Courage - the ability to do something that frightens one.
When you approach your three score and ten, if you are lucky, you can look back on days that make you smile and feel good about yourself. Not one of the big days, the births and weddings, the days that, hopefully, everyone has enjoyed. But, a day when you were involved in helping someone with a heroic act. You don’t have to be the person diving into a lake to rescue a child. Maybe you just got the blankets and kept them both warm until the ambulance arrives.
For some of us it will be a seemingly ordinary act, on an ordinary day where a simple act will help someone do something courageous.
It was an early summer Cub Jamboree, the location doesn’t really matter except to say it was dry and dusty. Wolf Cub Packs from around the district were gathered for a weekend of friendly competition. The boys, ages seven to ten, quickly named it Camp Cactus for the other notable feature of the camp site.
Our Pack had travelled the furthest. My old Land Rover didn’t do highway speeds. As a result I was the last of the Pack’s leaders to arrive. The other leaders, all women, had the camp setup and ready to go. I mention that the other leaders were women only because it was, maybe still is, hard to get men out to fill those roles.
It also meant that I got my own tent.
Having my own tent and being an early riser, I had volunteered to cook breakfast. I could get up and get things organised without disturbing anyone else.
Most of the leaders of the Wolf Packs at the camp had been informed that each Pack was responsible for setting up a ‘challenge’ for the next day. Our Pack Leader, the ‘Akela’, a title given to all Wolf Pack leaders, was only informed of this after she arrived at the camp. While most Packs had brought material with them for the ‘challenge’ a few, like us, were scrambling to set up some sort of meaningful ‘challenge’. As the last to arrive and the other Pack leaders busy setting up the camp, it fell to me to organise the ‘challenge’.
The only thing I had to work with to design the ‘challenge’ was rope – lots of rope. I wandered around the area looking for ways I could make use of the rope. It was one of those quests where you don’t know what you are looking for but you will know when you find it. In this case it was a small depression about four foot deep with a Ponderosa pine on either side.
I would set up a rope bridge.
The next day started early. By six o’clock I had the coffee on and a large pot of water heating on the camp stove. As usual in a campground, the early morning smell of coffee attracted a crowd. The early risers from the adjacent Pack came over for a cup. Seeing the pot of water on the stove they wanted to know what I was making for breakfast.
“The kids will never eat that!” was their incredulous response.
I just smiled ‘We’ll see.’
The serving area consisted of two folding tables placed end to end. The stove with the porridge pot was at one end. A slightly smaller pot of water, for hot chocolate, was warming on a camp stove at the other end. Around the area stumps, logs, and a few large rocks served as the sitting area.
By six thirty the other two leaders were up enjoying a coffee and setting up the serving area. The operation was a mini assembly line. At the first stage the boys would get a ladle of porridge, then on for a spoonful of brown sugar and finally a splash of milk. Once they had finished their porridge, some even coming back for ‘seconds’, they could have a hot chocolate.
At seven o’clock the first of the boys were up and Akela was rousting out the late sleepers. We decided to wait until everyone was up and washed before serving breakfast. Serving started around seven thirty and by seven forty-five everyone was fed.
About eight, leaving the other leaders to clean up and get the Pack ready for the opening ceremony at nine, my son and I went to set up the ‘challenge’.
The set up was fairly simple. A bottom rope pulled tight between the trees served as the base of the bridge. A second rope was strung on the opposite side of the tree about four foot above the bottom rope. Having it come off the opposite side of the tree made it offset slightly and would serve to steady the boys as they crossed over the bridge.
My son gave it a try and immediately slipped off the rope. He was using the same technique he had seen tightrope walkers use – placing one foot in front of the other. Since this was a ‘slack rope’ that movement caused the bottom rope to swing out. He then tried an alternate technique. Standing facing the top rope, using it to steady himself, he used a scissors motion; sliding one foot out about a foot, then sliding the other foot over. As long as he stood straight and didn’t make any sudden movements he was able to easily cross the rope bridge.
The ‘challenge’ started after lunch. Grabbing a sandwich and a canteen I headed over to check the ropes and waited. Each Pack started at their own ‘challenge’ then moved on to the next section.
The afternoon quickly settled into a routine. A new pack would show up every fifteen to twenty minutes, I would give them the instructions of how to cross on the rope bridge; as each boy made his way across, I would walk beside him ready to grab him if he started to slip or fall. The results were predictable – a few would ignore the instructions and quickly overbalance, I would lower them to the ground; a few would refuse to try, that was OK it looked scarier than it was; most successfully made it across. As the day wore on, as each group approached, I tried to predict which ones would fail and which would refuse.
There was one more Pack left to do the ‘challenge’ – they were late. The time allotted for the ‘challenges’ had passed and I was about to take down the ropes when a Cub came running up. “His Pack would be there in ten minutes. Would I please leave the ‘challenge’ up until they arrived?”
I was tired, thirsty, hungry and hoarse, I could have said “No”. But, reluctantly, I said “Yes”. And, to paraphrase Robert Frost, “That made all the difference.” Three lives would come together to achieve something remarkable.
After about ten minutes the last Pack finally arrived. The boy who had delivered the message was in the lead. I immediately pegged him as a bit of an overachiever, the boy who was good at everything he tried. If he listened to the instructions, he would have no trouble with the ‘challenge’. The rest of the Pack were in groups of two or three chatting amongst themselves – they should all be able to complete the task. At the rear a boy was walking alone, head down, kicking up dust as he went – I pegged him as ‘slow’ and dismissed him. He wouldn’t even attempt the ‘challenge’.
When they arrived their Akela thanked me for waiting. She said the boys had heard about the rope bridge and were eager to try it.
I gave the Pack the instructions, then everyone lined up to take their turn crossing the bridge. As I expected, the boy who delivered the message was the first inline. Without waiting for me to get into position he was starting across. Unfortunately, he was walking as if he was on a tightrope, with the expected result. He asked if he could try it again. While I felt sorry for him, I had said everyone would only get one turn and the rest of the Pack was waiting.
In about fifteen minutes, the rest of the boys had successfully made the crossing. To be sure everyone had had their chance I asked “Is that everyone?”
Akala said, “Gordon hasn’t tried it yet.”
The boy I had written off now had a name. He was standing by himself at the edge of the Pack. He looked scared and I could see he didn’t want to attempt the ‘challenge’. I turned to Akela –
“He doesn’t have to try it if he doesn’t want to.”
Her reply surprised me – “We aren’t leaving until Gordon has attempted the ‘challenge’.’”
I was tempted to challenge her authority. She seemed to have read my mind and stood there, her arms crossed, glaring at me as if to say “Don’t you dare!”
Gordon started to slowly walk to the bridge, trying to postpone the inevitable. Someone in the Pack started a chant – “Gor - Don . . . Gor - Don . . . Gor - Don”
As he got to the starting position he turned back to Akela with a pleading look. She was still standing with her arms crossed but her look had softened. For a moment I thought she might change her mind but she just stood there.
Gordon was standing there looking at his feet – terrified.
I held up my hand and had the Pack be quiet. ‘We are going to do this.’
“Gordon! . . . Look at me! . . . Don’t look down – just look at me. You can do this. . . . Do you trust me?” He gave a slight nod, some of the fear left his face.
“Don’t look down, just look at me. . . . Now just slide your foot out – just a little, then slide the other one over. . . . Can you do that?” – a definite nod. He only moved a few inches – but it was a start.
“Great – that wasn’t too hard. Let’s do it again.” He started to look down.
“Don’t look down – just look at me.”
Slowly – painfully slowly he inched his way across the bridge.
“OK Gordon you are all the way across” He just stood there. I started to smile, ‘He doesn’t believe me.’
“Look down, you are on the other side.”
Looking down, his face erupted into a smile. He raced back to the Pack. They were all cheering and congratulating him.
I looked over at Akela. She was beaming with pride. A mother’s pride seeing her son conquer his fears and do something truly courageous.