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A serial adventure in fiction by Brad Sondahl

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Chapter 26
The Quest for Meaning
   I was feeling relatively safe, inside my screen porch, having just finished a  Saturday summer brunch with Alice, when Larry showed up.  Larry and I have had our ups and downs, but I wasn't prepared for his latest extreme sport fad...
    "BASE jumping, Phil!   It stands for Building, Antenna, Structure, and something else that starts with an E."
    "It's probably the Earth.  These guys are wacko enough to assume the Earth is flat, and want to jump off the corners of it."
    "Not insane, Phil!  They get all the thrills of skydiving without having to pay for the plane ride.  Besides, there is no 'these guys...'  There's only 'us guys.'  This is right up our alley."
    "Do you remember your bicycle, Larry?  The one you left in pieces up on the mountain?  That bicycle could be you, Larry...  I know it isn't going to be me..."

    I thought the conversation was going very well, but then Alice started to add her opinion...
    "Phil, I'm proud of you to not sucker for some deluded middle aged second adolescence--no offense to you, Larry...  But 'go jump off a cliff' used to be an insult, not a flight plan...  Anyway, there's no way Phil would get involved in such a risky venture.  He doesn't like to get hurt..."
    "Well, that's true, Alice, but I do tolerate minor pain."
    "When you strained your back reaching for the Sunday paper, you made me take you to the emergency room in a wheel chair..."
    " That was very bad back pain, Alice..."
    "Then why was it you couldn't tell the doctor where it hurt?"
    "It had become sort of generalized," I said.  "Anyway, I'm sure the details on this BASE jumping are all worked out so there's very little risk."
    "That's the spirit, Phil, I knew I could count on you!" said Larry...
    "I'm not saying I'd try it, I'm just saying it might be okay for you..."
    "Sure," said Larry, "That's what I said before watching them jump off the High Bridge...  So just come along with me and be my "flight crew" okay?"

    "Phil," said Alice, "There is no reason for you to get involved with this..."
    "Well, maybe that's right," I said, "but maybe it will help me figure out the meaning of life..."
    "I can already tell you," said Alice.  "The meaning of life is not to jump off buildings, antennas, structures, or anything higher than a curb."
    "We'll see," I said.
    "Yeah," said Larry, I can't wait!"

For some reason, before I left with Larry for the High Bridge, Alice made me sign a contract stating I would not under any circumstances jump off anything for any purpose.  She said she just wanted it all clear in my mind before leaving.  I thought her requiring me to sign it in blood was a bit "over the top."  On the way to the bridge, Larry turned on the radio.  It was an oldies station, playing the old Rolling Stones song, "This could be the last time."  It seemed to me to be portentous, but Larry just sang along obliviously.  Larry has sufficient faith in himself to move a mountain.  Unfortunately sometimes that's just what's needed so he doesn't go splat...
    The High Bridge is a result of "the lay of the land," as we westerners call it, or "geography" as it's generally known.  There are a lot of deep river valleys, and a lot of ridges, and when the roads go through, some of the bridges are pretty high.  The High Bridge is extra high because it goes over a train bridge which is simultaneously going over the Lilac River.  Depending on the weather, some BASE jumpers, Phil said, preferred to land on the tracks instead of in the river.  Being summer,  the water landing was all part of the excitement of the jump, particularly since a rapids started just below, which made gathering your chute quickly a must...

    We parked along the road at the edge of the bridge, and walked out where there was a small crowd assembled. They reminded me a bit of penguins on the edge of an ice flow, wanting to jump in, but afraid there might be a leopard seal down below.  But one difference was these birds were talking big. One of them said: "Wingsuits is where it's at.  We all really want to be bird men."
    "Yeah, like the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," another one said.  "I like to think she pulled up enough to land it..."
    There's a lot of that sort of optimism with BASE jumpers.  I had checked the web while Larry made some calls back at the house.  Apparently the ones that have successfully jumped off all four different kinds of structures get a special number at a BASE website.  And the ones who die get numbers there also.
    Larry was double checking his new special BASE parachute, which made sense to me.  On the website I saw where one guy had folded his chute up wet, left it in his car overnight in sub freezing temperatures, and when he jumped, an ice-cube-shaped lump followed him to his death.   Back on the bridge, I watched as one person got up on the rail and took the plunge.  It all went perfectly.  Everyone up above cheered and gave high-fives.  It made me think that this was a rare occurence--all going well.  

    I decided that what could currently give my life meaning was to talk one obsessive fool out of risking his life doing something totally useless.  Unfortunately, when a rational force meets an irrational object, insanity for all is the likeliest outcome.  After fifteen minutes of impassioned entreaties meeting bland equanimity,  Larry said farewell, I said good riddance,  and he got up on the bridge rail.  His take off went perfectly.

    The wind had not been a factor all afternoon, but a gust of wind arrived with the sound of a train coming around the curve on the tracks.  The wind seemed to carry Larry directly towards the tracks.  He hadn't discussed where he wanted to land, probably fearing that he'd look bad if he missed his goal. But the tracks might have been a good goal if the train weren't coming right at them.   The engineer, seeing the parachute descend, laid long and hard on his air horn.  Larry was certainly aware of the train now, but the wind had him firmly in tow.  It appeared it would drop him on the tracks about 10 feet in front of the train.  The train wasn't roaring around, but we all knew how long trains take to stop...

    Larry did indeed hit on the tracks, and then took a couple bounds and jumped off the train bridge, continuing on into the river.  There were general cheers of encouragement.  The engineer gave one more long blast and shook his head sadly out the window as the train went out of sight.  The rest of the train obscured the view of Larry landing in the river, but we soon saw him being carried towards the rapids, struggling to release his chute harness.  Then we saw him entering the rapids.  That's when I headed for the car.  I called 911 as I drove to the next bridge, at Mortar and Pestle State Park.  I jumped out at the parking lot and ran down to the water's edge.  Soon I saw the parachute come by, but no Larry.  Well, I thought, at least he got out of his harness.  I let the parachute go on, figuring one way or the other Larry wasn't going to use it again.  Finally I got a call on my cell phone, and it was Larry, wondering where I was.
    "Where are you?" I asked.  "I went down to the park to try to stop you as you went by..."
    "Well," he said, I'm kind of stuck on a log in the middle of an eddy," he said.  "It's a good thing I put my cell phone in a ziplock bag..."
    "I called 911, and I expect the River Rescue people will be here soon, Larry," I said. "I'll see if I can walk upstream to where I can see you."
     I think the River Rescue guys are another branch of the BASE jumpers, except they get a kick out of the stupid things people do to get in the river in the first place.  They probably keep a bulletin board at the Fire Station of "Stupid ways people get in trouble in the river."  Anyway,  the reason they're like BASE jumpers is they enjoy insane challenges, like fishing someone off a log in the middle of a huge whirlpool. 

    It was as I watched those people stringing ropes across the rapids, that I realized the meaning of life.  There are at least 3 kinds of people.  There are the sane ones like Alice, who say, don't jump.  There are the crazy ones like Larry who jump and suffer the consequences.  And there are the also crazy ones who do stuff like fight fires, arrest villains, fight wars, and rescue idiots, but do it with a purported purpose.  Without people like Larry, there would be no one to keep the third type busy.  If everyone were like Alice, the world would be safe, but boring.

    So Larry and I decided to sign up to become volunteer EMT's.

Use this chart to find the next of the cartoons (first 47  entries) or the stories (starting with  1 A River Too Far 5 rows below week 8)
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Week 47
(cartoon ends)
1. A River Too Far
2.The Reunion
3.The Daily Grind
4 The New Car and Treasure
5. The Big 
6. The old
7. The Ravine Runner 8. The Fabulous
Folk Festival
9. Druid
10. Goats of
Christmas Past
11. The Secret Six 12. The Great
White Hunters
13. The Old School
Lost in the City

What's in
a name?
The Curse of
Bently Manor
Shortbottom Possessed
The Lost
of Iraq
Phil Steen
for President!
Phil Steen
for Rehab
The Adventures
of Handiman
and Fiberwoman
Pirates of the Puget Sound
Building a platform, plank by plank
The Quest
for meaning
Larry and
Phil to
The Rescue
Hurrah for
the Reds,
Whites, and
How I spent
my summer
I am
trapped in
the Present
Help I am trapped
in the future
Nose of Death