Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Importance Of Staying Awake

Report and photo from Boat U.S. "You might wonder how someone on a boat equipped with radar and a GPS chart plotter could plow into something as large as Catalina Island (21 miles long x 2,097 feet high). According to the surveyor who investigated the accident, it happens all the time. Typically, the crew leaves the mainland sometime in the middle of the night hoping to arrive at the island about dawn for a day of fishing. The autopilot is turned on and while en route, the watch falls asleep. In this case, two people were standing watch to keep each other company (good idea) when one went below to bait hooks (bad idea). Sometime later, probably not more than a few minutes, the watch stander must have dozed off and didn't wake up until the boat hit the rocks. Nobody was hurt but the boat was a total loss."

I learned a lesson about staying awake when I was twelve. I was on my first big camping trip (three weeks) with the Polish Boy Scouts in northern Wisconsin. The adult leadership, who received their camping training during World War II, instituted the same military protocol that they had learned during the war, so every night one of us kids was assigned to stand "watch" for two hour increments. The head Boy Scout leader was thoughtful enough to equip the watch with an enormous, unwieldy flashlight that had a battery about the size you find in a car. It was effective to turn it on if you heard any noise whatsoever because it provided massive reassurance that a bear or a monster wouldn't eat you alive. I recall being rather nervous about the night sounds, even laying in my sleeping bag. I think mostly because I wasn't accustomed to being awake in the middle of the night and at that age any night sounds were disconcerting.

As luck would have it, on the third night, I drew a piece of paper that assigned me to the second watch; from midnight until two a.m. Some kid rustled me out of my cot (we used cots in those days because we were prone to camping in flood plains for some reason) and dutifully left me with the big light. I climbed out of the tent to find myself in the darkest night since before creation. It was so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face unless you held it up to the sky and after some time you could just barely discern a faint outline of your hand. According to instructions, I stood silently near where the food provisions were stored. I had been assured that raccoons and other wildlife wouldn't dare come near because they would smell me from afar and keep their distance. Nevertheless, I kept my finger on the big light button and my other hand on my dagger.

The forest was alive with noises that erupted without warning. A crack here, a rustling there. The occasional strange gurgle in the lake behind me. Suddenly I heard something large fall to the forest floor, deep in the woods. It was probably a branch. I imagined it might be a near starving, blood thirsty wildcat or bear leaping out of a tree. I instantly snapped on the big light and aimed it in the direction of the suspicious noise. The bright beam cut deep into the woods. I scanned to the left and right, back and forth, keenly searching for something moving. Nothing. I turned off the light for a moment and snapped it back on. Still nothing. Although I was mindful to conserve battery power, I inspected the entire camp perimeter with the bright beam before feeling comfortable that everything was safe. I turned on the big light at every sound. This went on for some time, but eventually I became less nervous and sat down. I don't recall turning on the big light after that.

They woke me shorty after dawn, having found me propped against a tree, cuddling the big light. The head Boy Scout leader was enraged to find that the big light had been on all night and the battery dead. In a Stalin-like snap decision he assigned me to KP duty for the remainder of the trip. To this day I am still somewhat compulsive about getting the dishes done after a meal.

(A note about the Polish Boy Scouts: I actually belonged to both the Boy Scouts of America and the Polish Boy Scouts, simultaneously. Contrary to what you might think, the Polish Boy Scouts were a much tougher group than the American troop. In the American troop, the emphasis was on community service and getting merit badges for stamp collecting, reading, wood carving, and such. The Polish Boy Scouts emphasized only two things: Fitness and survival. No room for pussy footing around with merit badges.)


Blogger Ralph Murre said...

Good story, John; and well told.

12:30 AM  

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