Prologue: Confessions of a Teenage Cliff Diver

Cliff-DiveIt is late now – 3 am. And the coastal wind is whipping hard, creating a persistent clang as it zips through flagpole banners below.

I am drunk … and disorderly, which explains why I am not only willing, but somehow eager, to follow through on pot-addled promises made from ground-level less than 15 minutes before.

There is no time for backing out now. The water is gushing from hydro-jets all around me – funneling toward a drop-point, where it slowly washes over the edge before disappearing into darkness.

This is Raging Waters, circa 1992. And this is me, teetering high atop the Cliff Dive – a high-octane water slide that eases riders down a narrow canal before dropping them, feet-first, into a five-story free fall at speeds of 45 MPH.

It isn’t the 50-foot drop that scares me. Nor is it the fact that I’m extremely drunk, and more than a little high. It isn’t the fact that there aren’t any EMTs – or even part-time safety personnel – capable of administering first-aid in the event of an accident. No, sir. At this particular moment in time, the only thing that really scares me is the fact that I’m not positioned feet-first, or even face-first, for that matter. On the contrary, I am positioned back-up, legs akimbo, the sixth and final passenger in a five-man kayak boat.

Unlike the others, when one is the sixth and final passenger in a five-man kayak boat, he is instructed to let go of the restraints, give the wall a slight push, and – at the exact point when he can actually see the earth falling out from under – repeat the words, “Make sure you bail out the second we hit the water,” over and over and over again until he touches down.

It is upon this last and final point I failed.

***

I wrote the preceding paragraphs almost 20 years ago, way back in the summer of 1992. I was 18 at the time – young, stupid, impulsive, and highly impressionable; living with two girls I barely knew in a drywall shack on the east end of 26th Street. I experienced a lot of things that summer – most of them good, some of them bad. When it was over, and I mean really over, I found some time to put my thoughts on paper.

The more I wrote about that summer, the more I felt like the tone was self-indulgent, that there was either no real substance to what I’d been saying, or that I hadn’t chosen the right medium to say it. Either way, I couldn’t seem to get past it. So I packed those pages away, and I committed to drinking my way throughout the long, cold winter.

I had nothing but time on my hands way back then … time and a steady unemployment check meant to keep me afloat. Unemployment was, is, and always will be a consistent way of life for Wildwood’s year-round population (The off-season unemployment rate generally lingers somewhere between 23-27%). Local taxpayers work their asses off six months out of the year, then spend the subsequent six months lounging on said ass.

So be it.

Above all else, those early years in Wildwood taught me two things:

  1. When the work is there, you work hard and you work right, and you do not stop until the work is done.
  2. When the work is not there, you’re more than entitled to fill the down time with consumption … any and all manner of which, depending on your preference.

In other words: “Work hard. Play hard.” It’s the official motto of the Camborne School of Mines. And – for many years – it pretty much summed up the way I lived.

But time moves on, and the balance of work and play either becomes horribly skewed or you never really evolve from that freeloading asshole you were back in high school – a dynamic which may make you a big hit down at the local tap room, but doesn’t bode well in terms of aspiration.

Do you want to know a really great way to gauge whether you are still that same freeloading asshole you were back in high school? If people constantly refer to you as the “Mayor” of anything, and you’ve never actually run for public office, there’s a fairly decent chance you’re still that same freeloading asshole you were back in high school.

Moving on.

***

By the time I hit 26, it no longer made sense for me to be working on the boardwalk, or even drinking in the corner bars, for that matter. So I moved to Philadelphia, got a 9-to-5, at which point I resigned to only drinking on weekends. I made this transition accordion-style – jamming seven nights’ worth of binging into several two-and-a-half-day loads. Come Friday night, I blazed a white-hot trail of smoke out of the office. By Sunday evening, I felt more like a rocket, experiencing subtle-to-severe turbulence upon re-entry. Otherwise, I was stationed at my desk, pretending to be the same corporate somebody everyone else in that office kept pretending to be. We all dressed alike, and talked alike, and even combed our hair alike. In fact, it was altogether stunning how wonderfully alike the lot of us were. Still is, come to think of it.

The point being, as a result of entering the corporate sphere, I learned to compartmentalize certain aspects of my life. Every weekend, when the majority of employees went traipsing off to their broken marriage, or mistress, or some porn-fetish PC, I went out to get my drink on. Alcohol was my vice – the only worthwhile dalliance that my lifestyle would allow.

***

In the Summer of 2006, I made the move from Philadelphia to New York City, which meant I was no longer reporting to an office. Nor was I interacting with a group of like-minded individuals. Working off-site meant I was losing a certain social component. For a while, I thought I could compensate by meeting new people in the local bars and coffeehouses. But the more I pursued that line of thinking, the more it reinforced the notion I wasn’t in my mid-20s anymore. In fact, before long, the whole charade started to feel hopelessly desperate – as if I kept inching closer and closer to becoming that old guy down the end of the bar, the one who’s constantly struggling to keep his head above board.

Do you know what I used to say whenever I saw a guy like that down the other end of the bar?

“Poor guy.”

That’s what.

***

I was 35 years old, and, as such, I had shifted into down mode – going out for drinks once or maybe twice per month. As a result, I developed an insatiable urge for staying out as long as I could … as long as it took, for lack of any better way of putting it. My advice to other would-be alcoholics: Do not try this. You wind up looking just as lonely and desperate as you actually are. Reason being that – come 4 am – the last thing any smoking hot chick wants is to get it on with the drunk loner in the corner, the same one who’s been ogling her for the previous half hour.

More often than not, once I drank myself past the point of oblivion, I’d just keep right-on going, until a point when either the liquor or the late hour led me to ruin. A couple of years back, a local bartender found me on the verge of collapse, leaning on a keg in a basement stockroom after last call. A year prior to that, I got bitch-slapped by a bouncer after trying to hit on his girlfriend. And, really, those were only minor calamities in comparison to some of my all-time greatest hits.

A few months back, just before I called it quits, I woke up naked in a pitch-black room about an hour before dawn. This was on the tail-end of a 36-hour bender that included more nonsense than I care to disclose. But the reason I bring it up is that I remember feeling lost … like, literally, hopelessly lost. More lost than I think I’ve ever been, in fact. I felt anxious, and cold, and scared, and I feared what might lie ahead once the lingering effects of all that alcohol wore off.

There was a warm body lying next to me. I leaned in close, breathing quietly until I could remember a name. A minute or so later, that body got up and turned on a light. And for the next half hour, the two of us sat bolt upright in bed, helping each other piece together the circumstances that had brought us to that point.

I remember her asking me what it was that I was thinking. And I remember telling her: “Right now, at this particular moment, I’m thinking that if anyone had told me when I went out [in Brooklyn] on Friday night, that I’d wind up in a basement somewhere in the heart of Virginia 36 hours later, I would’ve told them they were crazy.”

It was true. Only the joke would’ve been on me, because I wasn’t in Virginia at all.

I was on the southern fork of Long Island, in the downstairs guestroom of a couple whose daughter I’d met out on the streets of Manhattan, well past 5 am the previous morning. We’d been drinking, and drugging, and who-knows-what-else-ing for a full 24-hours since.

A couple of days after that incident – once both my brain and my body had settled back into the atmosphere – I began digging through my closet, searching for that unfinished essay I’d abandoned two full decades prior. I imagine that had something to do with the fact I spent the entire ride home from Long Island feeling as if I’d been barreling off the same cliff for the past 20 years. A nick here, a graze there, and yet, nothing quite so critical it could keep me out of the game.

All of which brings me back to that windy August night way back in the Summer of ’92.

After I let go of the restraints, our five-man kayak drifted slowly toward the precipice, where it teetered for a few brief seconds, before plummeting in a whirlwind blur of terminal velocity and sand. I felt so overwhelmed I completely neglected to abandon ship. And so the five-man kayak went skimming, skimming clear across the pool, at which point I braced myself – the lone passenger who had failed to bail out upon impact. At the last possible moment I jumped … jumped left, not right. The momentum sent me sledding into concrete.

I somehow managed to limp away that night, despite a fast-forming bruise that ran the entire length of my backside. For a good three weeks or so after, I wore that bruise like a badge of honor, regaling others with the tale of how we’d broken into the water park, how we’d tamed the mighty beast.

Looking back now, I have a different perspective. While I’m not familiar enough with the physics involved to determine whether that kayak could’ve just as easily capsized, dumping the lot of us out like a crate full of eggs, I can tell you that I think myself quite an asshole for the arrogance. I mean, consider the margin of error involved – all the various ways in which we could’ve wound up dead, dismembered, or permanently disfigured. I know that’s what I think about every time I look up at that slide from ground level these days.

No, sir. I simply cannot abide it. Not at this point, that’s for sure.

But so now there you have it, what happened at the top of that slide, and what happened at the bottom. What follows is the eight-year history of what happened in between.

Day 68

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)

©Copyright Bob Hill