This is RPG-ology #14: Shock, for January 2019.
About a year ago a discussion in the Christian Gamers Guild group reminded me of a couple articles I’d published in the Game Ideas Unlimited series that were lost but worth reviving. This is a recreation of the first of those.
I’m pretty sure it was 1973. I was a Boy Scout and a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster in my last year as a scout before continuing as an adult leader. My father was troop committee chairman and often active in our outings, and Mr. Winkler was the Scoutmaster at the time. Rick Trover and Bob Hamer, who are both part of this story, were a year or two younger than I, and respectively Junior Assistant Scoutmaster and Senior Patrol Leader. It was the troop’s first excursion down the Delaware River, although quite a few of us had logged several hundred miles of canoeing through the Adirondacks. We knew that the river had flooded, and that the day before we arrived on the banks at Skinner’s Falls to begin our trek Cochecton, New York, a short distance upstream, had been under four feet of water. We did not know that there was a whirlpool under the Narrowsburg Bridge one day south of us. However, never having seen this part of the river before, we were unaware just how far above flood stage it was. Still, we sat in camp on the bank for two days waiting for the water to drop before someone decided that if we were actually going to canoe this river in the week we’d planned, maybe we should get moving downstream.
Ricky and Bob took a canoe and headed up above the falls. I’m not sure whether someone had authorized this. I first became aware of it when people were shouting and I joined the race to the shore to watch them coming down fast from the waters above the falls into the worst possible spot.
Let me describe what we saw; the photo tells nothing of value. We had camped at the downstream end of the falls, which are a navigable rapids if you know what you’re doing, one of the fewer than half dozen to receive the highest ranking on the river (Foul Rift and the wing dams at Lumbersville and Lambertsville being the others most mentioned). As we were looking at it, the water on the near eastern side was shallow and rough, there was a huge boulder in the center, and a channel through on the far side. The boulder created a huge splash.
As Ricky and Bob descended upon the rapids, they were headed straight for that boulder. I was not the only one thinking, maybe yelling, that they had to get over to the other side, but they crashed right into it and swamped the canoe. They then broke one of the cardinal rules, abandoning the canoe on the rock and heading for the eastern shore. They made it, but the canoe dislodged and washed away. (Mercifully, another group who lost a canoe under the Narrowsburg Bridge found ours, and made a few phone calls to get it returned.)
They were suitably chastized, and we sat in camp for perhaps another hour before Mr. Winkler came to my father and me and asked if we wanted to give the rapids a shot, to see whether it was merely that Rick and Bob were careless, foolish, and unlucky, or whether the troop should forget shooting the falls and simply start below them. We each had at least five hundred miles of canoeing under our belts, and plenty of whitewater experience, so we agreed, took a canoe, and started the difficult trek of portaging it up through the heavy growth along the bank. When we were maybe fifty yards above the falls I suggested we put in, and my father insisted that we go farther, pushing us to a couple football fields upstream before we dared launch.
It was a good thing he did. As soon as we were clear from the shore the current took us, and we were paddling frantically trying to get to the west side of the rock. We made it—barely—and fell into the channel through the falls.
At this point I found myself staring at what I took to be four foot swells. I had never in my experience seen water like that. I froze and stared. I mentioned elsewhere that I only once heard my father swear; this was that once, as he yelled at me to paddle. I did, although several strokes found only air. He steered us through, and we came out the downstream end frazzled but unharmed, wet but not swamped.
Mr. Winkler asked if we wanted to go again. We declined, and suggested that no, the boys should not risk that one.
We were back the following year, and discovered that that huge rock in the center of the river was actually the eastern shore, the half a river east of it a rocky beach; the piece of ground on which we pulled up our canoe and from which the troop launched later that day was actually the top of a twelve-foot cliff above a beach. It was an experience I would never repeat, never quite equal, and never forget. Pieces of it are still vivid images in my mind decades later.
I tell this story because it is the one time in my life when I actually experienced the kind of shock that freezes you, that prevents you from moving at all for a moment. Elsewhere on this site, Charles Franklin has written Keeping Their Heads Down, providing statistical information and game mechanics for simulating this kind of response in combat. The problem he encounters is that many players simply don’t believe their characters would freeze like that. I believe it. I was about as experienced at white water canoeing as an eighteen-year-old amateur canoeist could be, and I froze in the face of those walls of water, and only the faint sound of my father’s shouting over the deafening white noise of the river shook me out of it. It is a reality; it is quite reasonable to include it in a game.
I tell this story in connection with another, which I will endeavor to tell next month.