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Grand Canyon National Park marks its centennial this year, and Johnson County has an unusual connection. A Franklin native, John M. Findley, may be the only person to attempt swimming the 277-mile length of the Colorado River through the canyon.

He failed, but not for lack of trying. In his first attempt, in 1969, he made 53 miles before being persuaded to stop. His second effort, in 1972, failed after 27 miles, and a third try the following year after 17 miles.

On all three swims he was alone, by choice and also because the swims were illegal. The National Park Service forbids swimming in the rough and rapid Colorado, and Findley’s request for a special permit was rejected.

Findley wrote a short account of his initial swim for a 2007 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which gave it the impish title of “In Over His Head?” Findley began the story this way: “In 1968, I was 43 years old, bored, and in need of a new challenge. After 10 years, even exhibition skydiving just wasn’t exciting enough anymore.”

Those words could stand as their author’s philosophy of life. After an early childhood in Franklin, he grew up in Bloomington, enlisted in the Navy at 17, served as a gunner’s mate in the South Pacific during World War II, and came home to be one of Indiana’s first scuba divers, a cave explorer, and one of the first 200 skydivers in the country to earn a coveted “D” license. In short, a born risk taker, who couldn’t resist the lure of swimming through the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps most amazingly, he survived all this, married, and at last report was still living, in his early 90s, in Arizona. In 2010, AuthorPress published his autobiography, “Just Lucky.”

In the Arizona Highways piece, Findley explained his plan to swim through the canyon at 10 miles a day. “I would need a month’s worth of food. So the food, a sleeping bag, stove, fuel, and more went into four small, bright-yellow waterproof drums.” The drums, lashed together with an inner tube around each, made a sort of raft that he could tow behind him as he swam. On the night of June 1, 1969, he donned his wet suit and launched into the Colorado, giving a Tarzan yell as he passed under the Navajo Bridge 467 feet above.

The first rapids brought the raft crashing down on him, so he switched to pushing it. Raging rapids and bruising rocks were only one problem. Another was river level that fluctuated with the release of water from an upstream dam. Battered by hours of struggle, he rested on sandbars and gazed up at the stars. “I wondered how anyone could ask for anything more,” he wrote.

This went on for several days, during which his drums escaped, forcing him to swim 13 hours before finding them caught in a snag. Not long after that he met a pontoon boat full of tourists. They and their leader pulled him aboard, and the leader refused to let him go on. It would be sure death, he explained, and anyway the park would fire him as tour leader if it found he had abetted an illegal swimmer. “Captured,” Findley wrote. “My adventure had ended.”

But not for good. He planned to try again the next year, but legs broken in skydiving accidents postponed the effort until June 1, 1972. He pushed off again at night, for secrecy, carrying his supplies in two bags resembling bloated water wings. On the second day out, he again hit heavy rapids, nearly drowned, and again parted company with his supplies. After a struggle he reclaimed them, but realized he had reinjured his most recently broken leg. (It turned out to be a hairline fracture.)

Eventually he hauled the bags up on a sand bank, where he rested for three days, hoping for another tourist pontoon boat to come by. On the fourth day one did, and he shouted and waved his arms but the boat went on around a bend. He’d been noticed, however, and after a time a man appeared climbing up the ledge. “Are you John Findley?” the man asked. “Yes. How did you know?” Findley replied. “I’m John Cross,” the man answered. “My brother Jim picked you up three years ago. I never heard of anyone else crazy enough to try swimming through the canyon.”

Findley managed to get down to the river again and swim to where Cross had anchored his boat. End of Attempt 2. “As in my first attempt,” Findley wrote¸ “I was no longer a swimmer, just a very grateful hitchhiker.”

On his final attempt a year later he carried his supplies in a single drum supported by an inner tube. But at Soap Creek Rapids, the 11-mile mark, the drum broke loose and sank. He was able to go on about six miles, but then had to leave the river and try to get out of the canyon. (He had no communications gear.) He tried unsuccessfully to hike out, but had to return to the river, where once more a pontoon tourist boat appeared and rescued him.

The Arizona Highways article is short, Findley’s autobiography a longish 623 pages. He describes growing up in the early 1930s as a “dumb kid” with his two sisters in the three-room home of their grandmother, located in Lynhurst Addition at the north edge of Franklin. His mother had died when he was two, and his father was on the road selling vacuum cleaners. By the time he was 11, he had moved to Bloomington, where quarry swimming had become a favorite pastime.

The autobiography continues through a succession of youthful and not so youthful pranks and adventures that support Findley’s own happy admission that he was a boy who never quite grew up. Some of the adventures were harmless, like waving lights behind the curtains of a “haunted” house to startle passersby. Others were potentially life-threatening, like hauling a cache of deteriorating dynamite to a quarry to see how big an explosion it would make. Or with other young-adult friends launching a colorful rocket over downtown Bloomington during the Sputnik era. (Findley also describes, with a certain glee, how he burned up his wife’s newly decorated kitchen while cooking rocket fuel on her stove.)

While trapped in the canyon on his third attempt to swim the Colorado River, Findley had promised God to attend church every Sunday if rescued. But he admitted at the end of his book that he had broken that vow. “I often wonder where the lightning is,” he concluded. “I think the Lord is patiently waiting in hopes that I will do something wonderful to make up for it. And I hope I do.”

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Indiana’s former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh died a few days ago at the age of 91, and it brought back memories for my wife Karen and me.

Bayh was elected in November, 1962, and like every Hoosier of that era we can still sing the Bayh jingle:

Hey, look him over,
He’s your kind of guy.
His first name is Birch.
His last name is Bayh.

This assured that voters would at least know how to pronounce his name. But that’s not the real memory. Karen and I were engaged to be married in December, and she was taking a political science class at Indiana State University. I was working as a newspaper reporter in Vincennes. An option for her final paper was to interview the winning and losing candidates in a race, and we chose Bayh and his opponent, incumbent Homer Capehart. Both agreed to be interviewed post-election.

Capehart lost and invited us to lunch at his Daviess County farm. He was a most gracious host, especially when we discovered after a long interview that Karen’s tape recorder had misfired. As I recall, he said something like, “Let’s redo it. I don’t have anything else to do now!” His kindness was almost enough to make us turn Republican.

We interviewed Bayh at his home in Terre Haute, where he and his wife Marvella were packing for Washington. Six-year-old Evan Bayh, later senator and Indiana governor, was running around unpacking boxes as quickly as his mother packed them, until she diverted him with a hot dog.

Karen got an A on her paper. I no longer remember what the candidates had to say, although the paper and partial tapes are still around somewhere.

Nearly a half century later, Birch Bayh was at Franklin College, where I was a prof, campaigning for Barack Obama. Karen and I talked with him, and he at least pretended to remember us. Karen had brought along her original paper, and Bayh grabbed a pen, signed it, and put an A+ at the top.

He was still our kind of guy.

A friend recently told us that she and her husband no longer balance their checkbooks. “We just take what the bank tells us,” she said.

Karen and I haven’t quite reached this state of financial nirvana. Karen studied accounting in college and I have a copyeditor’s stickiness about detail. So we try to balance the books on our two major accounts, at two separate banks, faithfully each month. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. A cold laid Karen low, and she was about two weeks late this month balancing the more complicated account. However, I’d been using the bank’s on-line service to check my own arithmetic, and could tell in some fashion that we were basically on track. (There are three kinds of journalists, runs a wisecrack: those who can do math and those who can’t.)

Over the past several years, though, we’ve realized (as all users of paper checks must) that we are dinosaurs. The world is going (has gone) electronic, and checkbooks are doomed. Our banks have not returned our cancelled checks for several years, although in extremis we could still get printouts of an electronic version. On-line buying, of course, is totally electronic.

More interesting, we have become aware of how many local vendors convert the paper checks we hand them into electronic impulses of some sort. This came home to us forcefully two years ago when a national department store chain cashed one of our checks twice. We spotted the duplication on our bank statement and complained. At that point, we were blacklisted by the chain’s check-handling service, and could no longer use checks at any store employing that service. It took a lot of grief and letter-writing to clear it all up. We quit buying at that chain, and were only mildly pleased last week to learn it is going bankrupt.

Most stores don’t present a problem. Two that we use frequently run our paper checks through a scanner and then return the checks to us, stamped with a notice that they have been electronically processed. I save those checks. Our large chain grocer processes our purchases electronically, but doesn’t return the checks. A department store where we occasionally shop goes the electronic route, but apparently keys in the check number manually. A recent check was misnumbered on our monthly bank statement. This caused no problem, but we haven’t been back to that store since.

Our bank statements usually show clearly the check number and what entity is cashing it. But within the last several months, our local insurance agent has gone the electronic route. This past week I took two checks in to the firm’s secretary (call her Betty), and she let me watch as she ran the checks through a machine and typed in the check numbers manually. She asked if I wanted the paper checks back or if she should shred them. I took back the checks, which were not stamped in any way. She also give me a printed receipt for each. I said I’d be interested to see how the checks were designated on my bank statement, and Betty said she would be, too.

It took several days (including a weekend) for the checks to clear. They were then designated as “telephone initiated” with the name of the national insurer (not the local agent to whom they were written), and with a premium number but not my check number. (I know the number, of course, because I have the original checks.) When Betty gets back from vacation, I’ll tell her what happened on my end.

I asked my local banker some time back why different businesses are allowed to handle my checks in different ways. He replied, essentially, that the bank doesn’t care what in-house procedures the businesses use, so long as the bank gets a legitimate request, electronic or otherwise, for payment from my account. Most small local businesses (and some larger ones) to whom we write checks still submit the paper to the bank, which makes an electronic conversion and shreds the check. But the day is coming, probably soon, when the paper check will be as dead as the dodo.

Karen and I may be beyond checkbook balancing by then, however.

Many, many years ago, in a different town, my monthly bank statement arrived one day showing a balance of $10,200. The $200 looked right, but not the $10,000. “If errors are not reported within 10 days,” the statement said, “the amounts will be considered correct.” So I waited 10 days, went to the bank, and asked if the $10,000 was now mine to spend? The flustered cashier disappeared into a back room. She returned shortly and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Bridges. But that error has already been corrected.”

A weatherman’s comment last week that it was the coldest Indiana day since January, 1994, rang a very loud bell in the Bridges household.

On that day, I was working in Taipei while Karen and son
Colin held the fort at home. I telephoned to complain that I was freezing—it had gotten down to 55 degrees F outside my apartment. That’s above zero. When I relayed this information to my wife, there was a very frosty moment of trans-Pacific silence. Then she said, “That’s just about 90 degrees warmer than it was here last night.” The Indiana temperature had dropped to minus-36 degrees actual, with a wind chill of 85 below and a foot of snow on the ground. It was the coldest night ever recorded in Franklin, Indiana.

What I’d been blissfully ignorant of, in those days before instant text or e-mail communication, was that Karen and Colin had been fighting a desperate and not wholly successful battle for several days to keep pipes unfrozen, the washer working, and themselves alive. I did not get a lot of sympathy for my troubles in Taipei.

But I was an experienced husband and caught on pretty quickly. I phoned a friend in Franklin and arranged for her to call a local florist and have a large bouquet delivered. After 25 years, neither Karen nor I quite remember what the flowers were. That bit was overshadowed when the delivery person chewed Karen out royally for not having her driveway plowed.

Ah well, time passes and here we were again last week with temps plunging toward the 1994 record. This time I was there to help keep faucets running and send occasional loads through the washer. We got out with only one briefly frozen pipe, an intake to the toilet, which I was able to thaw out quickly with a hair dryer. No flowers this time either, though there will be when I next get out to Kroger’s.

A friend of mine, whom I’ll call Joe, is writing a children’s/young adults’ fantasy novel. This is something of a departure from his usual oeuvre, computer manuals, of which he has written more than 100. But he has brought to the task his usual thoroughness, in researching everything from ballet to medieval swordsmithing.

(I was Joe’s editor for a time, and while I could sometimes suggest stylistic improvements, I almost never caught him in a factual error. Or one in grammar. I called him once on what I considered an undisputed point, only to have him respond mildly with a list of reputable sources who favored his usage. I felt a bit like my literary uncle who discovered at age 80 that he had been misspelling ukulele all his life.)

But on to Joe’s book. The locale is imaginary, but vaguely medieval. There is a war brewing between adjacent territories. Leading one side are the forces of evil. The champions of the other side are good guys, although not without quirks and failings. They have an unusually adept and winsome dragon. But they must also deal with their own leader, an exemplar of civic corruption. Finally, there is a sort of sees-all-knows-all shapeshifter who pops in and out of the narrative. He can be identified in his various guises by an old-fashioned rose in his lapel.

Joe has a stable of beta readers, who I’m sure are giving him wise advice. I am not a beta reader, or even an omega one—just an interested on-looker. Joe did consult me recently when one of the betas objected to the arch-villain’s summary beheading, with her sword, of a lackey who had offended her. Let her do it, I advised. Evil should shock. And she is truly demonic, as well as an amazing ballet dancer, the tragic Lucifer of this piece.

After the first chapter or two, I had a concern that Joe’s extraordinary computer mind might be complicating the plot beyond the patience of his teenage audience. He explained, gently, that he had researched the genre in depth and would bring all the threads together in due course. Now that I’m through Chapter 8, I can see this happening and withdraw my objection.

It’s been a while since I was a teenager. But a few years ago. I was in Scotland with my pre-teen granddaughter Rebecca, a devoted Harry Potter fan. We drank cocoa together in the Edinburgh cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote her first chapters, and later the whole family rode north on the Hogwarts Express. Rebecca, I have realized, would have no trouble at all with Joe’s book.

It hadn’t happened for almost a week, but this morning a woman, a friend, approached me in church and said, “Bill, do you know your purse doesn’t match your shoes?”

Usually, the kidder is a man, but carrying a woman’s shoulder purse is an equal opportunity occasion for humor. At least this morning’s humorist is someone who knows that my wife, Karen, has COPD and gets winded easily. The purse, large and bright red, is heavy, and I’m happy to relieve her of its weight so she can walk and breathe more easily.

I’ve learned not to be irritated by the comments, and have even devised a few responses: “Yes, I’m saving up to buy matching shoes,” or “Yes, but red is just my accent color.” But I do wonder sometimes about the commenters. Why did the total stranger, male, at Kroger’s last week feel impelled to make the standard remark as he wheeled his grocery cart past me? I let Captain Obvious go on without a reply.

But still I wonder. Are some people so starved for humor that they think the comment is original and funny? Early on, I occasionally replied, “Wow! You’re the first person who’s ever said that to me!” But I quickly realized that my try at sarcasm was going straight over the questioner’s head.

Women seldom make the remark, and when they do Karen occasionally replies for me: “Isn’t he a wonderful husband? Most men wouldn’t do this for their wives.”
Happy as it makes me, that comment is itself a bit sexist. I’d like to think there are countless loving husbands who would be happy to help their wives tote heavy purses. It’s the male stranger’s comment that I think most about. To be sure, it was probably just a thoughtless if tired effort at a joke. But why did he feel impelled to say it to a stranger? However, it’s not important—many worse things are said.

None of us are very good at listening to how our own words sound to others. Just recently, one of the kindest women I know asked me seriously to explain why a beloved story of her childhood is considered racist today. I tried earnestly to explain, but I’m not sure the explanation got through. I grew up on the same story, hearing it from my father who usually added a bit of scriptural exegesis to the ending with the main character’s heroic ingestion of 169 pancakes: “And then he died.” I love pop for that line, but the story as a whole no longer passes muster.

Times change. We need to change with them. And to think with respect about the feelings of those who hear our words.

I had the privilege and pleasure recently of hearing, and even meeting briefly, the poet laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith.

The first question, of course, is: How does a poet laureate (and Pulitzer Prize winner) end up in Franklin, Indiana, reading her work to an audience of 100 or so at the local public library? Ms. Smith answered the question to some extent by commenting that she likes to get away from the East Coast and urban areas to have conversations about writing in more rural areas. A library employee was a little more specific. Ms. Smith, a professor at Princeton University, had been in South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame, and then at Indiana University, where arrangements had been made for the visit to Franklin.

I have to confess that I wasn’t familiar with her work or even that she had been the national poet laureate since 2017. Once I would have known, but I’ve been largely away from poetry in recent years. So I read up, and found her work quite good. But then something happened that moved her even higher in my estimation. As she began her program, I realized she was reading poems that I had dipped into on Google, and that I recognized instantly. Not only that, but in a sense I knew them and could anticipate what was coming. Her words were, in short, memorable—and one can’t say that of every poet, even some well-known ones.

She explained this a little when she discussed her working methods. She reads her work over carefully, chooses her words with care, and replaces language that might deter or bore a reader. In short, a highly professional writer who does the hard work this entails.

She is also a friendly person, who listens and responds graciously to questions. I think she must also be a fine teacher. Her students at Princeton are fortunate. And so were we in our small-town, midwestern library.

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