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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks, Part 1

Posted January 13, 2014

At this stage in your life, you have no doubt noticed that there's a first time for everything. For enjoyable stuff—fishing, for example—that's good, because it means you now have lots of other pleasant experiences to look forward to. For something painful—say, a car wreck—there is also a good side (assuming you survive). It gives you a chance to think, "That's the last time I want to make that happen!" and adjust your behavior accordingly.

Few people choose to attend the School of Hard Knocks, but assuming you have to, a lecture is better than a seminar. Which brings us to a few Sailors and Marines who were trying out new recreational activities. The first two were riding dirt bikes. Thirty minutes into his inaugural ride, an E-4 lost control on a turn (and if I had a dollar for every time I've read that phrase in reports about motorcycle wrecks, I could buy some new golf clubs). He crashed, injured his shoulder and spent two weeks on light duty. A hospitalman apprentice in California also lost control during his first ride and rolled down a hill, suffering what the mishap report described as "dislocations" to "multiple body parts."

An HM1 in California was on what the mishap report called a "government-authorized ski trip." With zero experience and zero training, he "went cold turkey" (a great phrase for a ski run gone wrong, although misused in this case), fell and injured his shoulder.

An STG3 was snowboarding for the first time at an indoor ski slope during a port visit. On his fourth trip down the slope, another skier sped by on his right and cut across in front of him. The startled E-4 put on the snowboard equivalent of the brakes. He then executed a forward gainer, checked out the hardness of the snow with his head, and landed face up, marveling where all those twirly little points of light had come from. A broken tibia and fibula were the major learning points of this lesson.

A lieutenant had decided to buy an ATV but wasn’t sure how much horsepower he needed. A fellow officer who had 250cc and 400cc ATVs offered to let him try them out. The ATV owner was (reportedly) an experienced rider; he discussed hazards with the lieutenant and made sure he was wearing the right gear before they headed out onto on some hilly dirt roads in the desert. The lieutenant was riding the larger ATV.

The value of formal training and carefully acquired experience (and the limitations of a too-brief brief) became clear on the way back, when the riders went down the side of a hill. To avoid a washed-out area, they had to go sideways, which is doable but tricky. You have to shift your weight to the uphill side and steer a little upwards to keep straight, because the ATV wants to turn downhill. The lieutenant tried this maneuver, but his ATV made a sharp, downhill turn anyway. He tried to apply the brakes, hit a rock and went flying. He ended up in a hospital for four days in rehab for a few months, nursing major damage to an elbow and a knee.

I’m not saying don’t try something new. Go for it! Learning new stuff is an invaluable and rewarding part of life, at any age. New skills and gear are unique to individual activities, but a basic question applies to all of them: How do you know when you’re biting off more than you can chew when you have no idea what the correct portion is? 

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