Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stupid human tricks

Ahhhh, youth.

Foolish youthfulness.

The very silly state that led me, some 20 years ago, to stand teetering on the edge of a bridge, looking down in doubt and trepidation.

No worries, it's not the way it sounds. I dated an ass through most of my college years, but he never drove me to jumping, truly. I'll start at the very beginning--a very good place to start, if I recall correctly the lyrics of a certain song.

Around 20 years ago, I found myself spending a blissful summer in the small, sleepy town of my undergrad alma mater. I had an apartment that I needed to hold for one more school year, and I had a part-time, work-study job that would morph into almost full-time if I wanted to keep working for June, July, and August.

I did want that. I wanted so much to spend my last carefree summer, that pivotal season between my junior and senior years of college, relaxing and seeing friends and reading novels in my own shabby little backyard. The apartment would just be sitting there anyway. I hadn't any really promising aspects of jobs elsewhere. And it was my last chance, as I saw it, to really kick back and just enjoy life. The pressure was not yet on, but it would be soon. This was a great, possibly final, opportunity to be a slacker student. And I wouldn't really even be a student, since I was the only one I knew who wouldn't be taking classes—I didn't need to. I would just work, and then I would play.

The center of all play time that summer, as it is every summer in that town, was the lovely river. It flowed slowly and gently through valley north of town, not even a mile down the hill from my humble rental. I could bike to it easily in 3 or 4 minutes. (Going up the hill afterward? Not so easy. Sigh.) A typical day looked like this: get up early, bike to work, work for most of the day, finish up mid-afternoon, bike home, take off work clothes and put on bathing suit and cutoffs, and scurry down the long slope with a soda and sunscreen in a little tote bag. Destination? The Rock.

As much as I rushed, I was never the first brown body to hit the Rock. This rock was huge, a slab of sandstone or shale or something native; it was impressed into and parallel with the slope of a hill leading down to the river's edge. The giant rock clung to the incline, embedded into it and yet still seeming to float upon the surface. It was relatively smooth and tilted at a navigable angle, not a perfect surface but quite serviceable for holding several blankets and towels and a bevy of young people. The more timid folks stayed near the top, where the rock was more flat; the braver souls traipsed further down, closer to the water's edge, where the slope of the thing became more steep and treacherous. Wrong steps here resulted in splashes and curses, scrapes on shins and the like. (I stayed near the top, unless I planned to sit on the edge and dangle feet in the water--always a bit nerve-wracking, since snakes also loved that spot.)

To reach this rock, however, you had to ride across a big, new bridge. The old bridge had been a converted railroad bridge, I believe, and was a giant black metal contraption; it had been dynamited into oblivion a year or two before this particular summer. Now, only the new bridge stood to accommodate all traffic, and the sides on it were low and concrete. The safety railings, if you could call them that, were concrete barriers not more than 3 1/2 feet high. The barriers didn't accomplish much if someone were driving out of control; in the short time I studied there, a beer truck careened off the thing and spilled its entire load into the dark waters. Students are probably still diving for the famed lost kegs to this day.

Anyway. When a couple of stupid kids, some of whom may or may not have imbibed a foamy substance, decide to jump from those concrete barriers, it's highly likely that other kids will see them and follow suit.

Normally, not me. I'm a wimp. I'm feeble. I'm the one who didn't even brave the steep lower part of the big rock, remember? And yet. It genuinely looked fun, watching those others fling themselves off the side. Every one of them came up fine. Most of them went into the water pretty cleanly, feet first, some with arms straight down and others with arms stretched overhead. They all made it look so appealing. And I wasn't tipsy, I was perfectly aware of what I was doing. I was tired of being feeble. By golly, I was going to jump off that bridge into the river.

I walked up to the road, began the long trip to the preferred (supposedly proven safe) jumping spot. Already, I was questioning my decision, my own sanity, the wisdom or lack thereof. But my feet kept taking steps, because others were watching now, and my image was on the line. I'd said to friends moments ago that I was going to jump; I honestly didn't have the nerve to turn around.

Then, I reached the spot. By now, I felt ill. I must have been temporarily insane to even think this deed. I couldn't do it. I simply could not. Yet, there I stood, and some others who were coming back for repeat jumps gave me a hand climbing up on the side. I balanced atop the concrete guardrail, looking down into that unforgiving green water, wondering what awaited beneath the surface. Tree roots that would catch my foot and not let go? A wrecked car or boat from years before, rusted into sharp, jagged edges that would tear my flesh? A nasty creature of some kind, slimy and hungry? Well, I knew that last fear was a bit unfounded, but still... it crossed my fear-addled mind.

I took a breath, listened to the others who'd made jumps as they advised me to keep my feet down, hold my nose if I didn't want a blast of river water in my head, and then--I jumped. I did it.

It took forever to reach the surface. The bridge can't be more than 30 feet above the water, but it felt like much more. I had time to ponder what the impact would feel like, to realize that my feet were trying to creep out to the side as I fell, to try to hold tighter to my nose, to wonder how ridiculous I looked in my clumsy descent...and then WHAM.

People, I wish I could say I entered the water with grace, like an arrow. I did not. I slapped the back side of one leg so hard I thought I would cry. I plunged down, down, deeper than I'd thought I would, and I dared to open my eyes and saw only murky yellowish water all around me. I had to kick up to the surface because I was running out of air. (My lung capacity stinks.) And then, eyes streaming, lungs anxious, I burst into sunshine and gasped a fresh breath.

One of the kids on the bridge must have heard the slap, and realized I was in pain. He asked me if I was okay. Of course, I covered effectively. I was fine, I said. And really, I was, when I considered all the things that might have happened to me, undertaking such a completely mindless attempt. I swam to the side, climbed out, returned to the rock sore but mildly triumphant. Of course, after all my bravery, my friends had become distracted and no one had even been watching my leap. Which was actually a relief, since it had been such a thing of ugliness. And the day went on just as if my act of stupidity had never happened.

Except for the gigantic blue-black bruise that formed on my leg, and stayed there for weeks before turning green, then yellow, then disappearing. I'm lucky I didn't do worse damage, in hindsight.

I never leapt from the bridge again. Not that bridge, nor any other. I've never again tried such a stunt.

I returned to that town a few years ago, drove past the rock and across the bridge, rolling alongside those concrete barriers. It didn't seem so scary at all, from a car; that bridge seemed quite friendly and low-slung. But I don't have to remind myself that the view is quite different when you're standing up on those sides, looking down. If I ever try that again, it'll likely be caused by a life-threatening thing ON the bridge, rushing toward me. I'm hoping that doesn't happen.


Facie said...

I think it is kind of cool you did that. I am such a wimp. Even when I did stupid, reckless things in my youth, I never had the guts to do something like that. And now that I am a parent? Forget doing anything remotely dangerous, like skiing or sky-diving. I won't even think about a flip in the air on a trampoline or from a diving board.

I also think it is great that stayed around that summer. I do kind of regret that about my college years, never having that one summer where I mostly kicked back, sans parents. I never even went on spring break. Glad you have the memories.

Mel said...

I, too, am a big wimp--which is why this memory lives so large for me. and yes, I loved that summer. it was one of the best times of my life. I never did spring break, either--too much $$.