Boyhood, Airborne

The magic of a rope swing, the lightheartedness of summer, and the promise of youth: every once in a while, these fleeting feelings come back.
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We're 14 years old--me, Kevin, and Eric. The August day is hot, probably 85 degrees, the air almost tropical. Cicadas hum away rhythmically. We wear polo shirts and shorts and baseball caps and Keds sneakers. As we go deeper into the woods, we watch our step on the tangled brush underfoot. Kevin leads us on. Only he knows where we're going, and why, and when we'll get there.

As parks went, Dunkerhook Park had all the usual amenities -- swings and seesaws and slides, picnic tables and benches, a gravel parking lot. But it also had a section where we had never ventured before -- the woods beyond, with the stream curling alongside the path, and the secret Kevin had promised to share with us.

You never knew with Kevin. He was always kidding around, making wisecracks, putting you on. He would tap your right shoulder from behind you, even though he would be over on your left, and make you look right, with no one there. Or he would point to your belly button asking what might be wrong with it, and as you looked down, flick his index finger on your nose. He always got the better of the taller, beefier, Eric, who remained good-natured and easygoing, every insult rolling off his back, a trusty sidekick whom he more or less led around by the nose. Now, without our having any reason to trust Kevin in the least, we had entered these woods and left ourselves entirely in his hands.

Within minutes we're about half a mile into Dunkerhook Park. We hear no sounds except those of sparrows warbling and chipmunks scurrying through the leaves and the ever-present stream gurgling alongside us, below the banks.It's even hotter now, over 90 degrees, the glare from the sun turning the sky into a white haze. No whisper of a breeze comes along to stir the leaves in the trees. Our shorts and shirts stick to our skin. As the cicadas buzz louder, we move ever-slower, as if trudging through molasses. We feel far away from everyone and everything, our homes, our rooms, our parents, our schools, our other friends, out of sight and beyond earshot.

We go through spells of friendship, me, Kevin, and Eric. We like to kid around and hold burping contests and try to light farts. More seriously, we play basketball and wonder about girls. We're close for a while, then less close, even no longer particularly close at all, but then we come back together, close all over again, if never quite the very best of friends then friends just the same. And now our on-again-off-again kind of friendship is taking a new turn. Now Kevin the master mischief maker is luring us ever-farther into this foreign frontier, all on the pretext that Eric and I will find the experience immensely entertaining.

Maybe Kevin is right. Maybe whatever he's brought us here to show us will actually be the genuine article -- a cave with some Indian drawings, or an abandoned 1956 Chevy Impala with the chrome tail fins all rusted out, or three cute girls our age or older, or a dead bum who wound up wasted on cheap whiskey.

"There," Kevin says. "There it is."

"Where?" Eric asks."Where is it?"

"Right there,"Kevin says, pointing emphatically straight ahead.

To our left, about 20 feet away, we see it. The stream that ran parallel to the trail we took has deepened and widened, the banks steeper here, and transformed itself into a makeshift pool, still and lakelike. There it is, all right. A swimming hole is better than any of the other scenarios I imagined, miles better than a cave or some old car or a dead body or even three cute girls our age or older. No contest.

Our ringleader has come through, erasing our worst suspicions.

Just then, though, the swimming hole goes itself one better. A tall sycamore that juts out over the water from the bank on the other side, its trunk cantilevered at a 45-degree angle, has a rope dangling from it. The rope hangs long and thick from the lowest, sturdiest branch, about 10 feet off the ground, with a knot at the end, a knot evidently designed to serve as a handle. Some venturesome early pioneers to this spot, maybe other 14-year-olds, had rigged the rope to the branch just so, sensing the possibilities.

* * *

You waste no time getting yourselves started at the swimming hole, you and Kevin and Eric. You strip off your shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers, leaving only your briefs on. You clutch with both arms the trunk of the sycamore that hovers over the bank and shimmy up. Bark bites into the skin on your bare chest as you clamber higher, your nostrils flaring so wide you can fully whiff the lush, fertile woods around us.

All you know is now. Now is all you have on your mind. The tree, the rope, the water below. The stillness and the swelter have lulled you into a trance. Nothing else exists. Nothing else going on in the world matters and maybe nothing else ever will. The day has come to a standstill, as if it will never end, as if nothing will ever end, as if you have all day, all the time in the world. You will be in the eighth grade for the rest of your life and everyone you know and love will live forever.

Now you yank the rope back toward yourself and hold tight and launch yourself away from the tree, swinging out into the open air. You swing hard and fast out over the swimming hole, thrusting so suddenly and suspending gravity with such reassurance that you feel your heart thrum in your ears. You swoop out high over the water, then higher still. Then, at the peak of your ascent, you let go of the rope -- look, Ma, no hands! -- and leap, flinging yourself, taking flight. Then, only a second or two later, you drop, drop sooner and faster than you expect to drop, giving in to gravity now, plummeting in a flat-out freefall. Then you splash down feet-first, the water so cool and welcoming, embracing you, and plunge underwater, sinking lower and lower until your toes touch the bottom and you feel the mud there, the chill, velvety mud squishy between your toes like some uninvited alien substance declaring its presence, and float to the surface starved for air, gasping, and blink in the shimmering summer sunlight. The sun refracts through the droplets of water on your eyelashes, the world around you -- the woods, the sky -- suddenly a rainbow kaleidoscope.

Whoa.

You went a little wild at the swimming hole in Dunkerhook Park in 1966, on a summer afternoon that gleams in memory as good as gold. You and Kevin and Eric went airborne, competing to see who could swing the highest, propel himself the farthest and create the biggest splash. You made like Tarzan and the Flying Wallendas and your favorite American astronauts, freeing yourselves from terra firma, weightless in your defiance of gravity.

You could have hurt yourself at the swimming hole of course, just as you could have hurt yourself taking shortcuts through the marsh and trespassing across the railroad tracks. None of you ever bothered to measure how deep the water went until you decided to dive in. You could have snapped your ankles or cracked your skull. Someone could have drowned.

But that never happened. You were all boys then, and you were doing what boys do. You scouted around to get the lay of the land and claimed our turf and charted your own course, ruling out conventional routes. You trailed away from the streets and sidewalks, going off the grid and toward the marsh, the railroad tracks, the swimming hole. You played with an abandon absolute and uncompromising. Play was your full-time job. You were practically professionals. You played as if you had all day, all the time in the world. You made it all up as you went along, every moment, every movement an experiment, defining your own fun, accident and injury beyond your imagining, strangers to danger. No taboo intimidated you. You slipped away from it all, into the beckoning unknown, carefree and heedless, without any guarantee of survival, and lost yourself where no one could find you. You all hurtled yourselves into swimming holes and played chicken with oncoming trains. Your parents never knew about your escapades. You never told anyone because no one else had to know. You were a 14-year-old boy, and nothing could ever hurt you.

Never again can you recall yourself behaving with quite that degree of abandon -- nor with its essential companion, spontaneity. To your surprise, you grew up. Soon enough, then, you would be 15 years old, and later 20, and eventually you would turn 30, and then in a blink you would arrive at 40 and 50, and then, almost before you knew it, you would even start to push 60. Whoa, indeed. Middle age would force you to migrate from childhood.

Your hometown would change. One night the fire department would burn down the old, unoccupied barn the next block over. The older sister of a classmate would be found shot to death, the first homicide in town in decades, and the murderer would never be found. A flood would wash out the old narrow stone bridge to Dunkerhook Park. The marsh would be turned into townhouses called Parkview Place. Tractors and bulldozers would plow over some of the last traces of the rural.

To your astonishment, your life would change, too. The dead raccoon you found on the railroad tracks one day taught you a lesson. It reminded you in no uncertain terms what a train could do to you, too. From then on you learned to be a little afraid. You learned responsibility, too. You learned to stop taking risks and play it safe. Your newfound caution coalesced into a habit and you started to suffer from hardening of the attitudes. Before any decision you weighed every variable, performing a benefit-risk analysis. You grew domestic, tamed, bled dry of all daring.

Oh, you've swung on other ropes since then, of course. Marriage. Children. Jobs. A new career at age 39. As an adult, you keep taking leaps of faith.

And every once in a while, you still pull a little stunt. You tiptoe along a street curb as if balancing on a tightrope, or you climb on a seesaw and teeter away, pretending to be surfing. You hop onto the back of a shopping cart and propel it, scooterlike, down an empty aisle, riding shotgun, or - if you feel really frisky and acrobatic - you leapfrog over a parking meter. In those rare, brief, moments, you imagine yourself to be a boy again, back in Fair Lawn, back in 1966, back with your friends. In those moments, if only then, you're forever 14. You're once more roaming free, a daredevil reborn. You're airborne again.

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Bob Brody is a public-relations executive and essayist based in New York City. He has written for The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

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