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An extract from "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

by Bill Bryson, 2006


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Far out in the lake there was moored a large wooden platform on which stood an improbably high diving board—a kind of wooden Eiffle Tower. It was, I'm sure, the tallest wooden structure in Iowa, if not the Midwest. .... No human being had ever been known to jump from it.

So it was quite a surprise when, as the egg timer dinged our liberation, Mr. Milton jumped up and began doing neck rolls and arm stretches and announced that he intended to have a dive off the high board. ....

Word of the insane intention of the man who looked like Goofy was already spreading along the beach when Mr. Milton jogged into the water and swam with even strokes out to the platform. He was just a tiny, stick figure when he got there but even from such a distance the high board seemed to loom hundreds of feet above him—indeed, seemed almost to scrape the clouds. It took him at least twenty minutes to make his way up the zigzag of ladders to the top. Once at the summit, he strode up and down the board, which was enormously long—it had to be to extend beyond the edge of the platform far below—bounced on it experimentally two or three times, then took some deep breaths and finally assumed a position at the fixed end of the board with his arms at his sides. It was clear from his posture and poised manner that he was going to go for it.

By now all the people on the beach and in the water—several hunderd altogether—had stopped whatever they were doing and were silently watching. Mr. Milton stood for quite a long time, then with a nice touch of theatricality he raised his arms, ran like hell down the long board—imagine an Olympic gymnast sprinting at full tilt toward a distant springboard and you've got something of the sprit of it—took one enormous bounce and launched himself high and outward in a perfect swan dive. It was a beautiful thing to behold, I must say. He fell with a flawless grace for what seemed whole minutes. Such was the beauty of the moment, and the breathless silence of the watching multitudes, that the only sound to be heard across the lake was the faint whistle of his body tearing through the air toward the water far, far below. It may only be my imagination, but he seemed after a time to start to glow red, like an incoming meteor. He was really moving.

I don't know what happened—whether he lost his nerve or realized that he was approaching the water at a murderous velocity or what—but about three-quarters of the way down he seemed to have second thoughts about the whole business and began suddenly to flail, like someone entangled in bedding in a bad dream, or whose chute hasn't opened. When he was perhaps thirty feet above the water, he gave up on flailing and tried a new tack. He spread his arms and legs wide, in the shape of an X, evidently hoping that exposing a maximum amount of surface area would somehow slow his fall.

It didn't.

He hit the water—impacted really is the word for it—at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away. At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid. I don't believe Mr. Milton penetrated it at all, but just bounced off it about fifteen feet, limbs suddenly very loose, and then lay on top of it, still, like an autumn leaf, spinning gently. He was towed to shore by two passing fishermen in a rowboat, and carried to a grassy area by half a dozen onlookers who carefully set him down on an old blanket. There he spent the rest of the afternoon on his back, arms and legs bent slightly and elevated. Every bit of frontal surface area, from his thinning hairline to his toenails, had a raw, abraded look, as if he had suffered some unimaginable misfortune involving an industrial sander. Occasionally he accepted small sips of water, but otherwise was too traumatized to speak.

.... It was the best day of my life.


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