Grace, we are saved by grace. And kids, meaning people under 20, seem to have an abundance of it.
It’s the spring of 1970, April. I’ve just turned 15 the month before. The snow has been melting like crazy and the Winooski River is filled to overflowing. In Marshfield, the Winooski is little more than a large, constant brook, though it is never dry.
Because it’s high water, though not rapidly flowing, except below the Plainfield dam, my friends and I decide to have an adventure. Let’s canoe down the Winooski from Marshfield to Plainfield and put ashore just above the dam. That’s eight miles by road, probably half again that on the meandering river. We had three canoes for the six of us; Michael Merchant, David Webster, James Walker, Richard Hudson, Dwaine Smith, and me. I love to steer, so I sit in the back of our canoe with Michael supplying the engine up front. I don’t know if any of us wore life jackets as we were all very good swimmers, I didn’t.
The slow moving water was cold, so the bottom of the canoe was cold. We didn’t mind. We paddled keeping warm through our own efforts. I remember feeling so much older than I had been a year ago. No junior high kid would be paddling down a run-off filled river in the spring. Nope, we were high schoolers, for all intents and purposes, adults!
We brought some lunches, ate in the canoe. The one I was in was a strong, fiberglass canoe. It was sturdy, but sleek and fast, a true pleasure to paddle. After about two or three hours of leisurely paddling in the sun, joking, and having a really good time, we came into Plainfield. As planned we put ashore just above the dam, ready to have the canoes picked up, taken home from there. Our adventure was done. Well sort of.
Below the dam were lots of rocks, a spit out into frothing white water. We had seen no white water the entire way, hardly any current. It would be very exciting to put in there, paddle through it and go another two mile, and take the canoes out down a few more miles near Clay Hill. The roar of the white water was a siren’s call. We portaged around the dam.
My canoe would be last. I watched. The first canoe made it. Michael’s canoe set out. They paddled wildly, with ferocious effort. But they were sucked by the current right into a rock. Their canoe turned over. Passengers and canoe were swept downstream. We had switched up so Dwayne was with me, paddling at the point. Cautiously we put in.
Hmmmm I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to us. I’m experienced, know how to pilot this canoe. We paddled out, felt the current pulling us towards that same rock. No way! I pulled us strongly, confidently to the left. To my incredulous surprise we are beingl pulled into that rock. The current was really strong. The canoe starts to tip. Ah well, I’m going to get wet.
I’m in the water. Very cold. And… why aren’t I coming up? My feet are braced on the bottom of the river. My left shoulder is wedged between the canoe and the rock. The canoe is a vice, gallons and gallons and gallons of rushing water crushing the side of the canoe, pressing it against the rock, pressing it against me. I push, I shove, the canoe will not move. I lift with my legs, I still can’t budge it. The only thing I can do is get my right hand above the water on upstream side, as if that’s going to help.
Now this is where school really helped me. What, you think I learned something in science that would get me out of this jam? No! No it was Mr. Bottiggi’s boring world history class. If you know me, you know I can’t stand to be bored. So for months and months, with no other way to avoid boredom, I had practiced holding my breath during the unending class. Recently, I had held successfully held my breath for 2 minutes.
We had gathered quite a crowd of teenage onlookers when we put in the canoes below the dam. John Hardy, a senior, was at the edge. He sees Dwaine, but no Steve. Then he sees my hand. He’s strong. He rushes out. And he’s swept downstream before he can reach me. Dwayne has popped up and sees that I’m not anywhere. He runs back up to the spit, forges into the water and is swept down again. He repeats that process again with the same result. No one can get to me.
Under the water, I’m pushing and working at it, but to no avail. After what seemed like endless effort, my chest was beginning to burn. Strangely, I really didn’t mind or fear the water. I just couldn’t figure out a way to get to the air above the water. More seconds pass. I think, “So this is it, this is how you are going to end. Who would have believed it?” There was nothing I could do and the burn was becoming intolerable. “Okay, just let out all this air and suck in as much water as you can. Do it!” But despite the horrible burning I couldn’t. Something in life won’t let us willingly give up.
I gather myself for a second try at it. And suddenly I’m plummeting downstream, rocks pummeling me. I can’t get my feet under me. Crashing water all around me drags me further downstream. My feet find a sand bar. I stand up, yelling for help.
As I stand there, to week to do anything but wait for help I looked upstream. The oh-so-strong, fiberglass canoe had broken over my shoulder, the edge breaking along the fulcrum that was my shoulder. The pocket that was formed freed my shoulder. The canoe was still wedged on the rock, where despite the efforts of three grown men to free it, it remained until the spring runoff subsided. Someone, I don’t remember who, reaches me, pulls me ashore. I’m rushed off to the infirmary in Plainfield for examination. A torn muscle, and badly bruised shoulder are all I suffered. You can still see the lump of that torn muscle now 40 years later.
Grace, the water was so cold that hypothermia extended my oxygen supply, slowed its inexorable consumption. Grace, through history class boredom I could hold my breath for 2 minutes. Grace, I didn’t wear a life jacket. If a life jacket had gotten wedged, it would have been too soft, no fulcrum. That canoe would never have broken. Grace, a nearly indestructible fiberglass canoe breaks over my shoulder. Had it touched the rock anywhere else there would have been no fulcrum, no break.
Grace. My Grandfather would say that evening it was because I kept my head, that a lesser kid would have died. He was wrong. I did nothing that saved me. I was saved by Grace.