TERRE HAUTE —
If you can still recall reading the poetry of Robert Frost in your high school English class years ago, I imagine that you can conjure up a line or two from his “The Road Not Taken.” In its few simple verses, Frost remembers a time when he faced a choice, that of walking a path in the woods that had been well-trod and worn, or heading down another more overgrown route that “wanted wear.”
I teach that poem, and it won’t be long before I grab a well-thumbed copy of Frost off my bookshelf and introduce the old boy to my current classes. But I can still recall a student of mine years ago who argued that the poet’s choice wasn’t really very smart. In fact, it was illogical. Who knew what lay down the untraveled road, he said. If it were worn, wouldn’t he know that many others had already taken it? Wasn’t the used path easier, perhaps faster? Couldn’t he have just saved himself some time?
By the way, his logic was sound, his argument sensible, but I couldn’t agree with it, even though I was grateful I had a student who actually wanted to speak to and challenge his teacher a bit. Frost didn’t agree with it, either; he said that taking the tougher path had “made all the difference.”
There is much conjecture as to what Frost meant: a “difference” in what?
I need to tell you that I began thinking about Frost and that poem and that conversation not long after speaking to Jayne Claussen, another former student of mine. A school administrator now, she wants me to speak at her academic excellence banquet this spring. I’ve been wondering ever since about what my topic would be, and I believe that cranky old farmer turned teacher turned poet (Frost, not Jayne) has given me an answer.
Frost was telling us something that most people with a few years behind them already know: If we want to follow a specific plan, and never waiver from it, if we have inflexible schedules and timetables for how our lives are supposed to pan out, then we might as well not live at all.
Like Frost, each of us has strayed down our fair share of unused and weedy paths; we’ve made more than enough illogical and puzzling choices, too. But, in the long run, those decisions have made a “difference” in our lives — perhaps “the” difference.
I can’t help but recall Benjamin Braddock’s dilemma in the classic film, “The Graduate.” He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after he had graduated college, and despite advice to go into “plastics” and have a safe future, well, he makes some rather illogical, very human choices. So do I, too, tell these students to always play it safe, to always walk the well-worn path?
I just read a story about a 31-year-old Englishman named Alan Lock, who walked the entire breadth of Antarctica, from coast to coast — some 560 miles — because, as he said, “There are a lot of things I can still do.” As if the feat wasn’t enough in itself, Lock is nearly blind; he’s lost most of his sight to macular degeneration.
I met a man last year named Byron Pitts, who as a young boy knew that his mother, who was trying to raise him alone in a tough neighborhood in Baltimore, had been told that he was too “retarded” to keep in school. In time, he entered college, conquered a terrible stuttering problem, and now is chief correspondent for CBS’ “60 Minutes.” His book, “Stepping Out On Nothing,” details his illogical, wonderful life.
Then, there is the story of Peter Larson, a 17-year-old high school student from Plymouth, Minn., who just spent his 12th straight year sleeping in a cardboard box from Nov. 12 to Dec. 31, all to inspire others to pledge money to the homeless in his community. So far, he has raised $400,000 and has done so by staying in that box on nights when the temperature has fallen to as low as minus 20 degrees. Larson has said, “…in my heart, I know I’m helping other people.”
Twenty-two-year-old U.S. Marine Tyler Southern lost both legs and an arm in an explosion of an IED while serving in Afghanistan in May 2010. He eventually walked his bride down the aisle on his prosthetic legs and re-enlisted in the Marines Corps, yet he faces at least another year-and-a-half of physical therapy. Claiming that he was a lucky man, Southern recently said, “I’ve got the world at my prosthetic feet.”
Every day, we hear about and meet people who have lived those kinds of illogical, improbable lives, folks whose best-laid plans got changed along the way.
Such is the case of Jimmy Doolittle, the World War II bomber commander who led critical raids against Tokyo in April 1942, not long after America was nearly crippled by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Doolittle and his men knew that the odds were against their planes even making it to Japan before being shot down, let alone dropping their bombs and escaping into China. They knew that in all probability they would either run out of fuel and crash or parachute into enemy territory and be captured. But not a single crewman backed out when told of the long odds. They all made wonderfully illogical decisions, and our country was the better for it.
By the way, Doolittle survived the war. He lived a long life and was married to his wife for 71 years. When his granddaughter asked him if he’d ever wished he could live his life over, he supposedly said, “No, I could never be so lucky, again.”
He led an illogical, magical life. We should all be so lucky.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He will be speaking and signing copies of his newest book, “A Place Near Home,” at the Marshall, Ill., Public Library at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Thursday.