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Hold on loosely

When I was just a child, a period of my life that lasted far longer than you might think and transitioned directly into the “old dude” (or “Wise Sage” as I prefer to call it) stage, I would make little parachutes from bread bags, string, and clothes pins.

With a minimum of creative effort and a couple crayons the clothespins could be made to look like a wooden person. If I was feeling extra creative and had access to a marker, something more difficult to obtain than even the most dangerous chemicals that lived under the kitchen sink, I would sketch some crooked designs on the bag to make it even more spectacular.

Child spectacular, not actual, which is usually far more spectacular than adult eyes are able to see.

The idea is to clip the clothespin to the string and wrap the whole thing up in your hand and throw it as high into the air as you can. As it falls the wrapping unfurls, the bag opens to catch the air, and voila! you have Evel Knievel dropping safely to earth on a parachute after missing his jump over Snake River Canyon instead of crashing and nearly killing himself for the hundredth time. Thus, you become the “Hero of Snake Canyon” and the crowd goes wild (“waaaaah” with mouth open and hands in the air to mimic the deafening roar of the millions of people witness to your glorious heroics).

Most of these parachutes end up stuck in trees or float down rivers in poorly judged throws or are carried off by viscous dogs the size of houses with saber-like teeth whose only mission in life is to attack postal workers, newspaper delivery boys, and the occasional clothespin parachute.

I used to imagine one dog in particular keeping a collection of old parachutes in a place of honor among mailman fingers and shredded papers stacked in chronological order in a subterranean stronghold beneath its doghouse.

Part of me still believes that.

One day, on a trip either to or from Grandmas house, while in the back of the family station wagon, one of those with a third row seat that cleverly lifted out of the floor and faced backwards (known today as the “suicide seat” but affectionally remembered as the seat we brothers would fight over), I thought it would be fun to hang one of my prized parachutes (read: not yet lost) out the rear window as Dad drove down a county road at blistering speeds.

Dad had a foot made of lead and the wagon had only one speed, fast. Dads unspoken motto when traveling was “Get there, get them out, and get a beer.”

So there’s my parachute, permanently marked with a big number 1, brightly colored wood man tightly clenched in my young fist, the plastic caught so hard in the wind that it threatened to tear.

I held it so tight that I squeezed the clothespin open. The string was released. The parachute lifted high into the air, far higher than I could ever throw it, and for a moment I sat frozen in disbelief.

And then I cried. Loudly.

I come from a large family. I have three older brothers and three younger sisters. The way you got attention in our house was to make more noise than any of the other kids vying for our parents attention. So we all learned how to best project our demands at an early age.

It was a loud house.

I shrieked in agony, the tears nearly spraying from my eyes. The painful howl had a better affect than usual. Dad applied his lead foot to the brake so hard that those of us in the back nearly flipped over the suicide seat and were flattened as physics matched the forward motion with rearward motion and the seat back tried to close on us.

Physics are fun. Until they aren’t.

After a short Q&A between Stoic Father and Woeful Child, Dad managed to translate enough of my tearful sob broken blathering (while I gripped Wooden Knievel outward to him as if it explained everything without words) to understand the predicament.

He got out of the family wagon, walked at least a mile behind us as he scanned the fence line, then returned triumphant with the parachute half out of his pocket and his pipe in hand.

“Be careful” is all he said as he handed it to me.

Then we were off again. A cloud of dust where we were parked, left by spinning tires as leaden foot mashed accelerator pedal.

I was careful. Really, I was. But the temptation of the open window was too much for my immature mind to handle and before long the parachute was tearing at the wind once again.

I wouldn’t lose it again. I couldn’t lose it again. I knew dad would not stop a second time.

So I gripped it even tighter.

I was too young to have learned the lesson then and I’m not sure why it took so long for me to understand that holding with care does not mean holding tightly.

I have learned that lesson.

I learned it from my younger self, face dirtied by tears, hand clenched tightly to a wooden clothespin, silent as the parachute flew off a second time and disappeared in the dust.

Image by Valentin Antonucci.

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