Alaska Shorts: Have Courage, by Peter Porco

It wasn’t the friends who laughed or the enemies
who mocked him. It wasn’t the strangers who caught the odor and turned away.
The unkindest cut came from Rory himself. More than anyone, Rory was
disappointed in himself. “Coward!” he snarled. “You’re so afraid of water you
won’t even take a shower.”

Rory suffered from aquaphobia. He had been
diagnosed as a toddler after fainting at the aquarium. Potty-training gave him
nightmares in which his terrified face looked back at him from the bottom of
the toilet. Rory never learned to swim, never rode in a boat, never drank club
soda or beer. If it rained, he stayed inside—and lost jobs because of it,
though he was self-employed now. To drink water he wore a blindfold. He
relieved himself through innovative measures that are best not gone into here.
Rory’s method of personal hygiene was to smear himself with a hand sanitizer
and vigorously rub himself down with a towel caked in talcum powder. The
results were marginal and his social life was pitiful. If his companions
weren’t overcome by the smell, they cringed at his twitchings when, for
example, someone mentioned fishing or plumbing or how their daughter had become
captain of the swim team. Sometimes, failing all restraint, they burst out laughing. 

Occasionally Rory would see that he had real
skills and could make positive impressions on others. For instance, Rory was a
first-rate mountain climber. He’d conquered the world’s most aesthetic
rock-climbing routes. In the bone-dry regions of Nevada, Utah, Africa and
Australia, he had mastered challenging, technical routes, and did so
prolifically, one after another, never looking back. It was Rory’s wry,
understated reply to a reporter’s question about a particular line up Ayers
Rock in the Australian Outback—“Been there, done that,” Rory said at the
time—that had become the go-to affectation of hip boredom. Rory still ventured
into the mountains, but now it was to kill sheep, and to guide rich men and
rich women in the killing of sheep. As for the seeping wounds of freshly shot
animals, Rory wore night-vision goggles, which made blood look like motor

Rory never hunted during the rainy season.
Instead he stayed home and watched recorded Nascar events, fast-forwarding at
the speed of light through the Budweiser commercials. His life was not easy,
always beset by worry, and never free from self-reproach. But it had acquired a
crazy kind of balance. That is, until he picked up the paper one morning and
saw that the Taliban columnist Craig Medred had called him “mountain brave,
water sissy.” It depressed Rory profoundly. His brand and his guiding business
declined. Something radical was called for. He had to face his fears—and do so

Rory decided to walk at deep low tide across the
Anchorage mudflats to Fire Island. He whimpered at the very idea yet resolved
to learn all he could about the consistency of the mud, the timing of the
tides, the direction and force of the currents.

fast. Never dawdle,” the experts advised. “If you begin to sink, stretch out
flat on the ground.”

Knowledge gave him confidence. So, on a mid-June
afternoon with an extreme negative tide, Rory stepped out onto the flats
dressed for speed, wearing only shorts, low-cut tennies and a daypack. Less
than two hours later, having crossed three miles of mud and only two piddling
shallow sloughs (while hiding his eyes), Rory walked up onto Fire Island.

In a frenzy of self-approval, he raced to the
nearest wind turbine, clambered skillfully up its pylon and quickly reached the
top. There in his great joy he was thrown back and down 260 feet by a sharp
electrical jolt. He landed with a huge splash, spread-eagle on his back,
in a pond. A pond-browsing moose leaped away terrified, scaring Rory out of his
wits. Rory jumped from the water and fled in the opposite direction. Blindly he
reached the mudflats which he re-crossed in little more than 60 minutes,
cussing himself the whole time for losing his pack and his shoes. Every inch of
him smarted, especially the backs of his legs. On his shoulder was a
third-degree burn where a metal band, part of his pack strap, had pressed
against it. How did he lose his things!? For days he remembered being scared to
death of the moose, but nothing else.

Eventually some of what happened came back and
Rory sorted it out. His pack had taken the brunt of both the turbine’s shock
and the splash-down. What he didn’t realize for quite some time, however, was
that he’d been briefly submerged in the pond, and that, nearing the Anchorage
shore, he’d walked a half-mile through water up to his knees.

Peter Porco writes from Anchorage.

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