Death-defying excitement just a childhood memory

By Minx McCloud

My friends always regale me with stories about rock-climbing in Montana or bungee jumping in the Snake River Canyon. I, alas, equate such activities with death, and even if my body were willing, my spirit would be weak.

Yet there was a time when I was very daring. Bravely, I constantly challenged myself to do things I never thought I'd be able to do. Sure, I was just a child, but those were exciting days, marked by "death-defying" and frightening firsts.

I remember my first bike ride without training wheels. Dad ran next to me, puffing and panting, holding onto the bicycle seat. He told me he was going to let go of the bike. I was so frightened of falling, but I wanted him to be proud. He let go and I felt the bike wobble. I shifted my weight and suddenly I was soaring down the street, all fear magically dissipated. I was flying.

Water played a big part in the lives of those of us who grew up on Long Island. We had to conquer our fear of swimming in a lake that was (allegedly) inhabited by huge turtles that dragged unsuspecting children back to their murky lair.

Short months later, I had mastered balance so well that I was ready to take my hands off the handlebars. Cautiously, I removed first one hand, then the other. My sense of balance did not fail me, and in a matter of days, I could unwrap a candy bar or carry groceries while speeding down the road no-handed.

One summer day, Dad decided it was time to introduce me to the ocean. I longed to frolic in the waves with the older kids, but there was the dreaded undertow and those huge waves cresting far above my head. The ocean was incredibly cold and watching the foam swirl around my legs made me dizzy. I plunged in anyway.

Water played a big part in the lives of those of us who grew up on Long Island. We had to conquer our fear of swimming in a lake that was (allegedly) inhabited by huge turtles that dragged unsuspecting children back to their murky lair. We had to overcome our horror of jellyfish and horseshoe crabs in the Great South Bay.

Even in the town pool, I cautiously opened my eyes underwater for the first time, risking almost certain chlorine poisoning. Oh, the joy of swimming across the pool without crashing headfirst into the opposite wall.

My first horseback riding lesson was a mixture of terror and ecstasy. My teacher was a crusty old woman who tapped us briskly with her riding crop if we didn't follow her instructions. I don't know if I was more frightened of her or Kentucky, the 22-year-old gelding that had taught two generations of youngsters to ride. He was so tall, and at 5 years old, I was so little.

When I sat on his back for the first time, a crushing fear of heights gripped me, but within weeks, I was galloping through my rural town like Eddie Arcaro at the Preakness. Another victory.

There were many lesser challenges to be faced, but still, they were daunting.

The first time my friends and I went trick-or-treating without our parents, we were chased through the town by junior high kids who threw eggs at us and tried to steal our candy. I screamed my way from one end of town to the other, cleverly hid my candy, and couldn't wait to do it again the following year, in spite of the fact that I woke up with nightmares for three days afterward.

Of course, there were also the usual rites of passage -- first day at school, first boy-girl dance, first driving test, and, first (and, it is hoped, last) marriage.

Now that I'm 51, I still experience "first times," but they aren't as exciting. They don't really make the soul soar.

For example, a couple of years ago, I tried sushi for the first time. Eating raw fish wrapped around rice (or is that sashimi?) has to be life-threatening in some way, I suppose, especially if the fish was caught in New Jersey waters.

But it didn't have quite the kick that learning to eat a raw clam had been. I remember how my uncle taught me to drown the clams in cocktail sauce and slurp them off the shell. From then on, I impressed my friends, who oohed and aahed as I sucked down what they considered to be "snot on a shell."

I remember driving through the Somerville Circle when I first moved to New Jersey, before it was "improved." That was pretty scary, as was my first trip to Trenton. Although I had detailed directions, the roads I had been given were closed due to construction.

Lost in the bowels of Trenton, I searched for someone who sounded reasonably sober and knew how to get me out of there. Diogenes had an easier time finding an honest man. Still, it didn't thrill me like my first solo drive to Manhattan did (when I was 18).

I no longer make fun of my friends who pursue dangerous hobbies. I realize now that they are trying to awaken the excitement they felt as children, when all things seemed daring and new.

Oh, to experience again the rush that I felt when Dad and I stood outside in the eye of the hurricane, right before it began to rage again. I would give anything to ride my bike through burning leaves in the curb or go on the "Octopus" at an amusement park for the first time. (So what if I threw up in Mom's lap? The adrenaline flowed.)

I guess at this stage in my life, I'll have to settle for whatever thrills I can find.

Would you believe Route 287 during rush hour, with an 18-wheeler hot on my trail?

As a friend of mine said, "You know you're in trouble when all you see is the word "ETERBIL" in the rearview mirror.

Minx McCloud is a free-lance journalist who writes about life in New Jersey. She can be reached at To see her most recent column, click here.

This article is copyright 2001 by Minx McCloud and appears here with permission.

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