Fear and the Flying Leg

Some of the stories that I tell here on this blog page are stories that I have told and retold over the years.  The stories may be less true than they once were because as I get older the need to make myself into the hero seems more important to me.  The backlash effect of that of course is that I am falling into the “Glory Days Syndrome” also known as the “I Used to be Great Syndrome” or by the lesser known “If I Hadn’t Gotten Injured I Would’ve Gone Pro Syndrome”.  This story is not about my one time or enduring greatness, this is a story about experiencing someone’s weakness that ended up displaying my weakness.

I spent many of my summers during and after college working at Christian camps in Wyoming and New Mexico.  I served as an archery instructor, mountain bike instructor, rappelling instructor, and rifle range instructor (I would say riflery but my auto correct keeps telling me that is not a word).  My very last summer working at the camp in Wyoming saw me spending up to 6 hours a day above any sort of shade teaching people, children and youth specifically, how to rappel.  For those of you that are unfamiliar, I taught people how to walk backwards off a 30 foot wooden cliff.

This particular day my associate and me had been up on the tower in the morning and had to go back up for an afternoon session.  Jeremy and I had moved past the point in the summer where we appreciated all the sunshine we were getting and were now to the point of trying to get people up and down as quickly as possible.  Into our lives came a boy that I will call “Mike”.  I would like to say that I changed the name to protect the innocent, but honestly I either forgot or blocked his name out of my memory because I might still be a little angry with him.

In order to go down the tower you have to go up the tower, which requires that each person climb a 30 foot cargo net.  Mike showed some apprehension at this point, but so do many of the kids that go up the tower.  In other words, Mike did not display any sort of abnormal apprehension at this point so we encouraged him that he was safe and he proceeded clumsily up the cargo net.

Jeremy and I then proceeded through our normal spiel which was a devotion about trusting the rope and not your brain that was telling you that this was not safe and how that was analogous to trusting in God and not leaning on your own understanding.  Following the devotion we would show people how to put their gear on and then how they were going to get down.  This is when things started to get interesting because I remember Mike slowly working his way to the back of the tower.  He was doing what most people do when they feel danger.  They distance themselves as much as they can from the thing that threatens them.

Mike had watched a few people go over when we asked him to get on rope.  I walked him through the various instructions, made sure his gear was safe and then I asked Mike to turn around and face me.  This was not something that Mike was prepared to do.  He did not want to turn his back to the thing that threatened him, the wooden ledge.  At this point things started to unravel rather quickly.

Wait, you might have taken that to mean that the rope unraveled quickly, it did not, it fact the rope did not go anywhere at this point because Mike was not going anywhere.

Mike had a panic attack, he told me that he was going to puke, then he told me he couldn’t do it, then he tried to run to the back of the tower to sit down (still on rope mind you), then he told me he was going to, well, defecate right there on the tower.  Mike was not ready to rappel that day.  So we move to phase two which is to have the other instructor walk backward with Mike to the ledge and start down with him.  Normally if we can get people over the edge, they go the rest of the way pretty well.  It is the first step, that transition from vertical to horizontal, that puts most people into some form of panic.

Phase two did not work and more promises of things coming out of Mike’s body were made.  So we moved on to phase three which is to ask Mike to go sit down while we get the rest of the kids down the tower.  Even during this phase Mike was freaking out, which did not help get the rest of the kids down.  Phase three is to scrap our desire to help Mike through his fears and get him down the tower.  So 2 hours after Mike came up the tower, we asked Mike to climb down the cargo net.  This was not amendable to Mike, so we tried to get him to rappel again, which was also not amendable to Mike.  Mike had one proposal to make, which was not amendable to anyone else, and that was to make the tower his permanent home.

Three hours into this stand off we were finally able to get Mike off the tower.  Jeremy and I were hot, both physically and emotionally.  Mike’s fears and what they had manifested had taken every bit of our patience and love.  We packed up our gear, walked away from the tower, and headed back for our bunk.  Halfway back I dropped my harness on accident and in my anger I kicked it with my fake leg.

My leg flew off and hit the bunk house.  All I could do after I had landed on my butt outside the door was to lay there and laugh, what else was left.  Fear can debilitate and exhaust every one of our resources and the resources of people around us.  I wish I had more patience with Mike that day to help him figure out how we could help him conquer his fear, that really was the point of why we did rappelling at that camp in the first place.  Faith to overcome fear.

Fear and the Mud Puddle

As many of you know I my family and I are now the proud farmers of 6 ducks.   We used to have 7 but I managed to kill one (well it died, but in order to protect the hearts of my children I will not divulge the rest of that story).  This has been an interesting addition to our lives as my kids learn about farming, about the difference between fertilized and unfertilized eggs (great way to start a birds and bees discussion), as well as dealing with death.  I told my children before we went and bought the ducks that we would not be taking extraordinary measures to heal the ducks.  I found out that my youngest talks very matter-of-factly about Hazel’s (yes she had a name) death while one of my sons takes the death deeply to heart.

Lately though I have found that free-ranging our ducks has taught me a great deal about human behavior.  This is a lesson that I think that all of us know but I need to be reminded of lately.  We got ducks for several reasons:

First, because everyone else had chickens and I wanted to be unique.  Second, because they are better egg producers than chickens and are supposed to be more hearty.  Third, and the reason that we looked at it in the first place is because our yard has a big pond.  The pond is a seasonal pond, but in the winter it is the size of a basketball court (or a hockey rink) and is very deep.  We thought that the ducks would love to have this huge, well protected pond to themselves and the few wild ducks that use it.

Here is the problem; they won’t go in it.  They have had multiple opportunities as they wander around our yard they have come within feet of the shoreline but they are more comfortable on the ground than in the water.  One day I tried to set two of them in the pond and they shot out of there so fast that you would have thought the water was boiling (it wasn’t).

So one might think that they don’t like water, as though ducks could ever not like water.  They LOVE water, they splash in their pools everyday, they make a mess out of their water trough, and they will go sit in any puddle they find.  In fact, they will walk around our house and sit in the puddles in the middle of our road before they would walk 20 feet to get into our huge pond.  For the ducks the answer to why this is would have to come down to two things.  The first would be how they were raised.  They are almost a year old and we did not take them out into the pond when they were ducklings.  This is partly due to the fact that the pond itself was only a mud puddle up until about 2 months ago.  This also is partly due to fear, a mud puddle is small, controllable, and friendly.  The pond is huge, deep, and full of unknowns.

How often have I avoided the amazing things that I was built for because it was unknown or because I felt scared.  There is no doubt that those ducks would love that pond, and I hope that I can get them to turn the corner.  Ducks were made for ponds not puddles.

Blizzards and Tunnels

As I stood in the cavern that had been created just that day, I did not realize just how dumb it was to be standing there or how awesome it truly was.

I have been watching the snow come down all day here is Poulsbo and I have to say that it is depressing.  Its depressing because as much as come down that stupid white stuff won’t accumulate.  I remember living in Brookings, SD when I was in college when Calvin and Hobbes was so popular in the mid 1990’s.  My friends and I built a snowman outside of our dorm that had a hole the size of a cannonball through its abdomen, and a cannonball sized snowball behind it (I would like to think that Calvin would be proud).  That snow man was made in November and it was still standing in March when it finally started to thaw.

That, by the way, was also the winter that I experienced the coldest day of my life at -40 with a -70 windchill.  Walking around the campus was otherworldly because you could not stay out for more than a minute totally covered up.   The ground sounded like walking on Styrofoam because the snow was so cold and dry.  The new snow that had fallen was so light and fluffy that it was like walking through down feathers.  I can’t remember why exactly I had transferred from Brookings to Spearfish the next year, but this might have had something to do with it.

Living here in the Pacific Northwest you come to miss the four distinct seasons and large amounts of snow.  Growing up in Wyoming it was not the cold that stood out but the wind.  The snow always seemed to come down sideways and there was always bare ground because the wind would drift everything up.  Then the next day you would get a Chinook wind and a sunny day and it would all blow or burn off.  That brings me back to my opening sentence and the hill in my neighbors yard.

We were hit with a huge blizzard sometime in the mid 1980’s that brought in enough snow to shut down the school for a couple days.  In Wyoming it would take over a foot of snow, maybe more, to shut down school.  In the Pacific Northwest it takes about 2 inches, and in some cases not even that.  I don’t begrudge PNW for that, you don’t budget significantly for something that may or may not happen every year.  This blizzard brought more like 2 feet of snow and it came down sideways in a matter of hours not days.  So when we woke up the next morning to a blindingly sunny day and no school we headed over to the Butler’s place, which was our sledding hill when I was a kid.  J.J. and I did not get along that well, but we had to stay friends so that I could use his hill.

The snow was so deep on his hill that we abandoned sledding altogether because we just sunk into the snow.  We made a few attempts and creating some chutes down the hill to run our sleds down, but the day was really about tunnels.  I remember at least 5 of us out there; my brother Brett, J.J., Jeff, Jesse, and myself.  Most of us occupied out time by picking a place in the massive drift that had stacked itself on the south side of the hill, but not Jeff.  Jeff had bigger plans.

I remember a couple of years ago as an adult trying to make tunnels in the snow and thinking that I was either terribly out of shape or snow had gotten harder than it used to be.  We started in the morning, each of us picking a place of origin and building a series of interconnected tunnels on the top of the hill.  Jeff had went to the bottom of the hill, where the snow was deepest, and started to build a snow cavern.  After I went home for lunch, I came back and decided to see what Jeff had been up to all morning, and I was in awe.  This cavern had to be at least 6 feet tall by about 8 feet across.  Today I would brush the ceiling with my head, but back then I could hardly touch it by sticking my hand in the air.

Once everyone had seen this wonder in the snow we all decided that it was time to get our tunnels connected to this snow chamber.  I cannot show you pictures because they don’t exist, but I can tell you that by the end of the day we had turned the snow on that hill into a human sized anthill.  We were there all day, I probably burned more calories than I ever had in my life, and I didn’t ask myself once whether any of it was a good idea, nor did I wonder what my target heart rate was.  So as I stood in that cavern it also did not occur to me that if this thing collapsed I might have a problem on my hands.

So here’s to the boys that I celebrated the blizzard with, because it was a celebration.  Snow was not seen by us as something that got in our way, it was seen as a challenge and a new world to discover.  I hope my kids get to experience something like that, I can’t imagine how I would react seeing them disappear into a 10 foot tall drift to see them come out on the other side 30 feet away.

Stupid Snake in the …….

8 years ago I went down to Oklahoma to visit my in-laws with my family.  They had a piece of land outside of Oklahoma City that had a pond on it.  I have family from the southern United States so I know about the various reptiles that exist there, and they are not friendly.  As my sons and I went walking around the tall grass and scrub trees in my in-laws back yard the only thing on my mind was “watch out for Cotton Mouths, watch out for Copperheads, watch out for…..” you get the idea.  Part of this was paternal, I was watching out for my sons that were walking around the yard with me, but honestly the larger part was a true fear of being ambushed by a poisonous snake.  Where did that come from !?!?!?!

When I was a kid I did not grow up in the most hospitable place in the world.  Eastern Wyoming has many things that I miss, but the reality is that it is high desert.  The weather is extreme and some of the animals are less than excited to see you.  I used to go hiking for hours and, brace yourselves if you are carry your water bottle around with you 24/7, and wouldn’t drink any water until we go home.  That was in 85-95 degree heat and no humidity, but that was how we did things back then.  We thought it was really cool to carry a metal canteen around with a shoulder strap because that is what soldiers did, but not necessarily because we felt the need to “re-hydrate”.

It was on one of these hiking expeditions that my brother and I decided to climb our favorite SANDSTONE cliff.  The reason for the caps is so that you will all remember from this day forward that sandstone cliffs are not a great climbing choice (in case you needed some guidance on climbing in Southeastern Wyoming).  Do you know what happens to a sandstone foothold when you step on it?  I don’t know either, that’s the point!  It might hold, and it might just crumble like the oatmeal-raisin-applesauce-honey cookie that my mom had me take on the hike.

Back to snakes, on this particular hot and sunny day my brother and I started up the face of the cliff in the late morning.  That is important because in the morning snakes like to get out in the sun to warm their bodies from a cold, dry desert night.  I know that desert might not seem to characterize Eastern Wyoming for some of you that I grew up with, but in the summer it is hot and very dry, so it seems appropriate.  As my brother (or me, stories change over time, I honestly don’t remember which of us did this first.  I do know that the one that does it second is the true idiot, so let’s assume I was the second) pulled himself up to the top of the cliff that we were climbing and  raised himself up to find that he was facing a rattle snake that was warming himself right in front of the hand hold that we had used to get up there.

Funny thing is, my brother and I didn’t run home, we didn’t decide not to hike or climb again, we didn’t develop a tremendous fear of snakes.  In fact we probably went and climbed that cliff at least 2 to 3 more times that summer.

Earlier than that though was the “Tomato Dusting Incident”.  My parents tried their best to have a garden in the hard, red clay that comprised every inch of our property.  To their credit I think they did more with infertile, hard soil than most.  We had a pretty good garden when I was a kid.  I hated it of course because no kid wants to weed a garden in 90 degree heat, and I didn’t like most vegetables so where’s the profit for me right?

This particular day, when I was young enough to not know any better I was walking around bare foot like I would usually do in the summer.  It was a stupid thing to do with the hard, rocky ground, and the prickly pear cactus, and every other thing that warns humans not to step there.  I was lazy and I was tough, or I was tough and I was lazy, the order is important I suppose.  My mom was dusting tomato plants that were about up to her knee so that they would not get infested with bugs.  The bushes were tall enough and thick enough that you could not see the ground underneath so when I went in to help my mom I immediately pulled my foot back because I thought that I had stepped on a toad.  When I pulled the bush back I found myself looking at a coiled up prairie rattler.

My dad was gone at work so my mom asked our neighbor to come over and take care of it, and take care of it he did.  He came over with a handgun that was more fitting for taking down a mountain lion than a rattle snake and blew the thing to pieces.  You would think after an incident like that I would have made sure that I put my shoes on every time that I went outside after that.  Nope, I might have been a little bit more careful before putting my barefoot in a place that is hidden, but I still, to this day, can be caught going outside in my bare-feet when I shouldn’t.

So why was I so scared to walk around my in-laws yard in pants and a pair of shoes?  Well I had not run into many poisonous snakes for years prior to that, so I was out of practice.  Over time our experiences that taught us important lessons disappear through lack of exposure.  Over time we watch stupid television shows that play on our fears and therefore teach us to fear.  I know that there is a difference between fear and responsible behavior but at some point fearful behavior can be justified as responsible behavior because it is surely safe.  That is a danger that I think that we face in our world is that our fears can be projected onto other people or other things and so we can justify our course of action because it is a safe action without realizing what it does to our spirit.  Sure I have taken a safe course, but I gave up the adventure, I gave up the risk that has to come if I want to experience the reward.

Instead of exposing ourselves to new experiences, new people, or new ideas we tend to think that we need to be protected from them in order to keep ourselves safe.  I cannot imagine the marriage that I would have with my wife if she and I had not been willing to fight over a few things.  Through those few brush-ups I learned about my wife, and she learned about me, and we came closer together .  I still to this day fear more abstract things than tangible things.  If you asked me what I feared most, a snake in the grass or financial insecurity, I would ask for the snake.