But the Fourth of July always reminds me of how fragile we all are and how easily our whole world can turn upside down in an instant.
You see, my younger brother Mikedrowned in Millerton Lake outside of Fresno during a family outing this holiday weekend in 1972.
For years we spent many spring, summer and blustery fall days at the lake.
We had our spot near a clump of small, bushy trees by the shore.
Since we arrived at the lake about 6 a.m. with our ice chests full of cold beer and sodas, potato salad and all the fixings for cold cut sandwiches, we easily claimed our space.
I was 22, married and not living at home the day before my brother died. He called me that afternoon and begged me to go, but I declined.
I explained I was playing music at a bar, and I would be up way too late to make a 6 a.m. excursion to the lake.
We argued about it a little bit. I didn’t know it, but it was the last time I would ever hear his voice.
I woke up about noon the next fateful morning. My wife made breakfast for me as I watched a movie on television — “Moby Dick,” with Gregory Peck.
Just as Captain Ahab found himself tangled in the lines, lashed to Moby Dick’s back and headed down to his watery death, the phone rang. It was my mother calling to give me the news my brother was dead.
The spring run off had filled the lake higher than usual, and it took the sheriff’s department divers nearly two hours to find Mike’s body — just a few feet from shore, tangled in the limbs of one of those bushy little trees.
Hindsight is 20/20. Clearly the biggest mistake my family made was mixing alcohol with a day at the lake. Many families will do that same exact thing this holiday weekend, believing a beer or two or three or five won’t impair anyone’s judgment or abilities. It’s all in fun, but we all should know better. Alcohol and water don’t mix.
Mike’s death absolutely wrecked our family. I felt guilty for years that I hadn’t gone to the lake that day — maybe things would have turned out differently. For years I asked that haunting unanswerable question over and over — why?
Both my parents had their share of guilt, too, and I think each of them blamed the other. Their relationship quickly transformed from a happy partnership to two warring factions.
It took some time, but it quickly became obvious a divorce was in their not-so-distant future. Some things you just can’t forgive or forget, I guess.
I’ve only been back to that favorite family spot once since then. Years later, armed with a chain saw, I planned to cut those trees down, but for a dose of reality — nothing I could do to those trees would bring my brother back.
Now, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for my brother, my family or me. That’s not my intention. I’m writing simply to encourage everyone who reads this to have a wonderful time this weekend, but please, pay attention to safety.
Accidents come in an instant, and once they strike, there’s no way to turn back the clock. There are no second chances, no do overs. Have fun, everybody, but be safe.
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