I spent the first few years of my life and very memorable weeks every summer after that in that glorious village, Kushequa, where my maternal grandparents lived.
It's situated in a deep valley near the headwaters of the Kinzua Creek, in the deep woods, in the shadow of the Kinzua Bridge. There was a small lake for swimming and lots of streams for fishing. There were old buildings to explore and a series of "camps" we built or established in long-abandoned structures. There was the old brick yard and "the cramic," where tile were made. (Not "ceramic," "cramic".) The old kilns, drying sheds, and piles of rejects were perfect forts for our war games.
There were oil leases and equipment from the very early days, some still in operation in the 50's and 60's. There were "powers;" octagon buildings with huge one-cylinder gas engines that banged and sputtered and turned clunky machinery. That machinery drove long metal "sucker rods" that stretched through the woods to animate the pumping jacks that extracted the oil.
One such string of sucker rods exited a power and crossed the creek where one bank was significantly above the other. Remember now, it was 50 or so years ago, there may be a slight memory issue here, but as I recall, the stream was a maybe three miles wide and the high bank was maybe 1000 feet above the low one something like that.
The challenge, of course, was to cross the creek going hand-over hand on the sucker rods.
My cousin and his gang who lived in the area assured my friend and I that they had all done it so we should do it too. It was a right of passage; a dare that had to be satisfied. So, we started out, me first, from the high side to the low side. We went hand over hand and were making good progress. Two or three hours into it, something like that, we established a rhythm and the sucker rods started to react creating big wave-like movements. I made it across and dropped a few feet onto a sandy area. The change in weight on the rod created a change in the rhythm of the wave and it jerked my friend's hand from the rod. He was just a few feet from the shore. He dropped off the rod over part of the stream and when he landed he squatted right into the water. Imagine the hoots and hollers as he emerged looking like he'd peed his pants. Such are the rigors of life among adolescent country boys. The other guys followed without incident. I still wonder if they had really ever done it before or just peer-pressured us into the guinea pig role.
Yes, there's a moral here
We got acceptance because we dared. Even in failure, my friend was accepted and honored. Was it dangerous? Maybe a little, but we did many, many things that were much more so, those kinds of things moms never hear about. At the time, it was just a challenge, something that had to be done. Looking back, I wonder how we marshaled the courage. Maybe being rough-and-tumble is simply what was expected of us and we responded appropriately. Scrapes, scratches, scars all badges of honor, not to mention the stories that went along with them.
I think we should guard against allowing that to change completely. There's a series of ads on TV now where a guy looks at ice on a pond and a rope swing over a swimming hole and a set of rapids and wonders how he could have taken such chances in such places. Well, he could take them because his sense of adventure and fearlessness was stronger than his assessment of the level of risk. I am no longer oblivious to risk like I was as a kid. I don't think I'd try the sucker rod stream crossing again (four miles is a long way to go hand-over-hand)
Now-a-days, it seems like risk is an evil thing to be avoided. And certainly deadly ones are to be avoided. But let's think for a minute about things that seem risky and ask ourselves if they really are.
For adolescent boys like the ones described above, telling one of your buddies or even a girl, that you liked them would be far riskier than the stream crossing. But have you told the people you love that you love them? How risky would it be to tell your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your best friends?
If you're in a job you don't like, a "take this job and shove it" attitude is risky. But how risky is it to take an evening class through the Hi-Ed Council or JCC to better yourself and improve your chances for job advancement?
In some workplaces thinking or more accurately ACTING "outside the box" can be risky. There are set policies and procedures for everything. But isn't there always someone who will listen and give you honest feedback or maybe even contribute to your idea?
Occasionally a counselor will work with someone who is considering suicide. When discussing such a case with a colleague recently, he suggested asking if learning new strategies to deal with issues (read "change") is scarier than suicide. Great question or what? It really puts scariness into perspective. I suspect virtually everyone would have to agree that change really isn't as scary as the finality of suicide.
I believe moving outside our comfort zone is critical to making progress in just about any endeavor. If we're learning and growing and accepting challenges, good things are likely to happen.
I'm not encouraging everyone to attempt a six mile hand-over-hand river crossing over churning rapids and a shoreline crawling with snarling, vicious, rabid muskrats (did I mention that part). I'm just suggesting that it's ok to take a little risk once in a while. Go ahead! I dare you!
Gary Lester, M.S., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.