Climbing the Mountain: My Search for Meaningby Kirk Douglas
On February 13, 1991, at the age of seventy-four, Kirk Douglas, star/i>
With the simple power and astonishing candor that made his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son, a number one international bestseller, Kirk Douglas now shares his quest for spirituality and Jewish identity -- and his heroic fight to overcome crippling injuries and a devastating stroke.
On February 13, 1991, at the age of seventy-four, Kirk Douglas, star of such major motion-picture classics as Champion, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory, was in a helicopter crash, in which two people died and he himself sustained severe back injuries with debilitating long-term effects. As he lay in the hospital recovering, haunted by the tragedy, he kept wondering: Why had two younger men, whose lives were in front of them, died while he, who had already lived his life fully, survived?
The question drove this son of a Russian-Jewish ragman to a search for his roots and on a long journey of self-discovery -- a quest not only for the meaning of life and his own relationship with God, but for his own identity as a Jew. Through the study of Torah, Kirk Douglas found a new spirituality and purpose to life. His newfound faith deeply enriched his relationship with his own children and taught him -- a man who had always been famously demanding and impatient -- to listen to others and, above all, to hear his own inner voice.
With the narrative skill that has made him a successful novelist, Kirk Douglas not only takes the reader through his own near-death experience but tells the story of his stubborn struggle to make sense of his own life, to come to terms with the reality of death, and to answer the "big questions" that eventually confront us all: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Who is God?
In the last ten years, Douglas has been in a near-fatal helicopter crash, suffered a stroke, won a long-deserved Oscar (for career achievement), and rediscovered his Jewish roots. The trigger for the deep thinking that this book apparently represents is a midair collision between a helicopter carrying Douglas and Noel Blanc (Mel's son) and a plane whose two occupants were killed. Douglas understandably found himself asking why he and Blanc survived while the two younger men died. This, in turn, led to reflections on other brushes with death. A trip to Israel and a meeting with a dynamic Orthodox rabbi drove the actor into a prolonged, ongoing examination of Judaism, the religion into which he was born but which he had shunned since adolescence. Much of this volume is taken up with his pleasure in rediscovering the stories of the Torah and re-evaluating his own understanding of Jewish thought. Unfortunately, the emotional openness and intensity that made Douglas a great actor and a satisfying memoirist in the earlier volume are ill-suited to the field of intellectual argument. His almost boyish enthusiasm is sometimes entertaining but more often grating, and on the whole, the book does an unintentional disservice to the elegance and subtlety of Jewish theology. The result is often embarrassing in its chauvinism and its cliché-riddled recountings of Bible stories. Douglas also displaysin at least one instancea slavish adherence to the Likud Party line on recent events in Israel.
Readers looking for more of the candor of The Ragman's Son will find it, but this is a deeply disappointing book.
- Simon & Schuster
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- 6.47(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.09(d)
Read an Excerpt
Ushi had seen the whole thing. She had witnessed David and Lee's fiery death, and she stood frozen by the side of the runway. One of the blades ripped from the helicopter by the impact had flown toward her, crashing into and damaging a parked plane near where she was standing, but she hadn't noticed.
Wanting to help me get out of the wreckage, she ran through the falling fiery debris, not hearing someone screaming, "Get away, it's gonna blow!" She scrambled helplessly to the top of the overturned helicopter to reach the door, the engine still running and leaking fuel. Finally, the warnings penetrated: "Get away, it's gonna blow."
The person screaming at her was a flight mechanic named Darryl who had been working in a nearby hangar. He ran toward the wreckage. Unlike Ushi, who was oblivious to the dangers, Darryl, a former medic who served in Vietnam, knew that the helicopter could blow at any moment. Yet he risked his life to save perfect strangers. Now that's a hero.
Darryl passed Mike, the copilot, who had been thrown free from the wreckage and was crawling away, and reached into the cockpit -- past the bleeding and badly injured Noel -- and turned off the motor.
Atop the helicopter Ushi looked down into the carcass of the passenger compartment. She could see me huddled in a heap at the bottom, one side of my face covered with blood. Her first thought was that I was dead.
Often, when I am asked about the accident today, people want to know what I experienced at that moment. Did I see a long tunnel with a blazing white light at the other end? Sorry, I saw and heard nothing. If it was there, I missed the show.
They tell me that within minutes policemen, firemen and ambulances converged, and that I was moaning, "My back, my back." Fearing a spine injury, the firemen had to strap me to a backboard before they could lift me out of the wreckage. In such a small space, they had to lower one of their buddies upside down, holding him by the legs so that he could strap me up properly.
While they were working on this awkward task, Ushi called my wife.
Anne was in her office finishing up her work. We had a dinner date with friends that night, and she still had to have her hair and nails done. The phone rang.
"Don't worry, Anne," Ushi reported breathlessly. "There was a helicopter crash, but Kirk is all right. He just has some cuts on his face and probably a couple ribs are broken."
To Ushi, what she was saying was great news. Only minutes before she thought I was dead. In comparison, a few broken ribs were nothing.
Meanwhile, Anne pictured me as a bleeding and broken mess. She was in shock but pulled herself together and called our son Peter and Eric. She didn't want them to hear it from the new media. And, sure enough, as she was talking to the boys, TV and newspaper reporters were already calling on the other line.
Peter and Eric quickly met her at the office, where the prepared to drive up to Santa Paula, a two-hour ride. Panic-stricken, Peter called the police to ask for an escort to get the more quickly. He was told that would not help -- rush hour had started, and traffic north of Los Angeles was already bumper to bumper. At the same airport where our helicopter had been scheduled to land, he got a helicopter to fly the three of them to the Santa Paula Memorial Hospital.
I have no remembrance of being pulled out of the wreckage put in an ambulance and brought to the emergency room. I have no recollection of X rays, CAT scans and the doctors' examinations. They tell me that when the radiologist said, "We have to roll you over," I muttered, "I don't think I'm gonna like it," and the people in the emergency room laughed. But I don't remember any of that.
The first thing I do remember is looking up and seeing my wife's eyes staring at me. This was three hours later. I have no memory of the time in between, even though they tell me I was fully conscious.
The next thing I remember was that they wheeled me in a gurney and put me in a helicopter -- just what I needed, another ride in a helicopter! But Anne wanted to move me to our hospital near Beverly Hills, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Anne and Eric came with me, along with a young woman doctor. I couldn't have been that bad off -- I remember that she was very pretty.
I don't know how they got me into intensive care at Cedars. Vaguely, I was aware of flashbulbs going off -- the media were doing their job. Then a blur of more X rays, tests, CAT scans. And finally I was left alone in my room.
Now the medication was wearing off and the pain was growing stronger. My back hurt like hell. I couldn't move in any direction. Trying to lift up my head was agonizing. I just lay there, feeling sorry for myself.
And then the young woman doctor told me off. "You are lucky, Kirk. Pain means you're not paralyzed. Be happy you can feel things." Before I could react, she added, "The people in the plane are dead."
That's how I found out that David and Lee had died. For the first time I heard their names. Somewhere out there, not too many miles from where I lay, the lives of people who loved then were forever changed . . . and now mine had as well.
Copyright © 1997 by The Bryna Company
Meet the Author
Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, is one of Hollywood's greatest stars, with more than eighty films to his credit. He lives in Beverly Hills, California.
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