Don’t feed the bad things and keep your Wingman close

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- There I was, stranded on a section of coral reef about 100 yards from the friendly sands of Midway Island. Nightfall was approaching but I just couldn't force myself back into the water to swim to shore.

The sun was setting, the tide was rising and there were sharks everywhere I looked. My survival options were slowly disappearing.

It was the fall of 1982 and I was working for a Hawaii-based construction company on Midway Naval Air Station in the North Pacific. I had been there for a couple of months and was very familiar with the island and its surrounding waters.

One day after work I went snorkeling with my friend Donny Callaway and the base physician, Doctor Boone. It was nearly 5 p.m. and although there were only a few hours of sunlight left, we eagerly hit the surf.

After diving for 30 minutes near Midway's first barrier-reef, my compatriots signaled that they wanted to head out towards the second-reef to look around.

For a 19-year-old kid from Hawaii, Midway's off-shore was like a seafood amusement park. The waters were teeming with gigantic schools of fish and I couldn't believe how easy it was to string-up a bunch of trophies in no time flat.

Unfortunately, my good luck disintegrated after I fed a few "non-keepers" to some baby sharks swimming nearby. In rapid succession, that boneheaded move snowballed into an epically dangerous situation.

Two more reef sharks appeared and made high-speed passes at my string of fish. Then out of nowhere a lightning-fast attacker ripped into my stringer, leaving a tethered fish-head in its wake.

To address the attacks I speared more fish and fed them directly to the newly arrived sharks thinking they would simply go away with their food. No such luck.

That only lured in more freeloaders. One of the newly-arrived sharks was pretty big, somewhere near 7 or 8 feet long, and he wasn't the least bit intimidated by me or my spear.

After his impressive fly-by, my composure completely unraveled. My heart-rate went through the roof and my breathing became rapid as I realized that I couldn't physically account for all the sharks in the water.

Thanks to the big shark, I was now broadcasting amplified distress signals to every other shark in the neighborhood. They immediately knew that I was the weakest link in their food chain and sensed it was dinner time.

Thankfully, one of the hungrier sharks took off with my fish-stringer and started a diversionary feeding frenzy off in the distance. Not wanting to look a gift-shark in the mouth, I backstroked to a nearby coral reef and clambered up to where the water was only about a foot deep.

Within seconds a few fins broke the surface and some of the sharks tried to get up on the reef to bite me. It was like a surreal horror movie. I felt my heart pounding out the "Jaws" theme as sharks zigzagged around my protective reef.

I was temporarily safe but knew that once the tide rolled in and the water deepened, I'd be on the appetizer list once again. I prayed for an assault raft full of heavily-armed Navy SEALs but would have settled for Chuck Norris in a dinghy with a butter-knife.

Unfortunately, my feet were still 12 inches below sea-level and a rescue party was nowhere to be found. Regardless, I kept on praying.

Thankfully Donny and Doc emerged on the beach and heard me shouting for help from the reef. I kept yelling for them to get a boat, but they couldn't understand what I was saying. They only knew that I was in trouble.

Without hesitation Donny jumped back into the water and started swimming out toward me -- straight into the shark pep-rally I started earlier. Although I protested as loudly as I could, Donny just kept swimming full speed ahead.

When he was about 50 feet from me, he started punching at the water to scare the sharks away so he could get to the reef. First thing he did was ask me if I was bleeding or if I'd been bitten. He said that the entire area was chocked-full of sharks and that we'd need to start swimming to shore in a back-to-back configuration before it got any darker.

I asked if he saw "the big one" and his eyes widened as he asked for specifics. So I told him about the potential nightmare lurking nearby just seconds before we began the longest 100-yard swim of our lives.

On the way in we chased off a bunch of the little sharks and kept the medium ones at bay with a few pokes of the spear. Thankfully, the big-one never reappeared.

Eventually, Donny and I stumbled onto the shore just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Safe at home and permanently off the menu.

I learned valuable lessons about the consequences of my actions that day. Feeding bad things, whether physical or metaphorical, could ultimately destroy my life. That day I fed real sharks who could literally chew me to pieces.

But for many years I also nourished metaphorical sharks that could also destroy my personal and professional life just the same. By feeding things like anger, pride, selfishness, apathy and irresponsibility, I fueled the feeding frenzy of bad things in my life.

Although many allegorical sharks sidetracked me during the early years of my Air Force career, I finally uncovered an effective repellant. As I fed good things and ran from bad things, I realized that my career and personal life progressed exponentially.
By nourishing activities that led to self improvement, healthy relationships, honor, duty, service and other positive outcomes, I could starve the things that once ruined me and simultaneously drive other bad things away.

At first I purposefully distanced myself from bad habits and bad people until my shark population dwindled down to a manageable level. Then I realized that dire circumstances, regardless of how desperate they seemed, were never really hopeless when I had family, faith and friends to call on.

Over the years I've found competent Wingmen who kept me accountable and helped me maintain focus on my core values and beliefs. Sometimes I felt I needed Chuck Norris around (since sharks get into protective cages whenever Chuck Norris goes swimming). But in actuality, all I needed was a Wingman who would either swim through shark-infested waters with me or help me avoid bad situations altogether.

Bottom line -- feed the good things and starve the bad. Seek the high ground. Call for help when you need it and keep your Wingman close.