When I was ten, Dad and I drove up to Canada for a fishing trip. One evening, stopping at a motel on the bank of the St. Lawrence River, I asked if I could go swimming, and Dad nodded yes.
Perhaps he meant we’d go together, later. I didn’t ask. Donning my suit, I went directly down into the water. A few strokes out, I was caught by the current and borne out into the stream.
As I started to panic, I remembered that my Boy Scout manual instructed one not to fight a current, but to swim with it, angling in to shore, keeping one’s head above water. I did, and made it to the bank downstream. I trudged back to the motel and didn’t mention our proposed swim.
That summer—or the next—I was home one afternoon with my mother. She started to scream, and ran to find her. She was dashing about the kitchen, blood spraying from her wrist. She’d reached out the back door for a basket to go pick tomatoes, and had slashed her wrist on a long shard of glass someone had discarded. I visualized the Scout manual’s “First Aid” section, and descriptions of “pressure points.” I grabbed Mother’s arm above the wound and led her to the phone holding her arm with one hand while taking off the receiver (this was 1952) with the other to dial a neighbor for help.
Much later, when applying to colleges, one required I write an essay on the “most important” thing I had done. At 17, I hadn’t much to brag about, but I decided “learning to read” filled the bill.
Reading can be directly life-saving (see above), or can work over time. The more informed, the better equipped one is to make decisions. A reading of history may enable one to see through the glitter of power symbols and rhetoric to the inevitable tragedy and loss attendant in, say, World War II and the Holocaust.
Or not. There’s not only reading, but thought and analysis involved in following that path through to the end, whereas screaming, acting out, and inflicting harm offer immediate gratification and a quick catharsis. One chooses. Unfortunately, the Boy Scout manual only goes so far.