Shrill cries of delight echoed over the campground. Nestled in wooded hills, this scenic spot was home to our extended family for the weekend. Tents dotted the grass. Swingsets rocked happy children. The mess hall door banged open and shut, open and shut, as folks entered hungry and left satisfied. Best of all, the zipline remained in constant use, swinging its shrieking victims down a 30’ breathtaking swoop from raised platform to solid ground.
In order to ride, a participant must climb a ladder to a platform ten feet in the air, grab the rope dangling from a pulley, thrust one foot into the loop at the rope’s end, and swing out into empty space. Like a one-way swing, the rope and pulley combination zipped its rider down the line.
Most popular to adolescent boys, the zipline nonetheless attracted a wide variety of thrill-seekers: a young mom, a grandma, and children piggybacking with their fathers.
Scotty was one such child. Wrapping his arms tightly around his father Derek’s neck, he rode with a wide grin while his dad whooped it up.
Scotty was content with this safe exhilaration. His dad, for some unaccountable reason, was not.
“Wanna try it by yourself, Scotty?” Derek asked.
I was surprised. Scotty was only five years old—in my opinion, an age too tender to be quite safe dangling ten feet above the ground at high speeds. What if his hands slipped?
Scotty shared my views. With a shake of the head, he turned his back.
“Come on. You can do it, man.”
Derek let the matter go, took his son on a few more rides, offered the rope to others. But he kept coming back to the offer, quietly coaxing while his five-year-old remained adamant. Nothing doing, dad.
“All right,” Derek said finally, in a mild compromise. “Wanna earn a dollar? One more ride with dad, then you’re gonna try it yourself, okay buddy?” A teenage cousin chipped in another dollar, and Scotty reluctantly agreed.
The ride together was easy. But inevitably, the time for solo action arrived.
Derek climbed the ladder with Scotty, encouraging, cheering, gently persuading. “You can do it. It’ll be easy. Piece-a cake. Remember last summer when you rode that thing you were scared of? Remember how fun it was? You can do it, man. I’m right here.” Until the very last moment, Scotty clung to him, turning once to bury his face in dad’s chest. “No no, buddy. You can do it. I’m right here.”
I watched, mystified and not a little nervous for the child. Why was this so important?
Scotty’s mother stepped close, ten feet below. Her face was serene; her words offered a motherly safety net. “Scotty, I’m down here. I’ll be here just in case you fall.”
But her husband threw her a disapproving frown. “Hey!”
“Hey, none of that. He’s not gonna fall.”
Scotty’s hands were on the rope, his foot in the stirrup, his ears tuned to his dad. “I’m gonna count to three, then let go. You’ll be just fine. Just hang on tight. One. Two. Three.”
The little body swung into space. Small hands clenched the thick rope. Shoulders tensed. Head pulled in. Five seconds later he was at the bottom.
His audience whooped. “Yay, Scotty! Way to go! Great job, man; you did it!” He clung to the rope, face buried in his arms, motionless. “Is he okay?” In a moment Derek was down the ladder, loping toward the hero. His strong hands lifted him down. They sank to the ground together. The tense face, marked with tears, switched its hiding place to a big shoulder.
“You did it! Were you scared? You were so brave.” Derek rocked him. Comforted. Cheered. Fell back against the ground, Scotty held tight against his chest. Took a lot of moments just soaking there with his son—soaking in love, in protection, in adrenaline rush, in victory.
Later, he confided to his wife, “He was just shaking. His whole body just—vibrating. He was so scared.”
Life around the camp moved on. Children scampered. Adults chatted. Ten minutes later, I looked up in surprise to see the sight I least expected: a small figure gripping a thick rope ten feet above the ground. Huh? There he was again, with a sober face but a confident mien. He knew exactly what he was doing. Derek counted one. Two. Three. Zip! And Scotty dropped off at the bottom with a grin.
“Wanna do it one more time before you go play?”
“Yeah, one more time. Then you can go.”
This time it was easy. Nothing to it, just like dad said. And he sauntered off to join the other kids.
I was left pondering, deep thoughts swirling in my mind, with admiration predominant. Question: What kind of father insists that his child perform terrifying feats of courage? Answer: Only the best of the best.
A parent driven by vicarious ambition or macho performance will play to an audience, take it too far. But a parent consumed with his child’s best interest coaxes, empowers, lets go.
This is an entirely factual account, retold with permission. Derek is my first cousin; the reunion took place in the summer of 2012. Scotty has faced more fears since. “Shut up, brain,” he says, and moves forward. Go Scotty!
[amazon_link id=”1596445858″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Eugene Peterson[/amazon_link] says that one of a parent’s most important jobs is to help a child unlearn his fears. What do you think?