Of Pioneers and Pawns

If all goes according to plan, a new world record will be made tomorrow morning, less than 24 hours from now. Felix Baumgartner, an extreme sky-diver and BASE jumper, will be jumping from 120,000 feet in an attempt to become the first human to break the sound barrier, without the protection of an aircraft. Felix will free-fall for nearly seven minutes until he deploys his parachute at 5000 feet above Roswell, New Mexico. If successful, Felix will shatter the previous record jump of 102,800 feet, set by Joe Kittinger in 1960.

Events and people like this fascinate me. They are called pioneers for a reason: they are willing to go places and do what few others can or will. Men like Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, Charles Lindbergh, Alan Shepard, and Neil Armstrong were willing to put their fears of the unknown aside in order to meet a challenge. The rest of us can scarcely understand how these individuals think or rationalize what they want to do. They have desires to do things that the vast majority of people do not. When asked to explain why they are willing to do these things, these pioneers rarely can offer an answer beyond “Why not?” When asked why he was so driven to solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, Charles Lindbergh replied, “Why shouldn’t I fly from New York to Paris?” Why not indeed?

It is interesting to note that the word pioneer has the same origin as the word pawn (and peon). Both words come from the Latin root pedo, which means foot. This makes sense because pioneers were generally “walking” into new territory—setting their feet where others have not. Modern-day pioneers are rarely “walkers,” they are nearly always “flyers,” and Felix Baumgartner is no different in this regard. He is a flyer without a flying machine. Once he steps out of his balloon-drawn capsule into the stratosphere—23 miles above the Earth’s surface—he will have nothing to stop him but a couple of parachutes. His “voyage of exploration” will end right back where he started, four hours earlier.

But these pioneers are also pawns in the sense that their willingness to take their exploration all the way to the end—even to death—can end as badly and as quickly as a foot soldier’s willingness to obey the call to advance. There is a fine line between being a pioneer and being a pawn; the former is celebrated, while the latter is stepped over and forgotten.

America was built on the pioneer spirit. Man and women were taking their feet—sometimes dragging them—to places where others said they couldn’t go. Pioneers have to learn early, and often, that other less “mobile” individuals will always be the first to say it can’t be done. And for them this is a true statement; the less adventurous types weren’t given the ability to see past the hurdles. For them, each hurdle is an adventure all on its own. Pioneers need pawns, and pawns need pioneers. We may find it difficult to understand a pioneering individual like Felix Baumgartner, but we need men like him to keep us from losing momentum. Pawns can get tired and uninspired very quickly, but pioneers remind us that there is much yet to do. There are bridges to build, oceans to cross, and skies to fly. Are you ready for today’s adventure? What about tomorrow’s?