Freezing in a Storm?

On Tuesday night I attended a talk by the author and rancher John Erickson. He’s best known by most people as the creator of Hank the Cowdog, a growing and very popular series of children’s books about, well, Hank, a cowdog, and his associates and human family. However, Erickson’s first books were non-fiction histories and discussions of ranching and the Texas Panhandle. His book, Through Time and the Valley is one of the things that re-kindled my interest in regional history. He was reading from and talking about his latest non-fiction, Prairie Gothic, based on his family’s history.

During the Q and A after his main talk, someone asked him how he could keep going after the horrible fire last year that burned up his home and all the fences and grazing on the ranch. “If I were in that kind of [life]storm, I’d freeze,” the questioner explained.

Erickson’s answer, “If you were married to my wife, you wouldn’t freeze,” generated a lot of chuckles, nudges, and knowing looks among couples old and young in the audience, and he followed that line, then discussed starting to write a book about prairie fires, as well as his two Hank books per year.

I was a little puzzled by the question. Erickson had already mentioned that he had not had time to stop and mourn the losses of so much of his family’s history and the ancient (by regional standards) ranch house in the days following the fire. He had cattle to feed, among other things. Of course he did, I thought. You can’t freeze when you have several hundred animals depending on you for survival, as well as one or two other humans. You have to go on, to do what needs to be done, and set mourning, paralysis, and other reactions aside until you have time to breathe and think. After all, that’s what I have done in similar but (thanks be to the Most High) less serious circumstances.

But why? Why do some people keep moving, doing, caring for others, or solving the new problems, while others freeze, or decompensate loudly or quietly?

Part of it is personality. Some people are followers by birth. They can be male or female, and they do a great job of powering through and doing needed and important things as long as they have a good-to-decent leader. Once given orders and pointed in the right direction, they are fantastic in a crunch. They are also rare, and if no one is capable of giving orders or providing direction, the followers fold.

Part of it is preparation. I am blessed and cursed with a very powerful imagination that runs through “What if?” scenarios constantly. What I have to get the students out of the building? What if I have a flat on the interstate? What if I win the lottery? What if a tornado hits the library while I’m hiding in it? What if the house catches fire? What if the cat starts making that sound in the middle of the night? What if the lawnmower dies? [Party hard, hold a wake, and see if I can rent a sheep or two when the neighbors fuss about the state of the lawn.] I’ve gamed the scenario in my mind, I have a plan or eight, and I can adapt them to what’s going on. I may hesitate for a moment or two, but thus far I have not frozen. Dollars to donuts, Mr. Erickson, his wife, and his neighbors all had mental plans for “what if” in place, and so when the time came they didn’t freeze, and they kept moving after the immediate threat had passed.

Part is training. You care for livestock, not abandon them. You practice fire drills, or tornado drills, or intruder drills. You learn basic first-aid, or more advanced first-aid. You learn how to change a tire, to shut off water to the leaky faucet or toilet*. You try using a fire-extinguisher once or twice to see how it works and what to be concerned about. The military, fire, police, paramedics, others do this over and over and over until certain skills reach the point where thought is not required (one hopes). When the fit hits the shan, that training kicks in and you do what you are trained to even though part of your brain is going “Aieeeeeeeeeee! Whbbawubbawubbawubba.”

So, why did the questioner on Tuesday night claim to freeze in times of great trouble? The individual was a 20-something, just going by looks. I wonder if the person has ever been exposed to a little risk, a little hazard, or sought out any training in “What to Do If.” Perhaps the questioner had, and had frozen. Perhaps the questioner has never been close to such a situation, and should but doesn’t know where to begin. Given our bubble-wrap society, it is certainly possible to grow to legal adulthood without ever encountering serious challenges and tests.

I hope I do not freeze, when the real storms come.




13 thoughts on “Freezing in a Storm?

  1. In any emergency situation, ten percent of people will curl into a helpless ball and cry, or go so mental they become an active hazard. Eighty percent will wander around aimlessly, waiting for instructions. And ten percent will roll up their sleeves, wade in and help, whether they know what they’re doing or not.

  2. Of course, “not freezing” is a learned response, no matter what training one’s had. My initial military training in South Africa was pretty thorough; but when I hit my first firefight, I froze, because it was so unexpected and caught me completely by surprise. Despite any amount of training, nothing can fully prepare you for that sort of thing. As a result, I was hit before I could “snap out of it” and take cover. During my recovery in hospital, I swore several mighty oaths, sacred and profane, that I’d never do that again. I’d experienced the reality of what my training had taught me in theory, and (very fortunately) survived long enough to learn from it. I still have the scar to remind me . . .

    I can think of many military men who learned a similar lesson, in a similar way. I daresay Mr. Erickson and yourself (and my wife, and many others of my acquaintance) can say something similar. What’s the old saw? “Good judgment comes with experience, but experience often comes from bad judgment.” True dat.

    • It’s amazing how often “Lord, get me out of this and I’ll never do it again!” has been uttered by certain members of the Red family.

  3. Thanks, I needed this post….

    What’s scary is that, in my experience, these days most people get rewarded for falling apart. “Let Someone Else Do It.” I’ve actually had to sit down with family members and say, “Look, do you want me weeping and upset, or do you want me to fix the problem? I cannot do both.”

    • There’s a scene in the third Shikari book where Rigi decides that one of her suitors is not acceptable, because he’s freezing and flailing around, and that’s supposed to be HER role. Women have hysterics, or burst into tears, and men deal with the unfolding disaster, not the other way around đŸ˜‰ . [She handles the crisis, then collapses quietly in a corner.]

  4. On the lighter side:

    Some years ago while stationed in San Antonio I was friends with another Air Force family. They had several kids in single digit ages, and the whole family loved “Hank the Cowdog” stories.

    The husband joined a carpool from his neighborhood with several other guys who were stationed at Lackland AFB. When his turn came to drive, he played audio tapes of “Hank the Cowdog” stories for the entire drive to and drive from the base, which was probably a half-hour or me each way when you factor in the check-ID gaggle at the front gate.

    He never had to drive again. đŸ™‚

  5. I’m not apt to freeze, but my time horizon gets very short as I focus almost exclusively on “what is the most important thing I could be doing at this moment”.
    In times of actual crisis, it’s helpful.
    But when it comes to high stress periods of regular life, I chase my tail a lot and leave a lot of projects “mostly done”.

  6. Have to agree with Peter. One never knows until one is IN that position… The first time is usually a WTF moment, before training kicks in…

    • Fortunately, the only time I’ve been shot at was by a [censored!] with buck fever. His companions took his gun away and chased him back to the vehicle to wait for them. And then apologized profusely, because they thought I was the game warden (he’d been shooting into a wildlife sanctuary as the deer fled).

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