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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of October 2 - 8, 2002

Opinion Column

Not your average Marine

There are many stories about Tom Montgomery. So many that a guy on the sidelines of his life might think it’s all made up. It isn’t. These are a few stories I know:

In 1986 I was a boatman on the Tuolumne River in California. We had an opening in our crew that year, and because it was a high-water year, our front office wanted to bolster the ranks with an experienced guide. So Tom Montgomery joined our crew.

There was a story that preceded the new guy. The previous winter, he had been a rescue kayaker for a commercial outfit running trips on the Bio Bio River in Chilé. One particular trip, the flow was relatively high: 25,000 to 30,000 cubic feet per second. The group was entering a rapid called Milky Way. In the middle of the rapid Montgomery spotted a huge boulder on which he decided to perch his kayak and watch the others go through. When the current suddenly surged, it flushed Montgomery backward over the giant rock, about a 20-foot fall. He was then taken by the current and slammed against a wall on river right where his foot became trapped. After his leg finally broke, Montgomery wiggled loose, then swam through the rest of the rapid. The next week, with a cast on his leg, Montgomery retrofitted his kayak to fit the cast and went back on the water to work another trip on the Bio Bio.

Back at the guide house in California, we were all impressed by the fact that Montgomery went back to work with a cast on his leg. But what was lost on us, or on me at least, was that the real measure of the man took place in those long moments underwater. The question lurking there was: What would one do faced with such bad odds?

Then there was the nickname. Somehow Montgomery had this moniker floating around him: Mr. Physical Fitness.

As it happens, when Montgomery was a kid playing football, he and a buddy decided "it would be fun" to join the Marines. After the first day of Marine life, they decided it really wasn‘t that much fun, after all, and so wanted to go back to playing football, catching snakes and such. Well, the U.S. Marine Corps wasn’t having any part of that. The boys were committed. So, in typical Montgomery fashion, he summoned a little pride and determination and became a Marine.

But he didn’t become the average Marine who could survive the physical rigors of the Marine Corps training. He became the very best Marine—the most physically fit Marine in the entire Marine Corps—hence the name. He broke Marine records for fitness that hadn’t been touched in years.

Montgomery was subsequently summoned into a general’s office and was offered an appointment to Annapolis. Weighing the offer, at attention no less, Montgomery respectfully declined. It was not the answer the general expected. After hurling his staff within inches of Montgomery’s head, the general went on to inform him that people didn’t turn down appointments to Annapolis. As it turned out, Mr. Physical Fitness did.

In case he might not appreciate the gravity of his decision, Montgomery was sent off to some miserable scratch of earth with a superior assigned to make his life unbearable. What the superior didn’t know was, one, how tough Montgomery is and, two, that among his many talents is an uncanny ability to catch snakes. When he had just about had it with the abuse, Montgomery went off and caught a rattlesnake, then put it in his canteen. Later, when the superior mentioned he was thirsty, Montgomery gladly offered his canteen. As the superior uncorked it and went to take a sip, the relationship between the two men suddenly changed. It turned out Mr. Physical Fitness had wits too.

Back to the river, 1986. Montgomery and I were working a trip together on the Tuolumne River. I managed to wrap my boat on a rock in the middle of the Evangelist rapid. Two of my four passengers—all of whom were in their 60s—flushed downstream. Amid all the chaos, what I remember most is hearing this man in my boat screaming at me, "Where is my wife?"

I looked around the raft, water streaming through it, then in the current downstream, at Montgomery in his boat below—she was nowhere. Then I looked down into the water and saw her there, pinned by the spare oar, the full force of the river holding her there, her head 6 inches under. I tried to pull her up but couldn’t move her. I tried again, then again, but she didn’t’ budge. That’s when this sickening sensation came over me: one of wanting to give up. The force of the river pinning her was too strong, too much time had gone by. I was sure she was dead; I couldn’t possibly get her out.

Then I saw Montgomery bounding over boulders along the bank coming to help. When he was even with us he looked over at me. Maybe it was the look in his eyes, or just the weight of his presence, that I’ll never forget. It was absolute conviction that not only could he save this woman, but I could too. The message was clear: Stay focused and do not give up, no matter how seductive that choice might seem. And so, after Montgomery so subtly pulled me back from a moment of doubt that I’ll always be somewhat ashamed of, I leaned into the water, found the lines pinning the woman, cut them and pulled her up out of the current. Without air for, perhaps, a minute and a half, this 65-year-old woman was up, coughing and gagging, but she was alive.

All it took was a look. In that, Montgomery revealed his spirit: a belief in things and events not believable. It changed my life; it saved another’s.

Now one last story: Tom Montgomery has cancer. And maybe for first time in his life, he needs help, from anyone and everyone.

If there is one thing I learned from this guy who was always the fastest, strongest, most capable—Mr. Physical Fitness—is that the body is tethered to the heart. In fact, the latter just takes the body around for the ride. While the rest of us will never approach the physical abilities of this man, our hearts can be as strong in time. And if we can offer him even a whisper of the fortitude he has demonstrated in his life, maybe we can help him find a way out of the dark space he’s in just now.

From a time before I even knew Tom Montgomery, he seemed larger than life. Now, after knowing him for even the short time that I have, he seems more so.



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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.