Falling off the porch; my first mystical experience

A version of this true story was one of more than 4,000 entries in National Public Radio’s National Story Project in 2001. Author Paul Auster picked 180 of them, including this one, to be published in a book titled “I thought My Father Was God.”

In the early 50’s when I was nine years old, most of my free time in the summer was devoted to a game my brothers and I called “half ball.” To play it, we would start with a hollow rubber ball (preferably a white pimple ball with a star on the top) and cut it in half. Since our “field” was the tiny backyard of our two-family house in Boston — about a mile from Harvard stadium — we would pitch the half ball underhand, and fast pitching was not allowed.

But even throwing slowly, we could make that ball dance. By cupping it properly, we could cause it to catch the air and fall down and out — or even up and in. It felt wonderful when the ball moved rapidly away from the batter, and he would fan the air with the sawed-off hockey stick we used for a bat.

Scoring was determined by how far up on the three-story house you got the ball — although we always lied to my grandmother who lived on the first floor and told her we never tried to hit the house. First floor was a single; second floor was a double, and so on.

One summer day I was up on the second story porch watching a game being played by my older brother and his friends. These were the big guys — in their late teens — and we younger kids generally were relegated to fetching the ball when they played.

My job was to retrieve balls that were hit onto the second story porch, including those that rolled off the porch but got caught in the rain gutter that went around it. We were constantly jumping over the railing, grabbing one of the rungs, and leaning over to knock a ball out of the gutter.

I did this many times that morning, but the last time something happened. Although I did not realize it at the time, the rung in the railing was loose and it came out in my hand. My weight took me over the side and I was soon heading down towards the concrete walk and wooden stairs about 12 feet below.

But none of that was known to me. I had gone off into another world. I remember that I thought I must be dreaming.

I started reviewing the morning’s events, carefully and slowly. I recalled each activity I had done that morning and tried to decide whether or not I had dreamt it. After going over everything, I came to the calm conclusion that I was not, in fact dreaming. But before I could do anything about that depressing judgment, I hit the ground.

All of this could not have taken more than a second, yet it felt like ten minutes to me.

My right shoulder had landed on the concrete walk. My buttocks hit the wooden stairs, creating an odd-looking straight-line bruise. Luckily, my head fell in the few inches between a wooden railing and the concrete walk, and was cushioned by a wire fence.

My mother was called out, and she insisted I go to the hospital. There were no free ambulances in those days, and we did not have much money or a car. My mother was agoraphobic. She never left a three-block area of Allston. So she called my aunt, who was a Christian Scientist, and angrily overrode her religious objections to taking me to the hospital.

We went to Beth Israel, where they gave me an X-ray and a glass of water and told me that I had not broken anything. Apparently, said the doctor, because I thought I was dreaming I had been relaxed as I fell and, as he put it, I “bounced” when I hit the ground. I can still remember the bill. It was $17.50: $15 for the X-Ray and $2.50 for the glass of water, which they called “medication.”

At the time, I joined my family in dismissing the importance of this incident, happy not to be seriously injured. But now I look back on it with wonder about what it tells me about the mind. Why did I think I was dreaming? Did my subconscious mind “know” that I could be protected if my conscious mind was occupied with the idea that I was dreaming? If my mind could do that, could it move my body in such a way as to change where I landed? Was it luck, or something else, that kept my head from landing on the concrete?

I will probably never know the answers to these questions, but I will always know that there is much that we humans do not know about our minds.

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