Column: 40 years later, tower of terror turns heavenly

By SCOTT SAALMAN

It had been 40 years since I first climbed the fire tower at Lincoln State Park. It was also my last time — until last month.

When I was a kid, my parents made me camp with them in a little aluminum camper that might have actually been a recycled tuna can. It was so small that mom could bring only one paperback book to read per trip. It was so small my parents regretted having a second child — at least during the summer.

Somehow our nuclear family fit inside together. As minimalistic as it was, the camper actually included a tiny bathroom, which my brother and I were never allowed to enter. Dad was the only one allowed in there. Anytime I would reach for the door knob, there’d come a dad growl, “Don’t open that damn door.” Usually this was after he’d just been in there. Maybe he was doing us a favor.

Dad could actually be in the middle of the lake fishing aboard his jon boat yet still know what my brother and I were up to back at camp. “Don’t open that damn door,” we’d hear his firm voice echo from afar, scaring the fish, and we’d immediately let go of the handle as if we’d just gripped the fiery end of a marshmallow stick.

The highlight of our camping trips for me was Angie Frye. Meeting Angie Frye made me stop obsessing over the camper’s forbidden bathroom and also marked the moment I first discovered girls — my life has been on a downhill trajectory ever since.

Angie Frye and I were in the same grade. She lived in Newburgh, an hour away from Tell City. There was nothing more exotic in my late boyhood than Angie Frye. Suddenly, camping took on a whole new meaning. It did not mean campfires and hotdogs. It did not mean swimming and fishing. It meant one thing, one thing only: Angie Frye.

Now: Enter the dreaded fire tower, a steel structure standing 120 feet tall on the other side of the lake. I hated heights. I couldn’t even bring myself to climb a step ladder to retrieve a Wiffle Ball from our one-story house’s gutter. I coaxed my little brother to the roof instead. Hey, at least I held the ladder steady during his climb.

Now: Imagine my dismay when, after hiking halfway around the lake, Angie and her girlfriends unanimously chose to break from the main path and follow the uphill path leading to the fire tower. The girls were all giggly about their prospective climb to the tower’s top. Had I possessed the powers to psychically will a grizzly bear to charge us and lasso us with rattlesnakes, thus diverting us from our dreaded destination, I would’ve done so.

At the top of the hill, I stared straight up. The tower seemed to weave. Six flights of steps snaked skyward within the structure’s metal framework, a small platform atop each section, as if serving as a base camp for climbers to pause in their ascension and adjust to thinner air. From the ground, I watched Angie and her friends make their noisy, rocky ascension to the final flight of steps and then disappear one by one into the observation deck at the top. They poked their heads out the windows and stared down at me staring up at them. Their shrill voices eventually reached into my hearing: “C’mon up!” I didn’t answer. I pretended to steady the ladder for them. I think I secretly hoped one of the girls would accidentally fall out, justifying my cowardice. When the trio returned safely to earth, I felt embarrassed.

Later that summer, I finally did climb the fire tower — by myself. I gripped the rails, refused to look down. I stayed for a few seconds at the top, really didn’t look out much, the beauty of southern Indiana lost on me because of my rush to descend. It counted as my first official climb but by then it didn’t really matter since the Fryes were not camping that weekend. There was no opportunity for me to tell Angie Frye about what I’d done and redeem myself in her pretty eyes. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this marked the last time my family would ever camp at Lincoln. Angie and I lost touch. We never reconnected. Damn fire tower. 

Last month, I took Brynne to Lincoln. At the base of the fire tower (surprisingly it is still accessible to the public), she was nervous about her first climb. Somehow I actually coaxed enough courage from within myself to coax her to the top of the tower with me, as if I had climbed the tower thousands of times before. In reality I had a 1 and 1 record with the tower. But I was a middle-aged man with something to prove. I helped pull Brynne up into the observation deck. The brisk breeze above the tree line felt divine. Gorgeous greenery and “Simpsons” blue sky stretched for miles. The bird’s-eye view of southern Indiana beauty was not lost on me this time, 40 years later. Brynne and I kissed. Redemption at 120 feet. Heaven.

Will Read and Sing For Food will hold a benefit show, open to the public, to raise money for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, at Klubhaus 61. Admission is a $10 donation.




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