“The Noble Spirit” – Not Giving in to Death

“The Noble Spirit” – Not Giving in to Death

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We’re all going to do it, but we really don’t want to think about it until our mortality catches up with us, forcing us to confront it.

When someone dies we ask “From what?” A common enough question today, but as Kathryn Schulz’ story, Final Forms: What death certificates can tell us, and what they don’t, in the April 7, 2014 issue of The New Yorker tells us, it has only been in rather recent times that the cause of death, rather than merely its occurrence, became important enough for society began to record it.

There are, of course, many ways “to go,” and most of us know someone, or someone who knows someone, who died from diseases such as cancer or heart attack that affect large numbers of the populace.

We normally don’t get to choose our life’s “exit strategy,” but nearly all of us would probably prefer to “die with our boots on” like heroes in a cowboy movie, or better yet, “in our sleep,” as quickly as painlessly as possible.

But few would choose to die from the disease that took the life of one of America’s most celebrated major league baseball players, Lou Gehrig.

And that includes Fred Noble, the subject of a new documentary film, The Noble Spirit.

Gehrig played seventeen years for the New York Yankees. Nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” his lifetime batting average was 340 and he hit 493 home runs.

Lou Gehrig
(Espino Family Flickr Photo)

But his record-setting career was cut short when he was diagnosed with “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis” (aka ALS) forcing him into retirement before killing him two years later.

Gehrig left his name in major league baseball’s records book. And his name is now applied to the neurodegenerative process that took his life: “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Like Lou Gehrig, Fred Noble was a super-athlete. He was an “extreme skier” who appeared in the “flying-through-the-air-with-the-greatest-of-ease” films made by Warren Miller.

Noble Skiing
(The Noble Spirit Website Photo)

Snow melts. It turns into water. So Noble turned to water, too, becoming a “wild man” of windsurfing, especially in the Columbia Gorge near his home in Portland, Oregon.

Noble Windsurfing
(The Noble Spirit Website Photo)

In 2010, Fred Noble found out that like Gehrig, he had ALS.

He knows it’s going to kill him. But there’s no way on earth, or in heaven or hell, that he’s going to let it beat him.

Fred Noble traveled to 85 countries before his health began to “Go South.” And he was apparently as wild about photography as he was about the death-defying feats her performing on skis and on a windsurfing board.

Two of my photography mentors, Robert Holmes, who I’ve known for thirty-odd years and lives near me in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his partner, Andrea Johnson from Portland, filmed The Noble Spirit. They are not only masters of still photography, collaborating on books such as Passion for Pinot, and serving as perennial faculty members at the prestigious Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, but like many others in their profession, have added filmmaking to their repertoire of visual storytelling.

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Andrea explains some of the scenes in the film, and how Fred Noble’s way of facing up to his slow demise has affected the perspective she now has on her own life, in this excerpt from a post which she wrote about the film for her blog:

Sharing the milestones of Fred’s final journey have been deeply moving. We reveled in the highs of his 75th birthday celebration at Canadian Mountain Holidays and final heli -ski run on his sit ski. We soared across the Oregon coast in tandem paragliders, rock climbed Mt. Hood, and enjoyed laps in Indy race cars at the Portland International raceway. We also silently mourned his continual losses – the last time he drove, the last meals he enjoyed with friends outside his home, and his ability to easily speak and deliver his never ending jokes. It’s a roller coaster journey, and in typical Noble spirit there was never a dull moment.

“What amazes me most about Fred is his unwavering strength of spirit to not just survive, but thrive despite the obstacles. It’s made me re-evaluate how I spend my time, energy and focus. Everyone Fred encounters is challenged to rethink excuses for not seizing the day. As Fred states, “Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself”. I hope the film continues to stimulate viewers to define what the Noble Spirit means to them, and how they can apply this to their everyday life.”

The Noble Spirit premiers this evening at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River, Oregon. It will be shown at two other locations in Oregon in April and May. You can learn more about the the film, Fred Noble, and how you can join Fred’s fight to find a cure for ALS, on the film’s Website.

(According to the ALS Association, approximately 5,600 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease each year, and 30,000 Americans are living with it, 70 percent surviving three to five years or  more, and 10 percent more than 10 years. Ironically, ALS eventually killed the husband of a co-worker of Tales Told From The Road publisher, Dick Jordan, at a law firm where they had both toiled together in the 1970’s. A partner in the same firm died from ALS many years later. Like Lou Gehrig and Fred Noble, both men had been very athletic, and one had played on the 1959 University of California football team, the last from that school to compete in the annual  Rose Bowl game held on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California.)

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3 Replies to ““The Noble Spirit” – Not Giving in to Death”

  1. An inspiring late life story — my super-healthy, athletic brother died of ALS not long ago, so I recognize the tragic, tragic progression. So maddening that there is little if anything in the way of treatment.

    Bravo to Bob and Andrea for their triumphant documentary!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Karen.

      Fred Noble passed away not long after seeing the premiere of “The Noble Spirit.”

      On its Website, the ALS Association says “Exposure to toxins, or the influence of intense exertion, are ideas researchers consider as possible reasons for the finding that some veterans and some athletes have increased incidence of ALS.” And at least one study, conducted several years ago, suggested a connection between ALS and athletics.

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