Eighteenth

Whitewater raft guides tend to be a pretty tight bunch. It’s a difficult job, can be a dangerous one, and it’s easy to develop a sense of your own superiority when you spend your days coaching, leading, and protecting groups of largely clueless people. The guides develop a type of internal respect and camaraderie similar to what I experienced in the infantry, and later when I was an ironworker climbing steel.

I’d done my guide training at one rafting company, but they found themselves with more employees than they had work, so I got an offer and jumped ship (pardon the expression) for a larger company. Basically I went from one organization where everybody knew everybody, to a different organization where everybody knew everybody except me. I’d been at it a few weeks, mostly just keeping my head down and doing the job. I understood the dynamic, and knew I had to prove myself to the group before they’d get comfortable with me.

That day on the river had been a good one. Nice weather, great water, decent customers in the boat. One of the senior guides had gotten in a little trouble in a nasty rapid, and I’d had my boat in the perfect position downstream to fish some of his customers out of the water, saving them from what would have been a bad swim. That’s the kind of thing that gets noticed among guides, and more than one of them said “Good work out there” on the bus ride back from the take-out.

The senior guide ended up getting a nice tip out of that crew, which never would have happened if they would have gone dark and deep and “saw Elvis”, so that evening when we finished cleaning up and stacking the boats, the group decided he owed some of that tip to me – payable of course, in beer at the dining hall.

I was sore and tired that night, and my throat was raw from a day spent yelling over the thunder of whitewater, but I felt great. Walking in a group with professional guides who had accepted me as one of their own. You laugh at each other’s jokes, listen to each other’s stories, swagger like fighter pilots. We could smell steaks on the grill and potatoes roasting, and I could already taste that free beer.

We were probably 100 yards from the dining hall when the girl came through the door and headed towards us. It was almost dark, but I remember it like a high-definition movie shot at high noon and played in slow motion. Blue jeans, white shirt over a pink tank top, brilliant red hair over brilliant blue eyes, but mostly what I remember is her smile.

Of course, we were a group of young men, river bucks in a good mood, so there were a few low wolf whistles and the comments started almost immediately.
“Oh, man – would you look at that…”
“Holy shit. How would you like to…”
“Are you kidding me? Man I’d do…”
“Check out that…” and “Check out those…”

I let it go for a little bit, but finally I laughed and said “OK, OK – take it easy, guys. That’s my fiancé you’re talking about.”
“Your what?
“Oh yeah, right.”
“Keep dreaming.”
“Hey, the new guy is completely full of shit.”
“You mean you wish that was your fiancé, right?”

They kept laughing and teasing me, straight up until the moment when Vicki walked right through the group, wrapped her arms around me and said “How was your day, honey?” I said, “Oh, just another day at the office”, and returned her kiss. The entire group of guides had stopped dead, and stood in a stunned circle around us, slack-jawed and speechless. “Gentlemen” I said, “this is my fiancé Vicki. Darlin’, these are the guys I ran the river with today, and that one owes me a beer.”

I’ve had some good moments in my life. Our wedding, the birth of my son, typical stuff, I guess – but when I look back at that single moment, and the evening that followed, it always seems to float to the top. People are always surprised that someone as beautiful as Vicki would be with somebody like me. I’ve gotten accustomed to it now, but back then it was still a new thing, and I enjoyed the hell out of it every single time.

Happy anniversary, darlin’. July the 18th will make 18 great years as husband and wife. A pretty good start, don’t you think?

Ken

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