Innocence and gullibility go together like “marsh” and “mellow”. All things previously mentioned are easily burned if diligent attention is not applied. This epiphany is summed up in a phrase I shall never forget:
“Cardboard doesn’t “poof”.
Here's how I remember it.
(Cue the wavy, out-of-focus, 60's “memory” transition to the past . . . )
Ray is sitting on the front steps of his run-down home drinking an orange soda.
(I envy him for those things, like soda for breakfast and two candy bars for lunch. I never saw his parents until late afternoon. I would find out years later that’s when alcoholics get up.)
Ray is 5th grade, I’m 4th, which makes him my intellectual superior.
“See dat branch up dere?”
Ray points high into a huge cottonwood tree.
“I jumped offa der dis mornin’.”
He takes a languorous orange-fizzing draught, waiting for my reply.
“Yeah, right,” I scoff, “You’d be dead.”
Ray offers me a swig, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand like the cowboys do on TV.
“Nope. Floated down, gentil as a fedder.”
I stop in mid-swig. I warily glance over. He smiles, leaning back against the steps with all the panache of a British secret agent. Then he lets me have it.
“I hadda parachute.”
I sit the bottle down, its sinful pleasures now forgotten.
“Whaddid you say?”
Ray gives me the patient look of one explaining algebra to an infant.
Wait. Now my “Ray-dar” is going off. It’s a warning device I had to develop due to frequent injury- the blatant proof that Ray’s statements were not completely factual.
“So where’s da parachute?”
“Bobby took it down to da rivver so he could jump off da bridge wid it.”
That seems entirely possible since Bobby is Ray’s oldest brother and pretty much takes anything he wants. Ray stands up, stretches, then starts down the sidewalk.
“C’mon. We’ll go see Les ‘n getcha stuff to make a’nudder one.”
Les is the sociopathic proprietor of the Four Corners Feed Store, conveniently located right next door. Les is old, he’s cantankerous, and he really doesn’t like kids.
“WHADDAYA KIDS WANT?!”, Les roars, leaning a craggy, stubbled face over the counter.
I flash back to Sunday School and "Daniel in the Lions’ Den". Not spying an angel, I figure Ray would have to do. I get behind him as he saunters up to the counter.
“Mornin’, Les. Say, wood ya lend us some twine ‘n a big piece ‘a cardboard, please?”
Ray is not the least bit intimidated, having to daily deal with adults in various states of agitation and sobriety. This throws Les off a bit.
“Whadda ya want that for?” he asks, genuinely puzzled.
“We’re gonna make a pear-a-shoot and Denny’s gonna jump off da roof.”
This is news to both me and Les. I turn towards Ray. He's smiling at Les. I turn back in time to catch a smile cracking across the icy granite of Les’ face.
“Stuffs in da back. Hep yersef.”
Ray quickly pulls me past the counter. Les is laughing. Cackling, actually. I’ve never heard or seen Les laugh or smile. It’s very troubling.
Fifteen minutes later we’re hard at work engineering my demise. Ray is wielding a stick, poking holes in the corners of a kid-sized piece of cardboard. He throws a long piece of bailing twine at me.
“Here. Do wat I do.”
Each hole on my side got one end of the twine piece. I follow Ray’s example of tying and retying the twine until I have a knot about as big as a golf ball. When we finish, there’s a hunk of cardboard with two long twine straps on one side and four golf balls of twine on the other.
“Now git up der on da roof ‘n bail uff, “ Ray coaches as he tugs me across the my yard toward the house.
“Wait! Wait!”, I yell, stalling for time and courage, “We gotta test it first!”
Ray looks at me like a Yankee fan meeting a Bo-Sox in-law. Shaking his head in disbelief, he walks out into the yard.
“Here. Gimme dat”
I hand him the contraption and he sprints off across the grass, holding the straps and lifting his arms over his head.
“There. You try it.”
I do the same and feel a slight resistance.
“See? It’ll hold you up. Now git up der.”
Slight resistance is nowhere close to promoting a leap off the house.
“I’m not jumpin’ off dat roof. No way!”
We stand glaring at each other, our lines drawn in the sand.
“I’ll jump off da summer house.”
The summer house, in size, is half-way between a shed and a cabin. During the summers of long ago, it had been used as a kitchen to keep the heat out of the main house. Now it’s a playhouse for my sisters and storage for Dad’s drywall supplies.
Five minutes later we’re on its roof. I turn and work my way to the lowest edge. I assume what I consider to be the proper stance for throwing oneself off a roof.
“Wait! Whadda ya doin?!”
“I’m jumpin’ off da roof!”
“Not here, yer not. Yer too low!”
I look at him increduously.
Ray gives me the “algebra-infant” look.
“Ya gotta give the pear-a-shoot time to grab da air!”
This is said with such conviction that all I can do is shrug.
He turns, pointing as if he’s leading an expedition up Everest.
“Up der! On da peak!”
Less than a minute later I’m balancing on the ridge cap. I glance over at the house.
Well, I rationalize, this peak is about ten feet lower than that peak.
Looking down, I wished Dad hadn’t mowed the grass yesterday. I was beginning to see parachuting as a game of inches. The less inches for falling, the better. The more inches for cushioning, better yet.
It is time.
I grip the twine straps, raising my arms straight up over my head.
I step out over green grass and air.
Immediately, the solid tug of cardboard hitting the end of twine golfballs makes a sound like modeling clay hitting a wall. Not really the sound I was hoping for. The cardboard makes a quick arc, flying over my head, diving behind my back and hitting me right behind the knees, knees that are now a mere three feet above ground-zero.
AHHHHHH-UUUUNH! Re-entry is accomplished in a semi-seated position which, I immediately note, is very inefficient and rather painful.
I lie there writhing. I look up to see Ray standing near by. He's stroking his chin as if deep in thought.
He walks over to my groaning, rocking body. Putting his hands on his hips, he shakes his head in disappointment.
“Ya didn’t jump high enough.”
So I try it again.
With a nice upward leap.
Once the pain subsides to tolerable levels, I sit up to glare at Ray. He can barely even make eye contact. His ignorance is blatantly obvious to both of us now.
“This’ll never work, Ray!”
Ray drops his head.
“It hasta “poof”. Parachutes hafta “poof”, Ray!”
He looks at me increduously, a look I believe is caused by my astute engineering insight.
(Looking back, however, I believe it was relief over not being prosecuted.)
I pilfer a big piece of thick plastic film from Dad’s drywall supplies. Cutting off the golfballs, I twist the corners of the film and tie the twine around the twists.
Grabbing the straps, I limp rapidly across the yard. The film billows behind me, pulling reassuredly against my hands. My faith in science is restored.
I climb the ladder unafraid. I stand on the pinnacle, spying a subdued Ray far below. I turn my face to the sky and give it a small, haughty laugh.
Two steps back, a run, and a leap!
I glance up.
It’s beautiful! The billowing film. The taut lines of twine, ramrod straight,like thin pillars holding up the bright blue of the sky.
Hold on. The patches of blue sky are now between the film and the twine . . .and those patches are getting bigger while the film is getting smaller.
Adrenaline increases awareness, they say. In the nanoseconds before impact, I realize the “poof” has yanked the film out of the twine. The thick, plastic film is having a gentle descent. I am not. I hurtle through space. Just me, the air, and twine that no longer holds up the sky.
And now the ground crashes the party.
In my pain, I continue to clutch the twine, thinking that perhaps God could yet do a retroactive miracle. I hear fluttering and feel the plastic film settle over me in an attempt to seal and preserve this stupidity for future generations . . .
(Cue the wavy screen to bring us back to the present . . .)
I now pay closer attention when roasting my marshmellows and if something seems just a little "too good", a twinge in my right knee reminds me of that universal truth: “cardboard doesn’t poof”.