Going Out on a Limb
Complaint Department Closed
Growing up in rural Maryland in the 1950's where extensive woodlands dotted the flat, marshy terrain of Maryland's Talbot County, I spent many idle hours climbing either a magnolia tree in my family's backyard or the heights of seemingly huge hay stacks in the hayloft in a nearby barn. And when my younger brothers and I eventually discovered a half-fallen oak tree along the waterfront not far from our home, we built a tree fort, a crow's nest of sorts and a "secret" hideaway over a Chesapeake's tributary called Solitude Creek. At the time I was intrigued with climbing. I had grown comfortable with going out on a limb. It was adventurous and exhilarating, until it wasn't. It was an epiphany when one summer I discovered I was afraid of heights. But then just as suddenly, I heightened my courage.
Back in 1964 when I was 14 years old, my parents offered me an opportunity to sail on the schooner Tabor Boy from Marion, Massachusetts to Halifax, Nova Scotia. This two-week round trip voyage introduced and oriented me to a number of never-before manly challenges. Little did I know at the time the true meaning of "going out on a limb". But I began to understand the concept near the conclusion of the first day's sailing passage,
Captain Glaser called for all hands to furl the yardarm. At 14 years old, I was certain I had no clue what a yardarm was. As knowing arms pointed skyward, my gaze was directed aloft. I quickly realized his command to secure sail meant young crew would climb the rigging to secure the topsail. While each teetered on a tether, my only real motivation was that others would climb the rigging and complete this death-defying feat.
Almost instantaneously, I imagined surely the experienced older hands onboard would demonstrate this skill. Certainly, this first day we twelve 14-year-old teenage newbees would merely watch, observe and learn from the safety of the deck. Because I was inexperienced, I did not anticipate I would sure be disqualified to complete such a dangerous task. Surely the skipper wasn't reducing the crew numbers on the first day. And I knew I had not signed up for this experience, but then again at that age I barely knew anything. I'm pretty sure I never had heard of life insurance before then. Surely others of the more experienced crew would be selected for this death-defying demonstration. Well, this common sense was quickly ignored and subsequently become another of many surprises on this voyage.
When Cap Glaser then ordered the first mate to explain the exercise, it became painfully obvious the explanation was ONLY addressing NEW, RAW crew members commonly referred to as "RAIL MEAT". At the time I could not help but glance around at the jaw-dropping facial expressions of other knee-knocking neophytes as the reality of our situation became clearer by the second. Disbelief, anxiety and increased breathing all became facially evident. The first mate then described our task at hand...
"Climb the ship's rigging, crawl out onto the horizontal spar, balance your torsos on the yardarm, keep tension on the foot rope as you inch out towards the end of the spar. Keep a firm footing on the foot rope or you might lose your balance and fall to the deck, or, if you are lucky, into the sea."
As if he needed to provide some historical reference or reassurance, he then announced no one had ever fallen (he added to his knowledge!), and that we were indeed fortunate since the winds and seas were especially calm. I don't recall at the time any collective sigh of "Thank God". I half-expected some gutsy sarcasm to blurt out of our bunch,
"Oh, this will be a piece of cake then".
Of course, this add-on failed to reassure anyone. To the contrary, now we were all suddenly white-knuckled-bedwetters - now all afraid to be the first and only rigging climber. It didn't take a high IQ to deduce that pride alone would keep all of us from our first time furling aloft, becoming our last. I recall feeling some relief that at least we had calm seas. The vision that our next climb might be in a gale provided small comfort. Then it suddenly dawned on me that each unfurling exercise had another furling component.
Complaints don't fly aloft when waves, winds and flapping sails challenge one's limbs and courage. Resolve and results are all that matter. Someone has to do it. The task has to get done.
Having been a dutiful and obedient son, any complaining or refusing didn't dawn on me at the time. My life to this point was void of questioning authority or taking an oppositional stance. Even if abject fear ruled. I did what I was told and accepted what older, wiser, more experienced people told me. Maybe my innocence and naiveté kept me following the straight and narrow. As the oldest of four boys, I grew up thinking I should just know stuff, figure out much myself and trust my elders. The idea of saying "No way, Jose." didn't even flicker into my thoughts. I was the dutiful son at 14. It wouldn't be until years later when I realized I had knew nothing about insurance. liability or waivers. I did not know at the time what I was ahead of me. Who does? Wow, was I ever "wet behind the ears".
All 12 of us rookies were chosen to climb aloft; and we all survived the challenge. Some of us probably thrived because of it. I know I felt somehow taller, tougher and stronger after completing my furling teamwork.
Teenage boys often think they are indestructible and invincible. While simultaneously being oblivious to imminent dangers, they somehow often conclude they know the world's pitfalls. Risk to them is a challenge they will deal with when in the moment. Taking a moment to consider the consequences would suggest they had enough experience to know better.
These chancy challenges somehow become stepping-stone endeavors, eventually becoming opportunities to prove male manhood and, for some, even machismo. This proof is often not as much intended for any nearby doubting adults, but mostly either to impress one's peers and/or one's own self-esteem or ego. Lacking experience often accompanies immaturity and misunderstanding, but male youth still often acts impulsively and foolishly to demonstrate his mettle. Maybe it is just a male's impulse to determine if he can survive the challenges ahead.
Listening to others can be helpful. So too can watching others demonstrate their skills, but the greatest knowledge comes from actual experience. Reading about, listening to someone's account of or watching someone climb a mountain are never as powerful alternatives as our actually accomplishing the deed ourselves. Experience is our greatest teacher.
Complaining is always easy but rarely changes anything. And what is the point of lodging a complaint aboard a boat? Does it help accomplish the task at hand? Does it provide feedback? Does it add another uninformed perspective? Does it prove helpful for additional perspective? Complaining doesn't accomplish anything.
Of course, I know so much more at 67 than when I went out on a limb as 14 year old Tabor boy. Now I know when men climb stairs, ladders and limbs, whether they be social, corporate, they actually all take a risk - going out onto a limb. Of course, many who venture up and out, strive not only to reach new heights, they may stretch their stature in their own minds and maybe others...if they, of course, survive. However, society often glorifies a dying-trying mentality. The irony is that in some situations abstaining is a more honorable option.
While tasks have to be completed, people need on-the-job skills and someone has to be courageous to do them. So frequently being made, swayed or paid can stretch one's limits and personal skills...and priorities. At the time I knew I had no choice but to climb the rigging. So all my focus and energy went to scaling a backyard magnolia tree.
Climbing out on a limb actually gave me confidence and comfort that I never knew I had. I gained a whole new perspective for life when I viewed it from above. Climbing those heights heightened my resolve. This experience was just another youth test. Part of a rite of passage. After 2 weeks and many times aloft, I somehow stepped ashore, without any internal complaining, atop of the world.