I did get some complaints last week about the story of the guy who lost his arm when it became stuck in his furnace boiler. I have my own response to the complaints of “poor taste” and “NOT FUNNY!”
I also have a reply from the reader I was thinking about when I wrote the story — a Premium subscriber who is missing an arm.
But let’s first start with the story, from True’s 13 June 2010 issue:
Give The Guy A Hand
Jonathan Metz, 31, was repairing the furnace in his West Hartford, Conn., home when his arm got stuck. So stuck that by the next day his arm was starting to get gangrenous, so he reached some tools and started to work on cutting his arm off to free himself. “It was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Scott Ellner, a trauma surgeon at the hospital Metz ended up in. “This man saved his own life.” Metz had almost completed the task when police, summoned by a friend concerned over Metz’s disappearance, found him. He had been trapped for nearly three days. (Hartford Courant)…Of course he was repairing the furnace: a new one would have cost him an arm and a leg.
First, as I’ve pointed out many, many times, This is True is not always meant to be funny. I talk about very serious stories all the time. As I’ve often said, True strives to be humorous, ironic or thought-provoking. If I can produce some combination with the same story, great.
But not all stories can generate all three. In those cases, you need to decide which I’m trying to do — you know, think about it a little! And if you didn’t find that story thought-provoking (would you have the courage to do what was clearly the right thing in a situation like that?!) then, well, you either didn’t read the story very carefully, or you just don’t think very much!
I’m also not sympathetic to people who laugh at nearly everything, including the misfortune of others, but then cry foul when everyone else laughs at their particular pet issue, such as, say, “disability.”
But “you made fun of” someone’s misfortune! some cried. Yep: I did. I think that beats averting your eyes and walking the other way, doesn’t it?
It’s a serious story, and I lightened it up a little so that it could be told to spark thought. It’s important to know what the point is. This wasn’t a story about misfortune, it’s about courage, and we can smile because John Metz showed us all what courage really is — and lived to tell about it.
It’s also a story about having to make a huge decision that will affect your life forever. We all have to make decisions that affect our lives, even if most of us are fortunate enough to never have to make a decision quite like that.
Many don’t get the chance to make a decision: life is thrust upon them, and they have to live with it whether they agreed or not.
Of course, then they have a different decision to make: to live with it with humor and enjoy their life, since not having an arm doesn’t mean one’s life is over, or to whine and cry and lament and be miserable for the one thing that’s missing, rather than enjoying everything else that’s not missing.
I choose to make an example of the humor part, rather than the “give up and die” decision that so many make. Or, worse, they give up even though they didn’t die.
Someone Who Lives It Every Day
Which brings us to Bandit (and yes, that’s his real name), a long-time reader from New Mexico. I met Bandit this April, when I was in Albuquerque for a conference, but without meeting him I already knew he was missing a good part of his arm (about mid-forearm down, if I recall correctly), since he likes to make fun of it.
He refers to himself, of course, as the “One-Armed Bandit”. He knows just about every off-handed joke that exists, and tells them a lot. Because he’s uncomfortable? Not at all: he wants to be sure other folks aren’t uncomfortable!
Not surprisingly, he wrote me after he saw the story. I replied that I had thought of him as I wrote it. His instant reply: “I had hoped I have made enough of an impact you would think of me. :^) ” But of course he did! A very positive one.
I told him that not unexpectedly, I had heard complaints about the story. I figured that would draw a response, but what he said was even more illustrating than I had hoped. But then, he’s had plenty of time to think about the subject.
Where Thinking Takes You
“The thing I have noticed is people fear losing a limb to the point of lashing out in anger,” he wrote. “They assume that losing a limb means their life will be over, and sadly, for them, it will be. They have learned it, somewhere. The fear is false, of course. I heard about a kid who was born without a thumb (or ‘lost’ it young) and was taught by his parents he was a cripple. So, of course, he became a cripple.”
Think about that: for merely missing a thumb, he lived his life as “a cripple.” Bandit continues:
“My father was wise. I was born without the left hand (my parents wanted 1.95 kids). One of the first things my father did was talk to a child psych instructor where he was going to college on the GI bill. The instructor’s advice was ‘Ignore it.’ My folks took that advice, although it was not easy for them, both because of their upbringing (my paternal grandmother never really got over it), and the society of the time (i.e., some of the neighbors). This is one of the main reasons I am *slightly* obnoxious about my off-handed puns. It helps reduce the fear of others, starting with their fear of offending me. I’ve had presidents of client companies come to the Stygian depths of engineering to meet a consultant named Bandit (they seemed to appreciate the honesty….) People very quickly forget I don’t have two hands.”
He says that when his wife starts overloading him with stuff, he has to remind her “I only have two hands!” 🙂
“So I was interested to read the article,” he continued. “I have a lot of respect for the guy: he made the right decision in a difficult situation. He is like the guy who had to cut his hand off with a dull knife after being trapped for a week.”
He refers to Aron Ralston, a Colorado mountain climber. In 2003 Ralston was out climbing by himself in Utah when his right arm got stuck: a boulder shifted, crushing it against a sandstone wall.
Ralston knew he was truly alone: he hadn’t told anyone where he was going, so even if someone figured out he was missing, they wouldn’t know where to look. He had no cell phone. He rationed his water, but ran out after five days. He carved his name, date of birth, and his expected date of death in the wall, and pulled out his camcorder to videotape a farewell message.
Then Ralston, who also happens to be an engineer, got an idea: he used leverage to break his own arm — the radius and ulna bones in his forearm — and then used a multi-tool to cut the soft tissue around the break to amputate his arm. The hard part was the tendons, he said later: the tool wasn’t very good, “what you’d get if you bought a $15 flashlight and got a free multi-use tool.”
Hardly the End of His Ordeal
Once he was cut free, leaving his forearm and hand behind, Ralston was still eight miles from his pickup truck …which naturally had a manual transmission. But first he had to get down a 65-foot (20 m) wall. He rappelled it, one-handed.
He then got a lucky break: while walking out he came across a family from the Netherlands, who gave him water and two cookies, and called for help. A search and rescue team took him out the rest of the way by chopper.
(His severed arm was recovered. He had it cremated — and left the ashes at the boulder. It had won it fair and square!)
Damn Right There’s a Lesson!
Ralston, now 34, didn’t quit, just like John Metz won’t. Ralston still climbs mountains — one of his prosthetic arms has a rock axe end!
And he is on the lecture circuit explaining “how he did not lose his hand, but gained his life back,” one promo says. Losing his arm “was a blessing in a way,” he told the New York Times in 2009. “It made me think about the way I was living.”
Coincidentally, a movie about Ralston, by the guys who made Slumdog Millionaire, finished filming last week, with James Franco playing Ralston.
So would someone involved in such a life-changing event make jokes about such a mentally and physically painful situation? Well, consider Ralston’s book about the decision he made, and how his life has turned out. It’s titled Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It hit #3 on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
I rest my case. If you didn’t think it was funny, then “Oh well. Hope you found it thought-provoking.”
Jonathan Metz Update
Because of the extreme interest in his story, Metz held a press conference at the hospital. He sat at a table in street clothes — including a short-sleeved shirt, with the left sleeve hanging empty.
Once he could smell his own flesh rotting, indicating infection that he knew would kill him, Metz said, “I had a decision to make.” He knew what he would have to do to live: he had already spent a night yelling for help, and no one came.
Implementing the Decision
“I definitely dithered for a few hours after coming up with the initial idea” to cut off his arm, he said. “I thought there must be some other way, so I kind of started looking around my surroundings again. Maybe there was something I missed. You know, what would MacGyver do if he were here?”
But when he could come up with no alternative, he spent six hours to “psych myself up” for his amputation. Using his right arm and his teeth, he made a tourniquet for his left arm, and then got to work.
Once he hit an artery, though, “the amount of blood that came out of the wound became alarming,” he said. He tried to make another tourniquet from some cable, and lapsed in and out of consciousness from the blood loss.
“I had given up,” he said — but he really hadn’t: he opened a valve on the boiler to get some water. What came out was “the most disgusting, orange water I have ever seen,” he said. “And yet it was the best-looking water I have ever seen.”
He drank enough to get his strength back. “It was just enough to make me feel like, ‘OK, here’s a way out of this.'”
“The first thing he found was a hacksaw blade,” said his father, Paul, “so that’s how he started. But it wasn’t going fast enough. So then he looked around some more and found a saw blade with bigger teeth on it, which would cut it faster, because every cut was painful.”
He was almost done — on the third day after getting stuck — when he was rescued, thanks to a friend who called police to check on Metz.
Life Goes On
After several surgeries to close up his wound, Metz has been released from the hospital, too. He’s planning to get married in November.
Meanwhile, while Metz was still in the hospital, Automatic TLC Energy donated a new boiler for his home, including installation.
Metz’s friends and family set up a web site for updates and to solicit donations to help him pay for his medical bills. (It apparently accomplished its goals: it’s since been shut down.)
And that’s the difference between letting a missing thumb turning you into a cripple, and a missing arm being an inconvenience, or even the start of a new career.
Note: the original story has been updated to clarify Metz was stuck for two days, not “nearly three” as the hospital — and newspaper — first reported. He got stuck on the evening of Monday, June 7, and was rescued Wednesday afternoon, June 9.
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