Living on the Edge

If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space

~ Unidentified United Nations peacekeeper in the Balkans, quoted in John H. F. Shattuck’s Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America’s Response


I grew up in a small, redneck, backwoods logging town in northern Idaho. Weippe was home to 713 humans, according to the never-changing signs alongside the road marking each edge of town. It was also home to 3 large sawmills. It was big-timber country during the age of extraction.

Ten years after my birth, walking in the early morning to elementary school, I looked up to see a 13-year-old schoolmate pointing a rifle at my head. I knew better than to run. He’d have been inclined to answer my fear with a bullet. I kept walking. It wasn’t extraordinary. I didn’t bother to tell my parents for decades. It just never came up.

We were free-range children, consistent with the times. We played until dark, which came late during northern-Idaho summers. We bicycled for miles each summer day, we invented games, we fished nearby streams and rivers, and we were unconcerned with personal safety.

It was a rough, privileged life.

On a summer day in 1976, at the age of 16 years, I drove my parents’ red-and-white 1971 Ford pickup truck 30 miles to the east bank of the Clearwater River near Greer. My younger sister and a couple friends joined me in diving into the strong, cold current. After a round of swimming and lounging on the rocks, my sister’s best friend dove in again, only to be swept away. I lost my first contact lens when I swam to her and dragged her to safety.

My family moved from Weippe to Craigmont between my junior and senior years in high school. Across the Clearwater River we went, from the Weippe prairie to the Camus prairie, from a small drinking town with a timber-extraction problem to a smaller community dominated by growers of wheat and the supporting infrastructure.

Not long after the move from Timberburg to Farmville, I hosted a visit by my favorite receiver from a year earlier, when I quarterbacked the high school football team. Mark also happened to be my sister’s ex-boyfriend. We were joined by my new favorite receiver, who happened to be my sister’s current boyfriend. Apparently I was inclined to throw the pigskin in the direction of my sister’s boyfriends. Or perhaps she liked receivers. In any event, the three of us were hunting ducks in the aforementioned red-and-white pickup truck.

As with my contemporaries, I was embedded within gun culture. I doubt I would’ve minded the experience, even if I had been aware it was unusual.

Less than a mile from town Mark started testing the action on my Dad’s Ruger Bearcat .22 pistol from the middle of the bench seat. Jim was resting the butt of his 12-gauge shotgun on the floor, the barrel jammed into his right shoulder leaning against the passenger door. He was 16, old enough to know better, and I had expressed my concern regarding the business end of his weapon on previous hunting excursions. My sister was his girlfriend, so there was no reason for me to nag him. We chatted about football and deer.

Only five miles down the road, still on the paved highway, the deafening report of a fired gun filled the cab of the pickup. I casually asked Mark why he found it necessary to trigger a round inside the truck. He proclaimed his innocence and we turned our questioning eyes onto Jim, whose saucer-like eyes and stunningly pale face suggested the worst regarding the shotgun jammed into his right shoulder.

Good news: Jim had moved the barrel below his shoulder. A few pieces of lead shot grazed his ribcage. More good news: All the shot missed the gas tank behind the seat.

Bad news: Dad would surely notice the hole in the Ford as well as the pieces of lead in the ceiling of the camper in the bed of the truck. More bad news: Only two hours stood between me and dark-thirty, when I was expected back home.

Upon our arrival home, Jim leapt from the truck and walked to his family home without a goodbye. Mark vanished into the basement, leaving me to explain the story to my folks.

“Dad, we shot your pickup,” I said feebly. I contemplated a joke about my infamy as a poor shooter, but thought better of telling him we shot it from the only place we could hit it: from inside the cab.

My folks, concerned primarily with our safety, didn’t express anger. As a bonus, I learned how to perform rudimentary body work and also how to paint the patched metal on the truck. And nobody except the beloved Ford was ever in serious danger.

That same autumn during my seventeenth year found me with three friends late one night on a railroad trestle towering over Lawyer’s Canyon. My male counterpart told me the new kids in town showed their mettle with a touch of the nose on the white, wooden post marking the dividing line between two counties, Lewis County and Idaho County. The post teetered beyond a curve in the center of the trestle. It was tenuously held in place between two, six-foot pieces of flatiron separated by four inches of air.

Assuming my new friend Michael wouldn’t lie — one of many times I’ve made that error — I balanced on the two pieces of flatiron, walked the six creaky feet to the post, and touched my nose on a thin layer of peeling white paint. Too afraid to spin around, I walked backwards to safety. I was greeted by Michael’s face, drained of blood, and his shaky voice questioning my sanity.

I’m surprised any of us survive our teen years. At least in my case, based on my chronically poor judgment, survival was unwarranted.

I’ve already described in this space my close call with death involving the knife and the nun. It’s my favorite among the few serious accidents that nearly terminated my time on Earth. Little did I know it was merely a warmup act for a life on the edge.

Whitewater rafting became a part-time passion during the five summers I served on a wildland firefighting crew. I donated little blood and no broken bones to the Clearwater River during dozens of heart-pounding excursions.

The wildfire protection area for the Craig Mountain helitack crew covered a million acres and included the Salmon and Snake Rivers, two of the deepest, steepest canyons on Earth. The camaraderie of the helitack crew was enhanced by the risk-taking Vietnam-vet helicopter pilot. He let us choose the music as we flew to the fire. And he’d occasionally, illegally allow us to jump downhill from the ship as he hovered with the uphill skid on the sloping terrain of a steep canyon. He didn’t want us to waste energy walking a mile from the nearest safe landing spot.

A few years later, in graduate school, I was responsible for lighting prescribed fires up to 20,000 acres in size. Helicopters came into play again. As with my days as a 19-year-old, I was responsible for large numbers of humans and expensive equipment. Five seasons fighting fires led to five seasons lighting fires. As a fireman willing to take risks, I once sprinted through a sheet of flames forty feet high, my face tucked into my inner left bicep and forearm. The error in judgment easily could have been fatal.

Skydiving came in my later years, after I was occupying an intellectually “safe” position as tenured professor. A friend wanted companionship when she jumped from a perfectly sound fixed-wing aircraft. It seemed like a fine idea at the time. It still does, although I’ve not repeated the experience for nearly 15 years.

I’ve long been fearlessly challenging the intellectual and cultural envelopes into which I was born. I’m still attempting to break out of the cell into which I was inculcated. I suspect mine is a terminal, irreversible condition.

I drove through Mexico to live in Belize, a long-time goal at the end of a charmed life. I’m often informed this is a dangerous place. I’ve not noticed.

Pursuing power clearly pays better than adherence to principle. The latter often proves fatal for careers and lives. Adhering to principle produces only one certain reward, the only meritorious validation: the ability to look in the mirror without embarrassment. It’s been worth the price, so far.

Life is short. Fear and hope are nonsensical, four-letter words. Let go or be dragged.