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The Lesson of the Cliff

By Morton Hunt

1. It was a sweltering July day in Philadelphia- I can feel it still, 56 years later. The five boys I was with had grown tired of playing marbles and burning holes in dry leaves with a lens and were casting about for something else.

2. "Hey!" said freckle-faced little Ned. "I got an idea. We haven't climbed the cliff for a long while."

3. "Lets go!" said someone else. And off they went, trotting and panting like a pack of stray dogs.

4. I hesitated. I longed to be brave and active, like them, but I'd been a sickly child most of my eight years and had taken heart to my mother's admonitions to remember that I wasn't as strong as the other boys and not to take chances.

5. "Come on!" Called Jerry, my best friend "Just because you've been sick is no reason to be a sissy." "I'm Coming!" I yelled, and ran along after them.

6. Through the park and into the woods we went , finally emerging in a clearing. At the far side, 40 or 50 feet away, loomed the cliff, a bristling, near vertical wall of jutting rocks, earth slides, scraggly bushes and ailanthus saplings. From the tumbled rocks at it's base to the fringe of sod at it's top, it was only about 60 feet high, but to me it looked like the very embodiment of the Forbidden and Impossible.

7. One by one, the other boys scrabbled upward, finding handholds and toeholds on rock outcrops and earthen ledges. I hung back until the others were partway up; then trembling and sweating, I began to climb. A hand here, a foot there, my heart thumping in my skinny chest, I made my way up and up.

8. At some point, I looked back and was horrified. The ground at the base of the cliff seemed very far below; one slip and I would fall, bouncing off the cliff face and ending on the rocks.

9. There, shattered and strangling on my own blood, I would gurgle, twitch a few times and the expire, like the cat I had seen run over a few days earlier.

10. But the boys were chattering above me on an earthen ledge two thirds of the way to the top. It was 5 or 6 feet deep and some 15 feet long. I clawed my way up to them; then I crawled as far back on the ledge as I could, huddling against the rock face. The other boys stood close to the edge and boldly urinated into space; the sight made me so queasy that I surreptitiously clutched at the rocks behind me.

11. In a few minutes they started up to the top.

12. “Hey, wait,” I croaked.

13. “So long! See you in the funny papers,” one of them said, and the others laughed.

14. “But I can’t… I…” That spurred them on: Jeering and catcalling back to me, they wriggled their way to the top, from where they would walk home by a roundabout route. Before they left, they peered down at me.

15. “You can stay if you want to”, mocked Ned.

16. “It’s all yours.” Jerry looked concerned, but he went with the others.

17. I looked down and was overcome by dizziness; a nameless force seemed to be impelling me to fall off. I lay clinging to the rock as the world spun around. I could never climb back down. It was much too far to go, too hazardous; partway, I would grow feeble or faint, lose my grip, fall and die. But the way up to the top was even worse-higher, steeper, more treacherous; I would never make it. I heard someone sobbing and moaning; I wondered who it was and realized that it was I.

18. Time passed. The shadows gradually lengthened, the sun disappeared from the treetops beyond the clearing below, dusk began to gather. Silent now, I lay on my stomach as if in a trance, stupefied by fear and fatigue, unable to move or even think of how to get back down to safety and home.

19. January 1945, Walton Air base, East Anglia. This morning I found my name posted on the blackboard: Tomorrow I fly another weather reconnaissance mission over enemy territory. All day my mind was whirling; at dinner, I felt as if I might throw up at any moment.

20. I knew that I needed a good night’s sleep, so I took a pill and went to bed early, but I could not stop imagining the endless flight in which I, as pilot, and my navigator would venture in our unarmed twin-engine Mosquito far into German-held territory.

21. Hour after hour I thrashed around in bed; from time to time I would drift off, only to wake with a dreadful start, gasping for breath, my heart flopping like a beached fish as I imagined the shellburst in the cockpit, the blood and sickening white-hot pain, the fire, smoke and spurting oil, the Mozzie winging over into a spin while I shattered and half conscious, am too weak either to fight the controls or pull myself up and out the escape hatch as the plane screams down and down.

22. Next morning, in the locker room, as I get into my flight outfit, it is clear to me that I simply can’t do it. The mission is a 1000-mile trip, three hours of it over German held territory and Germany itself – too deep in to go unnoticed. I can’t possibly strap myself into that defenseless little plane and, with my own hands and feet, make it climb 5 miles high, guide it out over the winter sea and into Europe bristling with Nazi anti-aircraft batteries, radar stations and fighter planes, and finally make it back to safety.

23. Even as I zip up my boots, and pull on my helmet, I know I can’t. I will get in the plane, warm up and check the engines, but at the runway my hands will freeze on the controls, and I will be unable to make the plane move.

24. January 1957, New York. I’m delirious with joy.

25. I’ve always felt that if I didn’t write a book by the time I was 40, I’d never do so. With only three years to go, I’ve been offered a book contract- by the most distinguished of American publishers. Alfred Knopf himself, after reading an article of mine, had written to invite me to submit a proposal. After months of hard work, I turned in an outline and sample chapter. Now Knopf and his editors have said yes.

26. But later in the day, I begin to fear that I’ve suggested a history of love, tracing its evolution from the time of the early Greeks to the present- a vast project, but fun to think about and to sketch in outline form. Yet now that the moment of truth has come, I see how rash I’ve been. Having spent months researching and writing the sample chapter, I can look aged and what I see is frightening.

27. How could I have imagined I’d ever be able to learn what love meant to the ancient Greeks, to the imperial Romans, to the ascetic early Christians, to the knights and ladies of the Middle Ages, to-? Enough! It’s hopeless, impossible, more than any one person can do.

28. Or, at least, more than I can do. Even if I found everything I needed in the library and took reams of notes, how could I ever make sense of it all? Or organize it? Or write about it entertainingly, sentence after sentence, page after page, chapter after chapter> Only now, can I see clearly what I will have to do- and realize that I cannot.

29. June 1963. New York, I am lying in bed, sleepless, although it is 2 a.m.: I suspect that she, quiet in the dark next to me, is

30. awake too. Tonight we agreed that it was useless to go on and that I should move out as soon as I can.

31. But I feel as if the ground is giving way beneath me, as if I’m falling through space. How can we ever decide how to divide our possessions and our savings? How will we work out my rights as an absentee father? Will I be able to find a place for myself and, without help, make it homelike? I have never lived alone: how will I feel when I close the door at night and am imprisoned in my solitude?

32. What will I tell my family, and how will they take it? Will my married friends shun me? What can I say to my 8 year old son, and what will happen to his feelings about me? Where will I meet single friends? Whom will I talk to, eat with, share my life with? I haven’t the least idea how to start; I haven’t been single since my 20’s.

33. Yet, what if, somehow, after a while, I were to meet the right woman and feel desire stirring in me? But here my mind goes blank. I haven’t been to bed with another woman in over 17 years; how should I behave, what should I do? What if my hesitant actions are scorned? What if I seem clumsy, gross nervous, foolish?

34. And even if all goes well, how will I know if what I feel is love or only lust? Can I trust myself to love again- or trust anyone else to love me? Will anyone, could anyone, ever do so? Will I ever want to marry again? There is so much to be said, learned, worked out first; so many hints, allusions, promises, bargains, plans; so many beliefs and tastes to be exchanged and harmonized- no, it is too hard a road to travel, too remote a goal. I can’t do it.

35. Twilight, a first star in the sky, the ground below the cliff growing dim. But what can he do? Middle-aged and portly, he can not climb up here. Even if he could, what good would that do?

36. Staying well back from the foot of the cliff so that he can see me, he points the beam up and calls to me. “Come on down, now,” he says in a perfectly normal comforting tone. “Dinner’s ready.”

37. Staying well back from the foot of the cliff so that he can see me, he points the beam up and calls to me. “Come on down, now,” he says in a perfectly normal comforting tone. “Dinner’s ready.”

38. “I can’t!” I wail. “I’ll fall, I’ll die!”

39. “You got up,” he says. “You can get down the same way. I’ll light the way.”

40. “No, I can’t” I howl. “It’s too far, it’s too hard, I can’t do it.”

41. “Listen to me,” my father says. “Don’t think about how far it is. All you have to think about is taking one little step. You can do that. Look where I’m shining the light. Do you see that rock?” The beam bounces around on a jutting outcrop just below the ledge. “See it?” he calls up.

42. I inch over. “Yes,” I say.

43. “Good,” he says. “Now just turn around so you can put your foot on that rock. That’s all you have to do. It’s just a little way below you. You can do that. Don’t worry about what comes next, and don’t look down any farther than that first step. Trust me.”

44. It seems possible. I inch backward, gingerly feel for the rock with my left foot and find it. “That’s good,” my father calls. “Now, a little bit to the right and a few inches lower, there’s another foothold. Move your foot down there very slowly – that’s all you have to do. Just think about that next step, nothing else.” I do so. “Good,” he says. “Now let go of whatever you’re holding onto with your left hand and reach back and grab that skinny tree just at the edge, where my light is. That’s all you have to do.” Again, I do so.

45. That’s how it goes. One step at a time, one handhold at a time, he talks me down the cliff, stressing that I have only to make one simple move each time, never letting me stop to think of the long way down always telling me that the next thing I have to do is something I can do.

46. Suddenly I take the last step down onto the tumbled rocks at the bottom and into my father’s strong arms, sobbing a little, and then, surprisingly, feeling a sense of immense accomplishment and something like pride.

47. January 1945. I taxi out onto the runway and firmly shove the throttles forward. I remember at last that I know how to do what I must. All I have to do is take off and climb to 25,000 feet, heading eastward over East Anglia; that’s all I need to think about right now. I can do that.

48. Later: The North Sea is just ahead. All I have to do, I tell myself, is stay on this heading for about 20 minutes, until we cross over Schouwen Island in the Netherlands. That’s all; I can do that.

49. Over Schouwen Island, my navigator tell me to turn to a heading of 125 degrees and hold it for 10 minutes, until we reach our next checkpoint. Good: that’s not so hard; I can do that.

50. That’s how it goes. I drive the roaring little plane across Holland and Germany, high over fields and woods, cities, rivers and mountain ranges, never envisioning the whole trip but only the leg we are flying, never thinking of the hours aged but concentrating on each brief segment of time each measured span of miles until at last sunlight dazzles off the wrinkled sea ahead of us and in a few minutes we are out of enemy territory, safe and still alive.

51. January 1957. After tossing about much of the night, thinking about the impossibly ambitious book I had said I could write, I remember the old lesson once again: Though I know what the goal is, I can avoid panic and vertigo if I look only at the next step.

52. I’ll keep my gaze on the first chapter: All I have to do is read whatever I can find in the library about love among the Greeks: that isn’t impossibly hard. Than I’ll tell myself that all I have to do is sort out my notes, dividing the chapter into a number of sections; I can do that. Then I’ll make myself look no further ahead than writing that first section. And with that thought, I heave a great sigh and fall asleep.

53. And that’s the way I spend more than 2 ½ years. Then, one exhilarating afternoon, the last 653 pages emerges from my typewriter and, like a boy, I turn somersaults on the living room floor in sheer joy. Some months later, I hold in my hands the first copy of my book, The Natural History of Love – already chosen by the Book of the Month Club – and a few weeks after that I read my first major review, praising the book highly, in The New York times Book Review. For a while, I occasionally leaf through the book, marveling that I could ever have done all this- and knowing that I learned how, long ago, in the dusk on the face of a small cliff.

54. September 1963. I unlock the door of my tiny apartment, carry my bags in and close the door behind me. I have taken one step; it wasn’t so hard. I had remembered the lesson I have applied again and again throughout my life; one step at a time, one step that I can manage.

55. The first was to find an apartment; I looked no further into the future until I had done that. Then I went about furnishing my two rooms; I looked no further ahead until that was done. Today, I am moving in; I have made my own little nest and it looks pleasant. I unpack, make a few phone calls, fix lunch, feel at home. Good: I’ve taken that step.

56. By the next year, I have constructed a new life, gotten my final divorce decree, acquired the social and emotional skills I need as a middle-aged single man ( I would remain one for five years) and have even become a passable bachelor cook. And discovered once more, to my surprise, that I do know how to make my way toward a distant and difficult goal.

57. I have realized with the same surprise, time and again throughout my life, that, having looked at a far and frightening prospect and been dismayed, I can cope with it after all by remembering the simple lesson I learned so long ago. I remind myself to look not at the rocks far below, but at the first small and relatively easy step and, having taken it, to take the next one, felling a sense of accomplishment with each move, until I have done what I wanted to do, gotten where I wanted to be, and can look back, amazed and proud of the distance I have come.

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