Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Over the past few decades I’ve read a fair amount about the ins and outs of risk taking. You can find all kinds of arguments in the management and leadership literatures about probabilities, outcomes, and the like. Of course, at the heart of every risk-taking argument you find the same question: How much risk is too much? Although there’s no simple answer to this question, I can tell you when I first got a taste for how much is too much. And if a personal story proves to be the right vehicle for conveying the message of moderation to a cocky teenager or perhaps an irresponsible employee who has taken an insane risk and won—and, worse still, has interpreted the lucky outcome as evidence of his or her profound wisdom—then this just might be the right story. It took me a while to fully understand my own experience, but I get it now.
When my mother woke me that fateful Saturday morning in 1956 by announcing that the local newspaper had posted a minus tide, I knew what was up. Mom was after clams. Everyone in our family loved clams fried in butter, and since anyone could dig them up for free, the tasty mollusks always fit nicely into our budget. The only problem was you couldn’t find clams unless the tide was out farther than normal, so you had to wait for a minus tide.
I put on my old jeans, and as I sat down at the kitchen table with my usual bowl of Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, mom plopped an empty gunny sack on my lap. The large bag signaled that my mother wasn’t interested in tiny butter clams after all; she wanted their ugly cousins—Tresus capax, or horse clams. You couldn’t fry these four-pound, disgusting looking creatures in butter without transforming them into a chunk of nasty-tasting rubber; but you could cut them up into small pieces and make them into tasty chowder. And mom was in the mood to put up a couple dozen quarts of clam chowder.
“No!” I exclaimed in protest. “I can’t dig horse clams; they’re too fast for me.”
Butter clams I could easily catch by digging rapidly in the wet sand, but not horse clams. The minute you penetrated the surface above a horse clam’s lair in the sand, it would burrow deeper—far faster than any ten-year-old boy could dig.
“Don’t worry,” mom explained. “I’m sending your brother with you. He’ll teach you a trick for sneaking up on them.”
I thought mom was pulling my leg about sneaking up on clams, but when my older brother, Bill, walked into the kitchen wearing his clamming duds I figured that maybe we actually would be able to bring home chowder makings. Not necessarily because Bill knew how to ambush horse clams, but at his size and weight he could probably dig fast enough to catch four-pounders. Either way, I knew we were in for a hard, wet, and dirty job.
Getting to the clams turned out to be no walk in the park. It was in fact a long walk in the woods over a steep hill that stood between our residence and Chuckanut Bay—home to the horse clams. After an hour of trudging through brambles and briars we eventually stumbled down the final slope of the hill bordering the tide flat. Now that we were fairly close to our quarry, Bill let me in on the horse-clam secret.
“It’s easy,” my brother explained as we walked toward the far edge of the spongy tide flat. “You look for signs of a horse clam and then you sneak up on it.”
“Is this like that stupid snipe hunt?” I asked. “Like that night last summer when I stood holding a bag in the rain while you were supposedly herding “snipes” in my direction, but you were really sitting by a warm bonfire roasting hot dogs and laughing at me because I was shivering in the rain and shouting ‘Here snipe, here snipe’? Because if it is, I’m not falling for it this time.”
“Don’t be stupid,” my brother chided as he dropped to a crouch and slowly eased up on a spot on the wet sand—looking every bit as if he were sneaking up on a clam. But how could he be ambushing a clam? I wondered. The clams that we dug always sat a couple of feet beneath the surface of the sand so you certainly couldn’t see them.
“Listen, if all you’re going to do is make fun of me, I’m going home right now,” I whined, trying not to look too much like a crybaby.
“Shhhh!” Bill shushed me as he crept along, lowering himself even closer to the wet sand. “Do you see that mark over there?” he whispered as he pointed to no place in particular. “It’s about the size of a dime.”
“I’m not going to stand by some imaginary spot holding a bag and calling, ‘Here horse clam, here horse clam’—if that’s what you have in mind.”
“Man, you’re such a head-case!” Bill shouted. “Just look about six inches to the left of that broken piece of shell over there. You’ll see an indentation in the sand.”
Actually, there was an indentation about the size of a dime in the sand.
“So, what’s you’re point?” I asked.
“A horse clam,” Bill continued to explain, “sticks its long neck up in the sand for a couple of feet until the tip of its neck touches the surface. That way it can suck in clam food and other junk that pools in the tide flat. That dime-sized mark we’re looking at was made by the tip of a horse clam’s neck. Shove your hand into the wet sand just below the mark and squeeze tight. If we haven’t scared it away already, and if you’re fast enough, you’ll grab the clam’s neck and it won’t be able to escape. Then, hold tight and I’ll dig down to the clam. It’s as simple as that.”
“You grab the neck,” I responded, “and I’ll dig out the clam. I don’t think I’m going to like the feel of a long, slimy clam neck in my hand. Besides dad said it’s a foot, not a neck. And to be totally honest, I think it’s something else all together and I’m not grabbing it.”
With that Bill thrust his hand in the sand and pulled up a horse clam neck. Dang! It was true. This wasn’t an aquatic snipe hunt after all. And then, catching the spirit of the sport, I dug furiously into the sand with my shovel while Bill scooped away with his free hand. A couple of minutes later we dropped a clam about the size of a large russet potato into our waiting gunny sack.
“I told you so,” Bill enthused.
“I guess that’ll teach him for sticking his neck out!” I exclaimed, marveling at my ten-year-old wit. Bill, who normally would rather take a blow to the head than admit that I had said something clever, actually smiled.
A couple more tries and we perfected the neck-grabbing technique. First I’d grab and Bill would dig, then we’d swap jobs. An hour later our gunny sack was two-thirds full of chowder makings and we were ready to go home. But there was one more challenge we had to face. Bone tired and covered with gunk, we stood with bag and shovels in hand looking up at the hill we’d have to climb. Ugh. It had been hard enough hiking the mound without hauling a heavy sack of dying mollusks.
“Let’s take the shortcut,” Bill suggested.
My heart stopped. “What are you crazy? If a train comes it’ll kill us for sure.”
The shortcut, as you’ve probably guessed, was a long tunnel that had been carved under the hill by the railroad. We hadn’t taken the tunnel on the way to the bay because we were fresh-legged, horse-clam free, and in no mood to die. Now, hefting a slimy, heavy bag over his shoulder, my brother figured it was worth the risk.
“Don’t worry, trains hardly ever come down this track,” Bill argued. “We’ll get through the tunnel lickety-split, and then it’s a flat trail all the way home.”
“But if a train does come, it’ll squish us like a bug.”
“Not really; we can fit in the space between the train and the rock wall.”
“I’m not doing it,” I announced.
“Then you haul the bag up the hill,” Bill countered.
As I put my ear to the train track to listen for signs of an oncoming train—very much like the cowboys I had seen in the movies—I proclaimed that nothing was coming. I couldn’t feel any vibrations or hear anything, so I figured we were safe. I believed this, of course, because I desperately wanted to believe it.
A half-minute later, bolstered by my brother’s teenage sense of invulnerability, we stepped into the entrance and started into the darkness. The pitch-black alone gave me the willies, but the thought of being squished by a train terrified me. Finally, after Bill and I had schlepped the bag about halfway through the tunnel, the baleful sound of the 10:30 express to Seattle made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. We were at least five minutes away from the end of the tunnel and it sounded as if the oncoming train was about a minute away from catching us. My brother and I ran anyway. And similar to passengers of burning planes that have plunged to the ground who actually stop their mad dash to safety in order to open the overhead bin and retrieve their carryon bag (it’s true, many do), Bill sprinted for his life while desperately clinging to a gunnysack full of horse clams.
It’s hard to describe the sound of a train that’s sharing a tunnel with you. Suffice it say that at one point I reached up to my ears to see if they were bleeding. Finally, when the diesel killer was only a few yards away, Bill pulled me down to the narrow strip of ground between the tracks and the jagged wall where we both lay as the monster roared by—sucking the air with it and pulling me closer to its menacing wheels. Sensing my peril, Bill reached out with his right arm and pinned me to the ground as the train tugged at my body.
Five minutes after the roaring beast hurled passed us, Bill and I staggered out of the far side of the tunnel, clams still in tow and, believe it or not, bragging to each other about how everything had worked out just fine. Oh yeah, weren’t we the clever the ones? Then, strutting down the trail that led home, the two of us bumped into our twelve-year-old neighbor Randy Padavich, who was just about to climb the hill on his way to dig clams. At first he couldn’t believe that we had actually risked taking the train tunnel, but when he saw our bag weighed down by the mass of a couple dozen horse clams he understood our reluctance to climb the hill.
“How did you ever catch horse clams?” Randy asked, as he eyeballed our bounty.
Bill explained the trick of looking for a mark in the sand and grabbing the clam’s neck.
“That’ll teach ’em for sticking their necks out!” Randy exclaimed—matching what I had said earlier.
“Of course clams don’t know any better,” Randy continued, “because their neck ain’t got no head on it.” This added twist gave us all a good chuckle.
“Thanks for the tip on catching horse clams,” Randy yelled back to us as he started up the hill. “Just grab the neck. Who would have thought?” Then shaking his head with a sense of superiority Randy shouted: “Stupid clams!”
Pausing as he took in Randy’s words; my older brother smiled wryly and said something I didn’t fully understand until years later.
“Yep,” he grinned. “Only a clam could be so stupid.”