When I'm not neglecting my family while I train or involved in one of my other pursuits, I work as a civilian mountaineering trainer for the US Army. The lion share of my job is training Rangers and soldiers for operations in the mountains and preparing them for the challenges they will encounter. I take this job very seriously as I feel that our soldiers are one one our nations most treasured assets as they do the things they do, so we may do the things we do. This has even become more important to me as I see my son growing up and leaning in the direction of following in my footsteps as a soldier, despite my efforts of trying to convince him to be a superhero, or multi-millionaire instead.... actually I couldn't be prouder.
Occasionally during the execution of my job I am afforded the opportunity to work with youth organization such as the Boy Scouts of America (I'm also Scoutmaster), Operation Purple which is an organization that develops programs for kids whose parents are in the military and are deployed, College ROTC programs, and High School JROTC. Unfortunately the image of these organizations are becoming less and less appealing to our kids these days as they are viewed many times as geeks, or nerds.....which I think is particularly funny as my son (my window to the teen world), who is also scout, has backpacked close to a thousand miles, rock climbs regularly, canoed hundreds of miles, has already camped more than most adults ever will in their lifetime, and was capable of surviving on his own in the wilderness at 14, is considered by the "popular" kids to be somewhat of a geek. Oh did I mention he also ran a 5:00 mile at 15. He told me once, " Dad, to be popular here in North Georgia, all you have to do is play football, wear a red baseball hat and tell everybody you're gonna go to UGA and play football for the Dawgs!" He and I both find this ironic as there has never been one person from his high school play football at UGA!
Thursday I worked with a JROTC group from an adjacent high school here in North Georgia. Many of the kids that join JROTC are kids that feel like they don't fit in anywhere else. I don't mean that in a derogatory way as my son is currently a Company Commander in the program, its just many of these kids although normal teens, just usually don't prescribe to the typical cliques, clubs, and athletics. They join to find others similar to them. Many of them will turn out to be natural leaders.
The buses rolled in around 9:15, parked and out spilled 89 teens dressed in ill-fitted Army uniforms that were were too big for most, and too small for some. Anxious for the exciting day of rappelling that awaited them they acted like typical teens, jabbering, and laughing loudly to hide their nervousness. Yes it was typical group of teenagers. We had girls scoping out the guys, and the guys attempting to act cool. We had the timid little skinny kid that looked to be closer to nine than fifteen who ended up being pretty damn tough! The fifteen year old that looked 25, the obnoxious kid that knows everything, the two drama queens that are always texting and are inseparable, the fat kid that is funny as hell, and the little girl that's not afraid of anything. Yep a normal group of teens. And then there was Clay........
The day started with fitting the kids in rappelling harnesses.....usually an easy task for me but imagine trying to put a pair of pants on a 89 house cats.... yep that's exactly what it was like. The we had to move these same kids into bleacher in front of the 30 foot rappelling tower. Now just imagine trying to push those 89 housecoats in pants, across a glass table.....yep that's exactly what it was like........ Once in the bleachers, we gave the house cats a short safety briefing and a rappelling demonstration. We then put on gloves and helmets, and lined them up in front of the stairs. As I was lining them up I asked their JROTC Instructor if there was anyone in the group that couldn't rappel for any reason. I do this so as not to embarrass them in front of their peers which, especially with the boys, I've found very easy to do. He told me there were several kids he knew to be afraid of heights, but should be able to do it, and there was one kid in a walking cast but other than that everybody should be OK.... And then there's Clay.....
Clay? I asked. Then very loudly the shouted "Clay....front and center!" Clay quickly as he could, shuffled to the front and snapped to the position of attention and said "Yes Sir?" Clay was slightly heavy for his age, and although standing rigidly as he could he had a slight stoop. His left arm was sharply tucked to his side however his right arm was bent and his hand slightly withered. The thick glasses on his face were sliding down his nose as he was slightly leaning forward. Clay despite his condition as I was to realize later, was a typical teenage boy. Cocky, but somewhat unsure of himself, in desperate need of approval, and wanted to just fit in like everybody else. Unfortunately for Clay, he has to work harder to do that, as well as at everything else, than anyone else. You see, Clay suffers from cerebral palsy. The instructor asked Clay if he wanted to do this? and looking excited and puzzled at both of us he said, "Yes sir, very much". Without thinking I told him to get in back of the line.
His instructor and I talked briefly and he told me how Clay just wants do what everyone else does. He told me that he has physical limitations of course but is capable of doing so much more than people allow him to do. People are afraid of him, but honestly I can understand how. He also told me that Clay never asks for any special attention. He fully understands his situation more than anyone else ever could. He deals with constant failure and rejection but for somehow remains upbeat. I assured his instructor that somehow I would make sure Clay rappels.
The day went smoothly as the kids began to cycle through the tower. We would hook them onto the rappel rope, talk them into the correct body position, and direct them over the edge of the tower. Most of the kids were very excited but slightly nervous, and many even took a little coaxing. But once they were over the edge most of them realized how easy it was, and wanted a second or even a third try. There were a few that were actually terrified....these were easy to spot as they outwardly displayed signs and symptoms of stark fear....dry mouth, nervous twitching and laughter, jerky movements, pale lips, and even belching..... all standard signs. Only three refused to go over the edge and did the walk of shame back down the stairs. Of course we had several of kids that were starved for attention and made a huge show for everyone, claiming to be frightened but displaying none of the signs, however there was lots of fake crying, and demanding of constant attention on them all the way down to the ground. Of course once they were down they focused their efforts elsewhere to gain attention on another adult or teacher. Next were the ones that were just plain lazy....always a couple of them. And then there's Clay........
Clay was one of the last kids in line. I talked to casually for a couple of minutes to determine if he was nervous. Strangely he seemed perfectly calm. I asked him if he was worried or scared, and he admitted that he was a little worried. When I asked him why, I was surprised to find out that his concern wasn't the height or fear of injury but he was afraid I wasn't going to let him rappel because he couldn't seem to get one of his gloves on his withered hand. He said it was OK if he couldn't go because he understood he needed gloves. He was just happy that we let him climb to the top of the tower. At this point I actually had to force back tears. At this point there was no way in hell I was going to let Clay walk back down those stairs.
I worked for several minutes helping get the glove on his right hand only to have it fall off again, and again. We both laughed several times as we worked his fingers one by one into the thick leather gloves only to have them curl back out. It was at this point I realized that Clay wasn't going to have the strength nor the coordination to hold himself in the proper position and I began to worry. Clay told me several times, "Mr. David, its OK, its OK". So I looked Clay in the eyes and told him, "No it's not, wait right here". I ran down the stairs to grab my personal harness and a few additional pieces of equipment. Since it was obvious to me Clay wasn't going to be able to do this on his own, I would do it with him. My plan was this... I would hook on to the rappel rope and then suspend clay in front of me from the rappel device much as I would an injured climber being evacuated from a cliff. We would go down together.
When I arrived back on top with my equipment I explained what we were going to do and Clay said " I'll try". I replied, "Dude, that's the spirit". Getting Clay attached to me was a chore it in itself. This was when I realized the effort Clay has demonstrate just to do things we take for granted. Sitting down, consisted of him lowering himself down to the floor lying on his side, and me grabbing him and helping him to a sitting position. Although this seems like it must have been a terribly sad and disturbing sight we both were laughing hysterically the entire time as we both realized how silly we must look.....like a bad wrestling match. Once I had him safely connected to me, and sitting on the edge of the tower I asked if he was ready, and he said, "I think so". As we slid over the edge and we were hanging together on the rope, all of 88 kids below were cheering loudly for Clay, as they had been watching the entire time. They continued to cheer and chant his name as we descended the 30 feet to the ground. Once we were on the ground many rushed over to congratulate him and pat him on the back. Clay was beaming. Clay thanked me several times for letting him rappel. Finally I told him to never let anyone tell you what you are capable of doing, you decide that for yourself, and and always maintain that "I'll try" attitude.
After the excitement died down, we collected all of the equipment, and put it away and loaded the kids on the bus, and they were on their way. My coworker and I were discussing the days activities, when he said to me, "You know Dave, I feel sorry for Clay". I thought about that for a second or two and I replied... "I don't. Although I hate it that Clay has the physical challenges that he has, his determination and his attitude to which he seems to approach life with, I actually envy. Clay inspired me today".
I have been plagued periodically over the several years with calf injuries. These have been demoralizing to me at times as even this year I've seen my race season change drastically as I recover from yet another muscle tear. But these injuries pale in comparison to the physical challenges that Clay goes through every day. I can only imagine how it must feel at any age, much less at 15 to see your physical abilities diminish more and more each year to a point where sitting up or holding a fork is a challenge. So from now on when my calf injuries flair up I will always try to remember Clay and look at what I can do rather than the limitations that I have.
Got tires and a cassette on my new race wheels.......$230.......ughhhhhhh..... Wanted to give them a spin today but since its raining looks like I'm in for a trainer ride. Race wheel test will have to wait s0, whatever man!