What was I thinking?
Those are usually the first words out of people’s mouths when they hear about the incident at the Johnson County Courthouse. They hear about how I climbed the four floors of scaffolding outside the old building early on Sunday morning (the only time we knew there wouldn’t be workers there). They don’t think about the fact that I wasn’t alone; all you have to do is watch the video on YouTube to realize that someone had to be behind the camera.
What was I thinking?
We’d worked it all out in excruciating detail. Lu and I had figured out the square footage of the planks that surrounded the Court House, and laid them all out. I’d practiced and practiced for what seemed like a week, but was probably only an hour or so. I was fairly confident that there wouldn’t be any slip ups.
But now, as I balanced at the edge of the first plank on the highest scaffold, my finely polished unicycle parked carefully between my legs and in front of me, I wondered if we had really taken everything into consideration. I was grateful that there wasn’t any wind, but as I looked across at the big clock on the front of the Courthouse roof, I realized how far off the ground I really was. A little electric shock of fear shot down my back and back up again. Test pilots aren’t afraid. Stunt men aren’t afraid. Well, I really didn’t know that for sure, since I never really talked to one of them. But they don’t look afraid.
“Action!” I heard Lu shout from the other side of the scaffolding. He waved his hand above his video recorder and waited for me to start. This was going to be our ticket to greatness. A video posted online of me circumnavigating the scaffolding surrounding the court house four floors above the hard cold Texas ground was guaranteed to create opportunities for Lu as a filmmaker. Me? I had always taken a dare, done the risky thing, leaped out into the darkness and had faith that I could catch myself somehow. My mother had stopped making comments, but I could tell she worried about me. One time she told me that I had my guardian angel working overtime, but before I could ask her what she meant by a guardian angel, my dad looked at her strangely, and she shut her mouth. I knew better than to ask any questions when Dad got that look. As time went on, with Mom having a two-year-old at home and another on the way, she had given up watching me closely. Dad? He was too busy working on an oil drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana. I wouldn’t see him for another six months.
That’s probably where I got my willingness to take risks. My dad used the excuse of taking care of his family to do dangerous things, like working on offshore oil platforms. I’d done some crazy things with my bicycle before, a skateboard a couple of times. Three months ago, I discovered the unicycle, which opened up a world of possibilities for me. As I got better and better, Lu showed me a YouTube video of a kid in Canada who unicycled the length of his house’s rooftop and back. Since that time, he and I had been planning our response. If the Canadian kid’s video can draw one million hits, I could only imagine what our exploit would do.
I had another reason why I was eager to do this. His name was Bud Landry. Bud and me, along with a girl named Emily Parmentier, had been The Three Amigos all through elementary school and middle school and junior high. But something happened at the end of junior high, and we stopped talking to each other. Actually, I know what happened. Bud grew and I didn’t.
Bud grew six inches during eighth grade and got muscles too. He was a shoo-in for junior varsity. Right now, he had girls oohing and aahing over him every day. And since he was JV’s leading running back, he was invited to all the parties too, even the ones the seniors threw.
Me? I was Mr. Invisible. My dad is a tough guy—no one pushes him around—but he never grew past five foot six. And at age 14, I’m still three inches shorter than that, with no muscles to speak of. It gives me hope that someday soon I might add some height, but not a lot.
“Action!” Lu hissed again. I looked around me at the sun coming over the rooftops, at the parked cars below me, at the pigeons settling down on the scaffolding below me, and sighed. Better to go out with guns blazing, I thought. What would Luke Skywalker do?
With that thought in mind, I leaped forward on my unicycle and was on it and balanced in one smooth move. I turned back toward Lu and waved. First obstacle overcome.
I looked over my shoulder at the scaffolding that curved around to the right and behind the building. It seemed to stretch for a long ways, and the wooden planks seemed rougher and less sturdy than ever before. I inhaled through my nose and pedaled off the end of the board I was on and onto the next one.
So far, so good. The trick was to make sure your tire didn’t get caught between the wooden planks, and not to look down. Thinking about that, I looked down, and immediately regretted it. A sudden jolt of fear made me almost lose my balance, but I recovered. I heard Lu gasp behind me and I smiled to myself. At least I wasn’t the only one feeling the icy cold fingers of death on my shoulder, I thought.
I crossed to the second scaffolding with a bump, my unicycle wheel dropping from atop one plank and onto the one below. We had thought it through before, thank goodness, and I continued to move in the direction that would allow me to drop down off one plank and onto another, instead of struggling to rise from one onto the higher one.
By the fourth scaffold, I had a steady rhythm set down. The fear left me and I began to look around. Even though we had planned the stunt for early Sunday morning, about a dozen people had begun to gather on the ground below. I waved down to them, and one man waved back. I started to see if I could recognize any of them, but Lu’s voice brought me back.
“Pay attention to what you are doing, idiot!”
Lu was right. Any self-respecting test pilot would realize that playing to the crowds would get you killed. Would Chuck Yeager have waved to the ground while he was breaking the sound barrier for the first time? Would Evel Knievel have put more attention on the crowd than on a safe landing when he tried to fly the jet motorcycle over the Snake River Canyon? Would Hans Solo…well, forget Hans Solo. What about Anikin Skywalker?
By the time I got to the third side of the Courthouse scaffolding, I was feeling more and more confident. The crowd had swelled to about 30 people, and I thought I recognized some of my teachers down there. Wasn’t that Mr. McKinstry? I sighed and shook my head. Vanity will get you killed.
Finally I saw the final corner coming toward me. I dropped from one wooden plank to the one it was resting on, and turned right and headed toward Lu. Even with the video camera in front of his face, Lu’s face was wrapped in a big smile. I heard applause beginning to break out below me as well. I had about 50 feet to cover to get back to Lu and finish my stunt.
It was at that moment that the big clock tower began to chime 8 a.m. The first gong from the clock just 20 feet away startled me, and disrupted a flock of pigeons that had taken roost just a level below me. I wobbled on my unicycle, then steadied myself. A second later, fifty pigeons flew right into my path.
I threw my hands up as the birds flew into my face. All I could see were flapping wings and feathers, and claws and beaks struck me in the face. I was disoriented.
“Look out!” Lu shouted from ahead. I shook myself and tried to get my bearing. I looked up just in time to see that I was rolling right off the end of scaffolding with the ground fifty feet below.
I quickly backpedaled and tried to get my balance, but it was too late. I reached out with both arms, and felt the planks shift beneath me, just as I felt weightless. The unicycle disappeared from beneath me. I caught the end of one of the planks with my left arm and tried to grab something, but all it accomplished was a wrenching pain in my shoulder and my arm. I spun through the air looking down, then up, then down again. Then all I saw was darkness.