Associate Editor Wes Breitenbach, Washing out of Frank Bells on the French Broad.
My earliest recollections of the word beater was a hand operated kitchen tool used to mix ingredients: to infuse air to a quantity of liquid such as cream or eggs; to blend sauces or a batter. The hand cranked model replaced the wire whisk or whip, which is not much more than a bale of stiff but flexible wires attached to a handle. With the advancement of technology, electricity and compact motors, both have generally been pushed to the back of the drawer in favor of speed and ease.
I worked for a number of years in a 5-star, high dollar restaurant as a Pantry Chef. By practice and definition the position is the lowest on the totem pole of Chefs. Even so, nearly every function of the kitchen often hinges on this job. The salads and appetizers set the timing for the preparation of the main courses. Desserts need to be served in a timely fashion so as to not only please the clientele, but to allow the service of another waiting table of guests. In addition it was my responsibility to continually operate a pasta making machine, which once started had to be monitored in pace with it’s production. The pace was unforgiving. One of the first tasks each night was to make whipped cream. It was done entirely by hand with a wire whisk and large stainless steel bowl, usually two quarts to the batch. I only asked once why we didn’t use an electric blender. The response told me that I just needed to tough up. Believe me, it will make you tough; at first my whole arm would burn and cramp, but as I developed technique and a subtle set of muscle for the job it was not so bad and I took some pride in the seemingly simple task. If you never thought whipped cream can whip you, try making a pint size batch.
I got my first car as a teenager in highschool just like most of us. A few were presented with a new car. But most came to theirs as a second hand vehicle, the old family car, a sibling’s hand me down, or whatever you could scrape together from a part-time or summer job. That was when I learned a new definition for a beater: an aging automobile that had stood the test of time and usually showed it. It was reliable…to a certain extent, usually in need of a whole host of minor repairs that wouldn’t stop you from getting where you needed to go: a broken mirror; a door that wouldn’t open from the inside; stained and torn upholstery; a window that should be left alone and a few missing knobs. It probably had a few dents and some rust, as well as a couple of quirks that only it’s driver knew how to overcome. It was usually shown disrespect by all, including it’s owner, but it was often the first one chosen for the most memorable adventures. Muddy and rocky dirt roads, filled to overcapacity and ready for speed. The perfect car for doing doughnuts in an open field or a dark and abandoned parking lot at night. The hood and the trunk were fair game for a place to sit up off the wet ground or to just relax in the sun. Best of all if you had a friend in need most wouldn’t mind loaning it out, figuring that any damage would be minor when compared to the car as a whole. When some would upgrade they might have hung on to that old beater, for those more epic missions or from pure nostalgia.
In the world of whitewater it’s easy to see how the second definition was easily transferable. You will imagine someone eager to learn the sport finding a willing teacher. The perfect boat for the job was out in their garage. Out of date, crinkled, bent, maybe a missing foot-peg and full of spiders, an acceptable craft for an introduction to the sport. The boat was still there because it’s owner was simply unable to sell it and they didn’t have the heart to haul it off to the dump; so many memories stored in that boat for a lot of years. Another day on the water was well deserved. Another scratch, another ding, not ever it’s complete destruction would matter. It’s purpose would be served; to bring a new boater into the fold. Any new boater may lean the wrong way, turn upside down and with no roll to speak of they would do their first wet exit. They would swim. And, swim again. It’s all part of the learning process. There are several maxims that we were all made to remember when we started out: “If you ain’t swimming, you aren’t learning,” “We are all between swims,” and a few others. Your teacher and some caring boating buddies would share them with you in order to deflect the pain of embarrassment in hopes of preventing you from getting discouraged and giving up. We were all beginners and no matter how good we think we are, we all can find something more to learn.
Somehow, and it seemed that it happened pretty quickly, the moniker for the boat got transferred to the swimmer, then the very act of swimming. The word got nouned. Then it got verbed, adverbed, adjectived, gerunded and became so popular that people began using it without really understanding what it might have meant or where it came from. Some might even now think that it must have some sexual connotation. But, the worst was done when it became an insult, shouted in someone’s face, laughed as they floated downstream, slamming and bumping into rocks. And for the more cowardly and less immature it could be whispered behind a better person’s back. How soon it is that we forget what it was like to learn the basics and that we still have to pay our own dues. The better we get, the bigger the punishment we take when we make even the slightest mistake. It’s a sorry thing when we seek to elevate our self-esteem by putting another person down. We are teachers in everything we say and do for those around us, for good and for bad.
A number of things can happen when you use a derogatory term or statement to describe another person. You’ve just written off someone you may not even know. Maybe it was someone who had looked up to you for your skills and respected you for them; not anymore. It could be someone quick to double-down, turn the tables, making you the target of disrespect and enmity. Perhaps they never heard it whispered behind their back. Or, you don’t care what people think about what you say. That’s when it falls into the realm of social dysfunction, or disorder; an illness. Maybe it’s weakness, a flaw in character. When the habit spreads to others and is accepted as “normal” behavior, that’s unhealthy for everyone.
Then, there are those rare and courageous people, who rather than resist or reject a label, simply embrace it. These are the ones who possess an inner strength that disarms their assailant and bonds them to those that suffer the pain from the same verbal abuse. Every culture and era in history is numbered by people who have risen above name calling to stand as examples of the better character of their kind. There are Geeks, Gooks, Gringos, Red-necks, Hillbillies, Johnny Rebs, Darkies, Yankees, Convict, Ni….. I don’t need to go on, you get the point. You can call it political correctness if you want, but you can find yourself among a larger group of people in which you are suddenly in the minority. Sometimes a little prudence in our choice of words is wisdom. But you should also know that rather than putting someone down, you have the ability to lift them up.
These rare people exist in the whitewater world as well. It’s also no surprise that they are on the cutting edge; the ones who set the standards, taking the risks and facing the hazards of reputation and physical injury; aware that people are watching and willing to follow their lead. I believe a majority of them do not take the responsibility lightly. They are the first to set the ropes, help to collect the scattered gear, smile and offer words of encouragement or advice, if you’ll have it. They speak in simple and humble terms. These folks also seem to take the time to bring newcomers into the sport and preach the value of basics to all. They know that they have the power to change our way of thinking and our language.
Feel free to judge me if you wish, but I think the word is trying to find a better place in our language without much help from me. I don’t encourage its removal from our lexicon. There are ways in which it is used in good humor. I don’t mind it most of the time, except when it’s obvious that someone intends to be mean. And before you call me “butt-hurt” I might remind you of the fact that I could just as easily write another piece about how homophobia, jailhouse language and customs seems to find its way into our common speech as well.
One River, One Love,
EDITOR’S NOTE- Kevin “Taz” Riggs is Associate Editor of DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE and a veteran raft guide with over 30 years of experience on rivers all over North and South America. He has written numerous pieces on raft guiding and the industry in this publication.
Selection of Taz’s articles: