John Colson: Hit and Run | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

The operative word in the title of the book says it all – “Endurance.”

Written by New Hampshire author Caroline Alexander, “The Endurance” is an account of Ernest Shackleton’s legendary Antarctic expedition of 1914, published in 2001 by Knopf.

It is not an easy book to read, though it is very well written and contains numerous photographs never published before.

The difficulty is not one of comprehension, for the text, much of it drawn from the diaries and logs of the men involved, is as starkly grim, dramatic and illuminating as the pictures themselves, showing in excruciating detail just what these 28 men went through as they tried and failed to fulfill one man’s ambition to walk across the breadth of the Antarctic continent, is easy.

What is difficult is trying to imagine what you, yourself, the reader, might have done in similar circumstances, or in the modern equivalent to those circumstances.

At sea for more than a year and a half, cut off from the world, eating seal meat and not much more for most of that time after their ship, The Endurance, was crushed to matchsticks by the infamous Antarctic ice pack; shooting and eating a couple of dozen “sledge dogs,” including several puppies born aboard the ship; spending incredible amounts of their time either soaked to the bone or freezing, or both; it seems fantastic, and yet they all survived.

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Think you could have done the same?

I’m not at all sure I could have.

Here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., too many of us have forgotten what true hardship is.

Too many have grown fat and lazy, lounging around in the lap of comparative luxury that comes with being a citizen of this vast nation, and I do not spare myself from that accusation.

To be sure, there are an uncomfortable number of Americans who live nowhere near the lap of luxury, and who know deprivation and hardship as an everyday matter.

But even they have been lulled into a kind of somnambulance by the modern fascination with fast food and mind-numbing “entertainment” aimed at diverting each and every one of us from whatever level of dissatisfaction or disillusionment we feel with our circumstances.

The Endurance and her crew were the antithesis of we who inhabit this planet today.

At one point Shackleton and a small band of men, about a half-dozen stalwarts cut out from the crew, climbed into an open longboat to sail more than a thousand miles through tempests and ice to reach civilization, Prince George Island, and effect a rescue of the rest of the crew.

What I take from the story is the idea that these men, from various nations, backgrounds and classes, bonded together like iron heated in a blast furnace, and forgot how to give up. Their goals, which started out as a quest for glory and perhaps a little wealth, became one of sheer survival, and it seemed that even in the utmost extremity they simply went on – and on, and on, and on.

Today in our modern world, we, the human race, face a quest for survival of a different sort, but in dire need of the same kind of bond.

On the one hand, we who see a need for change seem unable to act as we watch our global environment rapidly react to the poisons we pour into the air, the water and all over the land, and the world’s wealth fall into the hands of fewer and fewer fat cats.

On another hand, there is a growing realization that those fat cats are only in it for themselves. They really don’t understand or care about the horrific consequences, societal and ecological, of their selfish ways, as long as they stay rich and privileged.

There is a glimmer of hope, in the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread around the globe. It is unfocused and leaderless, but that is its magic – it grows out of that dissatisfaction felt by the 99 percent of us who are disenfranchised by business as usual, and it is catching on.

It must catch on, though, with those of us called the Baby Boomers, the ones in our 50s and 60s who stood up once and cried, “Foul!” to the power structure, over the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Those who stood up then must stand up once again and let it be known that we are among the 99, we are mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

The men of the Endurance had Shackleton to hold them together and keep them moving. We have no such leader, and perhaps in these circumstances that is how it should be. Leaders can be killed, movements demoralized and scattered.

But the question is, do we have the clarity of mind to identify our goal, and the endurance to push forward until we achieve it?

I wonder.

jcolson@aspentimes.com