The Lesson of the Cliff
By Morton Hunt
It was a sweltering July day in I can feel it still, 56 years later. The five boys I was with had grown tired of playing marbles and burning holes in dry leaves with a lens and were casting about for something else.
"Hey!" said freckle-faced little Ned. "I got an idea. We haven't climbed the cliff for a long while."
"Let’s go!" said someone else. And off they went, trotting and panting like a pack of stray dogs.
I hesitated. I longed to be brave and active, like them, but I'd been a sickly child most of my eight years and had taken heart to my mother's admonitions to remember that I wasn't as strong as the other boys and not to take chances.
"Come on!" Called Jerry, my best friend "Just because you've been sick is no reason to be a sissy." "I'm coming!" I yelled, and ran along after them.
Through the park and into the woods we went, finally emerging in a clearing. At the far side, 40 or 50 feet away, loomed the cliff, a bristling, near vertical wall of jutting rocks, earth slides, scraggly bushes and ailanthus saplings. From the tumbled rocks at its base to the fringe of sod at its top, it was only about 60 feet high, but to me it looked like the very embodiment of the Forbidden and Impossible.
One by one, the other boys scrabbled upward, finding handholds and toeholds on rock outcrops and earthen ledges. I hung back until the others were partway up; then trembling and sweating, I began to climb. A hand here, a foot there, my heart thumping in my skinny chest, I made my way up and up.
At some point, I looked back and was horrified. The ground at the base of the cliff seemed very far below; one slip and I would fall, bouncing off the cliff face and ending on the rocks.
There, shattered and strangling on my own blood, I would gurgle, twitch a few times and then expire, like the cat I had seen run over a few days earlier.
But the boys were chattering above me on an earthen ledge two thirds of the way to the top. It was 5 or 6 feet deep and some 15 feet long. I clawed my way up to them; then I crawled as far back on the ledge as I could, huddle against the rock face. The other boys stood close to the edge and boldly urinated into space; the sight made me so queasy that I surreptitiously clutched at the rocks behind me.
In a few minutes they started up to the top.
“Hey, wait!” I croaked.
”So long! See you in the funny papers.” one of them said, and the others laughed.
”But I cannot, I” That spurred them on: Jeering and catcalling back to me, they wriggled their way to the top, from where they would walk home by a roundabout route. Before they left, they peered down at me.
”you can stay if you want to”, mocked Ned.
” It is all yours.” Jerry looked concerned, but he went with the others.
I looked down and was overcome by dizziness; a nameless force seemed to be impelling me to fall off. I lay clinging to the rock as the world spun around. I could never climb back down. It was much too far to go, too hazardous; partway, I would grow feeble or faint, lose my grip, fall and die. But the way up to the top was even worse-higher, steeper, more treacherous; I would never make it. I heard someone sobbing and moaning; I wondered who it was and realized that it was I.
Time passed. The shadows gradually lengthened, the sun disappeared from the treetops beyond the clearing below, and dusk began to gather. Silent now, I lay on my stomach as if in a trance, stupefied by fear and fatigue, unable to move or even think of how to get back down to safety and home.
Twilight, a first star in the sky, the ground below the cliff growing dim. But what can he do? Middle-aged and portly, he cannot climb up here. Even if he could, what good would that do?
Staying well back from the foot of the cliff so that he can see me, he points the beam up and calls to me.” Come on down, now,” he says in a perfectly normal comforting tone. “Dinner is ready.”
“I can’t!”I wail. I’ll fall, I could die!”
“You got up,” he says. “You can get down the same way. I will light the way.”
“No, I can’t,” I howl. “It’s too far, it is too hard, I can’t do it.”
“Listen to me,” my father says. “Don’t think about how far it is. All you have to think about is taking one little step. You can do that. Look where I’ll shining the light. Do you see that rock?” The beam bounces around on a jutting outcrop just below the ledge. “See it?” he calls up. I inch over. “Yes,” I say.
“Good,” he says.”Now just turn around so you can put your foot on that rock. That’s all you have to do. It’s just a little way below you. You can do that. Don’t worry about what comes next, and don’t look down any farther than that first step. Trust me.”
It seems possible. I inch backward, gingerly feel for the rock with my left foot and find it. “that’s good,” my father calls. “Now, a little bit to the right and a few inches lower, there’s another foothold. Move your foot down there very slowly, that’s all you have to do. Just think about that next step, nothing else.” I do so. “Good,” he says. Now let go of whatever you are holding onto with your left hand and reach back and grab that skinny tree just at the edge, where my light is. That’s all you have to do.” Again, I do so.
That’s how it goes. One step at a time, one handhold at a time, he talks me down the cliff, stressing that I have only to make one simple move each time, never letting me stop to think of the long way down always telling me that the next thing I have to do is something I can do.
Suddenly I take the last step down onto the tumbled rocks at the bottom and into my father’s strong arms, sobbing a little, and then, surprisingly, feeling a sense of immense accomplishment and something like pride.
I have realized with the same surprise, time and again throughout my life, that, having looked at a far and frightening prospect and been dismayed, I can cope with it after all by remembering the simple lesson I learned so long ago. I remind myself to look not at the rocks far below, but at the first small and relatively easy step and, having taken it, to take the next one, felling a sense of accomplishment with each move, until I have done what I wanted to do, gotten where I wanted to be, and can look back, amazed and proud of the distance I have come.