Sophomore Smackdown

Jan 27, 2005 |John Thomas

Some people learn to boldly take initiative from everyday occurances. Others learn it on a skateboard at the top of a dry waterslide.

Some college roommates are assigned randomly by computers. I've had my share of those, but Mitch and I came together by pre-college friendship, having met at summer camp during our high school years.

We were a good fit. First, we shared mutual appreciation for the point-after-touchdown (PAT), of which for our respective high school football teams he had been the deep-center and I had been the holder — our glory days spent chasing the smallest score the game of football has to offer. Second, Mitch was always up for an adventure, and I, being a confirmed homebody, needed to be stretched on occasion. On this particular Saturday though, I almost snapped.

Mitch and I returned to school early from Christmas break, and the campus was a ghost town. We sat in our duplex apartment, our eyes glazed and brains numbed in a music-television stupor. I had melded into the couch, teetering on coma, and Mitch was splayed out on a chair. A visitor might have mistaken us for corpses, were it not for the pooling drool under my cheek, and for Mitch's right foot, planted on his skateboard like a four-wheeled ottoman, slowly rolling backward and forward over the hardwood living room floor. The thing was talking to him.

He suddenly woke from his trance and bolted upright. "Let's skateboard down that closed waterslide on College Street." In my brain fog I agreed and soon found myself at the top of a waterless waterslide, the precipice of my own X-Game, staring down a labyrinth of pale blue concrete spirals — a metaphor for my new impulsive lifestyle, seizing the moment, leaping into the unknown. I volunteered to go first, my thinking clouded due to my pituitary not being used to regulating much adrenaline. A poster child for protective headgear.

The route started with a straight stretch, a low-grade descent for about 30 feet, then pulled a short turn to the right, then straight for a few more feet, then a hard left. The G's were picking up as I lay back through the second turn and made my way down off the wall into the center of the slide. I had reached that speed that was too fast for an intentional fall for emergency stoppage, but was also much faster than I'd ever gone or ever wanted to go — a metaphor maybe, but on steroids. It was about right here that I realized this day wouldn't end without an awkward phone call to my parents.

I shifted my weight to prepare for the next turn, and encountered what no skateboard has ever survived, a well-placed piece of gravel. I stopped dead on a dime and couldn't get a single appendage out in front of my face before the unforgiving law of gravity overtook my head and slammed it into the waterslide. This was the pre-helmet era of wheeled recreation. Fortunately though, my lips, nose and teeth softened the blow for my forehead, so there was little or no brain damage, no more than what apparently already existed.

I screamed for Mitch, still standing at the top, who drilled me with several questions about my condition. How bad does it hurt? Is there any blood? It was like talking to an OnStar operator. I half expected him to yell, Elevate your legs and cover yourself with a blanket. I'll stay on the line with you until someone arrives.

Something I said finally convinced him it would be worth his while to come check on things. He ran down to the scene of the accident. "Oh my gosh! That's not good! Whew, man! You're bleeding all over your shirt!" Mitch sprang into action, ignited by some premature dad reflex. He made all the necessary phone calls, gave all the proper information and got me to the dentist. There was a good chance he would buy me ice-cream when this was all over.

I blanked out for a bit and when I came to, I was staring into a blinding light. I tried to make out the blurred figures staring down at me — yes, my great cloud of witnesses. This must be it. I'm crossing over. I wouldn't have to make that awkward phone call to my parents after all, although I didn't envy the call Mitch would have to make to them.

No, wait. I read a modern translation, but my Bible still featured 12 apostles of, I presume, average height, not the seven dwarfish characters I saw happily (and grumpily and sneezily and etc.) peering down at my condition. It wasn't so much a great cloud as a thin vapor.

"Oh, man, that looks bad."

Mitch. His face panned left into my field of vision, blocking the light and my view of the apostle-dwarfs, forcing an adjustment of my eye aperture to make room for his 6'3" frame. Many times I'd envisioned what my arrival in Glory might be like, but none of my scenarios figured the pearly gates manned by Mitch and the Seven Dwarfs. I hadn't died. The phone call was back on.

The dwarfs were not a hallucination. They were there because, it being Saturday, the only dentist on-call was of the pediatric line, in whose offices every effort is made to assuage the God-given dental fears of children, thus the all the pictures of Disney characters on the ceiling. I was on the examination chair, and the dentist had stepped away to retrieve his grown-up people tools, stuffed away in some closet since dental school gathering dust. That's when I noticed the light and the dwarfs and Mitch, who had moved in for a closer inspection of the damage now that things were cleaned up a bit.

"Your tooth went right through your lip then swung backwards hinge-like," he said wincing and breathing in, making a backwards "s" sound. "The doctor's going to try to push it back in place." Doc returned and opted for the old-fashioned approach. He stuffed his entire hand into my mouth, and with much grinding and crunching, wedged my tooth into its proper position. This was a perfect time for one of those out-of-body experiences I'd heard so much about, a dwarf reaching out to me, telling me to take his hand and walk toward the sneezes. I would have been happy just to faint.

I unfortunately retained consciousness for the duration. Doc finished his repairs, scribbled stuff on a prescription pad and sent us on our way. Mitch shifted back into 20-something college roommate mode, so there was no ice-cream, only some incredible re-telling of what became the event by which other events are related, such as, I met her a couple of weeks after you smashed your face into the waterslide, or That movie came out at least a month before you smashed your face into the waterslide. It replaced the previous event we used for that purpose, some relationship breakup, which needed replacing.

For several weeks I bore on my face the marks of that day, which faded over time, but the memory of the adventure, and countless others with Mitch (not all of them so hazardous), sticks with me even 20 years later. He had a gift for identifying the things that would confront my courage deficiency and, with each new experience, help me face down a little more fear. Thankfully not every experience required medical attention, but a lot of them did force me to grow, to change, even to trust (rappelling down a five-story bluff comes to mind).

Those adventures occasionally re-enter my consciousness when I'm faced with some new or difficult challenge in my life. I'll think, I can do this. I'm the guy that stood at the top of the waterslide! The guy who looked fear in the face and said 'bring it on!' The one who pushed off with abandon! Who turned (two) curves and reached dangerous speeds with the courage of a pro!

Then I put on a helmet, grab a broom and sweep up the gravel. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Copyright 2005 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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