Thoughtful science types tell us that back in the day, about 4.6 billion years ago, two atoms in an interstellar cloud chanced to drift close enough together in the vacuum of space so that the mysterious force called universal gravitation linked them in a magnetic embrace, and pulled them together, and that they began to slowly spin around each other. Their combined gravitational pull captured a few other atoms, and then more still, and ever more, each particle adding its weak magnetic pull to the others, and by this process of accretion, a huge mass slowly formed. As this mass grew ever larger, the accumulated magnetic pull of all the atoms forced them ever closer together, eventually creating stupendous pressure and unimaginable heat at the exact center of the mass, at the core. This pressure and heat and colossal magnetic pull stripped electrons away from the atoms, and split the proton core of those atoms, and a thermo-dynamic called ‘fission’ developed, the characteristics of which drastically increased the heat produced in the core, until the core ignited and spread the thermo-dynamic to the outer layers of the great mass, and the mass as a whole became a huge burning globe, radiating heat and light into space, and a ‘sun’ was born. At the time of the events described here, in 1988, it has grown to be 865,000 miles across in diameter.
Smaller globes formed by a similar process of accretion and became planets orbiting around this sun, whose heat and light bombarded the planets, until one of them, the third in distance from the sun, possessing the key substances water and oxygen, gradually evolved complex molecular chains, which over eons of time became tiny, living, wiggly critters. Those critters evolved into more complex wiggly critters with central nervous systems, which then evolved into larger and even more complex wiggly critters with primitive brains. The process of evolution, driven by a trial-and-error dynamic called ‘survival-of-the-fittest’, eventually produced a vast and amazing variety of forms of increasing complexity, more complex brains, more robust durability, until one of the branches of this expanding hierarchical tree of life developed a consciousness, a reflective self-awareness. After millions of generations of random variation, the culling effects of ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ propelled the evolution of the conscious wigglers to evolution’s highest and most perfect form to date, and I am one of those select organisms: the whitewater boatman. And I am one of the best whitewater boatmen ever to evolve from the two atoms that began a slow spiraling dance in the near-empty cosmos, way-oh-way back in the day. This assertion is a conceit I hold, which I posit without question or doubt.
The aforementioned ‘sun’ is now directly overhead, and it’s frying my skull, which does nothing to improve my disposition, best described as being totally pissed off. The river company I work for is further down river from me, beyond the rocks marking the last obstacles in this nearly-300-yards-long whitewater rapid. My fellow guides and our clients are unloading lunch boxes on a sweet little beach shaded by a copse of towering cottonwood trees. Four of our boats have landed, and 14 clients and 7 guides are swimming, laughing, peeing, and offering their bodies up to the sun, which they consider a sort of minor god. I’d hoped to hit that beach with them, but my sixteen-foot-long, industrial-strength Avon whitewater riverboat, and one other, back up river, are pulled out in the calm water behind obstacles that impede the river’s flow. We are ‘eddied out’ in these eddies because of some idiots.
We are in central Utah, in a fabulous remote river canyon. I’m in my life vest, my razor sharp rescue knife attached in front, and my name, Dave, stenciled on the left front side. I am standing on my rower’s seat to gain a better view back upriver, where, about 160 yards back on the far side, there is another Avon company raft, just like this one I’m rowing today. I have two passengers with me who are waist deep in the eddy, and one of them, Herbert Lotz, is holding the landing line, still coiled, in his right hand.
Miriam Lotz is dipping herself in the water to cool off. At 54 years old, she is a handsome woman with the olive-brown ethnic skin color of the tribal Jews. She’s a psychotherapist, an Israeli citizen, and a survivor of the Shoah, a Hebrew term that has come to be a synonym for the Holocaust, a mindless, racist super-catastrophe that commenced in Germany in 1933, and raged across Europe for twelve years. As her parents went up in smoke in the ovens of Dachau in 1938, the little four-year-old Jewish girl was being spirited away to safety in Denmark by a German woman of better mind and greater conscience than many others of that dark time. Miriam came to America shortly thereafter, and grew up in Brooklyn. Miriam’s anthology of the writings of the late Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt has just recently been published, and her perceptive critiques are garnering much acclaim.
After reading the handwriting on the wall (crude swastikas scrawled on the side of their home), Herbert Lotz’s affluent family emigrated to America in 1931, also to Brooklyn. Herbert’s great talent in life has been to invest small sums of other people’s money wisely, and make those sums greater, invest the new sums again, and again, always wisely, making his clients very happy. He has been at this effort, with great discipline, for thirty-five years. Both Herbert and Miriam are ‘Ashkenazim’: pious, observant Jews of central European heritage, and are very wealthy, and support many diverse charities. They describe themselves as ‘Jews through and through’. I know all this because last year I rowed them down the San Juan River, in southern Utah. After four days of decent, intelligent, jocular conversation on that trip, they decided that I’m a fun guy, though profane and easily angered, and not as dumb as I look. And, being the best boatman there is, I’m unlikely to dump them in the river, though a remote chance always exists.
We have chosen to kill time because, instead of waiting for our group to finish our own run through this rapid, a kayak team and their support rafts has run it at the same time as we do, since their trip leaders from the kayak school in Salt Lake City are idiots, this last point being our group leader’s conclusion. The kayak kids, boys and girls in their teens, many sporting the blonde good looks that many Mormon children are blessed with, are novices on this river, in fact on any river. Their group and ours have been mixing up repeatedly over the last three days, both trips having launched on the same day and having the same six day length of trip. It’s always a bad idea for river groups to mix up their boats in a whitewater rapid. Nothing good can come of it, but much bad just might. Our patience has worn through with their behavior on this point, but we are resigned to tolerate the issue, since their leaders’ understanding of river etiquette hasn’t developed beyond the juvenile, me-first attitude that some people never outgrow.
Madeleine, a tall, strong French woman, is our trip leader. She’s a ski patroller from Durango, Colorado, great looking, always a tower of strength, and my friend with benefits. Maddy had a courteous but direct chat with the kayakers’ trip leader yesterday, when this same problem had happened back up river. Yet, here we are now in the same situation, so I’ve pulled my Avon raft out on river right, in this small calm eddy behind a low rock ledge. When the idiots have all passed us by and are downriver, I can push off and continue on down the river to lunch.
It’s Sunday, and this delay has cost us more time, and lost us more mileage, than even the ecumenical worship ceremony that some of our clients performed in camp this morning. For thirty five minutes, the religious among them had assembled on the beach to honor their various gods: the Supreme Goddess, Immaculate Mary and her Son, Gaia the Earth Mother, Yehubibble, Big-Guy-in-the-Sky, Jimi-Hendrix-of-the-Holy-Guitar, and similar. The Lotzes were central participants at church/synagogue this morning, and I marvel that these fine and smart people can still hold to their beliefs so faithfully. I marvel so because my own attitude has become, “If God answers prayer, what happened at Auschwitz?” As they prayed, we guides stood by solemnly, with hands clasped and hanging in front of us. As I feigned pious respect, I also marveled that these worshipers, though steeped in Western Rationalism at great universities around the world, are able to hold two contradictory belief systems in their minds at the same time, and not go crazy. Unable in my own mind to reconcile Rationalism and Religion, I thought “These folks should know better, but hey, whatever.”
So, I am impatiently watching up river at the progress of the teenage kayakers, most of them Mormon kids from around Salt Lake City. I’m seeing them through the broken limbs of the big hulk of a cottonwood tree, just twenty yards above me, that has hung up right in the middle of the rapid, and been left there when the rush of springtime snow melt subsided. A stuck tree in a river is called a snag. I’m so close to this snag that I can see the whorls of wood grain are in high relief, because the wood has been eroding under the constant assault of rushing water for the last two months.
Three months ago, the snow melt from the Uintah Mountains tore this big cottonwood tree away from the shore near Jensen, Utah, and carried it all the way down to this place I stand at now. As it rolled, crashed, and spun in the violent spring rush, most of its leaves and branches tore off, leaving only a dozen or so jutting out at awkward angles. One branch has survived this beating, and sticks out into the river a mere ten feet or so.
Also pulled out, about a hundred yards back up river on the far side, is our last boat in line, our sweep boat. It’s mission is to always be last in line to act as the safety boat, and help out should one boat have a problem, get hung up in shallows, or has dumped it’s people into the river, necessitating their rescue. The boat, also an Avon raft, is rowed by 48-year-old John ‘Jacky’ Chaice. Jacky is a big guy, with wildly unkempt hair and beard, large hands, and a lean torso. He is very strong, an expert boatman, a lapsed Mormon, a poor reader, an aging hippie, and a lot of fun. He is also a little wacky. He and his wife, herself also an aging hippie, live in their hand-built, passive-solar, off-the-grid geodesic dome on the eastern flanks of a massive broad mountain in the Manti-La Sal, a national forest west of Moab, Utah. They’ve lived there for twenty-odd years, growing much of their own food, and raising ‘the girl’, their daughter, recently married and living in St. George, Utah.
Last night, Jacky told me that his wife was getting tired of their alternate lifestyle, tired in general, and wanted to get off the mountain’s flank, and move to St. George to help out their daughter, who will give birth in the fall. Their daughter returned to her roots and rejoined the Mormon Church when her religious awakening, her personal epiphany, came after one Christmas season trip to Salt Lake City to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Jacky is reluctant to leave the solar dome he and his wife built together, on twenty-two acres of pine forest land, in which they raised the much-loved girl, but he has contracted with real estate agents in Salt Lake City to list the property. When he told me that he thinks it will sell for $500,000 dollars, I silently scoff at this outlandish appraisal of its value. No one is going to pay a half-million dollars for a solar dome-home with no electricity and a questionable well in a remote valley in eastern Utah, no matter how glorious the views, or how mature the organic gardens are, or how much acreage there is, or how much personal emotional investment Jacky and his wife have made in the place. I just nodded my assent when he told me this, and said “Cool, man, definitely, it’s worth it, Jacky.” Like I said, Jacky is a little wacky.
Jacky’s passenger, Larry, 66-years-old, and from Denver, is a recently retired greaser, an oil field worker who has drilled for crude all over North America for most of his career. He’s a medium height guy who seems almost as wide as he is tall, with a serious beer gut. He is shiny bald, but sports an impressive handlebar mustache, his pride and joy. He recently had the tattoo of the Marine Corps symbol on his left shoulder re-inked, so it looks fresh and new, and he’s gonna have the words tattooed up his right lower leg re-inked as well. The words say ‘Khe San 1968’, and he wants his tattoos to be ‘ready for the next 40 years’. He is almost never without a Budweiser in one hand. He has one of those baseball hats with holsters for beer cans, one on each side, with a tube to draw beer from, and was actually using it in last night’s camp, hilarious to watch. His wife, who he calls ‘The Boss’, totally detests camping of any form whatsoever, so Larry is here solo. When asked about his time in Viet Nam, he just looks wistful and says, “Best days of my life, man, best days”. In camp, Larry is perfectly content to just sit in his low camp chair, and down his brewskis. Larry’s once powerful musculature has gone soft and droopy so that his pectorals have developed into an impressive set of man-boobs. When one of our female guides walk past in front of him, tanned young legs striding elegantly across the beach, fanny bouncing in rhythm to her steps, he parks his beer on his gut, grabs both man-boobs, and shakes them hard, so that all the subcutaneous fat in his upper torso and neck shakes like jello. While shaking himself so, he bellows at the women: “Lookin’ good there, pumpkin!”; “Now this is how I should live!”; and his favorite catcall, “Thaaank Yooo Jaysus!”. Herbert Lotz finds Larry hysterically funny. Miriam Lotz finds the whole phenomenon that is ‘Larry from Denver’ appalling, and she takes care to always walk behind him, so as to avoid becoming the object of his indignities. Larry is still a very strong guy, and easily picks up heavy food boxes that usually require two people to carry, one on each end.
Jacky and Larry are in the raft, way up river, calmly waiting for the kayakers to pass through. Jacky is admiring the kayak girls as they go by with his funky little hand-held brass spyglass. Larry has a Bud in one hand. Downriver, I see our group on the beach waiting for us, pulled over on the right. I can see the kayak group’s support rafts, and most of their kayakers, on the same beach just below our group. I see the vast canyon walls, telling their tale of geologic history in wildly varied colored bands arranged in ascending chronological sequence, from the deepest layers, such as the rock wall a few yards behind me that formed a billion years after the earth first cooled, up to the top strata, twelve hundred feet above me, these last having formed just yesterday, about 10 million years ago.
And then I look back up river and I see a kayak kid in his bright orange life vest. He’s in a bright yellow plastic kayak, and has an ill-fitting white helmet on, and sun glasses, and he’s laughing and having the time of his life, but he is paddling ineffectively, not getting much water with his paddle, because he’s only been kayaking a few times, and has never been on a river this big or water this fast. Also, he is way far outside of the clear run, and is coming right down on the big cottonwood snag, in an attitude to hit it head on.
The kayak kid screws up and flips over. He is now upside down, upper torso hanging underwater, and he tries to roll up, and I see his paddle come up and try to execute a kayak roll to get his boat upright like he learned to do in the 100 meter pool at Brigham Young University (Go Cougars!). But rolling a kayak in a pool is a far cry from executing the kayak roll under the intense pressure of finding yourself upside down and underwater, on a real river and in a real rapid, and you’ve breathed in water, are disoriented, and in a state of rising terror. Oh yes, my friends, it’s a very, very far cry, and I know this for a fact, friends, I know it from my very own nasty personal experience. I remember the terror quite well, thank you very much.
The kid’s single feeble attempt at rolling up fails. The kayak paddle is loose and floating away from him. The upside-down kayak is shaking, and I know he’s trying to get out of it. It’s a lot harder than you think, especially if you are 17 years old and have no experience exiting a kayak in this kind of water. After a few seconds of struggle, agonizing to watch, he is free and pops up, blowing water and gasping for air, trying to swim against the river current. The sunglasses are gone, and his helmet has slid down over his face. I am watching all this, spellbound, about 150 feet downstream from him, standing on my rower’s bench. Because of the rapid’s steep gradient drop, I am looking uphill slightly.
It looks to me that he might float past the snag, and he almost does, but he brushes the single branch jutting out from the cottonwood tree into the current, and the branch slides perfectly between the polypropylene life vest and the kid’s torso and grabs him. He stops floating downriver. Now, the kid is in probably the worst situation a kayaker can be in, and he’s about to experience the worst thing any boater can experience. He is going to drown in terror, because he is far too weak and the river far too powerful for him to free himself from the branch, and his life vest is made of very strong, tear-resistant material, and will not disintegrate. Now the water is rushing over him so that he is getting pulled under. He’s rhythmically bobbing underwater, then up, then under again, over and over. I whisper to myself, “He’s toast”.
Movement catches my eye, way up river on the far side, where I see Jacky Chaice pulling into the current from the eddy he’s been parked in. He hits the current, but rows feverishly against it, so that his boat doesn’t lose much altitude; it’s barely going down river. Jacky Chaice has watched all of the kayak kid’s agony play out: the poor river position, weak paddle skills, the kayak flip, the kid’s failed roll, his exit from the kayak, and the slow float right into boater’s hell, caught on a snag in swift current.
Jacky Chaice is a tough son-of-a-bitch, and he’s going to do something about it. His professional boatman’s instinct has kicked in, and he’s a hell of brave man, no matter what his deficits regarding real estate appraisal are. He is going to ferry directly across the river, moving the fully-loaded raft almost ninety degrees relative to the line of the current, to attempt a rescue on a kid he has never met. He is furiously rowing against the current, his feet against a crossbar of the boat’s rowing frame, long body stretched out almost horizontal from the exertion of his pulls on the oars. Larry’s beer is gone, and he is busy up front and looking very serious.
Behind me, I hear Herbert shouting “Go Jacky! Go!”. In the back of my mind, I’ve done a quick calculation of the speed of the river current, the force of the water, the distance Jacky has to go, and all the little things he has to do to make this work, and I think to myself, ‘No way’. I am sure Jacky cannot do this. What Jacky is doing is going to fail, because it just can’t be done.
I’m watching the kid struggling in the water, now only about 100 feet above my position, and I notice the kid’s flailing attempts to do something to help himself are falling off fast; he can’t get a decent breath. Jacky is expending great effort to make small gains on the position of his boat in the current. I wonder how long the energy in his muscles can be sustained before his performance declines, and no amount of his willpower will compensate for his muscle exhaustion. I’m thinking that, even if Jacky gets to the kid, which isn’t gonna happen, and we get him to the beach down below us, which is gonna take time, he’ll have been drowned for at least ten minutes or more, and we will have to hold him on his side on the beach, force the water out of his lungs, and perform CPR, an iffy technique under any circumstances. I am deeply pessimistic. I turn to look down at the group on the beach, where I see both groups have clustered together. Some people look frozen in place, transfixed by this event taking place about eighty yards above them. Some are starting up along the shore with rescue ropes. I think, ‘A lot of good that’s gonna do.’
But when I turn up river and look, I see that Jacky Chaice has made the miraculous ferry happen. Jacky has rowed right across the main current of the river, and found some slack water on the other side. This narrow slick of slack water gives Jacky a breather, and just enough of an advantage, to make all the difference, and he has let his oar strokes slow down, and he has positioned the boat just right, in a perfect attitude to float down directly on the kid, who is still showing some signs of struggle. Larry is standing up in the front of the boat, leaning over the tube, and is going to try to grab the kid. As Jacky’s boat closes fast on the kid, he makes a slight adjustment to correct his position, the a micro-adjustment that only a highly skilled and experienced whitewater boater can see the need for, and actually make.
I see the aging hippie boatman speak to Larry up front. They are close enough now so that I can hear them, but the roar of the water makes it impossible to understand what is being said. Larry backs off from his rescue position, and just holds on. I learn later that Jacky knows that Larry can’t grab hold of the kid from the front of the raft and hang on to him without being pulled over the front tube, under the raft, and becoming a victim himself. Jacky ships both oars, and leaps over the pile of gear in the back, and jams his left arm through some nylon equipment straps that run through the metal d-ring glued to the back of the raft tube, and folds that left arm in close to his life vest, and waits.
The raft runs right over the kid, who slides along underneath the boat. When the kid’s form appears from under the raft, Jacky drops into the water at the exact right moment to grab the kid around his torso, pulls the kid to him in a bear hug, and hangs on. Fortuitously, Jacky’s right hand finds the nylon waist strap of his own life vest, and his fingers close around it and lock tight. The boat yanks on the snag branch, the branch bends into a complete ninety degree arc, the boat slows down, and is suddenly stopped dead in the river. I can see all this clearly, standing in my boat, and a sudden flash of hope blasts through my mind.
A vector of stress is an engineering concept that can best be described this way: take a rubber band and pinch one end in each hand, then pull. The bands stretches. You’ve created a vector of stress from one end to the other, in a simple straight line. The more you pull, the greater the amount of stress you are putting on the band. The amount of stretch, the deformation of the band, is called strain. Strain will be greater the more stress is applied. The rubber band material cannot sustain stress that exceeds it’s mechanical properties. When the accumulated strain on the rubber band reaches a certain point, called the ‘moment’, the rubber material fails, the band snaps, and the vector of stress is released.
In front of me, a vector of stress has been created when Jacky Chaice grabs the kid. The stress on all links in the vector of stress increases as the river water builds up behind the raft, creating a small and growing mound of water against the back of the Avon, the pressure growing greater and greater, until all the slack is taken from the links in the chain. When the boat has stopped in the water, all the easy slack has been drawn out, and now, the pressure is torturing the weakest link in that chain, and that link is, unfortunately, Jacky’s body.
The vector of stress in front of me now is far less than the breaking strength of the rubber fabric the boat is made of, far less than the nylon straps or the metal d-ring glued to the boat rubber, less than the force necessary to shred the life vest worn by the kayak kid, and up to this point, less than the moment of failure of the branch of the cottonwood snag that the spring rush from the mountains tore out of the river bank in mid-March.
The likeliest point of failure in this deadly vector is somewhere in Jacky’s upper body. The stress is accumulating in his left arm, now stuck and trapped in the nylon straps, then passes through that point to his upper arm, through his left shoulder complex, through his collarbones, ribs, and sternum, through his right shoulder complex, his right arm and elbow, to the fingers of his right hand. When the force has built to a great enough pressure on him, Jacky’s body is gonna give, somewhere. Or, just before the moment of failure of some part of him, Jacky’s survival instinct, a pre-conscious automatic response emanating from the most ancient part of our brains, the limbic system, that is triggered by pain, suffering, or injurious threat, will kick in and command Jacky to release his grip somewhere, probably his fingers and elbow, now crooked around the kid’s torso. Against all Jacky’s will or conscious decisions, his arm will let go, and the kayak kid will be left to suffer his own fate.
The primitive psychic mechanisms present in all of us, those reflexive actions that we have evolved to ensure the survival of individuals, and by extension our species as a whole, are nearly impossible for us to command, and we cannot, under almost all circumstances, override them with willpower. About the only time an individual can consciously perform an action that will clearly maim or kill them is if a member of their immediate family, such as their son, daughter, husband, or wife, is in mortal danger, and there is no other option. Thus it is that a husband will rush into a flaming house to rescue his pregnant wife, disbelieving in the likelihood that she and their fetus are surely dead at that point, since without her, he cannot pass on his genetic heritage through her body, via childbirth after conceiving with her, nine months after they’ve made love. Another exception to the limbic imperatives is a situation where a mother, seeing her daughter drowning out in a lake, will dive in and try to swim out to save her, though the mother’s swimming skills are weak, and her endurance poor.
But Jacky Chaice is still in conscious control, and he has not, and will not let go of the kid. His mind is still driving his body; he will not let go while he can still think.
As I stand on my boat, I hear Herbert Lotz, behind me holding the raft line, praying quietly in a whisper to the God of the Covenant. Miriam has her hands over her lower face, horrified. Herb is speaking the language of their tribe, Yiddish. Though I have no idea what his words mean, I get it.
Growing up Protestant, back home in Massachusetts, my mother dragged us to church every Sunday morning, to Saint Stephens Episcopal, without fail. I lapsed in my early twenties, and my education in Rationalist thought eroded the basis of my belief, diminishing my unquestioning faith in an all-powerful God who knows our actions and innermost thoughts, so that in my mid-twenties I came to define myself as atheist, believing that to be the unavoidable Rationalist, or maybe Empiricist, conclusion. (Rationalism and Empiricism are similar yet not the same, but neither philosophy encourages religious belief.) I have found in my life that when facing real crisis, near death, or any situation ‘in extremis’ that I have found myself in, I pray. Prayer simply comes out of me, though I will confess that I have never been able to say with conviction that God has answered any specific prayer I’ve made to Her. This inconsistency in my inner belief system, this seemingly irreconcilable contradiction between Rationalism and Religion that I am clearly conflicted about on some deep psychic level, is easily resolved for me, towards irreligious logic, when things are going smoothly, and I am involved in the average daily routines of life, in the quotidian needs, activities, and concerns that are the simple concerns of day-to-day living. But when crisis arrives, serious danger appears, and I sense a challenge to my own, my loved ones, or my good friends’ well-being and survival, when I stand on the edge of a real existential precipice, my toes hanging over the edge and the rock crumbling under my feet, and I’m suddenly looking down into the dark void below, all cool detachment evaporates, and I am propelled away from and against my comfortable logic. I’ll start praying like any other churchgoer on Sunday, the unshakably faithful who simply cannot believe human consciousness to be simply a manifestation of the chemical processes arising in a mass of organic flesh, the mysterious human brain. The faithful believe in the soul, a ghost temporarily loaned to our corporeal bodies, to be returned to God when She sees fit to call in the debt. This internal push and pull towards two conflicting extremes is a vector of stress of the mind. When the stress loads up until the band is forced to snap, one chooses, on some very deep level below the facade of will, intellect, and education.
And at this moment, I am watching my good friend Jacky Chaice’s face being alternately submerged and then exposed. When I can see his face briefly, he is gasping for air, and is in agony, but he does not let go. Jacky Chaice, wacky hippie boatman from Utah, the kayak kid’s only hope now, does not let go. In a low voice, almost a whisper, words slowly come from my my mouth. “Oh God, oh God, oh God, please God, please oh please God, God-damn-it, God, oh God, oh hear me God, God-damn, oh God…” and similar. I am standing stock still, staring intensely at the tragic passion play taking place a short distance away from me, but I can do nothing to help. Larry has jumped to back of the raft, and is frantically trying to get a grip on both Jacky and the kid. The Lotzes, Larry, and I are the only ones close enough to really witness Jacky’s agony. I cannot swim there. I cannot throw a rescue line that will cover the distance. I cannot become Gabriel and slay this dragon with a sword. I can only pray, in the desperate hope that there is a God somewhere in existence that can help our friend Jacky, and this kid-from-who-knows-where, in this, their hour of desperate need.
“Oh God, please oh please oh please God, almighty God, hear me, hear me now, oh God, oh God…”
Unseen by me at that moment, my prayer has flown up and out of the river canyon, up through our lonely planet’s fragile sliver of atmosphere, out past the nearby red planet, past the planet of the rings, past the enormous gas giant, past the icy planets of the outer solar system, past the chaos of the asteroid belt, into deep space. It has picked up cosmic steam and now flies out of our neighborhood at the edge of the Milky Way, past the threshold of the limits of our technological instruments, that point where the light of distant stars becomes indistinguishable from the background noise generated by the very technologies we use to listen and see, past a hundred billion galaxies, to the very end of the infinite universe, where my prayer passes through the gates of heaven, and climbs the steps of an endless staircase, and hops up on God’s shoulder and enters Her ear, and with a pitiful tone of desperate supplication, begs Her to “Help them, God. Help us.”
God turns, looks, and She sees it’s me, and She says, “Huh? Are you kidding me, Dave? You have the nerve to ask Me for help? Are you friggin’ kidding Me, dude?” And She judges me. She knows me to be not worthy since I haven’t been faithful, I’ve denied Her existence, me, a vain and often nasty guy, immoral, unrestrained by scruples, a self-centered hedonist, who is a failure on almost every level, who ignored the needs of my family, never was there for them, who has led a crazy life, crashed other people’s motorcycles, laughed in the face of hockey players bloodied by my fists, a guy who sought out any pleasure, ran away from all responsibility, turned good friends into bad enemies, went to seedy punk-rock bars to buy or sell ‘stuff’, who stepped outside those same bars to enjoy myself with the needle-track women, and slept off my hangovers on complete stranger’s floors. I’m that guy who never failed to fail: it was the easiest thing to do.
She knows I’m that same guy who, by total chance, fell into the last seat on a private rafting trip through the greatest river canyon in North America, immediately threw over his career and became a river rat, addicted to the canyons, whose philosophy of life became ‘Any river, any where, any time’, who drew a laughably tiny paycheck for five summers in a row of the best years of his youth, just to float through the fabulous river canyons of the American West, who partied hard at every chance, who got naked with the beautiful river goddesses: gorgeous, healthy, tanned women river guides from Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and elsewhere, who ran those same rivers with him, and popped their tops and dropped their shorts and offered their nude bodies up to the minor god called the sun, always indifferent to his gaze. It’s all true. I hit on those beauties, and chased them around in circles on the beaches. Once in a while, I would catch one of those shrieking goddesses by her waist, and we would drag ourselves off, laughing madly, to some discreet, shaded, sandy spot by the water’s edge, and she would grace me. God knows I am that very same guy who broke a beautiful girl’s heart in Maine in the late 70’s, a sweet woman who loved him madly, and said she would do anything for him, anything, if he would only marry her and feverishly sire precious children on her, but he didn’t because he was emotionally immature, and simply stupid.
God says, “I remember you now, Dave, you’re the guy who beat the hell out of that old Navajo drunk in the supermarket parking lot in Chinle, Navajo Nation, Arizona, back in July of ’82, when you caught him stealing some tortillas from the back of your truck, groceries you’d just bought. That sad old drunken Navajo, old Arviso, was just hungry, Dave, in fact slowly starving, but did you step up and help? Why didn’t you just give him those tortillas so that he might eat that day? Did you help your fellow man that searing hot day in Chinle, when his chips were down big-time? You put a serious beating on him that day. A few weeks later, old drunk Arviso was chewing over that bitter memory of you at that very moment when he stumbled into the interstate outside of Gallup, New Mexico, and a Freightliner hauling ass towards Flagstaff rocketed his essence into eternity in a crimson spray of blood, guts, skull fragments, fingers, testicles, and eyeballs. Dave, that chance encounter in Chinle was a big test, and you flunked it over a bag of tortillas that cost one dollar and twenty-nine cents. Oh yeah, I remember that scene. I remember everything that has ever occurred since the moment I snapped My fingers and a seriously big bang shattered the Nothingness and kick-started My latest universe into existence. Yes, Dave, you’re that guy that was, and is, a total loser.”
God is quaking with rage, and blinding light sparks from her eyes. But then, She looked closely at our big picture, and grasped quickly that there were other, far better souls involved: a drowning young man with his life out ahead of him, who had gone faithfully to Her temple in the City at Salt Lake, whose parents and loving sisters, in that place they called Utah, spoke Her name every day, lived the best lives anyone could, and were simply excellent people; and a strange, flawed, apostate, but decent hippie man who loved his wife and their love child, and had built for them a home in the sun on the flanks of a great American mountain, and had placed his daughter’s needs far above his own, and bought her a fine education, though his resources were meager. That daughter had returned to God’s fold, and soon must lie down in a bed, and gladly endure pain so a beautiful child would emerge from her body, a gift to her weeping, joyous husband, a child the young woman was determined to raise in the faith of her forefathers, a child who would be devoted to God. And God heard the Yiddish prayers of a far, far more deserving couple from Brooklyn, survivors of the insane Shoah, who continued in faith, though they ‘should have known better’. She heard a plaintive, begging chorus of pleas from a group of horrified guides and their terrified clients on a sandy beach. God recognized that there were far better people in this situation than just this other asshole over here who now, at this very instant, was invoking Her name, and begging for Her help right now. So God held Her nose, and decided for mercy, and delivered them all.
She raised her hand, and extended her pinkie finger across the threshold of infinite space, past the galaxies, past the boundary of human perception, past the Milky Way, into a small solar system, into the atmosphere of a lonely planet, down into a remote river canyon carved out by eons of flowing water and harsh blowing winds, to the floor of that canyon, to a place that was under a mere four inches of water. And she tapped a branch of a cottonwood tree that she saw there, just above a drowning teenage boy and a struggling, aging hippie, just gently grazing it slightly, just a teenie-tiny bit, and broke that branch in two.
It was like a gunshot. Startled, my eyes grew very wide. Pious Herbert Lotz, still mumbling his own supplication to God in the dialect of his ancient tribe, prayers no doubt more generously received by Her than mine, cried out “Oh my God!”. The vector of stress that was killing that kayak kid, and maybe our friend as well, suddenly ceased to exist. The deadly branch, released from stress, snapped back in recoil so hard that another section of it broke off and flew up stream. No longer restrained by the vector of stress, the raft, the two half-drowned figures in the water, and Larry, were released from the snag’s clutch and almost immediately floated away from the snag and gained speed fast until they were moving at the same rate of speed as the river. Larry was leaning over the back, had gotten one hand on each swimmer, fighting to hold both their heads above water, and held on to them with all his strength. The bucking of the raft and the pull of the two people in the turbulent water occasionally pulled Larry’s arms, head, and upper torso underwater, but he never quit.
I was instantly in the rowing cockpit, pulling on the oars. Herbert tossed the line into the front of the boat and used all his strength to launch me across the small eddy, then both Lotzes jumped in head first so that the generous investment adviser and his beloved Shoah survivor from Brooklyn were in a comical heap in the bottom of the raft. I spun the raft into the best position for cutting across the eddy line, and with three huge pulls, I punched that raft across the eddy line without getting spun around. I executed the best exit from an eddy that I have ever done and managed to shoot the raft into the flow of the river perfectly parallel to Jacky’s Avon. It’s remarkable what adrenaline can do for person. With a few hard pulls, I was three feet from the side of Jacky’s boat. I yelled at Herbert, “Herb, ROW!”. Herbert jumped into the cockpit and grabbed both oars just as I jumped from our raft to Jacky’s raft. Miriam, holding on, was looking downriver at something that alarmed her.
I remember thinking when I jumped, “No problemo, I’ve got this”. But the rafts had started to spin, and the distance between the two boats widened. When my right foot hit the slick rubber tube of the other boat, it found no traction. My foot slipped and went out from under me. I flew into the rowing cockpit of Jacky’s raft head first, somehow cushioned my impact with both arms, whacked my head and learned the truth of the saying ‘seeing stars’, but survived the impact intact, though my elbows stung badly. My left leg near the shin bone said it was very unhappy, but the perception was brief, and went out of my mind fast. I somehow levitated myself into the rower’s seat, grabbed both oars, then looked to my left, straight downriver.
About 70 feet ahead of us, directly in our path and coming up fast, was an enormous obstacle: a huge boulder that impeded the flow of the river in such a way that a boiling backwave of water had built up in front of it. This storm of water split in two and sloughed off on either side of the huge rock. There was no run on the right side, just a narrow slot and pour-over . The run on the left was pure cupcake, but the boat’s attitude was now sideways to the obstacle, and I knew if we hit this rock sideways that the raft would hang up, flip on it’s side, and then the force of the river would wrap that raft right around the boulder, blowing out and flattening the tubes. If the boat flipped towards the rock, I would be crushed between the rock and the raft with so much force that my life would be over in a few seconds, and the others with me just might die too. There was simply no time to spin the boat; we were closing fast on the monster. My only option was to row hard and wildly with maximum force to push the boat backwards, toward the easy run on the left of the boulder. I took two ineffective strokes, because I was panicking. My third stroke on the oars got excellent purchase in the water, and the boat moved backwards, gaining only four feet of ferry, but it was enough. We closed on the obstacle before I could execute another stroke. The front left tube hit the angry backwave of water, slid over it and went right up on the smooth ancient rock. As we stuck there for at least a full ten seconds, the raft leaned precipitously, threatening to flip over. Instinctively, I leaped to the high side and leaned far over the left tube to counter the dangerous tilt of the teetering raft. Then the force of the river on the back of the raft dragged us off and turned us downstream, so that we cleanly slipped by the obstacle. Miriam was shouting “Awwwright!!!” from behind me somewhere.
We were still in swift, turbulent current. Larry was behind me at the back of the raft, keeping a grip on the two semi-conscious swimmers with all the cojones he could muster, always keeping their heads above water. Back in the rower’s seat, I pulled three times on the left oar to spin the attitude of the raft around so that my back faced the sand beach coming up fast on the right side, where a frantic group of people from both river groups were waiting. I rowed hard, and as we slid past the people, a rescue line flew over our raft and landed across my feet. As I reached down to grab the line, I wondered where the hell had all this blood come from. I lashed the line around the oar stand, and held on tight. As strong arms on shore pulled us in to the slack water near the beach, I looked down and saw the ugly slash on my left leg, just left of my shin bone. I was looking into my leg, and my stomach turned. Then the pain hit me.
The next half-hour or so, I was in a daze, as I went into shock. People in the water are pulling the raft into the shore. Some folks have hauled the kayak kid up on shore, and are hovering over him; his legs and arms are moving. A few feet away, in shallow water next to the raft, Larry and a boatman hold Jacky Chaice upright, more or less awake, but clearly alive. Then I am being carried up on the beach by a strong boatman and a strong boatwoman, Madeleine. I am put down on a plastic tarp, and then I am out cold, swimming in and out of consciousness. When my fog clears, Madeleine is kneeling beside me, gripping my face with both hands. Someone is compressing my wound with a bandage. A river goddess, a guide with the other group, is injecting me with local anesthesia, preparing me for stitches. I look her over; she is a big Nebraska girl, her face a galaxy of freckles, with corn-fed good looks. She is a trauma nurse in the ER at a hospital somewhere in Idaho. She will do a good job on my wound today, but three weeks later, a surgeon in a hospital in Albuquerque will open up her sutures, scrape out the infection raging inside my leg, and sew me back up, leaving in place a little plastic tube that hangs outside of my skin and drains the fluid away in a slow pinkish rivulet down my leg. Lying there in a fog, I become aware of Madeleine whispering my name over and over, her words carrying that little French inflection that I always found so fetching. Her face is about a foot from mine, and the strongest woman I’ve ever known is crying. That was the only time I ever saw my lover Madeleine cry. I think I started crying too, but I am hazy on this point.
That night, both groups camped on that sandy beach, and celebrated. The kayak kid recovered quickly, but he tucked in early that night, and slept like he was comatose. Jacky Chaice complained of a strained feeling in his upper body, so we pumped him full of painkillers, and he tucked in early too. That glorious evening, boaters kept making pilgrimages to Jacky to adore him for what he had accomplished that day. Everyone was so awed by Jacky that he became abashed by the constant kisses on his weathered face by the goddesses in both groups.
Later, I’m told, the kayak kid, his parents and beautiful sisters, and some Mormon elders, visited him at the solar dome near Moab to thank and honor him, which must have been an extremely emotional meeting. Though I have no hard knowledge of the fact, I suspect those good Mormon people probably looked around at the relative poverty and sparse simplicity of the Chaices’ lives, and their modest dome-home in the sun, and found some way to flow money to them, cuz that’s how they are, those Mormons. I know that Jacky and his wife moved to St. George, Utah, in the fall of that year, and that their daughter bore them a perfect grandson. What goes around comes around, and for the aging hippie couple, Jacky’s superhuman effort in saving that kid was returned to them many times over.
Larry is adored too, but he blows off all praise, and insists “I just held on, that’s all. I didn’t do nuthin”, and just keeps quaffing his Budweiser. He had strong hands and a strong heart at the right time, but won’t hear of any credit being given to him. He was cool under pressure that day, very cool in fact. I think that this river event was probably a very minor effort for the combat veteran who endured the vicious firefights at Khe San, in Viet Nam, in 1968, when he and the best friends he’s ever had teetered on the edge of destruction for months, surrounded by a huge force of determined and well-armed belligerents. Larry reached down deep and found something almost forgotten inside himself, some first principles that were drilled into him in his Marine Corps experience: Don’t think too much: it’s not your job; Focus only on the immediate task at hand, and do it excellently; Never quit. Repeat: never quit. Larry was ‘Semper Fidelis’ that day; it’s a deep imperative, a cast of the mind, that never leaves a Marine.
Propped up in a low beach chair, with an ice bag on my bandaged leg, I was the object of much hero worship that evening, but I tried my best, for once in my sad life, to handle it with grace and humility. I even got some warm kisses on the cheek from some super-cute kayak girls from the other group. I handled that decently too, although I did fondle the thigh of one heavenly young Mormon thing. She kindly let my hand rest on her for a moment or three, then rose up from my side and walked off, looking back at me with a shy but sly smile. Madeleine clung tightly to me that evening, and adored me so much that I was deeply moved. One of the great regrets I carry with me is that I didn’t manage my relationship with that fabulous woman very well. Like most things in my crazy life, I screwed it up.
But when it really counted and the chips were down, seriously big-time down that day on that Utah river, I had my act together enough to muddle through. Of course, God had a lot to do with it, so I should give Her some credit. And I do, kind readers. Really, I do.