The Jump

by Jim Bates

I didn’t expect so many people to be standing around on the cliff overlooking the Yellow Knife River but there were, maybe fifteen or so, mostly young folks in their twenties just hanging out, joking around and having a good time, everyone looking tan and fit. It was honestly not what I expected at all. Scared as I was, I found the festive atmosphere kind of distracting and that was a good thing, giving my growing unease. You know what, I thought to myself, this just might work out okay.

Next to me my ten year old grandson took my hand and smiled, “Grandpa, look at all the people. This is really cool. “

He pulled me along, ever closer to the edge. I followed behind trying to calm my rapidly beating heart with little success. Was I really going to do this? Was I really going to conquer my fear of heights and jump off a thirty foot cliff into a river? It looked like I was. If my wife could only see me, now.

A week earlier when I’d told Connie of my plan she’d said derisively, “So you’ve got a bucket list, Ed? First I’ve heard of it. And jumping off a cliff is the first thing on it? What, are you nuts?” She shook her head in marital disappointment. “Look, I asked you to take down the swing set in the backyard at the beginning of summer, what, three months ago? You couldn’t be bothered. Now, suddenly you’ve got this ridiculous bucket list that you’re all fired up about, and it has to happen like right now. What’s next? Parachuting out of a airplane?” I quickly found something of interest down by my shoes and averted my gaze. How’d she know about that? It was third on the list, right after hiking the Appalachian Trial. “How about you put ‘Take down the swing set’ on that stupid list of yours, huh? Maybe then it’ll get done.”

I tried to recover some modicum of dignity, “Look, I’m sorry about the swing set. I’ll get on it right away.”

“Yeah, right.” I could see it in her eyes. My wife’s opinion of men, never very high even on a good day, slipped down another rung on her ladder of disappointment. “Before or after you jump off the cliff?”

I felt some clarification was in order. “You know that I’ve always been afraid of heights. I just want to prove to myself that I can do it, and, you know, get past my fear. Plus…well, I’m jumping into a river,” I said, for some reason thinking it would put a positive spin on things. Wrong.

“Oh, well, a river,” she said and then let out derisive “Humph,” which rattled the crockery in the nearby kitchen cabinet, “Well, that makes it all right then.” She thought for a moment, shaking her head, dismay written all over her face. We had a good marriage and had been together over forty years, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary for me to do something to either try her patience, or disappoint her, or both. This obviously was one of those times. “Well, call Ronny at least. See if he’ll go with you. Maybe our son can help protect you from yourself.”

Whew. Off the hook.

I watched as she turned on her heel and headed for the living room, phone in hand, eager, I was sure, to call one of her girl friends to commiserate once again on the idiocy of the male species, a life-long pastime of theirs. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time and probably not the last, either, but what could I say? At least I kept things interesting.

As if she could read my mind, Connie turned and gave me a pointed look, “What did you say?”

“Ah, nothing. I…I just…”

I shut up. It was disconcerting that the longer we were married, the more she seemed to be able to read my mind. I’d have to watch myself.

She jabbed a long, pointed finger in my direction, “Something about keeping things interesting? Is that what you said? Well, you’d better watch it, buddy, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

Scary. Was she becoming clairvoyant? I shuddered at the thought. That’s all I needed.

I took a moment to collect myself and then called our oldest son and explained what was going on. “This Saturday? Sorry, Dad, can’t go. I’m swamped at the dealership, but maybe Noah can. I’ll put him on.”

I took care of my grandson and his two younger sisters one day a week after school. He and I loved doing things together, and after he listened to my idea about jumping into the Yellow Knife River it took him all of about two seconds to say, “Yes!” And that’s what brought us to the forests of central Minnesota, a two hour drive north of Minneapolis, on a Saturday and a warm and sunny August afternoon.

A tall, well built, dreadlocked guy who looked to be in his mid-twenties broke away from the group when he saw us walking toward the cliff’s edge. He came up and smiled a greeting, “Hey there, guys. What’s going on? Here to jump off Lollipop?”

His grin was infectious, and his bright white teeth were accented by his tan face. He was wearing cut off jeans and flip flops. I tried not to stare at his bare chest and torso, rippling with muscles. He kind of looked like I imagined Hercules might have looked like. Next to me I swear Noah whispered, “Wow.”

Lollipop? What the heck was he talking about? I coughed to clear my suddenly restricted throat and said, “Jump into the river? Yeah, I think I am.”

As if reading my mind he grinned, pointed to the cliff and said affectionately, “Lollipop is what we call this little baby here.”

“Really?” I stammered. It was all I could think to say. Then I croaked out, “Why’s that?” And why was my mouth suddenly so dry? But he was very friendly, and I was trying to be friendly back, you know, trying to get into the spirit of things. Next to me Noah surreptitiously handed me a bottle of water which I gratefully drank from.

“We call it that because it’s such a sweet little jump.” His grin widened, “Not like that one.” He pointed over his shoulder up a long rise. Through the trees I could barely make out a high cliff about a hundred yards downstream.

“What’s that one called?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.

“Hangman,” he said and laughed,” because the drop could kill you.”

Next to me Noah said, “Yikes,” while I wiped a bead of sweat from my brow and tried to get my racing heart under control.

Mr. Dreadlocks took a long moment looking me over before he calmly patted me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s get you started with Lollipop and save Hangman for some other day. How’s that sound?”

The answer was obvious to me. “Sounds good,” I said, trying to sound confident. Next to me Noel whispered, “Way to go, Grandpa,” as he took the bottle from my suddenly fidgety hand.

Mr. Dreadlocks then slapped me on the back (he really was a touchy-feely kind of guy) and turned to his friends, yelling, “Gang, we’ve got a jumper here!” A chorus of cheers arose from the crowd. He turned and gave me the thumbs up sign before giving me another once over, taking a bit more time appraising me.

I’m a little overweight (doughy would be putting it mildly) and nearly bald. I was wearing tan cargo shorts, a dark blue Minnesota Twins tee-shirt and a Twins baseball cap. On my feet I wore an old pair of canvas tennis shoes. In my research on cliff jumping, I’d read that they would help protect my feet from the force of the impact on the water.

“First time?” Like he even had to ask.

“Yeah,” I said, and damn it if my voice didn’t crack. I tried to recover. “It’s on my bucket list.”

“Bucket list? Really. Well, we get that a lot here,” he grinned and stuck his hand out, “Welcome. My name’s Cody.”

We shook, “Hi. I’m Ed and this is my grandson, Noah.” Noah shook Cody’s hand, but didn’t (or couldn’t) say anything, enamored as he was to the point of speechlessness by the statuesque Adonis standing before us.

“Great to meet you guys. If you want, I’ll help you out.”

“That’d be nice,” I said, meaning it, my relief palpable.

For the next ten minutes or so he talked me through what he called The Jump. He was really nice about it, patient with me and informative. He seemed to understand the trepidation a sixty-five year old man might have about leaping into space

As he talked people kept coming up to the area and jumping off the cliff, often without any warning or fanfare whatsoever. I saw a skinny whip of a girl walk to the edge, hold her nose and step right off. I saw a guy and a woman around forty jump while holding hands. And then one of Cody’s friends, Mia, ran off the edge and did a back flip on her way down. Watching all those jumpers served to make me both excited and nervous, an strange feeling to have.

Finally, Cody clasped me on the shoulder in a friendly way and said, “Okay Ed, that’s about it.” He looked me over once again and nodded to himself, “I’d say you’re all set to go. How about it? Are you ready?”

I looked around. The sky was cloudless and clear blue. A hot sun was beating down. The scent emanating from the pine forest was heady and fragrant. The crowd nearby was boisterous and happy. I’d been coached by the inimitable Cody. I guess was as ready as I’d ever be.

I took a deep breath, “Sure. Yeah. I’m ready.”

“Super.” Cody turned to the crowd and yelled, “Ed’s going for it!”

There was a heartfelt cheer, and lot’s of ‘Atta boys’ and ‘Way to go’s’.

I gave my hat to Noah and stepped to the edge. The river was wide, about two-hundred feet across and even though there was a current, the surface looked calm with barely a ripple showing. The shear granite cliff I was on had formed eons ago with a natural ledge that sloped away from the edge toward the shore. All I had to do was step off and drop thirty feet straight down. I was told  it would take less than two seconds before I hit the water.

I took a deep breath and exhaled. Cody had suggested not to not look down, so I didn’t. I looked across the river to the pine trees and rocky cliffs on the other side. Behind me Noah whispered, “You can do it Grandpa.” I felt him take my hand and squeeze.

I turned and looked at him and he smiled an encouraging smile. I smiled back, squeezed his hand once more, and let go. Let’s do this, I said to myself. Then I turned and stepped into space.

For a moment I hung suspended. It felt like I was floating. Then I was air born and free falling, and it was exhilarating. The wind whipped past me, and I’m pretty sure I held my breath. I kept my hands glued to my sides, and the river came up fast. When I hit the water I heard my feet smack the surface as bubbles boiled around me. I went under and spread my arms and legs wide so I wouldn’t go too deep. I was conscious of blowing air out through my nose to keep water from going in. Then I swam up about five feet to the surface, not having expected the water to be as cold as it was. But the coolness felt refreshing and added to my euphoria. I’d survived my jump! I was alive and I felt fantastic – energized. I couldn’t believe it, but I’d conquered my fear of heights. I felt a sense of accomplishment unlike any I’d ever felt before. I hope it doesn’t sound too crazy to say this, but I will: I felt reborn.

I was also reveling in what must have been a natural high coupled with an adrenaline rush in the aftermath of my accomplishment: the sun seemed brighter, the sky bluer and the wild river I was floating in seemed…well, wilder. Suddenly there was a huge splash next to me. I looked over and saw Cody’s head as he bobbed up to the surface. He was grinning like there was no tomorrow. “You did it, man. Welcome to the club.” He gave me a high-five which I awkwardly returned.

I don’t know why, but I was so happy I had tears in my eyes.

We swam to shore and climbed a trail back to the top where I was greeted with an enthusiastic outpouring of support and camaraderie by the crowd that had seemed to have doubled in size since I’d first arrived. Noah gave me a big bear hug. For an old guy who wasn’t coordinated or in any kind of athletic shape, I have to say that I felt unexpectedly on top of the world. As far as checking something off a bucket list went, I’d have to say that my ‘Jump off a cliff’ had worked out pretty good.

Later, driving home, Noah couldn’t quit talking about the whole experience: How cool Cody was. How amazing his girlfriend Mia was. How neat great my jump into the river was. Finally he asked, “Can we go back again, Grandpa? If you want to, that is. If you do go, I’d like to go, too. I mean, if that’d be okay with you.” He was excitedly running off at the mouth, and it was kind of cute, but I have say that I understood the feeling.

I wondered what Connie would say, me driving back north with Noah sometime and jumping off the cliff again. Well, I knew exactly what she’d say. She’d look at me like I was crazy and say, ‘Oh, really, Ed, jump again? What, are you completely insane? Once wasn’t enough? You’ve got to do it again? What have you got to prove? Are you seriously trying to kill yourself?’ Then she’d wonder if was time to take me in to a psychiatrist and have some tests done or something.

I’ll probably never get her to understand that jumping wasn’t about ego some macho malarkey or anything like that. It was about facing a fear and overcoming it. The jump was a means to an end. Besides, it turned out to be an incredible experience.

I didn’t have to think too long. To heck with it. I turned to my grandson and said, “You know, I just might.” I waited just a tick and said, “And if I do, you can come with.”

“Yea! Great Grandpa,” he grinned, “I can’t wait.”

I’m sure he had his own reasons for wanting to back, but I did, too. The more I thought about it the more I figured, why not jump again? You only live once, no matter how crazy it might seem to others. Besides, once I conquered my fear, it turned out that jumping was an unbelievable rush, one I wouldn’t mind experiencing again. That being said, however, I’m positive I’m going to leave Hangman to those made of firmer stuff than me.

So, yeah, I think I’ll go back, maybe even next weekend. And when I do, there’s certainly a bright spot in it for my wife and her friends and their observations concerning the idiotic behavior of men – It’ll give them one more thing to talk about. It’s the least I can do, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. So everyone will be happy, and that’s got to be a good thing. Right?

But before we go, I’ll get Noah to help me take down that swing set in our backyard. Promise.

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4 Responses to “The Jump”

  1. Shawn M. Klimek Says:

    A very enjoyable story.

  2. Ann Christine Tabaka Says:

    OMG,what a great story Jim! I hope it is true!

  3. Nancy Lou Henderson Says:

    This is fabulous. I could feel the intensity leading up to the jump and the exhilarating feelings once the jump was complete
    I love this story.

  4. Jim Bates Says:

    Greetings all who have read my story! Thank you so much. And here’s a special shout out to Professor Punk Reaves for featuring it. Much appreciated. Thank you!

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