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Spearfish Lake Tales
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Joe/Joan book cover

by Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 10

That was not to be the last discussion of the subject that Cat and I were to have – far from it – and of course from time to time other girls in the dorm would get drawn into the topic. That made for some very interesting bull sessions, if nothing else.

To be honest, I was trying to work out my own feelings on the issue as much as I was trying to get her to see my point of view or to change her opinions and goals. The perception of the role of women in society was changing quickly like so much else in those days, but I was still trying to adapt to the idea of being a woman instead of a man. It certainly changed my viewpoints over what I might have had as Joe, especially Joe at that age, but once again I had the advantage of many years of hearing that debate. It was now that it wasn’t theoretical on my part, but very practical.

Or, to put it in a different sense, the Joe in me wasn’t going to take being a woman lying down. There is an obvious nuance in that statement, and it was very correct for me at that time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Classes started on Monday, which was Labor Day – Venable College was so conservative that they apparently didn’t buy into the concept of organized labor. This caused no end of grousing from people who thought the place was way behind the times, or resented having a day off taken from them. In practice, I know that Cat and I hardly thought about it, since we were so anxious to see what we were getting into.

One of our requirements was a foreign language class, French in this case, selected by the old Joanie, of course. As Joe, I had taken German in high school long before, and it had even proved useful to me during the period I spent in Germany. Because it was so far behind me I thought it wasn’t worth the effort to try to change classes. Cat was also taking French – in her case because she had the hope of visiting France sometime in the next few years, possibly on a summer break from classes, an idea I found intriguing. French at eight in the morning Monday did not strike me as the ideal way to wake up and start the week, but it was what I was stuck with, so I did it.

I’ll tell you how far in the past Venable was for me. Professor Reynaud, who taught the French class, was a chain smoker. I mean, he had one going all the time; as soon as he stubbed one out he lit another one. He was not the only smoker in the class, either, and the room was often blue with smoke. That irritated me a little bit; as Joe, I had smoked in the Army, and for several years thereafter. Tom, however, had an allergy to it, so I never smoked in the cab with him, and after a while I just wasn’t smoking at all. Joanie had apparently never smoked, and I resolved that I was not going to pick up the habit this time around.

The only problem with it was that after only a ten-minute break I had English composition. I’d figured that it would be just another English class and that it would be simple, but I was wrong. It was all about how to do footnotes and bibliography entries – they are not necessarily the same thing – that would be needed for the papers I would be writing over the course of the next few years. Though the class was important if I intended to get good grades, it was boring, taught by a dull, droning old man. I was to be grateful that I’d had French to wake me up before I got to that class.

Late Monday afternoon we were back together for American government, which for me was good to end a busy day with. I knew a lot about government from having lived through it, but my knowledge was hardly universal. Once I realized that, I started to pay more attention to the long, boring lecture which was held in a large but crowded lecture hall, and often it was a struggle to keep my mind on what the professor was saying.

Although one day wasn’t really enough to tell me anything, and I couldn’t see where any of these classes with the possible exception of philosophy might ever be of any use to me especially in deciding what I wanted to do, I couldn’t foresee any real problems getting through them.

After the heavy schedule on Monday, Tuesday morning was a breeze. The first class was western civilization, which was primarily a history class. I was fairly well read in this topic over the years, although admittedly in the more recent part of it, while this one started in ancient Greece. Again it was mostly a lecture class, but somehow I was able to pay better attention than I did in American government.

The next class, also every Tuesday and Thursday, was the philosophy class, right after western civilization, although it was a pretty good walk to get from one class to the next in the ten minutes allowed. Fortunately it was a survey course and it got rather arcane in places, but the class discussions made it interesting. We were introduced to the concepts of logic, which hadn’t really struck me as being very involved with philosophy, but which often proved crucial. Since I had been through several logical conundrums in trying to understand what had happened to me, this was very useful and allowed me to clarify some of my thinking. It was the only class that semester that I didn’t share with Cat.

That left the bouldering and climbing class, in the middle of the afternoon. Cat and I had no idea of what to expect, but we expected that it would be considerably different than the rest of our classes. Wow, were we right.

The handout we had been given on registering for the class only said that it met in the field house foyer, and that gym clothes were expected. Since Venable College was persnickety about their dress codes, that meant that Cat and I had to wear normal clothes over to the field house. There we had to change into shorts and T-shirts in the girl’s locker room at the same time the girl’s recreational athletics class was changing, so nothing seemed too out of line.

When we went out to the foyer, we found only a small handful of people – three guys, all of whom seemed rather lean and wiry, and one other girl besides Cat and me. The other girl was the blonde escapee from a Playboy centerfold we had met in the dining hall, and who had been in some of our other classes; by now we had found out her name was Deanna. Not surprisingly, she had tried out for the cheerleading squad and made it.

We all stood around in a small group, wondering what this was all about, when a slender but well-muscled thirtyish man came in. “Hi,” he said. “Are you all here for the climbing class?”

After we all agreed we were, he went on, “Great. I’d hoped for more, but this is a small enough group that we can all have some fun. I’m Professor E. C. Norton. I’ll tell you right now, my first name is Ed, but the quickest way for you to flunk this class is to start cracking Honeymooners jokes.” We all laughed at that; all of us had seen the popular television show starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, the latter playing a New York sewer worker named Ed Norton. Somehow I liked this guy right from the beginning.

“Normally I teach English,” Professor Norton went on, “but I enjoy climbing and got the college to go along with me on this class. I learned to climb where I grew up in California, and I don’t want to talk about how I wound up here with no decent mountains around. You’re probably wondering where we’re going to be climbing, and the answer to that is, ‘anywhere we can.’ Primarily this course is to teach you the basics of moving around on vertical surfaces and how to do it safely. Safety will be the watchword, but you’ll probably find yourselves doing things that most people think are crazy. I’m not sure they’re not right.”

He went on to explain that the class would help us build strength in our arms and legs, but also to build up our self-confidence and mental toughness – as well as to have some fun.

The concept of climbing for fun was virtually unknown in that part of the country at the time, mostly due to the lack of mountains. In later years indoor artificial climbing walls were to become fairly common but in those days even the concept was unheard of – except to Ed. He’d dreamed it up on his own. Later artificial climbing walls had simulated rock hand and footholds, usually cast plastic or fiberglass, but Ed hadn’t gotten that far – his holds were blocks of wood bolted to the concrete block wall of the field house foyer, which was about thirty feet high. He told us that they would serve to teach us the basics.

He also told us that our gym shoes would work all right for the first couple of sessions, but that we needed good quality boots as the class advanced. “Good climbing boots are all but unavailable in this neck of the woods,” he told us. “A good hiking boot or work boot will work pretty well for as far as we’re going to get in this class. If you don’t have something like that, there’s a store out on the south side of town that has some boots that ought to be adequate for this class. Now, I know most of you don’t have cars, so if you’re interested I’ll take you over there in my car after the next class and help you pick out something suitable. Expect to spend ten or fifteen dollars. If that is a problem to you, let me know and we’ll work out something.”

After a few more minutes discussion of what we would be learning – various techniques that he explained only briefly – he gave us a brief demonstration of what we would be doing by climbing up the wall clear to the top. “Climbing” sort of sounds like he was working at it, but he wasn’t – it was an easy scramble for him, and he was at the top of the thirty-foot wall in less than a minute. He had one end of a long rope wrapped around his arm; at the top of the wall he threaded it through a pulley and ran the free end of the rope back down to us. Then he wrapped the rope around him, shoved off from the holds he had been standing on, and bounded down the wall. “That’s what we call a rappel,” he explained. “You’ll be doing it before long, and it’s just as much fun as it looks.”

When it came to looks, Deanna and one of the guys looked a little green. I could tell they were wondering if they could make it over to change classes before the office closed. Whatever this course was to be, it was obviously not what they had been expecting.

“All right,” Professor Norton said when he was back on the ground. “To begin with, we’ll be using a top rope so you can’t fall, but we won’t be doing it all through the course, at least after I’ve had a chance to teach you something about protection and belaying. What we’re going to do is to tie one end of the rope around you, and the rest of you will keep the rope taut while you’re climbing, so that if you slip you won’t fall. Who wants to try it first?”

There were two people there who I would have been willing to bet good money wouldn’t try it at all; the other four of us mostly looked at each other with an expression that said, “You first.” Finally, I gave in; someone was going to have to go first and I figured it might as well be me. As Joe, I can’t say I was scared of heights, but I was respectful of them. Especially in my younger days as a trucker, I’d had to clamber around on the trucks and sometimes it could be a bit iffy – but I’d never had a serious fall.

“Oh, what the heck,” I said. “I’m going to have to do it sooner or later anyway.”

Professor Norton took a minute to show us how to tie a rope harness around ourselves – there were no climbing harnesses in those days – and showed everyone how to snub the rope around a handrail nearby, and then how to hold onto it.

Well, here goes nothing, I thought. If I die, will I wake up as Joan again? Or Joe? Or someone else? Or at all? At that moment I was not willing to bet.

I won’t say that I scrambled up the wall, but I moved steadily up it. The holds were easy reaches, and well placed. It probably took me a couple minutes or more to get up the wall, and when I dared to look down – well, it was a long way. But I’d done it! It wasn’t as hard as it looked!

“See?” he called up to me. “I said it wasn’t that hard.”

“You were right,” I called back. “Now, how do I get down?”

“You can climb back down the way you climbed up. It’s a little bit more difficult since it’s harder to see the holds. Let’s not try it this time, though. Why don’t you just let go, and you’ll see that you can’t fall while you’re top roped like that.”

“All right,” I said, throwing caution to the wind. “Here goes.”

I stepped off the holds, and found myself dangling in midair a few inches away from the wall. It was not terribly comfortable since the rope was tight around me, but in a few seconds I found myself lowered to the ground. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he said as I found myself standing upright again.

“No, it was actually kind of fun.”

“See, I told you so. Now, who’s next?”

One of the guys – Kirk was his name – decided that a girl shouldn’t show him up like that, so volunteered to go next. He went up the wall pretty well until about halfway up, when one foot slipped as he was moving his foot to another hold, and instantly was hanging on with his hands. Professor Norton told him to stop and take his time, and talked him toward getting his foot back on the hold, but his hand slipped and just like that he was dangling from the rope. But he pulled himself together, got his handholds and footholds back, and went the rest of the way up the wall. “Not bad,” Professor Norton told him. “You’re going to have to work on getting yourself a little more secure, but don’t worry, you’ll get it.”

Cat and one of the other guys – Mark – made it up the wall too, although a little more tentatively than I had done it. Since this was going guy-girl, that meant Deanna was the next up.

Deanna clearly lacked confidence. With great effort she got about six feet off the floor, clinging desperately to the wall and barely able to move. Part of the problem she had was that she was so big in the chest – Joe’s old male eye for that sort of thing estimated her as a double-D – and she just couldn’t get as close to the wall as she wanted to be. “Don’t worry about clinging to the wall,” Professor Norton told her. “Let your body hang away from it a little to give you some room to move. You’ve got a top rope on, so you can’t fall.”

I’ll give Deanna credit – she tried, but she just couldn’t make herself do it. “I can’t,” she cried.

“Sure you can,” the professor said. “Lean back just a little bit, and reach out with your right hand. That hold above you is well within reach.”

She tried it, missed the hold somehow, and slipped. Of course, we had a tight belay on her, so she didn’t fall more than two or three inches.

“Do you want to try it again, or should we let you down?”

“Let me down,” she cried. “I don’t think I can do this.”

We got her back down – it wasn’t far – and it was clear that she was so wrought up that the professor obviously figured that it was a good idea to let her get pulled together before she tried it again.

That left the last guy, Andy, the one who had been so green in the face at the thought of it. I was just about dead sure that he was going to be heading for the door, but somewhere he came up with the determination to give it a try. We got the rope on him, and he grimly and tentatively started up the wall. He wasn’t moving with any real confidence, but he wasn’t going to quit, either.

I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet it took him ten nerve-wracking minutes to make it to the top of the wall. But he made it. “Holy crap,” we all heard him say. “I did it. I really did it.”

“Yes, you stuck in there and did it,” Professor Norton called back. “Now that you know you can do it, it’ll be easier the next time.”

“Lower me down,” he called. “I want to try it again while I still know I can do it.”

In a few seconds we had him on the floor. “Do you really want it again?” the professor asked. “Maybe you ought to have a little bit of rest before you do.”

“No, I want to do it again right now while I still know I can. If I rest I’ll talk myself right back out of it.”

“See, you’re learning something about confidence already. Go ahead, give it a try. Don’t try to think about it so much, just do it.”

Andy started back up the wall, moving a little better this time. He was still not as fast as the rest of us, but we could all see that he was improving. Soon, he was at the top of the wall again. “Was that any better?” he called down.

“Much better,” the professor said. “See, it’s easier when you know you can do it. Let go, and we’ll bring you down.”

We did, and soon he was back on the floor. We could all see him sweating and breathing hard. “God,” he said, “I can’t believe I did that.”

“But you did. Courage involves shoving your fear aside and doing what you know you can do. That was a great job, Andy. You’ve got a ways to go, but I think you can do this. What’s more, I think you know it, too. Now, who wants to go again? Should we just keep the same rotation?”

We all went up the wall two or three more times that afternoon; after one more attempt Professor Norton urged us to go ahead and try to climb back down. He was right, it was not as easy to back down the wall and there were some slips, but we all made it.

All of us but Deanna, that is. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t make myself do this. I think I’d better drop this class or I’ll kill myself from worrying about it.”

“No hard feelings,” Professor Norton told her. “There are people who just can’t do it. That’s fine. Often they can do something that other people can’t do. I hate to let you go away a failure, but maybe it’s for the best.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again, as the tears in her eyes obviously were making her mascara run. “I . . . I . . . I thought I could do this. I guess not. Thanks for not holding it against me.”

“Like I said, no hard feelings. If you go change now, you can make it over to the ad building in time to turn in a drop slip.”

After the class, Cat and I grabbed some quick showers – the showers in the field house were much more forceful and pleasurable than the ones in the dorm – got dressed in our street clothes, and headed back to the dorm. It was still a couple of hours before dinner, but we both had some reading we wanted to do.

“Wow,” Cat said as soon as we were outside the building. “That was harder than I thought it would be.”

“Me, too,” I agreed. “But it sure felt good to get to the top of that wall the first time and know that I could make it.”

“Yeah, it did for me, too,” she agreed. “I’ll bet there aren’t many other girls on this campus who would even try it.”

“No, just you and me as far as I can tell. Deanna really tried, but she just couldn’t make herself get over her fear and try a challenge she wasn’t sure she could face up to. It’s kind of a shame, since while she’s pretty as all get-out the person behind that beauty isn’t going to be the kind of person who steps out and takes a risk when she needs to. I hate to say it, but she’s going to be poorer in this life because of it.”

We walked along for a ways before she replied, “Yeah, I think you’re right on that. You know we were talking the other day about not doing what we’re expected to do, and do something else instead. I don’t think she’ll be up to doing it.”

“Me, either,” I agreed. “And it’ll probably bite her in the butt someday when she least expects it. She may not have the courage to deal with the issue when it arises. I just hope it doesn’t hurt her or her kids when it happens. You know,” I said, pausing for a moment then going on, “I once heard someone define courage as the will to stand up and do what needs to be done, even if it’s to sit down and shut up.” I was not about to explain that I’d first heard that on A Prairie Home Companion about twenty years in her future.

“Yeah, that’s true, isn’t it?” she said thoughtfully. “Maybe Professor Norton is right. Maybe it will help us with our self-confidence and mental toughness. So are you going to continue with the class?”

“I think so,” I smiled. “I think it’s probably totally useless in the real world, but it ought to be fun and give me a workout without having to mess around with volleyball or something. Besides, maybe it will remind me that I’m not just another girl around this place, but that I’m something special.” Not that I would ever find myself needing the reminder, I thought, but at least it ought to show it to everyone else. “How about you?”

“I’ll stay with it if you will,” she smiled. “Actually, I think it’d be fun to be with a small group that’s doing something a little bit different than everyone else on campus. Professor Norton is really neat, and did you see the muscles on Mark? That guy sure gives me ideas I doubt my folks would like me to have.”

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To be continued . . .

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