I recently gave an illustrated talk at a pop-up arts venue in York. The building they had commandeered was an old fire station complete with pole through the ceiling. To my astonishment the organiser announced that if anyone wanted to have a slide on the pole they were welcome to. I say ‘astonishment’ because as an event organiser myself, the insurance implications of such an activity sent my liability calculations zooming into orbit.
As the evening wore on, I watched lots of people take up the invitation – undeterred by any risk – and slide down the pole with joyful abandon. I said to my sister who was with me at the event that ever since I was a schoolboy and our class had visited a fire station where the use of the pole had been demonstrated by one of the firemen I’d always wanted to have a go on one.
“Well, now’s your chance” she said and rummaged in her handbag for her phone to take a video of the stunt. She held the phone and looked at me expectantly. I could see that a significant moment had arrived. I turned for the stairs.
As I climbed the echoing steps to the top floor I passed through various empty rooms that had been stripped of their furnishings. The crumbling plasterwork and general dilapidation of the building reminded me of my own advancing years and how my reflexes and suppleness weren’t as good as they used to be.
I arrived at the vestibule where you launch yourself onto the pole and I studied the scene. The pole was within easy reach but I made the mistake of looking down through the hole to where the pole was bolted to the floor of the fire station. Lord! It was a good ten metres down and I began to weigh up all the possible outcomes of the stunt. The one that loomed the largest was the one where I miscalculate the slipiness of the pole and I go whizzing uncontrollably down it to crash awkwardly onto the concrete floor and break a few bones in my feet incapacitating me for months to come. As a self-employed man the risk was simply too great and cautiously I backed away from the orifice slightly shame faced and greatly disappointed.
Back in the event room I told my sister it was higher than I had anticipated and I simply balked at the risk of something going wrong.
Later in the evening I got talking to a member of the audience and he asked me if I had been down the pole. I answered truthfully and explained to him all the reasons why I thought it was a bad idea for a man of my age.
“You’re over-thinking it,” he said. “Come on, let me show you how easy it is” and with that he encouraged me to follow him as he walked towards the staircase door. Another significant moment arrived: do I politely decline or trust this stranger with my life?
I followed him.
Once again I stood by the vestibule with the stranger in front of me. He stood poised to launch himself when he turned to me and said “Don’t look down, just grab the pole and commit fully to the slide” and then he effortlessly reached out for the pole and was gone.
I stood alone looking at the pole. I was calculating the physics of -
I knew if I stood there any longer I would go through the same looped thinking process that would talk me out of reaching for the pole and so before I did I launched myself.
To my astonishment I had near total control of my descent (my logical mind immediately understood why the pole was approximately 5 inches in diameter – it greatly increased the coefficient of friction) and I could have stopped mid-slide if I’d wanted to.
Safely on the floor of the fire station I turned to my mentor and we high-fived the little achievement. I was genuinely grateful to him for pushing me out of my comfort zone and then he exited out of my life, possibly for good.
As I walked back to where my sister was sitting I couldn’t help thinking of the famous quote “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
My sister missed the photo opportunity because I acted impulsively and didn’t let her know. Sometimes it’s better to trust your gut than your head.
Great lessons can be learned from small incidents; I was honest with people about my failure, they offered to help, I welcomed their help and together we achieved success.
After waiting many decades, the fire station pole is now off my list.