A Leap From The Top Step
On May 14, 1972, I got my first real lesson in fear.
That’s the day my uncle, my mother’s only sibling, was killed in a plane crash.
That’s also the day I stopped leaping from the top step.
Before that day, I loved jumping off the front steps of our small rental house on the Indian Reservation where my father worked. The joy of the jump was partly due to a sense of flying and partly due to the risk I was taking. More often than not, instead of landing on my feet, I’d land on my hands and knees. But the scraped knees and elbows were a small price to pay for bragging rights.
According to my brother and his friends, walking down the steps was a sign of weakness. Jumping was the only acceptable means of getting off the porch, and the jump had to be from the top step. Even jumping from one step down was considered cheating and a more egregious offense than forgetting to jump at all.
So, every time I walked out the front door, I would hurl my short, five-year old legs over five steps and land in various positions on the sidewalk. Then, I’d brush myself off and walk away with a sense of pride.
That all changed when my uncle crashed his twin-engine plane.
That Mother’s Day started in an ominous way. It began when my dad and mom, a burgeoning journalist, woke up my brother and me before dawn and bundled us into the back of our red, Ford pickup. There had been a train wreck, and we were going to the site. My dad, brother and I stayed in the truck while my mom, notepad in hand and camera around her neck, wandered off to interview people. Sitting in the truck, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of who and what Mom was encountering.
Hours after we had returned, the phone ran, and my mother disappeared for a long, long time, When she finally returned to our living room, she told us “Uncle Lowell was in a plane crash.”
My imagination, already quite stirred up from the morning’s adventure, envisioned all of the injuries he could have sustained. For some reason, I became fixed on the idea that he had, at a minimum, broken his leg. The possibility that he’d died never crossed my mind, and I don’t even remember how or when my mother finally told us. I do know that by the time she did, I’d so worked myself up about the horrors of broken bones that dying seemed like a great alternative.
I’d also decided that, based on my lack of coordination, the next time I jumped off the top step, I would most certainly break my leg.
That fear ate at me, and the next time I had to go down the steps, I couldn’t jump. I was frozen, and the ground seemed to be a long, long, long way down. I eventually jumped from the second step from the top, but I would never leap from that from the top step again.
Now, forty years later, a five year-old’s leap, or lack of a leap, seems insignificant. But it’s not.
That experience taught me about regret and about how inane decisions are made out of fear, limited information or both. It’s also taught me that sometimes we get so wrapped up in an imaginary fear that we are blinded from seeing the genuine and more critical facts.
I still fall into the trap of letting unfounded fear affect my decisions. But more often than not, I remind myself of the joy that comes from leaping off the top step and the pride that comes from going outside my comfort zone.
And then I jump.