Stump Dodger

Stump Dodger

This true story explains the two different types of people, and one young man’s turning point.

Read it as it originally appeared by following the links below (with accompanying comments on each entry), or continue on this page to read it all right here.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

People fall into two philosophical categories in life: stump finders and stump dodgers. You see, when it comes time for a group of kids to sled down a new hill, someone has to go first. When the snow is deep enough, you can’t see exactly what’s on that hill. The first one down usually has a few mishaps, possibly even smashing a finger or two as he makes his way to the bottom. A stinging faceful of snow also is common.

After one or two more kids meet a similar fate, down go the stump dodgers. They make their way as smooth and easy as if they’d made that run a hundred times. Stump dodging might not have been as exciting, but it usually was a lot less painful.

It was the middle of the summer, but it was a year ’round philosophy. I needed a stump finder, but I had the unique problem that day of staring at a big group of stump dodgers.

I got the impression the kids thought I was some kind of whacko who wanted to throw them off the nearest cliff. I can’t say I blame them, because they had never met me before that day’s family reunion, and the cliff was only about 30 feet away. After sitting around chatting with all those old folks I was ready for a little craziness. “Come on. I’ll go if you’ll go,” I said. For the most part, they looked at me like I was a nut case.

I guess I’m not as good at selling as my brother. There I was with five kids, two at least 10 years of age, and I couldn’t convince one of them to jump. I reasoned with them. “It’ll be fun,” I said. “It’s a hot day, and that water down there will cool you off.” Nope, they weren’t biting.

When I was their age my brother didn’t have to use much energy convincing me. He could say, “just one more pitch” about ten times, and I would keep right on pitching. Almost every time, I ended up getting hurt. He didn’t actually aim at me, but inevitably that ball would find its way from his bat to my face.

Perhaps that was what those kids knew: if you let someone talk you into something you don’t want to do, regardless of their intentions, you might get burned. I had to convince them that if you let someone talk you into something you don’t want to do, and use some common sense, it could be a lot of fun.

Do you want to know my real reason for trying so hard to convince them? I was a stump dodger. There I was in my mid-twenties, trying to get kids half my age to be my guinea pigs. I had always been somewhat of a chicken, and this time was no exception. I was great at feeding ideas to the bold one in every bunch.

***

“You know why they don’t want to jump, don’t you?” said my father just after I had shoveled a fork-load of mashed potatoes into my mouth. He was a dentist, so he was an expert at asking people questions when they had no chance of answering. It’s one thing to do that to people when they’re under the gas, but there are ways around it at the dinner table.

I tilted my head down and held my hand up with one finger in the air to signal for some chewing time. All my life he had told me to chew my food completely, and not to talk with my mouth full, but it’s kind of tough when someone across the table keeps firing questions like Ted Koppel.

At that moment I realized why “creamed” and “mashed” were not interchangeable descriptions of potatoes. Perhaps creamed potatoes went down smoothly, but the uncooked chunks in those mashed potatoes gave my jaws a workout. Dad patiently waited while I chewed.

My wife, Shannon, patted me on the back. “Your dad asked you a question, honey.”

I gave her the finger, too. The “I need chewing time” finger. After finally rendering the potatoes lumpless, I swallowed. “I know, I know. I was just crunching through a bite of food. So, why, Dad?”

“Snakes.” The word slithered slowly from his mouth. I was no friend to poisonous reptiles, despite my slogging around snake-infested ponds at an early age.

I remembered the time my best buddy and I had walked around the edge of his farm pond lifting large, thin sections of Styrofoam. The mother snakes had built their nests there, and from under each piece a handful of tiny snakes would wriggle, leaving trails in the mud. During that moment of recall I realized why some city folks called country people stupid. I didn’t know for sure that uncovering snake nests was more dangerous than walking around New York City at night, but it certainly seemed dumber.

I also thought of my grandfather’s days in the swimming holes of Mississippi. “So, you’re telling me I have to do like Granddad did. I have to jump in first to scare off all the snakes.”

I caught Dad with his mouth full. Ah, sweet revenge. As he gave me the fork-point and the nod, golden-fried batter hung loosely from his bite of chicken-fried steak.

“Okay, I hate snakes. That sounds a little too scary to me,” Shannon said.

I tried to reassure her, and myself. “I’ve been checking it out, and I haven’t seen any snakes yet.”

“That’s not very comforting,” she replied.

People fall into two philosophical categories in life: snake finders and… nevermind.

As I spoke with relatives I had never met before and, sadly, might never see again, I occasionally glanced over at the zip line that ran between two trees on opposite sides of the creek. The tree on my side was on a sloped hillside that ran down to the 30-foot cliff. The rope continued on a downward slant to a somewhat smaller tree on the other shore, creek level. A rope with a handle ran down from the main line. I thought of how much fun it would be to go glide down the rope, then plunge into the water. A switch flipped inside my head.

It was the setting from stump dodger to stump finder.

I always was uncomfortable around heights, but unknown 30-foot cliff or not, and snakes be danged, I was going to do it. I got Dad’s truck keys from him and went to grab my swimming trunks. A quick restroom change later, and I was in the backyard, blinding white upper body in full view of everybody. I am glad nobody was still trying to eat.

A couple of the kids who lived there (some sort of distant cousins, I presume) showed me exactly what to do. They had a rope securing the handle to the tree to keep it from sliding down to the other side by itself. A few pieces of wood reminiscent of a treehouse ladder were nailed into the tree. “Just take a few steps up and take hold of the handle. Then when you’re ready, just lift your feet.”

Piece of cake.

The only thing that saved me was that I did not say, “Hold my beer and watch this.”

My advisor turned to a young boy of about nine years and said, “Now, Jimmy, when he starts goin’, you turn loose of that rope.”

I climbed a few rungs of the homemade ladder and reached high to grab the handle. This position would make anybody feel vulnerable, and I wasn’t exactly flashing my Coppertone tan. I took a deep breath and kicked off of the tree. I was gliding with my feet about six feet off the ground.

Just as I started building up a little speed, I slowed suddenly to a halt, swinging above the edge of the cliff.

A man yelled out, “Jimmy, turn it loose!”

“Um, what do I do, guys?” I asked, still holding on. I was not frantic yet, but the situation was nearing a fever pitch.

“Jimmy, the rope!” someone else yelled.

All I could see were trees on the opposite shore and the rock below me, so I don’t know exactly what happened next. Either Jimmy regained his presence of mind, or someone wrenched the rope free from him. The line’s angle was enough that I again started moving and soon was beyond the edge. As I neared the middle of the creek, the tree on the other side bent some under my weight. At what I thought was the middle, where I presumed the deepest water would be, I let go.

The splash came faster than I expected, so I got a little water up my nose. Then my feet hit the muddy bottom. Oh sh- man! Nobody had mentioned that the water was low. Could have been the reason those kids weren’t swayed. I broke the surface and looked up to the cliff. Several onlookers gazed down at me, but most lost interest as soon as it was clear I was fine.

I swam to the shore to start my climb up the hillside adjacent to the rocks.
As I dragged myself out of the water and got my feet under me, I looked up to the few who still were watching. “My feet hit the bottom over there.” I said between heavy breaths.

Then I saw the snake.

I quickly jumped back into the water. “Whoa. Um, SNAKE!,” I announced. It’s funny how, even if the person you’re talking to can do nothing about it, or is nowhere close to danger, you loudly announce a snake’s presence. Anyone I’ve known does, anyway.

I have no idea what kind of snake I saw. It was scaly and there are plenty of poisonous snakes in Arkansas that love holing up near stagnant water, so I was steering well clear. I chose a spot a little farther downstream and made my ascent just fine, reptile-free.

Considering my experience, talking someone else into going was not only highly unlikely, but just plain a bad idea. As I walked up the hill toward the house to change my clothes, one of my great aunts said, “You surprised me.”

I surprised me, too, and between dangling over the rocks, hitting the bottom, and seeing a snake, it was a little more thrilling than I had hoped. But, naturally I acted cool and said, “Really? Why?”

“I just didn’t think you would be the one to do that.”

I didn’t either, but despite the trouble I had, I resolved to be the stump finder more often.

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