The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

The Night I Saw Santa Claus

I never really saw mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe like that song says, but I did in fact see Santa Claus once. When I told my friends, neighborhood kids somewhat close to my age, they laughed and howled and teased me mercilessly. My cousin didn’t believe me either when I told her, but she was much kinder in her retorts, and her teasing was much gentler. I don’t know why they didn’t believe me, for I was indeed telling them the absolute truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I still remember the first Christmas that I was really aware of Santa. I remember waking up on Christmas morning and not knowing exactly what to do. Should I wait for Mom or Dad? Should I go out to the living room where the Christmas tree is and see for myself if there is anything for me? What if he didn’t come? I decided to play it safe and woke up my dad and we walked out to the living room together. When we rounded the corner and got our first look at the evidence that Santa had indeed stopped by sometime during the night, Dad did this silly and exaggerated double take that made me giggle, and then I ran and started enjoying the toys that were left behind. I think Dad went back to bed.

That memory of a Christmas past was when we lived in Austin in a house on Syracuse Cove. Our last Christmas in that house was in 1965, and that might have been the one where Dad did his goofy little dance. I can’t be sure. But I do know that a few weeks before Christmas Day 1965, on my 5th birthday, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on television. As a child, the real message of this program was mostly lost on me because I was more interested in Snoopy dancing and Charlie Brown’s tree. It wasn’t until some years later that I began to appreciate his frustrations with the commercialization of Christmas.

Just this last week, I watched again as Linus answered Charlie Brown’s question of “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?” by quoting from the second chapter of The Gospel of Luke, verses 8 through 14: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” I’m not ashamed to admit that this scene for some reason makes me cry, and last week was no exception.

We moved to our house on Sierra Madre sometime in 1966. That first Christmas in this new house was also the first one where we were treated to the other television event of the season in the form of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” These became perennial favorites in our home each Christmas, as did (to a slightly lesser degree) “Frosty the Snowman” (1969), and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1964). There were other specials that we all enjoyed over the years, but those 4 animated classics remain the favorites from my own childhood.

These days, I also add “A Christmas Story” (1983) to my collection of “must see” Christmas specials. I have to admit that Kelley “got it” before I did, but now I get a never-ending kick out of Ralphie’s quest for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, only to be told time and time again “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” And as with Linus’ reciting from scripture, when Scott Calvin’s ex-wife realizes that he is really Santa in the original “The Santa Clause” (1994), those waterworks seem to want to turn on.

But back to my sighting. When I was about 8 or so, an age when some children start become somewhat cynical and start looking for the angle in everything, my bedroom in our house on Sierra Madre was between my parent’s room and the room my younger sisters occupied. My bed was along the wall that the hallway shared, which came in handy on most nights. Mom always left a light on in the hallway and also left my door cracked a little. On most nights I would move down to the foot of my bed, the end nearest to the door, and would read by the sparse light coming in from the hallway. These days I’m convinced that Mom knew that I was doing this, but I read books with characters like Tom, Huck, & Becky, Michael, Wendy, Peter, & Captain Hook, and Dorothy, Scarecrow, & the Wizard, and she was really good at encouraging me to read anyway. I really enjoyed reading as a child, and still do today, but somehow it was a little more fun back then when I thought I was really getting away with something.

On the night in question, Christmas Eve, I went to bed with no thoughts of reading by the light from the hallway. I was well familiar with what would happen if I tried to stay awake, and I had no intention of testing the Sandman’s abilities. I lay in bed trying to fall asleep with excited anticipation working against me, and at some point I drifted off into what was usually a peaceful slumber. This particular night, this Christmas Eve, I’m sure was no exception. While I was asleep, anyway.

At some point during the night, something woke me up. I don’t really know what it was, but I was most assuredly awake. I lay motionless for a few moments and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The light in the hallway was now extinguished, as it was after I fell asleep on every other night, but there was still a little light coming from somewhere else in the house. Or maybe there was a night light in the hall or bathroom that was right across the hall from my bedroom. As I started to make out some of the familiar shapes of the desk, my books, and other items in my room, I could also see some moonlight coming in through the window which was on the wall opposite the door, but up near the head of my bed. I usually liked looking out the window on nights like this, and still do to this day.

I wanted to get up to see if Santa had come, but I didn’t know what time it was. I slowly turned my head to the left toward the door to see if anything was visible through the door and there he was. Right there at my bedroom door, looking in. I froze. I froze like I never had before, and I froze like I never have since. I was petrified, scared beyond comprehension. I remained motionless as motionless can be in that position. I eased my eyes to the almost closed position so that I was looking at him through the tiniest of slivers, but I could still see him. He was only a silhouette because the hallway light was off remember, but he was definitely there. I could see one eye looking through the small opening of the door. I stared at that one eye and it looked back at me for what seemed an eternity. I closed my eyes completely and tried to fall back to sleep, like that was really going to happen. I was afraid to open my eyes again, because I knew he would see them open and take off without leaving me anything.

I was afraid to move.

I was afraid to breathe.

I was afraid to even roll back to my previous comfortable spot in bed and so I stayed in my awkward frozen position, eyes clamped tightly shut, listening intently for any evidence that he either was still there, or had moved into the living room where the Christmas Tree was in front of the big bay window facing the street. I heard nothing though, probably because, as I discovered the next morning, he had softly closed my bedroom door. Eventually I must have fallen back to sleep again because when I awoke again, warm sunlight had replaced the soft blue moonlight coming in through my window. I was still scared though. I wasn’t really sure what I should do. I mean, what if he saw me awake and left?

When I finally had the courage to get out of bed, I went out to the living room and saw that he had not only been there, he had left some really cool things for me under the tree. I was still somewhat shaken by the sighting during the night, but I started to feel that everything was going to be ok. I was even pretty sure that I hadn’t blown it for next year.

I couldn’t wait to tell everyone. Mom and Dad were totally understanding, saying that I was really lucky he hadn’t seen me awake. My younger sisters were amazed. Man, I had done it, I actually saw Santa Claus. What a lucky little boy I was.

And then there were my friends. When I tried to tell them what I had seen, I was ridiculed. We were all at the house of the brothers Randy & Barry who lived on the corner two houses down from mine, climbing trees and such. Payson, and brothers Tommy & Terry were also there and apparently not a single one of these friends believed in the big guy for some reason. They spun wild tales about our parents being the source of all those presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? The howled with laughter and mocked me and called me names like “big baby” until Mrs. Barton came to my rescue.

The Barton’s lived between my house and Randy & Barry’s house and Mrs. Barton was a large German woman with a very thick accent. Being the immature children that we all were, we were prone to make fun of anyone different than us, and she didn’t escape our teasing, although every bit of it was done out of earshot and without her knowledge. Well, looking back now, she probably did know about it come to think of it… we could be a loud lot most of the time. Her name was Friedel, but we all called her “Frito Barton.” Nice, huh?

Anyway, she came out her back door and started to scold my friends rather harshly. She had a daughter named Lori who was a few years younger than we were and she obviously didn’t want Lori hearing the nonsense that my friends were spewing out. My relationship with her wasn’t quite so harsh after that. I knew then that I was right and my friends were flawed in their thinking, and Mrs. Barton knew the truth as surely as I did. My cousin Kelly, while not as loud and boisterous as my friends, also chose not to believe my story, telling me instead that I was probably dreaming. I knew better though… and still do. No Santa Claus? Not a chance.

I saw him. I saw him with my own eyes.

I only saw him that one time, but that was enough. I tend to sleep through the nights now and Christmas is no different. I don’t know if I could even pull it off like I did back then. I’m not 100% sure that if I opened my eyes and saw him peering in on me again that I wouldn’t give myself away this time. The fact that I snore now would probably prevent me from giving a convincing performance of fake sleeping, but then again, maybe Santa doesn’t know that I snore. Wait a minute, of course he knows! “He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake”, remember? Besides that, he’s looked in on me for almost 50 years now, and I’m fairly confident that I was probably snoring on most of those nights. He has to know.

Well, I can be happy with seeing him once, I mean that’s more than most people ever get, isn’t it? That silhouette image of the large bearded one in the red suit is permanently etched into my memory. No one, and I mean NO ONE, will ever convince me that it was anything but the real deal, that who I saw that night peering in on me through my slightly open bedroom door was anyone else… but Santa Claus himself.

Walking across the Fire
Climbing the Big Rock

One might question what fire walking and rock climbing have in common, other than the obvious answer of adrenaline producing activities. I have to admit that before my 37th birthday, I had no interest in either. So what could have possibly enticed me to venture somewhat hesitantly into these two adventures that most would call “extreme”?

In December of 1997, I had an opportunity to travel with a co-worker to Dallas to attend a 4 day Anthony Robbins seminar. I jumped at the chance and made the drive from the Rio Grande Valley to Dallas. I was already somewhat familiar with Tony Robbins and I knew that this event included a fire walk. As I stated earlier, I had no real interest in walking across a bed of red hot coals with bare feet, but I figured I would see how I felt after the three days building up to the walk.

What I didn’t know was that the fire walk would be just after dark on the very first day. Are you kidding me? The seminar itself didn’t begin until 5:00 on a Friday afternoon and we’d be walking across fire a few hours later? That didn’t sound like enough preparation and training time to me, but now it makes sense. The firewalk was at the beginning to make a point… if I could walk on fire, an activity that I previously thought was impossible, then theoretically, operating from the mindset that something was impossible during the balance of the seminar would seem unlikely. In other words, if I can walk on fire, what else might be possible?

We went out to the hotel parking lot where there was a huge pile of wood, about 4 ft high, 4 ft wide, and about 50 ft long. Some attendees were given matches, some were given bottles of starter fluid, the kind that one might use to start a Bar-B-Que fire, and some were merely observers of the lighting ritual. I was among the latter group but that was all right since I really didn’t believe at that point my involvement would go beyond that of observer or bystander.

After the fire was lit, we all marched ourselves back into the hotel where we spent the next couple of hours preparing ourselves for the firewalk. I was still unsure about my own personal firewalking abilities, but I did pay close attention to the instruction and practiced when we went through the dry runs in the big convention room. We were encouraged to pair up and I chose a girl I didn’t know to be my partner. We practiced and rehearsed and received instruction and then the time came.

We all took the five minute walk back out to the parking lot where the huge pile of wood was reduced to mostly burning embers and coals, with flames here and there. The sun had long since eased itself over the western horizon, the parking lot lights had been extinguished for the time being, and the sight of the red hot embers was all the more dramatic in the otherwise dark parking lot. The only thing more comforting than the sight of that red glow was the warmth that radiated from the red glow. Remember, this was December in Dallas Texas after dark and it was rather cold… in the 40’s or so. There were now also beds of coals arranged several feet from each other and each bed was about twelve feet in length. I’m guessing there were 30 or so of these little beds, and these were the coals that we (if we so chose) would be walking across. This was a big relief to me because I initially thought we would be strolling through the big fire.

This is where I need to say something extremely important: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO WALK ACROSS FIRE, COALS, EMBERS, OR ANYTHING ELSE THAT MIGHT SET YOU ON FIRE WITHOUT PROPER INSTRUCTION, TRAINING, AND SUPERVISION. Just before we headed out for the firewalk, Tony told us how he had received 3rd degree burns on his feet one time. He had done hundreds of firewalks over the years without so much as a blister when during one event someone took a photograph of him on the bed of coals and the flash from the camera broke his concentration only for a second, but a second was all it took. He was badly burned, had the pictures to prove it, and we all learned that this was not to be taken lightly. And no pictures. End of disclaimer.

My partner and I got in one of the lines that were forming at each of the 12 foot beds of coals, and then we were given final instructions from Tony over a bullhorn. When our turn came, we were to either start walking, (do not run because running can lead to missteps which can lead to falling into the coals… not good), or we were to step out of the line and watch. At the far end of each walk was a patch of green grass that we would step on while our feet were doused with water from a water hose. This was to prevent burning if a small coal found its way between our toes. My decision had already been made, I would step aside. I was only in line to begin with in order to support my partner when she walked. There were people who had also decided not to participate standing on the opposite side of the coal beds having chosen to not even get in line at all.

Then the firewalking began.

My position in our line was about 30 or 35 from the beginning so I had the opportunity to observe quite a few people before it was my turn when I would step aside. I watched our line, and I watched the lines to my right and to my left. I was behind my partner so she would go first before I stepped out the line. We inched closer and closer to the front of the line and then it was my partner’s turn. She turned to me, she smiled, we each enthusiastically said her focus word to each other, and off she went. She took about 6 or 8 deliberate steps across the coals and when she reached the other side, her feet were hosed off, she took a couple of steps beyond the grass, and she jumped about 20 feet straight up in the air, or so it seemed at the time. I barely knew this girl, having met her for the first time only a few hours before, and yet I was so very proud of her. Her face absolutely beamed, and I knew she was even more proud of herself than I was for her accomplishment.

Then it was my turn. A million things flew through my mind. It was now or never… but it wasn’t. Just as I was about to make my final decision, the coordinator for our line told me to wait a second, and a wheelbarrow full of fresh coals from the big fire was added to our smaller bed. It was now hotter and redder, and I would surely be stepping out now. But before I could, my partner had come back around, grabbed me by the shoulders, shouted MY focus word to me several times until I started shouting it back, and then I started walking.

I will attempt to describe the feelings and sensations I had for the next few moments, but it may be difficult to understand. I was looking straight ahead but slightly upward. There was a person on each side of me holding my arms loosely more to guide me than to support me, and I was able to set my own pace. In my mind I was loosely imagining myself walking on a bed of cool moss, but at the same time my primary focus was forcing all of my bodily energy downward through the bottoms of my feet so as to not allow the heat from the red hot embers to damage the soles of my footsies. I took about 6 very deliberate steps, not really fast but also not stopping to ponder whether or not I had remembered to pay the electric bill. I could feel the coals on my feet, as if I was walking across rocks, but not as hard as rocks, more like walking across a bed of wadded up towels, and I felt no heat. That may seem hard to believe but it’s the truth. No heat at all.

When I reached the pad of grass, the two hands holding on to my arms stopped me, I felt the cold water from the hose hit my feet, the two arms let go of me, and I took a few steps and jumped about 20 feet straight up in the air… or so it seemed. My partner was there. We quickly walked away from the bed of coals, embraced each other tightly and cried tears of elation. It was done.

Lynn - 1, Red hot coals - 0

And it happened exactly the way I had envisioned it happening, when I had allowed myself to visualize walking rather than stepping aside.

The visualization was a big part of our preparation. We were told repeatedly by Tony “See the ending. Knowing where you will end up is as important as knowing where to start”, or words to that effect. I’ve heard many, many times how a professional athlete will visualize the entire routine in his or her mind’s eye before the first muscle is moved. I once heard Jack Nicklaus describe how this is done prior to each and every golf shot he takes. I’ll have to paraphrase here because I don’t have the exact quote.

“The first thing I do before every shot is to see in my mind where I want the ball to end up. I have to see that very clearly. Then I visualize what kind of flight the ball must take to end up there. I see very precisely the ball’s entire trajectory from the time the club strikes it to the point where it comes to rest in the spot I have chosen. Then I choose the club and the type of swing that will send the ball on that exact flight path. I see myself distinctly making that swing several times before I step up to the ball, then all is left is to make that swing.”

I’ve heard other athletes in other sports similarly describe how they basically take the same approach in visualizing the desired outcome before they begin the activity. The successful baseball player has swung the bat thousands and thousands of times in his mind before he takes his first major league pitch. The same must be said for the basketball player, or hockey player, or tennis player, or football quarterback, or Olympic gymnast, swimmer, skier, boxer, figure skater, marathon runner, and on and on and on.

And the importance of this visualization extends well beyond the world of sports. I’m sure surgeons perform delicate procedures in their minds many times over before they don their surgical mask. What about attorneys when preparing their closing statements, or the businessman before that big presentation in front of all the stockholders, or the actress before the director yells “Action!”? Firemen, I’m sure, are trained to go through as many different scenarios as they can imagine in their mind’s eye before they go out on their first call. It makes sense to me to practice all of these things in advance rather than wait until a whirlwind of activity distracts you when the actual moment arrives. In the case of the fireman, this preparation can literally mean the difference between life or death.

So I was able to visualize my walk, as well as my stepping aside when the time came. Either way, I was prepared. And once it was done, a pattern was in place for not only visualizing, but the other steps it took as well, and this pattern could be duplicated and applied in any number of situations or challenges.

A month or so after the firewalk, I was in Las Vegas with some friends I had met online, to attend the wedding of two of those friends. I was there for 3 or 4 days, playing blackjack, learning how to conduct myself at the craps tables, and taking in and enjoying the camaraderie and friendship of long time friends that I was meeting for the first time. That sounds strange I know, but that’s exactly what was happening. I was also taking in the sights and sounds of Vegas, seeing some shows, eating at some fine restaurants, and moving between ever changing groups of friends. The only thing the entire group did together was attend the wedding itself.

At some point, I found myself alone with my friend Jana and we were just walking the strip together, stopping in here to do a little shopping or walking through this casino or that casino, wherever and whatever we felt like. We were more interested in getting to know each other a little better I think and all the other stuff was just peripheral sidebars. She was married and I was seeing someone else so it wasn’t wanting to get to know each other better in a romantic sense, we had become somewhat good friends online and we just wanted to have some real experiences together rather than only chat room cyberspace experiences. So we walked and talked and let ourselves get distracted by Las Vegas.

Then we went into an establishment that sold items that were Coca Cola in nature, furniture, wall hangings, clothing, that kind of stuff. We also found out that the three floors below the Coca Cola store were filled with the same kind of items, but instead of Coke, these floors were M&Ms, and on the very bottom floor were bin after bin after bin of M&Ms in every color imaginable. These of course were available to purchase, and people would get these tall skinny plastic bags and start filling them with M&Ms to create a design kind of like the way one might create sand art in a glass vase or jar. It was really cool except I personally thought the several shades of grey M&Ms were gross because it looked like someone had already put them in their mouth and sucked all of the color off and then put them back in the bins.

In the same building as the Coca Cola and M&M stores was a 100 ft rock climbing wall. Jana immediately started in on me to climb this thing. There were harnesses and ropes and pulleys and other devices to keep one from plummeting back to Earth so safety wasn’t really a concern. The real issue is that I have a thing about heights. Don’t really like to be up there, unless I'm flying in planes. I have a really hard time walking up to a window on the 20th floor of an office building, so climbing this rock wasn’t anywhere near the top of my list of things to do in the foreseeable future.

But then, neither was firewalking a month earlier.

And then it hit me… why not? Why shouldn’t I be able to apply the same techniques of preparation and visualization that I used to walk across red hot coals to climbing this artificial rock? I gave Jana a short 30 second crash course in what I was about to do and explained that it would take me some time (I figured on 30 minutes) to get myself mentally prepared, and she said she would run back to her hotel room to retrieve her camera so we could preserve the event in pictures. Well that was perfect for me because I felt I needed to be alone while I prepared and if she were gone there would be no distractions.

So I went through all the steps that I had learned in Dallas and laid the mental groundwork in anticipation for this newest challenge. The thing I focused on the most, and thus visualized the most, was how it would look at different stages of the climb when I looked down and would see just how far off the ground I was. I knew what it would look like at 20 feet, 30 feet, 50 feet, 75 feet, and even 100 feet when I had reached the top. I went through these visualizations over and over and it was less uneasy to my mind and stomach each time I went through this exercise. By the time Jana returned with her camera, I was so used to looking down in my mind that I was starting to visualize holding on to the rock with one hand and letting go with the other to wave to the crowd below. Powerful stuff, this visualization.

The moment was getting close but I was at ease. I had already put on my special rock-climbing shoes and been harnessed up and received instructions from the young man that was to guide and direct me as well as have a firm grasp on the rope to which my harness was attached. He would be able to communicate with me by way of a small microphone attached to his shirt and a small speaker mounted next to my ear inside the safety helmet I was to wear. I would communicate back by using several hand signals that we went over one more time.

And I started to climb. At first the ascent was very easy. The hand and footholds were easy to find and I fell into a comfortable rhythm and cadence, climbing at a slow to moderate speed, and every time I looked down I was pretty familiar with what my eyes beheld, having seen it numerous times already in my mind during my rehearsals on the ground.

It started getting difficult about 40 or 50 feet up, but only because my body wasn’t in rock-climbing form and the strength in my legs and arms were beginning to wane. I really wanted to keep climbing so I knew I would have to pace myself if I were to reach the summit of this beastly structure. I began to find comfortable positions and would stop to rest every 8 to 10 feet or so. My trainer would ask me via microphone and speaker if I was ok and I would give him a thumbs up to signal that I wasn’t finished. A thumbs down would indicate that I was done and ready to head back down. I even managed a few waves to Jana and the other people below, just as I had previously envisioned.

Higher and higher I climbed and while my legs were starting to ache, I wasn’t about to quit. Looking down from 60 feet was a piece of cake. At 70 feet, Jana was very hard to distinguish from the others in the crowd, but my nerves were as steady as the rock to which I was clinging. When I got to somewhere around the 80 feet mark (I learned this later from rope guy) I could feel the goal was within reach. A few more pulls with my arms and a few more pushes with my legs and I would accomplish yet another activity that I previously had considered impossible for me. I looked up to see how close I was and that’s when it happened.

In all my mental preparations to become comfortable with looking down and seeing how far I was off the ground, it never once occurred to me that I should also visualize looking up at the top. When I looked up, something totally unexpected happened. Once I saw how close I was to the top, I froze. To this day I can’t explain why looking up set off those same uneasy, stomach churning feelings that I would normally associate with looking down from high places, but that's exactly what happened. My arms and legs instantly felt very weak, I started to perspire that cold and clammy sweat you get just before you crawl to the bathroom to throw up, and I was totally and thoroughly frozen to the side of this rock.

My rope guy must have seen the change in my body language because he very softly and gently asked if I was still with him. Gone was the good-natured,”Hey buddy, how ya doin’ up there?” There was a new concern in his voice, and this didn’t exactly help matters. I was frozen and it quickly became apparent to me that I was in trouble when I couldn’t respond. I tried to get back into my comfort zone by looking down and finding Jana, but she was somewhere down there in an indistinguishable sea of faces that had relocated itself from its former position of a comfortable mere 80 feet away to an impossibly ludicrous location that appeared to be somewhere between a mile and a mile and a half straight down from where I was clinging and literally hanging on for gear life.

I tried to signal my trainer on the other end of the rope, the guy that used to be my friend, that I was more than ready to come down, but letting go to give the thumbs down signal was nowhere near the realm of possible actions that I could take at this particular moment. The only thing I could think of was “Don’t let go… don’t let go… don’t let go…”

Rope guy continued to talk to me in an increasingly calming voice, suggesting that I just hang out where I was for the time being, to just think of this as another rest stop, and most importantly to relax just a little bit so the muscles in my arms and legs don’t start to cramp and I end up losing my grip. He assured me that he had me and even if I did slip off the rock, I wasn’t going anywhere until he eased me down to a soft and gentle landing on my two feet whenever I was ready. I still thought they might have to send the fire and rescue squad to come up and get me.

I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes, summoned the strength to give him the thumbs down signal, and with his help, I was able to visualize myself letting go of the rock and being slowly lowered to the ground. When I looked down again, the ground wasn’t so far away as before, I spotted Jana and gave a quick little nod of my head, and let go of the rock and leaned back into the waiting arms of thin air. When I didn’t plummet to my death, I was able to help rope guy to help me down by keeping my feet on or near the rock, much like the way those guys on the SWAT teams or in Special Forces rappel down the side of a steep cliff or tall building.

The descent wasn’t nearly as fun as the climb, but it wasn’t all that horrible either. When I reached the ground the crowd of spectators gave me a nice round of applause, as they did for everyone who either did or didn’t make it to the top. I felt that the ovation for me was a little louder and longer than it was for others because of my struggles up there, but I’m sure that was just my imagination.

I was helped out of my harness and congratulated by rope dude, we shook hands and he told me that he hoped I would come back and give it another shot someday. He said he would watch for me. I don’t know if he said that to everyone who tried but didn’t reach the top, but it was a really nice thing for him to say and it sure meant a lot to me at the time. I changed back into my tennis shoes and Jana and I started walking back to our hotel. I was suddenly exhausted and exhilarated at the same time and all I really wanted to do was to go to my room and take a nap. Jana was extremely sensitive and didn’t say one word about what happened. She told me she got some good pictures and looked forward to sharing them with me. Other than that there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation on the way back. I was trying to process the whole experience and really didn’t feel much like talking. I was probably also trying not to cry.

I knew immediately what had happened… I should have imagined myself looking up to the top. That one little thing would have made all the difference. All in all, it was an excellent learning experience and one that I’m glad I have to draw strength from even today when needed. I learned that looking up can be as harrowing as looking down. I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to return and settle things with that rock. I have been able to apply those same principles of preparation with greater success in several other challenges I have faced, which might explain why I didn’t faint when Sheri walked through the gate and down the aisle on our wedding day. And I now know exactly what adrenaline tastes like. My mouth was full of the taste as Jana and I quietly walked back to the hotel.

Lynn - 0, Big rock - 1

Who would have guessed?

Until next time...

Random Acts

It was cold and it was raining very hard. I was walking through the streets of San Francisco, cold, wet, hungry, and on the verge of being very lost in a city that I knew not at all. I was pretty sure I could find my way back to the Denny’s where she was waiting for me, but that wasn’t guaranteed either.

The year was 1982, I think. I also believe it was late in the fall and she was pregnant with our first child. We were still newlyweds and would sometimes take off on weekend road trips just to spend time with each other and explore new things and places before our baby was born. We chose to go to San Francisco this weekend where we saw wonderful things I’m sure. We might have gone to Sea World, or maybe Fisherman’s Wharf. To be honest, I can’t remember much of the trip before our car, a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, broke down. I remember vaguely having it towed to a garage where we were told that it would be a few days before they could have it repaired.

As enlisted members of the United States Air Force, we couldn’t just call in and say we’d be off for a few days. We had to make some kind of arrangements to get ourselves from the City by the Bay back to Castle Air Force Base, some three hours away. We called some friends and they agreed to drive the three hours to pick us up and make sure we got back home.

At some point after we deposited our little car at the fix-it place for bugs, we found ourselves at Denny’s with no cash or credit cards. All we had was a checkbook and Denny’s don’t take checks. At least this one didn’t in the fall of ’82. So out I went in search of cash.

I don’t remember if it was raining when I left the restaurant, but I know it rained quite a bit as I walked into business after business asking if they would cash a check for a few bucks so we could get something to eat. Time after time I was turned down. I mean, think about it… a young kid of 21, soaking wet, shivering, almost lost in a big city full of big city cynics, feeding a sob story about a broken down car and a pregnant wife and trying to cash a check without purchasing anything. Would you? Well, neither would they.

I walked on, determined not to give up. She was back there at the restaurant depending on me and I wasn’t going to quit.

Then it happened.

I walked into a simple card shop, nothing fancy, just a little mom & pop store with mom sitting behind the counter. There was another lady at the counter too, but the place was otherwise empty. They stopped their conversation when I walked in the front door and gave me a good looking over. I almost walked out without asking but decided to stay when she asked if I needed help.

I explained my situation and asked if she would cash a check for me so I could feed my hungry wife and myself while we waited for our ride back home. She shot a glance at the other lady and I was sure I about to be turned down for the umpteenth time, and she asked if ten dollars would do. I eagerly accepted and got out the checkbook. After writing the check and collecting the money, I thanked her with all of the thanks I had, and then thanked her some more. Even with all that thanks flying at her, she had a look of doubt on her face when I walked back out the door.

It was cold and it was raining very hard. I was walking again through the streets of San Francisco, cold, wet, hungry, but at least I had a ten-spot in my pocket for food… if I ever found my way back to Denny’s. I took a few wrong turns; things didn’t look familiar, but wait… I think I remember that street name a block over. When I finally walked in the front door of Denny’s, I found Kelley crying in a corner booth. Waiters, waitresses, management, had all been trying to reassure her that I would be back soon, that I would be all right wandering the streets of a very large city with which I was in no way familiar.

She rushed up to me and threw her arms around me and the Denny’s staff brought me some towels that I used to try to dry myself off. We ordered some food. I seem to remember that they had fed her while I was out despite her not being able to pay for it. I don’t remember what I ate, but I’m sure I wolfed it down and told my tale of wandering the streets of San Francisco in the rain and the nice lady in the card shop between bites.

Our friends showed up and took us back home. I remember being so wet and cold even in the comfort of the warm car. The chill had settled itself down in my bones. The ride back home was long, there was a lot of conversation that I didn’t participate in, and when we were dropped off at our home, all I wanted to do was go to bed.

We were back in San Francisco the next weekend to pick up our car. I don’t remember how we got there, but it was probably our friends again. When we paid for the repairs and were on our way again, we drove our little orange bug along some of the same streets that I had walked in the rain the weekend before until we found that little card shop. When we walked in, mom was sitting behind the counter again and she looked at me as if she should know me but couldn’t quite recall where she’d seen me before. I must have looked quite a bit different not all soaking wet.

I walked up to her and thanked her once again for cashing the check a week before. She clasped her hands to her face and started talking to the two of us as if we were old friends. She told us how she went home that night a week before and told her own husband about me, how I had walked into the little store all wet and shivering, how I needed help, and how she somehow knew in her heart that I was truly in trouble and needed help and not just another transient looking for a handout. And even if she was wrong about me, it was only ten dollars. That must’ve been that look of doubt I saw as I left the week before. She told us that her husband trusted her judgment on the matter, and that she usually wouldn’t do such a thing.

She seemed surprised that Kelley and I were there, but then she didn’t seem surprised at all. It was almost as if she had been expecting us. It was a strange, but wonderfully warm feeling.

I wonder if she remembers that random act of kindness that meant so much to the two of us when we really, really needed it. It was such a little thing for her to do, but it was huge to us. I’m sure that somewhere in her own life, someone did something for her that seemed so small and insignificant to the giver but made an enormous difference to her. I’m sure that something was done for her that made her take a step back from life in big San Francisco and remember what kindness to and for humanity means.

So why bring this up now, some 27 years later?

Because I often find myself thinking cynical thoughts about people, and about humanity in general. I wonder how people can treat each other the way they do sometimes. I question my own belief in the goodness of people. I find myself doubting that people really do care about each other, unless there is something to be gained by doing so. I forget about mom in that little card shop who took a check from a total stranger and handed over ten dollars without hesitation. Did she expect anything in return? Nope. She just had a feeling and acted on it.

Well, something happened this week. Something happened that made me remember that kind lady in the little card shop in San Francisco. Something happened that makes me remember what kindness to and for humanity means.

I saw this on Facebook and it was posted by Kelley’s sister, Kristy. It was about her husband Jim. This is how I understand the story:

Jim and Kristy were on their way home after being sent home from work, navigating treacherous roads covered by snow, and they came across a woman and her son at an auto parts store. The woman and the son had walked there in extreme cold, and the child was horribly sick. Jim, not knowing anything about these two people, put them in his truck, drove them along those nasty snow covered roads to urgent care, and even gave the mom his phone number, just in case they needed another ride home after they received treatment.

I have met Jim only once, but I have known Kristy for a long time. I know her ability to love is strong and enormous and pure, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that she would be with this man who is capable of such an act of random kindness. I know some of that ability comes from her, and some of her kindness skills come from him. It was a simple enough thing, but I’m sure it meant the world to that mom and her young child at the time. It was done in the same spirit that a ten dollar bill was handed over to a soaking wet young man years ago. Pure kindness given and nothing expected in return.

Opportunities for such acts are all around us, all we have to do is look. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always convenient, but little things can mean so much to someone who is in need. I had such an opportunity this very afternoon, but I failed to act. It would have taken only a few minutes I’m sure, but I went on my way, trying to get to an office before they closed.

I had just left Wal-Mart and as I was driving out of the parking lot I noticed an elderly lady searching for her car. I thought about stopping to offer some assistance, but it was almost 4:30. I left the lot and before I turned the corner down the street, I looked in my rear view mirror to see if she had located her car. She hadn’t. I went to the office building where I needed to go but couldn’t get her out of my thoughts. What would it have hurt if I had taken the few minutes and gave her aid? Would it have made that much difference if I showed up and the office was closed? Was my meeting all that important anyway? I missed an opportunity and I feel as though I don’t deserve another one, since I managed to squander this one away.

I believe that we are given these opportunities sparingly, and if we don’t make the best of them, they dry up or maybe we’ll stop recognizing them when they present themselves before us. I feel ashamed that I thought my time was too valuable this afternoon. What if she wandered out there for 20 minutes or so? It was cold today. What if she slipped and fell on the ice? I can “What if” all day long, I guess. I learned a long time ago that if I sit around thinking “I shoulda done this” or “I shoulda done that” that nothing gets done and all I end up doing is shoulding all over myself. Not a very elegant way of thinking, but it packs a punch… at least to me.

What is really hard to swallow is that I am not the guy I was today. A few minutes spent might have meant the world to her at the time. I don’t go through life looking for little old confused ladies in parking lots, or mothers with a sick son in auto parts stores, or a cold and wet young man trying to cash a check… who does? But I do like to think that when I see an opportunity to help, I won’t turn my back and look the other way. What if mom in the card shop, or Jim had turned the other way?

I believe that as we look for these opportunities, we will find them. They are all around us. But they are like everything that we take for granted in the world; we tend to not notice them unless we find a reason to look for them. It’s like when you buy a new car. You may have noticed one or two of that kind of car before you bought it, but now they’re all over the place, right? It’s the same thing with these chances to do something truly meaningful. Unless our hearts are in the right place, unless we understand that our need to make that appointment or get home for dinner isn’t really all that important, and unless we open our eyes and look, we’re likely to pass on by and not make the most of what has been handed to us, an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life and not ask for anything in return.

So tonight I think about that lady in the parking lot. I’m sure she found her car. Maybe someone else helped her. Maybe she spotted it just after I made that right turn at the corner and went on my way. I sure hope so.

I remember mom from the card shop 27 years after she offered me some much needed kindness and asked for nothing in return. I don’t really wonder if that mother who was with her sick child will remember that nice man who gave them a lift when they really needed one 27 years from now. Somehow, I think they will. Today I had a chance to maybe make a huge difference in an old lady’s life, and I lost it.

Man, I really hope I don’t make that mistake again. With mom’s and Jim’s examples to help guide me, I don’t think I will.

Texas Football and Reality Television

When I was about 10 years old, my dad and I were traveling from our hometown of Austin to Benavidez in South Texas where we went every year to hunt quail, and Dad found a college football game just getting underway on the radio. I remember that the Texas Tech Red Raiders were playing and I believe their opponent for that game was the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Dad thought the Razorbacks would take the game but I decided to make things interesting by suggesting a friendly wager. I knew nothing of point spreads, handicapping players, or even very much about college football... all I knew for certain was that the Red Raiders were a Texas team, and therefore would win the game.

The bet was straight up, and the stakes were a whopping 50 cents. Serious coin for a preteen boy back in the late 60's.

I won the bet when the Red Raiders won the game. I collected my earnings and splurged on a can of Coke when we stopped to refuel the car.

This innocent bet was just that, an innocent bet between father and son. It did not lead to a lifetime of sports wagering or handicapping or anything like that, but it did leave a permanent impression upon my young mind. I knew then that sports could be a form of entertainment that was different from Gilligan's Island reruns or Sesame Street which was in its infancy on public television.

I went on to play one season of football on The Mustangs in about 1972 where we were undefeated, although I was on the second string team. A few years later, Dad took me to the Astrodome to see the Houston Oilers play. It was ok, but to this day I prefer to watch professional football on television.

College football is different though. I have been to several college games and the excitement and atmosphere of a college contest is electrifying. The last college game I went to was a few years ago in Charlottesville, VA when the University of Virginia beat Maryland. I took my daughter and one of her friends and we had a blast. It was a good game too.

I also played one year of baseball about the same time where I was a decent fielder but a total disaster at the plate. My batting average for the year was .000. That's right, I never hit the ball in a game. At team practices, I could smack the hide off the ball with the best of our hitters, but in actual games, nothing. I had a good eye for strikes and balls so did get on base often enough, and I was guilty of leaning in a few times to get hit. I just couldn't hit.

Dad took me to the Astrodome for several baseball games. Unlike professional football, I prefer to watch baseball games in person. I still like to watch them on TV, but there's that atmosphere thing going again when you're at the game. I remember seeing the likes of JR Richards, Lee May, Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, Roger Metzger, Tommy Helms, Doug Rader, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn, and Larry Dierker take the field for the hometown boys.

I remember seeing Ron Cey, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Willie Stargell, Tug McGraw, Willie Davis, Bud Harrelson, Lou Brock, and Bobby Bonds come to town to take on the 'stros.

I played some church basketball for a few years, but this was in my teenage years and girls were a higher priority.

I learned to play golf, with some help from my dad and a set of clubs from Pat Derrick when he won a new set at the El Campo golf tourney.

I also started playing tennis when I was stationed at Castle Air Force Base in California. I played some racquetball there also.

I never played hockey, but I really enjoy attending games. My dad took me to a Houston Aeroes games back when Gordie, Mark, and Marty Howe were all on the team. I had no idea what was going on, but it was me and Dad, and that alone made it good. When my friend Craig used to take me to Los Angeles Kings games when we would travel from Castle down to L.A. for family visits, I began to learn the rules and hockey became very enjoyable. I also attended many games at the Houston Summit in the mid '90s where the new Houston Aeroes used to play.

One of the most exhilarating moments in all of televised sports to me was in the 1976 Winter Olympics when Franz Klammer won the gold medal for the Men's Downhill Run. That and Mohammad Ali lighting the torch in 1996 are two of my favorite Olympic moments.

The point is, I really enjoy sports. Televised sports were the very first of what we now know as "Reality Television". Watching the warriors take the field and then engage in a battle of wits, strategy, and strength is so much better than most of what the entertainment industry regurgitates and offers to us.

Sports, for the most part, is reality.

And then there's Vince McMahon and all those wrasslin' guys.

Until next time...