To say that I almost died would be an exaggeration, at least in my mind. It was your standard run of the mill church event; they were carrying the preachers kid up from the spillway at the lake.
Mom and Dad were at the shelter house nearby when word reached them that their son was being carried up from the spillway and appeared to be hurt. I’m guessing dad’s first thought, once again, was “Why didn’t we stop at 5 kids?” While Moms thoughts were more on the realistic side of, “I knew I brought the insurance card for a reason.” And of course little sister Von, “Yes!… I finally get my own room!”
Despite its grim ending, the day had gone pretty good up to that point. It was the summer of 1974 and the United Methodist Churches in Farlington and Girard were holding the CROP walk-a-thon to raise money for starving people in other countries. I had, along with many others, gotten folks to sponsor me and donate so much per mile that I walked. The route was about 15 miles or so along the local highway from Girard out to Farlington Lake. There was a good turnout with many people participating and at the end of the route we were having a picnic supper in the main shelter house.
The weather was sunny and warm, so by the time we made it to the lake we were wanting to do something to cool off.
The shelter house we were making use of was just inside the park near the west end of the dam. The dam itself had an open concrete spillway which was probably a hundred feet wide or more and carried water from the shore over the dam and down the north side of the dam to where it dumped into a pool of water and a creek which carried the water away. The amount of water going over the spillway was uncontrolled. It just depended on how much rain there had been and how high the lake was.
It had rained enough the previous week that there were several inches of water flowing over the spillway and down the side of the dam where it made a waterfall into the pool below. The water was flowing quick enough that you had to walk carefully because moss had begun to grow in the water on the surface of the concrete. This made the concrete under the water slick as hot oil.
Every ten yards or so there seemed to be a small culvert sticking out from the surface of the spillway sightly. It stuck out far enough to cause the flowing water to spray up as it hit, before continuing down to the bottom.
All the participants, church folks, and assorted other people were gathered at the shelter house and the food was brought out along with drinks and desserts. It was a very happy occasion because the walkers had all made it successfully with few, if any, troubles.
Dad said a prayer for the group gathered in the shelter house and then the picnic began. People were good and hungry after the long afternoon, but happy that they’d helped a good cause. We’d had enough time to get a drink and something to eat at the shelter house and now it was time to explore. The adults were getting ready to do something churchy or religious, so I was very happy to slip out unseen.
By the time I made it to the spillway there were other people who were splashing in the water at the top of the spillway and even a few who had managed to make their way down to the bottom where the spillway pool was located. The pool of water was churning and murky from all the inflow and it was impossible to tell how deep it was.
I’ve watched those tv shows about disasters and they always talk about that one link in the chain of events which, if the correct decision had been made, disaster could have been avoided. Standing at the top of that spillway peering down at the water rushing to the bottom, I found myself at that point.
If Mom or Dad had been there, I would have been in deep trouble for even playing near it. I knew it was a bad idea, but it seemed to call me. I loved the lake and the water. We camped at this particular lake many times in the past, so it was very familiar. That may be why I seemed to lose sight of the fact that it was dangerous.
I finally decided to just sit down in the water to see how cold it was. I would just sort of …..ease into it. I sat down and let the water push against my back. It wasn’t cold at all. In fact it was sort of exciting because I could feel the pressure on my back trying to propel me forward. So far, so good. Next I used my arms to push myself forward a little at a time. This wasn’t so bad. I could stop if I wanted to, so no problem……. At a certain point, however, the incline became steep enough that the water pushed me across that moss covered spillway and …….ZOOM….. I was off like a Rocket! It was suddenly the worlds largest and fastest water slide. I remember careening down the spillway at what seemed a million miles an hour! I let out a sort of loud YAAAW!! sound, which of course, is the international signal for “Holy crap what have I gotten myself into?!?”
As I sped toward the bottom I continued to pick up speed. As I neared the bottom the spillway was steep enough to be almost vertical. I could see the waterfall and pool fast approaching and thought, I wonder how deep that pool is? I hadn’t really considered that earlier.
I was still pretty young so my life flashing before my eyes didn’t take too long. It was at that point that I struck one of those cement culverts which protruded out from the surface of the concrete. I hit it with my right upper thigh and with enough force that I went airborne. It must have looked like a really bad Nascar crash and a ski jump that went horribly wrong. All I know was that I was just a projectile at this point. I was along for the ride and had no control whatsoever. I ended up landing back on the spillway just in time to go over the small waterfall at the bottom and into the pool of water.
The shock of hitting the concrete and vaulting through the air had turned me into a rag doll. I remember being in the water of the pool and just rolling around under the pressure of the spillway water crashing down from above. Suddenly, I felt the hands of a couple people grab onto me and pull me to shore.
I know I was hurt, but frankly I think I was in shock from the ride and crash. When I tried to walk I knew my right leg hurt badly from the knee up to my hip. I couldn’t walk on it so a couple nice folks helped carry me up the side of the dam and over to the shelter house.
Mom and Dad packed us up and off to the emergency room we went. It turned out the leg was not broken, but I had one of the all-time greatest bruises ever seen. It started just above my knee and went all the way up to my hip.
I’m pretty sure my parents wouldn’t use the term “all-time greatest” to describe anything connected with that ride I took, except maybe “All-Time Greatest Knucklehead“.
I spent the day completing a walk-a-thon and finished it off by being carried to the emergency room. In some families that would be a near tragedy with weeping, moaning, and fearful regrets. At our house, it didn’t seem to evoke the same level of excitement or trauma that it would in other families. Part of it may have been that by the time they got to the 6th child, the threshold for shock was pretty high. They’d already been there. Plus, if I got knocked off, they still had a few spare kids.
In a ministers family, trauma and accidents were the norm. It was normal for dad and mom to get called when someone in the community was hurt and to go to them. They would provide comfort and help in any way they could. So I think it took more to get them excited when something bad happened.
In my little world it was a good outcome because I survived and I got a story to pass along. On Monday morning one guy might say I mowed the lawn this weekend, what did you do? I got to say, well I started off by walking 15 miles and then went down the water slide of death, where I did a mid-air flip into a crushing pool of water, nearly drowned and then was carried to the emergency room. Other than that, not much.
God is good and luckily he appreciates irony. You see about 20 years later I was a state park ranger with Wildlife and Parks. I happened to be stationed at Farlington Lake. I would drive across that dam nearly every day on patrol. When the lake would rise I would watch the water going over that very same spillway. One of my most important duties was to make sure the visitors stayed safe. When I saw kids out screwing around in the spillway water, I would get out and make them leave.
I’d tell them no sane person would take a chance on sliding down that spillway. It was obviously very dangerous…… You’d have to be the “All-Time Greatest Knucklehead” to do something like that!