Photo Credit: Sonoma Magazine
These are the hills around Petaluma today because the scene of this story is now a neighborhood.
Mike and I held the giant tube vertical as his younger brother, Jimmy, folded himself into the hole. When he was comfortably inside with an arm and leg on either side and able to keep himself from rolling down the hill, Mike and I ran down to our positions to catch Jimmy in the unlikely event that he was unable to stop himself. “Safety first!” we always said.
When we were ready for the great experiment, Mike looked back and forth to verify everything had been done to plan, he yelled to Jimmy to, “LET’R ROLL!” And wow! It was amazing how fast he accelerated. In seconds, all we could see was the tube blurring with acceleration and a set of arms and legs wildly waving out of each side.
Unexpectedly, Jimmy started to scream – loudly. His cries for help were commingled with garbled, cyclical shrieks and whole breath loads of panic-laced swear words. Mike and I both realized that there was a problem with the physics. Jimmy was moving way too fast to stop himself and our fun ride experiment had instead turned into a rescue attempt.
You know how some clever ideas accidentally start a cascade of unintended consequences — seemingly impossible to stop? Well, this was one of them.
Behind Grant Elementary School in Petaluma, California (where we were students) was a wonderful, steep hill that we all called THE HILL. It had the best view of the Petaluma valley in the whole neighborhood and had everything a bunch of small boys could want.
We had permission to use it for tree climbing and box sliding but these relatively safe activities were not on our agenda today.
Because this is NOT historical fiction, you need to understand the topology to fully appreciate what happened.
Starting from the top, there was a steep, but walk-able, grass covered slope for 60 yards and most of it was crisscrossed with cow paths.
Next was a sharp downward lip and for the next 15 yards, the slope got even steeper and was thick with ancient oak trees and thousands of dead branch fragments in various degrees of decay. We were experts with this hill and knew that this slope was a no-go for a kid in a tube. We had to take precautions to prevent Jimmy from entering what we now called the ‘slope of tree-covered death’.
At the bottom of that slope was a five-yard wide, level tractor road with a heavy, square patterned, wire mesh fence which had to be as old as those trees.
After the fence was a very large, level field of thick, 18-inch tall, lush grass.
Oh, an important point – from any of those high cow paths, you could see over the tops of those oak trees down into the grass field beyond the fence.
Mike, and his younger brother, Jimmy, had a huge aircraft inner tube which we used to crawl inside of and roll ourselves around the flat school yard. It was so fun that we figured it would be even more fun to ride down a steep hill. With THE HILL giving us a free gravity-assist — it should be thrilling.
Granted, this idea would have horrified any rational parent, but somehow it made sense at the time, and no rational parents were nearby anyway. Even if there had been a parent around, we never would have asked for permission to do this because it positively reeked of being a trigger for a parental, spontaneous knee-jerk reflexive refusal on the order of “HELL NO – you can’t do that! Are you out of your mind!?”
So, we were on our own. Mike and I were satisfied that this was going to be so much fun that we anxiously waited for our turn inside the tube. But to make sure that it was a good idea, we were thankful that Jimmy was always ready to test our ideas because that’s why God made little brothers. Besides, with our safety measures, what could possibly go wrong?
Jimmy promised to stop before the steep tree-covered slope. Just in case, Mike stood 20 feet uphill from the lip above to catch Jimmy if he didn’t. As a third layer of protection, I stood about 10 feet uphill from the slope. I was fully convinced that Jimmy would never make it to the trees.
Okay, you’re ready now. Here’s what happened, and I promise you that I’m not making this up. We really did this. Please hold on tight – this is quite a ride.
You already know that within seconds, Jimmy was rolling out of control, so Mike yelled, “WE HAVE TO STOP THAT TUBE!”
He and I knew that if Jimmy got hurt, his parents would redefine punishment right to the edge of homicide. I watched Mike run uphill to catch the tube before it gained even more speed. Mike met and engaged the tube in earnest. With a muffled thump, the tube simply ate him and left him mashed into the hillside – conforming his spine and limbs to the ridges of those cow paths.
Ouch! That had to hurt!
This left only me between Jimmy and the slope of tree-covered death. I took off running, thinking as I closed the gap between me and the murderous tube. How am I going to stop this thing? Mike tried to hit it head-on and that failed. What could I do differently?
I decided to body-block it from a near 90-degree angle, destabilizing its roll cycle which would surely slow it enough for Jimmy to stop. In short, the tube ate me too, giving me a face-first taste of a cow path. So much for my instincts for physics. I instantly realized both that I’d failed to save Jimmy and that the taste of cow pies had likely ruined my appetite for the next 18 months.
Quickly peeling my face out of the cow path, “Ptuuch”, I rolled over in time to watch as tube and Jimmy dropped over the lip and, oh God, no, down into the slope of tree-covered death. Immediately, we heard branches violently snapping. It will be any moment now. This is it, I thought. He’s dead – and so are we. There’s no way he can miss all those trees.
But — he did. . .
We knew he did because suddenly we heard the awful sound of Jimmy and tube hitting that old fence. It was a violent sound of straining rusty wires and tearing of old wood posts. So, Jimmy was going to die when his body passed through the wire fence squares. We would find him transformed into a pile of bloody cubic noodles like something from a giant, demented, play-dough fun factory. His parents will not be pleased.
But this time physics (or perhaps the God of small boys) saved him. That rotten fence actually yielded and the posts on either side of his point of impact cracked loudly and bent over just enough to form an, oh no. . . a ramp that — yes — launched Jimmy and that insane tube high into the air just like a ski jump.
He and that tube were spinning their way to the clouds.
Mike and I, way up the hill saw him take flight. I seriously began to wonder if he was still alive and if this chain of disasters would ever stop.
Surreal? Absolutely! But there he went — arms and legs still waving like a wet rag doll out of each side of the tube and, did I just hear a sonic-boom? He can’t be going that fast — can he?
Jimmy must have made peace with his fate by this time because he was no longer screaming; or maybe he was already dead, like from a heart attack. His arms and legs did look pretty floppy. No matter – because suddenly I realized that Mike was now screaming hysterically. He has to know that his parents will insist on taking his life for him wasting Jimmy’s.
The tube was still spinning madly and gaining altitude, but it was slowing its climb.
My heart sank as I realized that from his current altitude, Jimmy was going to die (or die again. . . ?) when he and the tube crashed back to earth. Slowly, the tube lost the last of its momentum and arced into its descent, speeding up yet again for a third kamikaze-style near-death encounter.
It crossed my mind that maybe he was high enough to burn up on re-entry. That might at least burn up all the evidence of this nightmare.
He didn’t burn up, but he didn’t crash either.
He bounced – just once. Oh God, please make it stop.
On the up-bounce, Jimmy finally, mercifully, separated from the tube from a relatively safe altitude (at least I hoped so) and landed in the soft tall grass of that lower field. After what felt like the longest train crash ever, Jimmy had finally stopped moving and laid still and hidden in the peaceful tall grass.
The tube bounced a few more times before stopping. Mike and I ran down to verify the results or pay our last respects and quietly leave town as needed.
The final site of Jimmy’s death looked so serene and quiet.
Oh wow! It was amazing, but Jimmy was still breathing. Remarkable! Even impossible! His eyes were huge – frozen open with panic. Incredibly – his pants weren’t even soiled, meaning he’d more than earned the bladder-control under duress merit badge, but I could only guess what a mess his nervous system had to be.
He was pretty angry at us when his cardio-vascular system un-seized and he could blink again, but he calmed down in a week or so. He always did and we knew he’d soon be ready try another of our bright ideas, but it was a really, really long time before Jimmy got near that tube again.
We pushed the fence back up, so it at least looked like a fence again, picked up the tube and headed for home. Our test pilot had survived so we would too, and it was time to find some other way to entertain ourselves the rest of the day, maybe something safe like playing tag in busy traffic.
No – seriously, it was time for a quiet corner at home, conspicuously snuggled up with a good book so not to arouse any suspicions and let any applicable statutes of limitations expire.