At least I think it was Snake River as we were on about day six or seven of a cross country, Chevy Chase-like, family vacation from western Kansas to the rain forest of Quinault, Washington in 1969. We made this trek multiple times during my childhood. On this particular trip, I was only eight but I remember the unfortunate event that day in Idaho like it happened last week. The grand plan for the adventure was to put all four Hauck kids in the back of an old green station wagon and limp nearly 2,000 miles; stopping when we found a good (cheap) camping spot and other assorted places of interest to my educator father and social conscious mother. Good places as defined by our parental units were always state parks, historical sites, campgrounds and nature preserves – no Howard Johnson’s ever. Mom and Dad had rented a used U-Haul trailer to hook up to the back of the family wagon and then proceeded to fill both the wagon and the trailer with kids, sleeping bags, cookware, food, tents, blankets, and all the other necessary supplies for a two-week road trip to and from Washington State. We normally got back home just in time for the start of school. We borrowed heavily from the local Wolverine Scout Troop for the necessary camping and survival supplies. The boys (or maybe Mom as pack leader?) were so into that club that we had a huge and terrifying Wolverine painted on the cement wall of our basement for the troop meetings.
The day of the memorable event had been long and hot. I think we had driven the longest length of time that day of the entire trip so when we arrived at the camp site nudged up to the Snake River, we were ready to get out of the car and take a dip. Keep in mind, we were all highly competent swimmers as Mom and Dad made sure we all had mastered the American Crawl, had the stamina to tread water for 30 minutes, and had demonstrated our ability to swim back and forth across the town pool in front of a licensed life guard all by the time we entered first grade. Mom and Dad supplemented their meager wages by teaching swimming lessons at the town pool so we all thought we were prepared for river swimming. We were wrong.
Before we could venture off and do a fun activity at our nightly stops, we normally had to help set up the camp site. At that time, most tents were canvass with wooden poles and spikes that had to be pounded into the ground to support the tent. This took all of us to get the multiple tents upright because the ground was always rocky and hard or muddy and wet. That day our parents took pity on us and let us get into our swim gear and then head on down to the river before the tent raising ritual. Like I said it was a hot day and a long ride in the car. Looking back on it, our parents were probably so tired of our constant chatter and consistent whining and bickering that they craved a few minutes of separation from us. I ran to the river’s edge and put both feet in. The river was not very wide but you could see small white caps as the water rumbled along across a few boulders and fallen trees peeking up out of the surface of the water. The river was like hot ice to the back of my legs and top of my feet but it beckoned the four of us in for a fresh dip. We jumped in and started doing the usual kid water tricks. We noticed the swift current but where we were located on the edge of the tributary, it felt good streaming by against our stiff legs. We stood on our hands, swam between each other’s legs, splashed each other and dived under, threw some rocks to see who could make them skip the best — we were having a great time. We could see Mom and Dad heading down to the river edge so one of us immediately got the amazing idea to cross over to the other side of the river. Were we running from our parents? I don’t remember. Were we thinking that well, we now have adult supervision so we can venture further out? I don’t remember. But we started across — the four of us. Mike was holding my arm as we began to tread quickly across the river. I remember the bottom was covered in pebbles that hurt my feet so I preferred to paddle along versus hopping up and down like I sometimes did in our town pool. We had not gone far when we lost Tom. He was treading along and all of a sudden he was sucked up in a mighty current and down the river he went. I think another kid went with him. As I remember it was a major commotion. We immediately started screaming for help from the shore. My dad was already in full sprint down the side of the river following Tom as he bobbed along unable to get to shore. I could see his wet head and that he was picking up speed unable to get out of the swift current that surrounded him. I imagined him swept to sea. Just ahead of him lay a fallen tree in the water. Tom smacked into the limb of the tree and went under. Then he was up again and then back under. Dad splashed into the water (he was a tall man thank goodness), reached under the limb and pulled Tom out of the water by the back of his trunks all while struggling to keep his balance in the current. If the tree had not been strategically placed I am not sure how this story would end. Someone helped the other lost boy out from the same predicament and everyone limped back to the shore. Of course, Mike, Ed and I are still out in the middle of the river afraid to make a move forward or back for fear the same thing would happen to us. Dad and Mom yelled “don’t move…we are coming to get you!” And they did. And we still had to help put up the tents.
Needless to say, the rest of the trip we were more subdued and all the more aware of how quick a beautiful day can turn grey. This experience in the Snake River was an important life lesson — that life can end in a blink of an eye or a misstep in a beautiful river. A lesson we are so painfully reminded of this week with the unexplained Boston bombings and the tragic explosion at West.