May 04, 2012

Life and Death, Bread and Cheese

I recently watched the highly-acclaimed documentary Senna, about the life and death of Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna.  The movie tracks his unlikely ascendancy from Brazil go kart racing to international superstar and three-time world champion.  As expected, Senna shows uncommon skill and fearlessness in his craft except near the end of the movie, when the film turns to the day that he died.

It was in 1994, at the San Marino Grand Prix.  Senna had joined the Williams racing team that year.  This was his first race of the season, and the car was not performing the way he wanted.  The documentary offers footage of Senna expressing concern that the car was either over-steering or under-steering, and that adjustments by the crew team had only made things worse.  Senna was a calm presence most of the time, but not on the final weekend of his life.  He looks pensive, agitated, preoccupied.  On the morning of the race his nervousness is transparent.  By then, a rookie driver from Austria had been killed on the track and another racer had been badly injured.  Senna was understandably spooked, perhaps for the first time.

The race began and before too long, Senna skidded out on Turn 7, known as Tamburello, and crashed into the side wall.  A post-race investigation determined that the car's steering column struck him in the side of the head on impact, driving his skull into the back of the car frame and causing severe head trauma and blood loss.  Senna never recovered consciousness and was declared dead later that day in Bologna, Italy.  Ayrton Senna knew he was driving an unsafe car he could not control, but a lifetime of taking the wheel no matter the circumstances made dropping out of the race inconceivable.

Watching footage of the fatal crash was chilling, but my blood truly ran cold when the movie informed me that Ayrton Senna died in San Marino, far from home, on May 1, 1994.

Aron Sobel - same initials, similar first name - died on May 3, 1995, in Turkey, also along the Mediterranean Sea, also far from home, and also in an automotive accident.

Senna's death led to new safety measures, spearheaded by the doctor who treated Senna on the San Marino track.  To this day there has not been another F-1 fatality.

Sobel's death led to the creation of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, spearheaded by his mother.  To this day, Rochelle Sobel has devoted herself to the cause.  The statistics on road-related fatalities across the world beg for further action.  Please visit

I won't belabor the parallels, and I don't want to end on a somber note.  I'll finish with a quick story about Aron; sometimes, in honoring his life, I fixate on May 3 and forget to talk about his incredible joie de vivre.  A perfect segue into the story, which has to do with the summer Aron and I spent in Europe, 1991.

We were backpacking college graduates and having a fantastic time across Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain.  Being on a student's budget, most of our meals involved buying a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, which we would then divide using one of our pocket Swiss Army knives.  The rule was that one of us would cut the bread and split the cheese in half, and the other person would get first choice which piece he wanted.  I'd love to say we could have been trusted to share equally without the Solomonic inspiration, but I'd be lying.

Invariably, Aron would invite me to do the cutting up and dividing.  I'd clean the knife, measure thrice and cut once.  I took painstaking care to cut the pieces as equally as possible because I was hungry and didn't want to lose a crumb to Aron, and because the challenge of cutting identically sized pieces became a game unto itself.  That was always how things went with Aron - he could turn the most innocuous activities into personal contests, and life was always more fun when he did.  When it came to apportioning our daily rations, however, I sweated it out.

Upon finishing the cut, I'd glance at Aron and gesture at the portions.  He would study the two pieces of bread and two pieces of cheese as if they were strands of DNA.  Then he would look at me, shake his head with great disappointment and say as ruefully as possible: "That's Josh for you."

Every time, though every logical fiber of my body beseeched me otherwise, I would protest.  Every time, Aron got a good laugh.

Those were some of the grandest meals I ever ate.

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