If you ain’t scared

13 Jan

“If you ain’t scared you don’t understand the situation.”
Sergeant Russell, first platoon ’45

He wasn’t a guy you’d talk with about being scared or terrified. His indifference to bullets and shrapnel was the stuff of movies. Russell was, in fact, emotionally cold, impervious or oblivious or he’d like you to think that. Nor did he draw fine lines between gut feelings and meanings. His orders were clear because his vocabulary was basic Army, like himself: the prototype infantry sergeant with everything squared, from his chin to his boots … no empathy, no sympathy, fully focused, dead pan and profane. When one word would do, that’s what you got.

When he asked (as if he cared) if I was scared out there, isolated on that awful night I stepped back. For him, that was conversation. “No,” I said, “I saw the cold facts. I was forgotten or abandoned by people I trusted. I was discouraged and disappointed but not scared.”

I did not say all that. How scared should I be? If I screamed no one could have heard me. I was squatting in a mud hole, watching Armageddon on the move, on a big screen with surround sound, through the sheets of rain between lightning flashes. Stephen Spielberg could have done no better.

I don’t know if I watched a company or an army passing by — only that they were many and spoke Japanese. The flashes painted an unearthly, stroboscopic scene in which I could be sacrificed but not scared. “What will be will be and this too shall pass.” That’s not religious or fatalistic. It’s the facts, fates and fortunes of life. “If you can’t fix it, don’t fix it. Get over the little things … like waking up tomorrow.” Had I loosed our machine gun, they would have scattered into the woods, then destroyed our sleeping company and me. Unlike Horatio or Leonidas, I chose prudence over providence or valor. The wind carried a familiar click, maybe a rifle bolt. Japanese.

There are degrees of scared. Normally, I’m bothered by nothing more extreme than a runaway shopping cart. When we kids (daring and double daring were fashionable) climbed a couple of hundred feet to the top of the Kingston river bridge, I was stiff with terror and climbed with my eyes closed. The wind could tear us away … and the iron door to safety in the high tower could have slammed behind us. A fall would make me newsworthy, loved by all and deceased.

I was scared when Murphy the Maniac demanded I appear after school for a fist fight to settle things. What things? If ever there was a contest … I was on the wrong side but I was there, brave and ready to be mangled. Murphy didn’t show and I never knew why. For kids without TVs or laptops, fishing and confronting mean odds were the best sports in town.

That winter, in a sudden sleet storm I got stuck while working in the high branches of an apple tree. What I felt was submission, a warm faith that no matter what, I would be alright. Soon I was not cold and heavenly lights appeared. A model T truck. The foreman climbed my ladder, untangled my bag, carried me down, gave me hell and a cup of hot coffee.

On my first solo excursion with the family car , night driving on icy Catskill roads, I was petrified and responsible. Tucked into every space of the big, wood wheeled, canvas topped touring car were gushy giggling girls. 1’d offered to drive them to an all-girl, all night party miles out of town. It was my first and only such trip; not God, but terror was my co-pilot. They paid me well but high school girls were never again so virtuous as I’d suspected.

On a minor note, I feared my cousin, Dolores. She was twelve and could run faster than any kid on the block. She could also hit harder and throw farther. Mostly, she could intimidate with her toothy Dracula smile. “Don’t you mess with me boy or I’ll tear your ears off.” She became the kindest of ladies and the defender of the clan.

Sergeant Russell understood me. That’s why I got nasty patrols and the most vulnerable gun pits on the perimeter. “You get these jobs because you are more scared than anybody else; and scared makes you sharp. You see in the dark and hear in the silence. You do not yield to your fears or lose the fine edge of judgment.” Once I figured it out, the difference between anxiety and paralysis, was in fear management: how you saw causes, variables, odds and options and what faculties you could use to cope with that brew. Your focus on reality, faith in yourself, acceptance of what is … and the will to put fear in its place were the keys to right choices. Fear and stress are manageable, I learned. Fright is not. People sell courses in how not to be afraid. That’s crazy.

I did some things that people said were ‘pretty brave.’ And ‘you must have been scared.’ Maybe, as Russell said, I didn’t know the whole situation. Conditions that could incite cold fear were usually crystal clear. Alternatives were few or foggy. How to respond and react were not written on the wall. One night, some unknown numbers of the enemy were poking around our perimeter, maybe knowing that one of us with frail kidneys would fire off the wild shot. A split second of weakness would expose our position and start a free-for-all of gun bursts and grenade throwing, usually over in minutes followed by screams in both languages. We out-sweated them that night. But, later, we lost people when one of our own, emptied his clip into the blackness, sweeping blood and bones into our perimeter, the parts to be reassembled at dawn, into a rubber poncho. .

The experience of such moments taught me to be calm, resolute, hold my breath and my bladder, and not give in to an irrational urge, instead, giving the formless time to take shape. Some will say, rightly, that there was no time for that, but time, like place, space and velocity is relative.* An event compacts into an instant if that’s all you have. But it must be a conscious instant where experience, intuition, instinct and reason can compute and work. The what ifs diminish. When hard facts stand out sharply the chances of right or wrong may be at least equal. We beat the odds, usually. *Check Al Einstein.

In fifty years of business, I was never seriously afraid aside from a few bumpy airplane rides and subway assaults; no reason. But, I got a reputation for patience, tolerance, openness and balanced deliberation. Mostly it was a practiced false front. It allowed me time to find the nut of things, especially the downstream effect. Good officers in the field have that animal* gift, too. Instinct and intuition save lives more often than cold blooded reasoning.

It’s not science. A part of our brain reacts to threat without help; it’s called *fight-or-flight, a human-animal drive to survive and prevail. There’s another part of that compound, not available in animals, called “Hey, now wait a dad-blamed minute.” Awareness puts fear and stress into a frame; you can isolate it, clarify it and measure it. Unbridled fear, biases, anger and rage make intelligent people do hasty dumb things.

I fear the drunks and crazies on our highways and our mean streets. They cannot be less than dominant males, like Alpha apes. Their thoughtless acts are those of the brainless predator: reflexive, one way, one speed with no turns. They feed on gentle souls like me, so I avoid them. Our conscious judgments, with qualms in the equation, are probably more logical, more right, more often … than they are wrong. They play equal parts in our survival. Archetypal fearless leaders are dangerous. Custer, anyone? Pickett? Julius C?

Who said “some people are born to greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.” Greatness often demands getting beyond fear and finding a proxy for it. Action and a good sweat come to mind. Third hand advice from afar doesn’t help a leader, officer or manager. Andy Warhol had it almost right. We are granted fifteen minutes of fame which might come from managing fear, being admittedly afraid, then with open eyes, facing the fear, telling Sergeant Russell “I think it stinks, but I won’t be afraid of it.”

A cowboy philosopher (Rogers) said he spent much of his life dreading what never happened. Mark Twain felt the same way. ‘What if….’ is seldom worth the worry. If that Japanese patrol had turned left that night, rather than straight ahead —but they didn’t. I ask why Murphy didn’t show up and beat the tar out of me. Maybe he got a touch of righteousness. Maybe I wasn’t worth his trouble. More likely he forgot.

My manly son-in-law wanted to test my fear tolerance. We slammed down “Space Mountain” the rocketing roller coaster at Disneyland. What I felt had nothing to do with fear. It had to do with lunacy. To be baited into riding a thing like that after a succession of bypasses (eight in all) was madness. When it was done, I said to him, “That wasn’t smart, was it?”    “Were you scared?”    “I think so.”    “Me, too.”    “Why did we do that?”   “Testing, testing.”   “Proving something?”   He was forty, I was eighty.

The ‘purposes’ of our old~time Infantry training comes up. This is a different age and we shouldn’t forget that. Front line soldiers with lap top computers, cell phones, the daily news and satellite recon vehicles? None of that requires muscular backs but rather a level of technical competence and judgment we of the 40s could not have imagined. We built our physical and emotional selves, our strength, endurance and attitude. “Strong legs, strong backs, strong guts, weak minds.”

We climbed high mountains and crossed wild rivers. Contraptions, barriers and bull nosed trainers bullied and bruised us. We scaled cliff sides on ropes, heaved ourselves over stone walls, crossed white water hand over hand, lugged our packs twenty five miles at night in drenching rain, then staggered one more anguished mile for a cup of cold coffee. We bungeed from the towers while others gave in and were discarded. One more try could have changed their lives.

Whether our instructors knew it or not, they were teaching us fear control, to handle stress, strain, trauma and dread. From moving on when your feet hurt to confronting an abyss while crossing on a wet pine log. Or the sure sense that something rotten lay around the next comer or behind an ancient stone wall. Training methods have turned since our time. Confidence, acute judgment, reaction and self-preservation through fear control is now on top of the infantry agenda.

Doing the predictable, dangerous and difficult things in training proved that we could overcome fear, especially the irrational triggers of fear. But, would we do that when all bets were on the table and the odds unknown and time was gone? Strength, confidence, dedication and resolve were never enough although we thought so. They who owned us said so. On occasion in combat, we looked away as the mighty fell back and hunkered down in safety while the least able ran to the front yelling in fury and fury settles fear sometimes. There are no rules against the brave being afraid. We did not articulate our fears; it wasn’t courageous. Sixty years after, it’s alright.

Of all the times I faced anxiety, fear or dread, only a dozen are Army related. Many, in retrospect are absurd like the midnight drunks who targeted my little coffee shop at three ayem. The remainder would pertain to not giving my best, fear of bad choices, fear of the unknown, fear of being disapproved and fear of things that never happened. The renowned Dr. Maslow said babies have only two fears that matter: falling and abandonment. Sudden movements, flashes and noises alert animals and tough armed soldiers. My psychologist granddaughter said those are the natural fear triggers of all humankind. I should have been afraid when my parachute didn’t open, but I wasn’t, or when the hill exploded under me, or the mine blew up or our troop carrier rolled over. Or when a careening car came at me last week on the wrong side of Rte #41. So, be not afraid to negotiate with fear. Just be quick about it and don’t lose any hair over it. The first twinge of your gut is likely your best indicator. I fear that was a poor choice of metaphor.


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