During the summer of 1964, I spied a pile of old Life magazines that someone was throwing way. I grabbed them and took them home. Plowing through the articles, I came across one titled “Marshmallow Becomes a Man,” about a sort of couch-potato kid from Bulger, Pennsylvania, who got sent to an Outward Bound course in Colorado and came home four weeks later a tough, motivated and more mature young man. I don’t know what’s since become of Mike Kobulnicky, but I remember well what it meant to me.
“Wow!” I thought. “What a chance to get paid for doing what I do anyway!” So I applied for a summer job (I was teaching school) with Outward Bound. On my third try, I ended up in 1965 as a “watch officer” at Hurricane Island, a few miles off the coast of Maine.
It was another world. My colleagues were East Coast Ivies, Liverpudlian veterans of the British Outward Bound schools, a Scot from the Moray Firth, and a few Sewanee boys (Ivies with Southern drawls) — sailors, all. But it was the students who really enlivened the place. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was in full cry, and the federal money for disadvantaged kids flowed like the Mississippi River. Being in New England, we got ABC kids from Southie and Dorchester, as well as fair-faced preppies from Kent, Groton and Choate. Imagine those accents mixed with the British variants! I was in heaven.
The premise of the program was that by mixing students — in those days, only teenage boys — of different backgrounds and abilities and exposing them to increasing levels of stress, you helped them discover previously unknown abilities. Some of the moves on the ropes course were genuinely terrifying — ask me how I know — but a perceptive debrief afterward helped reinforce the learning inherent in the experience. The school’s motto was adapted from the last line of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” and the siren song of heroic adventure was everywhere. All very exciting, and a lot of fun — even the daily icy morning dip.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me a while to recognize that Outward Bound was in essence only a metaphor for real life. There was almost nothing in the program that anybody was going to be doing back in his everyday routine. That came to me one day during an “initiative test,” in which the group of boys — called a “watch” at Hurricane — is asked to overcome an obstacle as a group: climbing over a 12-foot wall, for example. None of them could do it alone, but as a group (and I watched like a hawk who took the initiative and leadership to solve the problem) they could do it. A great problem was often a very large or unathletic boy who needed a lot of help. I often reminded the group that unless everybody got over, then the group hadn’t gotten over. That’s where the real initiative perforce always kicked in.
The central tool for what we were trying to teach was the 30-foot “pulling boat” assigned to each watch. Heavy and seemingly unwieldy, it could be sailed or rowed (slowly), it was about safe as a church, and was the perfect metaphor we were after. Everyone was — you’ll excuse the expression — in the same boat, and its success or failure depended upon the cooperative efforts of the whole crew. Reading charts, plotting courses, rowing, watching in the bow, steering by compass in thick fog, keeping watch and a log around the clock — that boat was their world: their responsibility and their means of survival. Some of the most lyrical high school writing I’ve ever read was scribbled by lamplight by the anchor watch during the middle of the night as their watchmates slept on the long oars laid out across the seats. “Something very large is breathing out there in the fog,” one wrote. It must have been good writing; I’ve never forgotten it.
I mentioned to them now and then that there’d be a test at the end of the course: inter-watch competitions in rowing, a rope pull (here’s where that heavy guy they struggled to get over the wall came in very handy), a round-the-island foot race, and initiative tests for time. There was no need of coaching; it would have been counterintuitive in that milieu, anyway. They worked it out for themselves, and somehow Nansen Watch (Nansen has long been a hero of mine) usually seemed to dominate the last day.
Over the years since then, I’ve thought often of those sturdy boats on that icy-cold ocean and the boys from disparate backgrounds and abilities who, when they recognized their interdependence, pulled together to do what had to be done. Those thoughts come to me most poignantly when I see a photograph of the tiny gleaming dot of Earth in the immensity of space, and then look around at the insane human squabbles that prevent us from doing the same as those boys, but in this case for real.
Like an old fire horse aroused by the sound of the alarm, I’ve lately developed an overwhelming urge to get President Trump, Speaker Pelosi and 10 other deciders in the same pulling boat for four weeks. That would be a Nansen Watch for the ages. And what I’d give to be its watch officer again!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.