Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP30: I step off the top of a football stadium
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When I walk, my head is down, and I scour the ground for nickels, dimes and quarters. It’s a poor boy habit I developed when I was twelve, but that tendency to look down before I make a step almost resulted in my death when I took a dare and stepped off the top of a football stadium.
We lived right across the fence from the high school football field. And Friday nights when the Destrehan Wildcats played at home, we boys would walk up and down the rows in the stands, selling popcorn and Coke to the fans in their seats.
At halftime, the other boys would quit because that was all that was required for them to gain free admission to the game. But me? I was making big money — maybe two dollars or more! So, I kept selling concessions until midway through the fourth quarter.
And there was always more money to pick up the following morning under the stadium. We would gather very early and scavenge under the seats for coins people had dropped during the game, then race across the field and look under the visitors’ grandstand.
After we had finished scavenging for money, we would go to the top on the visitors’ side and wait for the sun to burn off the morning dew so we could play football on the field.
Invariably, talk would turn to dares and double-dares when someone — maybe Russell or Greg — would say he was going to jump.
But it was always the same. Somebody would offer all the money he had found under the seats, yet nothing ever came of it until one Saturday morning in early November.
I had already made up my mind I was going to jump, but I hesitated before climbing over the railing, and that hesitation cost me several dollars because Donnie called off all the bets. We should stop playing chicken, he said. After all, no one was really crazy enough to do it.
That was when I finally built up the nerve to clamber over the railing. Holding on with both hands, I told the others they didn’t have the guts. “Now make me an offer,” I said. “Go ahead, and see if I’ll jump.”
Everyone could see I was serious, for each boy echoed what Donnie had already said, that all bets were off.
So, I told them they were all chicken, that they wouldn’t even bet me a nickel to see if I would jump.
That was when Joey piped in. “All right, asshole, if you’re really going to jump, it doesn’t matter how much the bet is, so I’ll bet you a nickel, a whole nickel, you won’t do it.”
Like I said, I was already mentally committed to making the jump and, in that frame of mind, was in no position to haggle; for, if I did, I knew I’d lose my nerve, so I said, “Okay, you’re on! A nickel!”
And, leaning forward to see where I would land, I stepped off.
The last thing I remembered hearing was someone say, “Oh, sh–” Then everything went black. The blood must have rushed to my head because I blacked out.
That slight downward glance just before I stepped off should have proved fatal because all the boys said it looked as if I was going to hit the ground headfirst.
Then something miraculous happened just before I landed. “Your feet,” said Ronnie, “went back under you.”
Each of the boys was in total agreement about that. My head, which had passed up my feet on my fall to the ground, suddenly, inexplicably, raised up, while my feet, quickly going back under me, absorbed the brunt of the impact. (According to the physics teacher at the high school where I now teach, I was in the air for 1.07 seconds and hit the ground at 34.6 miles per hour.)
I landed in a squat, my knees splaying outward, my head striking hard against the ground, my face grinding deep into the thick green grass.
When I came to, I could smell the grass, it was in my nose. I could taste it. It was in my mouth. And I could hear it because some blades had shot up in my ear and were crackling in there.
The grass felt like a pillow, a cushion under my cheek.
Then I felt the shadows of the boys around me. “Are you okay?” “Can you move your neck?” “Can you move your fingers?” “Your toes?”
I turned over on my back and fixed my mind on something more important than wriggling my toes. I found Joey in the crowd and demanded, “Give me my nickel!”
I didn’t break a bone, sprained both ankles, though, and ripped my pants and underwear, split them right up the crotch.
Mom, however, never found out what I had done.
For a week I limped on two bad ankles, but I always managed to be sitting down whenever she or my siblings saw me. I would anticipate my mother’s call for breakfast and supper; and, when her back was turned, I would work my way to the table by leaning heavily on the furniture and be seated before anyone saw me hobbling along on two bad feet.
Each day for a week, I started out for school earlier than usual, so that no one would see me limping on both ankles.
As for the boys in the neighborhood, they didn’t breathe a word about what I had done. It probably would have gotten them in trouble, too.
The only word that got out was that some crazy fool had actually jumped off the stadium.
A crazy fool, that was me! I had become a legend, an anonymous legend!
Still, it didn’t turn out to be a perfect crime, for I paid dearly, not physically, mind you, but psychologically.
Every night for more than a week, I was haunted by a bad dream. It came with such regularity that I was afraid to go to sleep. It festered in my brain, this nightmare. It was the alternate reality, the one where my feet did not come back under me and I hit the ground headfirst.
It would start for me from a vantage point where I was hovering, apparently disembodied, above the clothesline in our backyard:
Danny and Donnie, banging on the back door of our house. “There’s been an accident! David’s taken a fall.”
Mom, appearing at the screen door.
Danny, pointing in the direction of the football stadium. “David’s hurt bad, real bad!”
Mom, throwing open the screen door, looking from Danny to Donnie.
“He’s not moving!”
Mom, shouting something inside to my sisters and brother.
The screen door, slamming shut behind her.
She, running, jumping the ditch, losing one of her shoes, her right shoe.
Donna, chasing after her.
And Peg, bossy Peg, screaming for Donna to come back and, finally giving up on that, commanding Philip to stay put.
Mom, one shoe off, one shoe on, running over the shell road leading into the stadium. The sharp white shells, cutting her foot but not slowing her down.
Danny, leading the way across the field to the visitors’ side.
Donnie, holding open the chain-link gate for Mom and my little eight-year-old sister.
Effortlessly, I swoop down, hovering slightly above Mom and Donna, both, in a dead run.
Mom, rounding the corner of the grandstand, seeing the other boys, the ones who have remained with my body. “David! David!” Falling to her knees, gathering my body, Pieta-like, in her arms.
At first, I’m looking like I’m just asleep.
Then my head, rolling shockingly, unnaturally out her arms, hanging backward over one shoulder, like a rose, on a broken stem.
And my mother — oh, my mother! — looking up but not seeing my spirit there above her, crying to heaven.
After the nightmarish shock of seeing my mother, taking me in her arms and my head, flopping open-mouthed and backwards over my shoulder — I would wake up with a start and look around at the darkness in my room.
Sometimes I’d hear a train whistle, sometimes a dog bark, other times nothing but crickets. But always, always, I’d wake up, wondering if maybe I was dead and just a spirit come back to visit in the night.
So, I’d nudge my brother next to me in bed, just to make him move and reassure myself I was not dead.
He would turn or roll from my touch, and I’d sit there in bed, replaying in my mind the split instant before I hit the ground — that lucky, lucky moment when I woke up just in time to throw my legs under me.
There’s a price that comes with divine intervention. In my case it plagues me even today, always will, I suppose, for now I’m deathly afraid of heights.
And why? Because I don’t trust myself whenever I find I am near an abyss.