One day in December, 1984
The writing on the bottom of the faded Polaroid picture that fell out of my copy of Keller's The People from Seldwyla says "December 1984, 70 Degrees." In his native tongue, Keller's writing reminds me instantly of the origins of my run on sentences and nested dependent clauses. Confirmation of this comes with a review of a few paragraphs from the page where the picture had left a small smudge on the page. Reading a bit distracts my attention from the flood of memories the picture has brought back.
I stop on a sentence where Justine romantically watches the ships cross the harbor paralleling the workers crossing a plaza on the way home from work. The description of the water and languid progress of both ships and workers reminds me further that the photo was taken out on the river.
My bookmarker photo is somehow prematurely faded to a sepia toned art shot with unusual brightness in some spots and grainy metallic tones in others. The developing chemicals migrated a bit—probably due to some moisture infiltrating the photo's laminations. Still, it looks like it could've been taken last year save for the sky's blue imbued with yellows where the clouds I remember from that day were pristine, cottony white.
The scrawl at the lower margin is my father's handwriting in the fuzzy ink of a red felt pen with his characteristic flare at the first letter of each word. The look to his penmanship is as oddly arcane as the tone of the image is prematurely aged. Unsatisfied with the permanence of the red marker he must've traced carefully over the words with a dried up ball point. My thumbnail traces the deep, smooth tracery lines of his pen. I can see him doing this, even though I didn't actually see him do it.
Bent over slightly, tongue gently bitten at the corner of his mouth like a school boy concentrating, he would write meticulously then abruptly draw himself up, lean back, and assess his work. The tracing, I'm sure was preceded by a deep "humph" followed by more intent tongue biting and fervent concentration.
The image on the snap is of me standing at the very top step on a rickety five foot tall ladder perched at the edge of the cabin's porch out on the river. I'm wearing red swim trunks, a green Genesee beer t-shirt, white socks and tennis shoes. It's December in Pennsylvania. It says so on the picture.
A trip to the cabin on Skull Island a few days after Christmas was rare. I had made many trips on the frozen ice, gingerly stepping around areas where a heaving ice floe had buckled enough to warn of faster moving water and danger. Only that one time had I made a trip to the islands and our cabin via canoe in December, and certainly only once in shorts and a t-shirt.
The winter of 1984 had not stacked up enough of those bitter cold single digit days and nights sufficient to clog the water up with ice. It hadn't even allowed enough chilly nights to create the familiar wintry ruffle of ice at the shoreline. There was roughly ten inches of snow on the ground, rapidly melting in the warmth, yet creating a blinding white haze like some heavenly Fellini dream sequence.
"Freaky warm winters come and go", my father told me as we loaded a canoe into the back of his truck headed for the old rivvy as my brother called it.
Dad and I put in at the fire lane just down the street from our house on Water Street. The shale deposited each spring by the fire company volunteers to shore up access to the emergency water source for fire trucks crumbled under our feet in the seventy degree weather anomaly. Heat from the sun warmed shale radiated up towards us as the rainbow oil slick surface of larger chunks fell apart slowly underfoot.
I thought about how many times I'd seen the fire truck tanker drinking from that spot as my father and I paddled slowly past the ramp and out towards the open water. The ramp's end was perfect for catching crayfish by hand in the summer. I doubt that as a young boy I could've imagined being dressed in a swim suit with snow all around, just after Christmas, headed out to the cabin. Surreal.
Paddling out I broke a serious sweat and took off my shirt. December and shirtless on the water—what a treat!
As we paddled my father glided into an unusually exuberant mood telling me details of each of the swimming holes we passed. His voice changed on the way out to the cabin as he asked if I remembered doggie paddling downstream towards mom in my first ever dip in the river at Charlie rock. He laughed that happy, deep laugh normally reserved for when he watched Benny Hill on PBS.
Occasionally I would glance back at him as we yucked it up on our way. In those small glimpses I swear that his posture improved and he dropped what seemed like twenty years from his face.
By the time we reached the southernmost islands the lines in his face had filled out, crows feet smoothed over, his double chin drew back taut as his head lifted and his shoulders rolled back showing just how vital a man he had been in his prime.
Early that morning we sat at the kitchen table eating some omelets my sister had whipped up for us. The man with whom I shared breakfast that morning was some other guy. He was the weary, ultra responsible, and somewhat downtrodden father I'd come to know over the years.
The man paddling and guiding the canoe behind me was the man my father probably was in his early thirties. His normal extended silences were gone. Long gone were the self deprecating observations that lacked confidence. This man, this chipper chatterbox was someone, I decided, I really enjoyed being around.
At breakfast a plan had evolved to go out to the island and shovel off any remaining snow from the roof and to clean the gutters of fall's droppings, possibly extending the life of the cabin a few more years. The "breakfast" dad with his hint of darkness and heavy demeanor said that I had far more energy than he and that I'd have to do the majority of the paddling. Fair enough, and we were off.
Now out on the water with the new guy--my new favorite dad guy--at the rear of the canoe I felt as if I was riding emperor, coasting along for the ride. The power and experience the new guy showed as a paddler pushed me to paddle harder than I ever had.
The inspiration my father's transformation provided showed up in the way I sat. My posture was perfect. My paddling technique—the technique that my brother Bill said was like a walrus'—was a model of biomechanical efficiency. The new dad behind me wasn't getting splashed by frenetic stabbings and splashings of the paddle. I was working in tandem with my father at maximum physical power and speed as though we were twenty year old Hawaiian twin princes born on the water in our canoe.
We reached the cabin in record time. Dad had thought to throw in a snow shovel and some gloves and his Polaroid camera. I was high on a physical buzz like a puppy with a brand new chew toy. I remember my knees actually bobbing together and my juiced up energy causing my feet to shuffle comically like spastic soft shoe pantomime.
I shoveled my way up the bank through some ten or so inches of snow, clearing the 20 steps we'd pinned to the bank with rebar and railroad ties. I quickly shoveled a path to the cabin steps and proceeded to create a bare swath up the steps.
When I reached the deck and cleared a small strip to the door I noticed dad had made his way to the tip of the island where he stood, hands outstretched to either side, palms turned to the sky and still as a granite statue.
It was a moment of reverie. I wasn't aware that my father had ever had them. I watched trapped in my own moment with guiltless voyeuristic abandon for several minutes until he clapped his hands down to his jeans and began trudging up the bank towards the cabin.
The warm sun reflecting off the snow and the dripping of melted snow and ice from the roof awakened the dank leafy smell of the islands. Blustery winds carrying warmed air stirred early thoughts of spring despite the snow's presence.
"What weather?!" We must've made that exclamation two dozen times each that day.
My father grinning at it all—the weather, the clarity, the snow—combined in a head swimmingly delicious surge of strength such that I climbed that rickety ladder we'd held onto despite its obviously having outlived its safe usefulness. I climbed to the top of it and shoveled snow from the roof as my dad stood below me with his Polaroid snapping a frame--a slice of time for us to remember that day by.
Finishing the roof and the deck took but a few minutes. In that brief time the gentle warm breeze that had helped push us upstream the mile or so to the island turned into fierce, almost hot gusts.
Dad and I agreed to pack it in and head for shore. In the summer a change so dramatic would signal a cold front or an approaching thunderhead. Heading for shore was the first inkling of the old dad seeping back into new dad's body. He stooped as we made it down to the water's edge. His chest had caved in, his shoulders slumped and rolled forward.
Back in the canoe I never felt more alive. The warm air blew directly in our faces which would make it more difficult to paddle back home, but the heady, raw power of it was divine. From the cabin down through the island channels we got just a teaser of the wind's constant power.
Dead birch and walnut limbs came down around us as we worked deeper into the channels between islands. The water rippled up eddies in the usually calm channels. The sounds and smells were chaotic. We heard waves lapping at the windward side of the islands from white caps glimpsed between grass patches and sand bars. The rustling sound of barren limbs was metallic like the hollow aluminum tubes of a broken antenna chattering against itself.
The wind gusting through the channels and crossing our bow through gaps in dense island underbrush veered us off course. Dad was doing a poor job of compensating. He was a mere shade of the man who steered us to the channels a few hours ago.
Rounding the edge of the last island brought the full blast of air in our faces. White caps were blown up higher than the sides of the canoe. Turning directly into the wind kept most of the water out of the boat, but at the end of the trip we had three inches of water uniformly filling the flat, broad bottom of our canoe.
Misty spray from the crests of the near caps drenched my face. Once my shirt was soaked, taking it off actually kept me warmer in the wind.
In those first few moments below the tip of the islands fighting a gusty head wind and drenched in sweat and river water spray, I felt the strength in my arms and chest double from a high I've never replicated since.
Progress was slow. My paddling had degraded to the nearly frantic powerful thrashings of a thirteen year old who is in his first canoe race. It felt powerful to paddle that way, but it was not as efficient as the work I did on the way out. Dad was barely functional as pilot.
Usually, the hard canoe seat gouged into my butt. I didn't even notice it on the way in. It was as though my butt was an inch off the seat for the whole ride as I knelt in the front seat—knees, toes, shins, and shoes soaked from water coming over the side.
It felt like I was doing all the work, and since the wind was blowing too loudly to talk and the waves made it work to keep from capsizing, I hadn't paid attention to dad behind me at the helm.
When I took a break and turned to look at him, he stopped his very timid paddling and braced both hands on the side of the boat. His eyes at once widened and darkened. His jowls had returned with the forward and downward tilt of his head. Gone was the new dad of renewed vitality present just ten minutes ago.
"If we go in to the water, we'll drown." He managed over the noise of strong wind and water.
"What?" I said turning quickly causing the boat to rock a bit to my left. My voice also said to him, "are you nuts?"
"Careful!" He practically screamed with panic oozing out of his body to mix panicked with the river mist. "The wind and air might be warm, but the water is still just over forty degrees."
"We're O.K." I dismissed him completely.
His skin was sallow. His combover trailed a good foot behind him like a streamer. He looked broken in that seat. Broken with a paddle in his hand he was no match for the water. He had fear in his face and I didn't even recognize him.
I was high. I was invulnerable. If the boat turned over I was certain that in the three feet or less of water I could carry him, the boat, the paddles, our life preservers, the shovel, and the camera all on my shoulders. Mine was the invincibility of naïve youth bolstered by a vision of my father's hidden self.
"Fear not, feeble father of mine. I will power through anything knowing now what wonderful vitality remains within you. You helped create me and something of that man who rode out here with me—that man you just showed me—must lurk somewhere in my own skin." I muttered this under my breath.
On shore, the energy sapped completely from him, dad made his way to the cab of the truck sitting down heavily--leaden and wooden. I hoisted the canoe over my head, loaded it in the bed with paddles, shovel, preservers, and Polaroid.
The front passenger door of his truck groaned heavily every time it was opened. The echo of that groan in my head as I bounced into the seat next to dad seemed to personify this suddenly beaten man. The plaintive groan was how he looked right now. He looked older than when we left for the cabin.
Although I did mention how great he looked when we were out on the island, I never told him he looked ten years older when we got back than when we sat at breakfast that morning. His persona had age amplitude that swung thirty or more years that day.
He paid a price for that trip. It proved his mortality to him.
I got to glimpse something that day in him, though too. As bad as it may sound, the price he paid for the revelation of the more vital "him" was worth it to me.
When I told him this recently, he said kindly yet almost sardonically, "You're welcome. What weather we had that day!"
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