The Emcee of Death

by Mark Nizer

This tale is one I never thought would happen to me. But isn't that true of the best stories? This one has a sad ending, though, so steady yourself and perhaps pull over a box of tissues just in case.

Dateline 2000: My obsession with hang gliding brought me into the inner circle of the elite acrobatic hang gliding community. I know it sounds like a small, eclectic group, and it is.

The risks involved in doing aerobatics in a hang glider, if you don't know what you are doing, can be deadly. I have witnessed emergency chute deployments, structural failures, mid-air collisions and more. All hang glider pilots normally fly with a reserve parachute in case of a catastrophic event. Aerobatic pilots fly with two.

The truth is that hang gliding itself is very safe – safer than scuba diving, for example, when measured by the number of participants and corresponding death rates. A hang glider is, in fact, so stable that a fellow pilot used to fly tandem (two individuals on one glider) with his dog and twice launched off a mountain and neglected to hook himself to the glider, launching his dog solo out over the LA Valley. The dog landed safely, never once touching the controls or doing anything aside from issuing a steady stream of shock-induced drool and urine.
Hang gliding aerobatics are fascinating and beautiful to watch, but there are basically two moves – a wing over and a loop. And that leads to the crux of my story.

I had been chosen to be the emcee for the hang gliding aerobatic portion of San Diego's Mission Bay speedboat races – the idea being, in the brief moments between speedboat heats, I would direct the crowd's eyes to the sky and then do play by play as the gliders performed their maneuvers.

I was escorted to the press booth and met my two professional colleagues, who looked way more prepared than I. They knew everything about speedboats and who the many racers were, as well as their names and stats. They could keep the chatter going seamlessly. Not that I can't talk; I think any reader of this column knows that is not my issue. But speaking intelligently and sharing information people want to hear takes a lot of preparation, knowledge and experience.

The Mission Bay speedboat races are a big deal. The participants put themselves in what end up being water-based rocket ships capable of going 220-plus miles per hour. One racer on the bill that day, George Stratton, was a 20-year-veteran and holder of five world-speed records in flat bottom boats and was the winner of four national championships.

The races progressed and I did my two-minute bits in between the heats, going over the hang gliders' moves and the differences between each aerobatic competitor's run. In a later heat, though, a boat flipped and crashed. The emcees calmly talked about it, and when they realized George Stratton was the driver, they assured everyone he should be fine. Way too much time passed and officials discovered Stratton had been killed in the accident. It would be a long time before the races resumed.

The other emcees looked over at me and I suddenly realized I was to be the voice filling time for 100,000 people while the local hero's body was removed from the scene. I started off pretty well, doing my best to walk a fine line between enthusiasm for the aerobatics and grief as I tried to smooth over the awkwardness of getting everyone to look skyward and away from the tragedy on the water below.
I quickly ran out of descriptions of the moves the hang gliders were executing. Remember, there are basically just two. So, I started to make up new names for the same moves everyone had just seen. Once I had opened the "make-it-up" gate, there was no stopping. I gleefully faked my way through, inventing more and more colorful names and even creating backstories for each of them. I even made up stuff about the pilots, adding elaborate details, all the while trying to keep my wits about me.

"How much longer?" I wondered. "Should I go on and on about how Pilot B makes the best peach cobbler this side of the Rockies or mention that Pilot G flies with three juggling balls in case he lands in the middle of nowhere in a cross-country competition?"
After what seemed like hours, I was finally relieved by the co-hosts, who had plenty to say, but thankfully were oblivious to the nonsense I had been spouting. I climbed out the booth and headed to the nearest beer tent to make it all go away, all the while having a new appreciation of just what it takes to be a pro announcer.


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