Did I ever tell you about the time my little brother fell off a cliff in the Austrian Alps, and my dad and I rescued him? It was like this:
My brother, sister and I were vacationing with my dad in the village of Kofels, Austria. I must have been about 19, my sister was 21, and my brother about 13 or 12. One day we boys went out for a hike while the girl stayed in the village to admire the young Austrian army guys on maneuvers.
A few miles outside the village, the track crossed a talus slope. Now, if that term is unfamiliar to you, go look it up right now. Comprehension is essential to appreciate the following. The slope extended several hundred feet above and below us. Half way across, a lone pine tree, tall and skinny, grew out of the face of the slope, just below the lip of the trail. A few cleats were tacked to the trunk of the tree. Naturally, my brother hopped onto the lowest rung and scrambled up the trunk.
There was nothing to see or do there, so he began to tentatively back down as my dad and I waited impatiently a few steps down the trail. Standing on the bottom rung, he hopped off backward. His heels came down on the very edge of the trail. The loose gravel shot out from under his tennis shoes and he vanished.
After the instant of paralyzing horror released its grip on my motor function, I ran to the point from which he fell and looked down. About three feet below the trail, a lone tree root protruded from the rock face. I kid you not: Rob was dangling from the tree root. Wile E. Coyote would have been impressed. My dad took one glance and snapped into action. “Don’t move!” he shouted to Rob. “On your belly!” he shouted at me as he retreated across the trail and lay flat on his own stomach. I lay in front of him, he grabbed my ankles, and we slithered toward the edge. Dad dangled me over the cliff. My hips were well beyond the edge of the trail when I reached for my brother’s wrists. “I gotcha, go ahead and let go! Let go! Dad, he’s not letting go!” “Leggo, goddammitt!” my father gasped. “All right, he’s let go of the root! I’ve gottim!” Dad inched back across the trail, dragging his two sons up the face of the cliff and back to safety. Rob’s sweatshirt was shredded. We all had a few scrapes but were otherwise unhurt.
“Wow!” gasped my kid brother. “That was awesome!”
“You stupid little @#$%&*^!!!?!”
“Both of you shut up,” our dad panted. He sat on the trail huffing and sweating heavily. We decided we’d had enough Alpine hiking for the day and headed back to the village.
I already thought my dad was cool, but this incident elevated him to Mythical Epic Heroic Champion status in my mind. Decades later, long after his unfortunate passing, I learned from my sister and mother that their interpretation of the story had been quite different.
Sister: “You let him WHAT?!”
Mother: “And where the *&%$#% were YOU?”
It was a long time yet before I understood the different impression they had of my dad. It probably started that day when I was five, in that little apartment in New Jersey. The police couldn’t wake my dad, and there were empty pill bottles, but my mother, as I clung to her knee, just kept repeating “Everything’s gonna be all right.” And behold! A few days later, Dad was back from the hospital, gentler and sweeter than ever. Great! Mom’s a miracle worker! When she says “Everything’s gonna be all right” it means “Everything’s gonna be all right”! What a relief! My sister, on the other hand, being seven, and a girl, spotted the disconnect between my mother’s words and the facts on the ground. She told me, in mid-life, that on that day she realized her father was unreliable and unpredictable, and when Mom said “Everything’s gonna be all right” it meant “You live in a crazy house where you can never trust anything you see or hear.” What a drag!
I have spent much of the latter half of my life reconciling these two understandings of my father, because they are both true. He was both heroic and tragic, reliable and unpredictable in turns. He was my own personal tragic hero.