Though spring has just begun, I am already anticipating the summer to follow and thinking about the summer of 2009 and what our family did and what we’ll do in the months ahead.
I am reminded of the “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” essay that was an annual back-to-school ritual when I was a student. It’s been more than 40 years since I bluffed my way through one of those writing assignments, but now, as evidence mounts that we will soon be saying farewell to the dirty snow piles and welcoming the robins and crocuses, it is highlights of last summer that feed my daydreams.
At the top of my list would be the trip to Canada that my wife and I made along with two youngsters we have mentored for six years. The boy was 14; his sister, 17.
We have taken special trips together before. Our travels have included explorations of the Big Apple, Lake George day trips, camping weekends in the Adirondacks and visits to many regional landmarks and entertainment venues.
It’s almost always been a lot of fun and it has always been exhausting. We all do too much walking, too much snacking and stay up too late, talking and laughing.
Our Canadian adventure included all those “too much” elements, but it also included a context that other trips had lacked. That context came through a podcast I played through the car stereo system about an hour before we crossed the Peace Bridge from Buffalo into Ontario on the way to Niagara Falls, Canada.
After four hours on the New York State Thruway (singing with the radio, playing word games, counting cows, etc.), it was nice to simply relax and listen. We were transported to a carpet at the feet of Canadian storyteller and radio personality Stewart McLean, who told us the true story of 7-year-old Roger Woodward’s 1960 journey down the Niagara River.
Roger was thrown overboard from a small craft along with his 17-year-old sister and their adult neighbor, whose birthday gift to the teen girl had been that boat ride. The tragic end of that afternoon included the neighbor’s death and the miraculous rescue of Roger’s sister. McLean described how tourists on Goat Island had risked their own lives, reaching for the girl and, after several failed attempts, grabbing her by her wrist just yards before the mist and roar of the Horseshoe Falls would have swallowed her as it did her brother, only moments after she stood safely on the shore.
Roger survived that plunge. He was fished out of the roaring waters by an alert crew member of one of the numerous Maid of the Mist tour boats that thrill visitors with skin-soaking, breathtaking, thunderous rides in the basin beneath the Horseshoe Falls.
After McLean finished his tale, he told us that Roger had been listening to his retelling of the story on the phone and he asked Roger to comment. Roger, now an engineer living in Alabama, found it hard to hide his emotions as he thanked McLean for his rendition and shared some additional insights into his childhood nightmare. He talked about a feeling of peace as he fell and he remembered that he thought about his toys, his dog and his family.
My fellow travelers and I could barely speak after hearing the story. We wondered aloud about how anyone could have survived; about how fright alone could have killed someone. Within an hour we were riding the road next to the Niagara River and guessing at where the boat had flipped and where the passengers had passed the “point of no return.” Over and over we concluded “it’s impossible” for anyone to have survived such a plunge.
Our visit was focused on the falls. We walked to all the vantage points and took dozens of photos. Never did we joke about falling in or getting pushed in. Frequently we thought about Roger. Frequently we referred to the story. We fit in some ice cream cones and tourist gift shops stuffed with gaudy T-shirts and Cuban cigars and maple candy in every possible shape. We even viewed the fireworks display at night from the American side of the gorge. We visited an aquarium and even more gift shops filled with must have been 50 percent of the GNP of China.
But we always returned to the story of Roger and what it informed us about miracles and mysteries and survival. We talked about the fragility of life and the unpredictability of the everyday. The following morning, we all rode The Maid of the Mist and got a first-hand look at where that little boy had been.
When we finally returned to Schenectady we unpacked some souvenirs and leftover snacks and dirty clothes, but somehow we all knew that the biggest thing we brought home was not to be unpacked.
For my wife and me it went beyond that simple story so skillfully retold; it went as far as the satisfaction of knowing that our two young friends had some remarkable insights over that weekend. Never mind that it was their first trip outside of the United States or that it was the first time either had slept in a motel.
They learned about Roger. When the loudspeaker on the tour boat was spewing forth facts and figures about the water volume and height of the falls, it also noted some of the daredevils who had challenged the falls and some of the memorable moments in the falls’ history. I was watching the boy’s face as he strained to hear the reference to Roger’s plunge. It had that look of recognition, as if to say, “I know him; I’m his friend.”
It was a weekend they will remember when they are very, very old. So will we.
John Kucij lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.