Barney is an Australian farmer from somewhere w-a-a-y north of Melbourne. He’s a nice, very decent guy. When he’s on his meds. Without his meds, he was my tentmate in Africa for a three weeks. As the expression goes, I was “living in interesting times.”
Barney’s farmer big with massive hands. His little fingers make most peoples’ thumbs look small. He was great when we were loading and unloading the truck. But even in the best of times, tent zippers and similar mechanical objects were not his forte. More than clumsy, he was at war with anything mechanical. The word ham-handed was probably inspired by people like him.
My biggest fear, of many, was that he’d fall and kill me one night when he was struggling to unzip the tent on his way to the latrine. And he couldn’t remember which of the dozen or so tents in the group was ours. Some nights he tried to unzip and return to other peoples’ tents. Fortunately for them, he could never get in or out of a tent in less than five minutes, even after he’d broken the zipper and all you had to do was move the flap. Whenever we got to a campsite, I tried to be a good tentmate and ask him to help me erect our tent. Somehow, in his frustrating childlike ignorance, he just never understood which poles and pegs went where – and would usually stand either on the tent or exactly opposite where he should have been when the time came to raise it. We’d still be working when everyone else was sitting back with their first beer of the evening.
First day out I thought I just couldn’t understand his accent. Then I realized that most of his sentences were statements and he had a habit of not using verbs. A few days later we understood that his bags – with all of his meds – were someplace between Melbourne and Cape Town. Most likely Dubai, but nobody really knew for sure. He’d been on his own without them for a few days before joining us. Our guide got on his satellite phone and started things moving. We stayed in Swakopmund, Namibia for an extra day waiting for his stuff to arrive. He said it had happened before, and that it would take him 10-14 days to get back to normal. Great, I thought. We’ve only got another week or so together.
A few days later, we were camped in a magnificent part of the desert. Three of us were lined up, ready to take our National Geo cover shot of the sunset. At precisely the right moment, Barney wandered in front of us, not with a camera, not to enjoy the view, but to stand and stare at our guide making the campfire, in the foreground of our shot. Things like this happened several times a day.
Things started slowly coming back to what passed for normal. While he was still scarily clumsy and directionally challenged, he was knowledgeable and extremely interested in the local livestock. He could converse with the guides and local farmers in a lot of depth, because he was back in familiar waters [ok, desert]. Botswana is a major supplier of free range cattle to Europe, so he was in what passes for heaven. We found out that he raised cattle at home and that each year he took an overseas vacation to someplace that raised cattle. One of our fellow travelers was a small domestic animal vet. She tried to be polite when he’d make a point of chatting her up with constant bovine questions and comments. I felt her fear, but was relieved that he’d left me in peace for a bit.
I’ll admit to being truly scared at times, as were a number of other people in our group, including a Swiss psychologist. Now in retrospect, I can see things through his eyes. Essentially, he was a decent person, just not fully integrated into a human body. For him, pulling a tent zipper was like a surgeon trying to perform brain surgery wearing mittens. We really weren’t sure if he comprehended conversations – he’d nod in unison with others to be social, but never contributed. One-on-one, he’d conduct a semi-intelligible monologue with occasional pauses where we guessed he wanted an affirming response. We were experiencing a decent, if not overly intelligent, 62-year old man used to dealing with simple force – and disabled by a world of finesse and detail. At home, he had a relatively predictable life with a lot of routine. There wasn’t much routine in our trip –and what coping abilities he had had probably evaporated at the same rate his drugs left his system. I’m sure he was as frustrated with the situation as we were. Except that I’m pretty sure he wasn’t aware of our – and particularly my – true fears. And yes, he told me what he was taking his daily handful of pills for, but I couldn’t understand a word he said.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. Our strengths give us the opportunity to help others. Our weaknesses give others the opportunity to help us. Every time we come into this life – or every time we change jobs or careers – we try on a different set of hands, inside a different pair of gloves. Some are like a surgeon’s – sensitive to everything. Others are like mittens, good for warmth and not much else. Sometimes we have the skills to match the gloves: work gloves, gauntlets and so forth that are fit for certain environments. Others just don’t fit and we have to make do with whatever we’ve got. Either case, we need to learn to move beyond our initial reaction to inconvenience and others’ differences, to a response that helps both the situation and the person.