The Dead Lady

This is a true story about my childhood. I didn’t change any names to protect anyone.

I was only eight, and my mom was pregnant with my sister Sarah. I overheard her talking to someone about a dream she had the night before about a dead lady that was chasing her and trying to steal her baby.

I remember picturing the dead lady. She was tall, with only one leg. Somehow, when you’re 8, you think the dead lady with one leg can run really fast. From that point forward, I had something beyond my fear of ghosts to scare the living shit out of me.

We lived in a worn down trailer on the outskirts of a small town in Wyoming called Fort Bridger. We moved there from Goshen, Utah when my dad got a job at the trona mines. They told me when I was five that we were just going to live there for a year or so, just until we could get enough money to have some savings. We left our house, and my dog Gwendolyn, who went to some family in Utah. “We can get her when we move back,” my Mom said as I cried about leaving my dog and friends. My parents still own that house, 42 years later, and they’ve never moved back to it. I never saw Gwendolyn again.

My fear of ghosts was created in Goshen, when my mom told me that the ghosts were going to get me if I didn’t get into the car to go with her to Salt Lake. In my mind after that, the only thing that could keep the ghosts at bay was my CTR ring or having the lights on.

That’s how, three years later, I found myself thinking of the dead lady. I didn’t understand death very well at the time. I’d only seen one person dead. That was my three month old brother, Joey, who died in a car accident while my mom was driving. I remember my Dad waking me up when I was 5 to tell me that Joey, Mom, and my 2 year old brother Mario were all in the hospital. My mom was getting presents he told me, and I wondered why she was getting them when Santa should have been getting them. Didn’t she know better? I remember a few weeks later, at the funeral home, staring at Joey in a small casket, dressed in something that looked warm. I didn’t understand why he was there, why he couldn’t move. He was dead, they said. 

But this dead lady, she could move. She could rise up and chase people. She had one leg cut off, but she could still run like a horse.

My sister Sarah was born and I mostly forgot about the dead lady. I never forgot about the ghosts. No, they kept me running from one light switch to the next until I was 26, when a clinical psychologist helped me finally overcome my fear of the dark.

A few years passed and I started thinking about the dead lady again. By this time my brother Johnny was 18, and I was 10. His room was at the front of the trailer, large and with its own bathroom. Next was the living room, the kitchen, a long hallway with my room and my brother Mario’s room off to the right, a laundry place, and then my parent’s room with a bathroom.

Here was the problem with that setup. In my mind, the dead lady couldn’t go past the line where the hallway ended and the kitchen began. I could easily hang out in the living room when my parents were gone with no fear of being torn apart by the dead lady. I could walk into Johnny’s room and his bathroom without fear. If I wanted to go to the other end of the trailer though, I had only a few seconds to make a run for it, grab whatever, and fly out of there like a deer running from a forest fire. 

So that’s what I would do. If I had to go anywhere else, like my bedroom, it could only be for a few seconds. If not, the dead lady was sure to sense my presence and begin chase, and if I didn’t make it across the line in time, I would be torn to bits and eaten by the dead lady.

Sometimes I could get my 7 year old brother Mario to do my bidding and go beyond the line to run an errand. If the dead lady got him, well, sacrifices had to be made. Mario would usually refuse. I’d told him about the dead lady of course, but to him it was a game, not a matter of life and death like it was for me.

My dad was a mechanic, so we had all sorts of tools around the house, and lots of random screws, nails, and other items that I was never supposed to touch. One day, I found an L shaped nail in this disorganized assortment, and grabbed a hammer. There was my solution to the dead lady.

I went into my room, shut the door, and kept my foot against it. No way was the dead lady getting in with my foot propped against it. She had supernatural strength, but there were limits on her power. I stood on top of my toy truck and hammered the nail into the wall. I could now move the nail to lock and unlock the door. 

As an added bonus, my little brother Mario could no longer come into my room to annoy me. I was free to enjoy myself without the worry of dead ladies or little brothers. This golden age only lasted a few weeks.

I was playing in my room, and Mario decided he wanted to come in. He knocked on the door, but I just told him to go away. He tried pushing the door open, but it wasn’t budging. I mean, if it kept the dead lady at bay, with her powers from beyond the grave, surely it could keep Mario from entering. 

He started kicking the door, but this wasn’t helping. I felt more secure than ever. He was too young to understand physics, but he was devious enough to realize that he could lie on the ground and kick, giving him more leverage. The nail started to come out, little by little. I looked around the room, there was no hammer. I had to return it, lest my dad find one of his tools missing to go on a stomping rampage filled with curse words, demanding the tool’s safe return to its rightful place in his holy toolbox. 

I grabbed my toy truck and placed it against the door and stood on it. I banged at the nail with my left palm, securing it back in place. Hah. Try getting past that you little shit. As if in answer to my thoughts, Mario gave the door the hardest kick he could manage, and it came flying open. My palm was on the nail, and the truck flew out from under my feet.

I fell to the ground and looked down at my left arm. At my wrist below my palm, I saw the tip of the nail sticking out. The other longer end was poking through the top of my skin on the other side of my wrist. It didn’t pierce through, but it poked upward, stretching my skin several inches into what looked like a triangular tent. My hand bent down towards my forearm, much like a crab claw. I couldn’t move it without severe pain.

When Mario first saw me, his look was triumphant. When he saw the nail stuck inside my wrist, he screamed in terror. “Mom hurry Tony has a nail in his arm. Hurry mom he’s dying!”

I moved from my room to the kitchen, seeing my mom cooking on the stove. Without turning around, she yelled back. “Honestly you kids, that isn’t funny to joke about.”

Mario plead for her to turn around. “Mom he’s dying look at it, please!”

She turned to look, and I imagine she expected some prank. She dropped her pancake turner to the ground and went white. “Oh my God! What happened?”

We told her the story as she rushed me out to the Jeep. We drove to some clinic about five miles away in a town called Urie. I don’t remember too much after that, I think a doctor there injected me with some pain killers. My 22 year old brother Brad took me to the hospital in Evanston, which was about 30 miles away. 

They wheeled me in for surgery and asked me to count, but I only got to three before I was out. Some hours later I woke up with my arm wrapped in bandages, and my mom told me that they got the nail out. It was close to some nerve center in my wrist, but it missed it by a fraction of an inch, so my hand would be normal. 

Later the doctor handed me a small plastic jar with the nail inside. It hadn’t even bent at all. I remember talking to the doctor about it and why I had done it. I left out the part about the dead lady, but kept in the part about the annoying little brother. 

My hand is normal now, with just a few stitch marks visible on the bottom side of my left wrist. I still was scared of the dead lady for many years after that, even after I moved into Johnny’s room when he moved out. The great thing was, on that side of the trailer, I was far enough from the line the dead lady couldn’t cross that I only had to worry about her in the rare event I ever had to go past the kitchen. Luckily, she never managed to catch me when I did cross the boundary.

Negligible Senescence

The term used for organisms that don’t age in biology is “negligible senescence”. I first learned about this idea when I read a great non fiction book by science fiction writer Ben Bova, titled Immortality: How Science Is Extending Your Life Span–and Changing The World.

When I first started writing the book The Seeds of the Yew, I interviewed several people about the idea of not aging in humans. I asked them a simple question, “If you were given a chance to not age any further, would you take it?”

The answers I got were a little surprising to me. My neighbor, who was eighty years old at the time, answered my question this way. “No, I have lived my life. I’m done.” He died a few years later, and his daughter moved into his house for a while before she sold it.

I asked someone that was religious, and discovered there is a definite theological element to how people answer. She said, “no, that would be against God, and I want to go to the kingdom of heaven and meet all of my relatives and loved ones that have passed.”

One woman that I asked said, “No, life sucks, why would I want to extend it any further than I have to?”

Others have simply said that of course they would do it. The answers seem to vary by age, for example a lot of middle aged people would say yes, because they were just starting to feel the pains of getting old and getting scared by it. Young people tend to be a little more cavalier about it, and might be more willing to say no.

What I found, without doing much of a quantitative assessment, was that it really is an individual choice. It would be nice if we could someday make that choice for ourselves, especially if the people we love and care for could also avoid aging.

Science is getting closer to solving the problem for us. The question many people have is whether it should or not. I’d be interested to know how you feel about this in the comments below!

My problem with the Fermi Paradox

Most of you have heard the argument by physicist Enrico Fermi, who posited that if there are so many stars in the galaxy, and with all the probability that a lot of them have developed intelligent life, that even with the slow speeds of interstellar travel the whole galaxy could be completely traversed in a few million years.

So, the question of the Fermi Paradox is, where are they?

That tiny little speck that the arrow points to is our little sun. While our sun is pretty much essential to us, it might not be that interesting to a space-faring civilization. Look at the map, all the action seems to be in the center there. We are in the middle of nowhere, with the closest stars being Alpha Centauri A and B (4.3 light years) and Proxima Centauri (4.22 light years).

Even though Proxima Centauri looks pretty close at only 4.22 light years, with our current technology it could take about 81,000 years to get there (assuming we could go about 56,000 km/hr with about 80 kg of propellant). If something like the EM drive becomes possible, we could knock that time down to about 13,000 years. There is another promising theory for propulsion using nuclear pulse, and this could knock the time down to 36 years. That would be a lot more feasible for us, but for now we aren’t even sure it is possible.

If you look at these limitations, and start thinking about where you would want to go, Earth just wouldn’t be on your alien bucket list.

The other thing is, we just discovered radio waves in the 1890’s. So we’ve only been able to detect radio waves for a few hundred years. We might discover new ways to communicate, like something using quantum entanglement, that would allow us to communicate at large distances faster than the speed of light. There is likely some technology that will obviate the use of radio waves, and if so then a developing civilization might only use radio waves for a few hundred years. If aliens developed radio waves a few thousand years ago, and then started talking with their quantum iPhones to each other, well we would have missed that window where we could have picked up and interpreted their radio signal.

There are many other theories about why we haven’t heard from anyone, like there is a super intelligent race that wipes out any advanced civilizations before they become a threat, to the idea that we are so unique in the universe that we are the first and only intelligent beings that exist. If that last statement is true, then I feel like we should be doing everything we can to explore and colonize space, rather than fighting each other over resources here on Earth.

If you think about it, compared to the resources we have here on Earth, the resources available to us in the galaxy, especially if we are the only intelligent life forms that exist, are essentially unlimited. We should be spreading out and giving every person their own planet, rather than fighting each other over what we have here.