There is a spot along the Teton river not far from my home where I like to stop and contemplate the water. I go on my motorcycle in the evening. Lately, I have been eyeing the water for fishing, checking on its readiness, watching to see if trout are rising for the caddis and mayfly hatches that splatter my windshield and helmut. This is the stated excuse, but really I just like to watch the water for its own sake.
It would be wrong to say that the water is peaceful. This time of year, it swirls and boils with energy as it tries to drain the still snow-laden Tetons whose peaks rise to my east. The fields of hay and spring canola in full bloom might be described as peaceful, especially in the light of the setting sun. But this time of year the river is a writhing snake hiding beneath the cottonwoods and willows, dangerous and alluring all at once. Since my childhood, whenever I see waters like this, I imagine what it would be like to fall in. What would it feel like? What branch or rock could I cling to? Would my muscles seize in this frigid water that only days earlier was mountain snow?
But tonight, as I think of fish and flies and dark water, something else is on my mind. A news report that two young teen boys were playing in the shadows of the ruined Teton dam, just miles upstream from my spot. One boy, age 14, attempting to cross the river, disappeared under the water, and was not seen again. Authorities are searching for his body.
So when I watch the water this evening, the unhappy thought occurs to me that I ought to keep an eye out for a sign of the boy. “Sign of the boy” is a way of softening the haunting image that swirls in my mind, the horror of seeing a child drifting in the cold, murky water. And yet, there would be some relief to the mother and father who just yesterday received a phone call that turned their world upside down, and now wait for another phone call that will not lift the burden but will at least allow them to grieve in a more complete way.
This is the way tragedy happens. The morning starts like any other. And then by nightfall, you live in a different world, a foreign land with no map to navigate, with well wishers and sympathizers trying to reach across a gulf, but the water too deep, the gulf too wide to make contact. When the Teton dam failed 42 years ago this month and flooded the valley with eight feet of water, that is how it happened. “Just a regular June morning,” the survivors repeat with a sense of wonder. Then by evening, farms and homes and businesses filled with brackish water, some homes detaching from their foundations, floating away like rafts. And for 11 families, there were loved ones whose remains would not be recovered until the waters receded.
This evening, my children are accounted for. Two are kicking a soccer ball in the yard. One is on a date at a local play, the other, I believe, is watching TV. For my family, this is a normal evening like any other. I think of the unknown family who grieves tonight and feel for them. I cannot feel a fraction of their pain, but my thoughts are unsettled like the water that churns beneath the willows. I know that tomorrow, for me, will start with a normal morning, just like any other.