By Michael W. Gos
One of the most important traits man possesses is his adaptability. It gives him the strength and power to deal with the ever-changing world. This is not a trait unique to man, of course. The entire process of evolution is predicated on species’ abilities to adapt to changes in the environment. In times of drought, when survival for a primitive plant-eating species meant being able to reach tree leaves that weren’t yet eaten, it was the individuals with the longest legs and necks that ate well. Those that couldn’t adapt weren’t competitive enough to survive. Since most young animals tend to resemble their parents, the next generation had longer legs and necks. Today, thousands of generations later, we have the giraffe.
But unlike evolution, which is a multi-generational proposition (just ask any rancher trying to develop a new strain of cattle), man’s adaptability works at the micro level. That is, he is capable of evolving and changing many times over the course of a single lifetime. My father remembered a time when rapid transit meant traveling on horseback. Then came cars, planes and a Purdue man setting the first foot on the moon. In each case, after just a brief adjustment time, he dealt with these new developments as if they had always been a part of life. I’m not sure he ever gave much thought to the number of changes he’d negotiated in his lifetime. His ability to adapt allowed him, like the tall giraffe, to survive the changing world.
I was driving from Del Rio to Marathon, my first stop on a two-week trip to the Big Bend area. About mid-way on the drive I realized I was not only low on gas, but I needed a bathroom break—urgently. I had already passed Comstock and Langtry and it was still a long way to Sanderson. My only hope was Dryden.
Even if you’ve driven this stretch of Highway 90 dozens of times, you may not have noticed Dryden. The “town” consists of a fragment of a convenience store and a couple of small abandoned buildings. It was a going concern from around 1882 till the Depression, at one time having a population over 100. Today it has a population of 13. In fact, the entire population of Terrell County is only 30 and the 2010 census lists the county’s population density as zero persons per square mile. While originally named after an engineer building the railroad that runs alongside the highway, today the name is even more appropriate. It is the “Driest Den” I have ever seen—nothing but rolling sand and gravel piles.
I pulled up to what turned out to be merely a ghost of a store and asked if there was a gas station nearby. The clerk, a not unattractive woman in her early 30s, referred me to Sanderson. When I asked about a bathroom, I got the same response. I was starting to feel a bit “unwelcome” because of the terse responses, so I figured I’d get a little more personal. I asked if she lived around there. That did the trick. She said she had been there all her life. Her father was a goat rancher just north of town. Today she and her husband still eek out a living by ranching the land her dad left her but they both need outside jobs to make that happen. He works as a lineman for the electric company, she at the store.
I asked if she had ever thought about moving somewhere a little less “severe,” like maybe Sanderson. She replied, “Oh, it’s not so bad here. You get used to it.”
I would have liked to spend a little more time there talking to her as once she opened up, she seemed to be a rather pleasant woman, but my bladder was calling and it was still 20 miles to Sanderson. I bought a couple of sticks of jerky, thanked her and said my good-byes.
I remember my first summer out of high school. In Gary, Indiana, if you were going to college, you worked summers in the steel mills. That’s where our fathers worked all their lives. There were no negotiations. That’s the way it was.
My first day there was far worse than any hell I could have imagined. In the building I worked, the pickle line, they poured hot oil on very hot steel to prevent rust. It was 120 degrees. Our skin and clothes were constantly covered in the oil vapor that formed the clouds of air we breathed. One thing you could say for the steel mills, they guaranteed you wouldn’t drop out of college.
I was down in a hole under the mill shoveling oil-covered slitter scrap into a barrel. It was a nasty job. When I had filled the barrel with the little pieces of steel, a two-hour job in itself, I was to call on one of the overhead cranes to drop its hook through a hole in the ceiling. It was then my job to attach the hook to the barrel and get out of the way. As the crane raised the barrel for the first time, it slowly rotated, shooting a stream of oil across my face as a huge rat ran out from behind the barrel, across my shoe.
I swore I’d never go back. My parents had other ideas. I not only went back the next day, I worked there for four summers and as time went on, it wasn’t so bad. I guess I got used to it.
Later, after graduation, I worked as a district circulation manager for a newspaper. At least four times a year we would have sales drives that included contests to see who could generate the most new customers in their district. The winning district manager always received a nice trip somewhere and a fat expense account. For some reason, I was never able to spend the entire allotted expense amount in spite of what I thought was lavish spending. And every time when I returned, I was lectured about the importance of spending ALL the money allotted and told I needed to do better next time.
By the time I got to my fourth year there, the expense accounts for the trips never quite covered my spending—sometimes missing by hundreds of dollars. By the time I realized what had happened, I had developed such bad habits that I “needed” that job just to stay somewhere close to the lifestyle I now demanded.
We can get used to anything over time, be it the steel mills, a lavish lifestyle or life in Dryden. We can do that because we are flexible and learn to flourish in whatever situations we face. That may be one of the strongest and most positive traits of mankind. But as I learned at the newspaper, that adaptability can also be used as a weapon against you. You can get used to anything with time. And that’s how they get you.
The ability to adapt is absolutely critical to a successful and happy life. It seems the people who have a strong ability to “roll with the punches” negotiate life in the most positive way. But we must be ever vigilant in evaluating what we are adapting to. It could just be a trap.