The days passed one-by-one bundled into memories then rolled into decades. The experience was a haunting visual. We were just kids. Dares innocently escalating. Feats grew bigger than the last. We were only 15 when Joe began planning his “surprise”. He told Mo and me he would show us his “big adventure” when he was ready. He “had to prepare”. We did not know what he meant but it sounded risky.
Joe liked it dangerous. He would taunt rattlers. He found it thrilling to squat quietly down to the ground, steady still hands reaching, finger tips delicately propped on the dirt, near the entrance to a rattlesnake’s den, keenly watching one sliver over with it triangular spoon shaped head to his barefoot frog-like toes; and then, with the vaulting precision of a predator’s pounce, his hand firing a piercing surgical grasp upon the back of it’s head momentarily stunning it before finally reacting in fear, eyes glaring through its vertical pupil slits, tongue gyrating feverishly, as he grabbed the furiously loud rattling tail with his other hand. Its black striped back with that red ridgeline flashing in our own eyes like a neon sign at midnight on a hauntingly dark empty street.
With the attention and caution of a wild animal trainer, he moved, but his spirit was full of laughter and joy. “Mo. Brent. Come check out my Canebraker!” He approached everything he did in this way. His fears were so controlled and measured. We deeply respected his dare-devilishness believing his gifts were divinely endowed.
With care, caution and tenderness, he would find a rock, which would act as a barrier between himself and the snake. He would kneel down before the rock, then lean over it, belly flat upon the surface still holding his prisoner, reach out at arm’s length, lay the now quieted and numb rattler on the ground letting it go. Without any defensive response, it would just move along as if nothing had happened. A hypnotic trance had been placed upon the creature through the hands of this young snake charmer.
At the abandoned rock quarry, he would not only dive off the five storied jagged limestone cliffs overlooking the oval walled ten acre spring fed pool below, but perform backward twists and flips into the cold 40 foot deep turquoise colored water. He was a master of the mind and body like no other we who knew him had ever seen before.
We lived close to the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. Our hamlet was 15 miles away nestled in the fertile farmland below. We could see the rooftops of each other’s homes across the plowed fields of wheat and corn with two mountain ranges in the background from my front yard porch. The summer sunset sky would go ablaze with burning hues of orange and yellow and red streaks.
Often we would take overnight pack hikes into the mountains along the trails in very late spring when the Mountain Laurel was in bloom lining our way with their fragrant small delicate white or pink blossoms adorned with nine red spots encircling those same many star pointed clusters of delicate flowers. The mountain-bred deer gentle enough to walk close if one sat and talked to them in a quiet, soothing tonal voice. Spotted faun would prance in full view entertaining anyone willing to watch.
The three of us, and occasionally others, would hike one to two nights sleeping on the ground with our thinly warn down bags along the trail listening to the sound of fast running water just a few feet away, while the sky filled with dancing meteors, as we stared upon the gloriousness of the endless array of constellations.
Our bond as friends went very deep. We called ourselves Amigos, and could read the minds and thoughts of each other.
We loved Overall Run Falls and hiked all around the trails surrounding the series of cascading cliffs where the rushing waters fell to the bottom a swift seven miles from the top.
It was on this warm summer Saturday in July with its rare dry breeze blowing threw the trees and across the wide expanse of rock and cascading river falls. At the top, Joe said, “I am ready for “my adventure”. I am going to do it today. I feel ready.” Ready for what, I said? “I am going over the falls, and I need you to be my witness.” “And don’t try to tell me different. I have my mind made up. I’m doin’it guys. So let it be. Just help me. OK?”
He pulled out from the bottom pack roll tied to his old Kelty backpack a helmet, goggles, a full wet suit with gloves and booties, and three inner tube tires and a pump. Riveted to the back and bottom of the football helmet, that dangled from the pack’s aluminum frame, was a plastic plate that was 14 inches long going down his spine which strapped under his arms across his chest. Two motorcycle inner tubes were tied together around his waist after being pumped up. The third was from a kid’s dirt bike, tied to the other two and loosely secured around his ankles. His homemade flotation device was crazy.
We helped him assemble his contraption as he lay on the ground. We carried him to the edge of the flat water as it tumbled toward the falls. We told him he had to scoot in on his own as we said, “Joe, you can say no to this and no one will ever know. We promise!” “I’m doin’it guys. See ya at the bottom.” “Now, get your butts down the trail to the big, long, flat drop into the gorge and watch me go down. Run. I’ll give ya 10.”
We got to the lookout and saw this tiny black bullet taken down toward the falls. When he got to the vertical sheet of icy rumbling water, his body stiffened riding along the surface attempting to navigate the natural water slide, hugging the right side of the falls plunging into the first horizontal ledge pool surrounded by the gorge, bouncing up and down like a fishing bobber as he soared atop the wide and long roaring second vertical making sure he took the right fork of the fall’s forward-projecting turbulent water, instead of the left-side’s sheer drop both converging into a pool piled with log jamming debris. It was there that we lost sight. The silent fear of death and a horribly mangled body terrorized the entire run down to the bottom four more miles to the final pool where unaware sunbathers waded playfully. Joe yelled on the way down for people to get away. “Get out down there; get out; danger; get out; get out of the way. I’m comin’ down on ya! And, I comin’ down fast!”
Floating in the pool when we reached him, three waders were pulling Joe out. He was laughing and hollerin’ in joy. He made it. A miracle. Intact! We ran to our daredevil friend and he hugged us both as we danced up and down in a ceremonial-like circle holding our strange looking frogman in this impromptu embrace of the fantastic.
Here I stand now at that same lookout starring over the falls remembering that monumental day where my life changed and I knew that challenges could be won if you really wanted them badly enough.
I stand alone watching the water cascade the falls. Joe and Mo coming tomorrow to celebrate what had happened four decades ago, to the day, since we were last here together on that crazy afternoon in July. And, what a great celebration of life tomorrow it will be. (1291 word count)