2007-09-20 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

Growin' up, stretchin' out, and gettin' large
By Sam Bari

I grew up in the days when "Hey! Watch this!" should have been the epitaph on many tombstones as the final words of the person for which the mini-monument was erected. Warnings like, "Do not try this at home. The following stunt is only to be attempted by highly trained experts," was a phrase of the future.

The term "role model" was not yet invented by conservative psychologists who thought the world would be healthier if everyone were required to endure therapy. Mental stability was not as important back then as it is now.

I remember going to the circus with my gang of overzealous adventure-seekers. We listened in awe as the ringmaster announced with his deep, booming voice that Whizmo the Great was about to attempt to jump from a 150-foot tower into a damp washcloth and walk away unscathed, or something to that effect. Today, Whizmo would not exactly be up for consideration as a "good role model."

The entire audience sucked in air and held their breath as drums rolled and the caped stuntman climbed a ladder to stand on a postage stamp size platform at the top of the tower. As Whizmo looked down at the audience, he appeared to be little more than a speck on the end of a needle. After a minute or so of holding his finger to all points of a non-existent wind for drama, he dropped his cape with a flourish and all eyes watched it flutter to the ground. It seemed to take forever.

Then the ringmaster would say in his most authoritative, resonating tones, "Quiet Please . . . Whizmo the Great needs absolute silence so he can concentrate on this chilling, death-defying stunt that has never before been performed by another human being." In those days, it was perfectly acceptable for ringmasters and other personalities to blatantly lie.

Anyway, after a prolonged drum roll and a seemingly interminable pause for even more drama, Whizmo the Great leaped off the platform and dove head first at blazing speed toward a tank of water at the foot of the tower. The crowd oohd, aahd, and gasped as he made a gigantic splash. Then they were silent as death itself until his head came bobbing to the surface. After he climbed out of the tank, Whizmo triumphantly raised his arms and bowed to all four corners of the big top as adoring fans gave him a standing ovation.

The tank was not all that big around, so I am sure some well calculated aim was involved so Whizmo could perform his amazing feat of ultimate dumbness. If I remember correctly, the ringmaster said the tank was six-feet deep, so we were amazed that he didn't hit bottom at somewhere around 4-Gs.

On the way home, we discussed what might have happened if Whizmo missed the tank and went splat instead of splash.

"What do you think the ringmaster would say?" Pookie Grossberg asked.

"He'd say, Oops!" Kinky Boswell replied. "What else could he say?"

"He'd probably say that Whizmo the Great would now be known as Whizmo the Stain, cuz he'd be nothin' but a stain on the circus floor," Chilly Mac said.

Louie the Lip wondered if they would give us our money back. We agreed that they probably would not, although we would never know for sure.

The following day, Whizmo was still the topic of conversation. Of course, we had to prove that his deed of daring do was not really all that hard, and three of us decided to try something similar on a smaller scale.

An above ground pool sat in Kinky Boswell's backyard, over which was a convenient tree branch that just happened to be sturdy enough to hold three, 10- year-old boys. The branch was approximately 15-feet above maybe 3-feet of water at best, which really wasn't a lot for a 15- foot dive.

Well . . . we didn't exactly dive. However, Chilly Mac, Kinky Boswell and yours truly climbed that tree, walked to the middle of the branch just above the pool, and held up our forefingers to supposedly test the wind, but more to emulate Whizmo and his penchant for drama.

I suppose I should mention that within three minutes of announcing this really stupid stunt, every kid in the neighborhood magically appeared in Kinky Boswell's backyard. The parade of kids walking by his mom's kitchen window raised her curiosity. And she just happened to walk out the back door at the exact moment our feet left the tree limb to make a leap to neighborhood notoriety.

All eyes were glued on us. Our eyes were glued on Kinky's mom, whose finger was menacingly pointed in our direction. A basic rule of childhood states that whenever a parent, particularly a mother, uses a boy's complete name, trouble is afoot. Until that moment, in mid-flight, I did not know that Kinky's real name was Kenneth Armstrong Boswell.

Now, how could all this happen in the time required to jump 15-feet into little more than a puddle of water, you ask. The answer is simple. The expression on Kinky's mom's face was so frightening that I swear, and I would not lie about this, we willed ourselves to stop in mid-air. We thought so hard about reversing our flight, reperching ourselves on that limb, and climbing back down the tree, that we actually stopped halfway to the water.

Unfortunately, gravity prevailed and we ultimately made a big splash, much to the delight of the yard full of children and other short people. As soon as we landed, all three of us pointed at each other and shouted in unison, "I confess, it was his idea!" It was all part of growin' up, stretchin' out, and gettin' large, in a system we would never understand.

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