Saturday, May 19, 2012

"The River"

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Another stupid thing I did. This actually happened to me when I was in Korea, nearly dying by drowning instead of a more romantic death in combat.

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He was a South Dakota boy, and although he learned how to swim when he was ten or eleven, he never learned how to feel completely comfortable in water over six feet deep. As a boy, he swam in the muddy Missouri (but never far from shore). He swam in small lakes and stock dams (but never far from shore).

And once in the spring of 1953, he and seven platoon buddies climbed down canyon walls to a river flowing freshly after heavy spring rains. They were not supposed to be there. Colonel Johnson had issued very specific orders against swimming in Korean rivers, especially in the spring.

But they were young and very sure they knew what they were doing, certainly better than old fogy colonels who sat back and thought up stupid orders to justify their authority. Besides, they reasoned, they were grimy from several weeks on the move as their regiment had slid along the line from the eastern sector to somewhere in the middle of the Korean peninsula. They deserved a good swim and a chance to scrub off some of the accumulated filth, even if in a forbidden river. Anyway, who would ever know?

Papa-san, one of Korea’s highest mountains, loomed above them to the north as they picked their way through brown weeds and budding willow bushes. Papa-san was dark and brooding, shrouded in clouds like gray rags, and the sky above them was heavy with the threat of more rain.

Then they were standing along the shore gazing across an expanse of dark water where the river made a wide bend. It was about fifty yards across and looked reasonably calm. Corporal Thomas, the South Dakotan, nineteen on his last birthday only a month before, squatted at the edge of the water and put his hand in a frothy swirl near the bank. He was expecting it to be cold to match the gray chill of the day, but it felt surprisingly warm. He looked over his shoulder at the others.

“Well, whattaya think?” Patchins asked. Patchins was a street wise black kid from the Bronx—short, stocky, with a mustache too big for his face. He and the others looked to Thomas for leadership, not because Thomas was a leader but because he was a corporal. Thomas, just after arriving in Korea, had volunteered to carry a BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle, thus putting himself one up on the other arrivals in his company. One up in rank as well as stupidity. You do not, he found out later, volunteer to carry a BAR. BAR-men were primary targets for North Korean snipers. He made PFC within two weeks and corporal a month later. And now the others looked to him for leadership.

“I dunno. Feels okay, but it sure as hell looks cold. And it’s so damn muddy.” He had more than half hoped the water would be too cold for swimming. Now he hoped Patchins would back out of their plan. After all, how could a black kid from the Bronx swim well enough to be willing to jump in this river? Thomas’s nagging fear of unknown water kept bobbing to the surface of his mind.

“Whattaya think, Patch?”

“I think we oughta do it!” and Patchins clapped his hands and let out a “Whooie!” The others echoed him and began to strip off boots and sweat-stiffened fatigues. Thomas watched the rapid emergence of bare bodies, three of them winter white and pasty and in sharp contrast to the shiny blackness of Patchins and the other three.

Reluctantly, Thomas sat down on the bank, slowly unlaced and pulled off boots, and began shedding his clothes.

Meanwhile, the others were splashing into the water with screams of horseplay and youthful joy as they dove in and kicked and splashed some twenty or thirty feet from the bank. Several of them began to swim to the other side. Thomas stepped off the edge into knee-deep water, then waded slowly out to waist-deep, his lower body invisible to him in the dark water. Floating by in the sluggish current was the refuse of spring—bits of weed and grass and sticks, seeds, bugs dead and alive. The muddy bottom was soft and slippery, his feet sinking in up to his ankles. He cupped water in his hands and rubbed it onto his chest and shoulders and then dove out toward the few still swimming near the shore. Three others had reached the far side and were running along the bank like children playing tag, their screams echoing off the canyon walls.

Thomas swam out to the middle, then treaded water as he watched the three jump back in to return to the others. He noticed he’d drifted downstream somewhat during his pause. He began to swim back against the current and then decided to go to the opposite side. He made it and climbed the bank, only a little winded.

No problem, he thought. He stood there for a few minutes shivering in the chill breeze, feeling the mud ooze between his toes. He watched the other seven splashing water at each other, warfare of a different kind, a battle with no lines drawn and no sides taken, every man for himself. He was too young to appreciate the irony.

He stepped off the bank and began a slow dog paddle back to the other shore.

When he got to the middle, he felt slightly winded and still nervously chilly from the water and his reluctance to be in over his head. He flipped over on his back to float for a moment and catch his breath.

The sky was filled with low clouds moving quickly in a wind barely noticeable down in the canyon. He breathed through his mouth, water occasionally slapping against his chin and lips. He could taste the grit of Korean mud. He tried not to think about what else he might be tasting, remembering the honey buckets he’d seen Korean farmers use to fertilize their fields and rice paddies. His ears were submerged and he could hear the water below him and the hollow amplification of his breathing.

The clouds raced overhead. He became engrossed in moving clouds.

To the north, Papa-san sat like Buddha, watching and waiting.

Then he heard frantic shouts and turned over on his belly to see what the commotion was all about. Naked figures on shore were screaming and waving frantically at him as he sped downstream at a pace he hadn’t noticed when he was on his back. And then before he could even begin to flounder toward shore he was in a rush of rapids where the river narrowed well below where they had first gone in.

Then a wild mixture of impressions and sensations—gurgle of water as his head went under and then out again, water in mouth and nose and throat, thrashing of arms to stay somewhere near the surface, water-dark boulders rising over him as he tumbled down and around.

And right in the middle of all that chaos, one crystal thought: Drowned in Korea? In the middle of a war? How stupid! What’s my mother going to think when she hears?

It was as though his mind hovered somewhere above his plunging body, watching dispassionately as he struggled to keep his face above water.

The journey downriver continued. And he fought the water blindly, without thought. His arms thrashed, his legs churned. Other than occasional encounters with rocky shelf or boulder, he touched nothing but water. And his arms grew weary, his legs leaden. Hours and hours passed.

Then some part of him consciously decided to quit, to give up the ghost and give himself to the river. He stopped all arm and leg motion and let himself sink in the rushing water. So this will be my death, he thought. Down and down and down, and he never touched anything. He never found bottom. My God! his mind screamed. No bottom! And then with the adrenaline of absolute terror, he scrambled back up to the surface, like a monkey up a rope. He burst into air and took a hurried gasp and then did everything he could to hold on to that bit of sky and air, arms and legs thrashing, new strength somehow found, head tilted back for intake whenever his face was clear. And he held on, and held on, and held on, for what seemed like forever.

Finally his knees scraped something and his hands found sandy bottom and he could hold himself on hands and knees, his head and chest above slowly moving water.

He stayed there, head down, gasping air, retching river water from throat and nose and lungs. Alive, I’m alive, he thought. I made it.

He pulled himself up and walked out of the shallows and found himself on a sandy wedge in the middle of the river, a narrow strip where the stream split in two, shaped like a surfboard about six feet wide in the middle and pointed on each end, a sand and gravel surfboard with rushing water twenty-five or thirty feet across on each side. Farther down the river, about a hundred yards, he could see what looked like rapids splashing white foam against jumbled rocks as the river swept downward again in falls and rapids.

He stood there—naked, wet, physically exhausted, beginning to shake uncontrollably with shock. And in a blue funk he realized what he was going to have to do—jump back in that hateful river to get to shore and safety. Either that or sit there and wait for the water of recede . . . in a week or so.

Then he saw the others, clothed now, up on top of the canyon wall, running along the edge and waving to him. They scrambled down to the riverbed and through the brush growing along the base of the wall. And there they were, some thirty feet away, and Thomas stood on the sand spit with his shoulders hunched, his teeth chattering from the cold and the thought of what lay ahead.

“Oh man oh man! I thought I was never gonna see this white boy again! You more’n a mile from where we were!” Patchins had to shout over the roar of the water and he was practically dancing with nervousness. “Man oh man!” he said again. “How was it? You okay? Whooie! From up on top it look like a roller coaster comin’ down that ol’ river!”

“Y-y-yeah, I’m, I’m okay,” he stuttered. “I guess.”

Over a mile! Over a mile! It wouldn’t register. He tried to calculate how long that might have taken. He would have been going about as fast as a medium run, maybe ten miles an hour. That meant he’d been fighting the current for seven or eight minutes. It seemed to him more like forever, but even seven or eight minutes was a frighteningly long time to be sweeping down a river without a paddle, let alone without a boat.

In shouts, he and Patchins discussed what they might do. They finally decided Patchins and the others would line the shore at intervals downstream, holding out whatever sticks or branches they could find. Thomas would leap straight out into the current as far as he could and then stroke hard to get within reach of one of the extended branches.

Good plan, he thought. But what if I miss all of them, or if I’m going too fast to hang on or for them to hold on to me? Or if I can’t even get close enough to reach them? What then? Then he would be right back in it for another river roller coaster ride, hoping for another break in the flow or for the river gods to wash him ashore. And he could imagine himself tumbling through those rocks and rapids he could see ahead. He was reasonably sure he wouldn’t come through there alive. He might then just go on and on until he washed out into the Sea of Japan. He shuddered at the thought.

They all got ready, only a momentary pause on Thomas’s part as he debated his choices: He could always wait a few days to see if it didn’t slow down a bit. And die of exposure in the chilly Korean nights. He decided he’d pass on that one. Or maybe one of the others could return to camp and explain to Colonel Johnson why he should send a helicopter out to the river to pluck a naked soldier off a sand spit in the middle of a river he wasn’t supposed to be swimming in to begin with. And then, even if they didn’t court-martial him, he’d look really stupid being hauled back to camp naked and blue. No, he’d rather be dead than be made a laughingstock. No, there was only one way for him to go—back into the river.

He took a deep breath and gritted his teeth, and leaped into the flood.

When he hit the water, he felt the immediate tug of the current as it grabbed him and tried to turn him lengthwise, but he stroked his arms and kicked his legs as hard as he could, holding his head as high as possible to keep sight of his saviors on the shore. He swept by Collier’s extended branch and the current turned him and he went by Adams in a flash. He was nearly past Patchins when his right arm stroked against the water and his hand came down on the broken end of the willow branch Patchins was holding out to him. He grabbed it and held on for dear, sweet life, and Patchins hauled him in like a giant flounder, or a blue marling.

And there it was, his closest encounter with death in his nineteen years, halfway around the world in a place he never planned to be, nearly dying a death he never would have imagined for himself, certainly not the fiery death he’d envisioned in the nightmares he’d had before going to that part of the world. Nearly a silly, careless, inconsequential, totally unromantic death by drowning in a river the name of which he never learned, in a country he just barely knew as Korea.