Sunday, July 4, 2010

Our Perfect Storm

The Contrarian is getting lazy. My once a week column that became a once a week blog, eventually became an every other week affair, and lately, I think I’ve been lucky to get one out every three weeks.

After 12 years and approximately 400 columns I’m always thinking of things to write about, but somehow not getting around to actually writing them.

So, here is a repeat of a vintage column that I’m still occasionally asked about. It was first published in 2003 and recounts a terrifying moment from the 4th of July that year.

Our Perfect Storm
By the Hoosier Contrarian, Kurt Meyer
July, 2003

Every parent’s worst nightmare is to lose a child. That possibility faced me this 4th of July at my in-laws’ lake cottage in Michigan. Worse still, it was a result of not only freak chance, but also my own foolish choices.

We slipped away from the dock on a sunny morning. The lake was calm. In the canoe were my two youngest, Jack, 12, his sister Sally, 8, and their 10-year-old cousin, Laura. We paddled though the shallows along the north shoreline to the swamp, a place where we’ve caught turtles for years. The water on this route is seldom over the children’s heads, so I didn’t make them wear life jackets, leaving them tucked behind our seats instead.

Paddling the length of the reedy, lily pad-dotted swamp, we caught nothing. But at the end is always the best place to hunt. It’s an opening behind shielding overgrowth where the surface of the water is choked with seaweed and moss and is shaded by a line of massive trees that hide the western sky. Countless times we’d sat silent in the middle of that space and caught turtles. But that day - no turtles. In the reeds around us, there were no chirping birds and in the lily pads, no groaning bullfrogs. Perhaps animals sense things we can’t.

Then we saw it. As if God had drawn a line across the sky separating peace from chaos, a bank of dark clouds inched over the trees in front of us. On the other side of the lake people had seen it approaching for some time. Two miles to the east, the weather siren blared, though we didn’t hear. We backed out of the marshy clearing. Jack said, “Let’s cut straight across the lake. It’ll be faster.” I foolishly said okay, thinking we’d simply paddle through some rain.

Jack and I paddled toward the center of the lake and the cottage on the far shore, the two girls sitting on cushions between us. Thirty yards from shore we left the shallows. I tossed a life jacket ahead and asked Laura to help Sally put it on. But before the jacket was buckled a powerful gust of wind hit us from behind. In one sudden burst everything changed.

With the sudden gale of wind waves grew all around us. I noticed that most boats were gone from the lake. The wind was blowing so hard I knew we’d never be able to turn the canoe around. Jack cast a worried look over his shoulder at me, then lowered his head, paddling hard. I tossed another life jacket to Laura.

By now the entire sky was dark, rain was pounding, thunder bellowed and lightening flickered. Growing waves rolled over the edge of the canoe. Repeatedly I dug my paddle into the water to straighten us toward shore, perpendicular to the waves. But the wind had other ideas, continually driving us sideways. I was scared, but told the kids we’d be fine.

Little more than a minute ago all was calm. I’d never seen anything like it before, or since.

Before Laura could get the life jacket buckled, a huge wave crashed into the side of the canoe. I leaned desperately to counter it, but in one of those sickening slow motion moments I saw the children turn to me in unison with terrified expressions.

And in that moment, we all went under.

On shore, my wife Greta watched this all through her mother’s bird watching binoculars. She called 911 and her family frantically searched for a way to help us. But how? We were so far out. And should they send more people into danger?

I came up on one side of the canoe and all three children popped up on the other. “Hang on,” I called, and each child reached out and gripped the rib running down the center of the overturned canoe. Laura’s life jacket was wedged under her arm. Jack and I had none. I reached under the canoe and located the other two jackets thankfully still wedged behind the seat. I threw one to Jack. But we couldn’t put them on. The waves were slamming into my back and then hitting the children in the face, pitching us up and then down, swamping us over and over. I was terrified that one of them would let go and then be driven below the surface. I thought of diving under and righting the canoe, but the waves were so violent they’d just tip it again, and maybe I’d lose a child in the process. So we hung on.

As we were tossed, air was being driven from under the canoe; it was sinking, along with my hopes. The children kept looking into my face for answers, but I had none beyond, “It’ll be alright, just hang on and we’ll get pushed to shore.” But the truth was I wasn’t sure we’d make it that far. From gripped Sally’s arm from time to time telling her, “Just hang on. We’ll be all right.”

Two white speedboats appeared, circling near us – the only visible boats on the lake. The children screamed out and I waved a paddle in the air, but amid the sheets of rain and the valleys of waves, they didn’t see or hear us. I tried to imagine what we’d do once the canoe went down completely – clutch our life jackets and hope we could swim to shore? It seemed like a long shot.

Than, as a wave lifted us high, I saw a pontoon boat over Jack’s shoulder. Behind the wheel of his rickety pontoon boat was my 80-year-old father-in-law, Huvie (pronounced like “movie”). Crouched low on the deck were my brothers-in-law, Mike and Kirk. They drew close enough to grip the end of my outstretched paddled and stayed close long enough for me to push the closest child, Jack, into the arms of an uncle. The wind and waves drove the boat away. Sally screamed, thinking she was being left. I feared she’d lunge from the sinking canoe toward the pontoon, but Laura gripped her arm and held her in place

I inched my way to Sally as Huvie approached again. I grabbed one arm and forced her outward. An uncle plucked her from the water, and then Laura, and then finally, me.

Even the pontoon boat was unsteady in the waves. We lay flat on the deck, and Huvie steered us to shore, to a yard full of terrified family members.

I think it was the closest I’ve ever come to death. But that can seem meaningless when you have children. What nags at me still is the thought of my foolish decisions and then the feeling of powerlessness with those three children looking desperately back at me as they gulped water and bobbed in the waves.

The children who were in that canoe with me that day are all teenagers now. Jack is 19, will be a sophomore at Ball State this fall, and just got back from 6 weeks in China. Laura will be a high school senior at the American School in Uruguay next year and is at acting camp this summer at Vassar College in New York. Sally will be a sophomore next year, is getting ready for Driver’s Ed.

Sally and Jack and our immediate family canoed down White River today. Other than the heat, the weather was fine.

If you know someone who wants to receive The Contrarian columns, reply to this email and include their email address. © 2010 by Kurt Meyer

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