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One Man’s Truth

Posted on Thursday, February 15, 2024
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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15 Comments
The Truth of Ernest Henry Shackelton

Exactly 150 years ago this week, a child was born. May we all drink, in these hard times, of his life’s truth. His parents named him Ernest, a child of wonder, who people later admired, honored, and loved for his courage.

Inside little Ernest burned a fire – to learn, explore, reach for the far horizon, chase it, and when life turned dark, to square himself and stay confident.

The modern world spits out words like these, tapped on a plastic keyboard; imagining such qualities are easy, if we imagine them at all. But they are hard.

Young Ernest – appropriately named, although the quality is spelled “earnest” – was innately curious, notorious for trying his Irish luck, his parents’ patience, and perhaps God’s.

One of ten children, his father set an example for daring of a different sort. Long a farmer, he turned into the wind and became a doctor. Young Ernest was no less a learner, read constantly, and started college at 13.

Questing like his father, he found school boring, so took to the sea. For years, he sailed, growing in qualification, joined the Royal Navy, and finally, successive explorations to the poles.

All this would be interesting, maybe a footnote, if he did not have a passion for pushing the limits, leaning into adversity, a curious mind, brave heart.

Someone who sailed with him as a young man said he was “a departure from our usual type of young officer,” recited poetry, sensitive, but tough, daring.

At 30, he married his love, Emily. They had three children between risky, at times physically taxing, occasionally death-defying expeditions. By 1914, then turning 40, he had sailed with great explorers and now turned to lead.

In a ship called Endurance, he hoped to sail into the Weddell Sea, then walk across Antarctica – becoming the first to cross the continent. 

With 28 men, he left in fall 1914.  Questioned, he said: “I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”  Ship name? “By endurance … we conquer.”

The Endurance got to Antarctica, his crew a hodge-podge but loyal, sharing duties regardless of rank, all included in his thinking, meals eaten together.

They arrived in the Weddell Sea, then suddenly were caught in pack ice, beginning a struggle to survive that required focus, faith, and true leadership.

By January – now 1915 – the crew knew their fate. They worked together, Ernest beside them. By November, the ship was crushed; they were on ice.

Escapes all failed. Ernest set up “Camp Patience” out on the ice, conserved their food, led by personal example, and let the ice drift, a crew deeply loyal.

Through ice drift, by April, they neared open ice floes. Ernest planned a dangerous retreat into the South Atlantic Sea using three lifeboats.

Launched, the little boats heaved in darkness, wind, and swells as the crew navigated by stars – toward a hypothetical sliver of land, Elephant Island.

Five days, 346 miles later, by the Grace of God, all three hit that sliver of rock.

Living only by killing birds, they sheltered and turned to Ernest.

He never lost confidence and later said, “I have often marveled at the thin line that separates success from failure… Optimism is true moral courage.”

In the moment, his optimism – and leadership, like saving food for Christmas and Easter – fortified them to re-rig a 22-foot, open boat. Five, led by Ernest, set out for South Georgia Island, a needle in a haystack 800 miles away.

Fifteen days later, through hundred-foot seas and a hurricane, they arrived on the cliffy side of that island. Climbing, with 50 feet of rope, stripped to nothing, they got up, slid down a glacier, and presented themselves – two years after being presumed dead  – to whalers on the other side.

In shock, barely recognizing Ernest, they too followed his lead, reequipped a ship, and headed back, over the same 800 miles, to retrieve his men. 

Incredibly, they found Elephant Island, all his men alive, returned with them to South Georgia Island, and from there to England.

Ernest did not lose one man, despite threats of freezing, drowning, starvation, depression, sickness, leopard seals, and getting crushed in ice floes or unforgiving seas over and over.

Why? Because the attitude he brought to the impossible was one of full faith and resolution. He knew they would make it. He believed, and they believed in him, so they believed. And together, they did the impossible.

Many lessons are drawn from what Ernest did. Of course, he is Sir Ernest Henry Shackelton, who facing insurmountable odds, never gave up. The book Endurance is worth a read.

Three lines stick. We face challenges, could use his confidence. The three lines? “If you are a leader, a fellow other fellows look to, you have to keep going.” Is it not true, in any setting? We all need that resolve today.

Second: “We had seen God in his splendors … reached the naked soul of man.” When people are truly humbled, face death, pray and survive, it changes them. It did him and that crew.

Last? I chuckled rereading his views on life, yet he was right; we grow by turning into the wind, overcoming fears and adversities. He said, with seriousness: “When things are easy, I hate it.” May we all drink of that truth.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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Rex
Rex
2 months ago

A great time, a great nation. Made great by people such as this man. inspiring story.

Melinda
Melinda
2 months ago

What an extraordinary life! I doubt there are many like him in the last few generations.

SusanW
SusanW
2 months ago

Great story!! Thank you, Robert! Sir Ernest Shackleton has always been a hero of mine. Growing up in the jungles of Venezuela and the streets of London, I always felt a connection to him, even feeling like we were kindred spirits. I was described by multiple family members as being a child of wonder, innately curious, well known for trying the patience of my parents, and a life-long learner. As an educator, I was selected in 2006 to travel to Antarctica for three weeks, to “hang” with the scientists who were researching the early signs of climate change. My students and I had been following their research from a collaboration that I had created for my classroom. It was magical! Unfortunately, I was not able to travel there as my mother became very ill and I had to prepare to care for her. As Shackleton so intuitively said, “ Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” A quote I truly took to heart at that time. We should all take that quote to heart especially during these challenging times. Never give up hope, dreams, or your sense of wonder.

Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
2 months ago

And here I think I’m resourceful if I manage to not have to reference Google Maps to get across town!

Max
Max
2 months ago

Excellent story. The National Geographic has a program that pertains to the searching and finding of the Endurance in the Weddell Sea and goes over the hardships that the crew had to endure during the time of their expedition.

Howard
Howard
2 months ago

WOW! What a story! What a man! Would that we had world leaders like Shackleton today! Thanks, RBC. You never disappoint us.

Susabella
Susabella
2 months ago

While visiting Victoria BC, I saw a film – a documentary about Shackleton. Actual pictures from his amazing journey, and it was truly amazing to use an overused word. I have looked for that film in order to show others, and have found several, but none as real as that one I saw in Canada.

GTPATRIOT
GTPATRIOT
2 months ago

Thank you

Tracy
Tracy
2 months ago

Those were the days of admiring the rugged individual! I wish that would return. Our leaders and youth are so timid and weak!

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