When Chris killed the lights you could hear the clink of beer bottles spilling on the basement floor. It was slide-show time at our annual home-from-college party. In those days our group of high school swimming buddies gathered twice a year. A weeklong summer bash at Chris' dad's lake joint, and a December reunion featuring a slide show of the lake trip.
The summer reunion happened at Lake Barkley, a sprawling piece of TVA-era dam work in Western Kentucky. It's a picturesque setting for a week that was one part work camp, one part party, fueled by ice-cold Sterling beer.
Sterling was our brand. Each can was engraved with "The Sterling Pledge of Quality," which everyone was required to memorize. We recited it in unison each morning before starting work on the project Chris' dad assigned us in exchange for crashing there.
That summer we built a flat rock path from the cabin down a steep, rutted hill to the boat dock. We spent the mornings digging and placing stones. At lunchtime, after activating the Sterling Pledge, we piled into the powerboat for an afternoon of skiing and tubing.
There was a high cliff across the bay from the cabin. It rose three stories straight up from the water. The face of the cliff was carved with shelves and shallow caves, like Inca dwellings. An old oak towered at the top and draped one long branch far out over the lake.
One morning as we worked on the rock path we got a bright idea: Why not tie a line - and it would have to be a long-ass line - to the overhanging branch and have ourselves the mother of all rope swings?
I volunteered to climb the tree, butt-scooch to the end of the limb, and tie off the long length of hemp we bought in town.
It took a good half hour to get up there. My pals cheered me from far below on the boat. I was so high above them I couldn't make out their faces.
I tied off the rope, dropped it to the lake, and watched it float down and snap to a stop with the tail end 15 feet above the surface. This was a problem because there was no way to reach it from the water in order to fling it back to a starting position on the cliff.
The boys in the boat figured it out. I watched as one perched on the shoulders of another standing on the deck. The top guy reached up and tied a fat knot on the end of the main rope and then tied a yellow water ski line to the knot. Somebody else dived in the water, grabbed the line and flung the whole works to one of the guys on the cliff.
Before testing it out, we documented our feat with a snapshot. Marty, our clan's unofficial photographer, shouted directions from the boat as we posed like the Hole in the Wall Gang across the slab of sandstone.
The rope swing worked like a charm. Since the branch knot was so high and so far out over the water, you got a long ride, starting with a fast drop, then swooping up so hard it took all your strength to hold on.
The release was the tricky part. One hand not only had to grip the main rope but also the loop of yellow ski cord to avoid getting tangled in it on the drop. Then at the top of the arc, the rider pushed the fisted clump of hemp and nylon away from his body in order to fall clear.
Tommy Crumpler had trouble with this. At first things looked fine. He threw off the slack and started his descent. But then, as if in a strike, the yellow line darted back and grabbed him by the neck right out of the air.
His body bounced hard on the end of the taut line 10 feet above the water. The energy absorbed by his neck caused his feet to swing up over his head. The nylon cord let go after one cruel jolt. Tommy tumbled into the lake and disappeared beneath its cloudy surface.
Ten of us, ten strong swimmers - lifeguards all - dove simultaneously from the rocks. With low visibility we bumped into one another underwater, gasping and grasping and feeling for our friend.
We got Tommy onto a slippery shoreline rock. His coughing was music to our trained ears. Blood seeped from a smile-shaped gash on his neck. But he was breathing and moving all his parts.
We called it a day and made our way back to the cabin and more Sterling. Nineteen-year-olds have a way of immediately putting something like this in the rear-view mirror.
When Chris started the slide show at Christmastime, the accident was the last thing on our minds. We laughed at the action shots of water ski wipeouts and hooted at the pictures of us dancing in the yard with girls we met out on the water.
Then Marty's shot of us posing on the cliff wall flashed on the screen - the one taken after the rope swing was tied but before we tried it out. There we were, all smiles in the sun, the new rope swing dangling in the foreground, the arch of the oak tree high above us. In a matter of seconds the laughter stopped. The room went silent.
There was a flaw in the photo. A mark left either during the development of the slide, or maybe there was something on the lens when Marty snapped the shot. None of us knew what it was. We still don't.
The image was marred by a jet-black line that slashed across the frame. A long one that looked as if it had been burned into the film with a straight edge. Our group moved wordlessly toward the screen for a closer look. The path of the mark was unmistakable. The line began at the exact spot where I tied the rope swing to the branch. It blazed its way past several of our group, across the frame, down to the water's edge, and came to a direct stop at Tommy Crumpler's neck.
The rest of the night was more subdued than usual. The strange photograph brought the party to the curb and has haunted us to this day. A spooky symbol for the many close calls we lived through.