WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Living a long life requires good judgment

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Be careful.

The familiar cautionary phrase has been heard by every young person who has ever gotten behind the wheel of a car, embarked on a trip or undertaken a risky venture.

The deliverer of that sage advise is usually a parent, grandparent, relative or concerned friend.

I am reminded of how important those familiar words became to me just hours after my last class ended as a senior at Menchville High School in Newport News, Virginia on June 10, 1981.

After an early dismissal on the last day of school, five friends and I piled into two cars and drove to George Washington National Forest.

Along the way, we had our first bad judgment call. We made an illegal underage purchase of beer to carry with us to the top of the mountain.

We made our second instance of poor judgment by consuming those beverages on the road during the three-hour drive.

Arriving in the parking lot at the base of Crabtree Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the eastern United States, we prepared for the climb.

Each of us had brought a backpack for the lengthy hike up a switchback trail up the mountain. Our plan was to ascend to the peak and celebrate our graduation from school.

The leader of the trip was Danny Mazaitis, who had a great future ahead of him. Danny planned to attend Virginia Tech in the fall, major in forestry and have a career as a forest ranger.

Danny had been up that trail many times. He was the experienced one.

After about a half hour of hiking up the trail, we stopped at an overlook with the waterfalls just beyond a sturdy metal fence.

Before I could drop my pack, Danny had slipped through the railing and stepped out into the rushing water to fill a canteen with water.

Danny stood on the plateau with his feet in the rushing water and glanced back at us as if to say “Isn’t this cool?!”

In that moment, he slipped and fell down onto his bottom and began to slide closer to the edge of the waterfalls.

As we all watched in horror, the power of the water pushed Danny off of the slippery rocks. He was thrown off the mountain with the rushing water. The horrible scene unfolded in slow motion and is permanently stamped on my memory.

We watched Danny hit a large boulder about 85 feet below and he bounced off of it like a limp doll into the whitewash below.

He made the third and final lapse in judgment for the day.

That careless action cost him his life.

There was a warning sign at the overlook where Danny made the decision to crawl through the fence. It cautioned that 12 people had been killed tumbling over the falls from that site. Danny had ignored it and gone right by.

Our friend became No. 13. The number on that sign is 23 now, with the last death being in 2016.

This intelligent young man, like every one of us who have been that age, thought he was invincible.

I am convinced that it never crossed his mind that he could have slipped and fallen to his death.

Danny’s passing hurt us all. The tragedy cast a dark shadow on the class as we all donned our caps and gowns to attend commencement four days later.

What hurt the most was the realization that it didn’t have to happen. It taught a hard lesson that I still carry with me to this day.

Life is a precious thing that can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Cherish your life and never take it for granted.

So, young graduates, be careful. Think about the consequences of the decisions you are about to make.

Be wise and brave enough to warn your friends if they are about to make a poor judgment.

Be careful and live long lives. Graduate from school or college. Get your dream job. Get married to the love of your life. Have children and see them grow up.

Live long lives so you can look back and experience the joy of reminiscing about all you have accomplished.

All it takes is a second thought.

Drew C. Wilson is a reporter for the Times covering education and agriculture.

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