Outward Bound in Scotland was an epic moment.
A photo of Churchill Watch sits on my bookcase. I am the tall, skinny, bushy-haired kid in the back row. Hands in pockets, I peer at the camera, scowling, uncertain. Brian Todd sits in the front row beside our instructor, Mr. Cliff. His hands are on his knees, a goofy grin on his face. It is a summer day to him. I only remember the cold. It was Burghead, Scotland, in June.
Thirty years after the photo was snapped, my own kids have cursorily eyed the photo. Once they have adjusted for the time difference and picked me out, they comment: “Dad, you looked like such a geek.” But I was an Outward Bound “geek,” a distinction I worked hard to earn and now wear with pride. And it still amuses me to see Brian’s grin.
I embarked for Burghead on an early summer night a few days after my 15th birthday. My parents took me to the overnight train at Euston Station in London, where we lived. I hauled my backpack and new hiking boots into the sleeper compartment and bid my family farewell. It felt different than going off to summer camp, as I had done in the States. In fact, it was a much grander rite of passage.
The train ride north was a night-long blur of stops in deserted stations. Mail bags and freight were loaded onto the train, whistles blew, doors banged as I peered out the window from my upper berth to read the strange place names.
I remember the voice on the train’s PA system changing from an English to a Scottish accent when we crossed the border north of Newcastle, in the wee hours of the morning. And I recall the sensation of disembarking in Elgin, Scotland, in the bleak, crisp morning light of the North Sea coast. I was feeling energized by the stark beauty of the landscape and daunted by the stark challenge of going to Outward Bound.
I boarded a bus, straining to understand the driver’s accent to pay the fare. It was a short ride to Burghead, a fishing village with a walled harbor, and the start of the adventure. I sat alone and stared out the window.
Churchill Watch was a dozen unlikely cohorts eyeing one another warily that first morning. For the next 28 days we 12, together with our instructor, Peter Cliff, experienced the rigors of rock climbing on sea cliffs, hiking in the Cairngorms and Highlands, rowing and sailing in open cutters on Moray Firth, kayaking in the cold surf at Lossiemouth. We were four American and eight Glasgow “lads” from all walks of life and very different cultures.
On many days, the greatest rigor was just getting along. On the first day, understanding one another’s accents was the primary hurdle.
I kept a journal. That first night I wrote, “The apprehension was just about killing me. I had no idea what to expect, so I prepared myself for the worst.” It never came. I copied down the names of all my new watchmates in my journal, but it is Brian Todd, (already nicknamed “Sweeney” by his mates) who stands out in my recollection.
He was fascinated by the Americans. We were exotic birds. All Yanks talked like John Wayne, Sweeney assumed, as he wrangled his Glasgow burr into Wayne-like diction for his questions about life “in our former Colonies.”
Mr. Cliff’s daily challenges were rigorous as much for the cooperation they sought to instill in us as for their physical demands. Even mundane chores — cleaning pots and pans in the galley, preparing food and equipment for expeditions, sweeping out the bunk room — presented great challenges. On some days, teaming up for pot-washing was more difficult than rock climbing. It wasn’t the washing, it was the teaming.
The ultimate test of teamwork was manning the oars of the open wooden cutters, “giving way together” on the command of a designated captain, while rowing out of the harbor to sail the firth. Such boats only steer straight when everyone gives their all at just the right moment. Such exercises, with only one way out of futility, are great levelers of 15-year-olds’ indifference.
We began to establish clear distinctions between simple cooperation and trust. Beneath the mutterings, shirking, fights, and petty squabbles within the watch, a tacit assumption of reliability was emerging. When your fellow needs help hauling the main sheet in a stiff breeze on a reach across open water, out of sight of land, you lend a hand regardless of his insults over porridge at breakfast. Belaying a rival up a sheer rock face, you feel a purer appreciation of teamwork rise from within, precisely because you’ve been assigned the role of your brother’s keeper.
The Outward Bound challenge was working its work, teaching us how “to serve, to strive, and not to yield,” according to the motto from Tennyson.
Self-reliance emerged on the two-day solo hike. Following Mr. Cliff’s compass coordinates along a tortuous route of forest and shoreline, I discovered the inward-bound aspect of the course. Navigating with map and compass from one coordinate to another, I found myself a cave above the high-tide mark on the beach. It would be my campsite.
My journal notes, “I was a bit scared at first … but I think that was just because I couldn’t see the whole thing. I had a pleasant, dry night and a fantastic breakfast without even leaving my sleeping bag to start the fire.”
I can still feel the deep silence of the rock walls and sand floor — and being jolted awake at 3 a.m. as a Royal Navy fighter jet made its earsplitting landing on the naval air station runway lying, unbeknownst to me, just above my cave.
The black-and-white image of Churchill Watch is my only photograph of the experience, though the colorful scenes of Highland sunsets, ocean sails, rainbows, and especially the trials of learning to “pull together” remain deeply etched in my mind’s eye.
By the time I took the train back to London, I felt certain of several new kinds of navigational skills, with internal and external compasses. A daily glance at the photo reminds me of being cold, uncertain, and a long way out of my comfort zone — and that a “watch” is a group of people who work together despite their differences, or perhaps because of their differences.
I even developed my own passable Scottish burr.