Life is a fragile thing. Or so they say. Or at least that’s how it seems to me these days. My body is weaker and more brittle than it used to be, and my care of it has accordingly grown more cautious. But that isn’t how things used to be. Life used to be extraordinarily difficult to extinguish. Let’s admit it - we lived with reckless abandon as youths. We placed ourselves in petrifyingly precarious situations, and played daringly dangerous games to amuse ourselves. Somehow or other most of us are still among the living. Life is fragile these days, and that is a sobering thought. But let’s take a minute to celebrate just how tenacious life was when we were young. We can do so by remembering some of what we have managed to survive:
1. Infanthood is exceptionally dangerous. I’ll tell you why. I’ve always thought that the most dangerous thing you can do is to place your life in the hands of another person. After all, most people are pretty inept. This is one reason I have such a fear of flying. I don’t trust that the pilot is going to be paying sufficient attention while the plane is taking off or touching down. I don’t know anything about flying a plane, but when it comes to landing a plane I’m flying in, I’d like to handle that myself thanks, because I don’t trust you, pilot. The same thing goes for surgery. I’ve never liked the idea of getting unconscious while a relative stranger prepares to cut you open with a knife.
But infanthood is more dangerous than either of these things. It is not simply your livelihood being in the hands of another person for a short period of time. Rather, it is your livelihood being in the hands of one or two extremely sleep-deprived people for 24 hours a day, for about twelve months (I guess that’s how long we’re considered infants). I’m amazed my own son made it to twelve months, and my wife is a great mother, and I at least have made an effort.
2. Toddlerhood is more dangerous still. Toddlerhood’s dirty little secret is that our acquisition of movement is really nothing more than the acquisition of an ability to do ourselves harm. Once we have movement we can walk up to and then over the edge of the stairs. Prior to movement the best we could manage was to lie motionless near the stairs and slowly starve ourselves to death. Add this to the fact that while we are in toddlerhood our parents remain just as sleep deprived and capable of doing accidental harm to us as before, and you can see why this time period is so treacherous.
Take my younger brother for instance. While a toddler he simultaneously developed a capacity for movement and an interest in electricity. I remember him crawling around the living room with a metal spoon sticking out of his mouth. He crawled over to an uncovered electrical outlet (sleep-deprived parent alert) and stuck the end of the metal spoon directly into one of the openings. Somehow he managed to do this without the use of his hands - he just held the spoon in his mouth, lunged forward, and in it went. I was sitting there waiting to see what would happen when my sister pulled him away from the electrical socket. He didn’t get electrocuted, and to this day I don’t know why not.
My mother recently recounted a second encounter my brother had with an electrical socket. My mother walked into our living room after my grandmother had been watching us. As she walked in she saw an orange extension cord plugged into an electrical outlet, and my brother sitting against the wall sucking on the other end of the extension cord. That must have been a fun surprise for her.
3. Things start to pick up when you become a kid. I remember doing lots of stupid dangerous stuff when I was a kid. We lived next to a couple of steep hills, which helped matters. Three of us would pile into a metal wagon, and attempt to ride it down a long steep stretch of concrete. The only reason we never got seriously hurt was that we always ended up crashing before we were able to achieve full speed.
One time I put a skateboard in the middle of the road at the top of the hill. I got a running start and tried to jump on top of the skateboard heading down the hill at full speed. The amount of time I actually spent on the skateboard couldn’t have been more than a few tenths of a second. The amount of time I spent peeling myself off the pavement and rubbing the back of my head was much longer.
We had competitions to see how far down a steep hill each of us could ride our bikes no-handed before we’d chicken out and grab the handlebars.
When you think about it, just riding our bikes around was pretty dangerous, at least the way we did it. We never wore helmets. We’d fly down the longest, steepest hills we could find, pedaling as fast as we could until pedaling couldn’t help us go any faster, and then we’d just tuck and go.
I even managed to make getting into bed a risky endeavor. I slept on the top bunk of a bunk-bed. This bunk-bed was at the end of a relatively long, narrow room. My process for getting into bed was to get a running start, and when I neared the side of the bed to jump by throwing both my legs out in front of me. The result was that I ended up completely horizontal about four or five feet up in the air, traveling at full speed feet first. I would then grab the bed-post at the top right corner of the bunk-bed as I flew by. Given my current elevation and rapidity of movement, upon grabbing the bed-post I was able to swing myself up the last foot or so I needed, and land comfortably right in prime sleeping position. I did this every night for several years, somehow without disastrous results.
My sister was reckless in her own way. She was obsessed with gymnastics, but the best she could do for a balance beam was my dad’s wooden saw-horse. So she practiced her balance-beam walkovers on the saw-horse. Sometimes she fell, and would gash and splinter her leg in various gruesome ways. But (so she explained to me this past weekend) she always got right back on again, because she figured that was what Bela Karoli would have expected of his star gymnast.
4. I think that our lives must be least fragile while we are in high school. I have more memories of putting my life in grave danger for that time period than for any other. While our parents’ ability to do us mortal harm had diminished by then, we on the other hand reach our peak capacity for putting ourselves in peril at that time. It seems our potential for idiocy increases proportionally as our minds develop and expand. Either that or we simply have been conditioned into thinking that we will always live through our experiences. Every single event we have experienced up until that point has involved not dying, so why should anything else that follows be different? We come to believe it is a fact concerning our personal universe that we’ll continue to survive. And what do we do once we gain this “knowledge”? It’s something like a bad Queen Latifah movie:
We jump off high bridges into lakes and rivers without checking the depth of the water beforehand.
We invent games where the very point of the game is the danger involved. For one such game, a player would select a rock about the size of a fist. He would chuck it straight into the sky as high as he could. The goal for each of player was to move to a location and remain standing motionless as near to where the rock ultimately landed as possible. If it grazed your ear on the way down it is unlikely another player would beat you. I’ve heard of kids playing this game with a hunting bow and arrow (shooting it straight up etc…).
It was all about competition. One of my favorite games was played in the school cafeteria. We would put a waist high garbage pail at the end of a cafeteria table. Each competitor would run and then jump over the garbage pail and land on top of the table. You would then move the garbage pail a bit away from the table, and the competitors would try again. You would continue moving the garbage pail out further and further away from the table, until participants either chickened out or didn’t quite make the jump. The winner was whoever successfully completed the jump with the garbage pail furthest from the table. I’d like to brag now and say that I never lost at this game. I don’t remember ever fearing any of the jumps. I always thought I could make the jump, and I always did make the jump.
Sometimes I’d challenge myself when nobody else was around. There were metal bleachers overlooking our track and football field. The bleachers were in sections, and not all of the sections were directly beside another. Two sections of the bleachers were about eight feet apart. I knew I could jump eight feet, and soon found myself contemplating the leap. I was very stupid but not super very extremely stupid, so I started small. I first jumped across the bleachers on the lowest level. I did that a few times, and then slowly progressed to higher and higher levels. What made the leaps interesting was the fact that the increasing height of each of the levels was staggered, due to the fact that some of the levels were “for your posterior” and some were “for your feet." Jumping across the “for your feet” levels was somehow less terrifying, because you had the “for your posterior” levels on either side to guide you. Jumping across the “for your posterior” levels was very scary, and you really felt the abyss on either side of your landing runway. I kept practicing at this until one of our track and field coaches witnessed me making a leap. He threatened to kick me off the team if he ever saw me do it again, and since I enjoyed track and field immensely I followed his advice.
We liked to involve strangers in our risky adventures. Cars were a source of entertainment. I remember driving down a double yellow line road on a dark rainy night. We would wait until just before an oncoming car had reached us, and then we would flip on our high-beams. We found this highly amusing, though of course we were endangering the lives of everyone involved. And most of the strangers were adults, whose lives were much more fragile than our own.
5. Which brings us to the end of this piece. We somehow have managed to survive our youths. As we’ve survived into adulthood, we’ve gained a better understanding of our own mortality. For many of us, this realization is accompanied by a newfound desire to safeguard our lives as much as is possible. But safeguarding your life is like trying to preserve an open cup of water in the Sahara desert. You can shade it and try to keep from spilling its contents, but sooner or later you are either going to slip up and drop it, or else the sun is going to dry it out. All in all it is an exercise in futility. But let’s not get too frustrated. Let’s not despair that ultimate success is impossible. Rather, we should consider it amazing that our cups contain any water at all given how they have been passed back and forth amongst strangers, balanced precariously on fences, and tipped from left to right just for fun until we finally realized the value of what we held in our hands. Perhaps all that’s left is to be happy and smile and drink what water remains.
This was an article about things that have happened that we have lived through! I would love to hear your own stories of things you survived when you were young (or even when you were not-so-young). I’m sure we all have something along these lines to celebrate. Put it in the comments! For my next article I will write about something (I’m not sure what yet). Till then!
Steve LeBlanc lives in Lebanon, N.H., with his wife, son and two cats. His many interests include philosophy, theater, music and writing.
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