The little boy puffed his chest out and drew up to his full 49 inches in stature. Today was the day. Nothing would stop him from conquering The Beast. He considered the idea of climbing this 30-foot wall before, but passed on it. He kept promising himself he would do it someday. At last, someday had arrived.
He strapped into his safety harness and tugged on the attached emergency line to test its strength. Before he began, I warned him not to look up or down as he climbed, but to stare straight ahead at the next hand hold on his path of progress. He nodded his head, slapped me a high-five, and fixed his icy blue eyes on the coarse, abstractly-shaped wall. With no hesitation, he began his attack.
He shot up that wall so fast I couldn’t get a good photograph of him. Notch after notch, handle after handle he climbed, never pausing to consider how high in the air he was or what it would take to get down. He was about a foot from the very top when I made a serious mistake. I began cheering for him, which caused him to break eye contact with the wall. As he swung his head around to look at me, his eyes dipped straight to the ground as though an irresistible magnet were pulling them down. The moment he saw how high he was, he panicked.
“Come on, Zach, you’re almost there!” I shouted. “You can do it, buddy!”
From 25 feet beneath the soles of his shoes, I could see his thin body tense and begin to tremble. He had two handholds clutched in a white-knuckle grip, and one slipped as his palms filled with sweat. He cried out to me in a shrill panic that turned my blood cold. I knew he was safe in his harness, but he didn’t know that and he began to cry.
“Let go and slide down, Zach!” I encouraged. “Nothing will happen to you, son. Your harness will keep you safe!”
He began to cry louder. He was completely frozen with fear and unable to move. I knew he wasn’t coming down with me standing there telling him to. I had to take action.
I was wearing flip-flops that day, but I knew I had to get up there somehow to bring him down. I kicked them off, strapped to a second safety harness, and began climbing that wall barefooted. I ignored the pain in my feet and scampered up that wall as fast as my limbs would carry me. My child was in trouble. All I cared about in that moment was getting to him.
I pulled up next to him on the wall and when he saw my face, he began crying harder. I tried to soothe him and reason with him, but he was too far into his own head to hear me from where I was. I began shimmying sideways to draw closer to him.
“Son, I cannot take you down this thing myself,” I said. “You have to let go and slide down.”
“I can’t!” he wailed through his loud sobs. “I can’t let go! It’ll hurt me if I do!”
I realized in that moment that he was holding on to that wall because he believed he had no other option. He was afraid of letting go because he thought it would be the end of him.
I put my arm around him, leaned in to his ear, and whispered, “My son, I would never do anything to hurt you. You are safe with me here and the equipment I gave you for this experience. Please trust me and just let go. I promise you with all that I am that you will not die. This experience will only make you stronger.”
His crying subsided at these words. He fixed his eyes on mine, relaxed his body, and pushed off the wall. My beloved son trusted my words and let go. He slid harmlessly to the ground, unsnapped his harness and stepped out, and threw his arms around me.
“Thank you for trusting me,” I said.
“Thank you for being there to protect me, Daddy.”
Sometimes, letting go is all you can do.
Frank Vaughn is a regional Emmy Award- and AP Media Editors Award-winning writer and columnist who loves to describe his view of the world from the cheap seats. A 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Frank has traveled the world and experienced many different cultures. He is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. and the Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade, Md., where he received training in journalism and public relations.