An Old Man, a Young Boy, and a Stock Pond
“By acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
One of the great scenes in John Wayne’s film career came in 1953, in the movie Hondo. His character, Hondo Lane is talking with Jimmy Lowe, portrayed by Lee Aaker, about fishing with the sun in your face not at your back, where it casts a shadow on the water and scares the fish. Hondo tells Jimmy he should be fishing on the opposite bank of the pond. Jimmy says, “Mom won’t let me go over there.”
“I can’t swim.”
“You can’t what?”
“I can’t swim.”
“How old are you?”
Hondo takes Jimmy’s fishing pole and tosses it aside. He grabs the boy by the collar of the shirt and the seat of the pants and throws him in the pond. As Jimmy splashes around, Angie Lowe, Jimmy’s mother, played by Geraldine Page, runs up: “Help him. He can’t swim.”
“Time he learned. Everybody should swim.” While Jimmy continues to struggle, Hondo encourages him: “Just reach out in front of you and grab a handful of water and bring it back toward you. . . . That’s the way I learned.”
When Jimmy makes it to the other side of the pond and shouts back in excitement, Mrs. Lowe asks, “How will he get back?”
“Well, he might drown.”
“Well, then you go get him.”
“Well, I can’t swim either.”
Mrs. Lowe, realizing what she just said, cuts Hondo a glance then runs away.
I love this scene because it reminds me of a similar incident that occurred on my Grandfather’s property outside of Royce City, Texas—a place the family affectionately called, “The Farm.”
Like Mrs. Lowe, my Mother couldn’t swim. But unlike her onscreen avatar, my Mother made sure my two sisters and me knew how to. Whatever else we were doing during summer breaks—road trips to the New Mexico mountains around Red River, where a friend of my Dad’s ran a lodge, or drives to remote places in West Texas or historic sites, to playing baseball and cruising the neighborhood on my bike, and to our annual trips to Freeport on the Gulf coast, where we had family, to play on the beach and deep sea fish—there was always time for swimming in the local pool.
And we’d spend a good amount of time at the Farm, where I learned to drive a tractor and a pickup truck, to fish and shoot, to ride horses and work cattle, and to make pickles with my Grandmother from the cucumbers picked from the family garden.
My Grandfather’s 140-acre farm had two or three stock ponds to water his cattle, wandering coyotes, armadillos, jack rabbits, and any other kind of critter that happened to pass through. But the ponds could be dangerous. Shorelines were covered with cattails and Big Bluestem and Fox Sedge. Snapping turtles and cottonmouths (water moccasins) often skulked within this watery undergrowth. As toots, my Grandfather, whom we called Daddy Jeter, was always mindful of any turtles or snakes hanging around the stock ponds—or swimming across it—that might get after my sisters or me. As we got older, and he taught us what to look for, we were on our own.
Before that day came, however, and before he’d let me venture to one of the stock ponds by myself he wanted to make sure I could swim. I assured him I could. He wasn’t convinced. He told me to strip down to my skivvies and swim across one of the ponds. I was none too keen on the idea, with the possibility of snapping turtles and water moccasins hanging about. He assured me none were in the water—and that I ought to jump on in and swim. That didn’t comfort me none. Unlike the hours spent at the swimming pool, where you could see the bottom, you couldn’t see half an inch below the surface of the water in that stock pond. Who knew what lurked in the depths. I was certain Daddy Jeter didn’t.
It was at this point that my Grandfather became Hondo Lane, taking me up by the collar and the seat of the pants and tossing me into the pond. And like Jimmy Lane, I swam to the shore, proving to Daddy Jeter that I wouldn’t sink to the bottom and be eaten by a largemouth bass or catfish.
I learned some valuable lessons that day. One was to get after it if Daddy Jeter told you to do something. But more importantly, I learn a few things about overcoming fear. For instance, the unknown is scarier than the known, and reality is rarely as frightening as the boogiemen you create in your imagination.
I also learned you don’t overcome fear by standing on the bank. You have to wade into them—or in my case, be thrown into them. You see, fears are not as frightening once you stare them in the eye.
Here’s something else I learned, your fears either shrink or swell in direct proportion to your determination and demonstration of courage or cowardice.
I’ve always appreciated how Theodore Roosevelt approached life. When it came to facing his fears, he wrote in his autobiography: “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”
So, whatever fear is holding you hostage from the life you want to live, throw yourself into it, look it in the eye, and keep swimming.
And oh, one more thing, unless you want to put your courage to the test, be careful what you say about swimming with snakes and snapping turtles around old men and stock ponds.
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