A dozen years back, when my younger daughter Emily was maybe seven, she and I and a then girlfriend and the girlfriend’s small boy, also about seven, were vacationing on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Call the kid Jake. Jake wasn’t a bad kid, just too full of himself.
He has probably recovered from the shock. Or he may have become a serial killer. I don’t know. He probably has post-dramatic stress disorder.
Anyway we were going to a try-your-luck-at-hang-gliding place. Jake was telling Emily that he could do anything better than she could — not a good idea with Emily. You might have to back it up. I thought he was pushing it too hard. Maybe it was his age. Maybe he was insecure. He was aggressive, and she was getting tired of it.
We got to the hang-gliding school, which was in a sporting-goods store. Well, it turned out that the store had a climbing wall. That means a concrete cliff with little nubbins stuck out so scrawny muscular seventeen-year-old boys can scamper up it to impress their dates. It wasn’t built for children. It wasn’t dangerous for them either, because to climb it you had to get into a real rock harness and they used a top-rope belay so you couldn’t fall. But it was for big kids.
When Emily saw that wall, she alerted like a bird dog that’s discovered a partridge. She was going to go up it. There was no sign saying she couldn’t. She didn’t care who it was for. That wall could have been for space aliens or professional wrestlers or giant squids.
It’s how she is. As they say in Alabama, she ain’t got the sense God give a crabapple. It comes of being a Reed. I paid the five bucks and they somehow made the harness small enough to fit.
She started up the wall. She was small but wiry and made good progress at first. She was also cute so the guy belaying her started trying to help her by pulling on the rope. That isn’t how she does things. She hollered, “No! Don’t help me!” I guess she was determined to fail honestly. I knew she wasn’t going to climb all of it.
He slacked off. She managed, I’m not sure just how, to get to the overhang.
Now, overhangs are tough, even for mature climbers with long arms. Em was just a brash kid with short arms. Everybody could see, at least everybody who had done any climbing, that it was too much for her. But nobody wanted to tell her.
She wouldn’t have listened anyway. She has always been a creature of decided opinions. At the time I was dating Jake’s mother, Sally let’s say, and Emily didn’t like her. It wasn’t anything personal. She didn’t like anybody to date me. It was nearly Halloween and Sally, trying to be conciliatory, asked Em what she was going to be. “Oh, a princess,” said Em. Then, unwisely, Sally asked, “And what should I be?”
Whereupon Emily smiled her most pixyish smile and said, “You could shave your head, and go as a cancer patient.”
She didn’t mean it. She was a softhearted kid. It was just that she had a strong editorial voice.
Jake didn’t say anything. I could tell he wasn’t sure he wanted to try that wall. To be fair, he wasn’t really a milquetoast. He played kid-hockey, and on the ice he was hard to intimidate. But he looked shaken by Em’s progress. He had shot his mouth off a little too much. I think he knew it.
Anyway she had run up against the overhang. The awful truth was dawning on her. Or maybe it wasn’t. However she hadn’t fallen yet and rule said that you could try till you fell. She kept trying to find a path but couldn’t. She tried this and she tried that. She was also getting tired. A few more people came over to watch the display of bullheadedness.
Jake wasn’t saying anything. He just sat and looked at the ground.
Em had been on the rock for several minutes now and it showed. I got ready to give her an ovation and run over to console her because I knew she wanted to climb that thing and I knew she couldn’t. The tireder you get, the less hope you have. If she could have done it, she would have done it early on.
More fumblings at handholds that weren’t there, more slips that she just barely saved. She was getting weak and she was desperate.
Now, in rock climbing there’s something called a “committed move.” It means you can’t change your mind in the middle. Suppose you are trying to jump twelve feet across a pit of ravening alligators. That’s a committed move. You can’t jump half way and then decide, heh, oops, that maybe you want to come back and think about it some more. Either it works or you’re protein.
I’m not sure what idea came into her mind, or what she saw on the rock face, but she lunged wildly sideways, somehow got a handhold above the overhang, somehow got another one, muscled herself up, threw a knee — and she was above the overhang. I have no real idea how she did it. She scampered the remaining few feet up, rang the bell, and the store burst into applause.
And her daddy wasn’t proud of her. Oh no. Who, me?
After that, Jake wouldn’t even try. He just stared at the floor. It was sad. But maybe he had learned one of life’s lessons: First do it, then brag about it. Getting it backwards is asking for trouble. There’s always a faster gun. Besides, if you have to tell people that you are wonderful, you probably aren’t.
Of course there’s no reason to brag at all. It is better to convey your virtues by overwhelming inference. If people don’t draw the inference, well, it probably wasn’t there to draw. That has always been my approach. I haven’t impressed many people, but I haven’t made a fool of myself either. Well, not that way, anyhow.
In a sense Jake had ambushed himself. Em was tough. She just didn’t look it. At age twelve she found out that legally she could get her scuba cert. She let me know that my life wouldn’t be worth living unless I did the right thing. That summer we went diving together in the Keys.
Fred Reed [send him mail] is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.