I never really thought of my father as a particularly brave man, not until I was about twelve. I mean, while trying to kill any rat that came into our room, he mostly managed to chase it onto the porch where it scurried into the ditch and got away.
He never apologized for his failure to kill the rat. We kids never actually saw the rat, but we heard it and would shout for my dad who would come in with the kerosene lantern. By the flickering light of the lantern he would occasionally see it.
When he did see it, he would yell, “Hey!” as though having made a great discovery and then continue with, “Get out of here you scurvy little monster.” But mostly he just stomped his booted feet which seemed to drive the rat out. At least we didn’t hear it again that night.
He was much better with snakes. Whenever anyone yelled, “Nioka, (snake)” he was right there with anything he could grab to kill it: a hoe, a machete, a club and if none of those were available he would stomp it to death with his knee-high booted feet.
Once after killing a snake one of the natives reverently put a hand on my father’s shoulder and shaking his head a little said, “Bwana, that is a good kind of snake. It will never bite you until it is your time to die.”
I accepted his dealing with snakes as something any father would do for his children. But killing snakes was not at all like Uncle Eddie who went hunting all the time and had a reputation with the natives as a great hunter by killing leopards, buffalo, Kudu, Wildebeest and even elephants.
My father never really said anything, but I knew that he didn’t think much of Uncle Eddie’s hunting exploits, which I thought were just the greatest. My father only killed things when he had to.
Ruwenzori mountains (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Age twelve. There is something significant about a boy turning twelve. That was the year I began to understand, what kind a man my father really was.
We were on a vacation at a mission station located at the base of the Ruwenzori Mountains. In the early morning and late afternoon, before the mist rose to shroud them, you could see the snow-covered peaks of the Mountains of the Moon.
These snow-capped mountains near the Equator in Africa were first reported to the civilized world in the second century AD by the Greek geographer, Ptolomy, who named them Lunae Montes, or Mountains of the Moon.
The whole range is some eighty miles long and about thirty miles wide. They are not of volcanic origin, but are huge sections of the earth’s crust that were thrust upward millennia ago by enormous geologic upheavals. From the savannah those peaks rise more than 16,000 feet. The rivers formed by the melting ice surge down clear, pure and icy-cold. The water rushes foaming through narrow, boulder-strewn gorges, roaring over falls, always rushing, never quiet, never still until they get to the savannah.
We were warned by the local missionaries about the furious nature of the river and forbidden by our parents from leaving certain defined area, which were frequented by the natives and missionaries.
My sister, five years older than me, had the responsibility of making sure we adhered to our parents’ rules when they weren’t around. It was an impossible assignment. No seventeen-year-old sister will be able to control three younger brothers ages 12, 11 and 9, who are by age and inclination defiant of all authority.
Being the oldest, I was the leader of most rebellions, although my two brothers could always come up with something if I ran out of ideas. I never did these with the intention of being defiant. They just turned out to be contrary in nature to the standing rules of the day.
True to form I led the way into the forbidden area along the cliff face above the foaming river, my feet moving tentatively along the four-inch rock ledge, my fingertips clinging to imperceptible handholds above my head or taking hold of an occasional vine that hung down from the giant trees of the rain forest high above. My brothers, in true rebellious loyalty, followed close behind sliding their feet cautiously along the ledge, putting their hands up to take hold where my fingers had been.
My sister followed along last saying, “Paul, stop it. Come back right now. This is dangerous. You know you’re not supposed to do this. Come back right now.” But she followed along, even though she didn’t want to, because we were her responsibility.
The sheer rock wall suddenly came to an end with the continuation of it back about three feet. I don’t know how many centuries ago the earth had trembled causing the break in that cliff, but it had once been part of that same rock face above the river.
How disappointing. I could go no further. I could no longer defy my older sister’s orders to stop. EXCEPT! There it was. A vine hanging down from a rain forest trees a hundred feet above. By stretching forward as far as I could I was just able to grab it.
I had never seen a Tarzan movie or heard of Tarzan, but any kid that has seen a rope hanging from a tree limb exactly what it is for and how to use it. I tested the vine, yanking on and finally put all my weight on it. It held. It would work. With all the courage of any twelve-year-old, I launched out, swinging wide over the roaring, churning river, bumping against the sheer cliff, my feet finding the little ledge. One hand found a handhold and I let go of the vine.
“Come on,” I shouted to my brothers.
John shook his head.
“Come on. It’s easy, Catch the vine when I throw it back to you,” I shouted above the roar of the river and tried to flick the vine back toward him, but it would not go.
“Paul, you get back here, right now, or I’ll tell Dad.” I heard my sister yelling.
I pretended not to hear. I edged along the face of the cliff, scornful of the brother who would not follow. “Come on, Sissy.”
“I dare you. I double dare you!”
I moved carefully, mindful of my foot placement and finger holds. Twenty feet later that face just came to an end. There was nothing beyond it. The sheer rock angled backwards with no ledge and no vines I could swing on. I could go no further. Still I felt superior. I had done something my brothers had not done, probably something no other white person had done, maybe even in that vast continent I had gone where no other human had gone before.
I started back. I knew how to do it. I had been that way before. Step by step, handhold-by-handhold, I made my way back to the vine. I tested it again to make sure it would still hold me, and then swinging out over the river I tried to get back to the ledge on the first face. But instead of going back to the first face I was further down on the second.
A vine growing from trees over the second face did not like to be forced to go to a cliff that is farther out and not in its line. No matter how I tried I could not get back. Hanging onto the vine I curled up with my knees tucked under my chin and thrust hard with my leg. I swung out over the water. I stretched out my arm trying to grab the wall, but all I did was scratch my hand. I tried getting right against the break in the wall and with one hand hanging on to the vine while reaching back with the other, but the moment my feet left the ledge I swung further away. I tried hanging on to the vine and reaching to the first face with my foot, but even when my brother bravely caught my foot, I couldn’t pull myself around.
Little by little the truth came to me. I would never get back. I would die on that ledge or fall into the roaring river below to have my body beat against the boulders until what was left of me would be carried to where the river finally flowed gently emptying into a placid lake where the crocodiles would eat what was left of me. There was only one thing left to do and that was to start to cry with fear and frustration.
My brothers and sisters left me then, my sister in the lead. They were leaving me to die all alone. I clung to the cliff face, forgetting about the vine. There was no one there to catch me even if I was able to swing around to the other face. And then above the roar of the river I heard my sister say, “The others went to get Dad.”
With my face against the cliff I couldn’t see her, but she kept talking to me. No, not talking, shouting to be heard above the thunder of the river. “Dad will be here soon.”
I expected her to say, “I told you not to go there,” but she didn’t, just kept shouting encouragement to me until I finally heard the words, “Daddy’s here.”
There was a quiet for a while as she went back to make way for him to get to me, quiet except for the thundering of the water. I was still crying with fear and I can’t say I was overwhelmed with expectation. I was glad that he would soon be there, but what could he do? He was my father, not Uncle Eddie. Yet when I heard the voice say, “How are you doing, Son?” the tears just seemed to stop. I didn’t really answer him, just nodded my head a little.
“I’ll be right there,” he said and what little I had seen of his face disappeared behind the rock edge. I can’t say I was filled with joyous confidence that I would be rescued. In fact there was even a slight fear that we might both be on that ledge for the rest of our lives. What could he do?
His booted foot was the first thing I saw easing around the edge of the first face. And then half his body and head was visible and he said, “Move along a little, Son, and make room for me next to you.”
I slid one foot along the ledge, fingertips holding on, getting out of his way, and he just sort of slid around the edge of the first face, no flamboyant swinging out over the turbulent river. He was hanging on to a vine that naturally hung along the first face. There he was, hanging onto his vine, his legs straight in front of him pushing his body away from the rock.
He smiled at me and said, “I tested this with both John and me hanging from it so it should be able to hold us both.”
I smiled back, but I didn’t particularly like the “it should” part. Nevertheless, I really was beginning to feel that everything would be all right, especially since natives were beginning to gather on the rocks on the other side of the river to watch the rescue.
“Now, you’re going to have to hang on to me, Son. I can’t hold you. I have to hang on to the vine. So I want you to do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you.”
Maybe for the first time in my life there was no resentment or defiance at the thought of doing exactly what I was told.
“I’m going to swing my right leg around you now.”
With my face to the wall I felt the leg slide past me and then my father’s ankle pressed against my waist. He lowered his legs then until his weight pressed me against the wall.
“OK. Now let go with your left hand and put your arm around my neck.”
I had to twist and lean to one side in order to do it. My left foot left the ledge and I was held in place with just my right foot and right hand hanging onto the wall and the pressure of my dad’s body pinning me to the wall.
“Good. Good. Now put the other arm around my neck and hold on.”
I did as I was told. Doing that my right foot left the ledge and I hung onto him desperately, my arms clutching his neck. Clinging to him I saw the rope that was tied around his waist that ran back the way he had come and I suddenly knew I was safe.
“I’m going to bring my legs up between yours,” he said.
One leg at a time he moved them inside mine.
“Now put your legs around my waist.”
Hanging onto the vine he slowly started walking up the wall until his legs were straight out so that I was sitting in his lap, my ankles clinging to each other behind his back.
There we were hanging out over the water, my body clinging to his, my head pressed against his. I could feel the stubble of his two-day, vacation, growth of beard.
I felt his knees bend up behind me. He shouted something. I don’t know what it was he said and then he pushed powerfully away. We swung out over the river, the natural pull of the vine tending to drift us toward safety while the natives, back at a place of safety, pulled on the rope attached to my father.
We landed safely on the first face. I clung to my dad as he stepping side to side, carried met to the top of flat boulder where all the missionaries were waiting. Old Dad Stauffacher gave me a look the clearly said, “How could you be so dumb?”
My mother put her arms around me, hugged me tight, and said, “You could have been killed. If you ever try anything like that again, I’ll kill you.”
We walked back single file along the path that led from the river, between the boulders and ferns that grew higher than my head. I expected that when we go back to the house my father would have his discussion with me and then administer the razor strop, which I considered my just deserts for my action.
The discussion never came. Others talked about that incident, but my father never did.
Some years later my father had what the doctor called, “a complete nervous breakdown.” I didn’t know what it was then, and I don’t know what it is now. I’m sure medical science has some more up-to-date explanation. I just knew my father was very sick. I could see it in him and my mother had told us he was very sick. But, once while talking to the doctor I heard my mother say, “He’s just afraid of everything. He’s even afraid of the children.”
I wanted to shout, “No, he’s not afraid of anything.” But I had been raised not to interrupt the adults when they were talking.
As time went on I came to know that Uncle Eddie might have been a renowned hunter, was probably an adequate man and maybe even a good missionary, but he could never compare to my dad.
In this life, it is not the Uncle Eddies that are going to get us out of the messes we get ourselves into, but those that love us as only a Father does.
Paul’s book The Telephone Killer published by 2nd Wind Publishing is now available on Amazon and from the publisher. Kindle and Nook versions just $4.99. The Telephone Killer is also available as an audiobook.