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Never Trust a Rainbow on the Amazon River

This article is a feeble attempt to put into words what happened on what I now call my last Sunday in Brazil, but at the time I was calling it my last Sunday.  After morning church, I had spent part of the day wandering jungle paths with my camera and my trusty native guide, Logan.  Then Phil took me and some other guests out on a beautiful excursion across half of the Amazon where I saw some gorgeous water lilies and an unusual bird.  Upon our return, while the other guests were disembarking, our daughters left the boat in a rush to go get something.  I waited around until they returned with what appeared to be a small life raft for the crew and staff of a mid-sized ocean liner.  But Phil’s daughter called it “the tube.”

Our daughters were going to go tubing together on the Amazon, pulled by a stout rope and a trusty boat.  Being a photographer, and especially a photographer who likes taking photos of my own children, I decided to stick around and ride with Phil while he gave them a hitch.

I have to say that it really did look fun.  To see two friends smiling at each other, laughing and having the time of their lives was just inexpressible as a father.  Seeing them roll gently over the lapping waves of the big river’s current had a certain charm and appeal to it.  To really appreciate it, you need to watch the brief video clip below.

The day was beautiful.  Our daughters were having fun.  The weather was spot on.  It was idyllic.

Then I saw it.  A rainbow filled the sky just behind the peaceful flow of the great Amazon River.

This was more than just another photo op.  This had to be a sign.  After all, rainbows are ancient indicators of divine goodwill, of wrath which has past, of hope for the future.  Euphoria filled me.  “This,” I said to myself, “is going to be a good day, a hallmark day.”

IMG_6893After a couple more little loops around the dock area for the girls, Phil gave a second ride to some of the younger children.  To see the smiles and laughter on the faces of those children would do you more good than a dose of strong medicine.  They had a great time.  Was I mistaken, or had he really replaced his cruising motor with a little trolling motor?  Phil’s care and gentleness as a father showed through as he towed the little raft along behind the boat.  It reassured me.  It caught me off guard.

When he had dropped the little kids off, the older daughters wanted another ride.  But Phil suggested to them that perhaps it was my turn.  All eyes were on me as I pondered that fateful question.  Really, there was not much to consider.  I had seen the rides he had given the children.  I had heard the soothing hum of the motor.  I had gotten some great photos of the memories.  Why not?

Now, there are those who would stop the movie at this point and yell at the screen, “Don’t you remember the motorcyle ride?????    What about the boat ride to the cliffs?????  Are you an idiot?????” much the same way that they would watch a horror movie and yell, “Don’t let the man with the ax INSIDE the house!!!!”

Some things are inexplicable.  I don’t understand why moths are drawn to a flame.  I don’t know why a battered dog licks the hand of its master.  Why would I put myself on the back of a life raft and let myself be towed behind a boat?

But you have to understand:  I had seen a rainbow.  The deluge was gone; the sun would now shine.  The carrion birds had departed, but the dove had returned with an olive branch in his mouth.  Call it predestination.  Call it free will gone very bad.  I said yes.

Phil held the boat still as I clambered over the side and swam to the raft.  I noticed as I got closer to it that the sun or water must have shrunk it a bit.  Maybe it had a slow leak.  It no longer looked like a cruise liner’s life raft.  It had shrunk down to the size of a large sized tractor tire.  “Oh, well, the cost of living in the Amazon sun,” I thought as I shrugged it off.

After I had climbed onto the tractor tube, I noticed something strange.  Aboard the boat, Phil and our daughters were engaged in some type of serious conversation.  At least, that’s what I’d call a series of furtive glances, whispered consultations mixed with loud guffaws of laughter from Phil.  They were having a regular bruhaha.

Was it the shrimp we had for lunch, or was I starting to get worried?

You know how your mind works overtime sometimes?  Mine was reminding me of little hints I had gotten from Phil after he had read my previous blog articles that maybe he didn’t think I was being factual, like the times he said, “You should stick to the facts.”  I had gotten the strangest notion that he thought I wasn’t being completely accurate when he told me, “You would make a great fiction writer.”  Could he be planning some type of payback for these perceived inaccuracies?  Would he do that?

My mind began shouting, “Yes, you fool.  Get off the tube!  NOW!”  I hesitated.  I vacillated.  Then I remembered.

I had seen a rainbow.  Divine favor was shining down on me and all of creation.

So instead of abandoning ship, I stayed.  I steeled myself.  I reckoned that if two teenage girls and three elementary age kids could survive, so could I.  I pulled myself up onto my knees, just like the girls had done, and I endured.

The next two minutes were some of the worst of my life.  I struggled to keep even my most basic balance.  I fought to control the shaking of the tractor tube against the massive rolling of the mighty Amazon River’s current.  I commanded myself to use the breathing techniques we had learned in pregnancy classes.  Twice I almost flew off the tube into the river.  My fingers dug into the nylon hand grips with all the determination of a rock climber without a safety rope.

But I was still on the tube.  I chuckled to myself.  “Is this really all you’ve got, Phil?” I asked myself.  “Is this the best you can do to scare me?”

Then Phil started the motor.

In times of danger, our senses get heightened.  I noticed several things almost immediately.  The first thing I noticed was that while I had been occupied, he and the girls had quietly replaced the trolling motor with his “zero to sixty” motor.  I say that because of the way the tow line went as taut as a fly fisherman’s line in the mouth of a ten pound bass on a sunny day.  I noticed that the front of the tube was doing its best to dive under the water and hide, as if it somehow could sense what was coming and refused to be a witness to mayhem.  I noticed that the ear-splitting whine of the motor had to be louder in Phil’s ear than my ear-splitting shouts of “Stop the boat!”  I also noticed that the jolt from the tow rope must have released some air from the tractor tube, as it was now the size of a large tire tube.

We never really went to amusement parks as a kid.  But I rode a roller coaster once later in life as an adult.  I remember sitting there thinking, “Should I?  Should I not?”  Then the roller coaster started moving.  At that point, my mind said, “It’s too late now.”  I knew I was in for the ride.

That same mind abandoned me on the bank of the Amazon River that day.  It had tried to warn me, and I had listened to the ways of folly instead of the voice of wisdom.  In fact, I’m sure I heard my mind laughing and pointing at me from the bank two or three times.

How can I describe the next two to three minutes?  A merciful hand would draw the curtain.  But as a teacher, I’m compelled to share life’s lessons with others.  So, here go the little snatches of memory, physical sensation, spiritual insights and general trauma that I can remember.

After the raft righted itself like a Cessna in flight, one of the first things I remember thinking is, “Why are the girls shooting pellets at me?”  Insects don’t normally make their home in a river, so I didn’t think it was the sting of a bee.  Then the stinging reality hit me that those were droplets of water.  We were going so fast that I was being battered with spray.  Wow!  When did water become so mean?  Someone needs to ban water droplets from traveling that fast.  They’re dangerous!

I had the distinct impression that we were no longer on the Amazon River.  I knew this because I could not see a shoreline any direction I looked.  My mind being on the bank, it took me a while to realize that this was not the case.  I merely had small pitchers of water collecting in my eye sockets which was impeding my vision.

Back home, the simple thing to do when water droplets get in my eye is to wipe them out.  That requires using a hand.  Upon raising my hand to try and clear my eyes, I found out that it had been studiously involved in useful employment, such as keeping my carcass attached to the tube.  It must have been a sight.  My hand was mostly useless trying to find my face as we bounced across the water.  Do you know why bull riders keep one hand in the air as they ride the bulls?  It’s not because they want to.  It’s because it’s the rules.  Ask any bull rider, “Would you rather hold onto that critter with one hand while your other hand flaps uselessly in the night air?” and he will look at you as if you have the sense of a newborn chick.  Eventually, I discovered two things.  The first is that if I tucked my head into my elbow crease, the wind and wave action would squeeze the water out of my eyes.  The second thing I discovered is that I didn’t want to see what was coming.

Weather and water are amazing things.  It can be raining on one city block and be dry the next one over.  Phil knew the calmest parts of the river to take the children.  And he knew where the tidal currents were for my ride.  I hadn’t really conceived the truth that the smoothest part of the ride was behind me — as we raced along through a trough.  But once my eyes were clear of the water for a split second, I could see that we were reliving the parting of the Red Sea.  And once little Mary, the boat, shot clear of the trough, the sacrificial lamb was sure to follow.

IMG_7596The jarring impact to my body as we impacted the wave head on convinced my innate sense of well being that it did not have a tight enough grasp upon the hand grips.  I’d heard the term “death grip” my whole life, but never did I understand it until that moment.  All I know is that the tighter my fingers went around those nylon straps, the looser I felt the icy grip on my shoulder.

Now, I’m sure that standard maritime protocol is to ride at a slight angle into the swells, not hit them full speed at a right angle.  But protocol was not the only thing lost on the Amazon River that day.  I lost all sense of decorum.  I had given up the idea of Phil hearing me.  Somehow sound must only travel backwards behind boats.  Or maybe the sheer speed was creating a Doppler effect and making my words sound slow and long to him.  Still, I hoped that if I made enough noise, then perhaps someone would call the coast guard who could then come out in a cutter or a helicopter and force the craft to shore or maybe do something useful like shoot a rifle to sever the tow rope.

You must picture this in your mind.  In order to breathe deep enough to make louder sounds, I had to lower my head.  The tube had now shrunk to the size of a Volkswagen’s spare tire tube, so it wasn’t really visible from a distance.  I was on my knees with my back mostly horizontal.  Both my arms were locked straight and tight on the hand grips in front of me.  And I was making primal noises from the depths of my being.  They tell me that tribal leaders who happened to be on the bank of the river that day swear that “The Ancient Creature” from their folk tales and legends was seen galloping at full speed across the surface of The Great River.  They might have even paid homage if the creature hadn’t been moving quite so fast.  All the creature knew was that his bellows weren’t calling in the cavalry or the Lone Ranger or a lone gunman on a grassy knoll.

I think that was the point at which Phil cut in his second engine.  Or hit the turbo button.  Or something.  About that same time, we hit something that felt like a sandbar or a small luxury cruiser that someone had rashly left anchored in the middle of the river.  And that was when my old man’s knees gave away.

My next jumbled recollection is that I was lying flat on my stomach on top of a giant pneumatic hammer which was being driven repeatedly into my abdomen.  “Pain.       Pain.       Pain.”  I kept hearing and feeling that word being echoed in my nervous system up and down my spine as different parts of my body began to report in upon regaining their individual consciousness.  As if my brain had any say so in the matter.  It was bouncing around in my skull, shouting back at the body parts, “I know!  I know!  I know!”

In an earlier blog post, I had surmised that having an accident in Phil’s boat would have been preferable to having one on his motorcycle because, as I so naively put it, “if I were flung from this craft, I would at least go THROUGH the surface of the water rather than impacting INTO the pavement.”  This day, I learned more about the molecular structure of water when it flows in elemental cohesion as the Amazon River.  Are you listening, boys and girls?  When ordinary water droplets gently fall from the sky and weave their way through the softening process of the silt of the Amazon basin, they eventually reach the tributaries which collect them and ferry them to the Amazon River itself.  Upon reaching the Amazon, the droplets are so horrified at its vastness that they cling to one another in native terror.  At this point, their molecular structure effectively changes to that of cement — rebar-reinforced cement.

Next recollection:  Was I seeing another rainbow?  Yes, I had seen one rainbow.  But now I was seeing bursts of color with each impact.  I saw stars.  Scratch that.  I saw entire galaxies waltzing across the synapses of my brain hemispheres.

I also realized that I was taking on lots of water.  No, not the raft.  I was taking on water.  The prone position works great for snipers, but they are not normally drinking from a fire hose at the time.  I’ve read articles of people drinking too much water and dying from it.  I have no idea how I managed to ingest the sheer amount of water I did that day without either bursting or overtaxing my kidneys.  There were reports that day of two barges, one upstream and one downstream, which were shipping too near the edges of the river and then foundered on sand when I started drinking up their source of flotation.  Little children who were playing in the shallows were stranded in tepid pools of mud.  The high watermark forecast for the Amazon Basin season was changed.

Another recollection I have is that, from its safe perch on the bank, my mind realized that a water-filled body is nearly impossible to sustain on an inner tube, especially an old bicycle inner tube which only had cardboard reinforcing the center.  So, my mind returned and, in a flash, convinced every cell in my body that they clearly should work together for the preservation of the whole by quadrupling my grip on the hand straps.  Gone was the death grip.  In its place came the strongest grip of all next to the grip of God’s grace, and that is the grip of a woman who is in labor when you offer her your hand for support.

How did I do it?  I don’t know.  Yet, somehow I held on.  I thought several times about just letting go and sliding into the void.  But those were the same voices that shout, “Jump!  Jump!” to the man on the ledge.  Or maybe it was the crowd which had gathered on the bank to point and watch and wait.  I denied them their wish.  My mind being back with me for the moment, I reasoned that whatever creature named Bubba the Bruiser down in the water which was using me as a speed bag practicing for the big fight didn’t need a chance to do it without the insulating layer of the large round bagel and sheet of soggy newspaper that I had between me and it.

And then, miraculously, it all eased up and stopped.  Whether Phil was temporarily granted repentance or whether he simply was laughing so hard he could no longer see to drive the boat good enough for his own safety, I do not know.  I give thanks for them both equally.  We were back close enough to the dock that I could smile and wave at the onlookers who seemed to be pointing more at my hair and asking questions like, “Was it white when he left?”  So I handed Phil the doughnut so that he could inflate it again back to its original life raft size so it would be ready for the next users.  Then I crawled and limped to the safest place I could think of:  a cold shower.

Some of my readers will now pause and ask, “Did you learn any life lessons?”  Yes.  Yes, I did.

I learned that mob enforcers and the Iraqi Republican Guard could learn a few things from Phil.  I left the dock that day thinking I was sore.  I apparently hadn’t read the definition of the word.  The sheer action of catching air to about five feet off the surface and then being suddenly dropped back onto a cement pad (with only a layer of insulation which has been engineered to absorb just enough of the blow to avoid surface bruising) can still leave deep welts in your muscles and major organ groups.  If the Amazon doesn’t work out, I’m sure Phil could find work at a high end “collection agency.”

I learned that Hebrews 12:12 isn’t just for 100 year old people.

I learned that I don’t ever again want to be like the dog or the moth I spoke of earlier.

I learned that if your mind is screaming “No!” while people are pointing at you and giving you furtive glances, you should probably reconsider what you’re doing.

I also learned that emotional theology is about as useless as a glass hammer.  Rainbows don’t have anything to do with feeling good or making life and death decisions.  Rainbows are a sign God’s covenant that He will never again flood the whole EARTH with water.  It doesn’t say YOU won’t get flooded or bruised if you ride behind a boat going 100 mph on the Amazon River while holding onto a postage stamp.  Keeping emotions and bad theology out of decision making is a great life lesson anyone can use.

In other words, never trust a rainbow on the Amazon River.

ps – If you wish to watch the carnage, you can see it in the video below.

pss – Once again, the brief passage of time and the emotional impact of the event may have slightly altered my recollection of events as compared to how Phil may remember them.

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2 Responses to "Never Trust a Rainbow on the Amazon River"

  1. John & Naomi says:

    Great Scott!! What a ride! What did you do or say to Phil to make him want to drown you?!! I laughed and laughed! You are right on up there with Patrick MacManus!

    1. craig says:

      I didn’t do anything. That is considered a tribal honor, to be given the fastest ride. 🙂

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