Climbing Genes

Climbing Genes

By Théa Heying

I stood at the base of the Hamilton Lake fire tower beside my boyfriend, Donald, and peered skyward. A ladder stretched straight up to the first and only landing, a four foot square plane of steel fifty feet over my head. I had itched to climb this fire tower since I was a little kid. I buttressed my courage and tweaked the muscles of my face into a mask of confidence. I had inherited climbing genes. I wasn’t about to chicken out.

I was born into a tribe of climbers. At age nine I could shinny up a rope into our maple trees and spend hours aloft among the braches. My dad taught pole climbing to Michigan Bell Telephone linemen. Before he entered kindergarten, my brother could ratchet himself up to the ceiling, braced against the inside of a door jamb. By the time he turned twelve, he was climbing fifty-foot television towers for pay. But it was my parents’ stories of scaling fire towers for sport that fired my imagination.

Situated on the Hospital Hill, two miles from my house, the Hamilton Lake Tower’s skeletal presence dominated the landscape. When I was ready to climb it, Donald bought in—willing to risk breaking the law and the wrath of my parents if we got caught.

Donald was a senior to my sophomore. He was compact and muscular, but I measured an inch taller. We both blew our height difference out of proportion to its importance, but right then it didn’t matter. Donald radiated kindness. He tolerated my quirks. And, he climbed like a squirrel.

He went first. Midway to the landing he called for me to start. I planted my tennis shoe on rung-one, and up I went. This was a ladder, like all the other ladders I’d climbed—but this one kept going. Yards offside, tree tops inched down to the level of my belly button. Above me, Donald had arrived at the landing. I fixed my eyes on the tower’s studded beams, and I climbed until my head poked through the opening where he sat.

I scrambled onto the platform beside him and arranged my backside on the chilly metal floor. “I think this is high enough for today,” Donald said.

For the first time since I reached the tree-tops, I dared gaze at what lay below me: the forest of summer-green maples, fields studded with daisies and marsh marigolds, and the bricked-up grounds of Newberry State Hospital a half-mile down the gravel road we drove in on. My eyes swept north across the Tahquamenon Valley, then down, down to the blanket of tree tops below me and the disk of Hamilton Lake shimmering in the sunlight. Paralysis washed over me.

What if I fell? What would it be like to jump? No way could I lower myself through the opening in the floor and make my way back to earth. I clutched the edge of my steel perch like a treed cat. Whatever made me think I wanted to climb a fire tower?

Donald appeared to be enjoying the view. “There’s the high school, and back there’s the skating rink,” he said. He shifted on his seat bones. “Hey, there’s my house!”

I inhaled and exhaled lungs full of silence. How could I tell him he’d have to go it alone on the way down, and afterward?

He stretched his legs, a preamble that suggested we start back. “I have to hand it to you, Théa,” he said. “You’ve got guts. I brought my buddy Mick up here last week and he froze halfway up to the landing. He had to back down, and I had to talk him through it.” Pride in me lit up his face.

Donald thought I had guts. Donald thought I had guts.

“I’m ready to go down,” I said.

“You first,” he said.

I peeled my fingers from the edge of the platform and unfolded my legs. I twisted onto all fours and backed my way into position. I eased one foot down through the opening. I wrapped my fingers around the ladder’s sides. I shifted my weight onto the first rung and tested it. With my other foot, I felt for the rung below it. I glued my eyes to my fists as they curled and uncurled, in the transfer downward. Hand under hand I descended until I was safe among my friends, the maples.

I had guts. Donald said so. 




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