Friday, December 25, 2009

Crossing the Delaware

Conjure up the image of Washington Crossing the Delaware. There he is, standing in the bow of the longboat, a flag furled around the troops behind him that fateful Christmas night, 233 years ago, 1776.

Quick, in which direction was he sailing? East or west?

If you said west, you’d be...wrong, done in, as I am, by the illusory compass in our minds that identifies a left-faced portrait as facing west. The reality is that Washington’s assault squad crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. They went east, young man, east.

The Delaware enjoys favored status among some of my close friends, for it is on that river we celebrated the end of each school year for our then teenage children with a canoe trip beginning in Milford, Pa.

Not being a swimmer, I was naturally reluctant to engage in this annual paddle of passage, even with the relative safety of wearing a life preserver jacket and knowing that when my son Dan was in the canoe I had brought along a Red Cross certified lifeguard (Ellie was a good swimmer as well, but not a lifeguard). I wasn’t overly fearful of the Delaware. The river was pretty tame, with few big rapids.

The challenge to keep in mind, and fear, was the combat mentality of the other boaters. Admiral Farragut’s admonition, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” into the sides of the other canoes, seemed to be the mantra of the day. Water cannon and assorted water toys were good for wetting an opponent, but a complete dousing could not be accomplished without a dunk in the drink.

Fortunately I am here to relate the mercy of my friends. They graciously avoided dumping our canoe and its precious cargo.

We haven’t canoed down the Delaware in about 10 years, but there are plans to do so again in late spring in honor of the high school graduation of the last of the group’s children.

Canoeing with my friends wasn’t the only time I risked my life on the water. Twice before, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was forced, make that shamed, into canoeing by the richest man in the world, Sam Walton. Each time it happened during Wal-Mart’s annual meeting weekend in early June when journalists and stock analysts would travel to Bentonville in the northwest corner of Arkansas.

The first time, following the company’s weekly Saturday morning meeting, the guests had their choice of leisure activity, including tennis, golf or canoe trip. I was all set for tennis when Sam casually asked if I was going canoeing.

No, I prefer not to risk my life as I don’t swim, I told him.

Nonsense, he replied. You’re going canoeing! Just wear a life jacket.

There was no denying him. Along with about 40 other New York-types and an equal number of Wal-Mart regulars (that means, outdoors-types), I boarded one of two yellow school buses for an hour’s ride up into southwest Missouri. We paddled down a river for about three hours to a camp where Sam’s daughter, Alice, was cooking Mulligan Stew for dinner.

The next year Sam didn’t have to ask. I knew in advance I’d be canoeing so I brought along to Bentonville one of my staff editors who was a good canoer. But I still wore that life jacket.