Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Hurricane Island: H37, Aug 1971
I was admitted to Outward Bound as a probationary candidate. I was seriously underage. The normal minimum was 16-1/2, but my 16th birthday was 3 days before the end of the course. My dad was not enjoying watching me smoke lots of dope and becoming another white social parasite. I knew I needed it, and agreed. The weeks in New York before leaving for Maine were a swirl of overcast humidity and Lebanese Blonde.
The ferry left Rockland in the fog. I was standing on the deck in a pea coat, dress pants, and leather street shoes, slippery on the steel plate. Pulling into Hurricane, we were met with our first surprise of many surprises. The instructors counted us off into our respective watches, and told us to find our tents. For the duration of the course, you had a number. Mine was 13. This was a device to make sure everybody was accounted for at all times, especially if the boat capsized and so on.
PT in 45 minutes. Fetch!
Thus began 26 days of basic training. Every day was an uncomfortable discovery where embedded beliefs and personal mythologies collided with the requirements of teamwork and new skills. Outward Bound found your faults with unerring accuracy. Physically buff but socially abrasive? Socially coordinated but with the muscle index of a zucchini? Self-righteous? Apathetic? You got served. We all got served.
I was in Jones Watch, after John Paul Jones, commander of the "Ranger" during the American Revolution, and later a Russian Admiral against the Turks. We all thought it was pretty hilarious, "jones" also being synonymous with getting loaded.
Our watch had a strange brew. Merrill from Connecticut; I'd seen his picture on the front of one of the New York papers wrassling a cop during a violent anti-war demonstration. Only now his hair was very short. Jack, the incredibly abrasive and beastly-powerful longshoreman from Southie, in Boston. Cobe from Baltimore, a reserved black guy who'd never been on a body of water bigger than a park pond. "Beetle", a sweet guy, 6'8", 250lbs, and soft as the day is long. He never stopped trying. Randall, an epic stoner from Georgia, who mumbled a collection of LPs from track 1/Side A all the way to the end. Andy from DC, whose dad was something at the Smithsonian, and found out late in the day he was suddenly vegetarian after looking a furious rooster in the face. Then the guy whose name I've forgotten; a Portuguese kid from Connecticut, wiry, glasses, a scrapper. Michael, orginally from South Carolina, serving a sentence at Rikers after a car he owned illegally was parked in a Harlem fire-lane. Only problem there was a fire, and several people died. Eric from Falls Church, VA. For starters.
In the beginning, Jones Watch couldn't show up on time to save our lives. Our instructor Fred Beames got fed up with all of it. He ordered us to link up by our monkey-lines. We did everything connected except shit and shower. All went sort-of-well until the first lunch call. Hoots, cat-calls, insults and jeers rained down on our heads for being such complete losers.
It hurt, and it began to make a point. Jones Watch started to pull it together. To our amazement, other watches were not the golden children we thought they were. We saw as different leadership was rotated in, just like us, and the internal dynamics changed. Everybody got to make mistakes, and maybe learn from it. Some units started high and ended low. We were fortunate in that we ended in a better place than we started.
Outward Bound taught me that everybody has at least one necessary skill, somewhere, in an unlikely place. It also taught me that being a social parasite was not a sustainable life-option.
Outward Bound also connected me to my ancestors who'd gone to sea, and come back. It plugged me into what I now know as my core values, which are not defined by narrow sectarian, political, ideological categories. It also gave me a very short fuse for idiots and assholes, which can be problematic in a corporate environment.
One of our national mythologies touts rugged self-reliance. Some of that is true. But it is meaningless without disciplined, informed cooperation. Yes, Fred showed us how to sail, tack, and moor a pulling-boat single-handedly. But all of us went further when we got over ourselves and learned what it took to work together.
As a final postscript, I have a direct link to John Paul Jones. No, not by blood. My maternal grandfather Lawrence Harvey graduated from Annapolis in 1917. One of his classmates grew up in France, the son of a naval attaché in Paris. Jones' body was exhumed from the he former St. Louis Cemetery for Alien Protestants in 1906. It laid in state for a brief period before being transported back to Annapolis. The boy's father was present at the ceremonies.The boy, seeing that Jones was in relatively good condition, and nobody was watching, surreptitiously shook Jones' hand.
Fast forward to 1965, when my grandfather told me the story. With a twinkle in his eye, he said "Shake the hand that shook the hand, that shook the hand of John Paul Jones!"
And I did.