On October 13, 2013 the river claimed my friend and on that day, his son became a man.
Mike Jackson left home that Sunday morning to cut wood for the winter. The air temperature should have been well below freezing, but this day dawned unseasonably warm and the airport temperature topped at 39 degrees F (4C). I know the river temperature was about 41 degrees because my classes had measured it only days before. Mike traveled by boat, out past Four Mile, with Joey and his older daughter Tasha. On the way home something happened and the boat began to sink. The following is based on Tasha’s memory of that day.
After cutting wood and hauling it down to the river, Mike and his children carefully loaded it and headed home. The boat was not overloaded and Tasha does not remember hitting any underwater stumps. “It was a freak thing.” Joey was the first to notice they were taking on water, quickly. As the boat went under Mike, Tasha and Joey desperately swam for shore through the frigid waters.
They wore life preservers but the current was strong and moving in their heavy-laden Carhartts was very hard. Joey was the only one to reach the beach. Chilled to the bone and near exhaustion, he fought his way down that rocky shoreline strewn with driftwood and debris (sock-footed, having kicked off his shoes in the river) in pursuit of his sister.
As for Tasha, she recalls being caught in the current, unable to reach the shore and wanting to go to sleep. I believe she said she must have been in the water about 10 minutes. And then, somehow, Joey did the impossible. He reached his sister and dragged her out of the river. “I don’t know how he did that. He pulled me all the way out of the water and up onto the beach.”
They could see Mike but he was caught in the current, too far out of reach. “I remember hearing Dad call out to Joey, ‘take care of your sister.'” Unable to help him, they stumbled and crawled for at least half an hour in search of help. “My clothes were stiff with cold, frozen to me; I could hardly move.” They could hear chainsaws in the distance but never reached them. Instead, my neighbor Bruce saw them from his boat and came to their aid. He immediately went for their dad, but Mike had already passed away and Bruce didn’t have the strength to lift him into the boat so he returned for Tasha and Joey and took them back to the village. Five of us went out and brought Mike home.
I had only come to know Mike well this year. I would like to think he counted me as a friend. I certainly counted him so. He often brought me fish and summer jams made by his wife Janet. But I am most indebted to him for befriending and mentoring my son Chris this past summer and introducing him to wilderness survival. Since his death I have learned that my family wasn’t the only recipient of Mike’s kindness. Many came forward at his memorial to tell stories about Mike dropping by with vegetables or fish or wood, or to help repair something. He filled our village with generosity.
I’m certain that if Mike could read this story he would say, “You’re getting this all wrong, this is Joey’s story.” And, of course, Mike would be right because on the day he died, he witnessed his son becoming a man.
Because in the face of death, Joey reached down deep into places of the heart and mind that simply don’t exist in a boy and found the indefatigable will, not only to endure, but to save his sister’s life.
Eleven days after his father’s memorial, Joey has already rejoined his 10th grade classmates. But my classroom isn’t the same anymore. It is a better place now. Everyday Joey enters the room and take his place just as before; only now when I look his way, I see him for what he has become…a man without equal among his peers.