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Milan and Memory Repression

In 1995 I set up a short tour in Yellowstone and Teton National Parks for three fellows from Slovakia who were traveling in the United States to celebrate their 50th birthdays. I had met Milan Kapusta two years earlier when he was attending a conference at Montana State University and I guided a day tour to Yellowstone. He fell in love with the park and had raved to his family and friends back home about the area.

He was thrilled to be able to include four days in the parks, as part of a three-week tour, which included a number of conferences around the US. We checked into rustic rooms at Old Faithful Inn and he could hardly contain his excitement, filming everything with his new video camera, and pointing out to his two comrades all the things he remembered. His enthusiasm was contagious.

Milan's English was quite good, but Josef and Michal spoke only Slovak. I spoke Polish to them, they Slovak to me, and we could understand each other quite well. The next morning we started off on a full day of touring Yellowstone. Milan filmed geysers, hot springs, buffalo, elk, waterfalls, and was like a kid in a candy shop. His favorite memory from the park was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with the Lower Falls and he told Josef and Michal they would not forget this day as long as they live. We stopped at Grand View Point for a view that lived up to its name, and then I offered to let them walk along the rim to the next stop, Lookout Point, where I would pick them up. Before I left them I asked Milan to remind his two friends to stay on the trail, that the rim is very dangerous. He assured me they were well aware of that and he would pass on the reminder.

I drove to Lookout Point and waited a moment for them to come around the corner. When they didn't appear I started back up the trail to meet them. Josef and Michal came into sight, but no Milan. I called out to them jokingly in Polish, "What did you do, lose Milan?" They didn't utter a word, just nodded their heads. Stunned, I cried, "What? Did he fall in?" Again they just nodded. I raced back to them and they related that Milan had been walking along the trail, filming the canyon as he went. The trail was only marked with logs lying along the edge and evidently, in his preoccupation with filming, he had just stepped over the log without even realizing what he was doing. With the next step he was gone. They said he didn't even cry out. The camera had gone flying and Milan managed to twist around, clawing at the rim, as he hurtled over the edge into the canyon.

We went to the spot, but could see nothing. I even went out on a dangerous, crumbly point to see if I could spot him. Nothing. By this time we were all three in shock. A volunteer from the National Park Service happened by and she radioed in the SOS. Soon rangers converged. There was no evidence at all of Milan from our side of the canyon, but a ranger on the other side spotted the body, about 400 feet below the rim.

Initially they set up ropes and rappelling equipment, planning to scale down the rocky slope to retrieve Milan, but after getting it all set up, they decided it was just too dangerous. A helicopter was brought in then, and two rangers descended a rope ladder and were able to retrieve the body and take it to the parking lot at the Upper Falls. NPS staff took us over there and asked if we would like to see the body, though they didn't recommend it, and we declined.

Park law enforcement officials had to interview us all separately, to guard against foul play, and somewhere they even managed to find someone who spoke Slovak. The rest of the afternoon was pretty much a blur, but I must say, the Park Service handled the situation remarkably well.

We finally made our way back to Old Faithful, where we set about changing plans. Fortunately, Milan had made a detailed dossier of the trip, so I had contact info for all the people they had already visited as well as for the ones they were to visit later. We also had to make a call to Milan's work place in Slovakia and have someone from there go to his home and inform the family. Those were all difficult calls to make, but we went through the motions in a stupor. The Slovak Embassy in Washington was most helpful and worked with the Park Service to arrange for the body to be returned to Slovakia. We were able to get return flights on Delta Airlines changed to fly out of Jackson, Wyoming two days later.

The following week I began a small group tour of national parks with 7 friends. I was still shaken from the Milan accident, and confided the incident only in my friend Theo. We headed for Yellowstone and the group was laughing and talking. Hannelore suddenly asked in jest if anyone had ever died on one of my trips! Theo and I looked at each other and I replied, "Well, as a matter of fact."

Shortly thereafter, I shared the incident with Nancy and Leon Stauffer, from MYW tours, with whom I guide a tour each year, but then stopped talking about Milan.

A year and a half later, in June 1997, I was in Yellowstone with MYW, heading for the Grand Canyon. Nancy asked me if I was planning to tell the group about "my friend'. I asked, "What friend?" She said, "You know, your friend, here at the canyon." I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about and she thought I was pulling her leg. She spelled it out, "You know, your friend who fell in the canyon!" I gasped, and felt as though I had been hit in the face with a sledgehammer.

Prior to that, if someone had told me my mind was capable of burying a memory like that out of self-defense, I would have laughed at them. But I had indeed blocked the whole incident for over a year and a half, and not until Nancy pried it open, did I have any recollection of the event. But then the whole scene came flooding back vividly and I shared those events with the tour group. I was shocked at myself to realize I had suppressed that memory to such an extent.

Fast-forwarding a few years, we jump to the Queen Elizabeth 2 World Cruise of 1999 and a totally unrelated incident. A number of Cunard staff from England joined us the last segment from Lisbon to Southampton. I knew most of them casually from our calls in Southampton, but one fellow seemed more familiar than that, but I couldn't figure out why. Finally I asked Michael if we had spent time together somewhere, other than ship visits in Southampton. He said, "Of course, we sailed on the Royal Viking Sun together in 1994." I thought he must mean 1996, and asked if he had been on when the Sun hit the reef. He said, no, it was 1994. I told him I wasn't on the Sun in 1994 and that my first time on the Sun was 1996 when I went from the Sagafjord after the fire to the Sun, where we hit a coral reef one month later. He insisted that we were on the Sun for three days in 1994, shortly after Cunard bought the ship from Royal Viking, and sailed from Southampton to Copenhagen via Bergen. Ah, Bergen! Yes, I was on the Vistafjord in 1994 and the two ships met in Bergen, could it possibly have been in Bergen where we had met up. He was exasperated with me and said again, "No, it was on the Sun in 1994. You were in cabin 219. There was a big group of Cunard staff on board, checking out the new ship and we spent quite a bit of time together!" Michael was miffed with me.

I was baffled. I had never been on the Sun prior to 1996 and couldn't figure out what he was thinking. I had some vivid memories from that month on the Sun prior to hitting the reef. After the Sagafjord burned in the South China Sea, ending her world cruise, I had escorted 80 passengers to a new home on the Sun to finish the world cruise there. It wasn't a wonderful month and I prayed many times for God to get me off that ship. Not that there was anything wrong with the ship itself, but I had a group of unhappy people who found themselves on a new ship where nobody knew how important they were! It was a nightmare. Hitting a coral reef between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba was traumatic, but I was relieved my ordeal on the Sun was over.

Back to the QE2. Michael's insistence that we knew each other plagued me. I discussed it with my friend Anneke and she asked me if I were really sure I had not been on the Sun in 1994. Yes, absolutely. The only thing that left a slight little doubt in my mind was my experience with Milan and the way I had suppressed that memory. But I knew I wasn't on the Sun before 1996.

Two days later, in an unrelated conversation, someone mentioned the name of an officer who worked on the Royal Viking Sun. In a flash, it triggered a memory I had of that person on board the Sun in . . . 1994! Michael was right! Suddenly the whole memory of that cruise in 1994 came back in detail, precisely as Michael had described it. I was embarrassed to say the least and shocked to see my mind pull a trick like that on me again. The month on the Sun in 1996 was evidently traumatic enough for me that I just blocked out much of my data bank about the ship altogether. I apologized to Michael, but he didn't want to hear it. I can't say that I blame him; I wouldn't have believed my story either!

I find it particularly interesting, that in both the incident with Milan and with the Royal Viking Sun, once the memory was "unlocked", details were again vivid in my mind. The mind can evidently lock up memories and "almost" throw away the key until something triggers a memory and opens it again. It's sobering to think that perhaps some memories are locked away and the key will never be found. So now, when someone is reminding me of an adventure we had together, and I don't recall it the same, I'm careful about insisting they don't have their facts straight!

Kent Kauffman, February 2004


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