Saturday, July 21, 2007
You know for a guy who can't swim, I'm spending an awful lot of time on the water.
My latest adventure took place on Saturday, when I went whitewater rafting near Jim Thorpe, Pa.
This was also a strange kind of homecoming for me, as I worked as a reporter in the Poconos for five years, oh, God, nearly two decades ago.
I kind of proud of myself for even going on the trip because I was seriously considering bagging the thing entirely right up until I got on the bus.
I was certain I was going to drown, or I was going to tumble out of the raft and be dashed against the rocks, or be kidnapped by perverted banjo-playing hillbillys. But none of these things actually happened.
I'm starting to think that panic for me is similar to opera singer doing scales. Instead of singing "me-me-me," I shriek "we're all gonna die!" And then I calm down and get on with my life.
I went on this trip with a singles group that by now has become an extension of my family. Back in June, I paid for a horseback riding tour around Prospect Park. Since then, I have won trip after trip from this company.
On the horseback riding event I got a free tour of three Long Island wineries. On the winery trip, I won a free tubing event on the Delaware River. On the tubing event, I won this goddamn thing.
And today, on the bus going to Pennsylvania, guess what? I won another day of tubing on the Delaware. A few more of these river trips and I'm going to grow a set of gills.
Row, Row, Row Your @$#!-ing Boat!
The Lehigh River was beautiful and we had great weather. There were five or six people per boat with about 20 or more boats in the group.
As we got into the river we looked like the Roman navy mounting an attack on Egypt-- except that the Romans, unlike our group, actually knew what they were doing. My boat got stuck on a rock shortly after we shoved off and our captain--our freaking captain, people--went flying out of the raft.
She claimed she had gone rafting before, unlike myself and most of the others on board. So it didn't do my much for my confidence when I saw her fly ass over tin cup into the drink.
We yanked back on the boat, got the thing going straight and headed down the river. The rapids were wild and I found that yelling like a lunatic every time we went into them actually helped in some strange way.
Then we had a mutiny, or a resignation of command, after one woman started giving out orders and our official captain stepped down from her position. But the woman who shot her mouth off didn't want to be captain after all.
You know where this is going, right? Yep, yours truly--a non-sailor, non-swimmer maniac depressive urban dweller offered to take command of water-logged rubber raft in the middle of a raging river. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot actually, so much so that I'm amazed we're not half-way to Cuba by now. I never got the hang of "right paddle" and "left paddle." If you want to go one way, you've got to say the opposite. So consequently our vessel went around in circles a lot.
We tried to joke about it, saying we had mastered this great move, and kicked around names for our group. This morning it occurred to me "The Circle Jerks" might be the most accurate title going, but I'm just being crabby.
The frustrating thing was that some of my crew members weren't paying attention to our surroundings. Two people would be jabbering away, while, from my position in the back of boat I could see a sharp rock jutting out of the water.
I didn't want to come off like Captain Bligh, but I didn't feel like sinking to the bottom of the river either. I asked people to please pay attention and not to wait on me if they saw that we were about to get clobbered.
We got stuck a few times on the rocks, but I was able to handle it better each time. Late in the day we got stuck one more time, until a family of six came flying behind us and crashed into raft in a watery version of bumper cars.
We were freed and back on our way, but the family was now stuck on the rock. All we could do was offer lame apologies and paddle like hell.
All the boats were numbered, which meant nothing to me, until someone on another raft made a keen observation.
"That's a pretty scary number you've got there," he said pointing to our craft.
"Let me guess," I said, not even bothering to look. "Is it 666?"
Great. I was the commander of the S.S. Damien. Any second I expected my head to spinning around while I spewed pea soup in all directions.
A short time later I saw another boat with the number 718--my area code. And that's where I wanted to be, back in Brooklyn.
After lunch, which we finally had late in the day, our original captain offered to take back her command and I cheerfully returned to my position as a lowly seaman.
We were all pretty tired after the meal and we wanted go home. When we saw people beaching their rafts onto the shore, we all paddled like mad. I had survived my day on the river and now it was time get home.
As we rode down North Street in Jim Thorpe, I looked over the little houses that made up this small town. I saw an elderly couple sitting on their front porch, enjoying the summer night. It was a Norman Rockwell moment.
Schmuck! I reminded myself. You already tried the small town life and you hated it. Do you seriously think you'll be happy if you give it another try?
The Story Behind the Story
The bus went down Route 80, right through Stroudsburg, my old home when I was working at the Pocono Record.
Those were five of the most miserable years of my life, but I still felt a twinge of nostalgia as we went by the Park Avenue exit. That's where I would get off to get my place on Scott Street.
The whole Pocono experience was a mistake. I should have been in L.A., or making films in New York, but instead I took off for a small town to cover car crashs and house fires. It's like I drifted away from my dream and got stuck of the rocks.
I remember the day I moved to the Poconos. It was Mother's Day 1988 and I was a nervous wreck, as were my parents. I was 30 years old--30 years old--and finally moving out of my family's house and we were all acting I was going off to college.
My mother had told me to go and not to worry about her, my dad, or our dog, Casey.
"We're an old man, an old woman, and an old dog," she said firmly, indicating that I should get on with my life. Of course, I was really worried about my own sorry keester. I was terrified, convinced I had made a terrible mistake.
I thought of my mother's words on the way home and felt tears forming in my eyes. After all this time, I still can't believe she's gone.
I eventually settled into life in the Poconos and that was part of the problem: I got too settled, unwilling to move. As we drove through Jersey, I recalled my weekends, when I would leave Stroudsburg at 11 PM and drive down to Brooklyn to be with my family.
That was some pretty lonely driving, pretty much me and the tractor-trailers. I would survive by listening to various oldies stations, swinging like Tarzan on the vines as one station's signal faded out and and another one came on.
I had a mini-panic attack as we headed down the highway, convinced that bus driver was going too fast.
When we crowded into the toll plaza at the George Washington Bridge, I felt we were back on the river, surrounded by all these rubber rafts. Only now I couldn't paddle away from them.
For some reason, I felt compelled to tell a woman riding next to me about the time I covered a drowning at a state park in the Poconos.
I'll tell that story some other time, but let's just say this lady didn't seem enjoy the details I was giving her. I kept telling myself to shut up, but my mouth wouldn't listen.
I said my goodnights and hopped the subway home. I was tired, exhausted, but satisfied. I had conquered my fears, tried something I had never done before, and had a good time--all for free.
As I picked up the mail outside my house, I managed to smash my knee against our front stoop. I cursed and fumed, but I have to admit that it was pretty funny: I had gone through hell and high water only to maim myself in my own home.
But I learned some things today. I can still chase after my dreams at my age, even though they've been deferred.
And if I get stuck on some rocks, I'll keep pushing and shoving until I get free.