Chapter 35: Canoe Trip

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–Being accomplishes more than doing.–

Our fast-paced society places so much emphasis on getting things done.  We often base our self-esteem on the completion of routine tasks.  I say to myself, “I had a good day: I got so much done.”  But what did I really accomplish?  Did I make a meaningful contribution to the world?  Crossing off the tasks on my to-do list is not a true measure of my abilities, virtues, worth, achievements, or contributions.  My challenge is this: after frantically chasing down one task after another, to try sitting quietly for a moment, resisting the addiction to do, and to just be.  Think.  Ponder.  Feel.  Notice.  Because of our inherent mental and spiritual qualities, these moments of quiet being will provide motivation, focus, and meaning to our doing.

* * *

We keep our red 17-foot Coleman canoe on the ground, up-side-down, against the side of the shed.  We bought it from a cousin, and paid too much for it.  But at the time he needed money and we wanted a canoe, so I suppose it was a fair exchange.  The canoe looks sadly at me as I arrive home from my morning walks, lamenting its condition, asking to be repaired.  I left the canoe one Winter by the edge of the driveway, where it had been buried by deep snow.  Cordale, our thoughtful neighbor, drove his trusty, rusty John Deere over to plow the snow from the cul-de-sac and my driveway.  Not seeing the canoe for the snow, he rammed it and bent the aluminum frame.  I’m sure an auto body shop could straighten out the frame, but I haven’t yet taken the time, effort, and money to make it happen.

The canoe’s other injury, a crack in the thick plastic caused by a boy’s skateboard on a cold day, I fixed with some clear epoxy, except that I rolled the canoe onto the grass while the epoxy on the outside was still soft in order to smear some epoxy on the inside.  I hurried and rolled the canoe back, but the epoxy had already hardened, lumpy and with grass in it.  So I sanded it until I grew tired of sanding, and rationalized, “Well, it’s better than it was before; it’s good enough.”  Laura had been after me for two years to fix it so we could paddle around buoyantly in the Great Salt Lake.  Having finally fixed the crack, we canoed the Jordan River instead.

Cordale’s tractor, and Cordale, first made their impression as they tilled our yard in preparation for planting grass.  I scampered about in the dust, picking up stones and sticks so they wouldn’t get caught in the tiller tines and damage the tractor bearings.  Soon, he stopped the tractor and called me over, a serious look in his eye.  I wondered if I had missed a stick and broken his tractor.

“Brother Baker,” he said in the old church greeting.  “You’re missin’ out on an opportunity here.  Look at you, runnin’ around like a chicken with no head while your children are over there playin’ in the dirt.  Get ‘em on over here to help you.  Show ‘em what it means to work, to help their dad, to be a part and to make somethin’ happen.  Don’t you jest let ‘em play while you do all the work.  Come on now.”

With that he nodded his head, grinned, and started up the John Deere.  Unable to resist such a friendly chastening, I called Brian (8) and Erin (5) over to help me clear the way for the tractor by picking up debris.  After short weeks we had a beautiful lawn, to which they had contributed, and on which they have enjoyed years of play.

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Just weeks after prepping the yard, Cordale tilled our garden plot.  Being already late Spring, he also offered to plant our garden, with sweet corn, using his tractor-pulled seed planter.  That Fall, Angie and the children often found me sitting in a lawn chair, amidst the rows of tall, obscuring corn husks, munching ear after ear of the sweetest raw corn-on-the-cob.

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Seeing the injured canoe reminds me of the wonderful canoeing adventures of my youth.  One particularly memorable canoe trip—five days of paddling and portaging from lake to lake in the Adirondack mountains of New York—began in an old Econoline van driving north, before dawn, along the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.

Joe remarked proudly about his old van, “I love to sit up high in this van and look down at the other cars as I drive by.”

As he finished his observation, a giant, new, red 18-wheel diesel tractor-trailer passed the van.  Joe looked up at the truck driver, who looked down at him, then Joe looked ahead, mute.  I laughed, inside, so as not to embarrass him.  Joe was actually a humble man who did not look down on others.  He just liked the simple pleasure of sitting high up in his vehicle so he could see the territory.

Sixteen years old, I sat in the back seat, on the driver side, with our scout troop’s backpacks and gear stowed behind me, and with the aluminum canoes on a trailer behind the van.  Excited but sleepy, I gazed out the window at the Jersey barriers blurring rapidly by in the darkness.  Gradually, my consciousness awakened to a faint orange glow that seemed to emanate from the barriers.  As the glow slowly brightened, the rational side of my brain began to seek an explanation for the source of the glow.  Pushing my face against the glass, I strained to look down the side of the van and saw flames shooting out from beneath.  Hardly believing what I was seeing, I stammered a few indecipherable sounds.

“On fire!  The van’s on fire!”  I finally managed to blurt out.

Joe looked back at me through the rearview mirror, alarmed but also disbelieving, and cried out “What?!”  It was part question, part surprised ejaculation.  When I shouted again, “The van is on fire!” he confirmed it with a quick look in his side mirror, then sprang into action.  Quickly he cut across three lanes of early morning commuter traffic and came to stop on the sloping highway shoulder.

We all poured out of the van, quickly formed a fire line, and moved the gear out of the van in a matter of seconds.  The last kid in the line threw the gear towards the woods behind him.  My principal thought at this time was that the van would surely explode and kill us all.  Immediately upon the last piece of gear being removed, we all dove down the slope that descended from the highway into the forest.  Lying prone, we watching the fire spread, and I waited for the explosion.  With sudden horror I saw Joe still with the van.  He was frantically grabbing every little thing he could find inside the van and throwing it wildly away from the van.  Pencils, maps, soda cups, baseball caps.  I thought that Joe, my friend and scout leader, was going to die.  The last thing I saw before Joe himself dove away from the flaming van was him flinging a box of donuts, each of which left the box to fly its own path through the air, each catching the glow of the fire on its underside as it flew.

Frightened, my blood pumping adrenaline, my heart pounding in my ears, I waited for the explosion I knew would come, wondering if we were all still too close.  But the explosion never came.  I lied there and watched the flames engulf the van, burn everything that would burn, then die out to leave a smoldering wreck.  Amazingly, the tires did not burn.  Just as the last flame turned to smoke, the fire trucks arrived.  (We had no cell phones then.)  Firemen deluged what used to be Joe’s van, and left it a smoking hulk.

Our parents and leaders graciously salvaged our trip, finding new vehicles in which to transport us, our gear, and our canoes.  As much as we enjoyed five days of canoeing, that fateful drive became the most memorable part of the trip.  I felt sad that Joe had lost his old van with the high seat that he so much enjoyed.  But he bought a new old van, a van with a high seat that allowed him to fully survey the territory.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 35: Canoe Trip

  1. Jeanette Davis

    I know this story, but love it no matter how many times I hear it. It is not the drama of it, or the humor in it, but the familiarity of home in it. I miss New Jersey and our New Jersey “family”.

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  2. Harv Russell

    Good ol’ Cordale …I also miss that ol’ soldier. That scout trip was definitely one of those memory builders that will likely never be forgotten by each one of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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