A river runs through the town I grew up in. In parts, it runs parallel to Main Street, flowing behind some of the downtown buildings at the bottom of the valley. In other spots, it runs nearly level with some houses. One of my best friends lived near the river. Whenever we had heavy rains, his basement flooded. As someone who lived way up on top of a mountain, it seemed like a pain, but such is life. If people don’t permanently leave Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina due to the dangers of hurricanes, what’s a flooded basement every ten years?
At other points, the river cuts a huge gorge across the border of our town and the neighboring one. This is where we used to swim in summers. You have to understand, in central New Hampshire, most people didn’t have swimming pools. Not only was the weather so cold that it was difficult to justify the cost of a pool when you had maybe one month to use it, we didn’t need them. We had swimming holes and rivers.
This particular spot we used to swim at was called Livermore Falls. Picture a gorge some three hundred feet across bounded by rocky, jutting cliffs that more or less went straight down. These cliffs were sixty feet high at some point, and trees grew off of many. One side was more rugged than the other–we used to park our car at the side of the road in a small clearing and follow a well-trodden path down to the top of one of these rocks. There were the cool-looking ruins of an old mill building nearby. You could walk down a pretty steep, rocky path to get to the small beach area at the bottom and jump in the river there, but the preferred method was to leap off the cliff right into the water.
The other side of the river had easier access: you weren’t nearly as high up and took a short, gently sloping path through the woods to reach a much larger sandy beach. Girls used to sunbathe here, and mothers would bring their kids. But my buddies and I would always drive to the higher side for a very important reason–to jump in.
Except I didn’t. I never did.
You see, I’ve always had a thing about heights. That’s not entirely accurate, actually. I have a thing about the sensation of free fall. I hate it. Years later, in Santorini with my wife, we took a ride on a sail boat across the caldera that brought us near a small sulfur spring lagoon. You had to leap off the boat and swim about a mile to get there. The swim wasn’t daunting, but leaping some twenty feet off the boat took pretty much all my courage. Of course, I was fine once I got in the water, but taking the leap has always been a tough sell for me.
There’s a metaphor here that’s so obvious I almost feel stupid bringing it up.
Back to Livermore Falls. Someone died there every year. Even in my late teens and my early twenties, my mother cringed when I told her I was going swimming at the river. There was another spot we liked called Big Rock where the river formed a rather large pool, and another, much safer area where the river flowed through a town about thirty or forty minutes away. But sometimes we didn’t feel like driving, so we went to Livermore Falls.
I almost died there, too. There were some rocky rapids a little ways off from where people normally swam as the river . There was a constant danger of getting pulled in that direction before the river grew calmer beyond. If you weren’t careful, you too could ride the rapids. I did one summer when I was twenty and I swear I don’t know how I didn’t bash my head against a rock and drown. But I survived.
So I’m not afraid of doing stupid things. At least, I wasn’t as afraid when I was younger. But jumping off the cliffs, whether at the spots twenty, forty, or sixty feet up was a non-starter for me.
My friends never made fun of me about it. I kind of wish they had. Looking back, I wish I did jump. At least once.
My best bud and I used to bring his little brother along. He was a really cool kid, maybe four years younger than us. And one summer, when he was about fourteen, my friend was riding him hard about jumping. About how he shouldn’t be such a wuss and how he needed to jump so he knew he could do it, how he’d always be thinking about it if he didn’t, how everyone else had jumped when they were his age, even they were so scared. “It gets easier every time,” my friend told his brother. “You just gotta do it once.”
I am nearly one-hundred percent sure my friend wasn’t talking passive-aggressively to me, but he might as well have been.
His brother jumped.
I wish I jumped. If I did, I wouldn’t still be thinking about this almost two decades later.
There’s something inherent in boys and men where we want to know we have what it takes. What it takes to do what, exactly, isn’t the point. What matters is that you do it. And “it” is usually something frightening–not necessarily stupid–that takes courage and managing your fear to overcome.
This is why guys all size up other guys when they meet them to see if they could take them in a fist-fight. Any women reading this: all men do this, and if they say they don’t, they’re probably lying to you for some strange reason.
This is why desk jockeys in modern climate-controlled offices with pot-bellies and sore backs and shoulders from sitting down all day at work, at home, and in the car dream about being swordsmen and swashbucklers and heroes. Why do you think grown men still read fiction and comic books and play video games and watch action movies? Because screw your boss and the paperwork and the fax machine–you’d rather grab a sword and raise some hell and fight for something bigger than greasing the wheels of global commerce so some asshole overseas can see his net worth increase a fraction of a percent.
This is why guys jump off of sixty foot cliffs into a river where, if you don’t land exactly in the middle, you’ll break your legs because the riverbed makes a sharply inclined V.
This is why guys would climb over the old, rusting, abandoned railway trestle spanning the gorge between the two towns, a trestle that had to be eighty feet tall at the bottom, and let go, falling into the river feet-first. Some guys would even climb to the top which had to be another ten feet up at least.
I only saw this once. One summer, two kids a grade below me clambered to the bottom of the trestle. We all watched from the bottom of the gorge, our hearts in our throats as they inched slowly to the center of the trestle. One slip and they’d fall, and if they fell they’d literally die, their brains dashed upon the jagged rocks below and their bones broken into thousands of pieces. It was like watching a reality show, but not staged and not full of reprehensible fame-whores.
And when they jumped, it seemed like they were falling forever. Finally, after agonizing seconds, they slipped smoothly into the water . . . and stayed there. “Are they all right?” we asked each other. “Did they hit the rocks below?”
Then their heads broke the surface, first one then the other, and everyone, everyone at the river let out a cheer. And why? These two boys weren’t heroes. They didn’t do anything of value, after all.
I say they did. They did something of value to themselves. They proved that they could keep their fear in check and do something incredibly dangerous, something where a mistake meant their young lives were over. They kept their wits about them and their bodies under control and proved to themselves and others that they had what it takes.
They will go to their graves never wishing the had done something that brave, and admittedly foolish, because they actually did it.
I did not.
You might be saying, as you read this, “It’s not too late, Alexander! You can still find something stupidly dangerous to do!” You’re right. I can. But now, as a grown man with a wife and children and bills and responsibilities, I don’t know if I even would take an unnecessary risk just to see if I could do it. I’ve never been an adrenaline junkie, and indeed find adrenaline junkies kind of silly.
Although, thinking about it now, I’m changing my mind.
Adrenaline junkies are responding to a safe, secure, boring world that coddles men and teaches them to never take risks, to be soft and passive, and to let their putative superiors take care of everything. “Step aside!” this world says. “Men are over. You are the past. You are toxic. Stand down, forever.”
Hence bungie jumping and cliff diving and skydiving and all sorts of other pursuits we mock those easy to mock middle-aged men for participating in. It’s a mid-life crisis! They’re trying to recapture their youth! They’re trying to compensate for something (i.e., a small penis).
But you know what? Fuck you, that’s what. I totally get where these guys are coming from. They want to prove that, if it all goes down and things get ugly, they’ll have what it takes to shoot somebody or bash their skull in with a rock or choke the life out of them with their bare hands in order to save their women and children. They want to know they have what it takes to give their lives if necessary so that others may live instead of running away like a scared little bitch at the first sign of danger.
Men are mocked for being toxic piles of testosterone and machismo, but we’re also mocked for being “beta wimps” and not “manning up.”
You can’t have it both ways, society. You have it both ways now, and everyone is miserable.
Why do you think so many men commit suicide, either by gun or by opioid or other addiction? When you strip men of a purpose, they look for purpose. And when they can’t find it anywhere, the barrel of a gun or some Chinese fentanyl seems like the only choice left. Is that better than a little excitement seeking? As long as a man is not abandoning his wife and children and obligations, have at it. It sure beats whacking it to porn or buying hookers or doing drugs.
If your sons want to jump off cliffs into rivers or do other dangerous things, let them. Boys will always be boys, and thank God for that.
Sixteen-year-old Garrett definitely has what it takes in my new novel The Last Ancestor. So does his alien friend Ghryxa as they fight lizardmen, giant serpents, and a genocidal tyrant with the universe’s last surviving remnant of Christendom at stake! Available on Amazon. Paperback coming soon!