I first encountered Ben White as the missing person in the British delegation at the 2014 world championships in the Czech Republic - an empty space of severe news, of hope, of doubt, and of more hope. Jason Southall filled in at the last minute so Revolution Freestyle could exist for the competition, agreeing to a stand against the shittiest of circumstances (and who could you want more to help pick up such impossible pieces?), but the news stayed bad.
The way we communicate now has information flowing by at incredible speed - and often barely registering. So much unrelenting waffle tumbles past it can be easy to forget the technological tools we have at our disposal are a great privilege of the modern world and can serve to aid us - a small community often spread far and wide - in powerful ways. Now and then, something will grow from the mundane to the beautiful - if there is a good enough reason.
Over recent years there have been some notable examples of the skydiving community at large coming to the aid of a broken friend. In the Summer of 2012, a guy called Dan Hunt exited from the Jungfrau high above the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland. After mistakenly zooming off over the wrong bit of terrain he spent several days huddled in the fabric of his speed wing as the money was rounded up to pay for the heli time to go and find him. A short while later everyone that donated received a handwritten message of thanks on a picture of the weatherbeaten but relieved-looking fucker climbing out of the craft that ultimately came to his rescue. In 2013, another small miscalculation saw Ben Cornick swoop into the side of the DZ van at the end of a routine camera jump on the island of Fiji. Pretty soon skydivers had ponied up the urgent cash needed to get him onto a plane and into an Auckland operating theatre for the surgery he needed to keep his leg.
Last year while training at Hibaldstow Ben White hit the ground too hard and now his legs don’t work anymore. The short version of this part of the story is that Ben needs some cash - the kind of cash nobody expects to need or has a frame of reference for, to deal with a likely endless list of unfathomably expensive domestic pain-in-the-ass things such as getting doorways widened and steps dealt with
and myriad other stuff about the place that you would never even register as potentially prohibitive until your body no longer does all of the things it did when you moved in. A graceful post from Jen Saville - Ben’s girlfriend - about their situation had many concerned parties scheming and plotting out ways to help, then Paul Mayer from Bodyflight - who had already been sponsoring Revolution to help them achieve their goals - stepped in to offer his facility for an entire night and hopefully help make a dent in the pile of money in question. I sat in front of my computer and watched it happen. In a very short time things went from plans to planned, from what, to when, to done. People began donating items to sell, an idea corralled into the form of a raffle by Roy Castleman and Emma Foy, then expanded into a supplementary auction at the point they were in danger of becoming buried under the amount of prizes there were to organise.
The night itself was divided up between a scrambles competition for the belly types and some (very) loosely organised freefly groups. It seemed proper that nobody should really give a shit about the competition, nor much else other than having fun, with a greater purpose being the reason everybody assembled. Ben flew using a positional contraption of straps and such that some handy fellow had constructed and looked pretty graceful doing so, even if he had to wheel himself into position on a creeper and then be launched into the tube a little bit like those nature programmes where some activists transport a dolphin back to the sea. As Friday became Saturday everything resembling a plan had been fully abandoned and things largely devolved into humans pancaking each other into the tunnel walls, with just a gentle reminder from Paul of the single rule - to keep it to eight or fewer in there at any one time, which was almost adhered to. The raffle and auction offered a kaleidoscope of items, from small to spectacular, and the usual (t-shirt anyone?) to the unpredictable (we want to hear you play those ukuleles). Core Skydiving’s Mike McNulty is an odd a duck as any of us, but the surprise of the evening is how good an auctioneer he makes.
If looking at the pictures of Ben’s x-rays make you feel fragile, they should. They are a very precise reminder of exactly how squishy ones corporeal being actually is, of irreparable damage so easily done to the human form. I am drawn into memories by that feeling of vulnerability - of the near misses, of the mishaps and minor injuries, of the times that some tiny unknowable factor was the difference between one path through life and another. Accidents don’t happen as much as people on the outside think they do, but they certainly happen sometimes - and can be very effecting whether they big or small, near to you or far away. From a small lapse in concentration leading to a badly sprained ankle that the best part of a year later still likes to punish and remind you of your foolishness with a quick stab of pain here and there, to the triple fatality of three of the best proximity pilots in the world that makes the big wingsuit you just bought loom out of the corner of the room like a vengeful spirit. There are the things that are all too knowable, the ones that make you all shivery to this day when you think about them - a hair’s breadth near miss between two deploying canopies at the end of newbie freefly carnage jump that earned you an angry bruise on your inner thigh from the hackey handle on the other guy’s pilot chute. An overcooked aerial that leaves you foetal and nauseous when you watch the video, quickly deleting it lest anyone - including your own self - ever again see how close you were to going in that time. Then there are the near misses that nobody ever saw. The slippery patch on an exit point that you were inches away from but never even knew about. A near miss on break-off that everybody missed.
When I think about what has happened to Ben it is so very easy to imagine myself in his place, such are the parallels. Training for an artistic category at the world championships - upgrading your ambition and downsizing your gear, the time and the effort and all the money it is costing made right in your head by the pride you feel wearing the flag and representing old Blighty at the fancy level. This similarity of circumstances is what has me in front of the keyboard, unsure whether sharing words about it has any value to anyone else.
No matter what kind of extreme activity jumbles your weasels - when something serious happens within reach we are faced with some level of cognitive dissonance about the inherently risky business that we chase, remember - just for fun. If you have been doing this for a while you will likely have played this game many times. If someone gets broken, or even forever gone, what would they want you to do? Should you get out now or carry on as if nothing has happened? Should you dial it back or go hard? If something happened to you what would you want? We can arrive at the other side perhaps not knowing which way up we are. If you walk away are you dishonouring the spirit of what we do and the decisions we make on the way in, when evaluating the risk of our intent?
It is quite possibly the wrong thing to say that I owe Ben a debt of thanks, and yet maybe I do precisely that. My position relative to this situation has made me resolve to be better at what I do, to be wiser, smarter and safer than I have been in the past - and most importantly - where I can, to help others do the same. With my actions I will honour the luxury of my life and pay service to a situation that I have witnessed and do not have to endure myself.
Ben’s legs don’t work anymore, but yours probably do. Be sure to have them carry you somewhere awesome.
If you would like to donate you can do so at www.youcaring.com/helpbenwhite
Many people have shown their support for Ben and Jen in recent weeks and months. Here are a few that should not pass by unthanked:
- Paul Mayer has always gone the extra distance for those attending his events, but this time not only did he open up his tunnel facility for a whole night, but donated a lot of stuff for the auction and the profits from the bar.
- Roy Castleman and Emma Foy who organised the raffle - which based on the amount of stuff could not have been anything less than perplexingly complicated.
- HRH Fazza, HE Nasser, Alan Gayton and the staff of Skydive Dubai for throwing in a selection of prizes that were - true to form - marvellous.
- The bar staff at Bodyflight for staying very, very late.