Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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Everybody Has a Story: Right place, right time for river rescue

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In the 1940s, my brothers and I used to duck hunt on a sandbar on the Columbia River. At the time, the sandbar was attached to a dike on the Oregon side of the river. The sandbar stretched out into the river about 100 yards toward Government Island.

You could stand on the edge of the sand and almost throw rocks to Government Island in the middle of the sandbar. Small willow trees grew 10 to 15 feet tall, a perfect size to make a duck blind next to the river’s edge. On the south side of the dike road was Portland Airport and just east of the airport were large farm fields.

Then in 1948, the big flood covered Vanport, the airport and many miles of farmland. It also took our sandbar and willow trees. The only place where we could hunt now was the sandbar on Government Island, but it would take a boat to get there.

I traded my deer rifle for an old 16-foot wooden boat with a motor. Before hunting season, my brothers and I took my boat down to three large pilings and chained it with a lock to one of them.

In October 1949, my brother Richard asked if he could use the boat the next Saturday to take his friends duck hunting. That was fine with me, I was busy Saturday anyway. They were three years older than me. I was 17.

The morning they went hunting, the weather was clear and cold, with a slight east wind blowing. I got home and told my other brother, Al, who was visiting, about Richard and his friends hunting ducks. He wanted to go see how they did.

When we got down to the river, the wind had picked up and the water formed whitecaps. I could see through the trees across to Government Island where Richard, Jack, Ed and Dick were wearing hip boots and picking up decoys.

We watched all the ducks feeding in the fields. Then I turned to check on Richard and his friends but couldn’t see them because of the trees.

Then I yelled at Al, “They are in the water!”

The boat had sunk. Never in my life had I run so fast as when I ran down to the bank where another boat was tied up with a big chain that could pull your car. I did not have a hacksaw or hammer. All I had was my bare hands. I yanked and pulled on the piling end of the chain with all my strength. Then I went to the boat and pulled on that end of the chain. Nothing happened — but then the chain was lying on the ground.

I did not stop to find out why it broke. It did not break while I was pulling on it.

The oars were chained and locked to the floorboards of the boat. With my bare hands, I ripped the floorboard out and got the oars free. I don’t know how long all this took, but as I was pushing the boat into the water, Al came running down the bank yelling, “Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

Richard and his friends had drifted down the river about 100 yards. As I rowed to them, I could see they were trying to get a grip on the bottom of the boat, but their hands were slipping and their hips boots were full of water, pulling them down. Richard was hanging onto a bag of decoys about 10 feet away.

I was able to get them out of the water. The wind was blowing hard and the waves were high. It was hard to row upstream against the current. No one spoke a word.

When we got back to shore, Richard and his friends were freezing cold. All they wanted to do was get warmed up and into dry clothes. I am sure we all knew how lucky we were that they were all alive.

I do not know why Richard and I never talked about that day on the river. We all went different ways. As we grew older, I would see Jack, a mechanic I’d take my car to when needed. The sinking of the boat never came up.

I was not a hero. I was a person at the right place at the right time.

Sixty-four years later, my wife and I were spending our winter in Yuma, Ariz., and one day I got a phone call. It was Jack. He was spending his winters nearby and wanted to come see us.

The next day, Jack came to our house and we talked about what took place on the river that day and why the boat sank. He said a large wave came over the bow of the boat and it went down like a submarine. It all happened very quick. Their boots filled up fast with water and Jack’s hands kept slipping off the bottom of the boat. He knew he was going to go down.

I told Jack how Al was visiting and we decided to drive down and see if the guys got any ducks. I told him how I saw the boat in the water, how I pulled and yanked on the chain, how the chain broke by itself, how I broke the oars off the floorboards of the boat.

Were these things all coincidence? I don’t think so. I believe I had help.


Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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