May 29, 1968: Dale and I had finished our final exams at Messiah. He was a senior, and I a freshman. We decided to celebrate the end of semester by going out on the Minnemingo (Yellow Breeches Creek, running through the campus) on a canoe. Dale might tell this story differently, and remember different details than I do. The event in itself is one; our memories partial and fragmented.
I remember going upstream for a short way; but the creek was high with Spring flooding and running fast. We turned around to go the other way, downstream. I don't know how we planned to return against the current. Maybe we meant to walk back, as indeed we did in the end.
We paddled with the current until we came to a bridge at the edge of the campus, where a branch across the river confronted us at water level. Normally one would have passed well underneath it, but the creek was high! I remember Dale yelling, "Lean left!" I called back, "What?" And we tipped right, into the water flowing swift and deep.
I do not swim. I took seven years of swimming lessons (1958 to 1965), growing up in Zimbabwe. I was told that I was the only one to leave my junior school (Hillside, in Bulawayo) as a non-swimmer. Not one of my proudest achievements.
The water was deep, probably five to six feet in general. Dale was in the back of the canoe: he grabbed the branch that tipped us and pulled himself out. I was in the front of the canoe, and grabbed the canoe. It took several times pulling on the canoe (tipping and re-tipping it) before I managed to support myself with it and float on down the stream.
I remember little of that experience, except that it must have lasted about a half hour. The creek wound through the woods near Grantham, and the road which crossed where we tipped ran relatively straight. One, two, three bridges. At the first, we tipped. At the third, Dale finally caught up with me. He found two men fishing nearby, who both had training in lifesaving. One brought me to safety and the other pulled in the canoe.
Another bystander offered us a ride back to the campus, but it was evening, I was cold and wet and felt like I needed to walk -- both to compose myself and to warm up. We walked several miles back to Messiah, where the ladies in the dining hall were kind enough to find a late supper for us.
I have wondered often enough about that branch, the spinning canoe, and my flailing arms. I turned 18 the next day. Now that our sons have passed 18, and I watch young people of that age take life in their turn, I understand my own actions a bit better. We didn't think. Eighteen-year olds often don't! But we lived through it, and Dale and I are connected forever (whatever "forever" means) by this shared fragmented memory.
A postscript: years later Messiah College bought and moved the covered bridge from the place where I was pulled from the river to Messiah College itself. So now the third bridge rests close to where Dale and I began our canoe trip.
I thought of all of this again when Dale sent me an email yesterday. I end this post with Dale's email and poem. (To see more poetry that Dale has written, click here.)
For what it's worth, here's my feeble attempt to commemorate our infamous canoe trip. Dale
If we hadn’t gone canoeing that spring day,
if we had worn life vests or been more careful,
if we had both been strong swimmers,
if my friend had been the one to catch
the tree and work his way to shore…
On the other hand,
if neither of us had made it to shore or
I had run more slowly along the swampy bank,
if there hadn’t been a house with two skilled men,
if they hadn’t acted so quickly and wisely,
if my friend hadn’t been able to hold on…
But in our universe,
we took foolish risks and cheated death
and in that bond maintain a long friendship,
though we still disagree about important things,
demonstrating that neither of us is unnecessary,
that we aren’t wasting the universe we’re in.