|I did not land on that dude's head.|
Sometimes we know something is stupid but we go ahead and do it anyway. Take cliff diving, for example. I am by all accounts an awful swimmer, and even though I was exhausted from dragging myself back to shore after only my first jump, I let Chad convince me I had enough juice left in my arms and legs to go another round. I paced the lip of the higher precipice and made a show of not wanting to go through with it, but my heart wasn't really in it. With Chad standing beside me, selling me on the jump and the rush and the speed with which it would be over, I didn't have much of a choice. I'm not saying he would have physically pushed me over the edge, but with words and deeds, yes. So, in order to avoid the tormenting, to save time and my reputation, I jumped again of my own free will, this time aiming my body slightly closer to shore so the swim would be shorter, even though I knew the water there was much shallower. The impact stunned me and the water slapped my crotch and gut, knocking the air out of my lungs and mouth and head. I swirled, sucker-punched, lost underwater for just a moment longer than I could calmly tolerate, and then I found life-saving rock beneath my feet again. With a strong push, I finally crashed to the surface and saw I was but a few weak kicks from a steady perch. Once there I waved to the wives, always as stern in their approval as the Russian judges, and I safely took it all in. I felt like a born winner, like Darwin's fittest. My pride, however, paled next to Chad's.
"I never thought you'd do it." I nodded, thrilled deep down in my soggy skin to have gained his approval. "You didn't even scream." We laughed and watched kids and girls and other friends make the jump, and to my embarrassment, one by one they all made it look much easier than I had found it. This video on youtube, even, which shows tween girls happily jumping off the very same cliffs I did – though on some other summer day – doesn't quite show the violence and trauma I survived. Those are not the towering waves I saw and swam through and remember in my nightmares. Not even close.
But once again on shore, two successful dives under my drawstring, I felt strong and confident and capable of doing things even dumber yet. Chad told me about another cliff around the cove, this one a good 30 feet or more up, and with absolutely zero hesitation I followed him barefoot over sharp stones and twigs and dirt trail toward the tower. I was convinced I could do it. Another friend, Michelle, bravely came with us, and we three talked about the size of our courage and our appetites for adventure. As we walked and psyched ourselves up for the big drop down, I became aware of a dry, painful chaffing beneath my board shorts – the result of a partially separated Velcro® brand closure on the front flap which was rubbing against the very source of my new-found courage – and I decided to get everything over with as soon as possible so I could get out of the shorts and into something more soft and cottony and much less abrasive.
Finally atop the cliff daddy of all cliffs, Chad leaped first. There was a massive frothy white hole in the water after his body disappeared, then after no time at all I watched him surface below and effortlessly cut through the water toward a nearby rock. Everything looked simple and safe, and he waved me down. It took some time and a little encouragement, but I eventually walked the plank and fell toward the deep gap, dropping fast like a big fat cannonball and sinking all the way down to that dark place in my stomach where my woozy fear of heights shares a space with an equally powerful fear of depths. At the very bottom, from a recess no man could accurately measure under such constraints as imposed by my need for air, I fought the impulse to breathe and lost. Here, of all places, one cannot panic. But I did. My lungs burned and flooded with water, not air, and I climbed and clawed my way up until I could breathe again. Giant waves piled over my head and tossed me around in circles, pouring more water down my throat with each labored gasp. I kept on panicking and swam for dear sweet life toward Chad, who stood patiently on a rock not ten yards away, gazing at the blue sky or the sea birds or the lazy yellow sun, who knows, unconcerned with or unaware of my frantic, broken strokes.
When I finally reached him, overcome by relief and fatigue and a true glimpse of hell, I grabbed his steady, massive shoulder and groped for purchase on the slippery rock. Waves pulled and pushed me from every direction, knocking me off the rock suddenly and dropping my tired, kicking legs back on it again just as indiscriminately. "You okay, Dude?" I shook my head, too exhausted to say anything. When Michelle swam up beside us after her jump, calm and easy as a Sunday nap, Chad told me to rest and he took her on a tour of a cave down along the bluff. I scrambled for a larger foothold on which to breathe.
|Everything looks fine and safe until |
you're lost in the middle of it.
Afterward, Chad and I stood a good safe distance away from the cliffs and I thanked him. It was easy to feel grateful for his help, but it was hard to say exactly what the mixture of fear, failure and shame had done to me. "Don't mention it, Man," he said. "It was fun, right?" I had mixed feelings.
"But really, I mean it..." I wanted to tell him something about me but I wasn't sure what.
"You're not a strong swimmer, so what?" I liked the way he said it, treating it like a plain, harmless fact instead of some huge shortcoming that should have kept me from making such a stupid choice on the top of that cliff. He shrugged, perhaps implying that life and death were simply not out in the lake that day, fighting over my body. Or maybe those things hadn't crossed his mind. I, on the other hand, needed no convincing. I had swam through it. And at that moment on the sun-baked shore of Madeline Island, glad to have a friend I knew would always have my back no matter what, I wanted nothing more than to change out of my sandpaper shorts and put a Mandaid™ on my wounded pride. The chafing was unbearable.
I offer my sincere thanks to Chad's wife, Jen Gascoigne, for the photos used in this post, and for coining the term Mandaid™.