My Midnight Swing
By Michael Welzenbach
as printed in Readers Digest September 1996
From the perch of my apartment's high balcony I had noticed them - these young aspiring pilots, high-jumpers and daredevils. I'd envied their grace and enthusiasm as they soared high over the heads of their companions. I often wished I too, could hurtle through the air with such dizzying delight.
Summer progressed, the evenings balmy and electric with the promise of fun. And the temptation was great. Yet every time I felt the urge to race to the playground, I reasoned the impulse away. What on earth are you thinking? I reprimanded myself. A grown man down there on the swing? What would everyone think? No, the idea was ridiculous. I had bills to pay, chores to attend to. Leisure time should be spent in adult pursuits - a hike in the country or a trip to the mall.
I stopped watching them. I put a low chair on the balcony, so all I could see were the roofs of other apartment buildings and the fitful late-summer sky.
But I could still hear those giggling voices floating up from below. And then late one Saturday night after a grueling week, as I sat feeling positively ancient, there came to me again, like a faint echo, the sound of children playing.
I flicked off the lights in the living room and opened the sliding doors to the balcony. But for the yellow pools cast by the parking lot lamps, all was dark and peaceful.
Stepping out into the moist night air, I looked down to the playground. There was no one there. Well, of course not, I chided myself. It's nearly midnight. You're hearing things. What you need is a good night's sleep.
Yet, something told me differently, and this time I didn't reason it away. With sudden determination, I went inside, pulled on a sweater and walked out the door.
The dew-moistened grass tickled my sandaled feet on the way to the playground. Here and there above me a window glowed with the flickering light of a television. I was completely alone.
The monkey bars loomed against the starry sky. A tall slide described a shiny, graceful S to the ground. The seesaws sat at angles.
And there, dangling silently on their chains, hung three swings. For a long moment I looked at them, feeling suddenly timid as though dozens of neighbors were watching from their windows. But it was too late to turn back, and the swings beckoned as strongly as they had when I was a boy.
I walked to the middle swing and sat in its wide rubber sling. Grabbing the chains, I gave a sharp pull. Yes, they'd hold me all right.
With a mighty heave I kicked up and backward with my feet. In an instant I was rocketing forward, my toes pointed to the stars.
It was exhilarating. Even wistful imagination hadn't prepared me for the sheer, tummy-turning thrill of dangling for a long second at the end of the sweeping arc and the sudden plummet backward. I had forgotten how streamlined I felt; how the cool rush of air made my eyes water.
Then I remembered the playground of my youth. In the long summer evenings, when I was six or seven, my brothers and I would race down the hill to the swings. We would dare each other to jump off at the highest point. In those distant days, there seemed nothing on earth that dreaming couldn't make so.
Later there were the swings in the park behind my school. It was a gathering place for young teen-agers, where boys met and chatted, sitting idly on the swings. At the appearance of a group of girls, all conversation hushed and any actual swinging stopped. We were glad to see the girls, but terrified nevertheless.
Now, as I pumped the air with my feet and pulled on the chains to propel myself higher, it was hard to believe I had let this much simple fun slip away.
As a boy, I had dreamed of traveling the world, and I had done that. I had dreamed of playing the guitar and the violin, and had struggled along at both with some success. I had dreamed of finding a fossil worthy of the museum, and after 20 years of searching I had done that too.
Mostly, of course, I had dreamed of being a grownup and of doing what I wanted, when I wanted. But as I grew older, I became free like every other adult - free to make decisions, free to clutter my life with all sorts of possessions. But how free had I really become?
Not very, it seemed. For wasn't freedom the self-confidence to stop on impulse and to a somersault on the lawn? To make a snow angel and not be concerned about what anyone might think?
Lulled by the rhythmic creaking of the chains on the nighttime swing, I found myself growing unaccountably happy. So my taxes were due. So the car inspection sticker had nearly expired. So that badly needed check hadn't yet turned up in the mailbox. So what? My toes were touching stars and my heart was chuckling.
The next morning when I left my apartment, I ran into my computer-specialist neighbor in the parking lot. "Was that you I saw on the swing last night?" he asked, smirking.
"Indeed it was," I said. "And maybe again tonight."