THE TWO THINGS I remember most about John Yount is the sound of him banging his pipe against a small steel trash can to empty it during his fiction-writing classes at the University of New Hampshire and the three-page chapter that opens his 1973 novel, "The Trapper's Last Shot."
The first one evokes fond memories from the three semesters I spent studying with Yount in the early '80s. The second still scares the heck out of me.
In the summer of 1960, five boys head to a swimming hole in Georgia. The oldest boy, who is 14, is the quickest to shed his pants, run down the bank and do a cannonball off a low-lying tree limb.
"The surface all around, even to the farthest edge, rolled when he hit as if the pool were alive, but they didn't see the snakes at first. The boy's face was white as bleached bone when he came up. 'God," he said to them, "don't come in!'"
You'll have to hunt down the book yourself to find out how the story unfolds from there. (The novel is easily found on Amazon). For me, it's a reminder about the dangers of jumping into the unknown.
But that doesn't mean I won't do it. Every choice has its potential risks and rewards.
That boy should have experienced nothing but the exhilaration of hitting cold water on a hot summer day. How could he possibly have known about the water moccasins?
I'm not quite sure how I arrived at this point - which is what I love about writing - but I chose Yount's passage to talk about taking chances and learning from them. Most of the time, we don't face a swimming hole full of venomous snakes when we make a wrong choice, but the idea that they might be there can prevent us from ever risking failure.
The Southern songwriter Guy Clark says it best in "The Cape," a song that has been widely covered, including a gorgeous version by Patty Griffin that appears on the recent Guy Clark tribute album "This One's for Him." It's about a kid who ties a flower-sack cape around his neck and dives off his garage, a Superman wannabe.
"He's one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith/Spread your arms and hold your breath/Always trust your cape."
Over the past 15 years at two newspapers and a magazine, I've written about 500 columns. I couldn't attest to their quality - that's not for me to say - but I can tell you that the ones I remember the most, in addition to the fascinating people I've encountered, were when I allowed myself to pursue what seemed like an oddball idea and follow the trail to its conclusion.
One morning 11 years ago while I was on my way back from dropping my sons off from school, I heard Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" on the radio. Napster, the file-sharing service that prompted college kids to fill up their computer hard drives with illegally downloaded music, had attracted the ire of the record companies, and they spent millions to shut it down.
As I drove home, I started rewriting the words to the song in my head: "Johnny's in the basement downloading Eminem/I'm down on the pavement wondering where the music went."
Thanks to the Internet, the column I wrote found its way to a musician, who recorded "Subterranean Record Store Blues" with his band The Stokers (a sample is posted at somewhereoutwest.com).
No snakes swarmed around me after I did that cannonball, and I made a connection with someone who took my idea and transformed it into something so much richer.
On a few occasions, however, I've followed offbeat ideas and had a trusted colleague warn me of the moccasins that might be lurking in the water. Sometimes I choose another swimming hole instead.
And sometimes I jump in anyway.
You can (almost) always trust your cape.
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or email@example.com.