Zobmondo came to mind last week after I had watched The Revenant (set in 1823) and The Martian (set in 2035) within five days of one another. The films tell the same story told 200 years apart. Naturally, I tried to decide which situation would be worse.
Both films feature a man left for dead by his companions. In both, the environment is a major factor in the action, with nature-based disasters (a bear/a storm) providing the inciting incident for each protagonist’s struggle. In both, procuring adequate food is a problem solved by ingenuity (building a fish seine of rocks/growing potatoes). In both, critical help appears at a critical moment (a Native American man traveling alone/a planetary probe left behind by a previous mission).
Granted, the stories aren’t exactly the same. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), the scout in The Revenant, isn’t alone in the world. Oxygen and water are plentiful. Resources exist—if he can find them. Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the astronaut in The Martian, is alone, and he has limited resources he can lay his hands on. Even though both men struggle against their hostile environments, Glass’s worst enemy (arguably) is hostile humans, whereas Watney’s worst enemy is time, as in too much time for him to last given his dwindling resources. In addition, very different hearts beat in the two protagonists. Different motivations keep them going even though each knows the tiniest mishap could kill him.
Hugh Glass pushes himself to survive near-death experiences because he needs to kill the man who murdered his son. Glass is gritty. He’s a growler and a yeller and an eater of raw fish.
Mark Watney pushes past several near-death experiences because he won’t allow something without a brain—the environment—to beat a human whose intellect got him to Mars in the first place. Watney sees the irony in his situation. He’s a joker. One of his lines reveals his wry approach to survival: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option, I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this.”
Personally, I’d rather be in Glass’s situation, injured and freezing, but on Earth. Why? I have been injured and have come out the other side. Bodies heal. And don’t tell my neighbors, but I like winter. I understand cold weather. When the weatherman says “significant snow event” I get happy. If I were in Watney’s situation, however, I would not survive. I could grow potatoes, but I couldn’t rig up a water source. So, yeah, I guess if I had to choose, Zobmondo style, I’d pick wandering into the path of a mama grizzly over wandering around on Mars waiting to starve to death.
However, if I had to pick an attitude toward death, I’d pick Watney’s because I’d rather grin than growl. That’s what I did the first time I faced death thirty-five years ago this month.
It went like this: to support myself in college, I drove a school bus. One blizzardy day, school got out early, so I was put on the biggest bus ever made as a sub on a route I’d never driven. “The kids will tell you where to go,” my dispatcher said, and it was so. Visibility was poor. By the second half of the route, the roads were getting clogged, but the bus already was half empty. We were going to make it.
Then my child-guide directed me to drive down a dead-end road. “Are you sure about this?” I asked. “How will I turn around?”
“At the end of this road,” my guide said, “you go up that hill and there’s a turnaround at the top.” I dropped off two sets of kids and drove up the hill with half a dozen riders left on the bus.
Indeed, there was a turnaround at the top of the hill. But there was no guardrail to prevent anybody from plunging over the edge of the hill and rolling end-over-end to the valley below. It was too tight to back up. I had to take the turnaround. I didn’t dare slow too much lest I get stuck, but I couldn’t go so fast I would lose control. It was one of those situations where you are heading into a danger you can’t avoid so your only choice is to keep going and pray. Ever hit a patch of black ice on a sidewalk and feel your feet go out from under you? It was like that. Literally.
Because when the tires hit the outside curve closest to the drop-off, the bus started to slide. There was sheet ice under the newly fallen snow. The kids shrieked. I prayed.
The bus stopped before we went over. I asked the biggest boy to exit the bus and go get help at the last farmhouse we’d passed. He took off running though the blinding snow. I couldn’t leave my seat because I didn’t dare let go of the steering wheel. If I did, the wheels might shift, and the last stop on my route would be at the bottom of a ravine.
I had to get the kids off. So I started them singing “99 bottles of pop on the wall,” and as they sang, I had them exit the bus and go stand on the other side of the bus in the middle of the turnaround. It took just a couple of minutes, but it felt like forever until there was a knot of kids safely away from the bus and its driver, sitting with her hands clamped like death on the steering wheel.
You might think I would let myself feel my own fear once the kids were safe, but even though I knew the bus might go over before help came, I remember feeling pretty calm. I remember thinking, “I’ve had a great 24 years on Earth. I wish I could have had more. I wish I could have gotten married and had a kid. But this was pretty good.” I waited to slide over. I wondered if I would see my whole life flash before my eyes like they say you do just before you die. Would I see something I’d forgotten about?
Then I heard a chug-chug-chug. I heard the kids cheering. I saw through the falling snow the red cap of a farmer. I saw the smoke billowing from his tractor as it slowly climbed the hill.
The farmer sized up the situation in seconds. He didn’t get off his tractor until he’d positioned his vehicle. Then he got off, sent the kids back out of the way, attached his chains to the bus—gingerly—and climbed back aboard his tractor. He put it in gear and eased incredibly slowly forward. The bus eased incredibly slowly away from the edge of the cliff until the whole bus was off the ice and headed in the right direction. I still didn’t dare leave the bus, so I hollered “Thank you!” out the window and hollered at the kids to get back on. I focused on two things for the rest of the route: driving safely and breathing deeply. When the last kid was safely delivered to his home, I drove back to the bus garage, my vehicle covered with snow and my heart singing because I was going to get more than 24 years after all.
Life is as precious now, all these years later, as it was that snowy day. I got the family I hoped for, a career I loved, and a retirement many would envy because it lets me do this. Oh, yes, I still want more.
But I learned that day—and The Revenant and The Martian reminded me—that life is not a sure thing. There are no guarantees. Sometimes, the only thing between you and freezing to death is a horse carcass. Sometimes, the only thing between you and starving to death is a package of potatoes. Sometimes, the only thing between you and a fiery death is a farmer with chains and a tractor.
I don't know about you, but I plan to enjoy every minute.