His to-do list will take a lifetime to complete

January 31, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

IF YOU WANT to experience major feelings of inadequacy - and doesn't every middle-aged guy need more of that in his life? - spend some time with John Goddard, the anthropologist and explorer.

This is a man whose bio makes Indiana Jones look housebound:

First man to traverse the length of the world's longest river, the Nile, which he did in 1950 by kayak, no less. The Los Angeles Times called it "the most amazing adventure of this generation."

Climbed 12 of the world's highest mountains.

Established all sorts of records as a civilian jet pilot, including a speed record of 1,500 mph in a fighter-bomber and an altitude record of 63,000 feet in an F-106 Delta Dart.

Lived with pygmies in Africa and headhunters in Borneo and New Guinea.

Was attacked by enraged hippos, bitten by poisonous snakes, trapped in quicksand, caught in earthquakes, sucked under by white-water rapids. Oh, also survived plane crashes.

Clearly, each evening when John Goddard was asked how his day went, the one answer he never gave was: "Oh, you know, the usual."

Yesterday, I caught up with him at Roland Park Country School, his first stop on a three-day visit to Baltimore for speaking engagements and book-signings. (His latest book, The Survivor: 24 Spine-Chilling Adventures on the Edge of Death, was published last year by Health Communications Inc.)

He spoke to grades 9-12 about his lifetime of adventures, many of them stemming from a list of 127 goals he composed as a boy of 15 growing up in Los Angeles.

He says he's accomplished 111 of the goals, including studying tribal culture in seven remote regions of the world (Nos. 14-20), landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier (75), riding a horse in the Rose Parade (41) and reading the Bible from cover to cover (110.)

At times during his talk, Goddard, a trim man with a gray and a thin mustache, seemed a bit peevish.

A photographer taking pictures for the school newsletter visibly irritated him, as did a question about his age. (Although he declined to answer, saying "Americans are fixated on age," he appears to be in his mid-70s.)

Maybe he was still jet-lagged from the previous day's flight from California, where he lives with his wife Carol and two of his five children.

Certainly, his 45-minute talk - he opened with a greeting in a tribal language from Indonesia - was designed to back up the bold statement on the book's front cover, which calls him the "World's Greatest Goal Achiever."

Of all his accomplishments, he said the one he's the most proud of is his long-ago traverse of the Nile with two Frenchmen.

He said he caught five tropical diseases in the 123-degree heat during the 10-month trip, nearly drowned in the rapids, was attacked by enraged hippos, Egyptian bandits and flying killer crocodiles (it's in the book) and still finished the entire 4,160 miles.

"It's an example of what the mind, spirit and body can do when challenged," he said. "We saw 125 rapids and seven waterfalls that were totally unknown. There were no villages for 300 miles."

Whew. And most of us consider a trip to the Giant without a cell phone a big adventure.

During the rest of his talk, Goddard recounted more of the "500 unusual things" he had done in his life.

He talked about taking off and landing a jet on the aircraft carrier USS Independence ("Like landing on a postage stamp") and diving in a sub off California and mushing a dog sled through the High Sierras.

He talked about climbing Peru's 22,000-foot Huascaran peak and the Matterhorn, which he reportedly scaled in a blizzard after several professional guides backed out.

According to his bio, he's discussed many of these adventures on TV with Johnny Carson and Bob Hope, David Frost and NBC's Dateline. And many more were written up in National Geographic, Life and Reader's Digest, among other magazines.

But Goddard said he's never been driven by a need for notoriety, but rather by an overwhelming desire to experience life to its fullest.

"When I was 15, I heard regrets from so many adults who hadn't done certain things," he told the students.

Then, after asking them, "Don't you get tired of people who have no interest?" he went off on a delightful mini-rant about excessive TV-watching among the youth of America, which had some of the students rolling their eyes.

At least for now, John Goddard seems to have no plans to slow down. It must seem a lifetime ago that he graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in anthropology and psychology. But his curiosity seems as strong as ever.

Last summer, he says, he went diving with sharks and sting-rays in the Caribbean. And this summer he plans to travel from Bali to Komodo Island in Indonesia, where the famously ill-tempered Komodo dragons flourish.

In two years, he plans to take his wife Carol to Kenya to go on a safari.

All together, he said, he's traveled well over a million miles, with his winter lecture tours raising the money for his various projects and adventures.

And whatever his age - no, let's not go there again - he says he's still whittling away at the goals on his boyhood list.

"But they're getting harder now," he said softly, at the end of his talk. "Like visiting the moon (No. 125). But ... maybe someday."

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