The COBS Takeaway: 40 Years Later

The COBS Takeaway: 40 Years Later

October 31st, 2014–

Robert England, a teacher in Alabama, came to the Colorado Outward Bound School in June of 1976. The experience transformed him.

Since his course, Bob has worked tirelessly to unlock the same transformation in his students. He pioneered the experiential education program at his organization. He pushes students with the drive to be more towards COBS courses. Almost 40 years after his course he’s still an advocate, stalwart donor, and cheerleader for COBS. Bob’s story, and those of all of our students, inspire us daily. Here’s to your inspiration too!

The Story

More than half my life ago, I taught history in Bibb County, Alabama at the old junior high school in Centreville. I loved the work more than can be imagined. From late 1972, several teachers and I began to talk about The Foxfire Book, produced by high school students from northeastern Georgia, who wrote about local lore and crafts. The educational value of having students publish interviews with their elderly neighbors and relatives seemed exceptional and through an organization called The Institutional Development and Economic Affairs Service (IDEAS), we received a grant. The Board of Education provided some more money and in the fall of 1975, our students produced their very first issue of a magazine they named Sparrow Hawk. I marveled at our success. Sales soared and we prepared our second issue.

But tragedy struck. One of the project advisors, Mary Jimm Roden, and a student, Faye Helton, died in an automobile accident while they drove to Mobile to take some photographs for one of our stories. Three students were badly injured. I saw the whole thing in my rear-view mirror. I witnessed the worst thing which can possibly happen to a teacher.

Thanks to the superintendent of education, Luman Kornegay, and my school’s principal, Clifton Anderson, Sparrow Hawk continued. I suffered from a litany of symptoms now described as “survivors’ guilt.” I drank too much. My diet consisted of fried food, pizza and beer and the waist grew.

The chief executive of IDEAS, Murray Durst, sent one of his staff members to Alabama to visit our project and explore more opportunities. Ron Gager, who also taught with the Colorado Outward Bound School, wasted little time. He recruited me to be a student in a course offered from Marble, Colorado called the ‘Advanced Practicum for Teachers.’ The Bibb County Board of Education encouraged me to go. The Coors Foundation provided a scholarship.

bob england on courseOn June 16th, a beautiful sun-lit day, nearly 75 students and staff met in the yard of a weathered church. Jerry Golins, the Course Director, introduced the staff. They made assignments to small groups called patrols. A deep-voiced instructor named Don called my name. I looked around at my companions for the next three or so weeks. They seemed so confident, self-assured, and physically fit. I possessed none of those virtues for all the usual reasons…..

Don issued us helmets and we walked on a gentle though rocky slope for him. A photograph I’ve kept all these years depicts me as a bloated young man, clumsily bent over, arms flailing, negotiating a simple step-down. That evening, Don gave us uncooked vegetables and some menacing ‘pilot’ cookies which could have served as solid shot in the Civil War. He told us to meet him at 6:00AM and we put up tarps for shelter.

6:00AM on the morning of June l7th came soon enough. Two inches of snow had fallen in the night and Anna and John, my bunk-mates, agreed that all bets were off as we huddled within our warm bags! Soon enough, Don squished through the snow. “Your colleagues are waiting for you doing jumping jacks in the snow. You are being selfish, lying here in your bags!” So began my education: I had thought the three of us were sensible. So we jogged for a bit and then had breakfast, registered, and assembled gear for our first expedition.

We crossed the Crystal River on a wire monkey bridge roaring close to a hundred feet below us. Don explained how to clip our Prusik lines into our “Swami” seats and then attach them to an overhead wire for protection. I trembled with every move and eventually scrambled to the opposite bank, relieved. That night, we learned the intricacies of managing our camp stove, the Optimus 111B. The following day around noon, we arrived at the old Yule quarry and took a break for lunch. Don lectured and demonstrated a couple of first aid techniques. I dozed a little, I think.

The next day, Don led a lesson in traveling in steep snow. We practiced the self-arrest with and without the ice axe. By that afternoon, we summited Treasure Mountain and descended to the old town of Crystal where we rendezvoused with the other groups. Early the next morning, Jerry Golins led a re-supply. One of our number dropped out. Just after noon, we pushed on towards Snowmass Mountain up Lead King Basin.

For two glorious days, we slept a little later than usual on a lovely site overlooking Lake Geneva. Don taught us a system of belay—that is, protecting those going up or down rocks. On the first day, we rappelled. I figured out I wouldn’t have to belay—or take responsibility for another if I went first. Oh, no. Don quietly told me, “I know why you want to go first. You go second.”

On the second day, Don introduced us to rock climbing. He gave us three rules for a successful ascent:

(1) Watch your feet.
(2) Don’t use all your strength on one move.
(3) Don’t climb anything you can’t descend.

While I’m sure I didn’t have the energy or the will to reflect on Don’s three points, sometime later I realized they work for most of life.

The next day, we ascended Snowmass Mountain. The long, hard trudge up talus and scree finally ended around noon. In all directions, peaks poked at the sky and by that time, I knew that though they all looked the same, the paths to the summit possessed a world of difference. We climbed Gunsight Pass late the following afternoon and camped below Capitol Peak, setting our tarps on the walls of rock shelters. Jerry Golins, the course director, joined us.

Don conducted the usual morning reading. We carried lightened packs and struggled up a headwall and a gulley to the summit of a lesser peak and then dropped down to the fabled knife-edge ridge in teams of three on a rope and gradually picked our way to the main summit’s blocky base. An exhausting scramble took me to the top. Just before we began the descent, Don clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Well, Bob, you’ll never have to do this again!” I had the strength to nod in agreement.

Once off the mountain we pushed on to Avalanche Creek and made camp. After climbing one last pass, late the following afternoon, Don put us on solo. I viewed this time alone as a vacation. For three glorious days I surveyed the area around my little camp, examined my shrunken body, and gloried in sleeping late. I wrote a little in my journal.

Then came finals. Jerry Golins and the instructors assigned people to new patrols based on ability. I joined a group of other ill-prepared slow movers. But in the course of the four day expedition, I learned something important: Don was a great teacher. I knew the knots, how to read the maps, and how to work the stoves. Instead of following, exhausted, I joined another couple of students in helping all of us get through the experience.

At last, the course came together and we walked, jogged, or—in some cases—ran back to Marble. Showers awaited us. My tan washed off my face and hands! Then came some discussions, a feast of a couple of slaughtered sheep, and the traditional awards of certificates and pins.

bob england carI left that night and drove to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I had lost 43 pounds in 23 days and grew a beard. I didn’t shave.

I returned to Bibb County that fall and while I knew Outward Bound had pretty well re-oriented my life, the last lesson came in May of 1977, nearly a year later.

Going to meetings lies at the very bottom of any teacher’s wish list. But all of us go for one reason or another, and a chance to spend three days at Gulf Shores, Alabama presented itself. At the end of a long, boring day, I ventured into the conference center’s well-stocked bar next to the pool and a deck, and ordered up a Scotch and water.

The bar opened onto the swimming pool and through the glass doors, I saw a crowd running towards the diving board. I stood up and walked outside. A little girl lay stretched out on the pavement. “She’s drowned,” a woman wailed. I heard an audible “click,” like an old radio being turned on or off. I couldn’t hear anything from the crowd and suddenly, it seemed like Don spoke to me, telling me exactly what to do. “Turn her head to the side…” She coughed and breathed and I went back to the bar as the paramedics arrived.

But before I could melt into my Scotch and water, the manager and other staff found me. I tried to explain what really happened but I don’t think they understood. The Alabama governor gave me a certificate for lifesaving which I never displayed. When the ‘Centreville Press’ interviewed me, the reporter, a friend of mine got it right: my actions were carried out as if they’d been somehow programmed. When Don taught us rescue breathing, I’d been almost asleep from exhaustion and, possibly, fear.

So I became a true believer. Over the years, I’ve written and spoken about the possible results of an Outward Bound course. First, participation and completion can be a life-changing experience. This is what happened to me. Secondly, Outward Bound can tell folks, “You’re fine: keep on keeping on.” Of all the people I’ve known who have completed a course, only one has come back with this experience. But others, for whatever reason, come home feeling terrible only to get “it” sometime later.

bob pre and postBob before course in the fall of 1975, and post-course in 1976.