Sunday, May 6, 2012

This Line Always Gets Me In Trouble: "Zowie, Batman. Can't we take the elevator?"

In that 1960's show Batman--and I only saw it in repeats, thank you very much!--Batman and Robin almost always scaled the outside of a tall building. Not once did Robin say, "Zowie, Batman. Can't we take the elevator?"
   He didn't...but I have said it. Every time I've said it, I've found myself in trouble.

Kids, don't try this at home!
(Yes, these are true stories)

Manhattan, New York, New York
Abandoned Subway Tunnel by the East River
   Four of us were on a New York/Washington DC mentorship. We were bright young college kids, Reagan Scholars from Eureka College. We spent three weeks in New York, and two weeks in DC meeting with folks like the President of the World Bank, CEO of Chase-Manhattan Bank, and other folks like that to learn about leadership. We had a great time. We also had free time. This story could mean we had too much free time.
   You decide.
   My friend who, for purposes of this story we'll call "Tony" and I were walking along the East River. There was a stone wall on our left as we walked, and we found a grate, a big man-size grate, that had been pried open. It was old and rusty, but there was a tunnel on the other side. We decided to explore the tunnel.
   I know. It's not a terribly bright idea, but we were as cocky as we were the opposite of smart at the time. We wriggled our way in and started walking. The place was dusty, and musty. There was light coming from above us at various places in the tunnel, and lots of light from where we came in. At one point, we saw the symbol for anarchy (that star within a circle inside a capital A) painted on the tunnel wall. We were pretty sure it was an old subway tunnel, but we might have been wrong.
   We were brave, or at least that's what we told ourselves. ...But when we saw firelight up ahead and heard voices...we ran the hell out of there like we were five years old.
   We went back out the way we came in. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I looked at the granite blocks that made up the wall around the tunnel and decided to climb it. I'm a little guy, and I have strong fingers and legs. I started to scramble up the wall, moving in a zig-zag to get the best grips on the stone. Tony tried to climb the wall, but he couldn't quite make it. He went up in a straight line, but at about foot 20 of 40-50, he went back down and started to walk up the stairs (which, after all, weren't far away.)
   He was just coming up the top of the stairs when I was nearing the top of the wall. He saw a man and a woman sitting on a park bench on the sidewalk. They had their backs to the wall.
   The way Tony tells it (and Tony is an honest man), he wanted to warn me about the couple. He wanted to tell me I was about to pop up behind them and surprise the hell out of them. He didn't warn me. There was no way to do it without spooking them. So...he just smiled at them in a vague sort of way.
   I clapped my hands on the top of the wall. I'm not afraid of heights until I get to the top of whatever I'm climbing. I heard someone on the other side of the top of the wall from where I was hanging, and I thought it was Tony.
   I said in a loud voice, "Zowie, Batman! Can't we take the elevator!" Then I think I added the words Ta-da! And flipped over the top of the wall.
   The couple on the bench, the one two feet from where I landed when I jumped from the top of the wall to the sidewalk...screamed.
   I'm still willing to climb walls, but now I'm careful about who might be at the top. I don't like to scare people. My CPR card has expired.

Zowie, Part Two
C.O.P.E Instructor Training, 1991
Boy Scout Camp in Indiana
   We were training to be trainers for climbing/rappelling/confidence-building courses at Scout Camps. There was about twenty-five of us in the course. We were all BSA professionals: college educated, young, leaders of leaders, and loopy. The reason we were loopy was we were test rabbits for a novel (bad) idea. They took a syllabus for a week-long course and crammed it into a four-day weekend.
   The task at hand was to get the group over a 20-foot tall wall. There was eight men in my group, the group facing the wall. The wall was smooth, unlike the granite wall I climbed in New York. On the back of it at the top was a platform big enough for two or three men to stand. The goal was to get every man in our group over the top of the wall. We had no ropes, no ladders, no nothing. It was just us at the bottom of the wall, trying to get the group up and over it.
   The first couple of guys were pretty easy to get to the top. We made a human pyramid and they climbed up. The next part of the group was easy. We handed each other up to men at the top who could lift them. It was the last two that were tough to get over the wall.
This is a newer wall. Shorter and safer. 
   I was the second from the last. I'm five feet, six inches tall. I can't make it very high up a 20' wall, but I'm willing to toss myself around like a rag doll when necessary. The guys at the top held the wrists of a man and let him dangle down the wall. I jumped up and grabbed his ankles. The idea was that the last guy would grab me and climb up my back, then up the back of the guy I was holding onto, then help the two on the wall pull us up.
  That last guy jumped on my back. He grabbed my shoulders and pulled, and pulled, and pulled. I was losing my grip on the ankles of the guy being held at the top of the wall.
   Got the picture? Two guys hanging from a wall, and a third guy trying desperately to climb up the backs of the guys on the wall.
   I can tell you from personal experience...treated lumber doesn't taste good. Trust me on that one. Don't experiment. The last guy had his feet precariously and painfully perched on my narrow hips and was shoving down with his feet as he tried to grab the shoulders of the man who's ankles I was holding.
   Air gushed from my lung as I said, "Zowie, Batman! Can't we take the elevator?"
   Everyone laughed.
   ...Laughter loosens grips.
      ....BANG! WHOOF! @#$!
   We cussed like sailors as we crashed in a pile on the ground. The guy who was on my back--that last guy--took it the worst. He landed first and three of us landed on top of him. I only had two guys land on me.
   Yeah. You guessed it. I never heard the end of that one, and I was forever branded: "Robin."

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