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sticking the landing
by dirk cotton

She held the dirty plate motionless in her left hand, the dishrag in her right, her dish washing interrupted and her entire body frozen for a moment by the strange noise. Instinctively, she cocked her head to one side, pointing her left ear towards the source, that is to say upwards, though it was a loud and rolling noise, much like thunder, and didn't really require any additional aiming of the ear to hear.

It sounded, incomprehensibly, like someone running down the steep pitch of the house's metal roof. Then she saw her husband drop out of the sky and land on both feet in the middle of the back yard facing away from the house and skidding to a stop, not unlike a small plane landing on a too-short runway.

Our home was a large, old house in Madisonville, two doors down from the elementary school I attended. Walking downhill from the school on Hall Street, we passed a large, stone retaining wall that ran along the sidewalk until it was breached in its center by several concrete steps leading up to a brief front walk that led to still more steps, these wooden, that finally deposited us on the front porch of our home.

The porch, L-shaped around the northeast corner of the house, covered and built deep to protect against the southern sun (though it would have been more effective had it actually been built on the sunny side of the house), gave access to the front door at one end of the L and to a side door to the dining room, the door my family used far more often, at the other end.

The kitchen at the rear of the house had once been a back porch. It was laid out more like a hallway than a kitchen really, and a new back porch had been added behind it after it was enclosed. That's how southern houses grow over the decades, by adding a porch, eventually enclosing the porch to make a new room, while adding another porch that will become another room at some point in the future. I suspect that most houses in small southern towns, no matter how large, started out as a single room with a back porch.

You could stand in front of the kitchen sink and look out through double-hung windows and under the small porch roof that jutted out from the back of the house like the afterthought it had been and see the backyard, a concrete block pit for burning trash (my job), a basketball goal with its patch of dirt where the grass had been worn away, and the end of our gravel driveway, which was usually occupied by our ancient Dodge Polaris. It was into this little corner of Paradise that my mother stared while washing the dishes.

From the bottom of the hill on Hall Street, you could see the profile of the house with its high-pitched roofline dropping quickly toward the back yard, then briefly leveling off to near horizontal above the most recently-added back porch. You could also see a large television antenna rising above the roofline, enabling it to receive two black-and-white broadcast signals, though neither of them very well.

The antenna was mounted on a tall mast that ran down the side of the house to the ground just outside my bedroom window. For reasons long forgotten, this window was frosted, the kind and size typically used in bathrooms, and strangely positioned in the very corner of the room. It was just another quirk of an old house that you never question until you are grown and live in a "normal" house.

Regardless, the window played a key role in our television viewing because the two stations we could receive were in opposite directions and we couldn't afford a rotor to turn the mast. Instead, summer and winter, my Dad would re-aim our television antenna every time he changed the channel by opening this window in my bedroom, grabbing the antenna mast with a large pair of pliers he called "channelocks", and twisting the antenna into position. It helped if my mother could remain in front of the TV in the living room and yell, "That's good-- no, back just a little-- there" to minimize, though never completely eliminate, ghosts and snow.

It was this same antenna that he had been working on when he started to climb down the roof toward the back yard, stumbled, and began running nearly straight down the precipitous roofline to avoid falling. It was the sound of his running along the metal roof that had startled my mother.

When he reached the back porch, directly above the kitchen sink and my mother, the roofline flattened dramatically, but he had built up considerable momentum at this point and the porch roof was only about two strides wide and still a good eight feet above the ground at its edge. There was no room to stop. Instead, he leapt off the porch roof, launched like a water skier from a ramp, and landed well into our back yard, entering my mother's field of view from above.

Dad picked himself up and started to brush away the dust when he noticed Mom looking out the kitchen window with her mouth wide open. He gave her that embarrassed, sheepish grin of his and, at an understandable loss for words, just shrugged. I have often imagined the neighbors witnessing this from a distance and saying, "Man, that Donald-- it sure doesn't take him long to climb down from a roof!"

That was my Dad. Athletic, strong, forced to fix things he couldn't afford to pay someone else to repair (he once wanted to pull my teeth with a pair of pliers to save the cost of a dentist, but I hid until he quit looking for me), a risk taker, but not really what you'd call a thinking man.

My mother's brother, Tom, likes to tell the story about how his Mom cooked two hamburgers for his lunch every single day of high school-- except one. On that fateful day, he arrived home to find Donald waiting there and his mother, naturally, had offered one of the burgers to him, ending a streak that was obviously quite important to my uncle. (Even now, sixty years later, I try to be sensitive about mentioning hamburgers when I'm around him, unless I want to hear the story again.)

Donald drove a 1940 Ford that my cousin, Monte, once told me was probably the hottest '40 Ford in the country. Tom asked Donald if he could give him a ride back to school and Donald quickly agreed but warned him that the hottest '40 Ford in the country was currently stuck in reverse, so they drove across Dawson Springs all the way to the high school-- backwards.

Dawson Springs was a small town with one policeman, so it isn't hard to imagine someone driving that far in reverse without being stopped for a sobriety test or hitting another car. Tom was, in fact, hit by a car while riding his bicycle as a kid and suffered a broken leg. Years later, Tom's two sons, having visited their father's childhood rural community several times, noting the lack of traffic, and having heard about the accident, were perplexed. "How did you even do that?" they asked. "Did you have to go looking for a car?

At the time we had moved from Dawson Springs to Madisonville, I didn't yet know about the '40 Ford and though I found a grown man jumping off an eight-foot-high roof at a dead run wildly entertaining, it didn't strike a twelve-year old as totally moronic at the time. I was impressed that he could do it without injuring himself. He might have been a dumb-ass to a discerning adult, but he was damned near Superman to me-- I'd like to see your dad try Olympic ski jumping with no skis and no snow.

It didn't even seem that odd to me when he nearly accidentally drowned my dog on a fishing trip, at least not at the time. Dad had driven my friend, Chuck, and me to Pee Wee Lake to fish. God only knows why we took Lucky, my little boston terrier, but an hour into the fishing, Dad got bored and asked me if I knew that all dogs could swim. He picked Lucky up and carried her to the end of a small dock and placed her gently into the water. Sure enough, she pinned her ears back and started dog paddling with great proficiency. Unfortunately, she headed for open water.

Dad panicked and began calling her back to the dock, but Lucky wasn't sure how to turn around. Eventually, she made a wide arc, perhaps intentionally, but more likely because she couldn't swim in a straight line, and swam back to the dock. Dad lifted her out of the water with great relief and, thinking ahead for once, suggested that we not share this story with my mother when we got home.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

more about dirk cotton


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topic: humor
published: 1.17.10

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topic: humor
published: 6.29.09


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