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?
Shanna Mann says
That was awesome! I’m generally leery about a whole life being tied up into a neat narrative though. What made this narrative (and the bridge metaphor) resonate clearly for you, and do think that it might change in the future? The reason I ask is that I can tell my story in a handful of really vivid ways, each with it’s own theme and purpose. I wish that I could be as clear as you.
Charlie Gilkey says
You’re absolutely right in the sense that our memories and stories are self-reinforcing. We see the world one way and find the stories to fit it.
It’s the recurring elements of other stories that keep coming up. The contexts have changed considerably through the years, but the basic theme hasn’t. Might it change in the future? Perhaps. I’ll leave the door open for a higher or different level of perspective and understanding.
Rachael Acklin says
I can’t tell you how much more this makes me appreciate, respect, and love you. What a marvelous person you are, my friend.
Charlie Gilkey says
Thank you, Rachael. As you know, this one almost didn’t make the cut.
Karri Flatla says
This one almost didn’t make the cut? REALLY?
There are myriad reasons for this but your post made me cry. And not much of anything in the written form does that to this writer.
Thanks for sharing, friend.
Barak Rosenbloom (TimeNative) says
No – this one needed to make the cut!!! It’s spurred a lot of thinking in the week since I first read it.
For a few years I sold hiking boots at REI. When people ask what you do, and the answer is “I sell footwear,” or “I’m a tax accountant,” or “I’m a fire fighter” things are pretty simple.
But the people I sold footwear with are also musicians, geologists, therapists, and parents. My tax accountant thinks of himself more and more as an internet entrepreneur. And there are fire fighters who are poets, cooks and mechanics.
I suppose for myself the theme that runs through the past twenty years of my life is a guide–I help people get curious about some part of their world so that they can learn, grow and develop. Like you, that’s always been very hard to market, and there’ve been times when I was incredibly frustrated. I was very happy to read my thoughts in your blog. Thank you for that.
What realized in the past year is not to worry about the labels and descriptions. I’ve shifted my marketing focus out there, to other people to their experiences. I’m finding that when I get curious about others–especially their challenges, frustrations and dreams–where I can contribute comes naturally.
I work with teens in a leadership program at my ski area. Over the years, I’ve grown very close to many of the kids, some of whom are now high school seniors and college freshmen. All I ever have to do is get curious about them, get them getting curious about themselves and their world, and–most importantly–love them for exactly who they are. It feels like I’m not doing anything other than being a friend, connecting with another human being in the way that’s natural for me (and giving them the space to connect in the way that’s natural for them). I suppose it’s all wrapped up in that, what I really do.
It doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need a name. It’s just me.
Thanks again, Charlie. This one had me crying, both for your story, and for how deeply it made me feel about the wonderful life I get to live.
Have a great weekend.
Ali Luke says
Wow — another incredibly powerful piece. Thank you! (And I’m glad it had a happy ending, too.)
It’s interesting to read about what you do, and how you frame it. I sometimes struggle to explain the several different chunks of my work and life – writing unites most but not all of what I do – and maybe I’m still looking for my metaphor…
Charlie Gilkey says
Thanks, Ali, as you know I really respect you as a writer. I have a few yours on you, too, so your metaphor/totem will come, even though it’s currently right in front of you and you probably can’t see it yet.
Powerful story, thank you for sharing it. You’ve made me think about the themes in our lives and how the consistent thing for me is that I love helping people. Haven’t really figured out how to do that in a coordinated way, but I keep going.
Charlie Gilkey says
It sometimes seems like the journey of life is to figure out the best way to help people in a coordinated way. I hope you’ll place more emphasis on the fact that you’ve helped than you do on the uncoordinated part. 🙂
Birdy Diamond, Roving Robin & Paranormal Diva says
Boomerangs: creativity, particularly writing, singing, crafting. Channelling too, tho’ I didn’t know that’s what it was until recently.
And, oh, yes, that Wierdo Syndrome is strong!
Thank you SO much for sharing this story.
Bridge-building, trust, all good.
And it is comforting beyond words to read of the other bridge-building you do throughout this blog: that between military & civilian Service.
Thank you for that as well. :>
Bright Blessings & Good Fortune!
Wow. You’re gonna laugh at me, but you know what sticks in my head most about this piece? It’s the side comment about how saving your life more than makes up for your friend accidentally shooting you with a bb gun.
Does your purpose ever terrify you? I think I’ve found mine, and I swing between feeling ridiculously excited and totally inadequate.
Andrew @ Blogging Guide says
Such a powerful post! I loved how you wrote this post, I think you truly are a writer because you can evoke feelings in us through your writing. It is emotional and it is great. It’s good that you somehow know your purpose or what you’re good at doing in your life, how you can help people.
Sherrill Leverich-Fries says
I’m curious why this one almost didn’t make the cut, Charlie. I think you have a gift for taking a life experience and describing it vividly but not in so much detail that the reader (I) start to say, “yeah, yeah, I get it and can we move to the action or moral of the story?”. The metaphor that comes out speaks loud and clear to me as to who you are, and how this relates to real life.
What made this a powerful post for me is the way you took that life experience and created the metaphor that grounds you in what you do and how you do it. I think that you DO have your message in those three paragraphs that begin, “Sometimes people ask me how I….” and end with, “How we build their bridge depends on the very unique type of bridge they need.” There might be a piece missing to come up with either the final “elevator speech”, or the follow up question people have, but it feel like you are extremely close to the answer for “what do you do and how do you do it?”.
I’m sorting through my ideas as to what I’m here to do and how to message it, and the idea of creating the metaphor helps me immensely. It seems a beautiful way to start pulling all those seemingly unassociated pieces together that feel important, but I don’t yet see why they stand out for me.
Thank you for sharing this. Thank you.
Your story is truly amazing. I found my self enveloped in your writing, like I was there pulling the rope with Scott. You build metaphoric and physical bridges, and you are fantastic at what you do. Those boys.. my grandma would say, “boys will be boys”, but did they get a lecture? I really hope they learned the consequences of their actions! Thank you for sharing your awesome story. I have enjoyed reading it. Take care
Paul Richman says
Being lucky to be alive is an experience so many of us share. When I was 10 yrs old my little brother was being beat up by 4 kids (he was 9) on the side of a highway. My blood boiled and I took off at a nice clip to help him; I should have looked before running across that highway. Similar to your experience, things were seen by my airborne torso as uncannily vivid and in slow motion, as I hurled back to earth from a height of at least 20 feet. Then the pain of being hit by the car along with the added pain of hitting the pavement face first took over. But I survived (only lasting injuries were my two broken front teeth) and moved on a few years later to start and finish a 24 year odyssey with the US Navy which included submarines, minesweepers, an aircraft carrier, a special warfare unit (navy seals), NROTC instructor at the Maritime College and Fordham University, and additional near death experiences during 3 consecutive Persian Gulf tours. But we both lived to tell the tale, and thank you so much for the moving way you depicted yours. What soulful talent you possess. And thank you for your military service.
“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.”
I love how you met this challenge in this post by storytelling. The story allowing all the nuances and mysteries of a subtle yet powerful talent to be expressed with the soul of it intact. Reading this post, for me, was like leaning on you to gain a sense of permission to do the same – not vex about the answer being unstraightforward.
Especially when the aspects of who you are seem….paradoxical to the outside world. I love the workings of my mind (so taboo in spiritual communities), but i am no less connected, or empathic or erotically intelligent for it.
I learn the best from stories – so thank you for letting me in on a piece of yours – and for letting borrow some of your courage to just let stories of my work speak for themselves.
Awesome story, Charlie – really hits home.
I too have found myself at that conclusion – I want to help people, I have a specific set of skills and faculties that I can leverage for them, but I don’t have a clear, laser-like focus on what I will and won’t do for them. Might not be the most profitable approach to business, but the entrepreneurs I’ve met who claim to be after profits first are usually the same ones who seem utterly lost.
Have you ever considered starting an entrepreneur’s outdoor hike/camp/survival event? The days spent learning survival techniques in the wild, the nights around the fire getting to the heart of what drives us and, by extension, our businesses. I find the perspective gained from a few days in the woods carries forward for weeks and months. I don’t know, just struck me as an interesting thought for an experienced scout like you who also has a great deal to teach about the journey of entrepreneurship. There’s a parallel there, I think, and an attractive one.
Barak Rosenbloom (TimeNative) says
I’m still thinking about this one a week later.
If someone says “I’m a high school teacher,” is that really saying anything? What kind of teacher?
If you get more specific–“I’m a high school English teacher, and my classes mostly focus on English lit and lots of analytical writing skills”– have you left anything out?
I can think of a couple of teachers I’ve had or have worked with. They could have said:
“I’m a bitter, angry man, obsessed with minutia and inflicting the kind of pain I’ve suffered on others. And, I’m a high school English teacher.”
“I’m a creative, passionate soul, in love with the poetry and mystery of life. I love to share my joy with the world. And, I’m a high school English teacher.”
It’s easy to tell people what you do. But, it says so very little about what matters.
Paul Richman says
You took me back to times when I almost lost my life. There is much gratitude, appreciation for just plain living, and some heart thumping at what close calls I encountered. Then there are the lessons I took from such happenings. Thanks for sharing yours. Your inspiration caused me to revisit one of a few times this happened to me. Please take a look-see at my site. Take care.
Courage & transparency. Love it man. Thank you.