Editor’s note: I recorded this as a podcast for Productive Flourishing long after I originally published this post. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to hear more episodes of the podcast, you’ll find them in the show’s archives.
The air on the bus was so thick with tension and fear you could hardly see through it.
We had just spent our last night out as civilians. The Academy had pulled us all together and brought us to a hotel just outside of Newark where we had a social cocktail and meet & greet. I thought it was odd that they had a cocktail for people who were too young to drink; I later learned that it was just an upgraded marshaling area for new cadets.
The next morning we got up and loaded our designated buses. The drive through New York was far more beautiful than many of us had anticipated, but with each passing mile, we got closer and closer to our future as the elite leaders of the United States Army. We would soon be West Point cadets.
We were too young to really grasp that the next 12 years of our lives would be under the control of Uncle Sam. Each cadet had ~$250,000 spent on their education and training, and the Army was going to make sure they got their return. What most scared us right then was not the decade we’d signed away, but the legends of Beast Barracks – the initiation of West Point cadets.
When we passed through the gates of West Point, the tension was at a fever pitch. Right past the gates was a cemetery, a poignant symbol to the reality behind the glory of being a Soldier. We all sat still, lost in a communal world of responsibility, uncertainty, honor, and excitement.
All of a sudden, a cadet who was built like a tank stood up and yelled “I’m here to blow shit up!” The shout carried a smile at the same time that it carried the conviction that only an uninitiated warrior could authentically muster. The guy was serious – I wondered whether he was some senator’s son who had never gotten a chance to fight save for on the field of friendly competition that sports provide.
We all burst in a chorus of laughter and cheer. Though the trials of our lives lay five minutes in front of us, those last minutes were spent in the rush of cheer, joy, and positive possibilities.
I’ve thought about that cadet often, though many years have past. In one single, immature yell, he taught me a lesson in leadership that I returned to many times during both my military career and my current path as an advisor-leader.
What’s so powerful about his action was that he reminded us of what we were there to do, right when we needed it. Plenty of leaders can lead when the conditions are good, but few leaders can stand up in a shared emotional maelstrom and, by doing so, get you to feel the solid ground you’ve been slipping on. That cadet felt the same thing we did – he just rose above his feelings to inspire us all.
At the time, I hadn’t crystallized what I was there to do. But you better believe I started thinking about it. I never found it there and it’s taken me all these years to figure out why I’m here. A lesson came earlier, but I missed it. A combination of winter reflection and being asked a lot of questions about who I am got me thinking about it with a different level of perspective.
A few years after my journey to West Point, I was working at the same Boy Scout camp that I worked at as a teenager. It was the same camp that I had gotten fired from a few years earlier. You have to work hard to get fired from a Boy Scout camp, but I had managed to do so by essentially co-creating a staff union. Funny how a pro-democratic organization didn’t take too kindly on providing its workers a forum and voice.
They hired me back on because I was very, very good at planning and organizing backpacking and canoeing treks for Scout Troops. They also had some new management, and, since I had worked in so many areas and was now a bit older, I could help them with the setup and running of the other areas.
Midway into the summer, a couple of kids had come in and asked about going to Hemmed-In Hollow, which required them to go down a trail where they had to cross the Buffalo River seven different times. While they waited to talk to us, they were checking the maps we had on how to get there. We spoke briefly but told them that they’d need to come back with a Scoutmaster before we could go any further. For reasons you might imagine, we didn’t allow two Scouts to plan their own trips without adult supervision.
The skies darkened the next day and one of the camp’s famous summer monsoons hit. We shut down all the trails due to flood concerns and started to check in with all of the scout troops to make sure they had all their people when a Scoutmaster reported that two of his boys were missing. Some of the other scouts had heard the boys mention that they were going to Hemmed-In Hollow.
Yes, it was the same two boys. Apparently their Scoutmasters didn’t want them to go and the boys decided they were going come hell or high water.
We organized an emergency rescue crew comprised of the Trail Crew – my cell – and the Adventure Crew. The Adventure Crew handled rock-climbing and rappelling, and we often shared crew members to have a little variety and cross-training. Though we didn’t have a designated leader, the Trail Crew became the team leads, with me as their leader due to seniority in craft and leadership. Ad hoc leadership happens that way most of the time.
We formed our team in about 15 minutes, which we were rather proud of. It’s hard to get rescue and aid equipment along with a few handfuls young men organized and deployable in that amount of time without prior rehearsal.
The first crossing was already getting a bit dicey, but we all made it across quickly. Even though it was only a 15 minute shuffle-jog to the next crossing, we found the conditions there to be much more dangerous. The river was too swift and deep to just run across anymore, so we had to send an anchor across with a rope to tie on to the other side of the river so that others might follow.
I was the strongest and stablest of the bunch – and the first to volunteer to do it – so we hitched a rope to me and I navigated the crossing, tied the rope to the other side, and then came back out holding on to the rope to help some of the less able members across the water. It was utterly exhausting.
By the time we had gotten about 2/3s of the crew across, the crossing was becoming unfordable. Some people simply weren’t going to make it, so we redistributed their equipment and told them to go back to camp. (We later found out that they were stranded between the first and second crossing and had to stay overnight. They had their own adventures of hunting snakes and opening a huge can of corn with a rusty hatchet.)
We were losing time so we had to pick our shuffle up to a near run. There was an extreme age gap between the upper management back at camp and middle-management here in the field; we were in our late teens and early twenties, and they were in their mid-forties and older. One of the reasons we left them behind is that they weren’t able to run a few miles down trails with rescue gear on. The vigor of youth leads to precisely the type of folly that soon occurred.
The third crossing was normally pretty tame, though it was the widest. This time it was neither tame nor any narrower. In fact, it was wider than normal since the river was now at flood stage. We had hoped the boys would be stranded earlier on, but they had apparently made it further down the trail.
We did a quick recon and found the shortest fordable crossing and began our river rope-anchoring process again. The river was so powerful at this point that even I got scared when I stepped into it. By the time I was mid-shin deep – in other words, about three steps into the water – I was already having to lean against the current just to stay upright. When it hit my thighs, I was leaning full tilt and losing the battle. I hoped it wouldn’t go higher.
My hope was misplaced. I was less than a third of the way through the crossing when the river colluded with a slippery rock and they both won me over. I went tumbling backwards, and the rope that was originally around one of my shoulders somehow managed to end up about 12 inches below my waist.
The rope-over-the-shoulder was for safety. If I fell, my rescuemates would be able to pull me back in with my head above my feet, which still allowed me to swim in a somewhat natural manner. When the rope slipped below my waist and the river took me, I ended up face up in the direction the water was moving, unable to swim or stand and with water rushing down my lungs.
I looked up for what I thought would be my last time. The sky was dark-gray and dirty because I was looking at the sky through about an inch of dirty water. Cold, rushing water … my strength gone … a dirty, gray sky … the odd silent-static sound of water rushing past my ears carrying the echoes of the submerged rocks it was swallowing. It’s amazing how your mind captures fractions of a second so vividly in times like these.
After an indiscernible amount of time passed, I felt a tug around my waist. I could feel the bottom of the river with my hand and instinctively grabbed a rock, which allowed me to pivot and control my legs. I stood up and saw my best friend, Scott, pulling the rope at a diagonal towards the shore, thereby pulling me closer to the shore in a way that didn’t keep me in a precarious drowning-by-a-rope situation. He wasn’t tied in and was midway in the river – if he fell, he was a goner. I don’t remember what he was yelling, but I do remember seeing the face of a young man who was watching his best friend die by drowning.
When I got my first breath of air and my footing, I yelled at Scott to get back to the shore. I was not going to lose my best friend to the river that just about sent me to the grave. He wasn’t having it, though, probably because he saw that I probably wouldn’t be able to make it back on my own. I quickly made my way to the shore, now able to keep myself upright by pulling against the rope with my arms.
Were it not for Scott, I may have died that day. That act pretty much made up for the time he shot me in the groin with a BB gun.
This wasn’t one of those times where you sit on a rock and reflect on everything that just happened. We still had a lot to do, even though we called off the rescue party. As much as we wanted to rescue the boys, we wouldn’t further jeopardize any more of us to find a couple of boys who could be anywhere or dead already.
There was an established state park less than a quarter-mile behind us, so we took off in that direction. We could call back to the camp with our radios from that point, too – it was difficult to communicate, but we could at least get some transportation back to the camp. After all, we couldn’t cross that second crossing at this point.
The camp’s ranger had already left for that park before we called, so he came and picked us up in his truck shortly thereafter. I was already about to be hypothermic before I got on the back of that truck, but by the time we rode for 30 minutes up and down the Ozark Mountains in the back of that truck, Scott and I were just about frozen stiff. We spent a few hours standing by the oven in the kitchen so that we could raise our core temperatures. That’s when I had time for my near-death reflection.
While we were standing there warming up, we got a report back about those boys. They had pushed a trunk of a fallen tree in the water and rode it down the river – one of our posts at the first crossing saw them and roped them in. It was even dumber than my little river escapade and somehow they managed to live, too.
We would all live that day, despite everything that happened.
I’m a bridge-maker. That’s what I’ve always done, albeit in different ways. I was always that kid that helped people get where they were trying to go. As a junior leader and guide, I did the same thing in a different context.
When I taught philosophy, I was constantly bridging the gap between my students’ worlds and the rich tradition of philosophy, but my approach was always much more practical than my peers’. The point wasn’t just the theory – it was how those theories applied to us, today, and helped us live up to our potential. My areas of expertise were, fittingly, ethics and social/political philosophy.
I was a logistics officer in the Army. Logistics is basically the art and science of getting people and equipment from one place to the next. See a trend?
What I do now carries the same elements with it. My clients are on one side of the river and want to get across it. We start the rope-anchoring process for them, too, which sometimes means that I have to go back across the waters and get them. Other times, we just need to retie the rope they’ve already put out for themselves. And sometimes I just need to point them to the rope they’re missing because they’re too focused on the speed and depth of the river.
Sometimes people ask me how I reconcile being a philosopher, an entrepreneur, and a Guardian. I get why it’s hard for them to understand, but it’s really rather simple: effective bridge-building requires broad understanding. You have to know where people are and why they’re there, where they’re going and why they want to go there, and what’s the best material, anchor points, and structure to get them where they’re trying to go.
Some people need longer bridges, safer bridges; other people can bear more risks. Some people need to build a series of bridges through time; others have the resources to build them all at once.
One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to hats, socks, and bridges. I have some frameworks and toolsets to get the job done, but each client is different. How we build their bridge depends on the very unique type of bridge they need.
From a marketing point of view, being unable to tell people exactly what and how I do it presents a challenge. It’s understandable that people would want to know how we’d work together. Hearing “well it depends on where you are and where you’re trying to go” is unsatisfying, but I’ve learned the hard way that a specific, canned answer is misrepresentative.
Though I’m getting better about talking about what I do, I’m okay with my work defying the boundaries of a clear, simple, and specific marketing message. The people who need that are probably not a good fit for me anyway, as trust is a critical ingredient in my relationships with my peeps. I ask my clients to do plenty of things that expand their comfort zones, and if they need a thorough justification for everything they need to do, we’d spend more time focusing on why they should hold onto the rope rather than taking a step using the rope.
I’m here to help people flourish, and I do it by building bridges. It’s not always easy for me, and sometimes I get washed away, but it’s who I am and what I do.
We each have stories and boomerangs that show us what we’re here to do, if only we look and pay attention. What are yours?