It was second grade recess on a windy day. After weeks of watching kids fearlessly hurdle down the big kid’s slide, I lined up with the others, climbed endless steps while watching the legs in front of me — and froze at the top. The air was different up there. From that great height, I clearly saw the terror of my ways. How could I foolishly believe I was just like the others?
The line behind me hanging off the rungs and on the ground began to whine and grumble. The playground authority was called over, and yet I would not move. The lady tried to coax me down but I wasn’t buying any of it. From where I sat, this was a fast track to quick destruction and untimely end.
Finally, the long-suffering teacher stuck with recess duty made the kids behind me get off the ladder and back away from the scene of the crime. I crawled down through unforgiving disgust and crept off humiliated, once again an alien among my own kind.
For weeks after my cowardice, I hung around that slippery nemesis until my classmates’ attention was preoccupied with tether or kick ball, monkey bars, see saws or a scuffle under the one basketball goal bolted to the school’s red brick exterior. When I was sure no one was looking, I carefully positioned my bottom in the seat of triumph at the base of the sinister slope, and scooted up as far as I dared, using my shoes’ rubber soles as traction. When I was high enough, I pulled my feet up, and slid down in an all-too-brief moment of pure joy.
Each time, I rose a little higher out of the doldrums of my shame and disgrace. Each time, the feeling of release and flight lasted a little longer. Until finally, one day, I ascended the infinite ladder once again, adjusted my breath in the thin air, took in the bigger picture at the top, and pushed off into my life.
Last month, fifty years later, my family and I came upon a playground in a state park, clearly built in the Sixties. And there stood my old nemesis, with the same tall silver board reflecting a forest of memories, and the thin metal poles supporting my recollections on either side. Each rung on the ladder spelled out America as I climbed up and I wondered if I believed in them anymore.
When I arrived at the top, I found to my surprise that the air was still rarefied, and the view still too big for me to comprehend. And when I let go, the journey to the bottom was just the same, only slower.