Monday, April 27, 2015

Too Damned Dumb to Quit

I was in pretty good shape, ready for the hot pace of a canoe race. The Bear and I were a father-son team in our old Grumman 17 foot aluminum sweetie. The canoe had been our common ground during my somewhat turbulent and arrogant adolescence, but we didn't paddle much together. Rather, we found overlap in our agreement that the canoe, the Yahara River, ducks, the colors of maple trees in autumn, and Wisconsin marshes were good things. The canoe was the best way to get out there and see it all.

When the canoe race was added to Stoughton's Sytennde Mai celebration one year, The Bear asked me if I wanted to sign up. What the hey? It would be fun. What could go wrong?

So I came home from college for the weekend to join the flotilla of locals, mostly Norwegian farmers and small town business owners. Of course there were a few ringers out to win the thing. They had brightly colored fiberglass racing canoes and came from the big cities. They wanted to show us country rubes how it was played in the real fast lane.

Not surprisingly, I took some umbrage at that and decided to train. The Bear was always a strong, beefy, sometimes imposing presence. He could handle steering duties. I'd be the motor in front.

I had my technique dialed -- a long, forward lean followed by a deep dig of the paddle and a swift, powerful stroke as I both pulled and sat back. It was a double whammy of core and arm effort that would pull us as fast as possible down the river to town.

The start of the race was a Le Mans style run-up to the boats, before pushing off and then jumping in wet to take seats and begin the real race.

The Bear was quick on his feet that day, and I was a good sprinter, so we hit the canoe earlier than most and launched into the river well in the lead. Even the city boats were a few feet back. When the Bear and I both had our seats, I grabbed my paddle and took a deep first pull to accelerate. It was a monster effort, and, apparently too much for the old Feather Brand paddle. It snapped neatly and cleanly between the shaft and the blade. We did not have a spare. I sat there with the two useless pieces of the paddle.

The Bear kept paddling, but we were dead in the water compared to the other boats. Already a few hundred feet from shore, we had our good start, but I wondered if it was best just to turn back.

The Bear and I looked at the hopelessly irreparable paddle and drifted for a moment.

"We can't do it," I said. "We should just go back."

A moment of silence punctuated by J-strokes asked a question as we kept moving forward. What next?

"Never say die," said The Bear. "There's an island right there." He pointed to a floating mass of cattails and moss held together by woven roots. It was more of a big raft than an island.

"Drop me off and you keep going," he said.

I looked at the grassy mat and thought of him out there in the middle of the river drifting on the current, feet breaking through as the mass fell apart. He would spend the day as a kind of Tom Hanks castaway.

There was no way that plan was going to work, but he steered to the floating swamp debris and beached the canoe on it and got out, immediately breaking through the fragile web.

"This is not a great idea," I said, defeated.

Canoes were passing us on all sides. Even mother-daughter, daughter-daughter, mother-toddler teams out for a recreational float down-river slid by. They waved, smiling, as if it were common to hang out on a floating mat of cat tails and swamp rot and have a family meeting.

Then the Bear dug around into the muddy mass of roots and wrestled free a thick, twisted, water-logged, misbegotten, crooked, slime-covered mess of some kind of tree root. It as about as long as a paddle.

"You take my paddle, and I'll steer with this. We should be able to make it to town."

I looked down-river and saw the armada of canoes receding into the distance. We would never catch any of them.

"OK," I said, after a brief consideration. This was another in the ongoing confrontations over how to live: The Bear blindly hacking away through the jungle of life while I studied the options. The Bear's blunt and unrelenting tenacity had bothered me as kid. It was one of our father-son sticking points. He had always been the military man of action while I was more of a deliberator, a Hamlet, never able to make up my mind, much less act with authority. We played out all kind of small and large dramas because of this dichotomy of outlooks.War or diplomacy? Nukes now or solar for later? Cars or bikes? Money or meaning?

That moment, however, was an small epiphany, a dawning awareness that just because he was "The Bear," the father, didn't make him always wrong. I had to admit, the stick was our best option, a good idea.I am not too proud to admit it, and I took that moment to heart, maybe too much so. I used it to get through a grueling PhD program, to stay in a sometimes tough marriage, to keep working at a job that has not been the most lucrative. I also became an endurance freak. In the middle of a bike race, especially time trials, when my heart and head both scream back off, I hear The Bear.

I also saw it in him when he cared for my mother in her Alzheimer's decline, the rupture of family marriages, the scorn of a son who cut off all contact. Now, in a Parkinson's and dementia decline, he gets up every day to watch the day progress, the seasons change. For good or ill, he modeled and stuck it to me that day when he extracted a root, the rabbit out of the hat, the sword out of the stone.

The Bear  re-embarked with his prize in the stern of the canoe, passed me his paddle, and took over steering duties at the helm. He had a big and toothy grin as I turned around to do my part.

I paddled like a lunatic, a man possessed, the paddle kicking up foam like a side-wheeled river boat. We began to move, to make progress. I found my rhythm and settled in to a long, hard, endurance effort. This I could handle and knew well.

We passed under the County B highway bridge where onlookers cheered us on, partly out of respect, partly out of pity, mostly out the slap-stick ridiculousness of the root.

Then the river opened up into the wide, slow moving waters of the marsh. We passed beneath the power lines. A few of the stragglers were taking it easy as we overtook them. More cheers went up.

Slowly, the railroad bridge that marked entry into the town came into view and grew larger as we closed the gap. I could see other canoes rocking with the efforts of final sprints to the line.

The river narrowed in town as we made our way under the railroad bridge. The finish was a few hundred yards ahead. We could hear the loudspeaker announcing the names of racers as they crossed the line. The shore was a bouquet of boats, bright yellows, reds, and greens of the fancy racing canoes. People were relaxing and watching as the last finishers made their way through town.

As we passed beneath the final bridge and closed in on the finish line, I heard laughter from both the crowd and the loudspeaker.

"Here come the Tosos. And looks like they've taken up paddling with a Norwegian paddle. Pretty high tech." Ha-ha.

The bow of the canoe nosed onto the beach and I put down the paddle to catch my breath. My heart was still racing even though the race was over. I got out and pulled the boat up out of the water so The Bear could get out near dry land. I noticed his hands were bloody and blistered from having worked that unholy twisted mess of a root the entire race. But he was smiling, a big smile, one of the biggest I ever saw.

Before we could fully remove the canoe from the water, the announcer approached us with microphone in one hand, twelve pack of Old Style Beer in the other, and said, "And now, I have the pleasure of giving out the award for most creative canoe.... and... or... paddle."

Those around us applauded. The Bear smiled even bigger. I was sheepish, but accepted the beer.

We split it with anyone who wanted to share.Creativity and damn stupid hard work: I could and would drink to that.

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