“That trip changed my life, Dad.”
The speaker was none other than my son Benjamin, born on this very day 38 years ago. There’s that “calendar date to ground me in what’s important” thing again.
Ben was speaking of a trip that he and I had taken several years earlier, when he was an eighth grade student, one that changed the trajectory of both of our lives. A watershed moment if you will, in a lifetime of them.
In May, 1995, Benjamin, age 13 at the time, and I set out to float the entire navigable course of America’s first National River, the beautiful and majestic Buffalo River of northwest Arkansas.
How did we get there? Ben, had been a classic bored, underachieving, 6th grade student… not a problem child, just under the radar. What could we do to redirect, to help inspire, my wife and I asked ourselves? He loves nature. Let’s give him a goal, an incentive.
Float the Buffalo River, something he had talked about often, the last two weeks of middle school…if EARNED. Ben thought it was a great idea, and surprisingly enough his school approved it, to the point of agreeing to structure his last eighth grade semester curriculum around the journey. English, science, math, and reading all geared toward a two week trip into the wilds.
What was not a surprise was Ben’s performance. He became an instant A/B kind of guy and began to soar from the sixth grade into the eighth. Ben did his part.
Then it was my turn. When payday arrived, it was my anxiety that was soaring. Beyond the risk of a couple of weeks on a wild river, it was also only my second month as new CEO of a troubled bank, one that was living with regulators, first time ever in that position of responsibility.
The timing could not have been WORSE, the promise could not have been more IMPORTANT, nor the outcome more PROFOUND.
The experience was a mind-boggling exercise in personal growth for both Ben and me. We faced challenges together, solved problems together that we couldn’t have managed alone, grew closer together, and despite extended periods of silence, communicated with a frankness never contemplated in the presence of others.
For 11 days we hit V after V. We came perilously close to obstacles that lined the river’s course…and missed most of them!We tested our mettle, our judgment, our sense of humor, and our love.
And again, as Ben observed years later, “That trip changed my life, dad.” A struggling young middle school student found spiritual grounding in the wilds of nature and built it into a Masters Degree in Biology, and ultimately a career in conservation he could have scarcely envisioned at age 13.
That trip changed this disillusioned corporate banker’s life as well. Banking had always provided income… but never inspiration. The trip re-engaged me with what is important in life.
And, the story doesn’t end there. I tried to write it down in hopes of preserving moments of emotion and triumph for Ben to savor as he grew up, and for me to treasure in my aging bank of memory.
As I put words to paper and added photographs, I shared my draft with an old friend, an author himself. He not only applauded my work but assured me that it needed to be published. A father-son-river story that should be shared. To help, he referred me to an editor he had utilized for cleaning up his published work. I proudly shipped my work off and several weeks later, hands trembling in anticipation, opened my editor’s evaluation.
“Dear Todd,” – this would be the kindest thing dear editor would say in the ensuing four pages.
Comments like “I did not find the work compelling,” “major factual errors,” “how much do you want to give away of your own ineptness,” “my fear is that some city slicker is going to come up from Dallas, read your book, imitate your technique, and seriously injure himself,” “don’t mistake these heavy criticisms for an outright condemnation of the book,” and “trust me when I say I’m on your side,” littered the landscape of his critique.
What did I do? I crammed my manuscript into the deepest darkest drawer I could find in the back of my closet hoping to never see it again. Several weeks later I ran into my friend who wanted to know how my book was coming? When I shared my tale of woe, he laughed out loud and added “don’t pay any attention to that idiot – he did the same thing to me and doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about!” Thanks for warning me up front dear friend, and sparring me all this shame and humiliation!
About the same time son Patrick came to me and requested a similar full Buffalo float the following spring in honor of his graduation from high school. What’s a good dad to do but step up! At least until mom found out and demanded at least half the trip with her son. That’s another story in itself!
Somehow The Buffalo, Ben and Me wandered into publication by the UofMO Press, and our float trip of a lifetime is preserved in print. All testimony to the “formative, curative, and redemptive powers of nature.”