The only advice I got from Lacy before I ran the race wasn’t good advice, and I didn’t follow it, and I’m glad. She’d seen an early plan of the course and warned me that the bears, which looked vicious, were not as vicious as the crocodiles, which would be behind me when the bears were in front of me. With bears, according to Lacy, you’re supposed to move very slowly and keep walking as if you haven’t noticed them, whereas with crocodiles, especially short-range crocodiles, the thing to do is get away as quickly as possible, because they have strong jaws but not the legs or motivation to give chase. What Lacy advised, then, was to ignore the bears, and all the conventional wisdom about bears, in favor of a quick run, because the bears, instead of chasing you, would notice the crocodiles, hesitate out of curiosity, and get their feet chomped off. Lacy, though, had a history of giving less-than-stellar advice, especially about wildlife, which wasn’t her forte. I had hired her as an advisor because of her dazzling performance in the Impromptu Parachute section of the 1988 Paris games, and any information she had to share about fabric, knots, wind resistance or harnesses would have been more than welcome. Unfortunately, she still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that her strategy in the Escape From Wild Animals event had not been a daring last-minute inspiration but a suicidal blunder, and that she was only alive thanks to dumb luck. In 1988, when they were still using lions and wild boars, she had completed the final leg of the course by hopping on a lion’s back and riding it to the finish line. She came in first but was chastised by the International Survival Games Committee, who rained on her victory parade by reminding her that 1) the chances of a mounted lion running straight to the finish line were essentially zero and 2) a normal lion should have been flexible enough to stretch its head around and snap Lacy’s neck. Animal control shot down the lion in the stadium and an autopsy revealed that it had, at some point not long before the opening ceremony, sustained a muscle injury that prevented it from rotating its head. An investigation was mounted to determine whether Lacy or anyone on her coaching or advisory staff had tampered with the lion. Although officially cleared of all wrongdoing, Lacy was censured for her strategy, which, exciting as it may have been for the spectators, was based not on skill but luck, and as such was contrary to the spirit of the Survival Games. All of which is to say that I wasn’t interested in Lacy’s take on the wild animals. I nodded politely and wrote down what she had to say in my notebook, but I was already planning to disregard it in favor of Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson’s plan. Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson was the five-time Australian national champion and a true expert on bears and crocodiles. I only had one strategy session with Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson, in a bar. He sat me down and revealed to me the four most important and misunderstood words in the world of animal escapology: jumping up and down. According to Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson, wild animals, far from being automatons or slaves to instinct, are often as clever, perceptive and self-aware as the humans who run from them. When they come across a person, they expect that the person will either panic and flee or retreat very slowly and avoid eye contact. Any decision on the animal’s part to attack, said Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson, is based not on the behavior of the person but on the mood of the animal, something the would-be escapist has no hope of influencing. Jumping up and down, he argued, is a risky but effective alternative. A person jumping up and down in front of a bear is obviously crazy, and probably dangerous, and the bear knows it. Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson had survived and won all of his professional runs by jumping up and down, in front of bears and tigers and other animals, but jumping up and down was not, in itself, sufficient. “You must jump up and down,” he said over a pint, “without fear.” He wore a moustache of beer foam. I didn’t need to take any notes. All I needed was practice. For six months I resolved to jump up and down in the face of everything that made me nervous, frightened or uncertain. I spent a lot of time wandering through rough neighborhoods wearing a nice suit. Whenever a threatening figure approached I began to jump up and down. At first I waved my arms but later I decided that this created an inappropriate air of theatricality. Jumping up and down with my arms at my side, military-style, looked and felt positively loony. One evening I was fortunate enough to be waylaid by a mugger near my home. He was a large man with a loaded gun and no conscience, but he fled in terror as soon as I started jumping up and down. I went to the zoo and jumped up and down in front of the cages. The effect on the animals was electrifying. Sleeping cheetahs woke up and started pacing. Aggressive gorillas retreated. Flightless birds flapped their wings and attempted to take to the sky. Soon I began to feel as if I had mastered the art of jumping up and down, but complacency is dangerous to the competitive athlete. I knew I had to go deeper and get stronger. I focused my jumping on less tangible fears. I jumped up and down when I thought about getting older. I jumped up and down while reading newspaper articles about war and famine. I jumped up and down in the face of unsubstantiated rumors, remote possibilities, urban legends, ancient myths, old wives’ tales, apocalyptic prophecies. I jumped up and down at the suspicion of devious freemason and trilateralist codes in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, the Diamond Sutra, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, the Partridge Family’s A Very Partridge Hanukah. Before long the habit of jumping had replaced the habit of fear and I began to grasp the hidden meaning of Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson’s method. In the final estimation it was not a way to frighten one’s opponent but to quiet one’s own heart. I tracked him down and asked him if he agreed with my interpretation, but he was deep in a six-pack and practicing darts. He threatened to shove one of them up my ass if I didn’t leave him alone. After a bit of jumping up and down I convinced myself that this was tacit encouragement on his part. Other people seemed to believe that I was dangerously unprepared for the trials ahead. The Games were drawing near and my training so far consisted entirely of jumping up and down. I had neglected to prepare for almost every event. I had no strategy for Impromptu Parachute, Rickety Bridge, Traffic Dash, Gratuitous Provocation or the dreaded “Surprise Round,” but I wasn’t worried. I jumped up and down all day long to relax myself. I jumped in my sleep and at the supermarket, I jumped in the library and at the video store. I found that my mind worked better and my body reacted more quickly when I jumped up and down. There was no need, I decided, to train for the other events. As long as I kept jumping up and down I would know what to do and do how to do it. Lacy was concerned and kept reiterating her advice about the bears and crocodiles. I asked about parachutes one last time but she had no solid recommendations, so I told her what I’d told my head coach, my parents, my wife, my priest and the media. I had discovered a new meta-strategy, a trump card that would change the Games forever, maybe even put an end to them. People laughed at me, but I was right. When the time came for my run I hopped on to the elaborate track in Johannesburg and breezed through in record time. According to the television reports I fashioned a perfect parachute from an old awning, landed with miraculous accuracy on the rickety bridge’s sixteen firm support beams, weaved through traffic like a ghost, provoked the king-sized psychopath into cardiac arrest before he had a chance to swing at me, and survived the “Surprise Round” (a hail of sharpened darts tossed by a sober and lightning-fast Keith “The Kangaroo” Wilson) by presenting a moving target too fearless to fell. Finally, in what must have been something of an anticlimax, I slipped past the stupefied bears and crocodiles without breaking a sweat. I didn’t recall any of it after the race was over. The jumping put me in a trance and made the normally grueling competition feel like a pleasant Sunday afternoon nap. My primary opponent, a newcomer and a fan of Lacy’s named Carl “The Persuader” Gutzman, kept pace in his own way, until the animal round, where he impressed the crowd by kneecapping the bear with a kung-fu kick and then blew his edge by attempting to ride the crocodile to the finish line. He was still dodging its jaws and spurring it pointlessly in the ribs as I jumped past the finish line, arms at my side like a demented military man, hazily aware that I had won the day. I was already looking forward to my early retirement, not for the disciples and groupies and lectures and respect and endorsement deals and religious adoration, but because I had nothing more to fear. All I had to do now was keep jumping.
About the author:
You can find Charles Ullmann's stories here, there and elsewhere on the web. He's also the author of Strategies for Modern Living, a chapbook of short fiction published by Future Tense Books. He lives in Japan.