Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Well, it happened again: I missed June for the third time in four years.  I offer no excuses, but the reasons were varied, ranging from yet another funeral trip to a massive load of magazine writing, editing, and proofing, and scrambling to deliver The Next Book.

Rather than comment on subjects that absolutely everybody else is addressing these days—whether the perennial troubles besetting George Zimmerman or the endless litany of government corruption—I sought a more personal topic. 

Recently I glimpsed a Youtube video of a drum and bugle corps competition in the Midwest.  That’s it! I thought.  Competition often gets a bad name in the XXI Century, but I’m convinced of its benefits and life lessons.

Now, I’m a low-key individual; ask anyone who knows me.  Aside from occasional rants (still rare even on this blog) I keep a low resting pulse rate, and my blood pressure is the envy of my doctor’s clinic.  After my annual physical some years back I asked the doctor how I was doing.  She said, “Barrett, you prove that 58 is the new 57!”

But I do like to compete.  Maybe that’s normal for one of three sons, but I learned early on that I was never going to beat Number Two academically.  (He graduated Stanford with honors and became a Rhodes Scholar.)  However, in high school I won state and regional events as a speaker, and I was a two-time Oregon percussion champion--tenor and rudimental bass.  

One of the vivid memories of my youth was standing in formation after the state drum and bugle corps championship in 1964, my freshman year in high school.  The Falcons never did well in field events but we were loaded with talent—one year we astonished everyone (including ourselves) by taking more than half the individual medals.  Winners were called front and center to receive their awards, and I’ll always remember the adrenalin rush, the thrill as my name was announced.  (Immediately followed by embarrassment as my mother hollered from the grandstand.)

You’re heard of Little League Fathers and Soccer Moms?  Trust me: they’re in the same genus as Drum Corps Parents.

Much later I won occasional rifle and pistol matches, and in 1997 I led the national championship team in cowboy action shooting.  (I never got kissed that much since VJ-Day, and I wasn’t at VJ-Day!) 

I peaked as a competitive shooter between ages 47 and 49.  In 1996 I shot the entire ten-stage national championship with one miss, finishing 38th out of 400.  That was a thrill, as I’d finally found the optimum balance between speed and accuracy.  I knew that the rifle round fired from inside the stagecoach was a miss when I touched it off, but I learned another lesson from competition: stay focused on the immediate task or challenge.  You cannot undo what’s done, but you can try harder every time henceforth.

Shooting a “clean match” at the 1998 Winter Range national championships also was a highlight: hitting 176 targets in ten stages--on the clock without a miss--was a record I could never beat and never tied. 

Whether consciously or not, I think I was drawn to non-cardio events as a way of compensating for my asthma limitations.  I was never going to be an athlete, but I could compete on even terms in debate and music, and to an extent in action shooting.

Many of my friends are what you could call Intense Competitors.  One of my coauthors, a professional fighter pilot and MiG killer, described himself as “safety wired on the Intense setting.”  He was in good company.  I remember Medal of Honor aviator Joe Foss, that kind soul and Christian gentleman, only half-joking when he said, “I can’t let my grandchildren win at Go Fish.”  

And a shooting pal admitted, “I had to quit competing because I was going to ruin some friendships.  I just could not stand to lose, even if I knew it was more my fault than somebody else’s.”

In today’s PC era, when education is conducted by socialist ideologues and emotional grass eaters in a carnivore world, we’re into the second generation of the feel-good philosophy.  Without diverting to a Rant about outcome-based education, competition has been downplayed across the fruited plain.  There was a time when you could feel good if you’d done your best; given your full effort.  Too often today, you get a star on your chart or an attaboy if you showed up.  Taken to extremes, I remember a P-38 ace who looked at the beribboned airmen of the 1980s and exclaimed, “I guess the Air Force gives medals for perfect attendance.”

Recently I saw The Magnificent Seven again.  Steve McQueen (Vin) allows that more than the money, he enjoys the gunfighting trade for the competition involved.  Yul Brenner (Chris) describes James Coburn (Britt) as the best of the best, with knife or gun.  One of the Mexican villagers seeking to hire the gunnies asks, “If he is the best with a knife and with a gun, with whom does he compete?”

Chris gives a knowing grimace.  “With himself.”

There’s wisdom in that line.  The concept of competing with yourself is often characterized as seeking a new “personal best.”  It applies across the board, from golf to combat, and more than one warrior has said, “War is a full-contact sport.” 

It’s no original thought to conclude that we learn more from losing than from winning.  And in sports since nobody wins all the time (excepting Rocky Marciano), every competitor knows going in that he or she will lose at some point. 

Yet we see “coaches” who value artificial self esteem over accomplishment.  As if it’s possible to protect youngsters from the inevitability of losing.  It’s not only Mission Impossible, it’s downright harmful. 

Winning is more fun than losing, but the joy in competing is in accomplishment.   We set our own standards, and the lessons learned from early competition can provide lessons that can last a lifetime.