On Falling


(This 955th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 12, 2009.)


When I coached football too many years ago, one of our exercises taught players how to fall. While running hard, on command they each tucked down their head and one shoulder. This threw them into somersaults flat on their backs. That exercise was my favorite because I have a predilection for falling.



A perfect creek-crossing log


I recalled that exercise recently when I fell into a tiny four-foot wide branch of Ellicott Creek. I can no longer jump even four feet so I had climbed across on a dead tree limb, but then I had to hop down onto the far shore. Unfortunately that shore was two inch-deep slime and my feet went out from under me. I ended up half in the slime, half in the creek. When I struggled up I looked like Br'er Rabbit's tar baby.


Fortunately, my only injuries were my ego and my cell phone - several keys now have a mind of their own. Even my binoculars came through okay, although mud-caked. With Mike Galas' help I made it back to my car and on home where my wife's greeting was not enthusiastic.


I had three other memorable falls as a youngster. The first was a dive off our backyard trapeze onto my head. My older brother claimed that the fall would make me forever stupid. Whether or not that played out, the fall made me decide that I was not cut out for a career as a circus performer.


The second fall was down a steep 80-foot sand bank on the back of Pinnacle Hill in Rochester. I had climbed to the top, but lost my footing and tumbled down feet first, then head first. Finally, thank goodness, I slid feet first the rest of the way to the bottom. As I sat trying to catch my breath at the foot of the slope, I was promptly deluged with a cloud of the sand my fall had started.


My third fall remains an episode that still occasionally leads to nightmares seventy years later.


There was a green ash woodlot near our Rochester home. The trees were second growth: most of them thirty to fifty feet tall. We built a hut in that woods by chopping down some of the trees and forming them like Lincoln logs. Even describing the result as a hut is a stretch because the roof was more like a sieve than a shield against the rain.


I was more interested in climbing those trees, because I had read about what is called "tree bending," a country sport in 19th century New England. To bend a tree you climb to the very top and then lean out away from the trunk, letting your legs hang down. The tree then bows and allows you to ride it all the way to the ground, springing back up when you let go.


Robert Frost wrote about this practice in a poem from which these lines are excerpted:


... He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully...

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.


Frost may have exaggerated his own activities a bit because birch trees do not make good benders. Maples are best for this sport. I found that most ashes serve quite well also. I could climb to the highest branches, swing out and sway slowly down to near the ground, usually dropping only the last four or five feet.



Green ash: some bend, some don't


I thought that I had the sport perfected, but one day alone in the woods I climbed one of those ashes and leaned back ready to swing out. Unfortunately, this tree was unwilling to go along with me and the branch I was holding snapped. I fell, landing flat on my back in soft grass. Even so, it took me much effort to get my breath. When I finally did, I found myself uninjured.


What continues to frighten me, however, is the fact that I had fallen two feet from a pointed stump left when we had chopped down another of those trees.