This list is not exhaustive. Numerous other worthy acts of stupidity could have arguably been selected. The publishing of this list, is, in itself, just another example of how someone with a room temperature IQ can be astonishingly stupid.
I recently posted “The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done” and I was asked what the other 3 more stupid things were, if that was possible. I thought I’d sensibly round it up to 5.
Well here they are, click the links to the relevant stories, or simply scroll down the page.
- Looking for Huntsville – giving new meaning to the term “Mystery Flight”.
- My car drove off without me! – driver-less car technology before its time.
- My brush with “no mess” Charlie – a nuclear reaction in a bottle.
- The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done – flying without a permit, rough landing.
- The blowfly mountain – lost…plain and simple, with emphasis on simple.
With an honourable mention to “When you say the word ‘country’ you should always try and finish it” – not because I was stupid; it was just the awkwardness of it all. It was also my first ever post and a personal favourite.
1. Looking for Huntsville.
Information desks provide information. They had it, and I needed it.
“Well hello sir,” came the greeting from the spritely young female behind the counter, “Now, how can I assist you today?” The question came with a searching look, as I must have appeared to be a little disoriented.
“Where am I?” I asked. I was hoping that she might know. They had it, and I needed it.
The young lady took a step backward, as if, for a moment, she didn’t quite know where she was either. She eyed me carefully; puzzled, and slightly amused. Everyone that she had ever met in her life had known where they were. She looked upwards and to her left, as if the answer might be hanging from the ceiling on a long piece of string.
“Excuse me, but you don’t know where you are?” She laughed a little, checked herself, and then tried to be serious.
“No, I don’t… I don’t know where I am. Can you please tell me?”
This was too good to be true. She was going to smash this one out of the stadium.
“Why, you’re at the AIRPORT!”
Yes, Okay, I had pitched that one up, but I didn’t have time for games. “I know I’m at an airport. Can you now kindly tell me WHICH CITY?!”
Priceless. The attendant shot a sideways glance at her male co-worker, to see if he had picked up on the conversation. They had themselves a real one here. Might be needing security on this one. It was just like the training video. The red button was probably just below the desk. She took her hands off the counter and put them by her sides. So, this guy with the funny accent doesn’t even know which city he is in? With a grin that was broader than it should have been, she put me out of my misery.
“Why, you’re in HUNTSVILLE!”
“That’s great,” I spat back immediately, “but I’m supposed to be in LOS ANGELES!”
Her fingers may have been circling the unseen panic button. The attendants were too afraid to look at each other, in case they completely lost it. Then, after a moment of re-composure, they swung swiftly into crazy passenger management mode, and asked me to take a deep breath and start from the beginning, pointing out in lowered calming tones that they were, indeed, there to help me.
So I hastily explained what I think had happened. In a nutshell, I must have caught the wrong plane, then fallen asleep, snoring through any PA announcements, and then come to when the plane was losing altitude (after only about 30-60 minutes) above snow-covered fields, landing on a smallish landing strip, and spilling out into this airport terminal. No signs, no discussions; I simply walked off the plane with absolutely no idea where I was. Ridiculous but true.
The male co-worker now had his eyes closed, his frame tilting a little, and slightly trembling. He looked like he was moments from lift off. The girl focussed on her rapid keyboard tapping whilst taking long steady breaths, so that she didn’t fall over behind the counter and spasm with laughter.
Now, I’m happy to be labelled as a complete numskull, and yes, I did mindlessly board the wrong plane; but at a stretch, I deserve a few credit points because they (the airline) let me do it. I had been working for nearly three weeks in Atlanta Georgia (this was back in February 1995), and I was tired and just wanted to go home to my young family in Melbourne Australia. Atlanta was unusually cold at that time and totally covered in snow, and, of course, I didn’t even have a coat. Really clever. Anyway, sitting at Atlanta’s departure gate lounge, I do remember not feeling all that sharp. When I thought back on it, there were two gates being serviced from the one lounge, and there were two planes boarding at the same time. I had a feeling that the “gate-keeper” checked my ticket but did not scan it, and then ushered me cheerfully aboard what would become the plane of shame.
My Melbourne bound connecting flight departed LA in seven hours time, but if I didn’t check in within five hours, my forwarded luggage would be offloaded and I would miss the long haul flight home. So I needed a lifeline flight to LA. They had it, and I needed it. The keyboard tapping stopped suddenly as a flight had been found … to Memphis. I paused and stared for a long time at the dynamic duo behind the counter, trying to detect any escaping merriment. They were serious. “I’m sorry,” I started, “but I don’t really want to go to Memphis right now. I really need…”
“…It’s the only way. You’ll have to try to get another flight from Memphis to LA, but there is no guarantee, sorry. Here’s your ticket, good luck, we hope you make it!” I took the chance, because that is what people with no other options do.
When I saw the plane sitting out in the field on its own in the semi darkness, I felt confident that my grinning counter buddies were peering out a window at me somewhere, doubled over, wetting their pants.
I was about to board an igloo with wings.
It was totally frozen. Great, I thought. I’m to be propelled off the ground in a popsicle. It was a twin prop plane, a 20 seater I think. I climbed the frozen steps and clambered aboard. By the time I sat down my teeth were chattering. It was freezing in there (no coat, remember), and I couldn’t see out the windows. I wasn’t even sure if there were any windows. A loud engine noise outside was followed by a continuous thudding noise on the roof above me. The captain crackled over the PA, “Welcome aboard. We’ll be on our way just as soon as the tanker can DE-ICE the plane!” So now I was very nervous, and cold. There were only two other people on the flight and they both had massive overcoats and scarves on. So I was nervous, cold, and envious. I started seeing headlines. “Lost idiot falls out of sky, trapped in refrigerator.” The ice started melting on the windows as my deadline time clock ticked down. It took 15 minutes of solid soaking to thaw out the vehicle. Eventually the props agitated themselves to life and we taxied out and left the mystery town or city of Huntsville behind.
Thankfully the aviating igloo arrived in Memphis, and after repeating my story again at another information desk (this time I knew where I was), A connecting flight to LA was found. The timing was tight, but it was my only option. Once again, I took the chance. The airline that I had booked with was keen to take care of this issue because they sensed some liability for allowing me to board the wrong flight.
But it was all to no avail. Arriving in LA, I had missed the baggage cutoff time by 20 minutes. I was gutted.
Now I had to conference call my bosses in Melbourne and tell them that I was a complete idiot, and that I was going to be staying an extra night in a hotel in LA and returning to work a day later than expected. I answered everything truthfully, however they did not ask all the right questions. They asked what had happened, and I explained that I missed my connecting flight by 20 minutes. There was silence at the other end of the line for a while, and I was waiting for the question “why?” But it never came. It was not uncommon for one of them to ask, “Is there anything you haven’t told me?”, but this time neither of them pressed me on it. They moved on to the details of where I was going to stay, and then onto work related issues. My bosses both had a good sense of humor and they would have handled it well. I always thought I’d tell them the story at some stage, but I never have. I might have been too embarrassed. One of these guys (the company CEO and my ultimate boss) will probably read this and finally find out the whole truth. Hope you enjoy the tale Hoops!
Some time after making it home, my wife Susie, my Aunt Jacqui and Uncle Geoff, and I, were sitting around chatting, and the story resurfaced. We decided to hunt down that mystery city/town to find out where it was.
Looking for Huntsville.
We looked it up on the on the Internet, and to our surprise, discovered that there are in fact three Huntsvilles in the US; one in Alabama (180,000 pop.); one in Texas (38,000 pop.); and one in Tennessee (1200 pop.); and all were within the flight time window from Atlanta that I had snored through.
So, to this day, I still have no idea where I landed on that freezing late afternoon somewhere in the southern states, welcomed by a couple of grinning, out-of-stadium ball slogging comedians. I’d say the smart money is on Huntsville Alabama, but you would do better than getting your “smarts” from me.
[Footnote: “Hoops” did read the story and we had a good laugh about it later.]
2. My car drove off without me!
Stupidity has me on speed dial.
And mornings are not my strong suit. Deprive me of caffeine, and what may start out as a barely functional morning can then trail off very badly.
Routinely parking opposite the post office one morning on the way into work, I emptied our post office box and filtered out the junk mail. There were quite a few unsolicited mail items on this particular morning so I lingered there for a few extra moments. I then re-posted the unwanted items (is this wrong?) so the post office sorters could re-offer these items to other irritated PO box customers.
Having meandered absently down the ramp from the post office, thinking only of ridiculously strong coffee, I then started to cross the road to where my car wasn’t parked anymore.
Stupidity requires that you absorb critical data slowly.
I stopped dead in my tracks, did a double take, retraced my movements, and still came up with the same result. But something had been tugging at me whilst I was walking down the ramp; where something familiar but somehow out of place had moved through my field of vision. I now knew what it was.
I ran faster and more frantically than I have ever run in my whole life.
My car was about 50 metres (150 feet) down the road, drifting silently backwards into a very busy “T” intersection, tracking a perfect path toward a power pole on the other side. It wan’t travelling fast, a bit less than walking speed, but it was an odyssey promising disaster.
The total traffic anarchy was profound. Cars screeched, swerved, pulled over or rapidly or reversed out of the way; whilst stunned and bewildered pedestrians, open mouthed, watched as a complete idiot wildly chased after his car. It was sheer madness.
I covered the distance to my car in Olympic time. With the car now well beyond the centre of the intersection and only metres from the power pole, I wrestled with the driver’s side door but it was locked. Of course it was locked! I had forgotten to put the car in “park” and engage the handbrake, but I had remembered to lock it! Doing the maths, I figured there were only 3-4 seconds left before impact. Scrambling around in my pocket, while dancing sideways so I remained in line with the driver’s door, I frantically dug out my keys.
Now in the final stages of adrenalin driven hysteria, and still dancing like I was putting out a bush-fire, I stabbed madly at the key fob … and successfully unlocked the rear hatch!
There were maybe 2 seconds left, one last chance. I squeezed the other end of the key fob, and finally the doors unlocked. I lurched into the car in the most unflattering jerking motion imaginable, all arms and legs, and stamped on the brakes. My whole being had transformed into one big single raging pulse. My ears were pounding.
I started the car and rapidly cleared the scene, stopping at the next set of traffic lights 150 metres (400 feet) up the road. Exhaling and trying to calm myself, I prepared for the immediate onset of denial. Relieved that I hadn’t caused a major traffic accident, I could now move on and instantly forget just how stupid I had been.
But there was now a complication behind me, expanding in my rear view mirror.
A car was moving up from behind that I quickly recognised as being the first on the scene at the intersection and one that had swerved severely out of the way. I was hoping this driver would stop behind me so I could avoid confrontation, but to my horror it moved alongside me and the passenger-side window started lowering.
I was now preparing myself for one almighty verbal spray.
I lowered my window down as well, to take my punishment.
The driver, a male in his forties, was shaking uncontrollably in his seat, and screaming with laughter. He tried to speak but all he could do was shake his head. He ran out of breath and starts choking. He may have even soiled himself. We didn’t speak at all, just laughed.
This guy was now going to own the water cooler conversation at the office, but only after he quickly ducked back home and changed his pants.
I now drive a car that won’t turn off unless the car is in “park”, but frankly, I’d prefer one that makes strong coffee.
3. My brush with “no mess” Charlie.
I cannot believe that I am actually posting this story.
Caveat: If you secretly yearn for the zesty lemon fragrance of freshly Fabulon-ed sheets and towels, please do not read any further. However, if you have ever camped for a week in a desolate location without proper showering facilities, then continue with caution, but please accept my apology in advance for what is to come.
I was Backpacking around Europe at the age of 20 in 1983, and a friend in Germany kindly offered me the use of his vacant apartment in Paris for a week during the French tennis open. I took him up on his gesture, and life in the Parisian sunshine, for the first 4 days, was like something lifted directly out of a travel brochure. My luck ran out very early on the 5th day when some guy and his wife burst into the apartment, full of attitude and aggression, claiming to have made previous arrangements to stay in the same apartment for the next 7 days. There were a lot of rapid hand gestures, French exclamations through clenched teeth, personal space invasion, and severe doubt cast over my birth status, sexual preferences, and ancestral lineage; before I was suddenly cast out onto the street, reasonably insulted, with the mercury rising, and without the benefit of a shower. There may have even been a final shrill (but then muffled) insult directed at me as the door slammed shut.
Oddly enough, hotels aren’t exactly chasing you for business when the French Open is on.
After many hours of lobby shopping, the only place in Paris that would have me for the next two nights was a shabby little back street establishment that had been built before they discovered water. Seriously, my room was like a broom closet. In short, I went without a proper shower for three long hot summer sightseeing days. I tried sneaking into other hotels that had running water but they saw me a mile off; I was that unwashed guy that they are highly trained to look out for. I had to settle for limited splash washing in cafe powder-rooms, but of course you never get the same coverage. It was a record-breaking heat wave; I was chalking up the kilometers, and I was hygienically unhappy. Stray animals began following, at a safe distance, behind me. Large birds gathered, with an air of expectancy, in nearby trees. A Renault mowing down a nearby fire hydrant would have truly been a godsend.
I’m still learning to deal with the shame.
At the end of the week, I returned to the place where I was staying in Germany a little heavier. I walked differently; a bit like John Wayne after riding a horse for a month. My hair was oily and plastered to my skull, and my body odor had a pulse of its own. When I walked in the door, no-one seemed very interested in talking to me, so I headed straight for what was possibly the best, hottest, and longest shower I have ever had. I let the water cleanse away the indignity of the previous days, but I noticed when toweling off that some unwanted sweat rashes remained. My hosts had left an elaborate array of deodorants and body talc’s on the ledge above the wash basin, and a frenzy followed. I covered my body in talcum powder. I smelt great, looked clean, but still walked funny. The only option available to me now was to slide off to bed and pretend that the previous three days hadn’t happened.
Something woke me up in the middle of the night. I felt rigid, like I’d been immersed in a mud bath and had been laid out to dry. Mind racing, I “zomby walked” into the bathroom to take stock of the situation, and then hurriedly hunted down the bottle of talcum powder that stood, now mocking me, on the shelf above the basin.
I don’t know what they call it in Germany, but here we call it “Ajax”. I looked in the mirror, and my jaw had dropped so much I could see where my tonsils had been removed when I was six. I immediately swung into damage control, and moved to wash off the household cleaning agent. It wasn’t until I had the water running that I remembered the ad with “No Mess” Charlie; that jolly, oval-faced plumber that cleaned up his mess in a jiffy with the wonderful new formula Ajax. You may remember how the “Deep Action Cleanser” really worked hard (like Charlie) to get in and get the job done.
If water had met powder that night, my fathering future would have been napalmed before my eyes. Nevertheless, I had to act quickly, because I noticed that the sweaty areas had started turning blue. Again, I had memories of Charlie swishing out the vanity grime with Ajax’s magical blue rinse. I don’t know how long it took me to rub off the caked on powder, but I took my time. It was very abrasive stuff. When I had given myself the all clear, I retired again for the night.
The morning heralded a remarkable discovery. That German Ajax powder had “Nuked” the fungal bacteria, arrested the “Long March”, and restored peace and unity to the neighborhood. I felt like I’d been rid of a poltergeist. That is one wicked formula, our old Ajax. Charlie’s work was done, and I could almost see him grinning and flirting in the bathroom with that charmed 1960’s lady of the household, holding up the Ajax bottle so the camera could get the “money shot”.
Naturally I didn’t let on to my hosts about what had transpired. Something again to do with the shame.
Of course every little story has a moral, but this one has many.
Firstly, be sure to only stay in Hotels that have water!
Secondly, always travel with a bicycle lock so you can chain yourself to something large and heavy in the event of a pending eviction.
Thirdly, be careful using anything in foreign language bottles, especially in bathrooms where your host has recently sanitized it for your use. If you have foreigners staying at your house, clear away the cleaners and solvents.
And of course, lastly … if your overseas guests start itching and walking funny, just leave a bottle of Ajax on the vanity top next to the deodorant.
4. The 4th most stupid thing I have ever done.
Last month I had a “Wile e coyote” moment. I was replacing a down-light globe in our kitchen, and as I stretched upward toward the ceiling on an aged aluminium ladder, the side extrusion broke a rivet. The ladder buckled on one side, the cross support arms flipped upward, freeing the ladder from its “A” configuration, and I was left, suspended in mid-air, holding up a little “Help” sign, with sagging ears and haunted bulging eyes, as the ladder flattened out from under me and crashed to the floor. The Road Runner did his little “beep-beep” routine, pecked at a little pyramid of seed, and sped off down the hallway. Luckily I was able to land upright with feet either side of the ladder in a perfect dismount. A solid 9.7 from the judges. No damage, no injury. No startled soot covered face or piano accordion style walk off. I dismissed the incident, retrieved another (newer and more robust) ladder from the shed and continued on with changing the light bulb, knowing that what had just happened would not even rate in the top 50 list of the most stupid things I have ever done.
But as I fiddled with the light connection again (with wife Susie white-knuckling the sides of the replacement ladder to keep it steady this time), I remembered another not so clever ladder performance back in 2002, one that currently sits mockingly at #4 on the stupidity charts.
In a hurry to drive my young kids to school (our daughter Emily was 8 and our son James was 5), I accidentally pulled the front door shut with my car keys still inside the house. That in itself was pretty stupid, as I am in the business of importing/wholesaling door locks for a living and I should know better. I decided to hurriedly climb an extension ladder up onto the roof of our home and climb through a second storey window. Easy. Should only take a jiffy, grab the keys, and get the kids to school on time.
A year or so earlier my Dad had given me a very long and old wooden extension ladder that he no longer had a use for, cheerfully informing me at the time that falling off a ladder was the second most common way for males over 55 to die. I grabbed that old ladder and hastily set it up on our rear patio, leaning it up against the roof guttering. It extended so far beyond the roof line that I was going to be able to step directly off the ladder and onto the roof. No problems at all.
I wish I had checked to see if the ladder had rubber stoppers at its base, and I wish I knew more about physics and opposing forces. I reached the top of the ladder and moved to the side and leaned against the rungs while I stepped onto the roof, and in doing so, I shifted a lot of the weight onto the top end of the ladder, allowing the bottom of the ladder to lift and take off. The roof line is over 3 metres off the ground, and standing upright, my pea-sized brain was elevated roughly 5 metres above ground level, and I suddenly felt very much in the same kind of deep shit our coyote is accustomed to.
The ladder disappeared. I had one foot standing on the guttering and the other was now supported by very thin air. The “Help” sign came out again, along with the whole coyote “eyes of doom” routine. There would now be a whistling descent sound ending with a final impact “poof” and an expanding debris cloud at the bottom of the canyon.
Having spent a lot of my youth perfecting splash-bombs off diving platforms and off piers behind ferries, I was able to become horizontal, roll in the air to one side, cradle my head with my hands, and absorb the full force of the brick paving below on my right shoulder. If I had been off-balance when the ladder vanished or had rolled any other way, it may have ended very differently. It was a clean descent, although my inside leg collected a timber bench seat on the way down, which was not ideal.
I wish that my son James hadn’t seen it all unfold, and the cry that he gave out as he rushed to get his sister for help is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
I lay there where I landed, happy to be alive, but unhappy about pretty much everything else. The kids ran next door to get Helen, our neighbor, to help me.
10 minutes later we were all standing in Helen’s kitchen next door, and she asked what the hell I was doing on the roof. When I explained that We were locked out of the house without a key, she outstretched her left hand and retrieved our spare key from a hook on the kitchen wall, saying “Why didn’t you just come and grab this one?”
Because I am an idiot. That’s why.
But of course I still had to get the kids to school. My right ankle was a mess, my brain had been pin-balled around inside my skull, and my entire inside leg (down to my ankle) was soon going to feature a hematoma of biblical proportions, but there was still time to get the kids to class before the end of their first lesson.
I knocked apologetically on the open door of James’ prep year classroom and was about to explain his late arrival, but stopped when I saw the sheer horror and disbelief on the teacher’s face and on all the young children’s faces in the room. The teacher jumped to her feet and rushed toward me, motioning me back out into the corridor and closing the door behind her, shielding the sight from young impressionable eyes.
Apparently the only thing missing from the scene was an axe handle hanging out of the side of my head. My head, face, and clothing was splattered with dried blood that had leaked out of the gash on the side of my head, which I, in my state of shock, was totally unaware of. In my haste to get the kids to school I had exited Helen’s kitchen before she had a chance to explain how I looked. I had covered the side of my head with my hands on impact so I assumed that my head was ok.
I groggily took the advice of the teacher and sought medical help from a clinic situated a short drive up the road. The two reception staff started running when they spotted me in the waiting room, one to grab me and the other to rustle up a doctor, whose immediate questions were “What happened to you?” and “How did you get here?”
“I drove from home…after dropping the kids at school.”
I wasn’t sure why the Doctor’s jaw dropped. What? had I done something wrong?
Top 4, no doubt about it. Profoundly stupid. At times, since 2002, I have thought that other acts of stupidity might have given the “roof incident” a run for its money – there is still plenty of time and it’s not like I’m getting any smarter – but for now it’s good thing seated at number 4.
If there is ever a silver lining to these things, my son James learnt to kick on his non-preferred foot playing Australian Rules Football. He was originally left-footed, but when we played together at the park with my sprained ankle, I had to kick on my opposite foot and so he did the same, and he finished up preferring his right foot rather than his left. A very handy skill, having equal kicking ability on both feet at such a young age.
It’s just a pity that I had to throw myself off the roof to facilitate improvement in my son’s football skills.
5. Blowfly mountain.
My father drove my younger brother Barney and I to Aberfeldy, an old gold mining town in Victoria’s Gippsland ranges, 2.5 hours east Melbourne, back in 1980. Dad had a part share in an inactive mining lease up in the hills there, which, at the time that gold was discovered back in the 1860’s, had a population numbering in the 1,000’s, and was thick with of gritty prospectors, living in tents and lean-to’s, frequenting dozens of pubs, and pinning their hopes and dreams on the unearthing of precious metal trapped in quartz deep beneath their feet. High up in the hills, this area was now riddled with old abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, cut deep into rock, following seams in search of the mother lode, and finally left as dark, silent reminders of a bygone era. Whilst the tunnels had been long boarded up, many of the deep vertical shafts had been left unsealed, covered now by dense scrub and bracken. Fumbling around up there in the hills after dark on your own was not a such good idea.
I was under pressure to produce an oil painting that weekend, to complete my year 12 art folio. We were staying in an old mining hut, perched at the end of a long and winding gravel road. It was a warm November day (30 celcius, 90 degrees) and whilst my father and brother went for a long walk, I set up my easel and canvas on that road and went to work on my folio piece. It was so quiet there, I was completely alone. Except for the blowflies. These agitated airborne missiles had mutated to the size of small birds, and were totally ambivalent to insect repellant. In fact, repellant just made them angry. I sat there in the brilliant sunshine, in a T-shirt, shorts, and thongs (flip-flops), painting and swatting. Three brush strokes, one swat. Incoming assailants, outgoing mortar fire. My air defence campaign became intrinsically woven into my brush stroke technique. Get some paint on the brush, dab it on the canvas a few times, then slap my face and arms to ward off the incoming attacks. It was like a war dance.
Despite the annoying blowflies, I still managed to lose myself in the moment and drift away. Painting does that to you. I thought about what it must have been like back when gold was discovered in the area, and how the prospectors must have lived. I thought about the hut and how it had weathered the years, with its rusted roof and awkward timber structure. My mind meandered through dozens of other subjects that seemed important to a 17-year-old.
I woke up from my drift when the painting was finished, feeling completely refreshed, sun-burnt, with sore arms, and with a discovery.
I had completed two paintings instead of one. The second one was a self-portrait.
There was nearly as much paint on me as there was on the canvas. And with the earthy colors I was painting with, I was practically camouflaged. I looked like something out of Rambo. My face was spattered, my shirt and shorts streaked, and my bare arms were crisscrossed with streaks of color.
I felt a bit silly at the time, if the truth be known, with all that paint on me – but what I was about to do next would plumb new depths of personal stupidity.
It was now late afternoon and my father and brother Barney emerged from a trek up the steep hills that rose up next to the hut. Once they saw through my camouflage and realized that I wasn’t a tree, they told me about the abandoned but uncovered mine shafts up there in the hills. I decided that once I’d cleaned the paint off, I would take a walk up the steep hill through the dense scrub and check it out for myself.
Dressed for the beach, late afternoon, on my own, no provisions, totally isolated terrain, and wandering off aimlessly into the hills.
I initially followed a path up the hill that was so steep that it was hard to keep your footing without sliding backwards in the gravel and leaves. My brother Barney was chopping wood next to the hut, and the sound carried up the hill through the bracken and echoed through the trees. I decided to make it to the top of the hill, which was a good 30 minute climb. I didn’t see any abandoned mine tunnels or shafts along the way. At the top of the hill I found what appeared to be a fire track, a winding road that ran long the mountain ridge. I decided to walk along this road for a while, but I was conscious that I needed to re-enter the scrub at the same place that I came out of it. I could still hear Barney chopping wood way down below in the valley. The walk along the windy ridge road was very pleasant but probably took a bit longer than expected. It was very late in the afternoon now, and I figured that it was time to return to the hut. The heat had gone out of the day and there was now a breeze freshening in the air. Retracing my steps along the fire track, I followed the sound of chopping wood. Yes, Barney was still chopping. It was not uncommon for him to cut him to cut wood relentlessly for hours. He was a very fit and strong young human being. I kept following the sound until it was suddenly behind me. I turned around, took several steps backward, and looked up in horror. The sound I was following was not Barney chopping wood, it was a large piece of stringy bark, hanging off a gum tree branch, tapping against the tree’s trunk. This was not good. I had walked along the winding mountain ridge for a few hundred metres using a false guide, and I now no longer recognized my original point of exit from the scrub. There was no other human settlement on this mountain range, and with the road being so windy, I knew that if I commenced my descent at the wrong point, I could be heading back down on the wrong side of the mountain. I walked up and back along the track trying to make sure of my bearings. The light was starting to fade. I figured I had roughly 20 minutes before nightfall, and the descent may take 20-30 minutes given how steep and dense the forest was. That was, of course, if I was on the correct side of the mountain.
I eventually had to make a decision. I settled on a point of re-entry that felt correct but really was only marginally better than a complete guess. The descent was steep and tough going, given the density of the bush vegetation. It was hard to keep my footing and I slipped a few times, falling backwards. After about 10 minutes I found myself on a small clearing with a shallow dug out pit with side walls about 3 feet high. Dusk was maturing to darkness. I was seriously worried by this point because I had not seen this clearing on my way up the hill. I noted that the wall of this pit would provide some degree of shelter should I need it. I decided to press on for another 5 minutes and then, if I was not confident I was heading in the right direction, I would retreat back to this clearing and stay put for the night, and then return back to the top of the hill to the ridge road in the morning and stay there until someone found me.
The final 5 minute descent did not bring any joy. I was now calling out, trying to get some validation that I was going the right way, but my calls went unanswered. The temperature was dropping at a rate commensurate with my self-confidence. With a cloudless sky, the temperature was likely to get as low as 2-3 Celsius (32-33 degrees overnight), and I was dressed for the beach. If I was to spend the night up in the hills, I would survive, but it wasn’t going to be a lot of fun, and it would be worse for my father and brother, left to wonder if I had fallen down a mine shaft.
I had no choice but to retreat back to the pit for shelter. It would offer at least limited protection from the wind. This was not looking good at all. I started the slow ascent back up the steep incline through the bracken to make it back to the clearing before total darkness finally fell. I kept calling out, in hope that someone would respond. There was no moon that night in the hills of Aberfeldy, and it was now cold, and getting colder. I prepared myself for a long and difficult night on my own.
Then I heard my father’s call.
It was very distant, and with it came an overwhelming sense of relief. I was on the correct side of the mountain. I called back and established a connection.
It took another 15 minutes to reunite. I saw a torchlight occasionally bouncing off the tops of tree trunks, but the scrub was so dense the light did not find its way through to me directly. We kept calling so dad could track me. It took a long time for him to navigate his way through the last 20 metres (60 feet) because the undergrowth was so thick, and because dad was physically exhausted. He had grabbed a torch taken off up that steep hill in a mad panic to find me, and, for him, it was the second climb for that day.
We took our time carefully making our way back down to the hut, using the torchlight to guide our footings and to find branches to hang onto.
Poor old Barney was very pleased to see us when we got back to the hut. We ate dinner in front of the best open fire I have even seen. I described to Dad and Barney the pit that I was going back toward, to shelter for the night. They knew about this clearing, because they had seen it during their climb that day. There was an unblocked vertical mine shaft at that site. I hadn’t spotted it as I went past on the way down, but in the near total darkness, on the way back, it may have found me.
I slept that night, fully clothed in a sleeping bag covered in blankets, and I was still cold, but I didn’t care. I have never been so grateful to be a little bit cold.
My painting of the old rusty roofed hut on the winding gravel road sits on a wall at my parent’s place, and whenever I visit them I look at that painting and return vividly to the events of that weekend. I remember the blowflies and waking up with paint all over myself, and I remember what it felt like to be briefly lost in the dark up in the hills of Aberfeldy. I remember how relieved I was to be warm with food, fire, and family, and that dad had exhausted himself, racing up that hill, to find me.
When you say the word “country” you should always try and finish it.
There is no word in the English language that demands completion more than the word “country”.
This is particularly true when you are giving a lecture to about 300 post graduate marketing students, and you are blessed with a stutter. People are, in general, more afraid of public speaking than dying, and I can tell you, vocal suspension provides a brand of terror that has no equal.
I was 27, working for an Australian machine tool manufacturer in Birmingham, and giving a lecture on the topic of “Marketing Australian Technology to the world” at Warwick University in Coventry, England. The opening greeting and first few sentences of the lecture had gone well. Then I intended to lead off the next point with “in my country, marketing technology abroad requires removal of barriers to entry, including the tyranny of distance, and being able to demonstrate your product in-market.” Instead I stopped dead halfway through the third word. I never finished the sentence “in my country”. The first part of the word “country” sailed out beautifully, but sadly, the second part just never came. I was stuck, with nowhere to go, in a vacuum, and unable to take back my unfinished work. Eyes bulging, lungs inert, my life shrank into a single atom of nothingness, for what seemed like an eternity. The world stopped turning for that moment, resting on its axis, awaiting further instructions. It was truly one of the lowest points of my existance. There were no warning signs, nothing to give me a chance to select an alternative word. I just froze.
The silence in the room was beyond description. Someone coughed awkwardly, but that was the only audible sound to be heard. My mind raced, trying to take in what I had just said, and what the room had just heard, and I was then trying to work out what the hell to do next. In the end, I just did what I always do. I stopped, drew a very deep long breath, waited for one or two unending seconds, regrouped, and then tried to say the same sentence again. The risk in getting stuck in exactly the same spot was very real, but If I didn’t restate it and get it right, the audience would not be able to dismiss my first attempt as a mistake, and they would be left with a word that is never spoken in public in polite company, let alone an auditorium. And that wasn’t the worst part. The two and a half words stood on their own merit as a legitimate sentence. I still shudder when I think about it.
My second attempt, from the outside, was projected with clarity and purpose. From the inside, my mind continued unpacking suitcases of unshackled terror. Thankfully, the sentence was complete this time. The audience was more relieved than I was. Far more relieved, in fact. They exhaled audiably. They had been holding their collective breath in rapture, not sure what was going to happen next. Their faces peered back at me, motionless. I definitely had their attention. There was a lecturer sitting in the front row directly in front of me, dressed in all his pomp, and he looked up from something that he had been reading and peered over his bi-focals directly at my face; but he fixed his stare unblinkingly on my lips rather than on my eyes, willing out the next sentence. I was thinking along similar lines. Get some words out, try and assemble them in some kind of order, check as you go to make sure the words belong in the dictionary, and keep talking until you are satisfied each sentence can hold its own as a structural string. Then get back to the topic and move onward and updward. It worked. The sentences were flowing well now and the mechanics of thought and language were back in sync, and I knew from that moment that I had turned a monumental corner. Something about taking a lemon and making lemonade.
This will sound strange, but despite the chaos that had only just played out, I started enjoying the new moment, and began moving and gesturing confidently, using tone and expression in my voice, raising and lowering at the right moments, pausing for effect, and introducing lighter moments where appropriate. I was back in the game, in control, and the remaining 40 minutes of the lecture was without incident. At the end of the lecture I threw to the audience for questions, and I was completely unprepared for and overwhelmed by the response. A sea of hands immediately shot up, raised high above heads. To my disbelief, question time went almost as long as the lecture itself, for another 30 odd minutes. The questions were thoughtful, on topic, resulting in healthy robust discussion, and quite a few moments of levity. On reflection, I think they understood what had happened at the beginning at the lecture and wanted to let me know that it was Okay. So what had started out being one of the worst days of my life finished up being one of the most rewarding, and one that I will never forget.
After the lecture, the room emptied into a large dining room with long tables set up for lunch. Guests seated near me said they enjoyed the lecture and some also acknowledged that it had got off to a bit of a shaky start. A guy sitting opposite me said “You obviously have a stutter, right?”, which opened up the conversation on speech impediments. I am always happy to talk about my stutter and it makes people around me more at ease when the topic is out in the open. Inevitably the conversation drifted happily on to cricket, as the Ashes tour of 1989 was in full swing in England at the time, and we Australians were making unexpected progress against the favoured English team, and would later go on to win the series convincingly.
The biggest moment of the day, however, occured in the street after the lunch as I was making my way back to the carpark. As I fumbled for my car keys, a man started waving at me from the other side of the street. He seemed anxious to get my attention. I waited for him to cross the road, and as he approached me, I retraced my steps in my mind, wondering if I’d left something behind or forgotten to do something. The man looked to be aged in his mid to late twenties, roughly the same age as myself, medium height and thin, well dressed with ginger curly hair. What was most noticable about this man was that he was crying. When he was close enough he reached out and grabbed my hand with both of his and started shaking mine madly. The tears streamed down his cheeks. I had no idea what was going on until he started to speak. His words stammered out with great difficulty. I wanted to finish his sentences for him but knew from experience that he really wanted to finish them himself, and eventually he did. Through his tears and stammerings he said something I will never forget.
“All my life, all I have ever wanted to do is what you have just done; to have the courage to stand up in front of a whole lot of people and give a talk … now I know that I can do it.”
Then he thanked me again, released my hand, and walked away. That was over 25 years ago, and I can still see his face, and I can still hear his words. I often wonder if he ever achieved his goal. After seeing his passion, however, I have no doubt that he did.
I felt on that day, that I had made a difference.