I have had many opportunities in life to throw a lifeline to people who were drowning emotionally. I am very proud of this fact and have received many thanks from most of those whom I have helped. Some, though, paid me back by turning on me like a rabid dog. Most expressed their thanks in quite emotional terms that sometimes left me embarrassed.
My endeavors to use my skills to help others have been very rewarding. But I will point out that I was very selective in whom I would help, for I knew that if I committed myself it would take hours and many days to do so. Why did I waste my time on others who were suffering emotionally and needed help? Because I had a mentor, Father George Vlahos, who saved my sanity, and he inspired me to help others with psychological problems. This was one of the ways I could pay back for the emotional investment he made in my life. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I owe my life to him.
But my first act of saving someone occurred way before I met Father George. And it had nothing to do with emotions or psychological contradictions. It occurred when I was in the third grade. It occurred in Minot, North Dakota.
And it occurred in the depths of winter.
First an explanation of what winter is like in the prairie states. In winter the land freezes as do roads and rivers. The roads can easily be cleared, but the land and rivers have to wait for the spring thaw. It is cold in winter, sometimes reaching (with a chill factor) 40 degrees below zero. When it is that cold you must breathe through a scarf, and if that is not available then take short breaths when you inhale. If you take a long deep breath there is a great chance your lungs will freeze on the spot and you will die of suffocation. My dad and some of my uncles witnessed this once.
Areas containing water froze over and offered winter sports. As a boy I remember people ice-skating on parking lots or the river; and if you didn’t have skates, you could take off your rubber boots and slide using your leather shoes. It was great fun. The truly adventurous would drive their cars fast on to a lake or large parking lot and sharply turn the wheel. This would cause the car to spin, and since there was no friction, the car would not turn over.
Thus one didn’t have to wait for the state fair in order to experience a roller-coaster sensation. Those who took their cars on a frozen lake were usually safe as long as spring hadn’t begun. If you continued after spring started, you were asking for it. The kids were usually safe from crashing into each other because there were few cars on the road in winter.
Most people put their cars in the garage, sometimes on blocks, and then walk or ride a bus. But kids needed their cars for football games and other fun things teenagers engage in.
When spring came, the ice on the lakes or rivers started to weaken and melt. The closer you got to shore, the thinner the ice became. But the water remained ice cold. Although I didn’t know it at the time, if you fell into the river, hyperthermia would set in almost immediately.
I was coming home from school one day. As I was approaching the bridge that would take me over the river I heard calls for help. I veered off of the sidewalk to the edge of the bank and looked down. There was a little boy, not any older than the first or second grade, and he was in the river up to his waist. He was half sobbing and half yelling for help. He was hanging on to I don’t know what, which kept him from falling completely. But there was nothing he could grab on to that would allow him to pull himself out of the water. I looked around for help and saw no one. I knew the boy was in trouble, but didn’t see how I could help him for I had no rope with me.
I looked at the terrified boy and noticed that close to him was a drainpipe. He couldn’t reach it, but I thought perhaps I could and then have him grab on to me. I carefully walked down the slope since wearing bulky snow clothes didn’t help. I got down to the pipe and it was ribbed. I lay on my stomach, grabbed on the ribbing, and lowered my body to the boy. Luckily he was able to grab on to my feet.
As he was struggling to pull himself out of the water by grabbing and crawling up my pants I pulled my body up the slope, using the drainpipe, slowly, one rib at a time. Once the little boy reached the drainpipe he let go of me and climbed further up. We both then worked our way up the bank to the sidewalk.
Needless to say we were both relieved. The boy was shaken pretty bad, not to mention being soaking wet. So I walked him home to make sure he could get into his warm house. If no one was there then I was prepared to bring him to my house. His mother opened the door, and her son ran in. Seeing that he was now safe and warm I turned and headed home. I never told my mother the story for I didn’t think it was all that much of a big deal. And I never thought of it again. It wasn’t until I was in my first year of college, when an old paperboy colleague of mine drowned, that I remembered this story and realized that quite possibly I had saved this little boy’s life.
I don’t remember the boy’s face, except that he was small. But I still can picture the Mouse River (called the Souris in French) swollen in depth and width, and the drainpipe pointing to the river looking like a hand extended to save one from drowning.
During my Huckleberry Finn existence as a child this river was the center of my life. I would play in it during the months of late spring through early autumn. But it can be terrifying in winter. I developed a healthy respect for that river after saving the boy from potential disaster, and I never underestimated its power nor took its dangers for granted.