This is not the tale of “Society sucks so I made a funny story”. This is the tale of the near-death experience.
When you’re not in a relationship you get hit on by all kinds. I’m not talking a guy asks you for your number at the bar, you say no, then three weeks later you spot him across the street with a pair of binoculars. Or you take a girl out for lunch one time and the next day she sends you thirteen text message pics of wedding dresses she likes. Nah, all that’s just some normal healthy flirting. I’m talking about the erotically charged conflict of man vs. electricity. I’m talking about the sweet, sugary sensation a heavy summer rain brings and the simultaneous fear it invokes when rain’s attention-whore cousin begins flashing its streaks about the sky. I’m talking about lightning bolts.
This week I’m diving into dramatic elements. This is the first story I’m releasing from my own first person narrative, and not putting myself in the shoes of a fictional idiot. Just a real idiot this time. Yeah, this week’s a true story. Let’s talk about the lightning bolts.
If we’re gonna start personifying the weather, let’s throw down some background first. Rain is the lonely, broken-hearted longing individual who is so exciting to be around for twenty minutes but nobody wants to stay with it any longer and commit. Things get wet. It’s the reason behind musty dog-stank and muddy footprints in the house. You never know where it’s at since it’s always traveling. It’s frustrating. It’s the wrong kind of spontaneous. It’s just a relationship nobody wants anything to do with. Call it the Amanda Bynes effect.
Then there’s Thunder. Thunder is a dirty sneaky slut. Hops from one cloud to the next. Always obnoxiously drunk-loud. No morals whatsoever. Thunder is the guy at the party who blacks out at 9 PM from two non-alcoholic mixed drinks, eats all your Ellio’s pizza, then tries to fight you because somebody ate all the Ellio’s pizza.
Now that we’re past all this weather foreplay, let’s get into it. It’s a Sunday afternoon. It’s ninety degrees, the river is ten minutes away, and there’s a mangy old Wildebeest of a canoe just begging for a ride and a drink of some of the Susquehanna River’s finest agua.
I’ve done this countless times. We float along, my brothers catch fish, and I try to catch fish. And I get tan. Real delicious, Oompa-Loompa tan. Like, tanning beds want to be my frenemy when I get off the river.
My older younger brother is taking his own kayak. My younger younger brother, Evan, will be my paddle mate upon this righteous day. Sturdy fish-catching track record, no history of boat-induced delirium, so I know he’s an okay paddle mate. We start floating.
The Susquehanna is big and lazy, runs from upstate New York straight down to the Chesapeake Bay. We put on the North Branch, where the current is quiet and if I was capable of emotion I’d smirk right at it just to show the river I’m the alpha man in these parts. Only occasional strips of rapids threaten us with a hard time, but we’ll underestimate them for now.
We’re fishin’. Evan: bass number one. Evan: bass number two. There’s a pattern here. And if that fishing rod had known it would be its last day on this earth I’m sure it would’ve had some last words, at least a cry for attention. Instead it just bends under pressure.
The stretch we float is nine miles. Nine miles through rugged, remotely ridiculous wilderness and corn fields and alliteration just doesn’t do it justice. Nine miles of river should be like stealing candy from a blind baby. Nine miles. But what we don’t know is how tough blind babies are, and I’ve never even seen a blind baby eat candy.
Five miles deep and rapids approach. We’re in that eye of the storm, the Bermuda triangle of Northeast PA. But my mind is on, why can’t I tie the knot on this hook? Hook knots are never this hard to tie. I’ve got shaky fingers. It’s the knot’s fault. Come on, hook knot. And then we’re swept into the side current.
Evan’s in the front. I’m in the back seat, no life jacket ‘cause I’m too tough. I’m anchoring this mangy beast of the river frontier, jacket-less and without fear.
“Ev, don’t paddle for a minute. If we get too close to the bank, I’ll push us off with a paddle.”
The river bank is not a river bank. It is a five feet scaled wall of packed mud that lines the river like a vertical slip-n-slide for kids who like to get dirty. Real dirty. You will get AIDs from this mud, and West Nile, that kind of dirty, the best kind.
Overhanging the bank are gnarly vine branches. Real shady creatures, like these branches don’t belong here. They should be off in an Amazonian jungle cloggin’ up someone else’s river. A few seconds and we’re sweeping along faster than Usain Bolt racing a Cheetah.
An island approaches. The side current smashes and bounces off protruding jags of rocks willing and able to tear flesh from my pretty face like spaghetti in a blender. It’s nothing. That’s what I think. Just rocks. Just angry, jagged rocks, and angry, gurgling current, and a mean old Blue Heron who just watches from a distance, like, “ain’t my business.” All this angst, the dynamics of this river must have some deep-rooted psychological issues. Definitely needs to talk it out with someone.
I’m in the current now. I’ve had my rod since I was 19. The memories etched deep into this fishing rod are equally tied to my heart. It is precious to me. And suddenly, as I’m swept under the overhang of gnarl branches without a care in the world, my precious is caught.
Real bad, all tangled up in the gnarl branches like some kind of domestic abuse spout between rod and branch. They’re tryin’ to work it out, but I’ve got no time. I’m moving at a speed that would make a guy on Speed stop and maybe think about doing a little less Speed. Don’t get tangled up in that one. Just know I’m going fast.
I get the rod out. I turn to face forward. Six inches in front of my face dangles a branch thicker than a goat-filled anaconda stomach. I’m a wiry man, and a resilient one, and maybe a cocky one too. Because I can’t handle that branch. Immediately I’m knocked off like a rag doll and I’m in the water.
The canoe overturns. Evan’s knocked off. He’s chest deep. I’m swimming. I’m trying to catch gear. Hello angry rapids. Hello angry turn-my-face-into-spaghetti rocks. Hello arms which learned how to tread water when I was seven. Fight, arms, fight.
I’m under the current. I’m sucked into a force that has existed on this earth far longer than I’ve known what it’s like to taste air. It’s beating me, but only for seconds, and I’m alive again, above water, struggling to save every last lure, every rod, every meaningless piece of materialistic flotsam that is worth far less than my life.
Canoe’s upturned. Evan is okay. I told you, he’s a hardy paddle mate. Canoe is sunk, full of water. We upturn it, drag it to shore. It takes all our strength to dump that ancient creature on its back and unflood its belly.
There’s a moment. You’re only almost dead a few times in your life, and you need to cherish them. There’s a moment where it all sinks in, but this is not that moment. This is the moment where we stand, vacant-eyed and shocked, and wait for brains to work again.
“I don’t know if that was my human error or those bitch rapids.” I look at my brother, who is the man, and I care for him deeply, and I know he just lost a piece of himself as the entirety of his gear, clothing, and pride washes down the river. “I don’t know if that was my human error or the rapids, but I’m sorry.”
Let me get to the lightning bolts part. I told you, rain is lonely, thunder is a belligerent ass, but lightning. Lightning is the brilliant cries for attention, the desperate streaks who just want to get noticed, the being who is willing to stay up the entire night just hoping to get a text from that special someone. The thunder grumbles and the sky turns black. The sunniest day of the summer and in minutes, the sky is black. The storm beats a single drum, and it begins its solemn march.
“We should go.”
Forget the gear. Forget the humiliation of being dumped into a current and nearly strangled by rocks and grit and water that wishes it could have filled my throat and stolen every breath inside. Paddles armed, arms outstretch, and not word is spoken as we race down the middle of the river, two conductors of electricity in the most dangerous place to find your way during a storm.
Let me tell you a little bit about lightning. The plasma current which superheats and strikes the ground in a channel (the blue-ish yellow hue that you see strike) is at a mere temperature of 50,000 degrees Kelvin (I’m learning from Wikipedia, thank you Wiki). 50,000 Kelvin sounds like enough to cook me, well-done, or at least put me in a bad mood.
Lightning vaporizes tree sap, explodes hundred year old tree trunk that have withstood every other test of time, and lightning, that desperate, clingy lightning, claims about 40 lives a year, 82 percent of them male, 40 in the last 5 years fishing and boating-related.
Alright, statistics are boring. Point being, if lightning can’t have somebody, nobody can have that somebody. I may never touch another girl again. I may never get the chance to sit next to the girl I love and talk about absolutely nothing. Thanks lightning. You’re soo jealous.
We’re paddling…hard. Sinew straddles the veins of my arms. Sweat drips around my forehead and beads under my eyes. It starts to rain. Not immediately. No, it’s gradual. If you have ever seen a rainstorm move towards you across a field or a body of water, it’s a beautiful sight. Like an approaching wave of refreshing, saturating sky-drink.
Rain hits the water, bubbles and jumps up like excited, panting droplets, begging for a treat. Forrest Gump described it best. This was the up-from-underneath kind. And then the first lightning bolt strikes, jealous and vengeful. Fifty yards away.
“We need to get off the river.”
There is no bank. When we grounded after we were dumped we stood in knee deep current and a patch of soppy mod. There is no bank. Paddling, paddling harder. There’s a bank. Off the bank. Drag the wildebeest onto shore. Run for the weeds.
Evan’s in his bare feet. He lost his clothes, remember? I’ve got no shirt, but I’ve got a hat, and that must mean something, right? It means something. It will mean something.
“Huddle next to the biggest tree!”
Cause that’s the safest place, right? You’re supposed to go to the big objects so they get struck instead of you. Definitely hug the big Pocahontas-era tree covered in poison oak. We won’t get struck here. I know my Wikipedia articles. We won’t. Lightning strikes again, closer, close enough to remind me I’m human.
The rain hardens. It is not a gentle rain. It’s not a rain that hammers the earth for seven minutes and gives up. It is the rain of a God with a very large hose, and he’s just turned the nozzle from ‘fine mist’ to ‘blast’, and it’s aimed at your eyeballs.
We’re crouched under this tree, two brothers, still several miles from a safe shore. My other brother is gone. For all I know he’s home, I hope. Thunder yells and rattles about, crying out for its Ellio’s pizza, tryin’ to fight someone. Calm down, thunder. Someone get this thunder a Natty Light. Rain comes in sheets. And we just sit.
This is that moment. This is the moment where you reflect. So I reflect.
“Well.” I figure I’ll say something. “At least I have a life jacket on, so if we get struck we’ll both just only be vegetables instead of dead.”
And I think about it. What does this mean? Maybe it means nothing. We are all different. Some of us escape. Some of us embrace failure. Some never embrace anything because they don’t have the willpower or needed encouragement from others to get out from their glazed over box. And some of us just crouch on a river-bank after a near drowning and decide that yeah, this means something.
It isn’t until later I find that big trees are the least safe place to be in a lightning storm. If the tree gets struck, you get struck. But I don’t know that yet. For now, in this time, I feel calm. I may never again in my life see a sheet of vertical water so thick it whitens out the entire horizon and drowns my sight in visions that remind me of a piece of living art in motion. It’s a private dance, a lonely, vibrant piece of self-expression, and I’m going to soak it in. Literally. I’m soaked.
I’m soaked from the river. I’m soaked from the sky-faucet. And the tree’s tryin’ to get in on it too, puddling up around my ankles with a little stagnant puddle of poison oak water. Be gone, tree water. Shoo, be gone. Poison oak gifts aren’t welcome here.
As we sit and wait out the storm, I can feel streams cascade down the brim of my fishing hat and down my cheeks. I can feel the way my toes squish in the mud. Maybe Indians squished their toes in this very mud, you know, before we killed them all and stole their land. And as I sit, me and this downpour, and the lightning, we can relate. Because we have something in common. We are both searching souls, driven along by the wind and instinct. We want to express ourselves. And we want nothing more than to be accepted for what we are. With longing, vicious outbursts, we want everything we’ve poured out to be reciprocated. We want to be loved.
The rain lets up. I won’t share this poetic shit with my brother. He doesn’t need to hear it. He just lost two hundred dollars worth of gear and a five dollar pair of sandals. He’s in mourning.
We put on again. We paddle down. It’s all calm. Another storm creeps on but it’s too late for this one. Rain strikes and so does lightning and as I paddle my eyes fixate on the water, and I silently watch it bubble up from underneath.
We reach shore. I give my brother my shoes. I run along the rock banks, hop-skipping, like a child, because right now that’s what I am. A nostalgic creature embracing a memory in the making. And I turn back for a moment, and all I see is the cinematic silhouettes of my brothers, foggy lights from the bridge showering the river in quiet ambience. I capture it and I turn away. Because that’s what this is all about. Capture it, embrace it, move forward.
Twenty minutes later we’ll stagger into the convenience store and order a mess of hoagies, wings, mozzarella sticks, the meal of the living. And like my brain does, I search for meaning.
What happened? Doesn’t feel like anything. Feels like I got wet. That’s what it feels like. I got really, crazy, Forrest Gump-rain wet. And when I get out of the truck back at the house, all is calm. The faint aroma of a damp night floods my summer nostrils. I pause, and stop myself from moving towards the house. Because I feel something new, and it’s something that’s always been there; it’s exhilarating and I’ll drink it in gulps.
I still know what it feels like to breathe.