A Schoolteacher from Connecticut becomes a world traveler
By Helena Wahlstrom
If globetrotting misadventures are your thing, you might as well learn all about them from a schoolteacher. Especially one called “Jungle.”
In his book “Summers Off: The Worldwide Adventures of a Schoolteacher,” Larry “Jungle” Shortell, special education teacher from Connecticut, takes readers with him underneath the crystalline waters of Aruba, to the soaring heights of Mt. Fuji, and into towels-optional saunas in Germany.
After he spent half a lifetime working hard to shake the poverty of his youth, Shortell found his path to freedom in education.
His career as a teacher “gives me the ability to wander wherever my spirit takes me.” And wander he does: in more than twenty years, he has traveled around the world twice and visited each U.S. state and more than eighty countries, on all seven continents.
Shortell organizes his tales alphabetically, from Aruba to Zip Lines in Costa Rica, and has a penchant for alliteration (a la Cannibalistic Caterpillars).
Rather than following any storyline, each short chapter depicts an individual experience in Shortell’s extensive travel history, so readers can enjoy a bite-sized portion of adventure or sample his alphabet in any order they choose.
“Summers Off” reminds readers of the thrill of breaking out of our safe routines in order to discover something more. In his tale of skydiving in New Zealand, Shortell reflects, “I think that too many people do not really choose a path. They are, instead, pushed and prodded in the direction that makes them fear life—or the loss of it… I now believe that it is at this point that people’s spirits begin to die.”
The path Shortell chose led him to wrestle with an octopus, singe his boots in volcanic heat, and experience a close encounter with a black bear, to name just a few.
Excerpt: New Zealand: Jump & Dive
One of my favorite quotes comes from Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart. In the movie, he claimed, “All men die; not every man truly lives.” I love that line. It means so much to me.
Personally, I think that some people don’t truly live; they merely exist. During the first part of my adult life, I worked, paid the bills, watched television, and periodically had the time and the money for a social event. For many people, this is enough; a regular schedule uncomplicated by change and filled with predictability.
For me, that life was simply not enough. In that version of life, I had trouble determining where the “living” part was. Now, when I am fighting with the choice to do something or not, the decision will inevitably be to go for it!
After several years of avoiding the skydiving situation, as well as any conversations about skydiving, my apprehension turned to disappointment. I actually got mad at myself for letting fear rule me.
When the frustration finally outweighed the fear, I decided to just make it happen. I am not oblivious to risks and hazards, but with many of the exciting things I have done, and still hope to do, I intentionally choose to focus (as I did when I was a kid) on the enjoyment as opposed to the possibility of what negative things might happen. Fun over fear is now my motto.
While it sounds like a perfectly good motto—short, simple, and to the point—it is sometimes hard to follow.
I did not know which I was more afraid of; jumping out of the plane and taking a chance of my parachute not opening, or being crammed into a tiny plane until it was my time to jump. I am so claustrophobic that I cannot even have my sheets tucked in on my bed.
This had been my one remaining hurdle for skydiving success—to ensure that I would be jumping out of a perfectly good, big plane.
As I walked out onto the tarmac, still adjusting my leather helmet, I looked ahead to the plane, and my legs began to give way. It was not because I was getting close to taking the big dive.
It was because the plane was the size of the first car I had ever crashed. My car had held a squashed maximum of six occupants, and now this similar-sized matchbox of a plane was about to hold twelve of us—plus a pilot!
Thinking that it was going to be like a general seating situation (first come-first served), I got into the plane first in order to secure a good seat. I wanted to sit close to the door so I could be the first one out of this tiny tin can.
As I reluctantly stuck my head in, I realized that the cabin was so small that there was not even room for seats. To my personal horror, as the first person in, I had to move all the way up to the front of the plane.
This meant that there would be ten bodies squashing me up against the back of the pilot’s seat—five other instructors, each with his own student in tow. In my misguided attempt to avoid any extra time in tight quarters, I had landed myself in the most absolutely claustrophobic spot on the plane!
I was nervous and my adrenaline was flowing. I needed to get out and run around, but I obviously could not. Sitting on the floor of that plane, I could hardly breathe, let alone stretch a leg.
It was a ride that seemed long enough to take us all the way to Easter Island, when, in fact, it took all of about fifteen minutes to steadily climb to fifteen thousand feet, where we would deplane. The other first-timers had the same kind of blank, petrified looks on their faces.
I am sure each one probably wanted to say something to take his or her mind off of the impending jump, but no one could, because it was a very loud plane ride, and I had the floor the whole time.
When we reached our jump altitude and location, I was ready to jump. When my turn came, I scooted to the edge, looked down at an abundance of clouds through which I had a slight glimpse of land and water, and immediately started to push myself over the edge. My instructor grabbed me and pulled me back.
“We must wait for the pilot’s signal,” he yelled as the wind whisked his voice out the door and into the clouds. He also reminded me that we needed to go on the count of three.
I thought of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon and wanted to ask if we count one, two, and go on three, or count one, two, three and then go. I just wanted out of that small plane, so on the count of one, I leaned forward and we dropped. So much for my fear of not being able to jump!
My stomach was in my mouth as we plummeted toward the earth, reaching break-neck speeds. It fell back into place once I reached maximum speed of 120 miles per hour.
I immediately smiled and screamed joyfully. My lips flapped and my mouth dried out instantly as the rushing air flew in, blowing it up like a balloon. It was pretty uncomfortable, so just as quickly, I closed my mouth and decided to be content with smiling and laughing hysterically to myself.
I believe the free fall lasted for about forty-five seconds, although I was not looking at a watch. The dive instructor and I then spread our arms and legs like, well, skydivers.
The pose was similar to someone making snow angels on his belly, except that, in this case, our arms and legs were bent. Maybe more like a monster trying to scare little kids. Anyway, after we maneuvered ourselves into this pose, the instructor pulled the ripcord.