Before I continue on with the Turnkey blogs I thought that this experience needed to be revealed. It will set the scene for events that happened in my new job and funnily enough it occurred in 1978 while I was still working at the first jail. The death in the title was mine in the upper reaches of the Brisbane river. A little background is needed, I used to be a hunter using both rifle and the longbow, my hunting days are long gone as I would rather take photos now. Canoeing happened to be a pastime I began in the army and enjoyed on occasion. At that time the movie Deliverance had been released and some members of the bow-hunting club thought a four man trip by Canadian canoe would be a great adventure. Camaraderie, camping, canoeing, hunting for feral pigs, what more could you want? I can assure you we didn’t get perverted Hillbilly’s looking for city boys with purty mouths or banjo players.
The plan went like this: all our camping gear, food, clothing and necessities would be packed in bin liner bags and placed in lock top plastic bins. These were then stored amidships and lashed in, archery gear stacked and packed alongside you. On the Saturday morning the four of us were dropped off at a place called Twin Bridges near Fernvale, myself, Ted, Darryl and I forget the last bloke, we’ll call him Bruce. We would paddle to Mt Crosby Weir, not a long way as the crow flies though the bends in the river made up some distance. Then camp halfway along the route that night and continue on the next morning. Off course we would keep an eagle eye out for game. The river was having none of that, there had been a drop in water levels and the promised ride of our lives through several sets of rapids turned into portages. Carrying fully laden fibreglass canoes through rocky riverbeds and uneven ground is not a jolly pastime at all. However it is part of the adventure, when we hit the wider sections of water well, it all felt worth it.
We had stopped for lunch on the bank, there is nothing like billy tea on an open fire and sandwiches after a long haul. Relaxation over we paddled on, Darryl and Bruce took the lead, Ted and I followed along behind. I can still feel the sun beaming down on my bare knees, the strain of unfamiliar movements on arm and shoulder muscles. Where the river widened we would keep a little closer to shore and look for sign, nothing. The river itself transfixed me, pollen dancing on the warm air, insects flying around, landing on the surface and dancing along the slow current. The whitened skeletons of dead Eucalyptus trees lay under water, their limbs reaching up to the surface ready to grasp the unwary. We saw a Platypus for a brief moment as he surfaced, his black duckbill sticking out of the water, a splash then a glimpse of his flat tail. Wonderful to see. The water birds, mainly shags perching on dead tree limbs hanging out over the water, holding their wings out to dry. Then the sudden dive into the water, surfacing with a silvery Perch in their long beaks. Light seems different when it glides across water, its myriad reflections dazzle you as your paddle bites deep. The sense of being so close to nature, watching it from a different perspective that of one of its denizens and being a part of the river was – magical.
I have inserted this link to Google maps, http://goo.gl/maps/5u7wl it will take you to the section of the river where the accident happened. You will see that the river narrows abruptly, there is what appears to be a tiny island and you can see the fast water running through the narrows. At the start of the fast water is the faint outline of a huge tree stump. Its base stuck out of the water with gnarled dead roots sticking in all directions. The river blasted on each side of it, as you can see an awful lot of water wanted to get through that narrow gap. Darryl and Bruce made their run and took the left side of the stump, we back paddled and let them go to see how they fared. They bounced a little and shot out past the stump and down the rapids, great stuff. Now I’ve had a hearing problem in my left ear since Vietnam and the sound of water rushing nearby caused some confusion with the directions from Ted, apparently he said, ‘Row to the right.’ Which would have taken us down the same course the others had gone. I heard, ‘Go right,’ which meant paddling from the left. Of course both our paddles were in the same side and we spun sideways.
I can still see the base of the stump heading towards us and hear Ted yelling something about my intelligence, ancestry and whether or not my parents were married. Then – nothing. Darkness, a sensation of being then I could see the river again. Only I was now viewing it from a different perspective, hovering above the stump I could see Darryl and Bruce trying to turn their canoe around against the current. Looking down from what I estimated to be about 20 feet I watched as Ted scrambled amongst the flotsam looking for something. Then I heard, ‘Where’s the repair kit for the canoe?’ I could also see the canoe lying on the gravel bank, on its side with a gaping hole in it. I couldn’t see my hands or for that matter, me. I felt light and free and the clarity of my surroundings seemed incredible. I floated down and became level with Ted standing in the river hands on hips, yelling out, ‘Where’s that bloody Laurie?’ Coming up close to his right ear I yelled, ‘I’m here, behind you.” He shook his head as if a gnat had flown into his ear. I yelled again and he turned around, looking back up the river. Darkness and then I found myself sitting on the embankment above the stump.(on the map it’s right of the narrowed part as you look at it) At that time there were no trees there, only tall grass, it would have been about 15 feet above the water. I felt like I knew everything and at the same time nothing, the world stretched out beyond me. The air had become crystal clear and felt electric. I sat waving at Bruce, they’d managed to get back and he stood pointing at me, ‘Laurie’s up there Ted, the bastard’s bludging on us up on the embankment.’ They all stared for a moment and then went back to picking equipment and bows out of the water.
A man appeared and I recognised him from old photographs, it was my grandfather Sam Smith. He had died in 1945 so I’d never met him. He stood in mid air, that’s odd I thought and then a small dog appeared it ran around and yapped. Sam came closer and held out his hand I took it and it felt warm, alive, solid. No words were spoken yet I heard him, ‘Come on Laurence, it’s time to go lad,’ even in that state I could be a bit thick, ‘Where?’ He smiled and gripped my hand, “Where else lad, home.’ His dog, a whippet called Lady still yipped, barked and carried on, ‘What about all this?’ ‘It’ll be fine, come on.’ I went, I could feel myself again yet I walked across the air above the river. The sky turned a strange colour and Sam disappeared. The light had changed, it became thicker, darker, then began to swirl in a myriad of colours. It vanished and I was looking at me underwater wedged beneath the stump. My face looked pale and waxen. My shoulder length hair, jet black at the time swirled back and forth across my face. Little eddies of water were pushing tiny shells and bits of gravel against my open mouth. A hand appeared, spearing though the water and grabbed my hair.
Whump! My body hit the butt end of the stump on the part above water chest first. Pain, then a burning, stinging feeling as water shot out of my mouth and nose in a jet of snot and weed. Heavy, I’d never felt so heavy in my life. I think I cried though it was hard to tell if it were tears or river water coming out of my eyes. Ted had found me, apparently over five minutes had elapsed and they began to worry. Bruce’s comment about me sitting on the embankment must have had them thinking. It came down to a process of elimination, I hadn’t floated past them therefore I must by default be beyond the stump. I couldn’t be seen from above the water, Ted stuck his arm underneath the stump and could feel my hair, taking a handful he dragged me out one handed and dropped me over the stump. The impact on my chest acted like a huge compression on my heart and lungs. Now this is where it gets serious, nobody wanted to get help. Instead they decided to strip me off, wrap me in blankets and make camp for the evening. Have a look at the map, even then there were several residences within a mile from the river. When someone says they feel like death warmed up, well I know what it’s like. I really couldn’t give a shit lying there, the fire felt okay though. Me? Oh didn’t it hurt, I asked them how long it took before they realised I wasn’t there. The general consensus was over five minutes, I figured that the period between impact, I must have been knocked unconscious on one of the roots and floating would have been a couple of minutes, though I can’t be certain. Bruce maintained he saw me though, waving at them. I felt too sorry for myself to point out the obvious, like how the bloody hell did I go from the embankment to under the stump. He had a few issues on that. Never mind, he can say he sees dead people.
Was I dead? I think so. Some will say that the swirling light was my brain starving of oxygen and that the colours showed it to be shutting down. So how do they explain my overall view of the scene, repeating their conversations, actually being able to tell them who picked what out of the river when I was underneath it? I honestly believe that I journeyed to the other side of life, another minute and I would have been beyond saving. The following morning we moved on, I felt so ill that even if bands of scantily clad hillbilly girls descended on us I would have ignored them. We didn’t know then that you could drown hours after you had been removed from the water, because of water in your system. The headaches were brutal and my disposition was downright testy. I recovered without benefit of medical intervention and went on with life. The question most people ask is, ‘Did you see God, Jesus or angels?’ No, though someone who obviously cared turned up to help me move on to somewhere else. Did it change my life at the time? Yes, in fact for a while it became worse. So what is the point of this story? To let you know that passing over is very easy to do, that life can change in an instant and the transition isn’t painful. Also there is always someone there for you, how do I know? Because of the next event in a future blog.
Dying and death is a subject I find quite easy to write about in my novels, for something every living thing does it amazes me how much of a taboo subject it seems to be. I know the majority of us aren’t rushing to do it anytime soon, so I’ll note down my close scrapes: born dead, resuscitated over a half hour period. By the time I turned 17 I’d been electrocuted to unconsciousness twice, struck by lightning once, had an angry man try to strangle and stab me, bitten by a brown snake. Between 17 and now, two lightning strikes where it came through an object I was holding and once sitting on a tractor. I’m not even going to count being shot at, coming off horses and motorbikes. One thing that I still get angry at is being called a malingerer in the army. I had been sent with four other troopers to an officer’s training unit to play enemy soldiers. On the second day I fell ill, Hong Kong flu had hit Australia and I thought I had it. No ladies it wasn’t ‘man flu.’ The quack said no you’re malingering, my corporal took me back to the barracks and I spent four days lying on a mattress on the floor, semi conscious. He cleaned and watered me for all that time, I couldn’t eat, lost 30lb in weight and they had to carry me out to the truck when we returned to base. In those days the doctors were never questioned. Up until the drowning I didn’t think you could get that ill and not be dead. So there we have it, make your own judgement on the events on the river. We will return to normal programming next week.