The two young men, perhaps boys, were floating down the Mississippi River on a makeshift raft. The hadn’t planned it very well, they never planned it very well, and it got dark before they reached their destination. In the darkness, they heard a noise, faint at first but growing quickly. Suddenly the whole raft dropped down in a woosh of swirling water. They had gone over a wing dam, which are usually made of boulders and logs. Surviving the ordeal, they walked a handful of blocks to their home, abandoning the raft. It was unclear whether they ever told their parents. This is one of the many stories of my father, Robert Frei, growing up in South St. Louis in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
There was a time when children and young adults were more free to roam wild and create their own adventures. It was accepted, even expected. This was not always a good thing, but it did give rise to original stories of experimentation. Life expectancy was certainly shorter back then. I actually did grow up in much the same way, but in a more solitary way, as I grew up in the woods, and not downtown St. Louis.
As a young boy, I listened to the stories of my father. There were many. I perhaps did not realize, at the time, that they all came with that extra bit of flair that comes with storytelling. My father was good at that. I wanted to do all of those things myself! Luckily, I was also listening, as I heard about some of the consequences. I figured I could do without those. ‘A little forethought would have gone a long way’ is something my young self could see as I listened.
Many of the things my father did as a young man, I indeed did end up doing myself. I enjoyed them. It was good. I spent a good deal of time paddling the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, hiking mountains and canyons. I did eventually realize, however, that there was a fundamental difference between the two of us. My Father and his brother, Tom, were fond of doing ‘one off’ things, ‘three sheets to the wind’. Then they were done, onto the next adventure, accomplished that, stories to tell. I, on the other hand, would stick a toe in the water, work up to it, plan a little bit, and then get it done, without incident. With this preparation and practice, I did them more continuously throughout my life, without ever getting significantly hurt. The downside is, the stories might not be as good.
A necessary side effect of the attitude that I took, conquering rivers, mountains and canyons, was that I ended up turning them into athletic events. That is actually the way to get them done professionally and in good stead. Despite the lack of tales of barely surviving to tell, I thoroughly enjoyed making use of the seeds that had been planted. Though I liked my methods, and would not have wanted to make the trade, perhaps I was not the adventurer that my father was.
I later wove all of these skills and interests into the sport of “Adventure Racing”. This was something that I did from the year 2000 into late 2016. Our team did well, traveled the country and forged many bonds of mutual respect. It was a sport that I had laid the groundwork to continue “forever”, planning not to be deterred by no longer winning, as we got older. Some of my favorite races were done after I had come down with ALS. These were some of the first races that I went into with no expectation of a good chance to win. The shift opened up a little more space to enjoy and make it personal. That didn’t mean that I didn’t give it hell though.