Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I can do anything

It was about 10 years ago that I made it into the LA Sheriff's group to be accepted into the Marine Corp's Devil Pup program. I hoped to get motivation, a good extracurricular, and a bit of introduction into the military out of it.

The Devil Pups program is basically a physical challenge and team building "camp" that takes place in Camp Pendleton. The paperwork for applying was very explicit about one thing; this is NOT a camp for troubled youths. Of course, that paperwork came from the LA Sheriffs in charge of selecting the group they sent to the camp, not the camp itself. One of the first things the drill sergeant did was ask who was here because of something bad they did. I would later learn that third platoon seemed to get the lion's share of fuck ups, although it should have seemed obvious at the time. We were terrible. (Wow. after all these years, it still sticks. I just wrote "we were terrible" but personally, I was fine. Most of the platoon was terrible, but we were in it together, hence, we ALL were terrible. Interesting.) We couldn't follow the simplest instructions, and it only took a few of us to fuck it up for the rest. Hell, since we had so many fuck ups, fire watch was filled till the end of the camp, so I didn't have to worry about that punishment.

The camp was hard. Really hard. Little or no sleep, constant running, marching practice, all the expected stuff. Luckily, the food was good. That is, if we had any time to eat. Part of being the fuck up platoon was entering mess last, which became the norm after a first few days hashed out the pecking order among platoons. Third platoon, my platoon, was the shit platoon. But hey, that was because we were shit.

The two points that stick out in my mind, the most important ones, were the 35 foot drop into the pool, and getting my challenge coin.

The drop was really an exercise in fear. Falling's the easy part, and the first step is hard, but a little easier knowing everyone is watching you, but the line at the top is what got most guys. The camp couldn't force anyone to jump, so they had a (comparatively) low dive that some of the platoon went off of, and most of us (including myself) were pretty skittish until one of the bigger fuck ups jumped. The sergeant wasn't going to let the D students live it down if one of the F students jumped. (We were graded based on how well we followed orders, but since we were the fuck up platoon, we were graded from C, D, or F. I was a D student based on my plan to just get through it without standing out too much. Not sure if it was the right move now, but since we were the fuck up platoon, the C students got more than their fair share of punishment since they were line leaders. I became a line leader twice on accident, and suffered for my line both times.) So after one of the big F students went up, a small group of us D students had to go up there. I had made a few friends among the D's, and we were psyching each other up privately, while the rest of the platoon was cheering us on publicly. I went up fourth, but wound up second in the line at the top. I neared the edge, and looked down. I froze.

They say not to look down, but you can't not look down. A passing glance tells you that what you're doing is very wrong, and that you should stop. But I was stuck staring down into the blue mass, so far away, knowing that hitting it with enough speed would be like hitting concrete. The fear inches up from your neck, encompasses around your brain, and squeezes your mind. The instructor at the top saw me hesitate, and said to step to the edge. I stepped. He said, "Look at that pole out there in the distance," I looked. "Now don't think: take a step." I stepped.

I stayed focused on the pole the entire time. That wasn't a problem. The problem was the time it took to get down. Obviously it didn't take more than a second, but in my mind? Well, I had time to make conversation with myself.

Holy crap! I did it! Ok, doing good, just stay focused on the pole, don't look down or you'll tilt backwards and back-flop. I've jumped off the high dive in high school, this is kind of like that. You're not going to die, you'll be fine, just stay in form. Ok. still falling. Alright, I should be hitting the water now. Any second now. Ok, where's the water? I'm going to take a quick look. NO DON'T LOOK, NOW YOU'LL GET BLACK EYES! Shit! Ok! But where's the water?! This is taking too long! I'm too high up! I THINK I'M TILTING! CORRECT YOURSELF! CORRECT! No! Don't correct! You can't flail now! It's too late! You're going to hit the water any--

That was my lesson in fear. I knew I was going to survive, I knew what I had to do, and gravity was going to do most of the work for me. but I was still scared to do it. From then on, fear became a warning instead of a roadblock. I must not fear, fear is the mind-killer...

The challenge coin was a bit harder. It was presented at the top of a mountain that you hiked half way up, camped on, and hiked the rest of the way up the next day. I didn't think it would be a problem since we ran so often, but running is very different from hiking with packs. The hiking drained us a lot more than any of us thought, and we were relieved to set up camp. We ran on little food, and little sleep, having stayed up the night before remaking our racks because of somesuch fuckupery. The punishments became the norm so often we were better runners than the other platoons. Shame it didn't help with following orders.

The next morning I was sore, and slept terribly on the thin bedroll. I had been too worn out to bother moving the rocks that somehow escaped my initial ground clearing. Plus we weren't allowed to get up except to use the bathroom, and the other platoon's DIs were on fire watch, so clearing them clandestinely would either take up too much energy, or get me caught and see me run some more. We unceremoniously resumed the hike. Hours later the top was in sight, and I got a second wind. With the rest of the trail in sight, I knew I could power through it. We marched on as I felt my body fading, but my mind saw the goal, and kept it moving forward. On the last switchback, we had the end in sight, the final turn up to the plateau, and the top of the mountain. Except when we rounded that last corner, it wasn't the end.

What stretched before us was about 150 yards of 45 degree mountain. You couldn't hike it, you had to crawl it. The first part of the platoon had already started up, and I could see them struggling. I stood in place, thinking about how much energy it would take to get up there, and knew I didn't have enough. The Sergeant saw me stop, and screamed me onto the hill, his motivation getting me about a quarter of the way. Once I was on the hill, it was easier for me to just keep going, but higher up, the mountain was covered with some kind of hay/dirt mixture that our feet sank into when we stepped into it, and our hands pulled clumps out of when we grabbed for hand holds. Thinking back on it now, I'm not sure if it was trucked onto this last slope to make it easier or harder. But it didn't matter, because it was like walking in snow. As I groped for balance and my feet slipped out from under me, I looked up, and that's when it happened.

That's when I gave up.

I remember it very clearly, even today. The smell of that hay/dirt, the itching of my arms, the burning in my lungs, the dust in my eyes, and the immutable fact of the universe that I wasn't going to make it.

I was on my hands and knees, looking up at the side of that steep mountain, and my muscles stopped working. It couldn't have been more than two seconds that I was there, on my hands and knees, lost to the world; but as with the dive, I had plenty of time to think.

I was done. I was lost. I didn't make it. I washed out. I was so close, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would never make it up that mountain. It's so hard to put that feeling into words. It wasn't even hopelessness, because there was never any hope, never any chance, there had never even existed the idea that I could make it. As sure as the sun would rise in the east, as sure as the vastness of the universe, I could not make it. There wasn't even impossibility, there wasn't anything. There was nothing.

Except for one thing...

Disappointment. I was disappointed that I wouldn't make it. I was disappointed that I was letting my platoon down. I was disappointed that I had come so far, for absolutely nothing. I was disappointed that I would return home a failure.

Worst of all was the conclusive knowledge, the undeniable truth, the insurmountable certainty that there was nothing I could do about it. I believed it as I had never believed anything before.

Then someone grabbed my arm and started pulling. Then someone else grabbed my other arm and started pulling. They weren't going to be able to drag me up the hill. They didn't have enough energy to pull me and themselves up this hill. Didn't they know this was impossible?

From my left: "C'mon [last name], we won't let you quit."
From my right: "Move it [last name], we start as one, we finish as one."

I looked at them both, and realized I didn't know their names. They probably didn't know mine either, but we had it taped to front and back of our covers. I didn't know them personally, but we were third platoon.

Then my leg pushed.

Then my other leg pushed.

Then I started moving up.

My nameless helpers pulled me a few feet before I reached for the mess of earth below me, and started climbing myself.

Eyes transfixed on the top, I climbed as fast as I could, passing others by. My arms and legs moved like normal. It wasn't like a runner's high where they move mechanically, they were doing what I was telling them to do. They were doing what they had refused to do. My brain was doing what it told me was impossible.

I made it to the top.

I had done the impossible.

This was my lesson in limits. All of my limits before that day were mentally imposed. From then on, my body wasn't finished until continuing to do so became dangerous. I wasn't done hiking or running until my toes started to drag because my legs were incapable of being lifted to a safe height to continue my activity. I wasn't done gasping for air until the the black began encroaching on my vision. I wasn't done working out until my arms halted mid-lift, and wobbled instead of pushing a single inch more. No task was impossible with enough thought, planning, and preparation.

Obviously, it's not productive to push yourself to the breaking point for every challenge you encounter. But to doing so every once in a while will show you where your true limits are, not where you think they are.

Only when you break through that mental block will you be free to achieve your true potential.

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