Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cheating Death

This week, my students asked if I would read some of my personal writing to them.  I quickly and politely declined, but offered to write a story for them, at their request.  One group of students asked me to write a story about a vacation.  They specifically said, “Tell what went wrong…” as part of their request.  This story immediately came to my mind.  I can’t believe I haven’t written it before, as it is a story that has been told over and over again since that day.  Here’s the story I wrote for them today…


The boat hovered heavily above my head as we trudged towards the river. My anxiety expanded like a balloon to fill my entire chest and gut.

When Daddy planned this little white water rafting vacation for us, I’d actually been excited. It sounded fun. After all, I love the water. I love boats. We would be in the capable hands of our river guides. I had envisioned a warm spring day and sunshine escorting us down along our gentle river ride, save for a few exciting twists and turns along the way. My sugar plum fairy fantasies faded when we arrived at the river outfitters headquarters, shivering in the forty degree gray morning, and heard the news about the body.

“Well, at least we don’t have to worry about the body washing up today,” the local river expert laughed in reply to my mother’s nervous questions. We paced the floor quietly, our eyes soaking up the images of inflatable boats hovering sideways above rocks and racing water, its inhabitants clad in helmets, life vests and full body wet suits. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding. Earlier in the week, a young woman had drowned in the stretch of the river that we would attempt to navigate today. Fortunately for us, her body was recovered only a day or two prior to this frigid morning.**

“Well, isn’t that comforting...” I murmured sarcastically under my breath.

A young man led us downstairs to the basement room where they stored the wetsuits and other gear. After they sized us up with their experienced eyes and a few clarifying questions, our wardrobe for the day was rationed and we were off to squeeze our flesh into this neoprene second skin. We looked like a box of classic crayons once we were ready, only bumpier and wearing goofy, hesitant grins.

Our guide chatted away, making small talk with us and laughing at inside jokes with his fellow river men. It seemed oddly distant to think of my warm, safe life at home in Florida as I marched towards impending danger. The voices in my head were dying to blurt out, “I’ve changed my mind! I’ll stay here! You go and have fun without me!” I considered running across that two-lane bridge that led us to the log building on the hill. The walk back to the Hardee’s where we’d eaten biscuits and eggs for breakfast wouldn’t be difficult. Perhaps I could find a little corner store, stock up on magazines and make myself at home in a fast food booth for the day. The hours would crawl, I was sure, but that seemed far preferable to being pinned beneath a raft, sucking freezing cold water into my lungs. I felt like a lemming – deathly afraid to go, but too chicken to speak out against the herd.

As the men, both taller and stronger than us ladies, righted the raft and set it afloat, I listened to the last minute review of safety procedures. Stay out of the bottom of the raft. If you find yourself taking an accidental plunge, extend your paddle and never let it go – this is your lifeline. Keep your feet up so you don’t get snared on fallen trees or other dangers beneath the surface. Listen to your guide. Listen and follow instructions...for dear life.

I have never in my life felt so close to death. I’ve never been to war or in the presence of malicious gunfire. I’ve never felt like my life depended on the clarity of my thinking and my physical abilities, until that day.

cheat river map As we overtook the first rapids, my apprehension would blur and sharpen like the manual focus of a lens. When he told us we were approaching “Decision” rapid, I yearned to raise my hand and give up. “I quit! I’m done! Call the helicopter and get me out of this canyon!” I imagined myself announcing to the world. But, again, I refrained.

With each rapid we conquered, I whole-heartedly participated in the traditional paddles up “YEEEEEHAAAAAAWWWW!!” celebration. I felt my spirit give thanks that I would live to see the next round of torture in the watery path between me and the rickety, powder blue school bus that would take us back to safety.

The “Big Nasty” lived up to its name. My mother, just as terrified as I, had been unable to heed our guide’s advice. She had fearfully wadded her body up between the inflatable bolsters that spanned the width of the raft. She felt, inaccurately, safer on the thin synthetic floor of the vessel...until she found herself in the 50-degree raging river. Mascara streaking down her face, her short hair plastered to her skin beneath her plastic helmet, she gasped for air as she surfaced. The life vest kept her afloat as our guide hollered for her to hold out her paddle. I barely saw her paddle, now dangerous extension of her arm, reaching towards our boat, just as my Marine brother, a trained and professional hero, toppled into the river. In a blur of wet faces and choppy water, I saw the knot welling up on my brother’s head. My mother’s attempt at rescue had smacked him forcefully just above his eye. With a surreal smoothness, our guide expertly plucked my mother’s vest from the water and deposited her exhausted, stunned body in the boat at his feet. As he gave my brother his arm, everyone’s breath escaped in relief. We were unaware that we’d even been holding it.

“HE SAID NOT TO SIT ON THE BOTTOM OF THE BOAT, MOTHER!” I scolded her, rage quickly responding to my overwhelming fear. I had been afraid my mother would suffer more than just a sharp splash into icy waters. Once I realized the danger had passed, I couldn’t help being mad at her for putting herself into such a dangerous predicament – she should have followed directions! I took this as a personal lesson and reinforced my thighs and rear with steely muscles. “I will NOT,” I silently pledged, “be bounced into that river,” and I would sooner cripple myself than risk suffocating beneath a boat.

At some point between a heartfelt YEEHAW and the relentless sprouting of a fresh batch of terror, I heard our guide hollering to his counterpart on another raft in the fleet. It was lunchtime. They were making plans for a cliffhanger picnic, literally.

The guides nimbly hopped from their respective boats onto a rocky ledge on the canyon wall. They were patient and gentle as they offered their strong, steady hold to each of us as we abandoned the familiarity of our air-filled seats for the questionable security of this spot of earth. We clustered around the tiny campfire, begging for warmth; not only was the river stealing our body heat with its persistent spray and splashes, but the wind and sprinkling rain worked to fill in the blanks between the river’s attacks. Our bodies ached with cold.

For just a moment, I allowed my mind to float away, escaping to the day years ago when we picnicked on the Hawaiian Island of Lanai. Our adventure of sailing and snorkeling had been unexpectedly punctuated by a delicious, luxurious teriyaki lunch. Perhaps these guides had a similar treat planned. Perhaps they’d serve up some “river cowboy” stew to nourish our fatigue and famine. Once again, my daydreams were cut short as I held out my hand to accept a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Lovely. This is even better,” I laughed at my own disappointment.

After an all too short relief from our mental and physical stress, we found ourselves piling back into the boats and launching for the remainder of the gorge. I was resigned to gut through the journey and eager for my next steps on solid ground.

After an irrelevant stretch of time, we heard the tone of our guide’s voice change as he refreshed our memory to the safety precautions outlined at the start of the trip. He spoke with no degree of humor, explaining the severity and danger of the rapid we would next attack. This rapid, the Coliseum, is categorized class IV+. A class VI rapid is often thought of as unnavigable, a class V is “expert”, requiring extensively practiced rescue skills. I must have worn the face of a prisoner standing before a firing squad. My life would surely end that day. I was positive I would not survive this obstacle.

Again, I hunkered down and stabbed my will to live into the water with my oar. I met every command with the strength of my bones. My jaw painfully clamped, as though trying to hoard air into my lungs, preparing for the worst-case scenario. I was so intently focused on my role in this unlikely crew, that I didn’t immediately notice the guide climbing out of his seat and onto the boulder in the river, the boulder on which our boat was now pinned. I also didn’t notice him pulling passengers out of the boat and onto the rock beside him, until I heard the shouts.pete morgan rapid

My mother and the other, now faceless, mariners were hollering to me. “Move! Get over here! Get up and move!”

I tried in my shock and confusion to move, but something was stopping me. There was a rope – nothing of consequence, just enough to fluster my blurred thinking, just enough to stun me into helplessness. In my memory, it feels like minutes; in actuality, I’m sure it wasn’t even seconds. Once again, Our Heroic Guide, employed his brute strength and quick thinking to snatch me up from my assigned seat. He pulled my body like a rag doll to the top of the boat, and I watched my seat flood before my eyes. I saw the ghost of my body as the water pulled it under and buried it in a watery grave.

The next few moments are lost to me. I do not remember returning to my seat. I do not remember freeing ourselves from the rock. I do not remember racing through the fall. What I do remember is my breath and blood flooding through my body finally as I heard Our Heroic Guide laugh in celebration with a fellow river runner. I do remember the oars up YEEHAW that I witnessed from above the boat, in an out of body moment. I do remember the numbness that protected me from the reality of the moment.

And, I’ll never, ever, as long as I live, forget the moment my feet finally touched that riverbank. I was alive. I climbed that sleek, muddy incline, thankful for the pain I felt in my thighs. I was thankful for the trees that canopied above me. I was thankful for the smelly exhaust from the pitiful bus in which we rode home. I was thankful for the silent, albeit fearful in its own narrow, winding, mountainside way, bus ride back to that log building on the Cheat River. I was thankful for my dry clothes and the rented mini-van waiting in the gravel parking lot. I was thankful for the hotel bed hours away that would later shelter my weary, empty body.

And, the next morning, I was mostly thankful for the strong arm that helped me lift my dilapidated body from its resting place, for without it, I could not have moved.


**As I was researching the Cheat River Canyon today, trying to remember the name of the fall that nearly got me, I stumbled on this link.  Apparently, outdoorsmen have a way of playing with time.  I found this report detailing the events of the woman’s death.  However, it actually occurred a few years prior to our arrival…not a few days.  But, the story is so much sweeter the way they told it. :)


This post was also submitted as a part of {W}rite-of Passage challenge #8: Plot.

1 comment:

  1. I love that you shared this with your students. I tried to share my writing with my kiddos whenever I could. It's such a good thing for them to see their teachers as writers. In other news, this post solidifies my resolve that I will NEVER go white water rafting. ;)


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