A Life of Adventure?
In a conversation recently, a friend remarked to me: "Every man dies, but not every man lives." If you think about it, that is profoundly true and rather disturbing. I hope that shakes you up like it does me.
You might not be one of those men who are truly alive - not yet anyway. Maybe you need an example, a few words to inspire you, or a life to look at. If so, then you can do a lot worse than examining the life of Richard Halliburton.
Richard Haliburton was a man who lived relatively briefly - about 40 years, much of it in the period between the First and Second World Wars. But into those years he packed a lifetime of adventure. He started as soon as he could. The moment he finished at Princeton, he headed to Europe to start a two-year, round-the-world trek. He climbed the Matterhorn, took forbidden pictures at Gibraltar, gambled (profitably) in Monte Carlo, spent all night in the Taj Mahal, survived thermometer-bursting heat in India and Afghanistan, climbed to the top of the great pyramids in Egypt, and so on. Later he would swim the Hellespont and the Panama Canal, march with the French Foreign Legion and fly a biplane across the Sahara. He was arrested on numerous occasions, and even landed in jail a few times, but his crimes were only those fueled by his curiosity, trying to see things which he wasn't supposed to see and go places he wasn't supposed to go.
Lots of people make round-the-world trips. But what is endlessly fascinating about Halliburton is the transmission of his stories, observations and his motivations to us. Before he died in 1939 (attempting, unsuccessfully, to sail across the Pacific in a Chinese junk), he wrote half a dozen books, hundreds of articles and, most importantly, more than a thousand letters to his parents. In his amazing writing - amazing in quantity and in beauty and insight and humor - he displays an appropriate awe of nature together with a deep appreciation of the achievements of the pinnacle of God's creation, man.
Often Halliburton encounters conditions which were (to put it mildly) uncomfortable and people who were (from his vantage point) unusual. But at no point does he criticize, complain or moan. Rather, he exudes a quintessentially American optimism, a modest cheerfulness, a genuine belief in the decency of many of his fellow man, a passion for seeing the world and its variety of people. He recognizes that for all that separates him from the Dyak tribespeople in Bornea, he sees that they, above all else, love children and cannot have enough of them. He expresses admiration for the simplicity and gentleness of the people of the tiny mountain country Andorra and has tea with their President, by a fire in the living room of the Andorran White House.
Through all of his adventures, Halliburton remains cheerful, exuberant, charming and full of wonder. And he never takes himself too seriously. In fact, the most uproariously funny passages in his writings are where his inexperience and a faraway place collide. Take, for example, his account of an (unsuccessful) panther hunt in India:
"?I fired. One could have heard the rifle's roar in Calcutta. The recoil knocked me completely?out of the tree. I thudded to the ground on one side, the bearer on another, and the elephant gun on the third. In three terrified leaps the panther was back in the jungle. I had not killed him, and my self-condemnation knew no bounds. To investigate the possibility of a blood-trail the bearer and I walked over to the carcass [of a deer killed by the panther], and found that instead of slaying the panther in the best accredited Daniel Boone style, I had shot a large hole straight through the ample side of the dead calf. My humiliation was so touching, Doctor Lap on his return arranged for a real hunt with the idea of giving me a chance to redeem myself."
Even his final transmission from the Sea Dragon is hardly a distressed call for help, but a string of cheerful, common sense observations: "Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hard tack, bully beef, wish you were here-instead of me!"
For all of his decency, Halliburton is a bit harder on folks back home. The Royal Road to Romance begins with this:
"I looked behind me at my four [Princeton] roommates bent over their desks dutifully grubbing their lives away. John frowned into his public accounting book; he was soon to enter his father's department store. Penfield yawned over an essay on corporate finance; he planned to sell bonds. Larry was absorbed in protoplasms; his was to be a medical career. Irving (he dreamed sometimes) was struggling unsuccessfully to keep his mind on constitutional government. What futility it all was-stuffing themselves with profitless facts and figures, when the vital and the beautiful things of life - the moonlight, the apple orchards, the out-of-door sirens-were calling and pleading for recognition."
From there, Halliburton went around the world and began his life of adventure and discovery. Incidentally, he managed to rescue Irving who accompanied him at least in the early stages of the trip.
Like other great men of the past, Halliburton had that wonderful gift of merging his real life experience with the vicarious life experiences he obtained through his vast reading. A voracious reader from the time he was very young, Halliburton knew his history and his geography. For him these were living, breathing subjects and a vital part of his life. For him - as it should be for us - history is alive and eternal and speaks to us now with all its epic heroes, romance. This makes him much more than a casual tourist:
"The Taj Mahal had been deified in my mind ever since that childhood day when I had first looked upon an oil painting of the fairy tomb and read the immortal story of its creation. It had always been a dream castle to me, something so fabulous it could not have dimensions and weight and location; something so lovely it could not exist outside of picture-books. Poring for hours at a time over these very books I had come to revere this building above all others?.All my adventures in India up to this time I had known to be only preludes to the great final adventure-the actual sight and touch of the Taj."
Similarly, in The Flying Carpet, as Halliburton enters Jerusalem, he sets the stage by recounting much of the Old Testament Biblical drama surrounding the city. He invokes the New Testament as he wanders the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and cites verse of Byron and Browning when he goes swimming in the Grand Canal in Venice. This is obviously a man who knew how to read. He read, but more than that, he saw himself as a participant in history - or at least an observer, a close observer - of the continual drama of history which is still going on today.
History, friends, need not be the same topic you were punished with in school and which you learned to dread. History is the study of life itself. If you hate life, then you will hate history. But if you still have a pulse, then you simply must partake of history - because history is still going on. So?what is the point of all this? What does the life of Halliburton mean for us today?
Surely it means, at the minimum, that the world is still worth seeing. It was worth seeing in the last century when Halliburton lived, and will be worth seeing next century as well, because nothing, not technology, not urbanization, not the internet, not jet airplanes, can quell the fascinating saga of human beings, of people, of cultures and civilizations, the ongoing conversation of past, present, future.
But the deeper and more universally applicable point is this: life is worth living. Travel may not be your deal. Fair enough. Travel is just one aspect of a life well-lived. The point is for you to determine what you find beautiful, joyous, romantic, inspiring. And then start doing more of that and less of the other stuff.
What turns you on, excites and energizes you? What is it that keeps you from degenerating into a gray mass of nothing? What will stop you from squandering tomorrow? Isn't it high time that you stopped the bland, monotonous quest for mere riches and respectability? Isn't it time to live up to your secret lament that the things you dreamed of when you were young aren't exactly panning out?
Some day, you are going to die. You can't change that. But before you die, you might as well live.
"Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you. Be afraid of nothing. There is such a little time?"
Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to Romance, chapter 1.
Copyright 2005 Mark Cole
Mark Cole is an attorney living in Magnolia, Texas. His web site, Conversations From the Past, helps men to start to live lives of authentic masculinity by drawing on the life force of the great men of the past. If you - or a man you know - is serious about getting out of a rut, then visit http://www.conversationsfromthepast.com today.
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