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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 2

Posted February 12, 2014

Last month, I examined the fact that a little learning is a dangerous thing via a series of mini-disasters brought on by a lack of training and experience. This month, we look at a closely related risk: the concept of “self-taught.” If there’s one term that brings a shudder to someone who has read several thousand mishap reports, that’s it.

Consider the ET2 who has been storing his buddy’s motorcycle, which isn’t registered on-base due to the fact that his buddy hasn’t taken the motorcycle-safety class yet. The ET2, himself a prospective motorcycle owner and also awaiting a quota in the motorcycle-safety class, figures he might as well teach himself the basics in the meantime.

He dons a leather jacket and gloves, long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and helmet. He starts the machine, puts it in gear, and rides around for a while, remaining upright and perhaps thinking, “Heck, this isn’t that hard.” I hope that isn’t what made him take off his helmet, but for some reason, he did.

Traveling at a low speed, he confuses the clutch with the front brake. His head quickly encounters something that is hard enough to break four bones in his cheek and cut his forehead and lip enough to require stitches. His roommate calls 9-1-1, and the ET2 spends two days in intensive care. I don’t imagine that his buddy was very happy about the $300 in dents, scratches and bent metal on his formerly pristine new motorcycle.

Self-taught is fine for painting landscapes, or needlepoint, or miniature golf. But you must be daft to think it is OK for straddling a powerful motorized vehicle and racing off into a rock-strewn and/or tree-studded wilderness. Such as the HM2 who was self-teaching himself on a dirt bike in California. It was a very instructive morning. He learned what happens when you hit a rock going downhill (you flip over the handlebars and slide 20 feet, and the bike comes tumbling after). And he learned what happens when the bike lands on your back (lots of bruises and a hematoma on your kidney). Valuable lessons all, but there are better ways to learn them.

As with any other exciting and non-mandatory activity involving cliffs, whitewater rapids, snow-covered mountains, noisy engines and adrenaline, the point isn’t to avoid them. The point is to do them in a way that ensures you will be able to keep doing them for a long time, thereby accreting all sorts of great memories and priceless experiences to share with those you love. And the way you do that is by being smart and getting smart.

Granted, this means starting at something less than whatever is the equivalent of turning the volume knob up to ten. If you don’t follow Dirty Harry’s advice (“A man’s got to know his limitations”), you run the risk of self-inflicting some other limitations, such as how well your arms and legs work. You’ll be living with them for a long time, and you probably won’t be doing much rappelling or wake surfing.

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