The Human Ladder

Robert D. Booth

© Copyright 2014 by Robert D. Booth

Phto of hands clinging to rock wall.

“Pride goeth before destruction and
A haughty spirit before a fall.”
Proverbs 16:18

I clung to the sheer shale rock cliff for dear life. I was not sure if the fall to the solid slate river bottom below would kill me or not, but I was sure, that if it didn’t, it would give me something to remember for a very long, long time. How had I gotten in this situation? I would come to tell my own children years after this day that one of the best ways to avoid trouble was to not get in bad predicaments in the first place. Boy, if only someone had told me that a few hours before. I hugged the face of the near vertical cliff as tight as a teenage couple on a second date. My only hand grips were tiny protruding pieces of brittle shale rock and the smallest of possible bush roots. I could not remember ever being this afraid in my short life of seven years. I was not sure if I was going to start bawling, pee my pants or both.     

This infamous adventure had started earlier that day as we were rousted from bed at an ungodly hour, lined up in military style by none other than the leader of the pack my older Brother Fred. It is strange to consider that he turned out to be a drill instructor “DI” in the Air Force many years later. Fred was the fifth brother from the bottom of a family of eleven siblings. In total there were eight older brothers and two sisters, and unfortunately, in too many ways that made me the “baby” of the troop.

After reveille and the call to arms in the middle of the back yard by Brother Fred  on a very hot summer morning, we were off on another Booth Boys adventure. We march in a totally disorganized fashion across the back yard like a row of Mallard Ducks, past the infamous two-hole outhouse and on to the lane which ran south along the west line of our old farm and the east line of our neighbors, the Kish’s farm. We proceeded south down a long gradual slope to the river bottom of the Grand River, located in Northeast Ohio. Here we turned west, down the river to the spot that would lead me to my cling-for-life.

The Grand River is a tributary feeding into the Great Lake Erie. The river ran a mile or two along the south border of our farm which was situated in Perry, Ohio. It formed a valley that in some places on an outward flow would leave one bank a gradual slope and the other a straight up shear dirt and rock bank. Some of these banks would reach the terrifying height of a hundred plus feet. It was at the bottom of one of these steep banks that brother Fred brought his small battalion to a halt.

Up to this point my three older brothers and I had little idea of what would be required of us next. Brother Fred took little time holding us in suspense as he laid out the daunting task that lay ahead.

On the first pass of the explanation none of us, starting at Brother Bill, the next older brother to me, then Brother Chuck, and then Brother Gurn, could believe what we had just heard.  We looked at each other in total disbelief and were absolutely sure that what we had just been told was some sort of joke or the ranting of a wild and crazy man. We were to scale straight up the sheer face of the bare river bank cliff using of all things brother Fred’s latest nightmare “The Human Ladder.”

This insane concept would mean that starting with the oldest and biggest brother, that being Fred, we were to climb up the backs of each succeeding brother until we reached the top of the river bank. Thus the human ladder looked like this: Rung one was Brother Fred, and rung two was Brother Gurn who would climb over Fred and then stand on his shoulders and head clinging to what ever protrusion he could find and prepare for the ascension of Brother Chuck. Here Chuck would stand while Brother Bill took his spot on top of Chuck’s head. Of course, the “baby,” that being me was the last to go. I had to proceed over Fred, Gurn, Chuck and Brother Bill to reach my untenable position at the very top of the human ladder.

It would have taken one of the most obnoxious bunch of drunken sailors to even think of matching the cursing being emitted by the participants of the human ladder. Boy, if mom had heard this she would have used up at least a box of soap cleaning out our dirty little mouths! You have to remember that each succeeding participant was standing on the shoulders, and head of the brother below. Of couse it does not take much imagination to think of all the inappropriate places the bare footed heels and toes of the brother above were digging into on the brother below. The ears were being stuffed with bare toes, as none of the brothers would ever think of wearing any kind of foot wear during the summer. The nose, eyes and all other parts of the head were being pummeled as each brother did his absolute best to stay attached to the cliff. Rains of stones, dirt and other unattached debris showered down on those below.

So here I was clinging for my very life a good thirty feet off the rock solid river bed. One slip by any of the supporting cast and we would all end up in a big broken heep at the cliff bottom. It was at this very moment that a bad situation that I thought could get no worse just did. The nearly bald, crew cut head which was providing me major support from below suddenly disappeared. This generated a near numbing feeling that what I feared the most, the disastrous fall to the bottom of the cliff was now unpreventable. I struggled to gain a better purchase onto the face of the cliff but too little avail as every tiny piece of shale rock simply snapped off. I felt myself begin a slow desperate downward slide. I dug into the side of the cliff with as much clawing effort as I could muster. In the meantime I tried desperately to reattach my flailing bare footed toes onto Brother Bill’s head. When I had given up all hope and was preparing myself for the eventual drop to oblivion, I felt the strange sensation of bristle hair on the bottom of my feet. I was saved and spared from destruction for at least the moment.

Now began the real task as Brother Fred, who was the bottom rung of the human ladder, began to crawl up over the backs of each preceding brother. When Brother Fred had reached his anointed position at the top of the ladder, this after the second go around, I thanked God he was able to reach some small tree branches and lock in the human ladder. Then each lower brother made his way up the human ladder to the trees and safety above.

At last it was my turn. Clinging desperately to Brother Fred’s feet, I began my ascent up his legs, over his back, onto the bank, and finally into the trees. With the helping hands of the brothers, we all made it up through the trees and bushes to the top of the bank and safety.

We were totally spent and exhausted but exhilarated with our successful challenge of climbing the river cliff with our squad leader’s “Human Ladder.”

After a short respite we were off and moving again, this time headed to the spring. Here we stopped to consume large volumes of cool, fresh spring water.

To complete the morning exercise we scampered down the farm lane to the river for a relaxing dip in the deep hole, and then home to eat – of course.

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