Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Right Bluff


There was nobody in line at the post office. Not one soul. I stifled a gasp, scanned for snipers, and willed my heart rate back down. The clerk smiled at me, but I kept calm.

"Anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or scary in here?" she said, putting my mailing tube on the scale.

"It's my family tree. I'm sending it to my cousin."

"Cool! How far back does it go?"

We had time for that. We had time to stroll all the way back to 1620, when my ancestor boarded the Mayflower. We had all the time in the world. It was dreamlike, magical; we were leaning on either side of the counter in an empty post office lobby. Couldn't anything be possible on such a day? A small dragon entered briefly, but just to drop off a plate of cookies.

"Can you imagine doing that? Getting on a wooden boat and sailing to the new world? Do you think any of us would do anything that audacious today?" the clerk asked. Sasquatch poked his head in the door and asked for directions to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"Or Ernest Shackleton!" she continued. She was a non-fiction buff. "Can you imagine trying to cross Antarctica and your ship's been crushed by ice and it's just you and the dogs and the scurvy and you're stranded on a floe for, like, over a year, and have to try to sail out in a tiny dinghy with a little bag of sandwiches? Honestly. I wonder if anyone alive today would dare to do such a thing."

"Sure we would. I mean, I'm not cut out for the South Pole, but I could see myself getting on a wagon and heading out west to parts unknown," I said, nibbling a cookie. "It's one thing to face guaranteed danger, and a whole other thing to get started on something that turns out to be dangerous once you're on the road." Take the Oregon Trail. You're already starving, and you think things could only be better somewhere else. You're going to give it a whirl. It's not like anyone is sending postcards back from Donner Pass. Miss you! Wish you were here. You little fatty.

I considered her original question. Sure, I could get on the Mayflower. All your friends are getting on the Mayflower. You can't wait to get away from your home town, and there might be cute boys in the new world. It's not like someone is offering you three months of nausea and rats followed by winter and a protracted death, and you're thinking sign me up.

"I guess," she said, stretching her back against the postage meter machine, as a trio of fairies flew over the stamps display and vanished in a swirl of sparkle dust. "But think about it. We're getting to the point now where Shackleton could probably waltz over to the South Pole in his bunny slippers, but most of us aren't even willing to make a single sacrifice to combat climate change. It just doesn't seem like anyone does anything truly brave anymore. We're all set in our ways, too used to our own comfort." She scratched her back with the mailing tube. "Bra strap," she explained, grimacing.

"Horrible. And those little tags in the back of your shirt? The worst."

"I know, right?"

"Anyway, I t hink you're selling people short. Those pioneers were no braver than we are," I said. I can't sing in public without breaking into the trembles. I jump a foot whenever my cell phone goes off in my pocket; it might as well be a moisture alarm. "We've still got what it takes. It's just that there aren't as many unknowns anymore."

"I guess. Do you think it takes more courage to face the unknown, or a known danger?"

"Known danger. Definitely. That's the only difference. Maybe we wouldn't jump out of a balloon at the edge of space, but we'd totally follow a wagon train across the mountains if that was the thing to do." Fifteen minutes earlier, while I was walking to the post office, a nesting songbird dive-bombed my head for two blocks. As soon as I get home, I'll have to change my shorts.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe sometimes all courage is about is just deciding to start something, and then the rest takes care of itself."

"You know it. Shoot, yeah, I'd get in that Mayflower. Heck," I said, pointing at the mailing tube, "it's in my blood!"

I won't pass a tractor on a two-lane road.

45 comments:

  1. I know this about myself: I am WAY too chicken-shit and set in my ways to ever get on a modern day version of the Mayflower. I'd be sticking it out in the "old country", and reveling in the added space to stretch my elbows since all the adventurous types left. Deep down, I am a Hobbit.

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    1. Me too. But then there's that "hey, where'd everybody go?" part. I am a giant chicken. I might consider sailing my recliner across the ocean.

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  2. Sometimes it's a was matter of what would happen if you didn't get on that boat! The unknown can seem to be a lot less dangerous -- ignorance being bliss and all...

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    1. I've long appreciated the comfort of ignorance. Yes.

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  3. My relatives were sharing that tattered blanket and moldy biscuit with your relatives.
    And given your career in the postal world, I'd say you've got that courage thing already knocked.

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    1. In the postal world, people are afraid of US, not the other way around.

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    2. Not certain, but I believe some earlier relative of James Wilson (my gr.gr.gr.etc grandfather) who signed both the Dec of I. and the Constitution.
      Now ain't I special?

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    3. While we're on that subject, I, who learned very little history, once got the D.A.R. Excellence In History Award in high school. Only two people entered and the other one couldn't put a sentence together.

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  4. My sister told me, as we retired our successful business of more than 20 years, she knew it would work because I came to work every morning and acted like it was working fine.

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    1. Man, I've got to wonder if that's sometimes what it's all about. Confidence.

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  5. I've read some excellent books about immigrants to our Canadian coast, and I've often wondered the same thing - would I have had the courage to take such a huge step, knowing I'd most likely never see the ones left behind ever again ... and every time, I've decided that no, I wouldn't. I am the wuss who would have died by age ... two ... probably. There's a whole bunch of us who have defeated Darwin's theory of natural selection by being born in a time where we are coddled with central heating and modern medicine and can earn a living by our brain cells rather than hard physical labour. That bunch of us wouldn't last a minute in the hardships of the old days.

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    1. I have a tendency to imagine I could do the hard thing if it didn't involve getting in a little boat. But maybe I could have been like my grandma, who lived through many a ridiculous winter on that farm in North Dakota. North Dakota is a blessedly long way from deep water. And there weren't many people to catch diseases from.

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  6. I suspect if the truth be told there are a LOT of family trees which are scary. And contain information which has the power of explosives...
    On the exploring front? Not me. Too wimpy by far. Which is part of the reason I read their stories obsessively. Awe, wonder and gratitude are wonderful flavours to add to a book.

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    1. I'm kind of a backyard explorer. I don't even much like to travel. Can't say I think this is my best feature, though. I'd rather be more like Marilyn Kircus:

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  7. I think that in some of us, the urge to explore trumps fear. But I do remember the terror I felt the first time I went on an overnight canoe trip by myself. Then I found that, on the other side of terror is the highest of highs - no outside drugs required. So far, my highest and longest high came after I emerged unscathed from a week alone in the Boundary Waters on the Canadian/Minnesota border.

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    1. This is something I really should do. I so rarely venture out by myself. I'll walk around the city by myself, but other places? Not so much. I should really challenge myself.

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  8. I think, when you pack to "go exploring" the essentials are, or ought to be, a sense of wonder, fear,fortitude,bravery and stupidity.And perhaps a dictionary, in case you get them a bit muddled as you wade into raging flood waters....

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    1. No flood waters! On the other hand, I HAVE crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats on a 110-degree day with one little bottle of water.

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  9. When I went to Jamestown, I stood there on the wharf and stared at the replicas of the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant with absolute awe. Just the idea of getting on such little boats (Discovery was smaller than my boss's boat, which he wouldn't take across Lake Erie without Loran and radio) and going across an ocean, to find--what?--when you arrived, if you arrived at all, blows my mind. And then I went up to the Eastern Shore via the Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex, the building of which took a whole 'nother kind of courage that I don't have. (Just driving in those underwater tunnels scares the heck out of me.) Our ancestors were made of some tougher stuff than we are, that's for sure.

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    1. Either that, or their situations were worse. But it sure is true that the things that bother us now aren't any great shakes. (SHIT! The half-and-half went bad!)

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  10. I will be sorry forever that I wasn't there for this conversation. This kind of talk is so up my alley it comes out my nose.

    I have no idea what that last meant.

    Anyhow, this might be my new favorite Murr post. Then again, every new post is my new favorite Murr post. But, damn: between the bra strap moment and the closing line, I wish I'd written this.

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    1. I always figure you could have written anything I write. Mine are just shorter! (No stamina--)

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  11. When a friend and I set out to hike across the Continental Divide at Pawnee Pass in Colorado, I had no idea that the seemingly low grade approach led up to the Pass and then I saw the other side we had to go down. Straight up and down - the trail nothing but rocky switchbacks. Spent a week at the glacier lake below the scary trail trying to get my courage up for the ascent back up to the pass. Sometimes you have to do something that you'd NEVER think of doing when you're stuck between a rocky mountain and a hard glacier lake. At least I got up close and personal with pikas and marmots.

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    1. I've been frozen on a trail in a ravine almost completely unable to take a step forward or back. Also, Dave makes me shriek at least once a day by startling me. It seems to amuse him.

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  12. Hmmmm. If I can take my husband, my dog, and my goats, I'll hop on the boat/wagon train/spaceship. But not without all of them as my backup.

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    1. Yeah, but I wouldn't have any gods in my back pocket. Maybe a travelling circus exploring the final frontier?

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  13. Mayflower was definitely a sturdy vessel. My people had to leave Portugal in the 1840s. They were not always furnished boats. We're still waiting for some of them.

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    1. "...had to leave..." "...not furnished boats..."
      Honey? Bake the cake and gather the clan.

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  14. Your Post Office has fairies and sparkle dust??
    As soon as I read the back scratching bit, my back started itching, had to reach for the back scratcher! Those annoying t-shirt tags don't bother me and mine. We all cut them out as soon as the new t-shirt gets home from the store.
    How does Pootie keep his collar so pristine?
    1620 is a long way back for sure.

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    1. Pootie, for all he likes to think of himself as a rough 'n' tumble kind of man's man, is something of a fastidious fellow.

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  15. I will travel almost anywhere as long as it does not involve long boat rides that move out of site of land. Your Post Office is almost as interesting as mine.

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    1. Yeah, probably not. One's post office is usually only as interesting as the butt of the person standing in front of you in line.

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  16. the dimensions of the Mayflower were 90 feet by 50 feet on the top deck: the deck the Pilgrims lived on was considerably smaller: approximately seventy by twenty-five. There were a there were just over 100 Pilgrims and about thirty-plus crew. In all 135 people occupying this tiny space. These are just numbers but when you actually lay out the dimensions on a gym floor and try to stuff 135 people within - the crowding is unbelievable.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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    1. People were smaller in those days!

      Ol'Buzzard, it sounds like you actually did this - tell us more? Were/are you a teacher, by any chance?

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  17. Your post office has a dragon, Sasquatch and fairies? I want to go there...

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    1. I was teasing. There was no Sasquatch.

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    2. Carol, a post office is actually far more likely to have a dragon, Sasquatch, and fairies than to have no line.

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  18. Back about 1971 or so I dropped off your cousin and his wife in NYC so they could take the QE2 BACK to England. I suspect the accommodations were nicer than the Mayflower. I didn't think to give them grief at the time though. My sense of irony was still in the developmental stage.

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    1. You could have at least given them a rat.

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  19. I can't even be persuaded to get on board a luxury cruise ship in the 21st century. I think the gumption of my Mayflower ancestors (Hopkins, by name) has been completely diluted in the intervening centuries. We're still considered fairly tough as a family, but perspective is everything.

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    1. I haven't figured out why ships aren't being bombed. Seems like an easy target. They were having that problem in the 17th century, too.

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  20. Oh, thanks for that! That wasn't even one of my concerns. My husband almost had me talked out of the "seasickness" and the "drowning in my sleep" issues...still working on "falling overboard", "picking up some horrid communicable disease for which there is no cure but death", and "losing power hundreds of miles from anywhere and having no working toilets or air-conditioning". He'll never get me past "random kamikaze bomber".

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