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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Saved by a Watermelon Helmet


I was fifteen when I discovered that near-death experiences could be fun. There’s something in them that affirms life, something that energizes and validates existence. This all takes place just before my sophomore year of high school.

Several months earlier, I would have said just the opposite. One ill-fated Friday, two of my friends decided to get a guy they knew to act like he wanted to beat me up. I'd never even met the guy. After a few minutes of my confused rambling, he got me in a headlock and dragged me down the hall past the indifferent principal’s office (seriously, the principal looked right at me in a headlock and just shook his head).  His watch scratched my neck rather badly. My friends thought this was a great joke.  Also, on that same day, I was playing basketball after school when a leap for a rebound resulted in my head hitting the black top with Tom Kraus’s elbow in my ear. I didn’t get the ball. And, I was nearly decapitated by a Mack truck in a bike accident. All that was when I was fourteen.  By fifteen, everything had changed.

The family belonging to my friend Mike went on a canoe trip. He and his younger brother, David, each got to bring two friends along. Mike asked our mutual friend Chris and myself. David somehow conned two girls into going.  He was ten at the time.

We drove in the family van to a town called Omer, Michigan, on the Rifle River.  Besides River Bend campground, where set up our tents, the Omer also boasted about its ice cream parlor. It served eight flavors, nine on some days. We had a whole weekend to explore the woods, canoe, float on inner tubes, and try to meet girls. Before that trip ended, all three of us—Mike, Chris and me—would nearly die.

My ordeal came our very first night. The three of us decided to walk upstream a ways, leaving Dave with his two girlfriends. We went by water mostly, and were enjoying swimming when it deepened enough. After about two miles, we found a bend in the river where the bottom dropped to about twelve feet and the current somehow quickened. Right at this ben a fifteen-foot cliff shot out of the water.

We had no small amount of fun hurling ourselves off the cliff into the waters below. The only problem we encountered was in scaling the cliff after each jump. Wet clay is rather slippery.
             
While ascending one time, I began to lose my footing. I was at the top, needing only to find some handhold to pull myself over the edge.  I grabbed a root, the biggest and sturdiest I could see. I soon discovered that it wasn’t attached to anything.

I had already lost purchase with my feet, and my other hand had no sturdy hold. So, with my trust in the traitorous root unfounded, I fell, I spun, and I smashed into the slightly jutting base of the cliff.  I slid into the water.

I didn’t hear the yells of my friends as they called to me. Evidently I was underwater for some time. I wasn’t the strongest of swimmers, but they stood on the cliff and waited.  All was black around me, though I retained consciousness all the while.

Eventually, I reached out and grabbed a tree branch, pulling myself to shore some twenty yards downstream. They described the scene later, to much greater effect:  the silence, broken only by the ubiquitous running of the river; the stillness of the air after I submerged; then the small and almost insignificant hand suddenly jutting out of the water to catch hold of the only branch within reach.

The next morning, Saturday, we got in canoes and paddled downriver. Two canoes—Mike, Chris, and me in one; Dave and his two friends (whose names I think were Amber and Jodie) in the other—got ahead of the group and got to the spot where the canoe livery van would pick us up well before the rest of the group.
             
We’d even stopped for lunch, which consisted of sandwiches and watermelon. We wore the eviscerated watermelon rinds as helmets.
             
We were to be picked up at a bridge out in the middle of a bunch of cornfields. There, the road passed over the river by means of a rusted, metal contraption that was covered with dirt and stones, the same as the road itself. A single house stood nearby, with a lawn so green it seemed out of place. The corn had not yet grown.
             
We were very early, as most of the others had stayed in a mass. Groups move more slowly than individuals, and it seems that larger groups move more slowly than small ones.
             
While I explored the house and its yard, the others went up onto the bridge. Soon, I saw stones flying by my head. They were attempting to snipe me.
            
Stones kept coming. I stood, unarmed by the fact that I stood in a well-kept lawn.  They had an arsenal. I’d been playing baseball for ten years, studied karate for four.
            
 I dodged by reflex. There were three of them, so stones buzzed by incessantly. Then, still by reflex, I caught one. I don’t know why, but it didn’t hurt my hand at all.  They were a long way away from me, and somewhat above because of how the ground sloped down toward the river, but I managed to hit the road sign right next to Mike’s head. The sound startled them, giving me time to scurry under the bridge. I was safe there, but trapped.  They dropped stones down every time I stepped out from cover.
             
But now I was armed. Rocks covered the river’s bottom. I threw a few small ones up, then lofted a rock the size of a fist.  In response, several chunks of watermelon rind splashed into the water.

I thought that was odd. I knew that they couldn’t have depleted their supply of stones.  I’d thrown blindly, though, and couldn’t really tell what was going on. I did remember that Mike had been wearing one of the watermelon helmets.

When no more rocks fell, I stepped out from cover and took a look upward. I saw Mike, bereft of helmet, holding his head. His eyes were wide, he stood right at the edge of the bridge, and he was laughing. It was a dazed laugh, one not entirely associated with the here and now. David and Chris pointed at him, mouths agape.

The next morning, Chris had his brush with the infinite. Much of the trip we spent at the campground’s playground. The swings, teeter-totter, and merry-go-round formed a circle around a large, wooden horse. The horse was made of five logs that had been nailed together to resemble something equine. Its head sat probably six or seven feet off the ground, and its long log of a body was about a quarter lower. We sat on that horse a lot.  It was near the bathrooms.

As the rest of us perched on the wooden horse that Sunday morning, Chris emerged from the bathroom.  He stood for a moment on the sidewalk before attempting to climb over the three-foot tall split-rail fence that separated the sidewalk from the playground. To scale this obstacle, Chris put one foot on the bottom log. He then began to throw his other leg over the top log, but the bottom one spun around in its rest. He toppled forward, smacking his forehead on the ground.

The ground, having been compacted by the tread of many feet, was hard. Not as hard as the concrete, but hard enough to make his forehead good and red for a few minutes.

Perhaps I hyperbolize when I write of near death experiences. Perhaps not.  If I’d been at all injured by that fall I could have drowned.  In some head-wounded haze, Mike could have feasibly stumbled off the bridge. The river was mere inches deep at that point.  Chris could have landed on a rusty nail.
           
Yet we all agreed that it was the best trip we’d taken. There was danger, and that meant excitement. The pain wasn’t bad; it let us know we were alive.
             
It’s best summed up by an event later in the Saturday of our trip. The three of us were running through the woods to meet some girls we’d met as they returned from a canoe trip. In our path lay a huge, fallen tree, maybe four feet in girth. I was third in our line, and saw the first two leap to the top of the tree and then back to the ground. As I hit the top of the tree, I decided to leap and grab a younger tree that grew nearby. With images of daring swashbucklers in my head, I intended to swing around that tree and land back on the trail. But I’m no swashbuckler, so all I did was crash into the smaller tree head first. The others came running back.
             
“Are you hurt, Dan?”
             
“Yeah, I’m hurt,” I said.  “But it’s a good hurt.”

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