05.14.13 3:00 PM ET
Peter Worthington: Cliff Diver
This story of Peter Worthington's surfaced in my memory this morning, I first heard it years ago.
As a young boy, Pete had been very afraid of heights. He set out to conquer this fear by learning to dive and succeeded in becoming a very accomplished diver. (We have a photo of him in his mid-50s diving off the cliffs at Acapulco, Mexico.)
In 1945, Pete was serving as a new lieutenant aboard a Canadian warship (a destroyer if I remember right). Early in the voyage, he decided to start the day with a sea bathe. He had the bright idea of diving off the ship's tower. He climbed to the top, looked over the ocean, and realized that it was higher over the water than he'd expected. Much too high. He began back away from the edge. At just that moment he was seen from below by two seaman. "Look! Lieutenant Worthington is going to dive!"
He realized: there was no decent retreat. He returned to the edge, thought "I'm going to break my neck - what a stupid way to die," and dove. When he hit the water, the jolt was so hard that he thought he had broken his neck. He survived, and from then on was something of a hero on the ship.
Years later, he married my wife's mother. Every summer, the blended family of three children would rent a cottage in Muskoka. On the way, they'd stop at the bridge in the little town of Baysville, where Pete would - after first carefully checking the water himself - urge the kids to dive. For years, my wife repeated this story to our own children, heavily emphasizing the terror of the height and the need to conquer fear. Then she'd add, "Of course, it was only because I was so little that the bridge seemed impossibly high. If we were to see it today, we'd realize it was just a few feet over the water."
When our children finally came of age to go to summer camp, we drove through Baysville. We brought swimsuits so that we could have a swim at the old bridge. My wife repeated the famous old story, and we all chuckled at those long-ago silly fears. Then we arrived, and - holy crap, the bridge was really high!
I'm a very poor diver, no form at all. But there was only one thing to say. "I'll go first!"
That was one of Pete's many gifts: he made life more fun and he made all of us who knew him a little braver and better.