Sunday, February 15, 2009

Someone Please Hand Me the Remote

For most of us, as we get older, our comfort zones get smaller, and sadly, the spark of adventure is soon extinguished. We are reminded of this when we read about the exploits of others who are still willing to take risks for whatever reason drives them. For some it is a passion for knowledge, for others the sheer thrill of doing something dangerous, or at least outside their comfort zones. I'm not suggesting that you have to be jumping out of airplanes to prove your courage; many do it in a quiet way by standing up to the challenges life puts before them. I have seen great courage in my own family in people who previously had given no sign that they were possessed of such strength.

Let's look back at how this timidity got hold of us. The founding fathers of our country were bold, hardy souls. Travel was by wagon or horseback over non-existent roads. Peril was everywhere, whether it was from Indian attacks, disease, or starvation. Americans moved from the comfort zone of the original thirteen colonies steadily westward. Knowing little of the country and its hazards, they formed wagon trains and traveled impossible distances, reckoning by compass or the stars. They hunted and gathered their food, built settlements along the way, and eventually made it all the way to the west coast. They had no navigational devices telling them where to turn, no Red Roof Inns to rest their weary bones, and no McDonald's Happy Meals to quiet their cranky kids.

By the turn of the twentieth century, things were much more comfortable for Americans. Electricity powered lights and machinery, railroads crisscrossed the land, agriculture and family farms were booming, the automobile was making its appearance on back roads and in cities alike, and advances in medicine extended the life span of the average citizen. The Captains of Industry (or robber barons depending on your point of view), men like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Astor and Ford, were building a national economy the like of which had never been seen before in the world. Waves of immigrants hit our shores, were absorbed into the country, and worked hard to make lives for their families. Despite these amazing changes, Americans were still lovers of adventure. New inventions were overwhelming the U.S. Patent Office, young men hid infirmities to get into World War I and go "over there" to whip the Kaiser, and women were fighting for full equality, including the right to vote.

The stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression in the 1930's brought America to its knees. We are in the midst of a deep recession today, but it's nothing compared to then. There was no welfare system, no food stamps, no homeless shelters...some people were lucky to get one meal a day. Men who were willing to work could find none; there were no welfare or Social Security checks to tide them over. And yet the spirit of adventure was alive as people moved west in search of better lives. When Germany marched across Europe and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, America jumped into World War II with both feet. Men (and this time women too) hurried to enlist before the war was over. The aviation industry was born, and science and technology grew by leaps and bounds.

After WWII and through the Korean War, American life began to grow very comfortable. There were fewer physical frontiers to conquer, technology brought unparalleled convenience into American homes and farms, and women in numbers began to swell the workforce. Leisure boomed as the 40-hour work week became standard. Sports like golf and tennis, previously reserved for the country club set became more available to blue collar workers. Advances in home entertainment including the immensely popular "hi-fi" system and color television kept people indoors more. We began to be a nation of spectators living vicariously through the exploits of those who still sought adventure.

The post Viet Nam era in America saw the transformation from adventurers to side liners continue. Young men no longer rushed to enlist in what they perceived was an unjust war. Rising crime caused parents to drive their kids everywhere, and we no longer saw kids going off on their own to explore. The era of the couch potato had officially arrived. Local gun laws made it hard for people to own weapons for hunting, at least in the New York area. Fear crept into our lives, heightened by terrorist attacks that we seemed defenseless to stop. People now carry cell phones and laptop computers so they can never get enough time away from the job to have an adventure. AAA comes to change our flat tires, the gardener cuts the grass, the weatherman talks to us about two inches of snow like we should be getting our affairs in order, and we go nowhere without our Garmin Navigation Systems on the dashboard.

I just finished a book about two New Jersey deep-sea wreck divers who spent years of their lives performing countless dangerous dives down to an unidentified sunken German U-boat off Brielle, on the Jersey shore. They didn't do it for treasure, but to gain closure for the families of the men who died on this boat. Their meticulous research on both sides of the Atlantic also proved the history books wrong in that existing Navy records showed that this particular U-boat had been sunk off Gibraltar. One of them then contacted all the families of the crewmen that he could locate. He then traveled to Germany to tell them what he had learned about the ship's last days, and to present them with hard-gained artifacts from the boat that would have brought serious money from collectors. They were worth far more to the families as mementos of the final resting place of their loved ones.

I can only marvel at the passion these men feel for their work. When asked by the book's author why they repeatedly risked their lives diving to identify a wreck that history had already written off, one of them quoted a famous German U-boat commander who said: "Life is a matter of luck, and the chances for success are not enhanced by extreme caution." This is the philosophy by which they lead their lives, and in doing so, remind us about the days when adventures were not something we read about, but lived.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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