into action, and I am in the way like a discarded prop. As I make my way to the side, an eternally-stoic grip casts a reassessing gaze in my direction, then cocks an eye up at the fire escape high overhead.

“Pretty brave, man,” he begrudges. I smile and shrug.

Sure, I am. On the ground.

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