One of the more gratifying experiences I had when serving as an officer in the military was to hear, in the wee hours of the morning, after midnight when no one was stirring – except perhaps those Russian submarines – one of the junior staff, emptying bins and sweeping floors, declare he was forsaking his uniform and was off to university. He went on to become a doctor with more degrees than the rest of us put together. Despite the military telling him he was only good enough to clean up after the rest of us.
Growing up as a kid in New Zealand there were a number of Herculean characters who featured large in our consciousness, in part thanks to a teacher (“Willy” Williamson) who would perch on the side of his desk, one foot on the floor, a gleam in his eye and a story or three to tell. (Do these sorts of teachers ever know what impact they have on us?) He ranged across all types and nationalities, from fables through fact, fiction and history. Churchill was a favourite. And those early years of the Battle of Britain. He had some favourite warships as well. Not great battleships too precious to put to sea but the smaller cruisers which did gallant things. And of course he regaled us with Edmund Hillary and the fact that a bee keeper had conquered Everest.
That was always his point and it strikes a chord deep in me still – that a bee keeper can conquer the world. And keep his head. That a bee keeper from rural New Zealand, where we had our own roots, could make his mark. And that was Willie’s point of course – that we could all go on and do great things. Despite our very modest, rustic roots.
But only if we emulated Edmund’s humility. Edmund never made a big deal about the victory of that climb in 1953 but we all knew about his work supporting the Sherpa communities in Nepal. Make a molehill out of your successes and few will spurn you was the advice. Edmund Hillary’ death yesterday took me back to all that in a rush and I wallowed in the memory of an aura of black and white gallantry and animated newscast voiceovers and Willie and his heroes. Who became ours.
That young rating who went on to become a doctor would appreciate and relate to what Edmund Hillary said about himself: “In some ways I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander: I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed.” Amen to that.
Vale Sir Edmund Hillary.
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