I hope you’ve had a chance, after Smuffy’s last adventure, to lie down with a cold compress and talk over your traumatic experience with your best friend or therapist, because our cliffhanger resumes today and we’ll soon find out what an apt term that is.
We last had a rear view as Smuffy rolled out of the driveway on his way to meet up with Steve. Yes, good ‘ol Steve – you can count on him once every twenty years or so to be on hand when Smuffy really does things up big.
This installment is the last half of what is known as a “two-parter”, so if you’ve not gone along with Smuffy in “Life with Smuffy (Episode 3): “That Sinking Feeling” (or, “The Wreck of ‘97”), then you’d better fix yourself a cup of tea, click here and do a bit of catching up because we’ve reached the part where things are about to go overboard.
In Episode 3, we learned that Smuffy (aka Captain Super Wonder Water Man) has no boundaries when it comes to water. It takes him back to his carefree childhood where fun overrides any possibility of getting a boo-boo.
Though I’d learned to endure, his wild river adventures were enough reduce me, as the saying goes, to a mere shadow of my former self.
I’d thought perhaps that the Wreck of ’97 had been just the thing Smuffy needed to cure him of his illusions of invincibility. After all, he’d come within a hair’s breadth of killing his old college buddy, Steve, filled his classic wooden boat full of holes, thrown his boat motor overboard, journeyed down three or four rivers in the dark with no steering and had spent a week telling me he never wanted to be in a boat again as long as he lived.
Now, however, I stood at my back door watching my lunatic husband return to the scene of the crime.
It seemed all he’d needed was a little rest to recharge his super powers. He become convinced – no, obsessed – with the notion that he knew the exact spot where the wreck happened. I didn’t doubt it. You’d think it would be seared upon his little gray cells. With that vivid mental image, he also claimed to know the exact spot where his precious 1962 Wizard 7.5 horsepower boat motor lay at the bottom of the river. This led him to believe that he could not only recover the motor but disassemble it, dry it out and have it running again in no time.
Having vowed to never again be the wife who paced the floor in the wee hours wondering if she still had a husband, I’d issued every threat I could think of should Smuffy not return by dark. I promised myself to follow through on the one I thought would prove I meant business. At thirty minutes past sunset, I’d send the sheriff after him. I knew Smuffy well enough to know that the weekly report in our local small town paper, listing him amongst all the other characters in the county who’d shared an encounter with the law, would be an embarrassment to him. If this last ditch effort didn’t cure him, I’d have to throw a mattress out on the deck and change the locks.
Captain Super Wonder Water Man, believing that paddles are for mere mortals, had his canoe licensed and outfitted with the biggest motor he could without causing it to sink or fly.
His plan began with having Steve drive him all the way to the river access just above where “X” marked the spot. Steve, always such a help, would then drop Smuffy and the canoe into the river and come back home. Captain Super Wonder Water Man would then make his way downstream, dive for the motor, hoist it into the canoe and motor down one scenic river after another until he made it back to the river access close to home where his truck would be waiting. He’d assured me that his expert observances of the Missouri River, just a few blocks from our house, had indicated lower water levels. The motor shouldn’t be too far underwater.
It all sounded so simple to hear Smuffy describe it.
I moaned as Smuffy’s rear bumper disappeared down the street and went back into the house to do what I usually did when he’d lost his marbles. I cleaned. I cooked. I spent quality time with my young daughter. I prayed. I thought a few murderous thoughts and prayed some more.
After an hour’s drive north, Smuffy and Steve arrived at the ramp around two o’clock that afternoon. Though Steve offered to drive downstream and wait, Smuffy brushed off this notion as over-cautious and told him to head on home.
Steve did as instructed, probably due to the fact that he’d been knocked unconscious in the wreck two weeks before, was still giddy at finding himself alive and not in the river with Smuffy and lacked the wherewithal to call Smuffy an idiot right there on the spot.
A few minutes after he’d started home, Steve came to his senses. When he came to a bridge over the river, he pulled over and waited for Smuffy to pass beneath, knowing he’d have to allow him a little time to reach the motor and wrestle it into the canoe.
Sometime between three and four o’clock, my phone rang. Steve’s voice, calm and steady as ever, came on the line. I sighed with relief, glad to have any update on Mission: Insanity. I felt a numb sense of disbelief as he spoke, accompanied by a little voice that seemed to be asking what else I might have expected.
After telling me that he’d seen Smuffy heading downriver before driving away, Steve had waited at the bridge. In fact, he’d already waited over an hour before finding a phone and calling me. He’d kept a sharp eye out and seemed certain that neither man nor canoe had passed beneath him unnoticed. He asked me what I wanted him to do.
Do? The word perplexed me. What could he do? All my instincts screamed at me to tell Steve to go after Smuffy and not come home without him. All my logic counseled me as to the futility of it all. Steve had no boat, no life jacket and no other means of getting someone out of the river. As much as I hated the thought of Smuffy, out there all alone without even having someone nearby, just in case, I knew Steve couldn’t just keep sitting there. I told him to come on home.
Smuffy had been right about one thing – the water levels had dropped. After the rivers’ dramatic drop on the day of the wreck, they had continued to drop ever since. While he’d been aware of this and glad that it might help him spot his boat motor with ease and haul it up without a great deal of effort, he hadn’t been prepared for what awaited him around the first bend in the river.
The Missouri’s tributaries had emptied out. Two weeks before, they’d run high, wide and swift. After Steve drove away, Smuffy spent only a few moments motoring through this now shallow stream, gazing in awe above his head at the water line left by the previous flooding. Then, he hit gravel. The once rushing river that had allowed his wooden runabout to cruise along at full speed no longer held enough water to float a canoe.
Raising the motor, he got out and dragged the canoe until he reached a deeper stretch of water. Hopping back in, he started the motor and cruised on ahead. Then, he hit gravel. Another drag brought him to deeper water again and Smuffy began a cycle that would stretch over the hours and miles. He began to wish he’d told Steve to wait.
Smuffy’s map and his memory led him to the “X” and his prize lay in the exact spot he’d dropped it. The only problem seemed to be that the boat motor no longer lay at the bottom of the river. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he studied it as it lay fifteen feet above his head, straight up the riverbank, a clear indication of just how flooded the river had been on the day of the wreck.
Not one to let a slight hitch abort the mission, Smuffy summoned his superpowers for feats on dry land and, grabbing onto dead limbs and roots, scaled the heights and reached the motor. After an exciting descent with it clutched to his bosom, he deposited it into his canoe and shoved off. Then, he hit gravel.
The extra weight of the additional motor made hitting bottom all the easier and it soon became apparent that this would be the theme that shaped the day. Smuffy traveled on, alternating between dragging the canoe over the gravel riverbed and hopping in for brief stretches of deeper water.
The miles and the hours crept along and Smuffy decided he’d better make contact with me. His attempts to radio the local amateur radio club tower with a distress call failed, just as they had two weeks earlier. He hadn’t really expected to get through, as he now found himself walled in by the high banks, cutting off the reception even more.
After dragging the canoe over another stretch of gravel, Smuffy stopped to study his map, sighing as he faced the fact that when sunset approached, he’d be nowhere near home. In fact, he’d be nowhere near the Missouri River. There seemed to be no choice but to push (or pull) on, so he grabbed the canoe and heaved. It moved a few feet begrudgingly and as he stepped forward to give another tug, Smuffy slipped off the edge of the world.
He bobbed to the surface, thankful for his life vest, for he had no idea how deep the pool had been. Perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that Captain Super Wonder Water Man can’t swim. Pulling the canoe into the deep water, Smuffy climed back in, hoping he’d at last reached deeper waters that would allow him to start up the motor and keep on going.
Alas, it was not to be. The river now toyed with Smuffy, and as he had no other choice, he alternated between dragging the canoe over the gravel river bottom and stepping off into unknown depths. Even Captain Super Wonder Water Man shows a certain degree of peevishness after a few hours of that sort of thing.
Smuffy admits to one weakness – he needs his glasses. Keeping them dry and attached to his face soon became a problem, for no sooner than he accomplished this, he’d plunge without warning into the depths again, clutching at them. Since he hadn’t a dry fiber left in any of this clothing, he began drying them with the only thing that hadn’t become water-logged – his map.
As darkness fell, the sudden impact of stepping off into the wet unknown began to take on even more of what is known as the surprise element. Smuffy removed the flashlight from his dry-box and as he studied the limp, soggy map, he scanned the banks and the blackened sky for some landmark that might give him a clue as to his location.
On he went, with the map growing more lifeless with each use as a towel and the flashlight growing dimmer by the minute. Smuffy counted each bridge as he passed beneath, hoping that the map would hold together long enough to show him one that might lead him to a town within walking distance.
By now, Smuffy knew I’d be more than just a little worried. He stopped at intervals to crawl through the weeds, roots and mud, scaling the riverbanks in hopes that, once on high ground, he’d get a signal and make a distress call. No matter how many times he dangled from the edge of the bank, gripping the vegetation in one hand and the radio device in the other, he never got one.
Around ten-thirty that night, the faint outline of another bridge came into view. If Smuffy’s counting had been accurate, this road would lead him into nearby Keytesville, where he might find a telephone. He tied up the canoe and began the steep climb up the mud bank. Nearing the top, a soft sucking sound and a light rustling through the underbrush informed him that one of his shoes had disappeared into the blackness. Undaunted, he crawled onto the road and, hampered a little by a slight limp and glursh-ing with every other step, headed toward what he hoped would be civilization.
After half an hour or so, a dim flicker appeared in the distance and Smuffy made his way toward what proved to be a farmhouse. He began to be concerned that some of his earlier luster had faded to the point where its residents might shy away when he knocked at their door. Reaching up, he ran his mud-caked hands through his hair and gave his wet clothes a futile brush-over. He hoped the flashlight, so dim now that he’d barely been able to identify the bridge on the map, might ease the shock. He knocked on the door and, holding the flashlight over his head, turned it on.
The man who opened the door beheld the vision in round-eyed silence.
“I’ve had some trouble,” Smuffy explained. “Could I use your phone to call for help?”
After taking a few seconds to survey Smuffy from muddy face to missing shoe, the man spoke.
“Wait right here.”
Soon the door re-opened and the man shoved a cordless phone into Smuffy’s hand before retreating again, indicating that he was both a man of compassion and intelligence.
One would assume that, at this juncture, Smuffy called me. He didn’t. He called Steve. Perhaps he weighed his options and rather than adding a round of hysterics to an already trying day, he’d be better off making immediate contact with his rescuer.
When Steve called around eleven-thirty to tell me that Smuffy was alive, relief flooded over me, along with the astonishment that he was still miles away, near Keytesville. Steve assured me that he’d leave immediately and have him home in a few more hours.
The fact that I hadn’t called the sheriff remains a mystery. I can only say that I’d spent the hours since Steve had first called to say he’d lost contact with Smuffy in a numb fog. Steve’s wife, Darlene, had called from time to time for an update, to console me and to marvel at why anyone in their right mind would do the things Smuffy does. I kept up a brave face for my daughter in between sudden fits of sheer panic. These alternated with a strange sense of peace that kept whispering in my spirit, Give him time…Give him time…
I look back now and consider that I must have slipped into some form of shock. Not calling the sheriff had to be just about the dumbest thing I ever did.
Once Smuffy had given Steve directions to the bridge and given the phone back to the poor frightened souls inside the farmhouse, he headed back down the road to his canoe. That’s when the thunderstorm hit.
The thunder, lightning and rain had reached fever pitch as Smuffy returned to his canoe. He pulled it under the bridge, but opted against sitting in the metal canoe just in case God felt that the day’s events hadn’t proven sufficient at getting His message across.
I can’t recall much about the scene that unfolded when Smuffy rolled in at two-thirty the next morning. It went past in a blur of tears, exhaustion, gratitude and “never agains”. I do remember the poison ivy that followed. All Smuffy’s attempts to send distress signals, wrestle the canoe down the bank and climb out of the river to reach a phone had sent him crawling through endless patches of the stuff, multiplying the dandy rash he’d gotten after the day of the boat wreck. He spent the next couple of weeks slathered in calamine, mummified in gauze and oozing like a jelly-filled doughnut.
Poor Darlene – the wreck and its aftermath taxed her to her limits and she hasn’t been in a boat with Smuffy since. All she and Steve ever got out of the whole deal were two lovely hand-crafted Christmas tree ornaments that year made from fragments of the boat’s windshield that remind them, “I Survived the Wreck of ‘97”.
For once in his life, Smuffy had had his fill of water for a while. Thankfully, he had a boat to repair and a motor to dry out, so it would be a while before he could embark on his favorite pastime. Meanwhile he returned to one of his other passions and dragged out his model airplanes. I felt a sense of relief at seeing him engaged in something a little tamer.
I must have forgotten that when it comes to Smuffy, even a game of pick-up sticks can turn ugly.
Smuffy made it back from flying his planes in one piece, but each time he returned, I made a point to count his fingers and toes, remembering a few years back to a peaceful Saturday that took an abrupt turn when Smuffy returned early.
Entering through the basement, he dashed up the steps and into the bathroom. I didn’t give it much thought other than to assume that he’d found himself in sudden need of a little privacy. Soon, however, he called out a strange instruction.
“Bring me a roll of paper towels!”
“Paper towels?” I asked, reaching for the roll.
“Paper towels! And hurry!”
“Here they are,” I answered as I approached the closed door.
It opened a few inches and the towels disappeared inside before the door clicked shut again.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing. Get me a roll of black electrical tape.”
“Black electrical… What are you doing?”
“Just get it!”
I ran to the basement for the tape, resolving that I would have to assert my personality to keep some unpleasant form of male nonsense from getting out of control. I brought the tape back to the door and, like the towels, it whizzed out of my fingers and the door shut again.
I didn’t have to be Perry Mason to conclude that the witness displayed evasiveness. I demanded to be told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Smuffy finally admitted to having hurt his hand.
“How? And how bad?” I asked, placing my ear to the door.
“I stuck it in the airplane propeller.”
“What? Let me see.”
Love is the only explanation for my utterance of those awful words. Seeing was the last thing I wanted. I cringe when someone picks at the sticky tab of their band-aid. I don’t look at bloody wounds unless one of my loved ones needs me and no one else is there to take over the situation. Then, some inexplicable strength, along with rapid heart rate and a certain degree of clamminess, comes over me.
After more resistance on Smuffy’s part and more insistence on mine, he let me in. I took a deep breath and held it as he pulled away the massive wad of paper towels.
My knees buckled. I turned my head away. This was beyond anything I could handle. I stepped back into the hall.
“You need to go to the emergency room.”
“It’ll be all right. I just need to get it to stop bleeding and get it bandaged up.”
“It’s not going to stop bleeding. You need stitches – a lot of stitches.”
“I don’t need the hospital!”
The conversation continued along these lines until I walked away, muttering a prayer that I might say something that would get through to Smuffy. I returned to the bloody scene. I’d seen those fingers and they’d been filleted from the bones.
“What are you going to do if you do this yourself and it doesn’t heal up right and you can’t use your hand and then you can’t work?”
Smuffy stood silent. So did I, determined to let my words soak in. After a few moments of pondering and perhaps weakened by additional blood loss, Smuffy caved.
“Let’s go to the emergency room.”
Another difference of opinion sprang up when we got to the car and, yes, Smuffy drove.
They wouldn’t let me in the room when they started working on Smuffy. He, of course, displayed a keen interest in the whole procedure. He took note that the doctor discarded certain bits and kept others. He admitted to getting bored in his efforts to count stitches and giving up once the number passed fifty.
I sat in the waiting room, wondering if he might be better off in the river – until I remembered that boats had propellers, too.
We took poor Smuffy home and did our best to nurse him back to health. Again, he made it difficult for us to cozy up to him and dole out the sympathy. He’d been flying his planes in another area riddled with – uh-huh – poison ivy!
He made pathetic sight, our little invalid, propped in his chair – stitched, wrapped and trying not to scratch with the only hand he had available. Since these situations offer the opportunity to either laugh or cry – we laughed. We laughed a lot!
That’s my Smuffy. Thankfully, he has full use of his hand and no scarring. He’s gone on to more adventures and you’ll find them here at Midwest Storyteller.
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That reminds me – I don’t think I ever told you about the Big Boat Wreck of ’78. Yep – don’t let that sweet, innocent face fool you – good ‘ol Steve was around for that one, too!.
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