© 2015 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: Well, I’m back, folks…sort of. I still have some health problems to attend to, which will not be completely out of the way until late November. However, the worst, I believe, hopefully, is over. And, to tell you the truth, avoiding my blog has been almost as painful for me as the emotional travail of my physical issues. And, too, the topic of the following essay has been goading me to hie myself to the computer.
I feel obliged to warn you that the essay is 2,542 words long, and some of my readers have short attention spans. So, you might want to read one of its segments today and another tomorrow, or whenever.
In any case, ENJOY!!!
Perhaps advanced age is the instigator of my recent mulling over the question: What is courage? Am I brave? Have I ever been up to risk-taking? Is there any difference between courage and bravery? How long in any particular dangerous situation can one maintain equanimity — five minutes, five hours, five days? What is the difference between courage and foolhardiness?
I realize the issue is much more complex than I have suggested above that it could be. There are all kinds of parameters surrounding, and elements that form, situations which outwardly appear similar but which can have small core elements that radically alter the warrant for action. Any individual might react aggressively in one situation and at another time passively brush off the offense in a near-like situation. I will leave it to the reader to recall or imagine such scenarios, for I do not want to wander that extensively in this essay. Here I wish merely to relate some personal anecdotes concerning dangerous moments in my own life and how I reacted to them.
Oh, I have thought about this matter quite often in the past; one cannot live through seventy-five years without encountering danger. And I have wondered at the apparent cowardice I have seen in myself in some instances and the exceeding boldness in other cases. It is still a conundrum for me.
The first episode in my life where I think some degree of bravery was required was when I was about thirteen years old, during a plane trip I and my friend Carlton D. took. It was in a private aircraft, not a commercial one, yet the plane was large enough to contain four seats. But let me back up a bit to explain the reason we were on that plane.
I had a paper route, and one of my customers was a man who was very outgoing — or conning — who asked me one evening, when I stopped at his house to collect his monthly subscription payment, if I would like to ride in his airplane. Always immediately trusting, I said, “Sure! Can I bring my friend Carlton along?” (He knew Carlton.)
“That’ll be fine. Only I must ask you to help me paint it first.”
How difficult can painting an airplane be? Surely not very,” I surmised.
The next Saturday, Carlton and I met the man at White Rock airport, a small airfield only about a mile from our homes: I don’t believe that airport exists any longer. Most of the work in “painting” the plane, we discovered, involved scrubbing and sanding it. That was work. I don’t remember how long it took us, but I believe it was more than one day. However, we were probably into summer vacation at the time, so, even though it might have taken more than a day, the job couldn’t have required more than three days. When we were done, though, both Carlton and I thought, This trip had better be fun! The man did the painting himself, presumably with a spray applicator.
While we were working on the plane, I asked the man what he did for a living, for I considered that anybody who owned his own aircraft must have a pretty good job.
“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I do the engineering work on machines such as soda pop dispensers,” he said. That didn’t tell me much about his financial condition, but it was fascinating to contemplate the supposed complexity of the job.
A week or so thereafter, the man called me and said he was flying the next weekend up to some town in the Panhandle. Did Carlton and I want to go? We certainly did, for by this time Carlton and I had concluded we had been hustled by a con artist.
On the flight north, I sat in the “co-pilot’s seat”, while Carlton sat behind us. We landed at some airport no bigger than White Rock. I can’t recall if the man rented a vehicle or if we were picked up by his relatives, for he had come to visit his family. Anyway, the man dropped us off at the county courthouse lawn and told us to meet him there in a few hours (don’t recall how many). Again Carlton and I felt cheated because we had assumed the fellow was going to take us to wherever he was going and treat us to lunch; he hadn’t instructed us to bring sack lunches.
We walked around the town square: a very dull place that didn’t even have a five-and-dime store. (Readers who were born after 1960 won’t recognize what fun-filled hang-outs five-and-dime stores were for kids before that year.) But most of the time we sat on a bench on the courthouse lawn and scraped tic-tac-toe games in the red soil.
Finally, the man returned and we once again loaded into the plane. There was nothing extraordinary about our return trip (the checkerboard scenery on the ground below had already lost its romance) until we got over downtown Dallas. That was when we heard the sputtering and the plane’s altitude diminished noticeably.
“What’s wrong?” I asked our pilot.
“We’re out of gas,” he answered after too long a pause.
Then he reached up to a spot just above the windshield and started turning a crank similar in appearance to the device with which we roll up and down car windows.
“This opens the other gas tank,” he explained.
I turned around to glance at Carlton. He looked pale. However, neither of us had screamed or cried. Perhaps we just had not had time to rise to that level of fear. But had we been brave? I don’t know. I believe now that if we had descended low enough to graze the Flying Red Horse atop the Humble Oil building, I would have screamed.
That experience was not as scary, though, as what happened when we got to the airport a short time later. As we approached the runway, the plane started to gain altitude. I looked at the pilot, who seemed unfittingly blasé. We went up and circled the little field again. I gazed out my side to see if there were any other aircraft in the vicinity: none. Then we were on the approach again; and I was touching my seat belt, ready to get away from this nutsy pilot and his death-trap of a plane. But he pulled the plane upward again.
After three passes, we landed safely. I never again had anything more to do with that man except to deliver his paper and collect his subscription money.
For the next episode that I remember vividly — and care to relate — we have to fast-forward several years to when I was 21. It was another dangerous flying experience.
I was standing at the reservation counter at the Okinawa airport, obtaining my boarding pass to return to the U.S. after completing my 18-monthlong tour of duty on the island, when I heard my name announced over the PA system; they were summoning me to another line. When I arrived at the spot specified, I was introduced to a woman and her two small boys: one about five and the other about three. They were military “dependents”, the family of some officer on the island, and I had been assigned to assist the mother in caring for the boys during the flight home. Of course, I silently lamented that I had not been spared this charge, but at the moment it did not seem to be such an onerous task as it later turned out to be.
The DC-3’s of that ancient era had only four seats to a row, two to a side. The mother and one of her sons sat in the row in front of me and her other son. The personalities of the boys were extraordinarily different from one another; how much of that difference was due to the gap in their ages, I do not know. One sat beside me for several hours of our journey, and then they switched seats. The older boy was jolly enough, perhaps too jolly, for he jabbered constantly. He also had a “Raggedy Ann” comic book which he asked me to read to him. I had no problem at the start; but as I read panel after panel of the comic book I became increasingly anxious because the story involved one character who spoke in reversed-meaning, i.e., he spoke the opposite of what he meant. It was absurd, and I have an absurdity phobia. Fortunately, though, the comic book episode was soon finished, and the youngster returned to his constant jabbering about anything that popped into his mind.
The real problem was with the younger of the two brothers. He was taciturn in the extreme; even though I tried for a short time to draw him out of his shell. I now believe that he was possibly one of those many people who have a fear of flying, so strong a fear that it paralyzes them. He did, however, say often enough that he needed to go to the restroom. I took him there, but he did not do anything. After our second futile trip to the restroom, I chided him. After the third, I pinched him on the forearm. I’ll let some child psychologist figure that one out.
Then the plane entered an area of turbulence; the aircraft shook violently for many minutes. The signal box at the end of the cabin lit up with the words “Fasten seat belts please”. I fastened my seat belt and then leaned over to fasten that of my young charge. He started screaming. His high decibel racket annoyed me, but I could sympathize with him because I was a bit scared, too. “Look here, young’un, I understand your fear, but this belt is going to be hooked!” After I had completed my mission, I leaned back in my own seat and hoped for the best. That was, indeed, a lengthy period of rough jolting, and I wondered how we would handle dipping in the Pacific Ocean.
When we arrived in Honolulu for a brief layover, the woman and her boys disappeared. I don’t recall whether Hawaii was their final destination or they simply sought accommodations away from that mean airman. I did not care, for I was free.
My only remaining question about that experience is, was I brave during the turbulence or merely fatalistic?
Now for the third and penultimate “courage” episode — away from airplanes but still in the transportation mode.
My brother Vernon (the eldest of us three Litton boys) had located a 1953 Ford coupe for me to drive to college and to work in. This was in 1962, when I was 22, and my other brother, Elbert, and I were sharing an apartment on Henderson Street in Dallas, about half a dozen blocks south of Central Expressway. One winter’s evening after a snowfall and while the streets were glazed with ice, I left the SMU library and started my drive southward toward home. Just a block before I came to the bridge over Central, my steering wheel went crazy. I had to turn it a couple of times to make the car go right and a couple of times to make it go left. I had to make the choice then and there whether to stop my car and go to a nearby house to use a phone to call for a tow truck (all the local businesses were closed) or to try to make it home. There were no other vehicles on the service road where I was and none on the bridge. I can’t recall my reasoning, but I probably decided that I had learned enough already how to steer the car at least slightly and my apartment was not at any great distance, so to continue at a slow speed was the preferable option. How lovely of all those other people that they were not out driving that night! The hardest part was maneuvering my way up our narrow drive to the parking area out back. A mechanic told me the next day that one wheel’s “tie rod” had broken.
Now I ask you, dear reader, had I been brave or foolhardy? Or perhaps simply facing up to a necessity?
The final episode is similar to the above, in a way.
I was fifty-seven and working as a reporter for the Alpine Avalanche. One day, the publisher/editor sent me to photograph a new, second water tank that had been set up on the top of “A” Mountain on the south side of town. I wrote “’A’ Mountain”, but don’t take that too literally. It is not exactly what I would call a “mountain” — not like most of the mountains to the north and south of us, which do not themselves compare with those in the Rockies. No, “A” Mountain is, to me, just a really big hill with a one-vehicle road that winds up to its rather dull top.
So, I grabbed a camera and drove my 1972 Ford sedan up the narrow access road. Only about fifty yards from the top I came upon a stretch of sandy loam about six yards long, and my tires refused to force their way through it. After a few attempts at revving the engine, I got out and trekked up to the top where I found two men discussing the new tank.
“Hi,” I said, “I’ve gotten stuck in some sand a few yards down the road. Can you guys help me?”
“Nope,” one of them said, “Don’t think there’s anything we can do to help.” Strange!
But I took a couple of photo shots of the boring image of the water tank and walked back down to my car.
After gazing over the road’s edge to see how far I would roll should I do a poor job of it, I got in the vehicle, turned on the engine, switched into reverse gear, and revved my engine. Fortunately, the car was not nearly as reluctant to go backward as it had been to go forward, possibly because the sand was not as deep that way. All the while I kept my eyes trained on all three mirrors. During my drive uphill, I had noticed a slight indentation in the mountain’s wall about halfway, which I assumed one vehicle pulled into when another vehicle was approaching from the opposite direction. When I got to it, with a sigh of relief, I pulled in and managed to turn my car around. From that moment I assumed I was safe driving forward the remaining distance downhill.
All of that trouble and anxiety for a stupid photo of a stupid metal water tank! Had I been brave, foolhardy, or again merely facing up to necessity?
Oh, I have been in many other dangerous situations, even four car accidents, in two of which I was briefly knocked unconscious and my brow suffered cuts. However, all those other events happened so suddenly that, although I had to react — and did react to the best of my ability — there was not enough time to summon up recognizable courage.
No, I don’t believe one can live to age seventy-five without encountering dangerous moments.