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There were a handful of minor rules and two major ones: don’t cross the rope bridge without a Scout Master present and do not cross it at night under any circumstances. Much like smoking cigarettes, crossing the bridge, either unsupervised or at night, never occurred to any of us until we were told not to do it. Besides, Rob, Carl and I—the Dynamic Trio—had been to more than our fair share of Summer Camps. So we gave Mr. Webber, our Grand Poobah, about as much attention during orientation as a businessman gives a flight attendant when she runs through the safety mask routine. It was summer camp, for Christ sakes, shit was supposed to be fun, an adventure or whatever.
The first day entailed untying knots and misidentifying plants, big fucking deal, right. On the second day, we blew off those events to play Capture the Flag, best game ever. We went swimming one afternoon, I guess that was the third day because we were getting pretty restless, like all campers do around the mid-way point. All in all, the whole campout kinda sucked until the fourth day. After lunch on Day Four, Mr. Webber instructed us to “fill our canteens with fresh water, apply copious amounts of sunscreen and hose each other down with bug spray.” He had a flare for the dramatic, but that came as no big surprise considering he was a high school English teacher and the drama club director. He also suggested we bring trail mix or energy bars, if we had them, because he and his son Jake had an adventure in store for us. They did too. They weren’t bullshitting. They led us on a five-mile hike deep into the tall pines, alongside an ever-expanding brook and up a hill that grew steeper and steeper until we reached the bridge.
The height of it struck me first. It must have been twenty, maybe twenty-five feet up. Then there was the wobbly nature of it. A rope bridge, to my mind, had two ropes running parallel with boards strung across, sorta like train tracks. Not this one. This one had one rope that you walked across, a real tight wire act. There were two other ropes, about waist high, to be used as handrails. Imagine a triangle flipped upside down, where the points are the ropes, but the bars connecting the dots doesn’t exist. The whole thing stretched between two huge cedars, swooped from one leafy canopy to the next, and ran across the river, which had grown quite wide and brisk. It was scary as hell.
Jake went first. He was older than the rest of us, an Eagle Scout too, but nobody really gave a shit about that (except his dad, of course). Looking back, our troop must have been the black sheep of scouting, because none of us were all that concerned with progressing up the ranks. Jake had just graduated high school and gotten accepted into some big state college. The college thing might have held a certain allure, but ultimately it was a picture of a babe that he carried in his wallet—Jake said it was his girlfriend, but now I’m not so sure—that probably everybody over.
Jake pulled a Tarzan as he advanced up the wooden planks—crudely hammered into the side of a tree—taking two at a time. Nobody would’ve ever guessed him for a city boy or a college boy, but a man of the jungle who had been swinging from limb to limb his whole life. Except for one momentary hiccup, he eased effortlessly from the planks to the ropes. My eyesight was lousy as hell—although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d find that out in high school, when I had to get glasses in order to pass the eye test for my driver’s license—but it looked like one of the boards, near the top, shifted under his weight. But, he demonstrated so much confidence in scaling the tree that nobody even mentioned it—hell, I wasn’t even sure that board did move—might have been my imagination, after all.
Technically, we were supposed to wait until the person crossing the bridge had finished, with both feet safe on the ground, before the next one ventured up. But, for all the respect that Jake got, his father got none. So when Jake reached the tree on the other side of the river, Rob Roberts started jumping up and down saying, “me next, me next,” and Mr. Webber just nodded his head yes, go ahead. Our attention shifted focus from Jake, who had started scaling down, to Rob who was rising up.
In school, everybody called him “Rifle Rob,” because his free throw was deadly accurate. All the benchwarmers and I used to spend the whole game praying the other team might foul Rifle Rob, ensuring we put some easy points on the board. Smart kid, too, everybody thought so. He already had his whole life mapped out with a backup plan and everything. If he couldn’t get a full ride to play college ball, he intended to move to New York and get cast in Saturday Night Live. He could have done it too. He was funny as hell, a real smart ass. Too bad neither of those plans worked out.
Same as before, when Rob reached the far tree, another one of us began begging to go next and again our attention shifted from the one scaling down to the one venturing up. This time it was Carl, an avid baseball card collector. Everyone was shocked Carl volunteered to go. When it came to sports, Carl admired athletes from the sideline. He wasn’t one to participate. It was hard to believe he came camping in the first place. Carl stopped every so often to adjust his glasses, hanging on with one hand as the leaves waved back and forth in the wind. And then, just like that, he was out over the river, edging his way along the ropes until he reached the far tree.
One by one, my buddies climbed up, transitioned from planks to ropes and ventured out over the water. They all stopped around the same place, almost right in the middle, where the ropes were the wobbliest, but nobody fell off. As each one reached the tree and began climbing down, our attention shifted to the next one ascending until I found myself standing beside Mr. Webber with everyone shouting and cheering from the other side. I would like to say that he put a hand on my shoulder, gave me a pat on the back and offered some encouraging remarks, but he did not. With one hand shielding his eyes, he stared up into the tree. I started to get a funny feeling that if I didn’t start climbing, he might deem the whole thing unsafe and call it off. Along the way, I decided that, no matter what, I would not stop in the middle. No matter how shaky, no matter how scary or unstable, I would keep going. I might move slowly, but I wouldn’t stop.
I stopped. I stopped a couple times. It wasn’t the wobbliness so much as the height. Instead of twenty-five to thirty feet, by my original estimations, it looked more like forty feet or more. The river seemed wider and deeper than previously noted and rushed in the middle, white water style. If I dropped, the current might whisk me away before I could reach the tranquil water, lapping at the banks. My palms were sweaty as all hell and I feared one of them might slip right off the damned ropes, even though I gripped them so tight, my knuckles were white. Instead of finishing without stopping, I just wanted to finish, to reach the other end without falling.
In all honesty, the bridge probably took less than five minutes to cross, but it seemed like an hour—one thrilling, terrifying hour. Then I put one foot down in front of the other and my toe scraped bark. There was nowhere else to go, I’d reached the tree on the other side of the river. It was over, but not quite. I still had to climb down. Transitioning from planks to ropes had been easy, natural. Going from ropes to planks, now that was the tricky part. The planks ran back down the tree in the same way, except they started below the line my feet were on. So there was this awkward, spastic moment where I had to release one hand from the supporting ropes, crouch down, dangle one foot, fish it around and find the plank. Except, I couldn’t quite reach it. I was a short kid.
I lost my nerve, stood back up and grasped the supporting rope with both hands. It was too high to jump, way too high. But the rope, anchored into the side of the tree, wasn’t wobbly at all. So, what I could do was let go with both hands at the same time, crouch down real fast and grab a hold of the rope. That way, without the one arm reaching up, I would gain the extra inches needed to find the board with my feet. That is what I did and, wouldn’t you know it, I almost fell right off the goddamned bridge.
It’s hard to say what happened. One moment I was standing on top of the rope and the next, I was hanging from it as if it were a pull up bar. All the cheering had stopped and all I could hear was Jake’s voice, wavering. I heard him, but it was all garbled like a Charlie Brown cartoon. I was not a strong kid—far from it—and could already feel my sweaty palms sliding off the rope. For some reason, I kicked my foot out to the side and, instead of hitting air, it caught the tree that flanked my body. And there were the wooden planks, right beside me. I eased one foot over and then the other until I stood firm on the steps. Once grounded, I used the same process with my hands until I had transitioned completely off the ropes and onto the tree. The cheering resumed.
Mr. Webber did not attempt the bridge. Jake led our high-spirited group back to camp. We were elated. It was my first taste of euphoria. No subsequent high ever quite reached the same level of satisfaction, but that’s beside the point. As exciting as day four was, day five was equally uneventful—except when Mr. Webber changed the rules, saying the bridge was now off limits all the time—but, between the five-mile trek to the bridge, the bridge itself and then the journey back, we were all whopped. On day six, people talked more about packing up and going home than anything else. It had been a good week, fun and all, but now that everyone was thoroughly sunburned, suffering from muscle fatigue and in desperate need of a long hot shower (not to mention a good round of laundry), it was safe to say the campout was pretty much over. Except for one thing.
On the last night of camping, tradition dictated that we go raid another troop’s campsite. This, of course, was strictly forbidden. Every year, at orientation, Mr. Webber instructed us not to go raid campsites and every year he got ignored. The thing was, I always seemed to miss out. My first summer, Arnold Chapman got dehydrated. Luckily for him, his father was one of the chaperones and drove him home. Unluckily for me, he was also my ride and I had to leave camp early, missing the raid, only to hear the legendary stories at the following Troop Meeting. The next year, I got stuck in summer school and missed the whole damned campout, but the stories had grown even more outrageous than before. This time, I was going to raid a campsite, dammit.
We didn’t have an official lights out, but everybody usually turned in around ten-thirty or eleven. The Leaders usually dropped off pretty fast after a long day without air conditioning, but we gave them an hour or so, just to be sure. That was the hardest part, lying in the rack, pretending to sleep, but not dropping off. Chris Johnston did fall asleep and when we nudged him awake after midnight, he mumbled something, rolled over and dropped back off. He’s still considered a pussy to this day.
We were not a platoon of green berets (although we sure as hell thought so), but we were slightly more sophisticated than the average thirteen year old. We crept silently into the woods without flashlights as nothing can give away an assailant’s position quicker than a beam of light that doesn’t originate from the moon. Most of us had the camp’s layout committed to memory from previous summers. The other thing, and this was pretty important, was not to strike any campground in close proximity to our own. To do so would be amateurish. Instead we eased our way to the outer edges of camp, far from our home base, so that, if suspicions arose (or retaliations were planned), they would be directed toward the target’s neighboring camps and not our own.
We reached the edge of a tree-lined perimeter and scoped out Troop 405’s setup. We split into two groups with Rob leading one and Carl the other. With the camp surrounded, we eased in and started pulling up stakes and collapsing tents. Next thing we knew, there were beams of light, an obscenity laced tirade and flashes of bare flesh. We fled through the trees, splitting up partially due to the mad chaos and partially as a plan to loose whoever happened to be in hot pursuit. A flashlight closed in on us, still screaming. One of us—I think it was Rob, but can’t be sure—must have turned and gotten a good glimpse of this guy, because he screamed back, “Hey, look, it’s superman!” All at once, we turned and saw the guy chasing us. Aside from a pair of tidy whities, he was buck naked. But instead of white, this guy’s drawers were red. Laughter busted out of the shadows. He spun around, pointing the light at random trees, trying to find at least one howler, but it was pointless and, in the end, he knew that.
“Fuck you, kids,” he muttered. “Come back to my camp and I’ll bust your asses.”
“Whatever, faggot,” someone said. I think it was Carl. The kid really grew a pair that summer.
Superman hung his head in disgrace, shaking it from side to side, and made his way back to camp. Once he was gone, we huddled up in the shadows to discuss the next plan. Problem was, we had no plan. We had just come pretty damned close to getting caught and, although we weren’t entirely sure what the punishment might be, we weren’t all that eager to find out either. Making our way to another campsite would be just about the stupidest thing we could do.
Rob said, “I think we should call it a night.”
“We could climb the bridge,” I said. As soon as those words slipped out of my mouth, I instantly regretted them. I don’t even know why I said it. Maybe it was almost falling when nobody else did. Maybe it was Carl’s newfound leadership capabilities. Maybe I was just having a great night and didn’t want it to end. Whatever it was, the words were out there, waiting to be shot down as they surely would. But nobody said anything, like we were playing some bastardized version of ‘Chicken.’
“I mean,” I said. “Assuming we could even find the damned thing.”
“It’s easy to find,” Carl said. “We just follow the river.”
“Let’s go,” Rob said, the decision made.
Jake wasn’t with us, of course, as the scout master’s son, he couldn’t officially participate in raiding campsites, although he unofficially encouraged it when out of his father’s ear shot. Instead, Rob took the lead. When we found the bridge, he approached the trunk and eased into the darkness. In some ways, I guess you could say he never re-appeared. Not the Rob I knew, anyway. We ended up going to different high schools and, since we lived in different neighborhoods, it didn’t take long to fall out of touch. From what I heard, Rifle Rob kept his nickname, just not for nailing free throws. He shot his girlfriend so full of cum, she couldn’t help but get knocked up. I don’t know if a college ever offered him a scholarship or not, none of the local ones did, anyway. In the end, I guess he manned up, set his dreams of college and New York aside and got married instead. I ran into him and his wife at a T.G.I. Fridays about ten years later. She’s a dental hygienist and he works as an assistant coach at a high school. It was clearly a date night for them, but they took the time to show me pictures of their kids. They even tipped me twenty-five percent, pretty nice of them considering I spent at least half the night trying to avoid them out of embarrassment.
The next thing I knew Rob was scaling down the other side and Carl had already started working his way up. Carl became one of the most successful guys I know. Or, knew. We don’t really talk anymore. Unlike Rob, Carl and I did go to the same high school and were pretty good friends too. Carl finished in the top ten and, I can’t for the life of me remember where he went exactly, but he did go to college and graduated in five years with two degrees. Everybody thought he’d fucked up big time when he accepted an internship at CAA, one of the leading sports agencies. This kid had a fucking masters degree and could have pulled in an easy fifty grand a year. Instead, he took coffee orders all morning, ran the mail room all afternoon and got treated like dog shit all day. Now, he is a talent agent representing some of the best baseball athletes today … and earns ten percent of their combined salaries. You should see his home in Santa Monica—he lives better than most movie stars.
On my way up, I kept thinking of the problem of getting back down. Never mind the ropes, the ropes were easy, as long as I took it slow. If I needed to stop, fuck it, I’d stop. It was getting down that worried me. I had made a point of watching each of my predecessors, but couldn’t quite see them from all the way across the river, never mind the darkness. I remember thinking, what I could do is, keep both hands on the supporting rope and, while holding on, sit down. From that position, I should be able to reach the wooden plank no problem. At least, that’s what I thought, but it became irrelevant.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened. I climbed the planks, closing in on the ropes, and then I hung in suspended animation. Just dangling mid-air while the ropes shot up toward the starry sky becoming more and more distant until everything faded away. The rest I got from the others. Their stories matched up, for the most part, so I have no reason to doubt the chain of events. Everybody had crossed except me. To get back to the other side, they would either have to walk a good two and a half to three miles, where the river became narrow enough to cross. Problem with that, Carl figured, that even if they ran like hell, it would probably take about an hour (although he bet Rob could make it in forty-five, fifty minutes). The second option was to come back over the bridge, which was exactly what they did, except in reverse. Carl reached me first, although he almost ate it on the way down because, sure as shit, the board that was loose had fallen out. He relayed that message to the others so they wouldn’t make the same mistake.
I was still unconscious when they reached me and Carl said he thought for sure I was dead. Rob must have really been paying attention in the First Aid courses, because he wouldn’t let anybody touch me. Instead, they cupped water out of the river and splashed it on my face until I woke up. Once I’d demonstrated the ability to move my limbs, they pulled me up off the ground and we began the long, painful march to camp.
Aside from a sprained wrist, some scratches and a severely damaged ego, I didn’t have many battle scars to show for it. Just about the only explanation for surviving the fall was dumb luck. My father’s brother fell off a roof—barely one story—broke his back and spent the rest of his life in bed. Even though I didn’t kill myself, how I walked away without even a broken arm perplexes me. The one thing Rob and Carl both agreed on was their theory that the branches broke my fall.
We probably would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for all those bruises. The next morning, Mr. Webber observed how I “looked like death warmed over.” He wouldn’t take his eyes off me as we broke camp and started loading up the vehicles. By lunch, he decided I had gotten in a fight and demanded to know who did this to me. If I had been quick enough on my toes, I could have constructed an alternate version of our raid, but where another troop jumped me … I just didn’t get a good look at them. Rob pulled me aside and told me this whole bridge adventure was my fucking idea in the first place, so I better not rat them out. Come to think of it, he had been short with me ever since the fall, like he had lost respect, or worse, just didn’t like me anymore. After lunch, Mr. Webber had abandoned his original theory and asked me if I had been on the bridge.
I said I had and everything just poured out after that. I think Carl had tipped him off, but I can’t be sure about that and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. We all got our asses reamed pretty bad. Nobody got kicked out, but I don’t think anybody came back either. I know I didn’t. Our interests changed in high school: booze, babes, often both.
When I read Mr. Webber’s obituary, I gave Jake a call. We didn’t talk much about his father or each other’s lives for that matter. Our brief chat revolved around scouting, the only bond we really shared. Jake told me the camp ended up putting a fence around the bridge. Today, you can’t even cross it supervised in broad daylight without a helmet and harness secured to steel cables hanging down from above. Hell, kids jump off the damned thing for fun, just to get a few second free fall before the cord jerks them to safety.
For the most part, I agree with the all the safety precautions. But then there’s that one small part of me that does not. The bridge was real. Every nuance from the anticipation to the climb to the fall were the most alive moments of my life. Taking the risk out of it has, in some ways, killed the experience. Then again, what do I know. I didn’t conquer it like my peers did and, in a lot of ways, I’m still falling.
Timothy Judd is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, where he anticipates graduating in June. Judd published three short stories, won Houston Space Center's "Name the Shuttle Contest," and was the recipient of the Director's Award in Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University.