AS a young man (that is, pre-thirty) I sailed tall ships.
I scrambled like a monkey 40 metres into the whistling skies to furl sails on yards that pirouetted over the ocean like a drunk crossing a freeway. And I did it without a safety harness. We all did.
There was only a lunatic faith in our own immortality and grip like a pitbull terrier on a Pekingese that kept us from pasting ourselves thinly over the deck, or plunging into the grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean while the ship, under full sail, became a galloping dot on the horizon.
I know I shouldn’t boast, but I was a good sailor. I could coil 50 fathom of rope in 30 seconds, tie a bowline behind my back, splice a rope and spit 10 metres – always to leeward.
My daughter’s partner asked me to help him fell a tree. A big tree in a small backyard. It couldn’t be dropped with a single cut. It had to be climbed and lowered in sections.
I thought he wanted me for my skills at climbing, my fearlessness of heights, my knowledge of knots.
But no, he wanted me for my chainsaw and rope.
The tree was branchless for the first three metres.
“I’ll get a stepladder,” I said.
“What for?” they replied. (He had a mate helping him, too. God knows why).
“To traverse the bit with no branches,” I said, widening the generation gap by several kilometres.
“No worries, granddad,” said the mate, rot his tongue.
He gripped a craggy bit of bark and with bare, prehensile toes that marked him as the simian he clearly was. he levitated himself into the lower branches. “Bugger,” he called down. “Forgot the rope.”
“Stay there,” I commanded. “Lad. I’ll heave it up.”
Heave is a nautical term. ‘Throw’ is for pimply boys.
It was already coiled. I cast off the seizing, fed a few coils expertly into my throwing hand and threw.
The rope draped itself over the fence like a macramé mat chewed by the cat.
I tried again (after I’d unravelled the tangles). The pair of them watched me silently. In awe of my dexterity, I assumed.
But no, my daughter’s partner was tying the other end round a stick. He lobbed it up to his mate, who caught it.
I guess he caught it. I wasn’t watching. I was nursing my shoulder. I think I pulled a muscle.
Later they stopped for a beer. I got the stepladder anyway and climbed into the tree. “To check out the way it’s going to fall,” I said. I clawed my way into the lower limbs and looked down.
I became an instant tree hugger. Not because of my love of trees but because of my fear of death. I made it down. Exhausted, trembling, and suddenly aware that ageing is not just a physical process, but a mental one, too.
I went and had a beer on the verandah while they finished the job, running around up there as brazen as squirrels… without safety harnesses.