- A swarm of ten waterspouts in a squall line perhaps twelve miles away from my ship off the coast of Georgia.
- A line of one hundred and ten wild elephants treading slowly to the watering hole one hundred feet below where I sat.
- Sleeping next to a ballistic missile tube on a submarine, and later watching the bulkheads crush inwards towards us as we went below a thousand feet underwater.
- Taking a catapult shot off an aircraft carrier, zero to 150 in two seconds flat. We were facing backwards in the small transport plane, and you know those movies where everything in your line of sight suddenly stretches away from you? It did exactly that, I promise you.
Drop by a retirement home sometime and you’ll probably see a few old men who’d retired from the military many, many years before. Sometimes they talk about life after they retired, and more often about their families and especially their children…but once in a while they’ll tell you some of their most precious memories, the ones that come from the times that they spent in the military. They probably won’t tell you of the bad times, and the combat vets normally only share these with those who’ve seen that particular elephant. I saw no combat, but I understand their silence. Fear, rage, horror, utter heartbreak – people don’t want to relive these memories with those who cannot know how it felt. They’d much rather remember the good times, the great experiences, the grand sights and sounds of lives led to the fullest.
- Chasing a wallaby into the woods in Tasmania.
- Feeling the bone-chilling cold deep inside a glacier on Mount Rainier.
- Walking down a street at night in Singapore with Mujaheddin from Afghanistan (back when they were the good guys).
- Looking at a baboon holding a silver sugar cup as he squatted by the coffee server in Tsavo East, Kenya. He looked back at us, and none of us were stupid enough to mess with him. He finally left by climbing up to the roof. He took the cup of sugar, too.
The experiences of an adventure aren’t always nice, but such unpleasant memories teach us to be grateful for the lives we lead. We see those who are trapped in their lives with no way out, doomed to die from a sickness easily curable in first-world countries, or sentenced to live lives trapped in grinding poverty.
- There was a young boy perhaps nine years old herding cattle in Kenya. There was no school.
- I saw another boy, this one begging on a street corner in Pattaya, Thailand. This child’s head was grotesquely swollen with what looked like hydro-encephalitis. I suspect he had not long to live. I realized later that I did not even try to find a doctor to help him, and that I could have. I could have!
- A young sailor’s careless mistake led to a major fire on my ship. Ten good men died, and we were dead in the water for most of a day. The young sailor – I knew him – was not punished, but he had to live with it. He didn’t take it well.
- I met a Tibetan girl at an exhibition in Shenzen, China. We talked pleasantly; she was well-educated and had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen – think Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but with even kinder eyes. I was about to go, and on impulse told her that we in the States hear about how China is destroying the Tibetan culture and asked if that was true. She instantly became very nervous, agitated, looking all around to see if there was anyone listening. She saw no one, turned back to me, nodded quickly, and walked away as if she’d never seen me.
- A bar girl sat down across from me in a bar called “The Stoned Crow” in Olongapo City in the Philippines. She pleasantly asked me what I was writing, and I said that I was writing about what I saw. “What do you see?” she asked, and I replied that the people smiled, but they didn’t really seem happy. She was quiet for a moment, then her face changed, became covered with hurt and desperation and not a little hate. “Tell them this is hell! Tell them that!” She left, and I did not see her again.
- I saw a shadow on an old wall in Nagasaki, in the outline of an adult human. I also saw what was in the eyes of a few old Japanese men whom I walked by on my way to Ground Zero.
Compared to what many in the military have seen, these were not bad – pretty minor, actually. But all such experiences serve to teach as long as we are willing to learn…especially when we realize just how close to disaster we really were at the time.
- Lost on the back streets of Bangkok at two in the morning. No one knew where I was.
- Arguing with a group of local tour guides inside a fourth-floor office in Nairobi. I suddenly got real polite and shut up when I suddenly realized that here, too, no one knew where we were.
- Caught in an undertow on the beach on O’ahu, with my pregnant wife and oldest son watching on the otherwise-deserted beach.
- Suddenly sliding down a snow slope on Mount Washington on the Olympic Peninsula and finding out that the snow was too shallow for my ice axe to bite – there was nothing to stop me. I looked below and saw at least a thousand feet of space. I didn’t scream or yell – I felt nothing. I knew I was dead. End of story, game over. After I fell off the edge, I landed on a ledge about ten feet down. I think that was when I stopped liking roller coasters.
But for those of us who made it through, we can look back once more at the incredible life we’ve led, the experiences that Hollywood could never hope to replicate. There’s more, so much more that I’ve seen and done. I often sit back and wonder just how it happened that I got so lucky because I surely didn’t deserve this life. My heart is filled with gratitude.
My wife loves taking care of the elderly – not because she likes giving them medications or cleaning them up, but because she hears the stories they tell. Two stick in her mind – one was the man who was a wing commander for B-29 squadrons in Saipan – I wish I’d talked to him! Another was an old woman who, for her 99th birthday, decided to go skydiving. She did and died from the injuries she suffered (brittle bones), but she never regretted it. The old woman would tell stories of her own adventures, of once when she went to a small Indonesian island and married a local chieftain.
In the local congregation of the Church of which I’m a member, two old Filipino men have passed away in the past couple years. One missed out on the Bataan Death March because the boat coming to Manila to pick him up was sunk by a Japanese fighter. The other old man told me that he was on the Bataan Peninsula in a foxhole outside a hospital. An American officer (a general, he said) came out and told him to get inside the hospital because the Japanese wouldn’t bomb it – they wouldn’t bomb anything with a red cross on it, he said. My friend said he didn’t go in, the Japanese did bomb the hospital, and he got the heck out of Dodge, so to speak.
Adventures – mostly good, sometimes bad, and always memorable! How did a stupid snot-nosed kid from the boonies of the Mississippi Delta get to do all this? By the grace of God, obviously, and because of the Navy (to paraphrase a saying the Marines like to use). Adventures aren’t restricted to the military – of course not! In fact, I think it’s better if people are able to go overseas without needing to enlist to do so.
But go on an adventure while you still can! As Clavos said (and as the 99-year-old woman proved), adventures “for anyone, of any age, not just the young. Nothing broadens an individual’s outlook and education as well as exposure to other peoples and cultures.”
What’s on the other side of that hill, over that mountain, across that ocean? The television can’t tell you! Go find out! Why? Because it’s there! That’s why!