BRACHIATE OR BREAK

By John Thomas Tuft

I was brachiating when I broke my first bone. Five years old, midweek of the annual family vacation at Camp Lambec on the shores of Lake Erie, first grade awaiting as soon as we got home, I was eagerly demonstrating my new skill. Okay, okay, maybe a little bit of showing off. Monkey bars were a challenge to me. Up the ladder, brachiate across, get your feet on the rungs of the ladder on the other side, dismount. Thunderous applause. Simple and elegant. In my imagination. Reality was an altogether different animal.

I was fine getting up the ladder, reaching out and grabbing the first bar or rung, letting my feet drop and swinging hard by my arms to get across the distance. No problem. Kick your feet for momentum, reach for the next rung, grab it. Rinse and repeat. Until I reached the other side. Dismounting meant swinging my feet to latch onto the top rung of the ladder, then swinging out on arm strength alone to grab the bar at the top and climb down. It was a complicated maneuver for this particular five-year-old. So, I came up with a shortcut. When I reached the last rung of the horizontal brachiating, I would simply let go. In my heart of hearts, I blame Dan and Sue, my siblings a year on either side, for not teaching me better. I needed to practice until I learned the proper technique. But it was so much easier just to let go and drop.

We had just left the dining hall after supper one evening. The grounds were big, beautiful, and safe. All seven Tuftmuffins could play to our hearts’ content, safe in the knowledge that we were not the only preacher’s kids there, so no big magnifying glass was on us. Again, let me point out that Dan and Sue were not around at that moment and need to be held accountable. I was walking with my father and begged him to stop and watch me do the monkey bars. Up I climbed and out onto the brachiating part. Hand over hand I proudly swung. All of a sudden I was at the end. Time to dismount. Dad was walking away, telling me to get a move on, it was time to get back to the cabin. Probably for a bath. All of a sudden, when I looked down, the ground seemed very far away. The ladder was right in front of me. But I didn’t have the confidence. I hadn’t done the necessary to accomplish a new ordinary. I let go and dropped. And landed on my right arm.

My father heard my howls and quickly came back to the play area. Old Doc McLaren was summoned. He fashioned a splint from two boards and cotton batting. My father carried me in his arms into the back seat of a friend’s car for the ride into Erie to the emergency room. My mother stayed back at camp with the rest of the Tuftmuffins. The next morning, I returned to the camp with a new, white plaster cast encasing my arm. Dan and Sue were wracked with guilt, bringing me Hawaiian Punch and s’mores on demand. At least, that’s the way it should have been. At the start of first grade, I learned to print my letters with my left hand. Which meant I learned to be a terrific switch hitter. Okay, that really happened later, but let me have my five-year-old moment.

Fast forward to early summer when I was right out of fourth grade. It was the Thursday evening before the last day of Vacation Bible School and its excruciating closing program in front of all the teachers and parents. In that strange foreign land known as the United Methodist Church. The Tuftmuffins who had any sense were in the backyard taking on the neighborhood in wiffle ball. Cutthroat wiffle ball. Sue and Dan were present and accounted for. Bases are loaded. It is my turn to bat. Our dugout was my mother’s flower beds around the crab apple tree. Visions of glory and going down in the Hall of Fame of wiffle ball danced in my head as I copied the big leaguers, swinging the bat to get ready for my turn. My mother had erected a low, white wire fence around her flower beds in hopes, I suppose, that her Tuftmuffins would respect it. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

“Jack, it’s your turn. Get in there and hit it!” My summons to fame and glory. I’m tempted to say that one of my older brothers, Alan or Paul, was the one yelling at me, but alas, there were no cell phones, and the moment is lost to history. I casually hopped the fence and hit the ball out of the park. Except…except my foot caught on the top of the fence and I crashed to the ground with a strange buzzing in my left elbow. I never even got to bat! The heart of the summer lost to another broken bone. But this time, Dan and Sue did sign my cast. And I did miss the final program of VBS.

My parents and Sue are gone now. The rest of the Tuftmuffins are gray and potbellied. I managed to add a broken leg to my CV. My brachiating days are long gone. But I still catch myself, at times, wondering what’s the harm in not learning the right steps to doing something properly. Then I remember the number of times I’m asked, “How do I become a writer?” And the almost universal disappointment in my answer, “Go sit your butt in the chair and write. Show it to someone who doesn’t care if you think that it’s good, and write it again. Rinse, repeat.” It’s what Dan and Sue would appreciate.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.