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I Married a Stuntman

Published in The Globe and Mail: Facts and Arguments

May 28, 2007

The other night we watched Capote on DVD. Perry Smith stands on the gallows with a hood over his head, a noose around his neck. The trapdoor opens. He drops heavily, his foot twitches, then he’s still.

Dan grabbed the remote. My son, daughter and I groaned, “Can’t we watch just one movie without rewinding it a million times?”

“Come on, guys.” Dan said. “Did you see my foot twitch? I added that myself!”

I should have known what life would be like with a 48-year-old who blows stuff up and crashes cars for a living the day Dan set up a ramp in front of my house, had two neighbourhood boys lie on the pavement, and showed my son how to jump them with his bike. When I asked Sam how he felt about my dating Dan, he replied, “Wow! He’s a stuntman! You can marry him!”

A year later, I did. Our house in North Vancouver is easy to spot. There are four vehicles out front, including a bashed up ice racer with studded tires to grip frozen lakes. In the railway container are three motorcycles, five mountain bikes, and stunt pads. A climbing wall overhangs the back yard. This stuff is for “training”.

The term “training” is nebulous – even Vancouver’s traffic seems to qualify. My eighty-year old mother loves driving with him; she wants Dan, not me, to pick her up at the ferry terminal. She loves weaving in and out of traffic with inches to spare, and can’t understand why I scream, pump my imaginary brake, and leave fingernail marks in the dash.

Though I doubt the legitimacy of some of these “training” sessions, I see their value when I watch Dan on Fantastic Four doing a 90-degree slide into a parked taxi to set off a twenty-car pile-up. Or “gently” running into a prostitute, our friend Julia, who has to roll over the hood of the car dressed in stilettos and a tight mini-skirt.

Not all of Dan’s jobs are action-packed. He’s strapped on rubber breasts to double as a woman, jumped off a diving board wearing a skin-toned thong and a bald cap to double a naked seventy-year old actor, and even had a naked stunt guy on a rope fly into his face.

There are the times when the phone doesn’t ring for weeks. Dan keeps track of his stocks, checks out cars on eBay, visits his chiropractor, submits his receipts to his extended health plan, and trains. I encourage him to get rid of the stuff he bought after the last big job sucked us into believing we had some semblance of financial stability.

These dry spells allow for another form of “training” – watching bad action movies (which have lost their mystique now that I know the stunt world). A villain crashes through a plate glass window (made of sugar) and Dan will say, “Perfect timing!” and rewind it to show me how the special effects guys timed the charge. I know the stuntman is wearing a jerk vest – a stiff, full-body harness – and I can imagine the cable pulling him through the window onto a huge blue stunt pad. Dan has come home bruised by similar stunts.

And Zombie movies are hard to take seriously when you recognize the zombies. There’s Dave, crouching under a tree, chewing on an arm with blood dripping down his face. Peter gets hit by a truck, flies over the hood, and continues walking slowly with arms outstretched toward screaming, soon-to-be victims. My kids come home from school to find Dan watching Severed and ask, “What exactly do you do all day?”

Sometimes I wonder what kind of work ethic we’re instilling. Sam went to work with Dan once to earn money for a video game. They sat around for hours and when Dan finally needed help rigging a porta-potty twenty feet in the air (don’t ask), Sam was fast asleep on a pile of stunt pads. Now he thinks his step-dad spends roughly sixty working days a year doing nothing, making more in a day than his poor mother used to make in a month as a teacher. So when he got his first job – a paper route, he quit after a week, claiming it was slave labour.

Sam doesn’t realize that those hours of boredom are punctuated by high stress, danger, and responsibility for others’ lives. Thankfully, I’ve received only one of those dreaded phone calls –“Are you the wife of so-and-so?” – and it wasn’t from work.  Dan had fallen on his head at a bike park in West Vancouver after missing a tabletop on his mountain bike. They took him to the Lion’s Gate Hospital, where they told us he’d broken his back. For the third time. (The other times weren’t work related either; he was ice climbing, then paragliding). The kids and I sat by his hospital bed in tears. The next day I came back with his clothes and books, and he was up and walking. They’d misread the CT Scan.

So I tend to think that when Dan goes to work, it’s actually safer than when he’s at home. On set, the risks are calculated, everything’s perfectly set up. Usually. There was that time on X-Men 3 when Dan had to run – for real – from burning cars being catapulted skyward with compressed nitrogen. One landed on a Hummer – expensive mistake – but it was better than landing on a husband.

The other day, Dan came home wearing a bloody t-shirt with a bullet hole in his chest, a huge black tattoo on his bicep and carrot-orange hair. When I joked, “What did you blow up today, Honey?” he pulled out his movie camera and we gathered around the computer to “ooh” and “aah” while burning bodies crashed through windows, helicopters exploded, and cars spun in reverse one-eighties.

“There I am!” Dan said, and we glimpsed the back of his head as he swerved his postal truck onto the sidewalk, took out a baby carriage, and rammed into a wall.

Then he rewound it.

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