Grit. Same as sandpaper. My hand trembled from the exertion of holding onto the uncertain rock surface. My weight held to the face of the vertical wall by will power and this one left hand. Above and to the right jutted out a thin ledge I was supposed to leap over to. It looked impossible. Sweat from my forehead dripped into my eyes, stinging, making everything a little blurry and indistinct. Above and farther to the left was another hand-hold, useless—not to be considered due to the placement and position of my body in relation to where I had crawled up. The fact that I was tethered by a buoy line, for belaying, did little to help me feel at ease. At the other end of the line was…Douggie.
Douggie had introduced himself that first week of the semester by saying, “HI, I’M DOUGGIE.” Douggie spoke in all capitals. “I’M GOING TO WALK OVER TO THE STOP-N-GO. WANNA COME ALONG?” He had a big dog-like grin on his face, enthused, encouraging, a little cartoonish. It was 1 a.m. on a Sunday night.
Douggie was the Resident Assistant. He referred to himself as the R. A., but pronounced it like the cheer—“RAH!” He sported a full beard that was of the same color and texture of the longish straight blonde-brown hair that hung down to his brown-blonde turtleneck cable sweater. He was all hair, like a furry puff-fish. This garment and his blue jeans were his uniform. Add a pair of hiking boots, some thick woolen socks and Douggie was good to go. As RAH! Douggie was there to welcome the new crew of freshmen, stuck in a former married-housing unit, Terry Courts, which we called The Courts of the Last Resort. We realized later that Douggie was unusual in that he actually chose to live there, when he could have upgraded to the nicer newer facilities that us losers could not attempt to do till the following year. Douggie was a philosophy major, from Montana.
The drop was far enough down it would kill me. I had little confidence on the safety rope. If I fell and relied on Douggie to hold the line, I couldn’t just start where I had left off, actually flown off. I’d be dangling, humiliated, unable to ascend this climb on the first fledgling attempt. Moreover, I would be depending on Douggie to save me. He was short in stature, weighed less than me.
It dawned on me that I was in trouble. The left hand began to cramp a bit, and the right foot toe purchase was not strong. I experimented placing my right foot into an indentation above and to the right, but that put me in a posture better for the ballet than for rock-climbing. I looked down and saw Douggie staring up at me, giving me his trademark two-big-thumbs-up.
Douggie had led the expedition that night. We few newbies: nerdy Paul, stoner Joe, and his roomie, Fish, and my best friend from high school—Jim. We followed Douggie into the night, expectant, hopeful, thinking it an adventure and one that might lead to the golden object of all college freshman boys … meeting girls.
An hour of stumbling in the dark found us at the 24/7 mini-grocery and gas station on the other end of campus. Nobody had asked why we were making this pilgrimage, and for some it probably did not matter. When we learned though that Douggie had a kind of passion for chocolate milk, and fancied himself a connoisseur, which was the only reason we were there, we only could imagine how tired and stupefied we’d be for our 7:30 a.m. classes that morning, which would be less than four hours from the time we would arrive back at the dorm unit, another hour’s walk away.
I cursed, asking myself how I’d gotten into this dangerous fix, inexperienced and glued to the treacherous rock that Douggie had conned the guys and me into climbing. I was depending on Douggie, literally. “I’ll never let this happen again, I promised.” Instead of vaulting over to the expected ledge, I twisted my body in the opposite direction and away from the wall face. I now faced out away from the mountain side. A gasp could be heard from below. My unused right arm reached out to find purchase on a mere suggestion of a rock-hold, more of a lip I hooked with my fingers. The left hand was reversed above me, and in rage I asserted myself, pulling up, shifting the right hand now to the previously unanticipated hand hold to the left. From here, I swung my right foot over, rested the outer toe on the lip my hand had previously held, and corkscrewed myself upward. Applause broke out from below.
I scrambled up the rest of the way with ease. I had not died, had not lost face, was the object of male approval. After belaying down, launching myself into space and arching back to rest my feet on the rock, and pushing off and back, falling, flying, feeling my youth and strength, I made it back to terra firma. I never climbed again. Thanks, Douggie!
Scott D. Vander Ploeg, Ph. D., is an early-retired professor of English/Humanities, named Kentucky college Teacher-Of-The-Year in 2009. He recorded essays for a regional NPR affiliate for a decade, and later wrote a column about the arts and letters for a small-town newspaper. He was the Executive Director of the Kentucky Philological Association. In his spare-time he is an amateur thespian, a jazz drummer, and a Sifu in Tai Chi.