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Forty-two years of borrowed time

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario -- Roger Woodward, mortal man and certified miracle, sent me here with instructions: Take the Maid of the Mist boat ride and look at the falls from the Canadian side.

"Just look at the boulders beneath the Horseshoe Falls. Look at the rocks," he told me. "Then think about this: Where do you land over there and not hit them? I didn't touch one rock. If I had just so much as grazed a rock with my elbow it would have shattered every bone in my body."

Forty-two years ago, Woodward was a 7-year-old whose family moved from Greensburg to Niagara Falls, N.Y. Dad worked construction. A friend at their trailer park, Jim Honeycutt, wanted to treat Roger and his older sister, Deanne, 17, to their first-ever boat ride.

You know the rest.

The motor failed, the rapids dumped the three of them and Roger Woodward, wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a lifejacket, bounced from rock to rock toward a 167-foot brink.

Niagara's magic lies in its dreadfulness. Water roars over the cliff at 600,000 gallons a second. The water falls so hard it bounces back in a mist cloud 200 feet high. Suicides seek it. Now, a 7-year-old boy who wanted nothing more than to live was pinballing his way toward a grave so wet nobody could see his tears.

At first he was terrified. Then he was angry. Then came the sadness. He wondered who would take care of his dog, Fritz. He thought how sorry his parents would be when they learned he and his sister were dead.

Finally, The Cloud.

"Suddenly you're just floating in a cloud. You have no sensation of rising or falling," he said.

A tourist pulled Deanne out 20 feet from the brink. Honeycutt's body was missing for four days.

Leaving the cloud, Roger hit the water, bobbed to the surface and was pulled aboard a tour boat- the Maid of the Mist. He asked for a glass of water.

The world descended on Roger Woodward and his family. Newspapers snapped his photo. Movie makers wanted his story. Wackos began calling day and night.

"The family just didn't deal very well with it. We left. We moved to Florida and took the position we just weren't going to tell anybody," Woodward said. "I didn't realize until many years later the effect of that caused me to think, 'Gee, what did I do wrong?'"

Ashamed of his fame and unable to grasp the meaning of a life in which he got his big miracle up front, Roger Woodward spent years trying to decipher whatever message lay in his survival.

"The attitude was, 'Boy, you sure are lucky. God must have something really special in store for you,' " Woodward said.

In his junior year of high school, a tractor-trailer broadsided his motorcycle. He landed on a set of railroad tracks, unfazed and with a broken finger on his left hand.

Convinced God had a purpose for him, he tried the ministry.

Eventually, Woodward concluded that God simply wanted him alive if only to believe in the goodness of life. He doesn't like to talk about his salvation -- his physical salvation, anyway -- for fear of encouraging crazies to try to replicate an impossible accident.

"It's a form of tempting God," he said.

Only once since that trip beyond comprehension has Roger Woodward felt the fear he felt that July day. In autumn of 1994 he set out in a 34-foot boat across Lake Huron with his 9-year-old boy, Jonathan. They became lost in a fog bank and no matter what Roger did, the compass needle spun idiotically.

Again, Roger Woodward was lost in a cloud. Then came the radio message from the oncoming freighter that spotted his boat on radar. They were about to run him over. His son's face looked like a mirror from long ago: a young boy, frightened and at the mercy of water and a cloud.

Woodward pushed both throttles all the way. Somehow, they made it out and found a port.

"I no sooner tied the boat up and Jonathan said, 'Dad! Look at those guys catching all those fish!' " The kid grabbed his pole and, in a moment, the terror Roger Woodward had felt that day in Niagara had vanished beneath the joy of his son.

"All I could think was 'the innocence of youth,' " Woodward said.

Getting that back, if only for a moment, is a reason for God to let anyone survive the angriest of his creations.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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