We were in Duke University's Bryan Center to see a student-run musical, but had gotten there late. The foxy young woman in the front of Sheafer Theater couldn't let us in - it would have been too disrupting to the performance. We'd have to wait an hour until intermission. We had time to kill.
So we found ourselves sinking into the comfortable leather seats in the Bryan Center, a concrete and carpet place with an angular interior and stark gray preform concrete staircases, in a small sitting area nook that smelled of too many students and too little air movement. Jim, my high school classmate, was reminiscing about his days in U.S. Army Ranger school. A tall, well built good looking guy with a square jaw, he'd just graduated from West Point and signed up for Ranger school before shipping off to Germany. He related a story that taught him a lot about himself. He said, bottom line is this. Sometimes willpower isn't enough. Sometimes, you have to rely on help from others. This is his story.
Ranger school, Ft. Benning, Georgia, November to January session. Small patrols were sent on long marches in cold weather to simulate the long range patrols of combat. Soldiers paired up and checked each other for facial frostbite around the earlobes and noses. Marches took them over mountain ranges and through streams. Fording streams through icy water, the Rangers sometimes found themselves at the outer limits of their performance abilities. Stream crossings entailed taking off clothes, putting them in a bundle, and holding the clothes, weapons, and backpacks above the water, while holding onto the rope that served to steady their walk over the slippery rocks under the water's surface. Some streams were so deep that the Rangers were chest high in water. It was ungodly cold.
In ice cold water, hypothermia sets in quickly and brutally. It turns out that some men's physiognomies are more naturally tolerant to cold than are others'. Jim's was not. He was about ten feet from the other side when he stopped moving. It was not from lack of wanting.
"I tried every mental trick I could think of to push through. Do you remember the old John Wayne movies, where the hero gets shot but manages to overcome his wound and press on to save the day? I survived West Point. I found out that I could do a lot more than I thought I was capable of doing, if I applied willpower to bad situations. I could go without sleep if I had to, I could march longer if I had to, I could survive hazings and the common daily brutalities of a military academy, because I had to. The body is much stronger than the mind.
"But here, in this stream, I tried every mental trick but I still couldn't move a muscle. My hands couldn't close around the rope any more. I tried to move my entire arms up around the rope and risk get rope burns by sliding my forearms across the rope those last few feet, but my arms wouldn't get up above my chest. I was in the middle of this stream freezing to death.
"And then the guy behind me figured I was in trouble. He pushed me along and helped me finish up.
"I'd never felt so helpless before.
"I guess every man has his limits. Another part of Ranger school involved rockface climbs. When we were climbing cliffs the man next to me was stuck in a certain spot. I reached down and pulled him up. Guess he'd hit his limit. Climbing wasn't where my limit was. But in that river, in that cold - I couldn't go any further.
"And I found out that you can't do things by yourself all the time. Every man needs another man to help him along."