I was into the air. The other guy was headed toward the ground. Unfortunately, we were tethered together.
“Trust me… I know what I’m doing!” Opening lyrics from Trust Me, Jesus Jones (1991).
Trust. Something not easily obtained while simultaneously remaining easily broken. I’ve written before about how I worked for the Boy Scouts of America and how I was trained as a C.O.P.E. Instructor (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience). During this week-long training, we were introduced to all the levels of the C.O.P.E. experience. There were group, team building games, Low C.O.P.E. events, as well as High C.O.P.E. events. Each possesses its own unique challenges and benefits.
Ideally, with a C.O.P.E. event, your group has multiple days together. This process allows you to get to know each other in ways you could not have before. You as a person grow, your group becomes closer, and you better understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses—as well as your own. In the first few days, you play simple games so that the instructors can better assess you individually and the group interactions. The group members also see the same things: strengths and weaknesses. Then there are a few days of the Low C.O.P.E. events. These are activities that are done off the ground, but close to it still. You’re not hanging from the trees or anything like that. That would be High C.O.P.E.
With High C.O.P.E. you get all the reward. This is the swinging from the trees and ziplines and rappelling. High C.O.P.E. is the icing on the cake of the C.O.P.E. experience. It is what most people have the greatest time with. And, I understand why. IT’S FUN! And, it’s easy.
It’s easy because your group has earned it. You have spent four or five days discovering each of the members in your group on levels you would not have expected. You operate differently than you would have before. Your group is acting and behaving different because it is different. You are better than when you first started. You can trust each other now because the trust has been earned, not just given.
Given trust is not the same as when it is earned. Someone can give you their trust but it is not at 100%, not really. 100% trust is trust that is earned and proven. High C.O.P.E. rewards the 100% trust that was earned in the Low C.O.P.E. stages. This is very important.
As I had been going through my week of C.O.P.E. training, there were several in my group who were first-time C.O.P.E. people (new to it all). There were some who were just there for recertification, and within that group, there were about five that worked at the same facility. That last group had the real advantage. They had known—and worked with—each other for years and years. I was in the first group, the whole program was new to me.
I have heard it said that you don’t really know what you’re made of until you are tested. Well, two of us were tested: Myself, a whole five foot nine inch 160 pounds of Marine ready for… The other guy?!
With the week’s training coming to an end, there were still some events that needed to be run through and some experiences that apparently needed to happen. One of which teaming me up with someone three times my weight class. On Thursday evening our last instruction period of the day was ending. The course instructors were pairing up individuals for the next day’s events, that way we could get right to it at first light. Okay. Almost everyone was paired up with someone about their size and ability. I, however, was not. Nor was the fella that was going to be my partner for the next day.
I would like to say that I can recall his name. I would also like to say I can recall everything about him. I also would like to tell the truth. For the sake of the story, his name will be Herman. Now, Herman has a face that strongly resembles another guy I once knew who was also about the same size and weight. Over the years, the two have kind of melded in my memory. I don’t know how much of the one is the one and how much of the other is not. What I do recall is the reaction and interaction of the two of us as we learned about who was going to be our partner for the next day’s High C.O.P.E. events. The events where you had to have 100% trust.
The instructors called Herman and me forward, separate from the rest of the group. Herman stood across from me, taller and heavier than I. Two of the instructors stood to our sides. The four of us made a very small circle. And, it went something like this, “Herman, William, you two are going to be paired up tomorrow. Any questions?”
Herman, “Yes. Why him?” Herman looked me in the eye with sincerity, “No offense.” Herman continued, “He’s just… Well, you’re a lot smaller than me.” He chuckled that last part off to help ease the obvious tension and concern he was feeling. And, to be perfectly honest, if I wasn’t before I was now. Even if it was a very small amount.
“I think you two are a perfect fit for each other.” One of the instructors calmly stated, a smile upon his face. It didn’t work. Herman was still nervous.
“Don’t you think he can do it?” The other instructor asked with a little hurt—on my behalf—in his voice. Herman didn’t respond. It was clear he was trying to be kind and diplomatic. He did have legitimate concerns. The instructor turned to me, “Do you think you can do it?”
I had no choice but to answer, “No problem.” I am a Marine. I don’t like to fail. This guy’s life was about to literally be in my hands and I had to prove to him and myself that I could do it. I’ve carried larger men than myself before. Just not one Herman’s size.
“Then, it’s settled.” And with that, the two instructors walked away.
“You good, Herman?” I wanted to know if he really was going to be alright with this.
“I guess I have no choice.” Herman turned and walked away. If we failed to complete certain standards during our training, we didn’t pass training. If we didn’t pass training, C.O.P.E. in our respective camps couldn’t be open. Herman and I really didn’t have a choice. Yet, we were both still nervous about the next day—we didn’t know what was coming.
Friday morning comes ‘round—as it usually does—and our groups were spread out over different events so that no time was wasted. While one group ran The Log event, another started Stairway to Heaven, and stuff like that. A ‘Round Robin sort of situation. If you’re wondering what The Log or Stairway to Heaven is, it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this story (so, too bad). At any rate, Herman and I were sent over to the Stairway to Heaven. This event was a series of planks that were suspended about fifty feet above the ground, from a rope that ran between two poles. The person who would go on said event, had to climb up a series of rungs, get to the top, then balance on wooden planks that swayed this way and that with even the thought of a breeze—let alone a person stepping on them—to get from one end of the event to the other. Lots of fun.
For safety, the participant is harnessed in and helmeted up. Their harness is attached to a rope that leads to their ‘brake’. The brake is another person. The brake’s job is to keep the participant from hitting the ground if they fall. The brake is attached to an anchor. The anchor is a nearby stationary object, like a tree or a very large rock, or something that shouldn’t move. Our anchor was a log. A big, heavy log.
I was harnessed up. Herman was harnessed up. I was attached to the log. Herman began his climb upward. The rope that attached the two of us had one potential failing: Me. If I let go when it mattered, Herman would get hurt. Or worse. (no pressure…) We had been training for this moment all week. I knew what to do, I had done some repelling with the Marines and understood the basics before I attended this program. Essentially, it works like this: Herman has a rope attached to his body harness. That rope runs through a pulley that is above him. That same rope then feeds to my harness. My left hand steadies the rope, and my right hand brings it around my hip to the middle of my lower back. This is the brake. As I move my right hand away from my back, there is some give and gravity takes Herman to the dirt—if I move a lot. If I move my hand away just a little bit, the friction of the rope running along my hip helps to slow Herman’s movement. It’s really quite simple.
There is, unfortunately, one other potential failing, if the person who is the brake losses contact with the ground.
If the person who is the brake loses contact with the ground, then the other person drops to the earth, and the person who was the brake launches into the air (unless they let go of the rope). There are so many ways this could go bad… Which is why the brake person is attached to a stationary object: The anchor! Still, the brake person could be lifted off the ground (levers, fulcrum, angles, science stuff), and unless they hold a very specific pose, their center of gravity will cause them to flip upsidedown, hit their head, and if they let go of the rope—due to their head hitting the ground—the participate drops to the dirt.
So, you just can’t let go, even if you’re upside down and have cracked your skull open.
To compensate for the natural high center of gravity on a human body, the brake person spreads their legs out to make an upsidedown ‘V’ shape. With your feet at about shoulder width apart, your body stabilizes and your head remains upright. If you don’t, you flip upside down and people get hurt. (again, no pressure…)
Herman had reached the top. He was about to make the first step. Done. Second plank. Done. Third… Done. Fourth: Slip and fall.
Before I knew it, the rope attaching me to Herman was moving. I stopped it. Successful brake. Then, my feet began to slide just a little bit in the soft dirt. Gravity (which is a law) was doing its thing. Herman was moving an inch at a time downward. The rope in my hands wasn’t moving—I was, also at an inch at a time. The ropes that attached me to the anchor reached their limit. I stopped moving forward and began to move upward. Not all the slack in the safety line was expended yet (levers, fulcrum, angles, science stuff).
“Keep your feet apart.” I could hear the instructors reminding me of my much-needed stance. I was now about a foot and a half off the ground. If I flipped, my shoulders and neck would take the brunt of it. Feet apart… feet apart… feet apart… I kept repeating to myself. Still, the brake was on. I could not lower Herman until I stopped moving, otherwise, it might change his descent speed. It’s not that I didn’t want to stop Herman, it’s that I couldn’t—just yet. Again, gravity is a law, not a suggestion.
Once I was no longer moving and Herman was no longer shouting, “BRAKE! BRAKE! BRAKE!” (since he now understood what had occurred), I could begin to safely lower him to the ground. As I did so, I could hear the instructors whispering to each other.
“You got this in case he doesn’t.”
“He’s got this.
“Is that log going to hold?”
“Well, the ropes will.”
“I asked about the log.”
“I answered you.”
Occasionally they would call out encouraging things like, “Even if you tip over, keep the brake on.” or “You’re doing well.” or “The ropes on the anchor are solid. You should be fine.”
Eventually, Herman touched down. When it was my turn to go, the descent was not as smooth. Herman stood up. Slack entered the line. I dropped. But, I was ready for it. No problem.
Later I would find out that Herman had been nervous all week about participating in the High C.O.P.E. events, due to his larger girth. He didn’t have High C.O.P.E. at his camp and so he really didn’t worry about his performance on them. The instructors had intentionally paired the two of us so that Herman would have put more trust—than he had all week—into someone. Being the smallest one that the instructors figured would hold on, no matter what, I got to be the patsy in their game of confidence building. It worked.
When Herman got to my spot, so we could trade off, he admitted he wasn’t really sure I could hold him. That shook his confidence, distracted him, and caused him to fall. And, once positions were switched, Herman felt more confident in his role as the brake. He said, “If you can safely lower me down, I can do this easy.” And he did.
Honestly, I wasn’t completely sure that I had the strength to have kept Herman aloft. And, while both of us may not have had 100% in me at the start (I know what I wrote), it was there at the end.