It’s not like I was trying to kill him. I doubt that anyone has ever tried to kill him.
But I still almost killed Brian Schwammlein.
It was about ten years ago, and I was a youth pastor. Like most youth pastors, I had a goatee, used the word “bro” a lot, and constantly worried about what other people thought of me.
So when I was invited to join a pretty exclusive group of youth pastors (I now realize how ridiculous that sounds) for a weekend houseboat trip on Lake Michigan in Chicago, I felt nervous and honored at the same time. Mostly nervous. But I said yes. I think my exact words were:
“Bro! That would be awesome. Can’t wait, dude. It’ll be awesome, bro.”
About twelve of us gathered on a large houseboat, and it was obvious that most of the guys already knew each other, which was awkward for me. It’s hard to join a fraternity that already has momentum. I kept feeling like the guy in the movies who is running alongside the train, frantically looking for the right moment to jump on board.
There were jet skis tethered to the houseboat, and the leader of the trip was oddly making sure that everybody spent some time on them that afternoon.
“Wiens, have you ever jet skied?”
“Of course,” I lied. I had never been on a jet ski in my life.
I don’t know why we do this. But whenever a group of guys get together, we would sell our mothers into slavery sooner than we’d admit something that would make us appear weak, incompetent, or uncool.
“Dude, you change your own oil, right?”
“Bro, all the time.”
An hour or so before dinner, our leader gathered us together and told us that there weren’t enough beds for everybody on the houseboat, so we were going to have a competition to see who would get the beds. He lined us up two-by-two, and told each pair of guys to get on a jet ski.
I was paired with Brian Schwammlein. I think perhaps you see where this is going.
Brian actually had been on a jet ski before that day, so he got in the driver’s position, and I sat behind him.
“See that boat out there?” our leader pointed, indicating a speck on the horizon, a thousand miles away. “You’re going to race out to that boat, and then when you get to it, you’re going to switch places, turn around, and the other guy will drive. The fastest eight guys back to the houseboat get the beds. Go.”
Brian opened up the throttle full blast and we were one of the first ones to the boat. We clumsily switched spots, and my thumb found the throttle.
The houseboat seemed a long way off, so I gunned it.
The first thing I learned that day is that jet skis go very fast.
As we were approaching the houseboat, a thought wandered into my mind, innocently at first, but it gained an exquisite urgency the closer I got to the houseboat.
How do you stop a jet ski?
I was headed directly for the houseboat, and I think we must have been going 400 miles per hour. So I let off on the throttle and turned the handlebars to the right.
And nothing happened.
Seriously. I kept my thumb off the throttle, kept turning the handlebars to the right, and the jet ski kept not turning.
Of course, those of who you are expert jet skiers, or even experts in kindergarten powers of deduction, have already realized that in order to turn, you must give the jet ski some gas. This is the second thing I learned that day, albeit too late.
I didn’t know that. And it just kept feeling so wrong to give it gas when we were getting so close to the houseboat.
Brian Schwammlein was probably screaming helpful instructions in my ear, but I couldn’t hear anything. I could see, however, the panicked looks of the guys on board the boat, as it was becoming more and more obvious that I was completely unable to avoid a direct impact. Guys started diving out of the way. On the boat.
What happened next is why I believe in God, and why I believe God must have a wonderful plan for Brian Schwammlein’s life.
At the last moment, I gave it gas and yanked the jet ski to the right. Somehow – maybe it was the desperate prayers from the guys on board – we launched out of the water, and instead of hitting the houseboat head on, we gracefully glanced off of the side of the houseboat, as if I had just pulled off a trick I had been practicing for weeks.
(It was actually pretty awesome.)
We flew off the jet ski, and into the water, and Brian Schwammlein did not die. He was fine. I was fine, too. The jet ski was even fine. The houseboat had a scratch on it, which I felt horrible about. But no one died.
I felt so incredibly stupid. I mean, I felt a little cool about narrowly avoiding death, but remember the rules when guys are together: Don’t do anything that reveals that you are weak, incompetent, or uncool.
In one glorious moment, I had accomplished all three.
The third thing I learned that day is that you can be weak, incompetent, uncool and awesome at the same time. We all are, all the time.
So, this post is for those of you who have recently done something that made you feel stupid, weak, or incompetent. It’s for those of you who are suffocating in the hot mess of shame.
If that describes you in any way, take heart. You have never almost killed Brian Schwammlein.
And you’re also pretty awesome.
In it together, friends.