The Legend of Poor Rich
A few days ago, a transit worker at Seattle Airport entered the cockpit of an otherwise empty Alaska Air Bombardier plane and made an ‘unauthorised takeoff’. He flew around the environs of Seattle for over an hour before bringing his escapade, his aircraft and his life to an end on Ketron Island.
As I read social media’s reporting and commentary regarding Richard Russell’s last flight, one word was repeated and repeated in the way complete strangers described him: ‘Legend’.
It is surely a curious thing to see a logo-ed passenger aircraft do an inward loop in the evening sunlight of a summer’s day. Many residents in the Seattle area witnessed it. Russell’s inward loop was staggering. Starting at a moderately low altitude, he threw the aircraft into a giant circular inverted motion, at the base of which he seemed almost to scrape the sea. It was daring, you might say. Only that to dare is to have stakes at play. But by that moment, Russell’s stakes were, like his fuel gauge, nigh-on zero.
‘What the hell is this guy doing?’, one observer taking a video remarked.
We do not know to what level this 29-year-old had ‘a few screws loose’ (his words). I am uninterested in the posthumous diagnosis. But I am interested in the prism of humanity that his desperate, dramatic, vainglorious act triggers in ordinary people around the world. Ordinary people like me. Why might we consider using a word like ‘legend’ to describe a man bent on suicide, and emotionally mean it?
In order to successfully manage our public lives and private lives, we must have a secret life. So much is demanded of us in society. Often the demands are performative: to be a good parent; to be a good citizen; to be a good worker. Human beings can find their psyches deeply challenged as they seek to reconcile their primal drives with expected ‘responsible behaviour’.
There is a reason why horror movies, contact sports and children’s fables are giants of our culture: people need proxies to explore the extremities of their impulses and fears. It is sobering to know that a branch of psychological study, ‘depressive realism’, is dedicated to the proposition that depressed people are those with the most realistic grasp on life. By extension, those of us without depression live in a cloud of unrealistic optimism, contriving to keep positivity on the road despite the mounting carcasses and gargoyles apparent in the rearview mirror.[If there is a reason advertising constantly exaggerates a brand’s benefits it is this: none of us would ever accept it as motivating to know the truth about Mastercard, McCafé, or Whatever. I reject the assertion that marketing is perpetrated by scheming manipulators. I have thirty years experience to tell me that it is the result of the happiest, most willing collusion. It is as it is because we want it so.]
‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. I am drawn to the truth in Henry David Thoreau’s assertion. Life is so full of disappointments and unhappy discoveries. Be it that Santa is not real, or Rolf Harris is a paedophile, or some of your friends die young, or love is not always easy, or the weather is shit despite what my smartphone says.
Most people seek to cope with the vicissitudes of life, trying to see them as learning and not disaster.
As those vicissitudes grow in number, we take them in our stride or develop an allergic reaction to their presence. To make matters worse, one can easily flip between these two camps.
Yes, life is indeed a privilege – but that does not make it easy.
As he rode his last plane ride, Russell explained to ground control that he had hoped for a final ‘moment of serenity’ from his liminal seat between sea and sky. The professional and sensitive controller, unnamed so far, oscillated between gentle camaraderie and a desire to get his fugitive landed and out of harm’s way.
‘Rich, start a left hand turn please, and we’ll take you down to the south east’.
Richard Russell had no intention of landing. And though he may have lost track of his reason, he had not yet sacrificed his humanity. He jousted and joked with ground control. He remarked on the beauty of all that he saw below him. He made it clear he did not wish to injure anyone else. He sent messages of love to his family and friends. Then his plane fell out of the sky.