December 1, 2015

Crumpled boat spawns reflections of thanksgiving

Following a split-second warning, in 2007, a 75-foot over-cup oak crashed onto this aluminum john boat, filled with three trotline fishermen.  Today, Alan and Eric NeSmith, along with their friend, Robert Beasley, continue to think about what could have happened.  The mangled boat was kept as a reminder of how lucky they were.
     Thanksgiving Day 2015 was unseasonably warm.  In shirtsleeves, I propped against a mammoth live oak and pondered what lay before me:  a 14-foot heap of mangled pea-green aluminum.
    Simple logic suggested to haul the junk to the landfill.
    Smarter logic said, “Redeem it for cash at the recycling center.”
     Sentimental logic barked, “No, no, no!  Leave what looks-like-a half-folded-flip-phone john boat right where it is.”
     Even on the hottest of days, remembering what happened on that day still sends chills trickling down my spine.  Here’s why the Sears skiff has been in the same spot for going on nine years:
     Two brothers and a lifelong friend were enjoying one of their favorite adventures—setting and checking trotlines in the backwaters of the Altamaha River. On a cloudless, calm and baby-blue-sky day, our sons, Alan and Eric, with Robert Beasley, were sculling along in an oxbow lake when they saw a dancing line.  Splashing water sent hopes of multiple catfish or maybe a monster flathead.
     There were several channel cats plus a bonus—a small alligator.  The thrashing gator needed to be cut free, so the threesome went to work.  Two managed the line, while the other focused on the angry reptile.
     Sitting in the bow of the boat, Eric heard crack, crack, crack.  Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement.  Frantically, he yelled, “Tree’s falling—get out of the boat!”  
     A 75-foot over-cup oak was crashing toward them. Eric tumbled from the front, and Alan spilled from the back.  The barrel-size trunk landed between Robert and Eric, pushing the boat beneath the murky, alligator-infested water.

     Alan popped up, then Eric.  Hammered by limbs, Robert wasn’t so lucky.  The brothers pulled their friend up onto the partially submerged tree.  While Alan held onto Robert, Eric swam to their campsite to retrieve a canoe so they could get Robert to shore.   With Robert’s newly-acquired waterproof cell phone, a call was placed for help.   Alan and Eric loaded their injured friend onto a four-wheeler and gingerly transported Robert to the main road, where his mother met them.  At the hospital, Robert’s inventory of injuries included abrasions, a bruised lung, a broken shoulder and three fractured vertebrae.
     As bad as it was, the trio knew it could have been worse—much worse.  Still they wondered:
Of all the trees in the swamp, why did this one happen to fall when it did?
Why weren’t they pushed to a watery grave?
Was there a message in this?
     I cannot answer the first two questions, but I have an idea about the third.  As I told each of them—after our nerves had settled: “You were spared, because God has a plan for your lives.  Now, it’s up to you to decide what that plan is.”
     Today, Alan, Eric and Robert are high-energy husbands, fathers, and civic and church leaders, as they race toward the zenith of their careers.  If the “plan” was for them to make a difference in the lives of others, they are overachieving.  
     And on Thanksgiving Day, as I stared at the upside-down boat, I could hear the squeals of four grandchildren who would not have been frolicking with their four cousins if the could-have-been-a-killer oak had landed differently.  As I thought of what could have happened to Alan, Eric and Robert, another wave of chills cascaded down my spine.
     The otherwise useless boat is staying where it is—forever—as a reminder.  
     Call it the logic of gratefulness.