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Maximilian

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When I was eight years old, I told my dad I wanted to change my name to Spider-Man because I hated the name Maximilian. I remember my dad’s dark brown eyes penetrating me as he sighed and put down his newspaper. Before I made such a rash decision, he wanted to explain how I got my name.
Dad was twenty-two and had just graduated from Allegheny College. His brother Maximilian or Max as we called him was nine years older and had shouldered much of the responsibility of taking care of Dad when their mother died. Max was over six feet tall, with curly golden brown hair and electric blue eyes. Many considered him to be the brother who had inherited the height and strikingly good looks. Even if Dad was slightly envious of his older brother, Max was too protective and good to Dad for there ever to be any sibling rivalry. Women swooned over Max, although he had no time for them because he was working long hours at a bank. To celebrate Dad’s graduation from college and the closing of my uncle’s first deal, Max splurged and bought Dad and himself plane tickets to Tanzania. Dad and Max had always celebrated their milestones together by climbing a mountain. They were never daunted by the steepness of a mountain peak or icy conditions. In fact, they had spent their occasional free weekends climbing the Gunks, known by seasoned climbers for its vertical cliffs, sharp angles, and overhangs.
Dad and Max spent months dreaming about and planning their trip. It was a welcome respite from the intensity of reading period and the laborious hours of negotiations, 3 a.m. faxes, and lengthy meetings.
To scale Mount Kilimanjaro, Dad and Max chose the less-traveled Lemosho route, which had breathtaking views and large game. The Lemosho route was one of the longest trails. After seven days of arduous climbing, they reached Uhuru (“Freedom”) Peak, Kilimanjaro’s summit, shortly before daybreak and were rewarded with a magnificent sunrise. Dad recalled their feeling of elation. Even graduation and the completion of a deal could not compare to conquering Kilimanjaro. The rope burns, scrapes, and pain were forgotten. They opened a weather beaten box containing a book in which individuals had recorded their impressions of the world from the highest point in Africa. Together they wrote: “We made it together! Indescribable! We will never forget this amazing view or experience. We’ll be back! Max and Arthur Leonard, 6/8/1975.” The two of them sat together taking in the view and breathing the brisk fresh air. They laughed together and marveled at their accomplishment. Nothing else seemed to matter - even the fact that Dad had not been able to secure a job after graduation or that another deal was waiting for my uncle upon his return to the office. They made plans to scale another mountain, perhaps Mount Everest, the following year.
The next morning, they reluctantly headed back to face the real world. On the third day of their descent, Dad slipped on a wet patch and broke his ankle. He was in sheer agony and felt utterly clumsy and stupid.
Max chided Dad: “Be grateful that your fall took place after we reached the summit. You know it’s not unusual for something out of the ordinary to happen during a hike. We have weathered a lot of stuff together. This is no big deal. Nothing can ruin the best trip of our lives.”
Dad grimaced while Max fashioned a splint out of branches and twine and promised to return with help. He left Dad with the bulk of their provisions, including all the blankets. When Dad protested feebly, Max explained cheerfully: “Nothing wrong with my ankle. I’ll be moving and will be able to keep warm. You can’t move and need to eat and stay warm. It shouldn’t take more than a week. I promise you I will be back in no time.” He was whistling “The Ants Go Marching” as he descended down the steep path. Dad remembered him yelling, “Hang in there buddy. Be right back” and straining to hear his cheerful whistle until all Dad could hear was the chirping of the Bracken Warbler.
During the first fews days, Dad tried to focus on the beautiful scenery - the summit that they had scaled, the tantalizingly fluffy clouds, the craggy cliffs, and the beautiful sky composed of different shades of deep blue. He etched the breathtaking sunsets in his mind so that he would remember them when he was mailing out another hundred resumes and cover letters to prospective employers. The first day, it was a manageable 85 degrees, but on subsequent days the temperatures soared to an uncomfortable ninety plus degrees. It was debilitating. The shady tree under which Max had left him provided no respite from the heat. He became so hot and thirsty that he began to forget to ration the water. On the third day, it became so unbearably hot that he poured a little water onto his hand so he could dampen his face. The water was warm and provided no relief. Later he cursed at his stupidity but then consoled himself with the thought that Max and the rescue team would arrive soon.
He couldn’t remain in one position for long periods of time because his joints were stiffening from lack of movement. His muscles were atrophying from lack of use. He struggled for an excruciating hour to stand - gripping the gnarled tree trunk and scraping his hands as he clawed for support. When he finally made it, he was simply too exhausted to stand for long. It took another half hour to slowly inch his way back to the ground. When he was a foot away from the ground, he would let go of the tree trunk and plop down, bruising his rear end and causing a stabbing pain in his ankle. His ankle was red, swollen, and itchy beneath the makeshift bandage that Max had made.
He didn’t know what was more punishing - the heat or the cold nights when the temperature dipped to below 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the rain drenched him, his sleeping bag, and blankets. His teeth chattered as he shivered. Yet, he had the presence of mind to capture the rain water in his empty water bottles. During the hot days, he tried to spread the dirty blankets over the dusty ground so they would dry.
Dad decided to use his knife to commemorate the days he had spent alone. It was difficult to keep track of time, but he figured four days had already passed. He busied himself with carving out Max’s and his initials on the trunk. One hot afternoon, after counting out 14 notches on the trunk, he became angry and bitter at Max. Max had decided to drag him to Tanzania and leave him to die so he wouldn’t be saddled with a younger brother to support. No one would ever know what happened to him. Dad burst into an embarrassing fit of tears - something he had not done since his parents had died - and drowned himself in self pity. The following day, he spotted a lioness with her three cubs observing him. She was about 20 feet away. This is it he thought. But even she rejected him, and turned disdainfully away in search of more appetizing prey.
After two and a half weeks, Dad became too weak to stand up. He had consumed his last dried apricot. He had run out of water. He was parched and could barely swallow. Frostbite had begun to set in his fingers and toes, causing itching and pain. The gnawing pains of hunger had become an ulcer that left a dull ache in his belly. His anger had turned to desperation and then resignation at his fate. He frequently drifted off to sleep, dreaming that he and Max were still children.
Was he dreaming? Someone announced: “Over here. He’s alive - barely. Just one guy.” He vaguely recalled being tied to a gurney, drifting into semi-consciousness, and the excruciating pain of the jostling as they made their descent. Dad was twelve pounds thinner, dehydrated, and suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
Later Dad learned that it is standard procedure to send out a rescue team if climbers don’t return after three weeks. Max’s body was never recovered.
***
My guide Dalila waits in the car, allowing me to contemplate the breathtaking view alone. I have seen countless pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro, but nothing remotely as spectacular as the scene before me. I take in two regal giraffes grazing in the distance, the yellowing grass, the lush green forest, and the magnificent snow covered mountain. There lies my goal. I begin to trudge up the path, retracing the steps that two young men took twenty-five years ago. My name is still Maximilian.





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