At my age, with screws in both knees and a crippling fear of heights, there are any number of things I never expected to try before entering eternity.
Scaling down a 65-foot sheer wall is one of them.
But Saturday afternoon, that’s exactly what I did.
On a hot, sunny day at Camp Atterbury, about 50 teens and 20-somethings participated in “Bring Your Buddy to Drill Day,” a special event designed to give prospective recruits a taste of the Indiana National Guard.
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I was neither a teen, 20-something or prospective recruit. I was a 50-something observer working on a story about the Indiana Guard.
Before the day was over, however, I was a participant.
A reluctant, terrified, what-on-earth-am-I- doing participant.
Here’s what happened.
Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of meeting Lt. Col. John Pitt and Master Sgt. Benjamin Fox at the Johnson County Armory in Franklin. Pitt is in charge of the Armory, the state’s largest, and Fox is in charge of recruiting for 16 Indiana counties.
Generous with their time and information, both soldiers answered all my questions about the Guard and recruiting. They then invited me to Saturday’s event, where, if I wanted, I could maybe fire a .50-caliber machine gun. Or ride in a Blackhawk helicopter. Or rappel down a 65-foot tower.
They were attempting to make all three activities available for potential recruits to experience.
Now, having never served in the military, the chance to fire a machine gun and/or ride in a Blackhawk sounded too good to pass up. Rappelling? Easy to pass up.
At my age, with my knees, with, above all, my fear of heights, that was not going to happen.
I relayed as much to the colonel. He of course had an answer.
Military activities, such as rappelling, aren’t about thrill-seeking. They are about confidence-building and teaching individuals, i.e. prospective recruits, something about themselves they might not have known.
“If I can rappel down a 60-foot tower, if I can do something like that, something I didn’t know I had in me to do, well, think about what else you didn’t know you had in you,” Pitt said.
Those words stayed with me long after I left the Armory. Rappelling wasn’t for me, but some of other things he mentioned, firing weapons, riding in Blackhawks, I probably had that in me, and couldn’t wait to find out.
But I’ll never know.
On this particular Saturday, the firing range wasn’t available. Neither was a Blackhawk. The rappelling tower? It was open for business.
Since I had no intention of being a customer, I was content to do what I was actually there to do — glean insight, conduct interviews and do what reporters generally do: observe.
It was a beautiful day, so I was happy to do just that as the teens and 20-somethings, male and female, queued up for turns, each slipping into harnesses and fitting on helmets and gloves, with the assistance of Guardsmen, in preparation for the slow climb up the stairs and quick ascent down the wall.
Many, if not most, whispered something about a fear of heights. Guardsmen assured them not to fear.
“You have to face your fear to conquer it,” one soldier advised.
Words of wisdom, to be sure. But not for me. I wasn’t going up, let alone down, the tower. And then sergeant Fox, who served multiple tours in Iraq, strolled by.
“You going to try it, Rick?”
Gazing up at the parade of strapping youngsters making their way up the stairs, my head shouted ‘no,’ my heart screamed ‘heck, no,’ and then my mouth muttered, “yes.”
Why I said it, I still don’t know. Maybe it was colonel Pitt’s words from a few days earlier. Maybe it was the soldier’s words from a few seconds earlier.
Maybe I had completely lost my mind.
Either way, I said yes. Couldn’t back out now. Had to slip on a harness, slap on a hat and gloves, and march — or rather, slink — up the stairs, terrified of two things: chickening out at the last second or actually going down the wall.
I can’t get on a step ladder and clean my gutters without getting vertigo. How was I going to step off a 65-foot ledge without passing out?
Thanks to the soldiers, I found out.
Professionals, each and every one, they somehow made rappellers out of 99.9 percent of everyone (only saw one person bow out) who showed up that day. More than likely, they recruited a few soldiers in the process, which is what the day was all about.
With few exceptions, everyone was afraid of stepping off that ledge. But before anyone got near the tower, they received expert instruction from rappel master Robert Brake, a major who went over every detail, from how to wear the harness to how to position your body to how to stop and go.
Major Brake and another officer then supervised the two rappel lines at the top of the tower. They assisted everyone off of the ledge, providing everything from guidance to assurance to confidence.
I, like everyone else, needed all three. Especially when it was time to step off the wall.
What that entailed was facing forward, heart pounding, heels off the edge, reclining your body into an ‘L’ shape — and stepping off.
And down you go.
Somehow, I did it without going into cardiac arrest. I made it down in about 30 seconds. No points for style, but I survived.
And it was at that moment, feet on the ground, that I harkened back to the words of colonel Pitt: “If I can rappel down a 60-foot tower, if I can do something like that, something I didn’t know I had in me to do, well, think about what else you didn’t know you had in you.”
That is no doubt a question many, if not all, of the teens and 20-somethings who went down the wall that day are asking themselves. And it’s hard to imagine many aren’t at least considering joining the Indiana National Guard.
Again, that’s what the day was about. And what I learned is this: Soldiers are special people. I’ve actually always known that, but this day drove it home.
From the officers to the sergeants to the privates I met that day, each was kind, courteous, confident, professional and unquestionably brave. Each oozed those qualities. Many had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both. It’s clear their service indelibly shaped their lives.
Looking back, only the encouragement, professionalism and leadership of a U.S. soldier could have got me up those stairs, let alone down that wall.
Rappelling? Scratched it from the bucket list. Thank you, Indiana National Guard.
If you can do that for creaky kneed 50-somethings, I can only imagine what you can do for healthy teens and 20-somethings.
Opportunities, I imagine, are endless.