The mills and factories of the “Workshop of the World” where I grow up near Gary, Indiana were rusting away and shuttering by the time of my high school graduation. I enlisted in the army to make my escape from the depressed, industrial region and was stationed at Fort McClellan, Alabama for boot camp. Memories of that fall of 1982 spent in the beautiful Choccolocco Foothills of the Appalachians are vivid but none more so, than my momentary fame in the Fort McClellan Bear Pit.
The Bear Pit was a five foot deep muddy hole in the middle of a parade and exercise ground that was twenty to twenty five feet in diameter and lined with sand bags. The exercise commenced when two squads were put down in to the hole with the objective of throwing everyone from the opposing squad out. Keeping as many of your own members in the pit was a prime strategy because two or three guys were needed just to throw one member of the opposition over the high wall.
One cold, wet, blustery day, while the base commander of 10,000-12,000 soldiers and his cadre of junior officers were inspecting our company on the parade ground, my squad of reforming pot heads and skater boy misfits and another composed of linebackers was ordered into the pit. In pretty quick order each and every famine victim from my side was thrown over the rim. Perhaps it was my low center of gravity, or maybe my Indiana, corn-fed physique, or the slickness of the mud that was coating me, but those eight guys could not get a grip on me to throw me over the wall.
The whole company was soon gathered around the rim of the Bear Pit cheering me on, including my muddy, expelled comrades and the battalion brass, who’d come over in their overly starched and pressed cammies and spit-shined, jump boots to see what was causing the commotion. Sensing that being immovable would be my only victory here, I determined that all was fair in this up close combat and began slinging the mud from my arms, hands and fingertips all about. While my opponents wiped their eyes and faces from my mud storm I intertwined my arms and legs around theirs and locked wrestling holds on two of them at a time.
Once they’d managed to break my grip from one leg I’d slide through their hands and between their legs, around the bottom of the pit like a greased pig until I’d find other limbs to latch on like a vise grip. Try as they might the other squad was stymied by my determination to anchor on to them and eventually the match was called a draw by the now mud splattered officers. As I emerged from the pit with a bloody nose and coated in a mixture of sweat and Alabama mud, a cheer rose up across the parade ground. As it died down into a chorus of boos for the other squad, I heard the post commander ask my company XO about me, who then asked my drill sergeant for my name. I thought he might say “good job Handley” or “we need more soldiers like you in this Army, Handley” but instead he said, “you got mud on my boots, Handley”.
I’ve thought about the Bear Pit a lot recently as my start-up manufacturing business has been boot strapping it’s way to sustainability and ultimately, profitability. I understand that stubbornness, willfulness and an ability to fight on (and sometimes fight dirty) without much recognition or reward, are essential attributes for any early stage entrepreneur. When you determine that failure is absolutely not an option, that you will not get thrown out of the Bear Pit, then it becomes easier to persevere one day to the next. Fear, trepidation, anxiety, they all melt away with the resolve to continue moving forward. PittMoss® may not be making my partners and I any money just yet, but it is, more importantly, making a name for itself and to us that feels like victory.