I recently visited my 19-year-old son, Charlie, in Utah where he was part of an Outward Bound–style adventure. The day I visited was rock-climbing day, replete with harnesses, carabiners, ropes, helmets, belay devices, and special climbing shoes. The group took more than an hour to set up the ropes as I sat around watching ripe-smelling twentysomethings crab their way up the cliff, legs akimbo. Then the inevitable happened—it was my turn.
When you are a tad over 60 and, while you are standing at the bottom of a cliff, someone shouts out “your turn,” three things happen. First, you are transported back to third-grade physical education class—the one with the rope hanging from the gym ceiling—and it is now “your turn” to humiliate yourself in front of the jocks, the ones who, grinning, bulldoze you headfirst into the turf during football practice. Second, you make the mistake of looking upward, taking in the sheer height of the perfectly smooth outcropping, and imagining falling off the rock wall in slow motion, flailing your way to the ground. Finally, your digestive system seizes, drops, and leaves you with an intense desire to make a dash for the bushes. Of course with your son watching, there is no way out. Your choice is clear—death or humiliation.
The next step is education. Put on your harness. Strap in so the word “danger” does not appear on any buckles (when that word is obscured, the straps are properly threaded). Then you have to learn to tie a figure-eight follow-through knot that secures the rope to your harness. Put another way, you have seconds to learn how to tie a complicated knot— your life actually depends on it holding—and the person monitoring your progress is not old enough to remember sneakers without Velcro.
Then the signals. There is the climber, the belayer, and the backup belayer. (The last exists, in my mind, to step in if the glassy-eyed, slightly unhinged first belayer decides to separate from his right mind during the climb.) The climber says things such as “On rock!” to which the belayers say “Rock on!” And commands such as “Slack rope” and “Up rope” make sense. But I realized that the two most important commands, “Belay on!” and “Belay off!” sound remarkably similar. In fact, the previous climber called down “Belay on!” and the person on the ground thought he said, “Belay off!” This meant, of course, that instead of securing the climber firmly to the rope, the belayer took him off the rope, greatly increasing the chances of a chaotic, screaming descent and death. On that note, I headed upward.
Ten minutes later, I was 35 feet above the ground on a sheer rock face. The footholds were ó inch wide. My left leg was at a 75-degree angle to my torso, my left foot shoved into what I hoped was a deep crevice. My right arm was fully extended, sweeping the smooth rock face like a blind man touching the face of a stranger. I realized that I could not move. There was no down, no up, no sideways, just frozen inertia, like my childhood cat, Midnight, with her claws caught in the screen door, body hanging limply. Having been railroaded into this activity without much thought, I realized where I was—on a sheer, vertical rock face, tied to a rope held by a teenager for whom Beavis and Butthead are household gods. Then I remembered the only really useful command—“On rappel!”—which meant that I was quickly bounding off the rock face, gratefully heading back down to safety.
Things on the ground, however, were tense. Rock climbing, as it turned out, is a test of character. I learned later that some students are left for an hour or more, dangling from the rope, crying and begging to be returned to terra firma. Having given up in just a matter of minutes, I had despoiled the family name, embarrassed my son, and become an outsider.
Charlie cooked lunch on his portable stove—Minute Rice and dehydrated beans washed down with warm water. I think Dustin Hoffman ate better in the movie Papillon. After a brief rest and a bout of group motivational therapy, we headed back to the cliff face.
I grew angry. This was supposed to be a Bertie Wooster–type outing: a pleasant day in a Utah canyon, a slap on the back, a good feed, and a bit of mild adventure, all perfectly posed like snapshots in the family album. Instead, I had been sandbagged into rock climbing, dismissed it as a meaningless exercise, and then realized that I had broken the cultural code of the climber. I had given up.
So when the 6'7" guide—all muscle, shorts, and sinew—asked if anyone would like a second climb, I rushed over, put on climbing shoes, whipped together my figure-eight follow-through, clipped on the carabiner, and headed upward. It is not an exaggeration to say that I flew up that rock face like a giant spider chasing a juicy dinner. I lunged toward the top, spread-eagled to get a good grip, located those tiny footholds that I had missed that morning, and quickly found myself at the summit. I didn’t even take in the view—I shouted “Rappel!” and pushed off the cliff like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger.
Reveling in my success, I looked around for a note of celebration. Charlie was making googly eyes at the pigtailed German guide with bad breath, the two belayers were deep into a discussion of when Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings, and most everyone else was in animated conversation about the last time they consumed copious amounts of alcohol.
That evening as Charlie was cooking yet another mess of rice and beans, each of the kids had to state what they had learned that day. I was tempted to shout out, “Go get a real job!” when I thought that maybe I actually had learned something. As one of my high school teachers, Bill Gillespie, said at commencement, “Some day you will come back to show us your trophies and your scars, and we’ll be glad to see you.” He meant that we struggle for ourselves, for our own dignity, not for the homecoming. It’s just the rock face and you—everyone else is standing too far away to notice.