It was Mother’s Day and I was twelve or thirteen years old. We were sitting in a restaurant, perched high on the bank of a river with windows running the entire length of the dining room, ensuring there was not a bad seat in the house. I remember thinking it was a smart design; with a view like that, you really can’t have too much glass. I don’t recall my sister being there, she may have been working at her grocery store job that day. It was just Mom, Dad, and myself. At some point during our meal there was an eruption of loud gasps and worried remarks throughout the restaurant, and in no time the three of us noticed what was causing the excitement. Outside, two children could be seen in the distance up river, floating on inner-tubes with no lifejackets as the swollen spring waters pulled them closer to our location, which as everyone in the dining room knew, included a significant waterfall and a riot of rapids (Class IV, specifically). From our bird’s eye view, we saw the entire stretch of water laid out below us: the relative calm up river where the kids currently floated in sweet oblivion, the incredible whitewater just below our table, then the waterfall, followed by another stretch of whitewater before the river returned to calm. The expressive concern on the face of every adult in the restaurant was enough to convince my young teen self that those kids were in danger, and my god it’s Mother’s Day, please don’t let anything tragic happen on Mother’s Day.
For the next moment or two, the kids had no idea what was to come. But just a few seconds later, they became desperately aware and fear washed over their faces just as it had taken over the dining room. The pace of the water picked up, rendering them unable to retreat to land. They were swept up in it now, and their only choice was to ride it out and hang on tight. I remember bodies pressed against the glass, which I’m sure amplified the gravity for these young kids, who could now see us all staring down at them. Surely a restaurant full of terror-stricken patrons was a sign of impending doom. Yes, it seemed that it was.
I turned away from the glass for a moment to notice my father was missing. Looking further over my shoulder, I saw him running out the front door and down the many steps toward the river bank. There was a tall fence to scale - I had noticed that on the way in - and of course the waterfall and those rapids on the other side. Did he have some kind of plan? I turned back to the glass just as the kids passed through the whitecaps, tipped over the waterfall, disappeared for what felt like eternity, and then miraculously, watched as they emerged down river, floating away on calmer waters. They looked stunned, tossed around and turned about, but alive and above water. They would both see their mother again. Throughout the restaurant, elation replaced fear, but the adrenaline of both remained palpable.
My guess is the entire incident took place in under two minutes, even though it felt like eternity. Those kids made it though the rapids and over the waterfall in so few seconds - as violent as those seconds were - that my father never had a chance to enter the water before they safely popped up on the other side. He was, however, the only person to leave the restaurant that day, compelled into action rather than frozen in spectating.
Everyone settled down, returned to their tables and meals, and I’m sure those kids made their way to land then home to their mothers at the first available moment. My father rejoined our table and mom asked what he would have done if the kids went under, if they were trapped below the rapids, or under the waterfall? He replied, “I don’t know exactly, but I know that I wasn’t doing anything by sitting here.”
And that about sums up my dad.
My father is a great storyteller, one of the best I know, and the most incredible part of that is I’m pretty sure he has no idea. In fact, I don’t even think he realizes he’s telling stories at all. As a man of few words, his tales are brief, descriptive, often funny, and always sharp with recollection. That last part I am especially envious of. Last year as Thanksgiving approached, Story Corps put out a call for all of us to hit record on our phones, tape recorders, or whatever device we had, during the holiday meal as a means to capture story. Family story, community story, America’s story. I loved this idea and so wanted to walk away from the day with a treasured recording of snippets, quotes, family tales and memories, but felt too shy to suggest it, and would not have done so without everyone’s consent. Maybe next year.
Anyway. I’ve never heard my dad retell what happened at the restaurant that day, probably because he would have to include the details of his own actions, and that is not the kind of story he ever tells. I guess that’s what us kids are for. Besides, I actually think about this day at least once a week, even after all these years, which tells me it should be written down somewhere. So here I am, telling a story that deserves to be told... one that I know he will never tell.