Sunday, July 25, 2010

Remaining Calm

It's an important ability to have, remaining calm I mean. Many times in life potential disasters can be averted if the people involved keep a cool head and act rationally. Although there weren't a lot of true disasters looming over my childhood there were mild unpleasantnesses around every corner. At times we managed to avoid them just by thinking and acting quickly. I am now going to unfold three brief tales where I extol the virtue of keeping your head.

The first tale opens in a boat in a pond in a yard in a wood in Moncks Corner in South Carolina in the United States of America. My brother and I were visiting our grandmother with our parents. Most of the time when we came down to visit, which was very often, some of my cousins would come over to play with us. Usually it was Jennifer, Christie and Robby that showed up.

We five were very regular companions. Of all our kin, Joshua and I saw them the most. When we weren't heading down for a weekend in Moncks Corner they were usually coming up for a visit in Williston. In spite of the fact that we lived roughly a hundred miles apart, we got to see each other basically every other weekend. Much is the time we spent together and many are the tales we lived through.

That day we had gotten out on the pond early. My uncles had a little aluminum john boat that we were allowed to use whenever we wanted. We could row around and fish and do pretty much whatever else we could think of. Christie, Jennifer and I had been rowing for an hour or so when the girls decided they wanted to go inside for a moment. They intended to come right back to the boat so I didn't want to row all the way back to our normal landing spot.

I decided that I would let them disembark on a small cliff overlooking the pond. It was about a foot out of the water and seemed to me to be a perfect spot to get to shore. I rowed up until I was almost touching it, then I stood up and put the tip of my paddle on the shore. As I turned around to help one of them up I explained what I wanted them to do.

“OK. All you need to do is to step out of the boat onto the shore. I'll hold your hand so you won't fall. Whatever you do don't jump. If you do you will kick the boat away from the shore. You understand?”

They nodded and affirmed that they did, in fact, understand me completely. I helped Jennifer to her feet. She stepped quickly to the front of the boat and stepped out onto the shore without batting an eye. I then helped Christie to her feet. She stepped quickly to the front of the boat and paused for a moment. Then she bent her knees quickly and jumped to the shore.

The result was simple and immediate. The boat shot away from the shore like a rocket. She had forgotten that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The action of her getting to shore almost caused the reaction of me falling into the pond. However, as I said at the beginning, these tales are all about keeping your cool.

I only had a split second to react after she jumped. I was leaning out of the boat toward the shore in order to make sure that she didn't fall into the pond. Because of that fact most of my body was actually hanging out over the water. I had been supported by my feet in the boat and by the paddle pushed down on the shore. The moment she jumped, my feet were pulled from under me and the paddle jerked off the shore.

I did the only thing I could at that moment. I jammed the paddle down into the water as hard as I could. Lady luck was watching me carefully that afternoon, it would seem. The paddle went almost completely under the water, but struck mud at the last instant. About three inches of the handle were above the water line.

So there I was stretched out at my full length, hovering above the water. The very tips of my toes were still clinging to the boat. My chest was held aloft by one hand that was holding onto a paddle that was stuck in mud in the bottom of the pond. Fortunately my hand was right in the center of my chest. Had it been off to one side or the other I would have been off balance and would have toppled into the water. I hung there for a moment, quickly jerking the paddle handle right and left to keep my balance.

“Pull me in!” I yelled.

“We can't, we're not strong enough,” Christie asserted.

“Well you're going to have to try!”


“I don't know! Grab me!”

“We might fall in.”

“Might you?!?!?”

After a moment Jennifer and Christie decided that they should try something. They each grabbed me under the arm and began to pull. Again, luck was with me. My head was almost touching the shore so they could grab me with out leaning out too far. If I had been a little better balanced I could probably have gotten my left hand on shore by myself. Once they had me they began to pull.

“Pick me up higher.” I said as I saw the shore creeping slowly toward my face.

“We can't! We're not strong enough.”

She was right. Try as they might they couldn't get my head up. Within a second I was plowing a trough through the dirt with my face. The moment I could support my weight with my head I slammed one of my hands on shore and did a push up. After that I was able to drag myself in and pull the boat up with my feet.

My face was covered in dirt, but I hadn't fallen into the pond. On the way back to the house I explained why stepping out of a boat was so much better than jumping out of a boat. It had been close and I had gotten a face full of dirt, but I hadn't fallen into the pond. The reason I didn't was a combination of luck and keeping a cool head.

The next tale opens years later. My cousin Tara was over visiting us along with Phillip Renew, who was a long time friend. The two of them had gone out into the woods with Joshua to play. I planned to follow them after I had taken care of a few things at the house. They had been gone for perhaps an half an hour when I headed out myself.

I walked out to our tree-house and stumbled upon an alarming sight. Tara had been tied to a pine tree and a bundle of kindling was burning at her feet. She was looking down at the blaze and slowly stepping it out as it crept to near her. I watched her for a moment or so and then decided to speak.

“I everything alright?” I asked, looking down at the fire.

“Oh yes, it's fine,” she replied while stepping on a burning bit of pine straw.

“What's going on?”

“Oh, Josh and Phillip decided to burn me at the stake.”

“I see... Any reason why?”

“It's a game we're playing.”

“I see... Where are they?”

“I don't know...” she said while putting out a small pine branch. “They wandered off into the woods after they started the fire...”

“Ah... Would you like me to put out the fire?”

“No, no. I think I have it under control.”

“I see... Would you like me to wait with you until they come back?”

“Not at all. Thank you, but I'm certain they'll be along any minute. Don't let me keep you.”

At this point I wasn't sure what to say. I just stood there for a moment while she ignored me and concentrated on keeping the fire at bay. I decided that the best course of action would be to go look for the boys in the woods. We must have passed each other at some point, but they did get back in time to put out the fire. So, Tara had kept a cool head and managed to get out of what some would consider a tricky situation. She could have stood there screaming and fought the ropes to no avail, but she remained calm and simply refused to be taken advantage of by the flames. There's a lesson there for us all, I think.

The next story took place later that same day. After I had gone to make sure that Tara hadn't been roasted alive, I went on my way. Tara and the boys decided to stay at the tree house, however. Josh and Phillip got the brilliant idea to build a fire inside an old metal tank. I'm not sure where the tank came from or what it was for, but we had dragged it out to the tree house just in case we needed it. That day Phillip and Joshua decided that it was the perfect place to build a fire.

Now, why they thought it would be good to build a fire in it is a matter of speculation. I can only suppose that they thought it would be cool to have a tank full of fire. However, this tank presented several challenges. First, it had only one small opening, which meant it had to be loaded with fuel through a two-inch hole. Second, whatever instrument you decided to light the fire with had to pass through that two-inch hole. Third, once the fire was lit, both the exhaust and oxygen had to pass through that same two-inch hole. All in all, the two-inch hole was the real problem.

The sum of those facts was simply this: they couldn't get the fire started. They had loaded the tank with pine straw and sticks, but nothing would light it. They dropped burning pine straw into it by the handfuls only to see it go out. After a few moments they got frustrated and decided to take things to the next level. Josh got a can of spray paint and and blasted very flammable paint into the tank. Still nothing... So they got a can of starter fluid (for those of you who don't know, starter fluid is much more flammable than gasoline) and sprayed a liberal amount of ether (starter fluid is also called ether) down into the hole. Still nothing...

That sat there frustrated for a few moments, trying to decide what to do. What they didn't know was that every second they waited, air was creeping into the tank. The fire wasn't refusing to start because of a lack of fuel, but because of a lack of oxygen. That deficiency was rectifying itself as they sat there thinking. At last Phillip got a brilliant idea. He lit a small pine stick and put his face up to the hole. He was going to take a look in the tank and see what was going on. With his eye lined up with the opening he jammed his burning twig into the darkness.

The results were amazing to see, at least that's what I've been told. The tank lit up like a rocket motor. It shot flame out several feet, which was more than enough to engulf Phillip's head in crimson flame. His hair was blown back and singed into an interesting bouffant, while at the same time his eye brows and eye lashes were instantly burned away to nothing. His eyes had been open when the metal dragon sparked to life, so he was temporarily blinded. That is why, when he jumped up and shot away from the tank, running at full speed, he didn't see the pine tree in front of him. He rammed his head into it with so much force that it knocked him down and almost out.

Now, at this moment many people might have freaked out. Joshua didn't. He helped Phillip up as quickly as he could and made a bee line for the house. Within a minute or so they had Phillip's head in the sink, extinguishing any secondary burning. He looked funny when all was said and done. He had no eye brows/lashes at all, and his hair-do would have made Flock of Seagulls (an eighties band) proud. His face was also very red. Almost as red as a ripe tomato, but at least all his skin was still there. All things considered he was no worse for the wear.

I don't think his mother agreed at the time. Phillip was never again allowed to come over to the house unless his old brother Stephen came along. I thought that Josh had acted very well under the circumstances. Still, I understand where she was coming from. No one likes to have their son's head caught on fire, I suppose.

The moral of all of this is simple: keep your head. You can't control what life throws at you, but you can control what you throw back. Things aren't usually as bad as they appear at first glance, so keep your head up and keep your nerve. That's what I've always tried to do and, so far, it's served me well. Nothing has ever been made better by people running around in a panic screaming “What are we going to do!” Anyways, it's something to think about...

No comments:

Post a Comment