May 23, 2010

The Story

[Front matter: this another story from my Dad. This is probably his second-best one (though still easily New Yorker-caliber), but it's my favorite, perhaps because I feature prominently in it. Very highly recommended. This was also published in a collection called There's This River.]

It's time for bed again. The Boy will need to hear another story. Preferably a long one; ideally one that doesn't end. Lucky for me I have this vast treasure of a tale that I've stored on the leaky floppy disk of my cortex; a story of Remote Glacier and the River Kleena Kleen, of Granite Mountain, Copper Canyon and The Maze. It's a tale all true, richly embellished, misty and more heroic in the soft focus of time, with a cast drawn from that pantheon of characters who were and are my friends: larger than life, bright and timeless as the stars, strong and wise and funny. All handsome men and lovely women who could perform the impossible with a wink and a laugh.

This is a story drawn from the most Golden of Ages, the best and worst of times. It is filled with crisp images of desert mornings and snowy mountain moonlight, of wet rope and rotten handholds, of longings deeper than the sea, of moments when there was no time for terror, of aching love and hate and beauty. These things are in my story. It think it best to introduce the Boy to it while he still thinks it natural for bears to talk.

More often than not, the stage is set in that most sublime of earth’s scenic spectacles, where the actions of men easily take on the grandeur of their surroundings, the Grand Canyon, where there was, once upon a time....

"...a trip where your Daddy was rowing the old “Roaring Springs.” She had a little bit of magic in her, that boat. I think it must have been in the left side hatch, 'cause rocks never got anywhere close to that, while the right front footwell, on the other hand—"

"Tell me the one about the 'Too-Cool Doctors in the Matching Gold Chains, Daddy.'"

"You just heard that one. Anyway we had made it down to Lava Falls, which some people call Vulcan, after the God of the Forge—"

"How about 'Andre's Big Water Run', Daddy? Could you really have thrown a cat through the hole in the boat?"

"A little one, but this is a better story. See there we were, and we'd been there for a long time. Everyone was getting jittery and it was late in the day, but it was a nasty water level."

"Way to the Ugly?"

"Yeah. But RD wanted to go. He needed to go. His markers had told him that the water wasn't coming up until the next full moon—"

"Did he brush the sacred cornmeal with an eagle feather?"

"No, that was another guy. But maybe we should have blessed a little Bisquick for him that day, for all the good his calculations did. Kenton said it was the same water level as when he got hurt going over the dome rock upside down. It had squeezed him pretty good, and conked him on the noggin."

"Did it bust Kenton's head, Daddy?"

"I don't think anything could do that. But Kenton didn't want to be punished again thataway, so he elected to watch a run. The rest of us were hoping the Dam would give us enough water to run the left side."

"Those sonsabitches?"

"Yeah, but don't say that, OK? Anyway, we sat up on the rock while RD and the raft went through. Regan always has the two biggest, strongest guys on his boat through Lava. For luck, I guess. But when Vulcan saw those big bruisers sliding down the tongue he must have thought it was three fatted calves. He flipped them over like this—plop—no up and down or spectacular sideways action. Just—flop—like a pig on a spit. Then they went over the dome rock upside -down with nary a lifejacket showing above the surface. That scared the devil out of everyone. We found out later that one guy got a little scraped up and the boat had a gouge on the deck from one side to the other; but it looked like they all three could have been pinched in half, like you might do to a red ant that bit you for no reason. The raft made it somehow but he went right over the domer too. We all thought that would wreck a dory."

"What did you do, Daddy?"

"Well, we all sat there with our jaws on our chests for a while. Then Kenton said he was going to run The Slot."

"But wasn't that closed, Daddy?"

"It was closed, liquidated, gone, pao, completamente finito. But Kenton saw it there. I stood on my head and crossed my eyes and couldn't see anything but a solid wall of water 75 feet high. Kenton said, 'There's a little tongue feeding through right....THERE! Did you see that?' Well, maybe there was a bucketful of water that wasn't falling back on itself but I think it was just evaporating in the terrible wind that hole was making.

"Kenton was going to try it anyway. Said he'd rather flip in deep water than go over that rock again, which made a certain amount of sense. I guess. Anyway, he told this one guy who wanted to go with him what to do, and they went out there. He lined up on the bubbles just like there was a run there, pushed twice into the throat of that thing, and while they were falling, he jumped onto the shoulders of the guy in the front seat—"

"What happened?"

"Well, conviction is a marvelous tool, buddy. Kenton manufactured a slot in that wave that was just big enough for the Emerald Mile to climb out of the bottom of the trough. When he got almost to the top, the wave exploded underneath him. The boat came clear out of the water and did two complete backflips, maybe three, it was hard to tell from where I was standing. But it landed right side up. Nobody could believe it."

"I don't believe it either, Daddy."

"Well, that's what happened. And the rest of us were still up there wondering what to do. It was Andre, Ren and me and we weren't going to try either of those runs we'd seen. But we had to try something. It was getting dark, so we went back to the boats and saw that the water was coming up. We decided to go across to the left side and check out the run from there.

"I had this woman on my boat whose name was Lydia. She had been down the canyon once before, but the last time she had walked around Lava Falls. It had been eating at her ever since. She really wanted to go but she was scared to death. When she saw RD flip, she had just caved in on herself, like a wounded swan. For some reason she had singled me out as the boatman with the qualities she required. She knew if she came across the river with us she would have to run the rapid 'cause we couldn't pick her up below on that side. The worry was wearing her down. She only weighed about 40 pounds by the time she got on my boat. She sat down, and said in a voice about this big: 'Can I go with you, Coop?' Well, I had a lot on my mind and was pretty much convinced that I wasn't going to survive the afternoon anyway, so I said sure. And we went across.

"Ren had put together in his mind this run that only he could have thought up. It involved four complete 360's, and oar-vaulting over one rock that was three feet out of the water. He wasn't as good then as he later became. Later he got this kind of ruthless concentration to him, like a gunfighter, and he was really good. But that day he was spooked. He didn't want anyone in the boat with him 'cause he was going to do all those pivots and that leapfrog stuff without going any further than 18 inches from the left bank. Thought the added weight might slow him down. He had a wild look in his eye, like a cornered weasel, and he went down along the shore to check out his run by himself.

"Andre and I went high to look at the regular left run, but mainly to let the water come up. It was almost dark, and Lydia was down to about 25 pounds. RD had flipped three hours before, and the rest of the group probably figured we had decided to hike out Prospect Canyon.

"Andre and I finally got up the gumption to run when Ren burst out of the brush like a flushed pheasant. 'Snake!’ he yells. Ren hates snakes. He's running to the boat waving his arms like this: 'Snake!' It was hanging in the trees, and he had come face to face with it. 'Snake!’ he keeps yelling like it's after him. He didn't even see the rapid. Since he doesn't have a knife he had to stop and untie the boat. Gone are all thoughts of pivots and twists; he's getting the Hell out of there.

"Then it occurs to him that he needs weight in the boat and someone to bail. 'Lydia!’' he screams. 'Get IN the boat!' I don't have the chance to explain to him that she is, by now, without mass. They are pulling backward down the tongue. Ren somehow gets the bow around and the last thing I see is the “Hidden Passage” on the face of the biggest hole on earth with Lydia plastered on the bowhatch like decoupage."

"What happened, Daddy?"

"Well, frenzy works too sometimes, son, and they made it. Went right through the bottom hole too, but we didn't get to see that because we were in the rapid by then."

"Did you make it?"

"Piece of cake. We had the water. Didn't even have to bail."

"Wow, Daddy. You must have been the best."

"Well, for a while there, I guess we all were."

"Tell me another story."

"Sure, buddy. I really only know this one story, and it doesn't really end. We'll pick it up tomorrow after you've had a good sleep."

"Can I go down the river someday too?"

"Hey, I'm making your boat right now and I'm going to put a little bit of magic in every hatch. I'll even put some in the footwells, too. Now goodnight."

Copyright 2010, all rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, rewritten, broadcast, or published without the written consent of the author. Picture credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

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