My first triumph left a pretty big scar… but I guess that’s how you know it’s a triumph.
Once again, “FLANERY, GET OUT HERE” came rushing through the screen door from the porch. So out I went, knowing it was time for another growth spurt. My Grandaddy’s words were always so economically spent that I learned to savor every single syllable on that porch. He just sat there in his lawn chair with his head tilted back, seemingly asleep, until he said “rest the butt, boy… might take a time” without even opening his eyes. I crossed in front of my Grandaddy and climbed up into his best friend James’ empty lawn chair right next to his and waited.
“Coach Lamar braggin’ & tell me that you climb tha dangling PYTHON in tha gymnasium higher’n any other first grader-that you made it all tha way up to that first mark… tha white tape he tell me. But he also tell me how you’s tha only tiny in P.E. that he figured could climb above the grade’s basic requirement. He tell me them second graders only gotta make it ’bout 5 feet further up ta that second mark-tha pink tape. Tell me boy, you grab that rope & try yo absolute best? ‘Cause you try yo best, don’t matter ta me ya don’t reach that pink, er even that damn white. So… you give ya best or not?”
I just watched his stillness and instead of really considering his question, I just wondered what he wanted to hear. “Um, yessir… I did.”, I said.
“See, that a problem when ya don’t even know ya lyin’. Seems you’s just listenin’ to tha noise… tha noise that telling ya what others’ s done. Then you usin’ that data to calcuh-late what you’s capable of doin’ . Buncha crap that. Only YOU know. Well, you, yo daddy and yo Grandaddy… cause both of you come from my balls. Cain’t lie to tha balls you come from. Ain’t possible. I know it’s just the tiny that you THINK you are cain’t climb it. But I’ve met the tiny you ARE, and you trust yo Grandaddy when he say that THAT boy can climb that fucker. Today the time when ya realize that who ya think you are ain’t no match for my granbaby. See, I met him already… time you give him a hand shake. Now go get some duct tape out tha garage & meet me in tha truck.”
Now the “python” was a daunting fifty foot rope that hung from the very center of the gymnasium ceiling, and it had been there, scaring the shit out of children for decades. Every student that made it all the way to the top and rang the little black bell on the ceiling had their name on a plaque on the wall of the gymnasium… my Gradaddy’s and my Dad’s were two of only 23 names. These people that made it to the bell were called “ringers”, and it was an exclusive club. Every time that bell was rung, the entire school knew that someone new had been self-cannonized… Or so we were told, because I’d never heard that bell make a sound. The sheer girth of that rope made it incredibly difficult to climb, and it’s color told it’s story. The bottom ten feet were almost black from so many years of people grabbing and pulling at it with their filthy & desperate hands… but the top ten were completely untarnished hemp fibers in their natural tan. And the center was a gradual spectrum of dark to light that pretty accurately defined it’s noise.
Grandaddy opened up his lawn chair that he’d taken from the porch and plopped it down with a huge echo right in the center of the hardwoods where almost 50 years of tip-offs had initiated play.
“Today we gone climb. Don’t care how high ya get, just as long as you pull with everything ya got… an ya don’t stop ’til ya got nothin’ left. Today I find out if my balls tell me a lie… or if my Granbabby just ain’t never shook his own hand.”
“Don’t care how far ya go in this life, long as I know you located every single ounce’a your talent and ability and ya leave that damn cache bare ass empty when ya done here on God’s earth.”
“Don’t care how high a 1st grader supposed ta go. Don’t care how high a 5th grader supposed ta go. I only care how high YOU can go. AND, ta make sure there ain’t no difference in THAT… an how high you WILLIN’ ta go. If there ain’t no difference, I know I ain’t gotta worry ’bout my Granbaby. So, never mind all them colored tapes, you just promise me ta keep pulling’ until you got absolutely nothin’ left inside you, hear me? You do that and the height won’t matter shit. Just as long as ya know’d that ya left everything ya had on that rope.”
I was absolutely petrified of the Python. And it was compounded by what my head was telling me… that my Grandaddy was wrong. If I exhausted myself completely on a climb up, then I’d have nothing left to lower myself back down safely. I’d have to simply drop onto the hardwood floor of that gymnasium.
“Um, Grandaddy? If I…”
And he knew. He always did.
“Ya Grandaddy ever lie ta you? If ya use it all up on a climb, I’ma make sure you get down. Right hand ta man I will. I see you all scared up. But you climb ’til you completely done, and you gonna get took care of. Now, if you’s only focused on tha “get down”, then you just gonna show ya Grandaddy and yo self a PUSSY climb. Ain’t gonna get a chance ta meet my Granbabby, an that’s who you here ta meet.”
I stared up the length of the Python at the white, then the pink, the brown, blue, and finally the violet tape mark near the top for the 5th graders that sat just below the black bell that hung about a foot down from the cob-webbed ceiling. My GOD, that rope scared the shit out of me, but what the hell… I figured that even if I made it all the way up to the pink and fell, I’d survive. Then that roll of duct tape hit me in the chest and brought my gaze back to Grandaddy.
“Wrap ’em up. Don’t want yo eyes telling’ your heart when you done. “
So I did. I wrapped my head, top of forehead to tip of nose, in duct tape… did about five laps around my skull until I could hardly breath out of my nose. I felt my Grandaddy tear the roll off and throw it down. Then he took a moment, slapped my chest and said:
“Get ta pullin'”
I heard the squeak of his lawn chair, then the “pfffft” of a cap leaving the top of one of his Miller High-Life “ponies”… and then perfect silence. So, I pulled. And I pulled. And I got scared. Actually, that’s a lie. I wasn’t scared… I was fucking petrified. But, I pulled some more. I pulled until my whole body was shaking with fatigue and I was wet everywhere. I could feel every one of my muscles reaching failure. But he was right about the noise. I saw and felt only my own ability. It was my only gauge. Nothing else. I finally stopped to gather myself just below what I had estimated must be a hair shy of that ridiculous pink mark to try and source any bit of spare energy left for one final pull. I pulled. And as I did I felt my head open up as my eyebrow impacted the sharp rim of that black bell. I imagined that the ring would’ve been deafening if it weren’t for the rounds of tape that were practically cutting off my circulation and covering my ears. But the noise was glorious. It was my liberty bell. And I imagined that the violent strike of my head had caused it to crack… just like in my text books. When the ringing finally died down, my fear couldn’t even be measured with double digit exponents… but I heard, in total darkness, my Grandaddy’s voice say:
“Now pull that piece offa yo chest and stick it the ceiling ‘fore you come down.”
In that moment, I realized that my Grandaddy might know more about me than even I did. I was paralytic with fear. But I trusted his words. I kept both arms wrapped for life on that Python, but managed to turn one hand back to my chest… and sure enough, that was what the slap was about. I pulled a piece of tape off of my chest, yanked myself up one last time by the rim of that bell and slapped that dusty ceiling… and then, the fear just vanished. It left with that slap. And it took most of my exhaustion with it.
“Wanna stop & get some boudin on tha way home from tha Piggly?”
I was surprised at how easy the “yes sir” came out, because my most immediate memories of anything beyond a moment ago were of complete exhaustion. Then I lowered myself down hand over hand as I heard my Grandaddy’s chair fold up and his feet head toward the door that led to the gravel parking lot.”
“Meet me in the truck.”
When my legs finally found the hardwoods and my head was unwrapped, there was about 8 feet of duct tape at my feet with a bit of blood, a large portion of my facial skin, and every single follicle from my eye brows stuck to it as I peered up at that message I’d slapped on the roof. I could tell that he’d written something on it, but from that distance I couldn’t decipher what it said.
On the way to the Piggly for that boudin my Grandaddy told me that on that duct tape, he’d just written “the pertinents”… my initials, the date, and “#24”. And that the color of the grey tape was to finish the spectrum… and stop the noise. I asked him why he wrote it so small. Hell, I wanted everyone to know that I’d climbed the Python… even BEYOND that stupid fucking bell.
“Listen me. Don’t you EVER let the world see you beatin’ yer own chest, boy. The world gonna find you… long as you just shut up an’ deliver.”
…and I understood.
“Oh, and that cache’ I was talking’ bout? Leaving’ it empty? Hell, that easy… long as you know where ta find it.”
It wasn’t until I reached the top and KNEW that I’d used up every ounce of me in it’s entirety on the ascent… that I found the “extra” to get me down. It was like magic. A magic I’d never felt until that day.
“See boy, yo self preservation instincts can locate a hidden cache’ of strength and energy that yo conscious mind ain’t got no idea even exists. But the key to that lock… is necessity. REAL necessity. Not that made up shit where people got something left, but they just too damn lazy ta use it. And if you access that secret cache’ enough to be trusted with it… well, that’s when God gonna give you yer OWN key, and you’ll have access to that “extra” the rest of yo life. Whatever that plaque say on tha wall… well, you an ME know it got a “plus one” to it. And those tha only people NEED ta know.”
Yep, there’s a lie on the wall of my old elementary school that only my Grandaddy and me know about… And I’m okay with that.
PS Around that same time, there was another climb that left an even BIGGER mark, and almost took my tiny life. But that’s a story for another day. Or perhaps a book called Jane Two… because there’s always a reason to climb.
And yes, the conclusion of “The Great Norman Reedus Bathroom Escape” is coming soon. Just waiting on what I’m sure will be some GENIUS artwork to hit “publish”. SO… subscribe to the right for access >>>>>>>>> … And stay tuned. It’s inspiration. And it’s imminent.
As always, God bless & Godspeed… in all.
-Sean Patrick Flanery