There were five of us preparing for this camping trip to Maine, and we needed to bring a third canoe, mostly loaded with gear, and someone willing to paddle it. I usually volunteered for pack canoe duty, in part because I didn’t see it as entirely safe.
We brought the Yellow Banana, our oldest canoe, which my brother Peter named for its shape and vibrant color. An American, bought from a friend in the early eighties, we carried us numerous times in Maine, usually on the Bow River trip where its light weight eased the burden of the mile portage.
But mostly I was drawn to its color. I remember paddling this canoe, overloaded with three people and gear, straight into the wind and waves of Attean Pond. It was after Columbus Day, and we were headed to the Moose River. With the skies an oppressive gunmetal gray, and the sun setting, we ignored the whitecaps on the water. We had paddled across the protected side of the lake but now, confronted with the open lake, wind in our faces, we eddied behind boulders as we summoned the strength to make our crossing. Without much hesitation, or thought, we shoved off and instantly realized our blunder.
The waves pounded the canoe, the wind chilled our bare skin, but there was no return. if the bow of the canoe weren’t perpendicular to the waves, we were in the water, and we knew it. I fell to my knees in the bow, Peter sat in the stern, and in the middle , my wife Diane, clung to the gunwales, fingers wet. Again, deceived by our inexperience, here we were, in deep water, carrying too much gear, paddling as hard as we could, and making little progress. Worse, weighted down by our winter gear- heavy hiking boots and down coats- but no life jackets.
My arms were tiring and I worried about all of us, but mostly about Diane, sitting helpless behind me. I was also irritated that Peter didn’t share my concern. I’d look back to yell at him to paddle harder only to see looks of bemusement. What was so funny? My anger didn’t help me paddle; it just added to my feeling of desperation.
I don’t know what it is about our relationship, but one of us is always trying to convince the other to take some situation more seriously. I can’t list the number of things we accuse the other of undervaluing. Mostly though, my prodding polarizes Peter into feigning less concern. Had we been able to scream over the win, our conversation might have sounded like this:
Me, “Paddle harder!”
Peter. “I’m paddling hard enough.”
Me,’ If you don’t paddle harder we’ll get turned into the waves and
Peter.’ I think we’ll be okay.”
Me, “Paddle harder of we will die!’
Peter, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
I’m surprised, after commanding him to work harder, he didn’t just toss the paddle into the water.
Perhaps the sense of danger is different in the bow than the stern. Though just a few feet apart, if the stern paddler’s legs are wet, that means the bowman is soaked. Maybe Peter couldn’t see the bow leave the water, maybe his arms weren’t as tired as mine, maybe he didn’t feel as responsible. I never asked him.
Unbelievably to me but perhaps not to Peter, we reached the lee side of the lake. It seemed like only minutes later that the wind died and the clouds opened to permit a few warming rays of the sun. We spread out wet gear on the rocks, opened our mats, lay down and stayed, toes up, for a very long time. We were no longer in a hurry.
We retired the Banana when I bought an aluminum strutted, orange, plastic canoe that glided over the water like a wet piece of plywood. My god, it was slow, but when Adam and I wrapped it around a bridge pier on the Ipswich River, we were able to pry it off with a fence rail. More remarkably, we unfolded it on land with no damage to the shell. Unfortunately I couldn't find aluminum gunwales, which is why we went back to old, thin skin.
On that fall camping trip, we erected our tents on a bluff just above the shoreline, with a view of the water and mountains beyond. Surrounded by fall colors and unusually deep blue skies, we beached our canoes near the end of the spit. Each night, after dinner and many bottles of wine, the sandy beach became our playground. Our game of Frisbee enabled by the lightstick attached to the bottom. This had become a yearly activity that succeeded in getting us away from our fire and out under the stars, and rare views of the Aurora. The game endured past twisted ankles and Dan's dunking off, aptly named, Bottle Island.
Inevitably, the Frisbee would land in the water and Adam, the man my son named one of his teddy bears after, would retrieve it by wading in, or we would chase it in one of the canoes. We would toss it back and forth to the guy in the canoe, even after my oldest friend, Dan, flipped into the water. It wasn't his fault; he had had too much to drink.
This time the Frisbee caught the current at the end of the beach and headed away, a fading, orange light. I assumed a quick retrieval and again, without much thought, we grabbed the yellow canoe. It carried me to the campsite, wobbly walls, loaded with gear, but the river had been calm and more importantly, it had been daylight. With stars overhead and the Frisbee already gone from sight, barrister Mark and I shoved off.
We paddled to where we last saw the Frisbee and proceeded in the direction of the current. We knew if we got close enough, we'd see its glow. Intent on seeing the glow, we were unaware that our friends were no longer visible on shore. Stubbornly, we searched and when finally we decided it was time to head back, we both realized we had no idea where back was.
The yellow flame of the campfire was gone, and the starlight that had guided us toward the Frisbee wasn't enough to distinguish the shape of the shore. We didn't even know if we were upstream or downstream from the campsite. We could see trees outlined against the sky but both shores looked the same. It all looked the same. Our flashlight illuminated nothing as the waves pulsed the bottom of the canoe.
I have always battled my perception of responsibility and there it was: how could I be so stupid as to paddle into the night in this broken down canoe. I am an experienced canoeist and had been camping in these waters for sixteen years. I was with the novice of our group, Mark, and I was reminded of Diane, trusting Peter and me.
If it were my brother Peter in the canoe, we would have explored in the dark, bounced off a rock or two, assigned blame, laughed about it, and found the campsite. It was a game, one we never named and never admitted playing but it was as familiar as the smell of damp earth. Best described as the get lost, get in trouble, get out of it routine, like arguing, we were always doing it. The last time, before he left for Hawaii, Peter decided we should take a short cut through the New Hampshire woods north of Keene. I’d like to say our conversation went like this:
Me. “You have a compass in case we get lost?
Peter. “Of course.”
Me. “And you’re sure you can guide us through these woods?”
Peter. “Don’t worry.”
Peter. “ Let’s try this direction.”
What happened in the intervening years with this game, to focus not on the exploration of our inner selves but on the jeopardy of the players, I cannot fathom. Was it the birth of my son, Matthew, someone for whom I am truly responsible? Or the result of losing part of myself when I swept my hand through the spinning blade of my table saw? I do know something happened to the delicate conjunction between confidence and responsibility and here I was with Mark, berating myself.
Mark sits high and stiff in the canoe, the sign of someone who has never capsized. I've been dunked numerous times; I know how tenuous the bond, a canoe and water, how easily disrupted by a partially submerged rock. I saw this situation as one of comfort, not survival but I was trapped by my feelings of culpability and I needed a sure way out. I knew where I was, driving home from Indiana University late one night in 1968. After leaving school at the end of my junior year, I made many exciting trips back to visit my girlfriend. These were intensely emotional, humid, early fall, southern Indiana trips, and my routine was predictable. I would spend the weekend, leave late Sunday night, stop for coffee and donuts and drive three hours home before going to work the same day. These hilly, winding, back roads were very empty at this midnight hour, probably at any hour, and I knew them well.
As I followed those roads, my thoughts returned to the last passionate hours lying naked with Cathy. I was again admiring her body: running my fingers from the curve of her neck, over her shoulder, down her side to her slender waist and then up again over her hips. Each movement adding excitement, each moment seemingly free of time. I rolled the window down and was fantasizing about next weekend's return when my attention was caught by the taillights of a car far down the road. As I pulled myself to the present, I watched those orange lights reach the bottom of the hill, drift to the left but then, very suddenly, disappear.
My breath quickened. I was no longer back in Cathy's dorm, but in my car, shocked by the absence of those taillights. Were they lost in the trees along the road, had they simply been turned off, or something more ominous?
There wasn't anyone to offer help, no cell phones, no hospitals, and no other traffic. This would be all up to me. As I slowed at the bottom of the hill, my headlights illuminated what I didn’t want to see; the underbelly of the car resting, bottom up, in a ditch along the intersecting road. As I stopped to get out of my car, heart pounding, I could see someone crawling up from the culvert. My panic turned to euphoria. I wasn't faced with a life and death situation; I was merely a passerby.
Walking away from the overturned car were two teenagers, a boy and a girl. I learned the car was brand new, uninsured and driven by the girlfriend, but who cared? I was thankful those kids were not covered in blood. With relief and a smile I offered them a ride home. Home to appreciative parents, I was sure. They climbed in together, sitting side by side in the backseat and I continued down the lonely gravel road paralleled by the drainage ditch.
Very quickly we got to his house. It was his car, or his family’s car. We parked and I followed through a door offset from the front of the house. The house set against a backdrop of trees, was small, boxy in shape, with the dining room adjacent to the living room. Bedrooms were somewhere off the living room but it was hard to see, it was almost as dark inside as it was out. Why didn't someone turn the lights on?
The first person to meet us was the boy's father, roused by our entry. In the shadows, he appeared short but heavyset with disheveled hair. He stood on the other side of the dining room table from his son. I was nearer the front door and I began to realize that something quite different was unfolding, nevertheless, I stood there grinning. They were, after all, okay and I was, after all, very young.
Their safety was of no concern to the man standing in front of us. He hadn’t seen the car turn over. He only knew it had and now he was enraged and his anger, like the wind that precedes a thunderstorm, swept over all of us.
“What the fuck did you do this time?” he yelled at his son.
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“You fucking wrecked my car!”
“It was an accident.”
“Fuck your fucking accidents. There are no fucking accidents.”
His son shouted in return, as his girlfriend took a step back. But the boy had been here before and as his father’s anger grew, the boy’s voice began to trail. Clearly out of control, his father skirted the table and moved menacingly close.
Awakened by the screaming, a younger son rushed to defend his brother, to deflect attention, perhaps to reason with his father.
“Stop it, it wasn’t his fault.”
“Shut up, and get the fuck in you room.”
“Stop it. Stop it.”
The old man slammed his fist into his son’s face sending him sprawling onto the floor. The boy on the floor began to cry; and I, sensing there was yet another target in this room, was frozen somewhere between fear and disbelief.
I wanted to leave but I couldn’t walk out of that house in Indiana. I couldn’t close the door on that boy, in that house, and when he turned to me and asked, I agreed to drive him back to the overturned car, where he had lost his glasses. As we drove back along the gravely road, his father followed swerving his car, feet behind me. As I drove faster so did he . The journey from the car to the house was an adventure, quick and full of hope, the trip back to the car was dreadful, slow and foreboding. I looked at the boy and thought how he needed comfort, how he needed clemency.
It was thirty years ago that I followed those orange taillights to the overturned car and now I was paddling after an illusive orange Frisbee listening to the same voice I heard in Indiana. Over the years it had become a familiar companion, stitching different parts of my life together. When Adam and I rammed the orange canoe into the bridge pier on the Ipswich River, I was catapulted into open water and swept to shore. Adam, however, was pitched under water, and into a logjam where he might have stayed. Instead of thinking about his safety, I was busy listening to that voice.
“...no fucking accidents.”
After I moved my hand into the spinning blade of my table saw, I heard it in my shop when I should have been tending to my own medical care and now I tried not to listen to it as Mark and I stared at the shore's dark outlines, and debated which direction to paddle.
Luckily I picked the right direction and before long we were greeted by the sight of my friends waving to us from shore. We beached the tired, old canoe, and with orange Frisbee in hand I thought of that innocent boy in Indiana.
I knew then that I was that boy and that my father’s voice had caught up with me.