Near Death

by Allen Hackworth


What do I know of death? On Friday, I felt calm and confident. Life was kind. I had a gentle, bright, supportive wife. Our well-furnished, large home was paid for, including a two-bedroom apartment which has always been rented since its completion 20 years ago. Loni and I had good jobs which seemed secure until our retirement. I loved my students dearly, and I knew they were some of the best in the world. Their standards and test scores were some of the highest in the nation.


Our self-reliant children were faithful to Christ's gospel, and none of them had any damaging habits including tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. Loni and I had a few modern toys including a new, powerful, all-aluminum jet boat, two 1996 A TVs, two mountain bikes, camping equipment, and a motor home. I felt content, feeling joy in the land, in my circumstances, and in my heritage and membership in the Church. A life of hard work and living cherished, gospel principles had paid well. God was in His heaven; the sun was warm and friendly.


I had asked both of my daughters, Jenni and Kristi, my wife, my close friend, Ron Messer, and a student, Josh Steimle, one at a time, if they wanted to go fishing with me. Each in their turn said, "No, not this time." So I drove alone to Henrys Lake, knowing I could have a great time even in solitude. I fished Friday night into the darkness. It was peaceful, being on the lake at night. I could see the winking lights of various cabins scattered around the lake. The stars slowly became more prominent as the red glow of a western sky gradually faded. It was a friendly world, caressing kindly any who wanted to ponder, to view, to hear, to touch, and to smell its beauty.


Because the regulations required that all be off the lake by 9 p.m., I navigated toward the Bill Frome County Boat Dock where I would spend the night in my Toyota 4-Runner. Sensing man against nature, it was exciting to come off the lake in the dark; it was a challenge to find the un-lit boat landing. Eventually, I slipped next to a wooden dock and tied fast my boat. The slapping of the water against my boat and against the shore told me that all was well.


In the dark, I shuffled slowly to my parked car and climbed quietly into the back. I soon took off my clothes and slipped into bed. Feeling like a moth in a cocoon, I slept in my silk-like mummy bag. (This high-tech bag was a gift from my dear children on Father's Day.) This night, I tried for the first time a new sleeping pad that could also be used as a floating, tanning bed on a swimming pool. The pad was hard and probably will work better on water, but this night I had a fitful time, turning frequently to lessen my pain caused by a hard bed.


The brightening eastern sky was welcomed. After the sun burned away some of the cold and darkness, I shed my cocoon and dressed. I wore long johns, a heavy cotton shirt, levies, a thick sweater, a heavy coat, and leather hiking boots. Although it was windy, I looked forward to an unhurried day of adventure. Friday night I caught one trout, and this day I planned to catch a few more. Fishing was slow; however, I managed to catch three more trout, releasing one. As the day lengthened, the winds increased. Yet I still felt safe. My sturdy boat rose and fell, bobbing over the undulating, white caps.


My boat has a convertible top. The vinyl-like ceiling mounts to the windshield, and is supported by metal poles. Side curtains zip to the top allowing see-through protection on all sides of the cabin. These curtains mitigate the cold winds and rain. Because earlier I had not completely snapped the side curtains in place, the wind began whipping the plastic, letting cold air and water into the cabin. I decided to go out into the front of the boat and snap, once and for all, the vertical connector of the side curtains to the windshield. As I was doing this, the boat dipped low, dropping on the same side where I was leaning while trying to snap the curtain. The other side of the boat rose high, following the contour of a sinister wave. I lost my balance and fell into the October, black, high-mountain lake.


I knew I must immediately get out of this cold water, and I managed to grab the railing that runs around the bow of the boat. I would live to be 80 or 90 years old. Now death was a real possibility, and I was shocked and frightened. My strength was failing, so I decided to move, hand over hand, to the back of the boat. The sides were lower in the back where the motor is attached. I thought, “Oh no. I hope my hands don't slip as I work myself td the back of the boat. If my hands slip now off the side, I will be drawn into the cold blackness, and I may not be able to reach again the high sides to grab the boat."


My life jacket rode comfortably and dry in the boat, for I had not put it on. Although the motor was off, the boat was constantly moving a few knots per hour because of the wind. I felt weak, insignificant, puny, humble, and useless. With all the fear and trauma associated with such a condition, I was struggling for my life. I wondered if I would have the strength to lift myself out of the water even at the back of the boat. Soon, I maneuvered to the back of the boat, wishing I had done this sooner so as to not waste my strength trying to climb over the bow.


Pulling as hard as possible, I inched the top part of my chest over the wall and hung on, gasping and panting, resting, trying to regain some strength. After resting, I struggled to gain a few more inches over the wall. In this manner, a little at a time, I eventually worked my body, from the waist up, over the side of the boat. In time, I was able to get my butt onto the edge of the boat, and I sat, gasping for breath. I waited, expecting any moment to have a heart attack, a consequence of not being in shape, of my great exertions, and of my age. But the attack didn't come, and I eventually struggled to the captain's chair.


Although I was cold, I did continue to fish for a while, but then I realized my mind was affected by this ordeal. I felt dizzy, and I was shaking slightly. Perhaps I was in shock. I decided to call it a day and pointed my boat toward the county docks. Did I learn anything from this experience? Yes. I learned about the frailness of my life, and I learned to ALWAYS wear a life jacket, even when I think nothing will happen. I'm thankful my dear wife will not be making funeral arrangements this week.