Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Bell

The Big Thompson River runs through Estes Park, Colorado. There's a foot bridge over it, near the center of town. I crossed it one day in 1994. There were some kids nearby, throwing pennies down into the water. My friends Mike Minter and Chris DuVernay stopped to watch them. The kids were aiming at a little bell that sat on a cement slab down in the river. The slab was pretty far away, and I'm sure that it probably spent much of the year under snow or water. None of the kids were able to hit the bell while we watched.

That summer, my mother did a brave and wonderful thing: She rented a mini-van and drove my friends and me--three teenage boys--from Michigan to Colorado and back as a sort of pre-senior-year of high school present. We met up with my mom's friend Pat, and my sister met us later on. We had a couple of cabins in the mountains outside town.

It's a beautiful area, just outside Rocky Mountain National Park. We had come at the end of August. The days were hot, but every afternoon a light rain fell, just enough to cool everything down. The nights were frigid. Our cabin--the three of us boys had our own--had no insulation. You could see through to the out of doors by peering through cracks in the very thin wall boards. There were beds, a table, and a bathroom--that's it. We loved it.

Each day we went into town or up higher into the mountains to explore. One day we had a plan to spend the day in Estes Park, meet some friends we had made (Mike had ventured to the nearby air force base and met lots of people), and later catch a ride back to the cabins with my sister. We went into most of the shops in town. The only one we lingered inside was a toy shop, and we stayed mostly because of the cute girl who worked there. She was our age and didn't think we were complete fools, by which I mean that she laughed at our jokes. I made a comment that a little cartoony address book with a wombat on its cover didn't look like a wombat at all. She laughed, for whatever reason, which I interpreted as meaning that she liked me.

Soon we left to hang out in the park with lots of people who seemed to be living in vans. Then we were walking along and looking for some place to eat dinner when we crossed the bridge and saw the kids trying to hit the bell down below. We watched for a while, then we started to go, seeing that the kids weren't hitting their target. Mike and Chris went around a corner, but I stayed back. I took a penny from my pocket, and, making a deal with myself, I tossed it.

There was a time when I needed real courage to talk to girls. I needed to make deals with myself, or set conditions: "If she smiles when she sees you, ask her out." If you run a personal record in your next race, you can talk to her." "If you ring the impossible bell, you must ask her out."

I didn't really expect to hit it, but I've always been good at throwing things accurately.

I caught up with Chris and Mike and told them I had something to do, to wait for me there. I went back to the toy shop, and luckily the girl was there all by herself. There's no way I would have been able to talk to her if there were customers. Still, she had a boyfriend, so that went nowhere. Except a couple of days later we were walking by the same shop and she waved me in to give me a little address book with a wombat on the cover.

This would be an entirely different story if, upon seeing that she'd written her address in it, I started a correspondence with her. She had invited it. Bud I didn't do it, probably because she had a boyfriend. Possibly because senior year in high school is a busy time, and before long too much time had passed. Maybe I just didn't know what to write.

It would be another year and a half before I gained the ambition to be a writer, and by that time I had a girlfriend who lived much closer. I still had that wombat address book, though. I kept it for a long time, but I threw it out when I moved to Bloomington. At the end of college, I went through a phase of getting rid of pretty much everything I owned except clothes, my typewriter, and a few books. That was a reaction to being stranded in Paris without any food or clothes or money.

In 1995, I went off to college. On the way to a class, I passed a group of guys hurling stones at an old concrete tube, the kind they put underground for water or that they put on elementary school playgrounds when I was a kid. It was pretty far away, and they kept throwing for a while. I stopped to watch. There was a tiny hole in the side. One of the guys said to me, "If you can get a stone in the hole, you can do anything."

Every time I went to that class, I threw a few stones. Never got one in the hole.

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