Sometimes when I look back over my life I think about fear and the role it’s played. A couple of weeks ago I met Bob, a 93 year old veteran of World War II. As we talked fear was a topic in our conversation. I realize compared to a WWII veteran I have nothing in my life even close to his experience – but when I consider times I have felt fear my mind drifts back to 1970, to one of the days I let something small become something very large.
It was a hot summer day at the outdoor community pool in Roseburg, Oregon. I was seven years old standing on the end of the diving board about 8 feet above the water.
At that point I was the only child at the pool. All of the other kids had long ago passed the swimming test and gone home. I could see my mom standing outside of the pool area. She was looking through the chain link fence waiting. My teacher was to the left of me standing on the edge of the pool. She completed the tense little trio – we’d been there for nearly half an hour and my teacher’s patience was just about gone.
All I had to do was jump off of the board into the center of the deep end and swim to the side where my teacher was standing. If I did that I passed the class and could move on to the next class, leaving the mean teacher behind. Jumping off of the board toward the side of the pool disqualified the try, the jump had to be into the center of the pool.
At the time I was so terrified of this! The free fall to the pool was the beginning of what I was afraid of, then to be in a place where I couldn’t breathe even if I want to… suspended between the bottom of the pool and the surface for how long? Didn’t matter. Even though I was a pretty good little swimmer, I was so afraid. It was more than I thought I was capable of. So I wasn’t going to even try – it was just too big of a risk. My fear had robbed me of any confidence I might have felt in my ability to swim.
Oh I tried bargaining my way out of it! I told the teacher I’d just jump and catch the edge of the pool so my head didn’t go under – everybody would win! It was a brilliant idea! I spent 15 minutes trying to sell her on the idea. She wasn’t buying it. I had tried several times to sell this approach, But she had had it. She had started to get angry.
She explained it was NOT a good idea! She forbade me from doing it, forbade me from even trying it. It was just too dangerous, I might knock myself out on the concrete edge. I could really get hurt.
I remember the reflection of the white clouds in the smooth cyan surface of the pool as I fidgeted with my feet on the end of the board. I just hoped somehow this situation would resolve itself…
The teacher was distracted for a moment! My big chance! I took two quick steps backward on the board, turned to my left and jumped, and grabbed the edge of the pool on the way down. Success! I was alive and I had jumped off of her stupid board. My hair was even still dry! Maybe we could go get lunch now!
This is when the yelling began – both adults raining down their fear and anger in harsh words. My teacher accented her yelling by moving closer to me with aggressive body language. As I clung to the side of the pool I wondered if she was going to hit me. I wondered if they would stop. They yelled for so long! Worse. My mom seemed to be on the teacher’s side yelling in harmony with her. Now betrayal was added to the humiliation. I tried to be brave but a kid against two adults was just too much.
I thought I had done well. I thought I had conquered my fear. I was sure any leap from that board, while not perfect, was progress. The adults continued to yell, I was defeated in so many ways. To think I had overcome my fear in some way… faced with the reality of their wrath, it broke my heart. I hid my face between the edge of the pool and the water hoping they wouldn’t see the tears.
Fear had turned something small and achievable into a larger terrifying thing.
When he was a boy, Bob dreamed of flying. To him soaring over the earth was what life was about. After graduating high school he went directly into the air force. They trained him and he became a navigator. His first assignment was navigating in a C-47 flying out of England to drop paratroopers in Europe. One transfer and Bob was a navigator fighting in World War ll. Flying over the beautiful European terrain with the huge engines droning outside of the cabin, suddenly explosions appeared all around them. On they would fly through the anti-aircraft fire from below. With a plane full of men the stakes were high. Eventually they would reach their target and the paratroopers would jump. The crew would then return to England with an empty plane.
Men became family under those conditions. Not only the crew he worked with on the plane, but the crews from other planes all became best of friends – their brotherhood forged in the stress and camaraderie of war and their love of aircraft and flying. After many successful paratrooper missions Bob was transferred to a B-17, then a B-26. His missions were now to drop bombs instead of men.
One day half a dozen B-26s were flying a bombing mission in loose formation. As they flew, the B-26 flying next to Bob’s plane suddenly exploded in a direct anti-aircraft hit. Bob remembers the flaming pieces of the wreckage falling towards earth. Five of Bob’s brothers, men he loved, were gone just that fast. He pauses the story here. The emotion of that moment rippling forward through seven decades to catch him again. “I still think about them.” he says as emotion chokes his voice. Then he let’s silence swallow the story for a while
I asked him what affect that had on him other than the devastating loss of his comrades. He told me he had never felt fear before he saw that burning wreckage falling toward earth. After that he realized the fear was with him every time he walked to his plane.
He said he realized at that point he was mortal – the reality of the anti-aircraft fire they had been flying through for many missions suddenly meant more and he was afraid. Every time he went up for a mission he could feel that fear clutching at him. He turned and smiled at me and said “ taking off got harder and landing back at base felt better every time”.
I told him I admire his courage. He quickly dismisses it. “No courage”, he said with a smile. He continued “you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you get through it”.
Is the ability to “feel the fear and do it anyway” what makes his generation”the greatest generation”? I have a hard time finding words to share the awe I felt as Bob told me stories from his life. What a great guy. A hero. I hope I do as well with the hard things life has for me. I want to feel the fear but do it anyway – to simply put one foot in front of the other. It has added up to some pretty great things in Bob’s life. It’s evident in Bob and his stories. I’m grateful to have met him. Thank you Bob – for your service to our country. For your stories and your willingness to chat with a stranger.
Courage turned something large and terrifying into something smaller… something Bob could conquer one step at a time.
That inspires me.
In 1970 after I got out of the pool I cried in the locker room, I cried on the way home with my mom. In my mind all of those unrealistic fears I had experienced on the diving board cemented themselves into a very large healthy dislike of swimming. it was almost thirty years before I found the motivation to put on swimming trunks and get in a pool with my kids. I let the lingering ghosts of a seven-year-olds fear stop me. Most of my life I have opted out of opportunities to swim. Did I let the fear win? In this case I think so.
Bob faced real fear. He had witnessed first hand what could happen – and it happened to men that he loved. However he was there to serve. He had a job to do, People were counting on him. He didn’t back down, he faced it. He felt the fear but he got in the plane and he did his job. That’s heroic to me.
I’m left evaluating my life now. Are there unrealistic fears tucked away in the attic of my mind? Are they preventing me from enjoying my life more? Of living more to my potential? Something to think about indeed.
Courage my friends! And on we go.