The Anchor To My Childhood
I was 7 years old riding in our beat up brown Suburban with my seven older brothers and sisters, stopping every 150 miles or so while my dad got out and poured more water in the engine to keep it from overheating. I was literally packed in the back. There was no seat for me so I crammed myself into a little nook amongst the coolers and other travel gear.
My family was on a road trip near the California and Nevada state borders visiting my sister Kathryn who had a job dealing Blackjack for the summer.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but the next thing I knew I was standing in line with my family to river raft down the Truckee River. My parents likely figured it would be the cheapest way to entertain a family of ten for the entire afternoon in a casino-filled mountain town. The River had a rating equivalent to one or two stars on the Thai food spicy scale. This wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. You just go up to the rental office at the top of the river, select a raft size, grab oars and life-vests, and then off you go down the river. (Mind that these so-called life-vests looked like puffs of faded orange nylon stuffed with some sort of bunched up cotton material. Most likely made in the 70s, they might float, but the chances of you floating in them seemed slim.)
Finally we were all suited up and on our way down the river on the sunny afternoon for our nice, little Charlie Brown adventure. Soon I began to notice that our raft had way more people than the other boats going by. Then I spotted another big family with the same amount of people as ours in what appeared to be a more comfortably and appropriately sized raft. Seeing all of us squished in together, I knew my dad had saved a buck. Dad, mom, Steve 19, Bill 15, Tim 13, Elizabeth 10, and myself 7. I’m not even sure if I would have passed a swim test then. There were 7 of us in what probably should have been a 5 or 6 passenger raft. Not to mention, my dad at the time was equal to 2 large men and wearing 10lb jean overalls. Even after maxing out all of the strap adjustments, dad still couldn’t squeeze into his life vest, so he cleverly tied it in a little bow and placed it around his neck. At 300 pounds we soon realized that having dad in the boat was like dragging an iron anchor along. Meanwhile, my brother Kevin wisely decided to pull the Snoopy and Woodstock move and go down safely and happily in his own inner tube with one paddle.
At first the river trip seemed really safe and fun. It was a beautiful, hot sunny day and the light splashes felt refreshing. The water was still fairly shallow and we were laughing as we watched my brothers take turns bouncing one another out of the boat only to easily climb back in again. Bill and Tim were steering the boat from the front, which at the time seemed perfectly rational, but in hindsight, was not a capable team for the obstacles that lie ahead. Steven, the oldest son, was trying to heroically guide the vessel from the back with all of his might. Steven quickly discovered this was impossible due to ‘anchor joe’s’ lack of paddling coupled with his gorilla-like weight. Dad’s immensity was so intense it caused the raft to literally bow up on both ends.
Soon, the river began to get deeper and increase in speed. The responsibility fell upon the three skinny teenagers to safely guide the massive vessel with its’ maxed out weight capacity as it bombed down the increasingly treacherous river. With the lack of control we began to be swallowed by the rapids. It quickly became very scary.
Suddenly we went deep into another rapid and struck a big submerged rock. The tension on the raft from my dad’s weight, plus the impact, caused the boat to fold on itself and catapult Steven off the back, high into the air. He splashed down behind us near a chunk of granite sticking out of the water and disappeared into the churning white suds.
I was terrified for my big brother, but with no way to stop our momentum we continued down the river as I fearfully looked back to see if Steven was okay. Just as we went around the bend nearly out of sight, we saw him pull himself up on a rock near the water’s edge. As he turned and gave us the ‘I’m alive’ wave, I saw blood trickling down his forehead. (Today, Steven recounts this experience as his life or death moment where he remembers regaining consciousness under the water and making the decision to fight and live.)
I was so terrified to go on and so worried about Steve. I just wanted it all to be over. Surrounded by steep inclines of trees and with one less guide and paddle, there was no way of stopping, so I sank low in the boat and held on as tightly as I could.
As we barreled down the river we continued to hit every rock and rapid in our path in the worst way possible. Sometimes, hitting them so hard that we spun around and continued down backwards. It felt like the psychedelic boat scene in Willy Wonka.
Ahead of us we could finally see where the river seemed to end. There was a massive guardrail in the water to keep boats from going any further. The river bent off to the right and powerfully poured into a large much deeper pool of water, which helped keep the boats in place so that people could slowly and safely debark.
And of course there was a restaurant with a huge deck overlooking all of the boats coming in safely, so customers could cheer on the adventurous families and eat BLTs. ‘Snoopy Kevin’ was already amongst them drinking a Coke, having had a safe and fun trip all by himself. I’m pretty sure the selling point of the restaurant was not to offer people the exciting experience of watching others crash and nearly drown to death, while they enjoyed their famous River Ranch Burger. Unfortunately, this is what the customers received that day.
The brief light at the end of the tunnel soon became eclipsed by one final behemoth of a rock directly in our path. There were signs installed on neighboring rocks all around it reading, “CAUTION: WIDELY STEER AROUND NOW!” Just ahead of us I saw the other big family in the appropriately sized raft smoothly and easily maneuver to the right of the rock. This gave me slight hope for about a second.
Gaining speed towards the enormous granite boulder dad was yelling “Paddle! Paddle!” but the boys were not strong enough to fight the current of the whirlpool or the magnetism between ‘papa anchor’ and the crag. In one swift motion we were spun into the eddy and…SLAM! We hit the rock with such force that our boat tilted up to a 90 degree angle. I saw my mom’s face yell the words “Hold On!” I couldn’t hear her voice over the roaring rapids. I clenched on as tightly as I could, hanging from the raft as it threw nearly everyone else out into the deep churning water, before slamming back down again.
Only my mom and I managed to stay in the boat. Tim, an early swimmer and surfer popped up first and climbed back in. Tim grabbed Bill’s arm, bringing him towards the boat and together they finally fished out my poor sister Elizabeth from the mighty grips of the whirlpool. She was only about 9 years old at the time and had just learned how to swim. Still, to this day, I think Elizabeth finds the story the least funny of us all.
Meanwhile, my dad was sinking to the bottom. We saw his little life vest float up above his head, then on down the river between the barricades. Oddly, It was the larger family boat that ended up saving my dad. It took three men to hoist him out of the water and into their boat, since his jean overalls had gained another 25lbs.
Grateful to be alive, we made our way to the edge of the river to be reunited with Kevin and Steve. Standing there, all of my siblings and I exchanged intense looks with tear filled eyes, but no one said much.
For years this story remained in the family vault never to be retold again. Until one Christmas, someone began recounting it and each of my siblings began sharing their most memorable parts. This scarring and terrifying story has managed to somehow become a rather funny one to me over the years. Unfortunately, my dad symbolically played the anchor role with many family experiences growing up. He could always find a way to hold my mom and the rest of us back from going forward. Whether it was passing out after drinking too much, being manipulative, or forgetting us at soccer practice, he really knew how to make all of us feel stuck. This event is just another example of how together we all pushed forward and managed to survive the sheer ridiculousness of our childhood, even while dragging our anchor of a father behind.
Why this story would work on TAL:
This story would work on TAL because it’s a scary story, but also exciting, funny and ridiculous. This story is sad as well, as it reflects on my father’s irresponsibility and the reality of how three people nearly died that day. The river becomes a metaphor for the greater survival story of our childhood. As children, we had very little control and often no choice but to make the best of a situation. This story also reveals my family’s fight against the negative weight-bearing pull of my father and how we successfully survived looking out for one another. I imagine the piece for TAL would be strongest by compiling interviews from each one of my siblings recalling the event, then edited into one layered story told together. Working together we all survived our chaotic and often dangerous childhood and finally as grown adults, we’re sometimes able to laugh a little about our early adventures.