Learning to Fly
Any number of great swimming holes line the Yellow Breeches, wet, silt-drawn, cool lowdown in the summer heat, from the long, looping Lisburn swing behind the firehall, past the sundrenched fields at Spangler’s Mill, to the cooler treelined rushes below the green iron bridge of Green Lane Farms. None challenged bravado like the rust shale cliffs jutting upstream from the quiet stone serenity of the Mechanicsburg Waterworks dam. The waterworks themselves patch mysterious and tranquil, a small concrete dam stretching across a wide rush of the waters that led to two limestone houses and large oaks, and slightly downstream a matching stone arch bridge, and none of it seeming to function anymore for any commercial purpose. (I am convinced I do not play Monopoly in the same spirit as my children, since, when I land on space with the water spigot, I see only that rustic dam.) All that idyllicness—sparrows dipping for insects in the twilight, the melodic drumming of a short, strong waterfall—belied a more dangerous location laying just up the dirt road, up to the right.
On any given day, anyone could be at the Cliffs, anyone from Camp Hill or Cedar Cliff or Lisburn or New Cumberland or from any of the small towns that lay along the creek’s path, from anyone old enough to drive--or anyone old enough to simply get into a car--to those who seemed to be lingering before leaving college or any other year doing nothing. Park your car along the roadside at the top of the hill, weave back through undergrowth towards the tall oaks. It was no one’s clear property, even much less the case from a teenager’s perspective, rolled up in cutoffs, wide-eyed and pumped free like a Woody Guthrie-laced Robert Plant with hormones. This was our jump, our waters. In later days, timed with the rise of the insurance industry no doubt, you also needed to scale a precautionary ring of barbed wire. It was a small rite of passage to stand in a ring of the brave, shoulder to shoulder with those who had come to fly.
Cliff-diving. We all grew up inspired by the ABC Saturday afternoons of Acapulco cliff divers. Those kids really, those kids plotted their soaring, studying the waters below, timing their lift to eventually safely break the perfect arc. But unlike for our southern counterparts, our Breeches waters ran deep and steady, secured by the waterworks’ dam downstream. Atop the hill, the cliffs offered several diving platforms, the first cutting along a lower ledge that jutted out slightly with a direct pass to the water maybe thirty feet below. Here was pretty much a straight fall. Higher above, you needed to push out far enough to avoid the lower juts. Push out and fly.
Still, flying into the Beeches was never without risk. In the years past high school, stories swirled of various diving tragedies. How, when the sprawling mansions above Green Lane Farms overtook the rocks and trees there, the developers simply dumped the boulders into the waters below. A young Breeches jumper, unaware of the sub-aquatic change, became paralyzed on impact. Ah, the stories that every mother repeats as you run out the door, those stories that Mr. Judge would give too in Red Cross lifeguard training at the deep end of the pool--back when the insurance companies said it was still safe to have a diving board there—all these stories to warn you off swimming at night or diving head first—all those stories of dangerous waters, damn if it aint that all those stories are true.
Hell, even getting to the Cliffs could be life-threatening. During the Hurricane Gloria, Jim Nolte, Frans Barends and I were performing our civic duty checking out the extent of the flood damage along the local water ways. Night time at the waterworks brings no light and we were headed on that bridge over the Breeches, its stone arches, thick, heavy, immobile, an indestructible stone arch cathedral over troubled waters. We could hear the heavy swell of those waters surge below us, the creek’s day-to-day gentleness now running hard past its banks. The approach onto the bridge lifts your car’s headlights high off the road surface, points the beams uselessly at the far shoreline treetops. But something in the rushing roar that night recommended to Frans that he stop short, midway on the bridge. He pulled that giant station wagon to a stop and only a few feet in front of where the flood waters had torn out an eight foot section of stone arc. Fuzz backed the station wagon carefully off the bridge.
Gloria’s flood waters left the cliff’s calm waters unaltered and safe and ever the challenge. Back in high school, Phil Schmelzle taught us how to calculate distances by timing the rate of falling body and plugging the value into a simple equation of gravitational acceleration: d=1/2Ag*t2. While this scientific trivia continues to be the single most important thing I remember from physics class to this day, it’s hard to time the distance down when the falling body is yours. We safely assumed the lower platform hovered out there at thirty feet and the upper ones at forty, probably more. You would lose count in the fall.
You’d approach the takeoff point, waiting your turn, silent as the person in front of you launched outward, timing seconds away, a splash, and wait again to see them emerge from the depths, bubble up and wave, taking a few strokes to clear the landing area, and then it was your turn. The trick, of course, was in how you held your flight, because the wrong twist or a spasmodic jerk meant pain upon entry. Clawing the air, as if you realized your mistake in mid-flight and desperately needed to correct it, ensured a smack-down landing, raw skin, and slow floating away downstream. Hit it right and you went sailing through cool, dark waters, then rose reborn to the summer’s surface light. Cool. The really cool kids had mastered a head-first dive, but to jump, toes pointed to crack the water, to jump was enough to fly.
The path back up from the creek lead along a trail of rocks that became slick on an steady afternoon diet of divers. You pulled yourself up, clinging to exposed roots. The last few feet of path through the woods grew greener and muddier with the day, till the footing on the cliff face wore soft and just to stand long enough to breath before jumping became a challenge. Avoiding a few of the kids in their middle twenties taking a break, sitting on a log and smoking, you joined the line, waiting one by one, and inched forward in your turn, maybe descending backwards, leaning against the hill, if the rocks punched real slick, till you stood where you need to, pulled in one last breath, and flew. Flew, if you left from higher ledge, because to leap from the higher ledge was to master flying. Jump from the lower ledge and you simply fell. But surely the upper ledge, because once you mastered the fear of the upper cliff, and the simple technique to leap far enough out to clear the rocks, then and then you’d never fall from the lower platform ever again. But on this day, Jim Nolte hadn’t yet made that transition to the heights.
This day was filled with warm blue skies, the very definition of why we were alive and there. The very reason for being born. From our arrival, Jim had announced his intention that this would be the day he would jump from the top of the cliffs. We all celebrated by encouraging him, talked him through how it was done, focus his attention as we demonstrated jumping out. Ned Hoffmeister and Frans rehearsed it with him several times…the only thing he needed to do was step out, step out with a small enough jump to clear the belly of rocks below. As the day slipped on, and Jim had not yet taken that big plunge, we edge him on and Jim took it in stride, starting out each time at the top.
Pushed by his own desire to really do this thing, Jim would stand on the heights, holding his breath, looking down, till he felt the anxiousness of the line pressing behind him. Then he’d crawl down to the lower rocks ten or more feet below, those jutting slightly out, more directly over the waters and he would fall. When he finished the slick climb up, Jim kept summing the courage--under our watchful attention and prodding--to try again and then he kept sliding down to jump lower. With each succession, the encouragement diminished.
The day settled on and everyone to their paces, to the rhythms of their own flights. I didn’t notice that there was anything to notice as a I crawled back up and saw Jim, high above and to the side, working his way in reverse, up maybe too tired to make the jump and the climb from the waters. Maybe, but then he turned at the top jump and froze on the platform’s edge, just staring straight ahead. Jim stood there long enough that he transformed into some Inca stone faced god, a sun god, showing no fear now.
The path up the cliff created an excellent vantage point to watch the divers and Ned and I stopped to watch Nolte just standing there on the high platform. He waited so long that world spun to silence and everyone, even the stoners at the top, stared at the Jim to jump, to fly. Only he didn’t jump. Jim took the smallest step off the rocks and plummeted as if pulled by something other than the rigid laws of physics, wrenched straight down, his body completely stiff, head upright, thrust in that straight line that passed barely a breath from the outcropping of rocks. Nolte grazed within a quarter of an inch of slamming the back of his head against the side of the cliff. From our vantage point, Ned and I saw the exact narrow gap, thinner than a knife’s blade. It was the closest any of us that day had ever come to seeing someone kill themselves.
Jim resurfaced from the mucked waters all smiles, screaming, pumping a fist. When he looked back up at the cliff face gallery, everyone one of us stared down in pale white, horror-struck dumbness, stared silently at the ecstatic figure bobbing in the Yellow Breeches: He saw us all awed at the terrifying glimpse of our own mortality. All of us witnesses, we would never live our lives the same way again.