Friday nights are family movie nights at my house. Recently we sat down to watch Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the re-make starring Brendan Fraser. When it was over, one of the twins said, “I loved that part where he was hanging onto the end of the rope, and he couldn’t see the bottom.”
“Yeah, that was hilarious,” said his brother.
“You know,” I said, “something like that happened to me when I was about your age.”
“Way. My friends and I had seen this movie on mountain climbing, and we thought it looked pretty neat, especially the rappelling part. So, we pooled our allowance, went to the hardware store, and bought all the rope we could afford. Not knowing any better, we bought the cheapest rope we could find, too—about fifty feet of that thick yellow nylon stuff. It proved to be a mistake.”
“Because it was really rough. Rappelling down that rope was like sliding your hands down a cheese grater.
“Anyway, about two miles from my house there was this high sandy bluff overlooking a creek. It seemed the perfect place to practise rappelling, so we gathered up our rope, a six-foot piece of rebar we’d swiped from a construction site, my dad’s heaviest ball peen hammer, and we rode our bikes out to the top of the cliff. We drove the rebar into the soil about eight feet back from the edge. The post was supposed to be our anchor point, and we would use it to belay the climber. We wrapped the rope once around the rebar and tossed the rest over the cliff. Then we looked at each other. You see, we had never really planned this far ahead. Nobody wanted to be the first to try. So, I volunteered.”
“Naturally,” muttered my wife.
“We didn’t have a climbing harness, but in the library, we had seen an old climbing manual that showed how you could rappel by using the friction on your clothes to slow your descent—or, at least, that was the theory. My three friends grabbed the short end of the rope and dug in their heels. I wrapped the rope around my body as the book indicated and backed over the edge. What we hadn’t realized was that the cliff was undercut, so when I went over the side, a bit of the cliff edge collapsed, and I fell.”
“All the way?”
“No, just about five or six feet. But I scraped all the skin off the palms of my hands and the back of my neck trying to break my fall. The worst thing though was that the soil on the top of the cliff was this loose mixture of sand and clay, and as the rope sawed back and forth on the cliff edge, it kept bringing down tons of sand on top of my head. Sand filled my collar and my ears. It got in my hair and in my eyes. I was blind. I spun around a few times before the rocking stopped. Then I started to inch my way down the rope. As I slid, sand continued to pour down on top of me. It was like being in the bottom of an hourglass. Then the worst thing happened.”
“I came to the end of the rope.”
“Just like in the movie.”
“Could you see the bottom?”
“Nope,” I said. “I had so much sand in my eyes, I couldn’t see a thing.”
“What did you do?”
“I called up to my buddies, explained the situation, and asked them to look over the edge and tell me how far I was from the bottom. I remember there was a long pause, then one of them yelled, ‘If we do that, we’ll have to let go of the rope.’”
“I know. So, they suggested I climb back up. But that was really out of the question. I was dangling in space, and I knew I didn’t have enough strength to shimmy up that rope on my own. ‘Why don’t you pull me up?’ I shouted. ‘You’re too heavy’ was the reply. So, in the end, I let myself out to the very end of the rope, said a little prayer, and let go.”
“I hit the ground almost immediately.”
“Just like in the movie.”
The boys looked at each other. “Da-ad. Did you ever do anything else that stupid when you were a kid?”
“Did I! There was this time when my friends and I tried to make a flamethrower. We’d just seen this James Bond movie, where James Bond is shaving, and, in the shaving mirror, he sees this poisonous snake slithering across the bathroom floor towards him. So, he grabs a lit cigar from an ashtray, spins around, and turns his shaving cream canister into a flamethrower. The snake was toast.”
“It was incredibly cool. When we got home from the theatre, we couldn’t wait to try it ourselves. We didn’t have a cigar, but we figured a match would do, and since we couldn’t find a can of shaving cream, we decided to substitute a can of pressurized butane lighter fluid.”
“My God!” whispered my wife.
“Did it work?”
“Did it ever. Went off like a bomb. I lost my eyebrows and most of the hair on my forehead.”
“You were holding the match?”
“Why am I not surprised,” said my wife.
The boys exchanged grins. “Ever do anything else that stupid?”
“Oh, yeah. There was this TV show called Ripcord, which my friends and I loved. It came on every Wednesday, right after school, and we used to run home, so we wouldn’t miss it. The premise was that the heroes were skydivers who were also firefighters. And each week they would skydive into a forest fire and rescue somebody—lost campers or hunters. Something like that. Anyway, we were smitten. We wanted to be skydivers too.”
“I’m starting to see a pattern here,” said my wife.
“My friend had a two-story garage, and we could reach the roof by climbing up a neighbour’s tree. So, we fashioned a makeshift parachute out of an old bed sheet and up we went.”
“Dad, were you the first to try?”
“Come to think of it, I was. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason.”
“What were your parents thinking?” asked my wife.
“They didn’t know. Ha, if they had known, why—”
My wife was looking at me with raised eyebrows and a pained expression on her face. She was making significant eye movements towards our two boys.
“—but, of course, you boys would never try anything as dangerous as that, would you?”
They burst out laughing. “Dad, just how thick do you think we are?”
It occurs to me that my boys are growing up in a world that is much too tame, where there is no scope for romance or adventure. Kids these days are much too cautious. This year, for Christmas, I think I’m going to buy them a chemistry set or a backyard zip-line kit...or maybe a set of those ninja throwing stars.
[First published in Musings II, Fall 2016]