“Naked, except for my water sandal stuck on my hand. Both my hips were dislocated. Yeah, I was like . . . like pretty beat up, I guess. Had some bad cuts all over the place especially this huge gash on the back of my head plus all these massive bruises. Yuh, they said I was near dead.”
The young man’s voice over the phone was as lifeless as his body must have been when Idaho Search and Rescue had found him, “washed up,” as he told us, “pretty close to five miles downstream.”
“Five miles?” Randall asked into the receiver. I scooted closer, still taking notes on my laptop. All this was going into our growing file: “What Happened At Monkey Rock?”
“Yeah,” the guy sighed then stalled. Then he caught his breath. “Yeah, five whole miles, if you can believe it. The rescuers told me if I hadn’t floated face up and flat on my back, well, you know. . . I would’ve never made it.” He stopped again. Randall pinched his brow between his index finger and thumb while I held my hands ready over my keyboard, waiting to taken down the rest.
“Yeah. I know,” the voice said, “I should’ve died. I’m. . .uh. . .I’m real sorry about your son.”
How did Randall and I, who now lived in Munich, Germany, end up in this conversation with a kid from a place called St. Anthony, Idaho, someone we’d never met, but who was going to prove to be vital in understanding the accident that took Parker’s life?
To answer that question, I need to veer a little bit into my religious beliefs. But I only do so hoping you won’t, 1) be offended, 2) feel preached to, 3) mistake me for a manic ascetic, or, 4) think I’m running for the papacy.
The way we made this important connection has something to do with fasting. As our immediate response to the news of Parker’s accident, Randall and I and our entire family and many of our close friends fasted. In fact, when I’d gotten The Call close to 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19th, my immediate instinct was to shut down all eating and drinking. Randall’s inclination was identical. Claire’s, too. And my parents. And my siblings. And my closest sister-friends, who either rushed to my side or kept closely connected in other ways.
One of the first things Randall did while he agonized, waiting for his flight from Munich to Idaho, was to call Serge, our dear friend and the regional leader of our church in Paris, and ask him to invite the hundreds of members there to join in a communal fast for Parker, a boy many knew well. Then Randall called Lutz, the regional leader of what was going to be our church in Munich. Lutz sent out the request, asking those church members to do the same for a family and a boy they did not yet know. Only later did I learn that others around the world, some of my faith and many not, having heard of Parker’s accident, began their own private fasts and prayer vigil. I can’t tell you how many people were joined with us in this intense spiritual focus over two days, but it was many.
The habit of fasting for strength and clarity stuck with us throughout the months that followed Parker’s death. Again, this desire to fast was instinctive, not the adherence to a rote tradition dressed in sackcloth and ashes. And while it’s true that to some extent I could not eat, there’s no food known to man that was going to give me the kind of spiritual strength I needed to pull my family through the tar-filled abyss I felt trapped us neck-deep.
So once a week, from Saturday to Sunday evening, Randall and I fasted. Fasting meant clearing out, airing out, making room for more spirit, growing more focused, making ourselves receptive for whatever whisperings (or turbo blasts) God might send our way.
Then on August 19th, the first month marker of the accident, in an email exchange with our lifelong friends Robb and Jacque, another pattern began.
“It’s for solidarity,” Robb wrote. “Can we just fast with you guys on this day? Because really, what else could we do for you from all the way over here in Massachusetts?”
Some sixty-seven months later, they’re still at it, these two, joining us in fasting on the 19th of each month.
More background: we’d left the States (and the funeral and the cemetery and the accident site) for Munich without a complete picture of what had happened the night of July 19th. The local news had gotten it wrong. The local police and university authorities were unsure. There were rumors and variations of rumors mixed with speculation and hearsay spreading quickly in small town Idaho, and when word of this got back to us, we hurt and were deeply sad.
So Randall and I wanted to get to the bottom of things. We pursued every lead, every name, every telephone number for weeks on end. What we did know was that this place called Monkey Rock was a favorite gathering place for locals, was private property, but had never been marked as such. Significantly, the local canal authorities had also told us that they were unaware of “any other accident in this canal like your son’s, Mrs. Bradford.”
Which was confusing. The first local television coverage featured an interview with the area’s sheriff, who’d said, pointing to the canal, that everyone in those parts called this place “The Meat Grinder.” Names like that aren’t given without footnotes, so we set out finding out what those footnotes were. How to do that? From the other side of the world? Having never lived in Idaho? Having never visited there except for the events surrounding our son’s accident? Knowing only the smallest handful of people anywhere in that area? With everyone involved now dispersed, gone their separate ways?
As we gathered information (taking testimonies over the phone from people who lived in the area, paramedics, students who’d been at the site of the accident), we saw it would be necessary to meet face-to-face with the county’s canal board. This was a panel of gentlemen who oversaw water and irrigation rights in what was southeast Idaho’s rich farmland. We wanted to explain what had happened to our son in one of their canals, the very canal they had been led to believe was harmless.
We set a date, early April, for that trip to Idaho. And we continued fasting and praying as did others on our behalf, like Robb and Jacque, who knew we were searching doggedly for more information that would help us piece together a story that would make a difference at that important April meeting.
On March 3, Randall and I received this email. (As context, at this time Robb was filling a volunteer position as the bishop or pastor of his LDS [Mormon] congregation in Massachusetts.) The mail began:
Jacque and I had a strange experience today that I wanted to tell you about. I’m still shocked and don’t know exactly what to make of it. I can’t ascribe it to mere coincidence.
I spoke in our meetings today about finding joy in fasting, and about the happiness that comes from following this gospel law. I spoke about how our own family has been strengthened through our fasting on your behalf, and how focused fasting and prayers from around the world have hopefully fortified your family with the Spirit and with the pure love of friends and family. I didn’t go into details of the accident, since Jacque spoke about Parker last week in her address, and I did myself in August in reference to the merciful doctrine of the resurrection.
[Of note: Jacque told me later that, although as the bishop’s family they were used to inviting people over nearly every Sunday for dinner at their home, on this given day Jacque was flat out not up to it. She has a demanding career as a corporate consultant with a Fortune 500 company, travels a great deal, they have four children, it had been one of those weeks. Her plan? To hunker down with her family curled up in jammies around nothing more than big, cheap bowls of cold cereal. And sleep.]
During the church meeting, Jacque noticed a missionary; the dark suit, white shirt, tie and name tag hard to miss on his 6′ 5″, near 300 lbs. of solid muscle. (He played football for the past year and a half at college.) He is physically imposing, and brand new (today was his first day in our congregation; he’s just arrived here in Massachusetts). He looked overwhelmed and lost. Something made Jacque walk right up to him and invite him to dinner.
[And I'm guessing something made Jacque plan on something other than cereal.]
Robb went on to describe how, after dinner, over dessert, they cleared the table, kicked up their feet, leaned on their elbows, and started in on a conversation with this quiet, unsure new missionary.
“So, tell us all where you’re from,” Jacque asked, setting out the makings for an ice cream bar.
“Idaho,” came the answer. “St. Anthony, Idaho. A farming town near Rexburg.”
Robb and Jacque and their children looked quickly at each other. The fact that their dinner guest came from Idaho wasn’t so remarkable. Countless missionaries come from Idaho. But he came from St. Anthony, the address of Monkey Rock.
“St. Anthony, Idaho?” Robb said. “Well, okay. You know of a place called Monkey Rock?”
The young man, mid-scoop, went whiter than his vanilla ice cream.
“Monkey Rock?” He put down his spoon. “I almost died there.”
And the football player went on to describe the following, which Robb writes in his email:
As a junior in high school, just three years ago, he was doing what he says all the kids in that area do for fun; he went bridge jumping in the rivers and irrigations canals. His favorite place was at a confluence of an irrigation canal and a river, joined near a bridge, just above Monkey Rock. He explained that he had jumped off that bridge other times, but always when the water level was lower. He’d never had any problems there. This time, however, the water was up to within a foot of the underside of the bridge. He didn’t know it at the time, but that made the undertow much more powerful. One buddy jumped into the water, was spun around by the undertow and spat out on the other side. Then he, our missionary dinner guest, followed, and jumped into the exact same place but was dragged down into the circular current. He was held underwater, cycling around and around. He struggled for what he said felt like minutes, then with his last strength, struggled to swim out, but hit the back of his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious.
He said that going limp must have allowed his body to slip beneath the powerful eddy and into the moving current underneath. He said his unconscious body flowed with that current and over the lava rock falls that give Monkey Rock its name. His high-school friends continued to search for him in vain in the murky water cycling below the bridge. A group of college students downstream saw his shape move underwater beneath the falls, but did not come to his aid.
Before we even finished reading the email, we called Robb and Jacque in Massachusetts. How could we talk with this missionary? Robb arranged for that to happen, and this is where I bring you back to a phone conversation between Randall and the young man, the exchange that began this post.
“Doctors told me later I’d been unconscious underwater for probably 6 minutes. Being unconscious probably kept my lungs from filling with water and kept me from drowning. I really should’ve drowned.”
“And your massive but lean body weight, that probably made you slip beneath that powerful undertow into the underlying current,” Randall said, wiping his hand over his forehead and then dragging that palm down the thigh of his jeans.
“Yeah, and my friends on the shore couldn’t spot my body, so they were panicking, running up and down the rocks and scrub brush, screaming for me, then they called 911 on their cells. And 911 sent Idaho Search and Rescue. They thought they were coming for a body pick up.”
Many phone calls later – conversations we always recorded, helpful discussions with this young missionary’s parents, with the head of Idaho Search and Rescue, with a local journalist whose own son had nearly lost his life there, too, who’d pushed doing a story on canal dangers but had been told he could not – after nearly a full month of nonstop long distance investigation, we discovered detailed, verifiable, chilling footnotes that explained “The Meat Grinder.” This place, among locals at least, was notorious.
“Kids are getting caught up in there all the time,” Brett Mackert, the head of Search and Rescue told us. ”I’ve had to save a couple of them by dragging them out with my jumper cables. These canals are nothing but death traps. But they’re not marked, you know? No danger signs, no ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nothing. And I guess a foreigner like, well yeah, someone from France – what’d you say? He’d been one week there? Right, well, he wouldn’ta had a clue of the trouble in there.”
With all this information in hand, we traveled days later from Munich, Germany to St. Anthony, Idaho. There, in a small white municipal building, we met with the county’s canal board. With us were my parents, the missionary’s parents, Brett Mackert, the journalist I just mentioned, other interested locals, and a hydraulics engineer who described the dangers of this particular canal’s construction, features that created the Bernoulli effect; a fierce confluence of currents that make suction that’s capable of pinning even heavy objects in a perpetual vortex.
Unlike the missionary who dove intentionally into the whirlpool like many others we eventually learned of, Parker and his classmate had been standing in relatively calm and waist-high water downstream from the vortex which is hidden under the bridge, when an invisible undertow sucked them a few feet upstream, pinning them. It felt, the survivors said later, like the spinning barrel of a washing machine lined in rebar and chunks of raw cement.
Right here I’d love to say that this meeting of ours launched a county-wide initiative to make safe or at least mark dozens of irrigation canals. But I can’t say that. And that’s not the point of my writing. My writing is to drill my focus and yours on the light that has burned off many of the biting ironies of this tragedy. Part of that light is shared here, as Robb ends his email:
This thing seems more than a mere happenstance, yet we don’t know what to make of it. What are the chances that this young man would arrive in our church building today, that we would invite him over, and that we would discover right now when we know you need it most, this story of all his life stories? What are we to understand or gain from this connection? The only thing that seems certain is that Jacque and I feel a renewed, acute aching for you both. We feel renewed love and affection for you and your entire family. We continuously pray for you all, and pray for God’s mercies for you. We remember you and we proudly remember Parker.
I can’t guess what this means to you, reader. But for me, there is a delicate but traceable connection between the active love from these friends and the fact that some missionary from St. Anthony, Idaho lands just in time at their Massachusetts kitchen table. And there would be other events, equally remarkable and equally inexplicable, at least in purely rational terms, unless perhaps you believe as I do in a reality larger than this often cramped and occasionally dismal mortal tunnel you and I are belly crawling through. There are those happenings, our family’s been blessed with many, that perforate the obscurity, that pierce through it in shafts of air and light and understanding, making this passage a conduit, as I see it; bright and vibrating with hope and sloped, even if imperceptibly, on that long grade heavenward.