Sixty feet high, the concrete cylinder had been built into the side of a small mountain ridge. Along the front rose a convenient set of metal rungs.
We climbed them, of course. There wasn’t even a fence – not that that could have kept a group of bored middle school Army brats from the only adrenaline-pumping obstacle on base. That water tower was our Mount Everest.
Engineers had snuggled it into the ridge’s embrace so that a rocky slope wrapped up and around toward the back. Between tower and ridge gaped a trench ten feet wide. This afforded an unusual experience: climb the rungs, cross the top, and ogle low-growing ferns and tree trunks just there, mere feet away … with a vertical abyss in between.
Imagine our tingles as we stared down from the exact precipice. Smooth concrete wall plummeting beneath our flip flops … the craggy, tree-rooted gash of the ridge, deceptively close … and between, scale-model leaves and stones of the distant chasm floor.
An Indiana Jones-style leap might have succeeded in reaching safe ground ten feet away, but none of us were crazy enough to try that. We aimed at a more manageable stunt.
Look at an aerial photo and you’ll notice foliage covering the top right of the water tower. I’m glad this detail shows up in Google Maps, because it’s what I remember most.
Ten feet was no obstacle for a branch. The trees that rose from the ridge spread their arms above and toward us, and since this was Puerto Rico, their branches were wrapped in vines.
One column of vines, thick as a telephone pole, descended the entire sixty feet.
These vines weren’t far – midway between tower and ridge. A mere five feeet.
Stand up, if you will. Lean forward as far as you can. You can reach almost five feet before your weight tilts.
Now imagine my brother and our circle of boys taking turns perched at that edge, stretching bones and ligaments forward, forward, vines dangling just beyond our fingertips.
Whoever dared the descent would be a Hero Forever. It didn’t require even a jump, really, just a committed lean, then a lot of shimmying. The vines would support our weight – we swung on vines as a semi-profession, and these were the thickest we’d ever seen.
After a bout of egging each other on and wincing at each other’s attempts, we’d clamber back down the rungs. Next time.
Every few months or so, a little bigger, a little bolder, we’d return to dare each other all over again.
No one ever did it.
To this day, if I mentally position myself back at the peak, I get the same spine jeebies. The height’s only part of it. Occasionally at the tops of buildings or cliffs I feel an utterly irrational impulse to jump, to cast myself over the brink. Something about the sheer possibility of doing it inspires a small and utterly insane degree of desire. I could jump. Just a little jump, like so. How would it feel? Imagination edges into reality, my legs wither … and I back away, less apprehensive of the fall, perhaps, than of my own will.
Whenever I visualize that water tower and the vine, what unnerves me most is a thirteen-year-old heart that would lean, lean … weight tilting past balance … almost there …