I’ve had my share of heroes over the years. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Amelia Earhart, General Chuck Yeager, Colonel Norman Vaughan, to name a few. Hollywood actors or sports heroes have never been folks that I wanted to emulate, other than perhaps, Tim Tebow.
I’ve always admired adventurers. The late evangelist Billy Graham is at the top of my list although most wouldn’t call him an explorer. He was to me where exploring the Bible is concerned.
Of the seven names mentioned, I’ve only met one in person and that’s Colonel Norman Vaughan. The colonel was a close friend of my Fern Lane neighbor, Bill Devine. Bill invited me to a lecture by the famous dog musher and explorer. I was mesmerized by what this gentleman had to say. Norman had a captive voice that was easy to listen to.
Vaughan told the packed auditorium that evening only a very small portion of his near century-long-life which is truly remarkable. He was born into a wealthy family in Massachusetts, yet chose not to pursue business endeavors like his parents wanted. He desired to be a dog musher instead.
When Norman mentioned going to Antarctica with Admiral Richard Byrd, he had me by the gizzard. What Vaughan was able to do in his life were things I only dreamed of. The stories he told that night at Alaska Pacific University had everyone on the edge of their seats. When the talk ended I wanted to know more.
As he sat at a table signing books I had several questions to ask. While others shook his hand and thanked the man I patiently waited for my chance. After the last person walked away, Bill Devine introduced me.
He slowly stood to shake my hand with a noticeable hunch, yet his grip was stronger than most young men. The always smiling Norman was more than happy to chat. He filled me in a bit more on his military career, including a few funny things regarding neighbor Bill that I’d never heard. I eagerly purchased one of his manuscripts before saying thank you and goodbye. Colonel Vaughan inscribed on the inside front cover of my book,
“To Michael – Dream big and dare to fail! Norman Vaughan.”
Before meeting Norman Vaughan that night I’d read about his exploits along with those of Admiral Byrd in a book titled, “Little America: Aerial Exploration in the Antarctic the Flight to the South Pole.” I have a copy of that 1930’s hardcover book signed by Richard Byrd. It’s not unusually rare because most every book he peddled contains a signature.
During Admiral Byrd and Norman Vaughan’s Antarctic trip, the admiral named a mountain after his much younger accomplice. In 1994, at the age of 88, Norman Vaughan was finally able to scale Mt. Vaughan. The mountain is 10,301 feet tall.
In memory of his feat, a group of us at work constructed a metal and cloth tribute on top of a huge snow hill. A photo of it was featured in the “Anchorage Daily News.” Colonel Vaughan made a special trip to our workplace to view the creation along with extending thanks to everyone involved.
I’ve done my own exploring over the years with friends and by myself, yet nothing on the scale of Byrd or Vaughan. Through the reading of books written by explorers and adventurers, I’ve accomplished more dreaming than anything. During early school years, I daydreamed to the point where one teacher thought there was something mentally wrong with me.
She called my parents in for a special talk. It dealt with my staring out the window during class. I still find myself doing such out the living room or kitchen window. The same teacher brought dad and mom in again because I’d fall asleep at my desk. That was only because I stayed up late each night reading “The Hardy Boys” mystery series.
Back then it was easy for me to imagine being inside a homemade submarine constructed from 55-gallon drums. I’d actually drawn up plans for such but thankfully my folks wouldn’t allow the coffin to be built. On other days, my mind would take me deep within hidden caves in search of buried treasure. Sometimes I was an explorer lost in the wilds of Alaska or a pilot breaking the sound barrier. My imagination was endless and still is. It got me into trouble several times where practical jokes were concerned.
Books took me to remote places that I’ll never set foot on. An avid reader, I won an award the summer of 1965 for reading the most books at our local library. My total for three months was well over 100. The prize being of all things; a non-fiction book titled, “Kon-Tiki”, by Thor Heyerdahl.
“Kon-Tiki” is an adventure story about a group of men building a raft out of balsa, and then attempting to cross the South Pacific. I made a copy of their fledgling creation with Popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue for a school project.
Thor Heyerdahl’s book was the perfect prize because it dealt with something that my brother, Jim, and I had already constructed in Alabama. Unfortunately, our crude raft came apart soon after it was launched.
I still have my “Kon-Tiki” book minus front cover thanks to one of our dogs. It was either, “Brutus” or “Ringo”, although after so many years I can’t recall exactly which one. Recently, I saw where a Heyerdahl book in good condition is worth upwards of $150.00 unsigned. The one I have was signed until that valuable portion was consumed.
When my wife saw the title to this story, “Byrd, Vaughan, and Hankins”, she had to chuckle.
“You can’t put yourself on the same level as a Richard Byrd or Norman Vaughn!”
I knew she’d say that and Joleen was right. I figured that’d be the comment of friends and strangers as well. Some might even say,
“That’s mighty vain of him!”
My reply is simple: I believe we’re all explorers in one way or another. A person doesn’t have to climb mountains or hike across frozen Alaska glaciers to lay claim to the title. Visiting an antique shop, historic cabin, or museum is exploration on a different scale. Walking along a meandering stream or through a meadow of blooming Fireweed is the same.
If Norman Vaughan was here I believe he’d say,
“Never stop dreaming or exploring no matter how old you are.”
Placing my name next to Byrd and Vaughan on this article is merely a symbol of where I’d like to be as an explorer. Nothing more. According to Norman Vaughan, there’s no harm in dreaming and setting our goals high!