"Hug the wall! Turn your feet sideways!" exhorts the YMCA-camp climbing coach. But the 8-year-old girl clinging to the side of the rock-climbing tower is not taking it in, and once more she swings helplessly at the end of the safety rope that's attached to her body-harness. Ten feet up with 20 more to go, she manages to keep a sick smile pasted onto her face.
Looking up at her is a long line of boys and girls impatiently awaiting their turn, and their equally impatient fathers. The occasion is a father-child field day at the YMCA camp. The dads and kids are all wishing the girl would either climb the wall or give it up. None of them cares whether the kid fails or succeeds except for her own father who looks away embarrassed.
I'll admit it: I know these people.
OK, OK, the girl is my daughter.
When we'd been awaiting her turn, we'd witnessed a couple of intense dramas. A little boy thinks climbing the tower would be fun, little knowing that the tower represents pure challenge, and little dreaming that once he secures his first foot-hold, he is no longer himself, but an extension of his father.
"C'mon, Joey!" Joe Senior would yell. "Straighten your leg! Now, reach up!"
Joey realizes that climbing the wall is way harder than it looked and finds himself dangling like a marionette 15 feet off the ground with no idea how to proceed. He feels weak and afraid. Fun is nowhere around. This tower is not a mere piece of playground equipment like a sliding board or monkey bars as he'd thought. Turns out, it is a metaphor for fatherly expectations. "I want to come down," he wails.
"C'mon Joey, don't give up!" If the boy comes down now, he comes down a loser.
Brian, the child ahead of him, had wanted to give up, and his dad had let him. Father and son had walked away in silence, heads down. Holding hands. If Brian's dad had ordered him to keep trying, and THEN Brian had quit anyway, it would've been much worse.
Joey's dad is gambling the other way, double or nothing. He is counting on his influence to give Joe Junior the strength to get to the top and pull the bell-cord that hangs down from the rafters. Joey would then rapelle down the tower a winner. "Joey, you can do it! Reach out with your left foot! There's a good foot-hold right there!" A teardrop drips off Little Joe's nose and makes a dark line on the plywood wall near his foot.
Joey rallies. He struggles upward, finally reaching the top, and his father is treated to the sweet sound of the bell. "Clang!" It's as though Big Joe has swung the big carnival mallet and rung the bell himself. Give the man a kewpie doll!
I've already got one, and now it is she who dangles aloft. I want to yell, "I love you, Sparky. Climb to please yourself, not me." Instead I holler, "C'mon, Sparky, you can do it!" I want her to persevere and succeed for her own sake. Although I sound a lot like Joey's dad, I know that if my child decides she wants to come down, I won't oppose her.
Her teeth are still gritted into a hard grin, and I'm reminded of a rodeo bronc-rider I'd seen who always comes out of the chute with a cigarette clamped in his mouth. She is no more enjoying her climbthan he is enjoying a smoke.
Sparky reaches for the hand-holds once more, and the YMCA staffer hauls away on the safety rope like a sailor hoisting a sail. He wants to get it over with, and he is only half-trying to make my daughter's efforts look plausible. Her climb is a little like that of a Broadway Peter Pan. She ascends to the rafters.
"Ring the bell!" says the cheery "Y" guy who'd hoisted her to the top.
My daughter looks a little relieved but does not feel good about the climb. She knows she hadn't dragged herself up there by her own power. But to oblige the man, she reaches up for the bell cord and gives it a couple of yanks. The bell and the clapper coincidentally sway in unison, and the clapper doesn't make contact with the bell. Not feeling entitled to a congratulatory clang anyway, she gives the whole bell situation a dismissive "Whatever."
With a little more instruction, she does a fair job of rapelling down the wall, and in seconds, I am unstrapping her helmet. She looks sad. "I didn't do very well," she says.
"You did fine," I say, unwinding her harness. "You might think that the important thing about the tower is having strong muscles and knowing how to climb. But I think the tower is about something else."
"What?" she asks, as we start toward the archery range.
"It's about not giving up," I say. "You didn't give up, and that makes me proud of you."
I'm not as ruthless as Joe Senior, but neither am I ready to disavow fatherly expectations. Kids need them, and fathers can't help having them.
Sparky's little hand grips mine, and we stroll on toward further adventures. Maybe at the archery range we dads can do something more relaxing, like make the kids shoot apples off our heads.