A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, July 27, 2008

One of those Moments

In 1965, I had just found my way into my twenties. On a late February evening of that year I was in a small boat on a lake in north Florida near the Georgia border.  I was not alone; in fact, the other person in the boat makes a story from what would have been a one line description: We misjudged the time the work would take and we had to cross an adjoining second lake in the moonless dark.

I have returned to that evening many times in my life as useful experience for understanding and as metaphor.  In essence, two people in many ways very similar, responded to a mildly annoying and somewhat dangerous situation in hugely different ways.

We were on a pair of lakes connected by a narrow cypress lined natural canal about 1/2 a mile long. As we finished setting our nets in the far lake the light was fading.  I knew that it would be dark before we could reach the boat landing on the other side of the larger lake.  Knowing this was not great woods-craft; it was frankly obvious.

As we entered the connecting canal the light was nearly gone.  Bits of yellow from the setting sun speckled the tops of the tall cypress and the deep shadows seemed to have a tangible thickness as they spread to fill every space.  By the time we entered the larger lake it was dark.  The boat landing was almost directly across the lake’s fullest dimension, about 2 miles.

We had made this trip several times before; setting our nets in the afternoon, collecting the fish the next day for species counts, weights and other data.  Bits of tree shape on the far horizons guided us to and fro.  In the dark, the moonless dark, there were no shapes; there was only the black cold water meeting the gunwales of the boat – and the new “shape” of the situation, the dark irrationality of my companion.

The boat was aluminum, 12 feet long, a flat bottom lake boat with a good-sized outboard motor. There were in the boat two gas cans for the motor, a pair of oars, some work related gear in buckets and an electrical generator with a set of very bright work lights.  There was also one person excited by the adventure of finding the way in the darkness and the other person gone mad with terror.

The boat was a thousand times smaller than the distance we had to travel; yet, my companion wanted to be in the front to be closer to the landing.  He also wanted to steer the boat, which was done from the back.  He wanted the generator running and the work-lights on, blinding us to all but the black water immediately ahead of us. But, all in all, he wanted to be on solid ground in the truck at the landing on the other side of the lake; and it became incomprehensible to him that he was not there. 

It was immediately clear to me that he was going to kill us by capsizing the boat, or at the least, drive the boat in well-lighted circles until we ran out of gas.  Plus, he was very very unpleasant to be with.  I considered, half-seriously as he shoved his way around the boat, smashing him in the head with an oar, but he might fall over the gunwales and sink us; or fall out and, revived by the water, try to get back in before I could get away.  Also, I couldn’t think of any way to explain leaving him dead in the water with an oar blade hole in his head.  It was clear in a flash that if I was to save myself either from death in the cold cold water or, at least, a cold miserable night on the lake, I would have to save the both of us.

(I had never been considered to be very “good with people.”  The perceptive reader might have guessed that given that my first thought was hitting my companion in the head and throwing him overboard.   I had even then, at my tender age, found most people tedious and more admirable as a species than individually.)

Failing the option of violence, I had to find a way into my companion’s addled psyche, and quickly.  I had a good idea of how to get safely across the darkness to the boat landing  – woodsy stuff like breeze, smells, stars – but only if the boat was not scuttled and if I could get my companion to steer in the right straight line.

I yelled over the noise of the electric generator and the outboard motor as we drove wildly toward our own light in no particular direction; “Give me a cigarette.”  It was a rule of southern country ethics that such a request had to be answered, even when confronting death. 

As he fumbled for his pack – isn’t it odd that cigarette packs are always fumbled for; well this one really was – I yelled for him to stop the boat since I could not get to him to get the cigarette or light it.  He stopped the boat, but was not going to consider shutting down the work lights.  I smoked and he smoked. 

I tried to talk to him over the roar of the generator engine, a noisy 7.5 hp Briggs and Stratton.  It was clear that we couldn’t have a conversation, and that he had no idea at all of what way to go, thus, really needed some conversation.  He agreed to shut down the generator with the promise to turn it back on again “when we needed it.”  I began to think that we might live to see the lake shore.

I had never in my young years knowingly dealt with a person in my companion’s condition.  I had never seen absolute paralyzing fear conquer and control a human brain and body.  My companion had not in our brief acquaintanceship impressed me with depth of self-awareness, but neither had I suspected that he would be gripped by monsters in the dark.

I remember nothing specific of that conversation, whether is was insipidly brilliant or brilliantly insipid;  I have often wished to.  All I know is that I spoke with convection and confidence that I just might have a way for us to live through this; my companion was just as confident that we were going to die if he didn’t drive the boat as fast as he could toward the work-lighted black water directly in front of us.  I do remember it was the first completely crazy conversation that I didn’t get up and walk away from.  In one way I didn’t care what was said, the lights just had to be off for ten minutes so that our eyes would adapt to the dark; we could then see the stars and, while not the details, possibly bits of the tree line.  I was hoping that the world would begin to seem a little familiar to my companion, enough that he might calm back toward some reason.

In the end my companion chain smoked his way to some bit of night vision and allowed me to gently suggest going slow in a direction given by the stars.  He did demand, as per our agreement, that the generator be restarted and the lights put on.  We were blinded again and he suggested that the lights might best be left off.  We proceeded slowly across the dark water aiming for a star.

I was concerned that when we came to the other side of the lake, as we now most certainly would do, that we would have to hunt to the left or to the right for the landing.  If we searched in the wrong direction, I might have to revisit the use of an oar.  But, as luck would have it we came within recognizing range of the little channel that led to the landing.

After a few moments of camaraderie and mutual congratulations, we never spoke of that evening again.

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