When Dad was nearing the end of his time on Earth, we were blessed with a long farewell which included many twilight discussions of who we were, where we had been and where we were going. One of our more personal valedictory conversations revolved around what he referred to as “the fire in your belly.” If you had it, he said, it is essential that you recognize it and put it to good use. It is equally important that you recognize it in others. The Creator has a very limited production run of this model, and these are the people that will make a real difference in your life.
In a clip from one of my favorite documentaries, The History of The Eagles, the late Glen Frey recalls living in an apartment above Jackson Browne in the infancy of each other’s respective careers. Frey tells us how Browne drove him crazy, day and night, in a monotonous obsession with the piano riffs and lyrics for his breakthrough hit “Doctor My Eyes,” tweaking through long hours of repetition. Eventually, Frey realized that the key to successful song writing is hard work and constant refinement until you can offer the world your best. From that epiphany, another creative fledgling soared to stardom. “Fire in the belly.”
My uncle, Tommy Rybovich, flew right seat in B-17s over Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. On a mission over Debrecen, Hungary, his airplane took a direct hit from enemy anti-aircraft fire in the waist gunner section of the fuselage. The flight control cables were severed and half the crew was killed or gravely injured. The pilots determined that bailing out was not an option and flew the crippled bomber back to base, fighting to maintain control by using the engines to steer and manage altitude, landing successfully at their home field in Foggia, Italy. Upon touchdown, the airplane buckled and broke in half. The wounded and unscathed survived to eventually resume flight operations and complete their tour of duty. When the war ended, Tommy returned home to become one of the most innovative designers and builders of fishing boats the world has ever known, through his obsession for perfection and incessant hard work. “Fire in the belly.”
The fire doesn’t come from a book, podcast or a how-to YouTube video. You can’t google it. The fire doesn’t come from a professor, politician or pastor. It comes from an ordained genetic assignment, deep within the miracle of conception, and is fueled by imagination, execution and exhaustion. The fire creates the steam which drives the creative engine.
You are not going to get up enough steam in a 40-hour week. You are not going to get up enough steam by avoiding risk and assigning the biggest challenges to others. My good friend Roy Merritt has frequently described his close friends in the custom-boat industry as his “boatbuilding brothers.” By this he means those, including himself, who have the fire. Those who understand the calling and all it’s honor and agony. Those who don’t quit when the noise becomes unbearable and all seems to be out of control.
A while back, my sons and I were standing on the dock in Ocean City at the White Marlin Open, enjoying the evening’s tournament camaraderie. We struck up a conversation with two young boatbuilders who had a new shop down the street. The energy required to combine art, engineering and sweat for a living glowed in their eyes and sang in their voices. After a few minutes of discussion in our common vernacular, the young shipwrights excused themselves. “We’ve got to get home and get some rest,” said one of them. “We’re working all weekend, fairing one hull and setting up the jig stations for another in order to stay on the build schedule.” From somewhere in the breeze through the rigger halyards, I heard my father’s voice, “Fire in the belly, Michael.”