Heroism When Needed, Then as Now

Karl was from Springsteenland. Sammy had left the island of Puerto Rico for the first time. Moses came from the part of New York that is nearly Canada. I was from Midwest coal country. We met at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, cold-war warriors not turned 20.

We were Americans in a time when America needed a boost. We were wild dumbasses and beautiful losers. Karl already had one child and another on the way. Sammy maybe wanted a larger landmass. Moses said he enlisted before they could draft him; there was no draft. I was still in shock that I would not be going to college. We were eager to see something happen, to change the story.

I had bought a used mini-pickup, so we got in it one Friday night after work—two in the cab and two in the back, wrapped in sleeping bags and a canvas tarp—and headed for the Smokies. Food was boxes of mac and cheese and a case of cheap beer. We had gas money, but there was no fix if the truck broke down. Half our gear was stolen. We saw no limits except we had to be back on Monday, before dawn, to serve our country.

The world was so new that the Nashville parlor had honest-to-goodness, quarter-for-15-seconds peepshows, like zoetropes. Moses convened his first congress with a human female in the cab of my LUV truck in the Southern Baptist Convention lot. We woke on the side of a wooded road near the North Carolina border.

In the fissures and crags of my brain, the four of us are still walking, laughing, looking for trouble. The mountains are green, but it is cold. Clingmans Dome is in the distance. Karl, who loves Jim Carroll, Rimbaud, and Violent Femmes, says, “Pain builds character.” Moses smiles, wet-lipped, is loud and wearing heavy glasses. He plays the fool for our amusement. Sammy and I tell him to shut the hell up so we can see some wildlife.

We hike and clamber upward at every chance, off-trail, until we reach a height that looks down on most everything else. We pass through a line of saplings and almost walk off a cliff. There are only two ways out now: Rappel down, or backtrack, if that is even possible. The day is growing older.

Fort Campbell’s Air Assault School teaches rappelling, including from choppers as they hover 90 feet off the ground. Karl and I have been to the school. Sammy, maybe not. Moses definitely has not. Karl and I make the call, talk Sammy into it, and coerce Moses, who for all his clownishness has an excellent, rational fear of heights.

The rappel line is 120-feet long. Karl ties one end to a tree and throws the coil into the void. We cannot see if it reaches the ground. The rope will stretch a third of its length, so…surely. It is decided: I will go first, so I can belay Sammy, as well as Moses, who will go third. Karl will supervise and follow.

I tie a seat harness from more rope, clip into the rope with a carabiner, and pull on leather gloves. I walk backward down the steep slope through roots, rocks, and leaf mold and, as the rock face becomes vertical, I hop and land, hop and land. When the rock runs out I jump backward, hard, and free-fall. The ground is in a whirl of trees. When I know I will not swing into the concave cliff I brake and hang there, 80 or 90 feet up. I call up what I see then let myself fall again, a tickle in my stomach of exhilaration. Fifteen feet from the ground I brake hard, and the the rope stretches, slows, and stops me. I put my feet neatly on the earth again.

Sammy follows, and we stand on the rocks, looking up, waiting for Moses to come into view. He finally comes off the lip on his belly, scraping himself and the gear against the rock. Then he is sliding down the rope slowly and steadily, not in control. The rope in his brake hand makes a loop he fails to clear, and that bight runs into his carabiner and makes a hard knot. He is stuck, 80 feet off the ground. He is shouting, Sammy and I are shouting, Karl is shouting.

Karl tries to pull Moses up, but that is not physically possible. Sammy and I cannot hike up to Karl now. We discuss going for help, but it would be hours. Moses quickly begins to moan in fear and pain. The rope harness is digging into his legs and cutting off blood flow. Soon he shouts it hurts too much, his legs are numb but they ache, he is going to lose his legs, he is going to die, he is going to cut himself loose and take his chances. We shout and cuss him.

We get him to drink some water. He loses his grip on his plastic canteen, and it hisses in and hits so hard that rock shrapnel flies. I pick up the canteen and shake it; there is shale inside. Sammy and I look at each other. He is screaming now and we will have to watch him die.

We had brought two coils of stolen rope. Karl was going to double them, so we could pull them free after he descended and take them with us. Now he throws Moses the end of the second rope. He shouts to him to tie it around himself then cut the first rope that has him trapped. Karl sits behind a tree on the edge of the cliff and passes the rope around his back. None of us has faith in Moses to tie a proper knot or to cut the right rope. Sammy and I are yelling to him to do it right goddammit. Karl braces. Moses parts the rope.

He falls a dozen feet, and Karl is yanked into the tree face-first. As Karl lowers him, the rope slides up Karl’s back to his neck, and the friction wears a hot bloody groove to the bone. Still Karl does not let go. It takes a long time. Moses comes by inches. He arrives, crying, and sags in our arms. We help him out of the ropes and speak gently.

Karl has saved Moses’ life. It is astonishing, heroic, admirable. He flies down the remaining rope, head-first and upside-down, at great speed, pretending to jerk off in our faces.

There are no medals for such things, and besides we created the problem ourselves. We stop in Gatlinburg for a bag of candy necklaces, Karl’s favorite, and an ice cream cone for Moses, who gets to ride in the cab all the way home. Karl sits in back, munching his candy-paste jewelry, looking out in victory at the ever-changing landscape.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.