#FridayReads : Buckle Up for John Paul Stapp

Oh, it’s Sunday? Well nobody told me! I had meant to attempt this book review on Friday, but got sidetracked. It’s been a busy, entertaining weekend in which I visited my girlfriend’s and my own mother (Happy Mother’s Day to all whom it applies!)

As I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack on Amazon, I feel inspired to get my weekly entry in. I’m enjoying the soundtrack as well, had been wondering for some time what the fuss about it was.

Anyway, on to the book about which I want to talk. The actual title, by Craig Ryan, is Sonic Wind: the story of John Paul Stapp and how a renegade doctor became the fastest man on Earth. I would argue though that this title is inaccurate, as much of the story is about Stap’s testing, using a rocket sled, and his work to establish that people could withstand much more force if properly restrained.

It starts with his humble beginnings in Brazil. Born to missionary parents and with a couple of brothers, John Paul quickly decides that he wishes to return to the US for education and such by the time he prepares to attend college. A number of twists and turns land him in the military, from which he never really emerges.

His tests with rocket-powered ground vehicles early in the 50s, reaching speeds of up to 230 miles per hour, show that people are more likely to survive crashes if they are rear-facing when impact occurs. In doing these tests, he sustains some temporary injuries but is for the most part ok.

Over time, his ideas become so progressive that even some of his most loyal peers try to get him to pull back from them. They culminate with his traveling in a vehicle that zips along at nearly 1000 miles per hour, slamming to a stop in a few seconds and almost literally popping his eyes out. It’s pretty dramatic stuff.

What made this book interesting to me is the realization that this one individual had, in many ways, been responsible for the safety features that we now take for granted. In those early, harrowing days of air travel, planes were falling from the sky at an alarming rate. And I guess people weren’t even required to wear lap belts initially, thus, Stapp contends, unnecessarily killing many.

Worse though were the increase in automobile fatalities. Through 1960, the number of those killed in car accidents quickly rose to second of all categories within the U.S. Stapp looked at other countries such as Sweden, where seatbelts were worn at a much higher percentage, and argued vehemently with car manufacturers that these should be standard equipment. Of course not only did he have to convince these makers, who didn’t really want to deal with the extra cost for something that people might not readily embrace, but also the general public needed convincing of its utility.

I haven’t actually finished the book, but I would suppose that he is eventually successful in lobbying for federal regulations since we now wear the things all the time. The thing I like most about this nonfiction piece is its example of how one person can, if he or she really wants to and is willing to walk that line between safety and danger on occasion, make real changes in the world. I think we as individuals can sometimes have a hard time believing that this is indeed possible.

When I started this book, I was kind of disappointed that it wasn’t as much about someone whizzing through the air as I had thought it would be. However, there is some of that kind of action as well later on, as he sends colleagues into the stratosphere on high-altitude ballooning runs. That might be fun to try one day.

RELATED: Alan Eustace: I leapt from the stratosphere. Here’s how I did it | TED Talk
This sort of reading is why I now have a policy of reading at least one nonfiction work out of every five. I typically get more into stuff that has a plot and all that, but sometimes there is much to be learned, knowledge gained, and inspiration had from examining other lives as they actually played out.

Have you read anything of interest lately? Particularly, though not exclusively, of the nonfiction variety.

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