I can tell you from experience what it’s like to hang by a thread.
The clothesline pole looked like a giant letter “T.” It had four eyebolts bored through the crossbar, two on each side of the post, to which each of the clotheslines was attached. The rounded eyes of the blots faced toward the workshop, while the threaded-ends stuck through the back of the pole and were held in place with a nut. Four rope clotheslines stretched from a t-shaped pole at the edge of the back porch, across the small back yard, to a board on the outside wall of my dad’s workshop.
I would stand on my toes at the edge of the porch, carefully grab the crossbar in the narrow spaces between the eyebolts, and swing myself into the yard. I repeated this action many times daily to experience the thrill of flying for the half-a-second it took me to get to the ground from the porch two-feet above. I had jumped from the edge of the porch before, but the sensation of thrusting from the crossbar was much more exciting and gave me an extra quarter-second in the air.
Such death-defying displays of courage were the cause of many of my childhood injuries; sprained ankles from poor landings and cuts on my hands and wrists from grabbing the pole too closely to bolts. There were few scares, though, that topped the ten minutes I hung suspended in the air by the threads of my watch band.
After I had taken the garbage out one summer morning, I ran back to the porch, quickly grabbed the crossbar, and launched into my first swing of the day. Much to my surprise, I never hit the ground. Instead, my watchband had somehow slipped over the threaded, protruding-end of an eyebolt and twisted so that it was wrapped around the threads twice. If you had seen me from a distance, it might have looked to you as if my right wrist was bolted to the crossbar. With my fingers sticking upward, my feet dangling two feet off the ground and inches from the edge of the porch, I am sure it was the sight to see.
My body weight made it impossible to release the buckle on the band, or to untwist the band with my left hand. I was too far from the edge of the porch to swing back so that my toes could touch and take enough weight off my watchband to allow me to free myself. Dad was working that day, and I was too embarrassed to call for my mom knowing how she always found so much humor in these situations that her laughter would have prevented her from helping me before I lost the circulation to my hand.
I was contemplating the next day’s newspaper headline: “Boy hung by watchband. Loses hand,” when I heard the neighbor’s screen door squeak. I saw Dan come out of the house and into his back yard.
Dan was probably 20, about ten years older than I was at the time, and lived next door with his grandparents. His large pot belly, acne-scarred face, and biker-like dress made him look considerably older. The only hint to his real age was the exceptionally well-drawn superhero characters that he painted on the ever-present white t-shirts he wore under his sleeveless denim vest.
As he walked into the yard, Dan saw me hanging from the crossbar. He walked over to the fence and asked what I was doing. I acted as nonchalantly as I could, considering my fingers were turning purple, but I finally explained my predicament and asked for his help. He laughed, and after what seemed like hours of making fun of me, he agreed to help me down.
It took Dan a long time to walk the twenty-five feet from his backyard, through the alley, and into my backyard to release me from this awkward, self-inflicted crucifixion of sorts. I am sure he took baby-steps once he was out of my sight. He might have even stopped for a while to smell the flowers along the way; that’s just how Dan rolled.
When he finally arrived, he lifted me just enough to take the weight off the watch band, and I was able to free myself. I thanked him for helping me get down; he smiled and went home without another word. For a brief moment in the life of a little boy, Dan was a hero, not unlike the comic book heroes he drew on his t-shirts. Learning about his life struggles as an adult, helping me off the clothesline pole may have been the only time Dan felt like he was anyone’s hero.
I am sure he would have said he was an unlikely hero because he just happened to be in the right place, at the right time. To me, that sounds like the best definition of a real hero.