Face your fears, they said. Stare down your demons, they said. Step out of your comfort zone, they said.
Sure, I nodded. No problem, I told them. Fears, schmears.
But at exactly 10:08 Thursday morning, I've been reduced to a shaking, shameless chicken of a man. Terror has C-clamped my heart and my stomach feels like I've swallowed a Maytag. A voice in my head, sounding very much like James Earl Jones, continues to deliver the bad news: you should not be doing this. You're going to die.
Somehow, I've found myself on the rooftop ledge of the SunTrust Bank building, roughly 1,693 stories tall. At least it seems that way. I feel like I'm in Dubai.
Wednesday and Thursday, otherwise intelligent people came from near and far to rappel off the side of the building in an event called Over the Edge: part of 2013 RiverRocks festival and a fundraiser for the Cherokee Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America (All the Girls Scouts do is ask me to eat thin mints). Days earlier at the newspaper, I'd drawn the short straw -- you'll love it, they said -- which is why I found myself on the business end of a very long and dangling rope Thursday morning.
Did I mention I hate heights?
"Just don't look down," my buddy suggested over beers the night before. (I'd arranged quality time with family and friends. You know, just in case.)
The good professionals from Over the Edge have jump-suited me in a jingly hodgepodge of helmets, gloves, carabiners and an industrial harness, easily the least complimentary piece in the fashion world. We practiced rappeling off a 10-foot wall. I controlled how fast I went with a hand-held descender, a little gizmo that looks kind of like an Atari joystick.
Multiple back-up safety systems were in place; I could not fall and could not go out-of-control fast.
But could I please just go home?
"Swing your foot over the side of this ledge," the man on the rooftop said.
What's it like? Go to the tallest building in town, stand on the very edge, and face away from the void, like you're about to do a back dive. Then, as your reptilian brain spasms and howls in shock -- stop it, stop it you fool! -- you, cursing and trying not to wet your britches, do the one thing you shouldn't.
You lean backwards.
"See you at the bottom," the folks on the roof said.
I try to find my happy place, but it has vanished. I have yet to look down, instead staring at the building bricks (brown, with specks of white) four feet from my face. A pigeon flies by, snickering.
"Enjoy it," Mike Hills said earlier that morning.
Hills, a Chattanoogan, works for Over the Edge, and travels to dozens of cities to host rappeling events for non-profits. Part calming therapist, part safety pro, Hills has seen hundreds of people in the moments before they go over the edge.
"They're nervous and excited, all at the same time. So just slow down and do your best to enjoy it. Soak it up early," he said.
I've formed an L against the side of the building, just like they instructed. I'm leaning back into my harness, and walk -- oh-so-slowly-- my feet down the side of the building. (At one point, a woman's face appears in an office window. She sees me, and looks kind of frightened, and I immediately decide not to think about the reasons why that might be).
Halfway down, I exhale and look over my shoulder at the panorama of our beautiful city. The blue and green slideshow of mountains, river, forests. The urban architecture and ecology of streets and buildings. I look up, then down, left, then right. Suspended between heaven and earth, both terrified and oozing with joy.
Kind of like being alive.
"You cannot get hurt," the man on the roof had told me.
I wonder if sometimes our fears, like boogeymen, are inventions of our imaginations. That if we really go quiet, we find there's a big harness holding it all together, and a voice (replace James Earl Jones with Enya) telling us to breathe, relax, and lean back.
"Paralyzed by fear at first, but then loved it," said a friend, who also rappelled down.
Reaching the sweet, sweet, solid ground, I undid my harness and took off my gloves. Somebody asked me if I had any good words to describe the experience.
Yes. A bunch of four letter words, and this:
Can't wait till next year.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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