Daring Not to Dive
March 23, 2017
By Michael A. Calvert
I saw Gunga Din in the mirror as I passed through the living room. A tan, shirtless ten year old with a shaggy turban returning from battle. My turban was a shirt wrapped around a scalp wound. The front fender of my bicycle had cut into the top of my head after I flew over the handlebars. Dad would shake his head and say it was probably not a good idea to ride down a two-story, rough graded dirt pile at a construction site. My head no longer hurt much, and I was relieved to make it home on my bike.
“What in the world!” Mom said as I stepped into the kitchen. “Is that blood in your hair? And on that shirt?”
“Maybe it’ll come out in the wash. I fell off my bike,” I replied with a quick shrug, opening the refrigerator door. “I’m dying of thirst.” Soon Mom was slowly unwrapping my blood soaked turban. I winced and grunted as she pulled the fabric from the dried blood forming over the wound.
“This gash is deep. It’s a wonder you didn’t bleed to death. You may need stitches,” she said as she washed the blood from my hair. “Were you riding on those ski jump ramps you and Bernie make?”
“No. I just hit something and went over the handlebars. I’ll be OK. No stitches needed. My hair will hide the scar,” I said with as much nonchalance as I could muster, recalling Mom’s concern about a scar on my sister’s thigh when she sat on the scissors.
“Hold this on your head.” Mom said as she handed me an improvised icepack, ice cubes wrapped around a dishtowel. Mrs. Jordan’s car is in her driveway. She’ll take us to Dr. Schrieber’s.”
Before she returned with Mrs. Jordan jangling her car keys, I confirmed that the bleeding had stopped and made another plea to forgo the stitches. I argued it was unnecessary as I masked my fear of a needle stitching my scalp the way Mom darned socks. In an hour, I was carefully combing my black hair over the beige bandage in an attempt to hide my stitches.
That evening Dad interrogated me like Perry Mason until I admitted that my fall occurred when I rode down the steep side of a big dirt pile at a construction site located beyond my boundary. When he pressed me on why I did such a stupid thing, I could only respond that Mike dared me and Bernie double-dared me. I studied the pattern on our linoleum floor as I responded with acceptance to Dad’s rhetorical questions about jumping off cliffs if everyone else did and using my head next time my friends did something stupid. I escaped by holding my hand to my bandage and saying I needed to rest.
I stared at the ceiling in my shadowy room and recalled the dares and double-dares that began on the playground. Kids chanting, “Jump off the swing. Stand on the swing seat. Swing as high as the crossbar and make the chains go slack.”
“Dare you to stand on the whirling merry-go-round. Double dare you to walk across the top of the monkey bars. Are you chicken? Cluck, cluck, cluck, Michael’s a chicken. Michael’s a chicken,” they continued in sing-song taunts.
When I was a little older, Bernie, Ronnie, and my buddies tramped through our wilderness—the woods between our subdivision and Alum Creek. We challenged each other to walk over small streams on dead tree trunks instead of hopping from stone to stone across the ankle-deep water not far below and scramble up the muddy bank.
With arms extended, we slowly put one foot in front of another like tight rope walkers under a circus tent. The worst logs were smooth, silvery gray, and narrow. Our buddies already safely on the other side, offered advice: “Walk faster,” and “Don’t look down.” They also hurled taunts and threats. “Losing your nerve?” or “You’re going to get wet.” These low crossings were training grounds for bigger challenges.
The high banks of Alum Creek were topped with large trees that slanted toward the light above the creek. Vines as thick as a boy’s upper arm stretched to the treetops where they were entwined with small upper branches. Two of us hung on the vine to test the strength of the entanglements in the treetops. If the vine didn’t pull free, we’d try a short ride.
Gradually, we extended the arc of each swing until we were flying over the creek banks and the water itself. With a running start, we propelled ourselves in arcs high above the creek and imitated Johnny Wiesmueller’s long, modulated cries of Tarzan though our wails were a couple of octaves higher than his. We all understood that taking a turn was not optional. No dares or shaming required. Everyone had to soar high into the air above the creek.
Beginning in the sixth grade, we played on St. Gabriel’s football and baseball teams and in pick-up games on asphalt basketball courts in our neighborhood. We played whatever sport was in season and closely followed our teams in the newspapers and on TV—Ohio State, Notre Dame, the Browns, the Indians, or the Reds. Anyone who uttered a good word about Michigan’s teams, the Dodgers, or the Yankees was hooted into silence. All the guys wore jeans and T-shirts and combed their hair alike. Everyone listened to the disc jockeys on WCOL and rated the chances new songs would go to the top of the Billboard Chart. We discovered the girls at St. Gabriel were more attractive in skirts and sweaters than the school uniforms of loose blue jumpers and white blouses.
As we grew taller (catching up with the girls in our class) and our voices became deeper, Joey, Dick, Ronnie, and I often marched in a phalanx to the playground, the Dairy Queen, Lynn’s Drugs, and Boni Pizza. I wondered if neighbors thought we were a gang of juvenile delinquents. Joey was usually in the lead, and I was by his side. We all enjoyed this demonstration of our friendship, stepping beyond the circle of our families.
In the eighth grade, our last year at St. Gabriel, Joey declared his choice for high school by wearing a green and gold Aquinas football jersey passed down by an older cousin. Several Catholic and public schools were available. Most of my buddies followed Joey’s lead, and I planned to join them at Aquinas where would continue to be buddies.
After the Christmas holidays, Sister Miriam, my teacher and principal, told me I was “St. Charles material” and strongly advised me to take the entrance exam. I was flattered by her high regard and said I would think about it, but I questioned her assessment of my abilities. I cringed at the thought of failing the exam or later flunking out of St. Charles—and I wouldn’t know a soul there. It was a prep school for rich guys planning to go off to college and join a fraternity. If I went to college, I would be a commuter student, maybe in night school, at OSU. Yet I hated to disappoint Sister Miriam, so I didn’t respond for a few days.
I knew it would be my decision. When I mentioned Sister Miriam’s recommendation at dinner, Dad and Mom affirmed that St. Charles and Aquinas were both good schools. I noted the tuition was higher at St. Charles. My younger sister Kathy opined that neither of the all-boys schools would be much fun. Mom said not to worry about money, and girls could be a distraction. Dad added with a grin that the girls at St. Mary’s of the Springs liked to distract St. Charles boys.
As I lay awake that night, I decided to tell Sister I would take the test, but I could make sure I didn’t pass. Then I would be on my way to Aquinas.
“Wonderful! I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors. I’m so pleased,” she gushed. I nodded feigning enthusiasm.
Outside the office, I realized I had dug my hole deeper. I couldn’t disappoint Sister by failing the entrance exam. I still yearned to go to Aquinas with Joey and the other guys but, I truly didn’t want to fail the test. I began to fantasize about scoring well or even posting the top score. If I went to St. Charles, I could see my neighborhood buddies after school and on the weekends. I was surprised at this idea’s allure. Soon I was eager to go to St. Charles. This could be a turning point for me, a fork in the road that would change my life.
The week of the test, I learned that I was accepted by St. Charles without taking the exam based on my grades and Sister’s recommendation. I basked in the congratulations. Sister Miriam, Dad, Mom, Grandmother and other relatives celebrated a bright future for me. My future was brighter, yet I dreaded telling Joey and the guys.
“Good for you. You’ve studied hard and you deserve it,” was Joey said. Dick seconded him, of course. I emitted an involuntary sigh. Still one of the guys. Since the first grade, I had worried that I would be shunned for my good grades and embarrassing compliments from teachers. Now I needed to double down and be everyone’s buddy.
My first opportunity to help Joey, Dick, and Ronnie came in the spring. I introduced to the caddy master at the country club and assured him that I had trained them well. On Saturdays and Sundays, we hitchhiked home together with a few dollars in our pockets from caddying and treated girls to pizza and Cokes at Bona’s.
As captain of the Safety Patrol, I received a package of free tickets for OSU’s intra-squad football game at the end of spring practice. The seats were in the end zone bleachers, but they were in the 80,000-seat Ohio Stadium. A couple of boys on the Safety Patrol couldn’t go, so I slipped the extras to Dick and Ronnie. It was their first time inside the famous horseshoe stadium.
The Columbus Dispatch inspired an expedition to Eckel’s Lake near Delaware, twenty-five miles north of Columbus. Photos of athletes flying over the water on rings like circus performers looked like fun with a bit of danger. Joey, Ronnie, Dick, Bernie, Mike, Johnny, and I chose a day and gathered on Mock Road with rolled towels, a sack lunch, and our swimming trunks. We paired off, stood beside the road, and stuck out our thumbs. The last pair arrived at the lake just before noon. Inside we ate our sandwiches and appraised the equipment.
The small, spring-fed lake nestled between steep hills was a gymnasium over water. People were swinging from one ring to another to travel across the lake. From a platform on the hillside, athletes grasped the two flying rings and launched themselves on an arc far over the lake, let go, and did somersaults before knifing into the water. Towering above the rings was 16-foot diving platform that appeared to be two or three times as high as the 10-foot board at our neighborhood pool. We decided to eat our sandwiches and observe the stunts on display before attempting the traveling rings, the flying rings, and the diving platform.
Several rounds of rock, paper, and scissors decided who would go first on the rings and the high dive, but we all solemnly pledged to take a turn. I was first on the flying rings, but thankful to be last on the high dive. Dick led on the traveling rings, and Ronnie was first on the diving board. I released from the rings too soon, splatted painfully onto the surface of the water, and glowed lobster red for a while. Dick clumsily fell into the lake stretching for the second ring.
Ronnie surprised us by walking to the end of the diving board, crouching, and falling headlong to the water. He surfaced complaining about his sore head with profanity which prompted a whistle and an eviction threat from the lifeguard. Everyone had mustered the courage to take his turn. Johnny reached the other side on the traveling rings, and Bernie managed an awkward flip from the flying rings. The other guys kept their hands together when they dove to avoid Ronnie’s fate.
I climbed the long ladder to the diving platform staring intently at the rungs in front of me. I repeatedly assured myself, “I can do this. I will dive. I’ve got to dive. All the others did it…” Dad’s words about jumping off cliffs if everyone else did flashed through my mind. When I stepped onto the platform, I gasped aloud. The lake was so far below that Ronnie, Dick , and the others were tiny children with upturned faces. They were chanting, “Dive. Dive….” I stepped up onto to the board that bent slightly with my weight. I looked over the trees on the hillsides around the lake and felt a strong breeze at this height. I risked a glance at the water so far below. “You gotta dive! You gotta dive! You gotta…” yelled my buddies.
I took slow, deliberate steps to the end of the board that bounced a little with each step. Alone at the end of the lively plank, I looked toward the distant horizon beneath the bright sky, and said, “I don’t gotta do it. I don’t gotta do anything. Screw ‘em. I’m going to St. Charles. I’m going my own way.”
I calmly launched myself into the void and dropped feet first to the surface. I heard booing before I my feet smacked the water. The soles of my feet still stung as I climbed to the dock, but I smiled and shrugged at my buddies as they jeered and hooted.
Ronnie encouraged me to try again to dive. I calmly shook my head. I did not need to redeem myself.