There’s always a moment, perhaps a split-second before you do anything, take any action, in which you can change your mind. I can recall standing on the high-diving board, when I was a kid, and attempting to get the courage to jump. I’d stare down at the clear, azure water below me, the sunlight flickering off the dancing surface of the water. My senses were so heightened by my fear that I felt as if I could see, in minute detail, the entire pattern made on the bottom of the pool by the glimmering sunlight and possibly even sense some sort of cosmic message within the pattern; as if I were Professor John Nash.
I’d make up my mind to jump. I’d lean forward and, in that split second before stepping into thin air, I’d change my mind and jerk myself back. My stomach (and another portion of my anatomy), being delayed a few microseconds in getting the message that I’d changed my mind, would rise up to my chest and flutter there for an instant or two. Eventually, other kids would make it to the top of the ladder behind me and I’d be forced to take the leap.
I was always such a chicken. Actually I don’t know how I got the nerve to even begin climbing the ladder. But on a few occasions, probably due to peer pressure, I unsteadily climbed the ladder and, once at the end of the board, struggled with that final second between not jumping and jumping.
I recently read an article where someone was talking about that split second before we take any action during which we have the opportunity to not take that action and take another course. I apologize for not remembering the source, but she was saying that there’s always a moment just before you pull the trigger when you can change your mind. And I vividly felt that moment each time I found myself on the high-dive.
I’ve experienced that moment many times when I made the decision to keep my mouth shut; to not say something when I so desperately wanted to. It’s those (probably too few) times when I chose to bite my tongue. Right before I opened my mouth, I hesitated and decided not to speak. My former morning radio show partner, Bob, used to say, “I’m sorry! I had a few drinks. I said a few things I really meant!” I’ve been in that position before, wanting to say something I really meant, but thought better of it; being consciously aware that I had a choice not to blurt something that might possibly hurt another’s feelings.
Of course, as I indicated, there are also those times when I chose to shoot my mouth off and later regretted it. I always felt worse when I was conscious of the moment when I could have stopped but then chose not to.
Sometimes I speak without hesitation, but even in those instances I believe that there is still some measure of time, no matter how minuscule, where I could have stopped myself. Once said, like an arrow loosed, the words cannot be brought back to the bow. So I try to pause before I say anything.
There is one loosed arrow which stands out in my life. It was not a word but a physical object. My neighborhood consisted of three adjacent houses, each on rectangular half-acre plots. On either side there were open fields. Our homes were erected on a hillside. Our houses sat down from the street a bit, and the majority of our property was farther down the slope. About halfway down each parcel, the land leveled out and there were built our barns and corrals for our livestock.
One particular afternoon, my two friends and I were joined by Carl, who lived on the far side of one of the fields. We were young; probably not quite double-digits in age. So we went by Billy, Bobby, Carly and Duane. Never could quite make Duaney into a name.
For some reason, we’d gotten into a disagreement. Our usual disparities were solved verbally or by one or more of us just going home. Once in a while, especially in the springtime, we’d rip up clumps of sweet grass and heave hunks of prairie at each other a couple of times to emphasis a point, opinion or some other rule of order. It was actually harmless and so much fun that it would turn to a game.
But on this particular day, it was more serious than that. We threw stones.
I was the odd man out in this disagreement; whatever it was. I do not recall how I got into Bobby’s lower yard, as I usually traversed the distance between our homes by going around front. But I was alone in the lower yard and on the patio above, on Duane’s adjacent patio, Bobby and Duane hurled real honest to goodness rocks at me. I, having the disadvantage of being on the low ground, nevertheless returned fire.
I was a lousy shot. I always had trouble hitting the cutoff man from the outfield. Duane had a pretty good arm and aim so I always paused between my volleys and watched for incoming projectiles. I’m sure Bobby was pretty good, too. I’d move and throw… move and throw…
It’s funny how many things are lost in the haze of the ages, yet some remain crystal clear. I don’t think Carly was throwing too many stones at me, if any, but Duane and Bobby and I continued our salvos intermixed with choice derisions. I occasionally had to dodge a close call from one of their warheads and they rarely took notice of mine. The battle was losing steam as, I’m sure, our throats and arms grew weary. Before I turned to go home, I picked up one last rock.
As I said, it’s interesting to me how things from decades ago can be completely forgotten yet some images remain crystal clear. Within my hand I held a slate-gray stone. It was roughly the shape of a kidney and could easily be hooked into my forefinger and thumb. I can still see it in my hand as I remember subconsciously hefting the weight of it. I cocked my arm back and let fly.
The arc was exquisite. I could see the stone tumbling through the air and I knew the trajectory was carrying it perfectly towards Carly. Now Carly was a nice, sweet guy. As I tell you this, I am almost sure he was not really a part of the battle. Duane, Bobby and I lived adjacent to one another and were always spatting over something. Carly was from across the field; an infrequent visitor and, as I said, a nice guy!
I saw the rock in the air and it arced towards him. Possibly one of the best throws of my life. I was so sure of my one-throw-in-a-thousand that I reflexively cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled, “LOOK OUT!” I was angry at Duane and Bobby but I really didn’t want to hit either of them with a rock. And I most certainly didn’t want to hit Carly!
I can see him now as I did then, his head turned to his right, saying something to one of the other boys. Then that stone met the side of his head, dead center, just above his ear. I can hear the hollow thunk right now, echoing across the yards and decades. There was some blood. There were tears. There was also some sort of punishment for me, though I cannot recall what it was.
What I do recall is that perfect throw, that perfect arc through the air and that perfect and loud contact with my friend Carly’s head. All the way through the flight of that rock, I wished I could have taken it back. I wished I could have tugged on some attached string and made the rock fall short.
But I loosed my anger and another was hurt.
Often, in my later years, I’ve wondered if words I’ve spat in anger have hurt another as much as that rock hurt my friend Carly. I do strive to pause before I speak; to remember that I have a choice; to know that it is probably always better to bite my tongue than to hurt another, no matter how much I feel they have it coming. For, if I feel they have it coming, that means I’ve made a judgement about them; making me right and them wrong. And in the Universal scheme of things, I can’t possibly conceive of what is right or wrong.
Sometimes I still slip. I’m sorry for that.
And I’m still sorry, Carly.