opes made me skittish before the start of the school year. Lyndon Johnson seemed morose. Even my baseball team, the Washington Senators, spent the summer losing most of its games. Sometimes I’d troop off to the stadium alone to watch my favorite player, Frank Howard, a lumbering man from Green Bay, Wisconsin who wore goggles. My mother had nicknamed him “The Jolly Green Giant,” after television commercial in which a scantily-clad giant peddled the virtues of green peas while saying, “Ho, ho, ho!”
Giant or not, and despite Howard’s prodigious home runs (one vanished into the Detroit night), I adamantly refused to eat peas. Soon after, my mother left for Rome, probably convinced she was leaving not only a marriage but pledging herself to a city where young men ate their vegetables.
Among the tasks physical fitness classed presented to seventh and eighth grade boys was to climb a knotted rope that dangled from the ceiling of the vast gymnasium.
I was neither physical nor fit.
It was simple enough, said the teacher, named Mr. Schaffer. He wore small square glasses and looked like a welterweight boxer who read books. He never once offered to climb the rope himself. “Hand-over-hand, don’t look down, keep going, be a man.”
My hands were too small, I begged him, showing off my affluently pink palms. I was scared. I wasn’t a man. I was afraid. What if I fell?
Hand-over-hand, he replied. Hand-over-hand.
In their teenaged prime, boys are weightless crabs. They’re God’s theatrical acrobats. Most milked testosterone from the rope and seemed to rise spontaneously. We were asked to form a tight circle around each climber, to catch him in the event he fell. “Don’t fall, boys,” the instructor, who also taught history, told us. “Be men.” As if men possessed the pre-emptive gift of emergency levitation.
No one fell.
In another time of schooling, risk was elevated and literal. Coddling had few takers and teachers were largely right even if wrong. Physical hardship was a test you couldn’t refuse, or walk away from, since presumably it presaged aspects of the road ahead. Parents stayed out of that passageway.
The first time I climbed the rope I got to the first knot before bursting into tears. “I can’t do it,” I wailed at the teacher as the show-off flyboys snickered.
“Okay. Come down. Try it again.”
I did, and failed again. The rope chafed my palms. I slid down.
My father was once gymnast so I turned to him for sympathy. “I can’t climb the rope at school,” I told him.
“The rope is a test,” he told me.
“Then I’ll fail the test.”
“Then what will you do with other tests?”
“I’ll fail them, too.”
“You’ll go through life failing tests?”
“You accept a life of disappointments?”
He paused, walked to his desk, and rolled a flashcard into the Olivetti typewriter. He tapped it out quickly, signed it, and handed it to me. We then ate dinner silently. “My son is excused from rope-climbing,” the card read.
When I handed it to the gym instructor the next day he said nothing.
One after another, the boys scampered up the rope, some reaching the summit, inches from the ceiling, the height of a one-storey building.
He skipped past my name and no one seemed to notice. The other boys were too busy studying one another’s exploits.
The next day he skipped over me again. I was suddenly become invisible, not middling or made fun of. Non-existent.
The third day, when my turn came I intervened, “I want to try again.”
“You can’t,” said the instructor. He again moved on. More names were called out.
“Please let me try,” I repeated.
“You can’t decide when to try and when not to,” he said. “That’s not the way it is.”
On a Friday, after seeming to overlook me again, he changed his mind: “Okay, you, climb the rope.”
“Hand-over-hand. Look up.”
Hand-over-hand, I looked up, and reached the first rung.
“Good. Now come down.”
But I went to the second.
“Now come down.”
On to the third.
He sensed the moment, as some men can do, transforming concern into encouragement. “Don’t look down. Hand-over-hand. Keep your head level.”
On to the fourth I went.
“Hand-over-hand. Easy. Good. Yes. One more now.”
Now, with the ceiling in sight, I broke the rules and looked down. What I saw for the first time was the world at my feet.