Little Boy Lost: Sister Remembers Young Brother’s Drowning 30 Years Ago
Like she does every year on her brother's birthday, Sandy Druge of Hartford kisses a rose before she drops it into the White River near where her brother, Michael Scott Renahan died in West Hartford, Vt., on May 23, 2013.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
A photograph of Michael Scott "Snake" Renehan during a motocross competition.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Along with her grandson, Blake, 8, Sandy Druge of Hartford plants flowers in front of her brother- Michael Scott Renehan's gravestone at the West Hartford Cemetery in West Hartford, Vt., on May 23, 2013.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Sandra Druge celebrates her brother’s birthday every year at the West Hartford Bridge, tossing flowers into the river that took his life.
She was there on May 23, on what would have been Michael Scott “Snake” Renehan’s 39th birthday. With her was her grandson, Blake, who, at nearly 9 years old, sports a shock of blonde hair exactly like his uncle wore 30 Augusts ago.
Sandra, 44, had purchased a couple of roses, and she and Blake grabbed one.
“What do we always do?” she asked her grandson, who was pushing himself onto his tiptoes to reach over the railing. “Kiss it, right?”
And then: “Happy birthday, Snake!”
A petal from one of the roses broke off in mid-flight, and the water caught it a few feet away from the flower. Both flowers disappeared under the bridge. The sandbar on the other side, Sandra noted, used to jut out further.
It was hot on Aug. 16, 1983. Temperatures crept into the mid-80s. Breezes registered slightly, passing under a cover of scattered clouds. Snake, 9, Sandra, 14, and Kris Fenoff, 18, their dad’s girlfriend, had decided to go swimming.
Kris drove the three of them out from Lebanon to the West Hartford Bridge, which crosses the White River just feet from the village store. They started almost directly under the bridge itself, on the river’s west bank. But they soon left to avoid a obstreperous boy who was bothering them.
Sandra said she knew a quieter spot, just a bit farther up the river. Her dad had shown it to her, but told her not to go there without adult supervision. The three drove a fraction of a mile up Route 14.
“But before Kris could get out of the car and survey the little area, my brother and I were already gone,” Sandra recalled, three decades later. “We were already in the water.”
Kris, who couldn’t swim, stuck to the bank. Sandra and Snake stayed in the water for a short time, until they decided to leave. Sandra got out of the water, joining Kris. She remembers them calling out to Snake:
“C’mon,” Kris said. “Let’s go.”
“C’mon,” Sandra said. “We’re leaving.”
“Nanny,” Snake said, using his nickname for his sister. “Watch this.”
And he ducked underwater.
Snake was a daredevil. He had a dirt bike. Rode it constantly.
“That’s him there doing a burnout,” Sandra said, sitting on a couch in her Hartford Village home this spring, a photograph scrapbook opened on her lap. “That’s him doing a wheelie. This was the time he was trying to race out in Canaan.”
The bike became Snake’s legacy, immortalized, at least in Sandra’s home, by a wall-mounted portrait of him wearing a vest and holding a helmet larger than his head, posing next to a yellow Suzuki.
When the Renehan family lived in Lebanon, Snake would rush home from the Hanover Street School and ride around a dirt track next to the gas station the family owned, in the space that now houses the Hanover Street Mobil gas station. He had been riding since he was 3 years old.
“He was just amazing to watch, that little tiny kid on that bike, and I think he kind of sucked people in,” said Tara Call, a childhood friend of the family who now lives in Canaan.
Snake won several races. He was the youngest rider at a race in Canaan, where he didn’t do too well. But that didn’t deter him. “He got stuck in the mud, but he gave it a shot,” his sister said.
“One youngster, 8-year-old Michael Renehan of Lebanon, is still new enough at the sport to be a little cautious,” said the Valley News story on that race, from June 1982. “He rides around the puddles instead of through them, which slows him down, but he works hard to catch up on the drier and straighter stretches.”
He played Little League baseball and basketball. He had a piggybank shaped like the Hulk. He wanted to be a policeman and a fireman.
He was, in short, 9 years old.
But a particularly tough 9 years old, to be sure. One day, Sandra remembered, he was riding his regular bike when he wiped out. A nail on the road went through his hand. He didn’t cry, but simply rode home.
“Paw,” he informed his dad when he got there, “I hurt myself.”
“My parents used to say if anything’s going to take him, it’s going to be his bike,” Sandra said.
By the time Snake broke the surface of the water, an undertow had already seized him and was pulling him further toward the middle of the river. Before Sandra could react, she said, Kris, who couldn’t swim, jumped in after Snake. Sandra followed. She caught up to both of them. They were flailing in the mouth of the current.
She pulled Snake up by his hair. Panicking and unable to swim, Kris began trying to climb up Sandra’s body like a ladder. She found herself unable to support them both while keeping herself afloat as well.
“I couldn’t do it,” Sandra said. “I was only 14. I kept screaming, ‘I’m going to get help.’ I’m screaming at the top of my lungs while I’m able to stay above water.”
Help, she screamed, and no one answered. My brother is drowning.
“All I had left to do was let him go,” she said.
Sandra still has no idea how she fought back to the riverbank, she said, but she did, and ran to her grandparents’ house, which was nearby and along the river. She banged on the door. No one answered. Her grandfather, she later found out, was asleep on the couch.
She raced back toward the bridge, where she flagged down a car, distraught. She told the man what had happened. He told her he couldn’t swim. He drove off.
Penny Clifford was 17 years old at the time, and had just finished a shift at the Purity Supreme supermarket in West Lebanon.
She was driving home to North Pomfret when she came across Sandra, crying on the side of the road, and stopped to ask what was wrong. She sent Sandra to the village store to call 911. Police received the call at 2:05 p.m.
Meanwhile, Clifford drove down the street, where she came across a group of bicyclists who had seen Sandra minutes before. They were down on the bank, looking for Snake, and Clifford pulled over and joined them, she said. Some had found Kris, pulled to the side of the river and were doing CPR.
Clifford was walking down the bank with one of the bicyclists when they came across Snake, face down in the water. Only after she had pulled him to the shore did Clifford realize she was wearing corduroys, a T-shirt and shoes.
“I wasn’t thinking about any of that,” she said. “It was just, I’m going to dive in, and I’m going to get him.”
The ambulances arrived soon after. Snake was pronounced dead at Mary Hitchcock at 7:07 p.m. that night. Kris died two days later.
Snake’s was the first funeral that Tara Call ever went to.
“It was devastating,” she said. “It was like losing my little brother. And I wonder about him every day, what he would be like.”
If it had been a cold day, if there were no rude boy on the sandbar under the bridge, if Sandra had heeded her father’s warning about the quieter spot up the river, there may have never been a drowning. Sandra, Snake, their father and Kris would have probably ended up in Cheyenne, Wyo. The accident was on a Tuesday. The four were planning to move that weekend.
But they didn’t. Sandra, forever carrying the weight of the moment she let Kris and Snake go, stayed nearby, telling only a few close friends what happened that August day.
These days, she has noticed that acquaintances from her childhood sometimes realize she is Snake’s sister, and talk about him fondly. Not all of them realized his fate. One person who did, Call, recalled him as a Dennis the Menace figure, a mischievous, blonde-haired scamp riding around on his motorcycle.
But for Sandra, the memories of that day persist, especially the moment Kris dove into the White River, regardless of whether it was out of bravery or instinct.
“Kris was a hero,” she said. “She was my hero. I love my mom to death. No one will ever take the place of my mom. But Kris didn’t have to jump in, knowing she didn’t know how to swim.
“But she did,” Sandra continued, “and lost her life over it. That girl — she is my hero.”
Sandra’s own decision, minutes after Kris jumped in, when she had Kris and Snake in her arms and had to let go, has weighed heavily on her. She hasn’t been contact with Kris’ family for decades. She’s long lacked confidence, something she attributes directly to that moment.
It recently affected her work life. In May, after two years as a front end supervisor, she moved to Price Chopper’s meat department, where she took notes on the new tasks she was given and looked them over at home.
On June 29, she was taken out of work via ambulance. She thought she was having a heart attack, she said, driven partially by anxiety and partially by high blood pressure brought on by putting weight on a nagging hip. When she returned to work, she moved back to her old job.
At her Hartford home, the portrait of Snake posing with his motorcycle hangs alone on one living room wall, facing smaller family photographs on the other walls. Many feature Blake, who, at 8 years old, is the spitting image of his great-uncle.
“If anything keeps me going on a bad day, it’s that little guy right there,” she said, pointing out a picture of Blake on her cell phone. “And now he’s got a motorcycle.”
After Sandra and Blake threw the roses off the West Hartford Bridge, commemorating what would have been Snake’s 39th birthday, Blake made note of a spider crawling along the bridge’s supports. And then, as a big truck came rumbling over the bridge, implored his grandmother to step back.
“I really wish he was alive, because he could teach me how to ride a dirt bike,” Blake said of the uncle he never had the chance to meet.
Michael Scott Renehan is buried in a West Hartford cemetery that sits behind the church on Route 14, just yards from the spot where he drowned. Sandra and Blake stood in front of his headstone. On it, under his name and dates of birth and death, is an etching of a motorcycle.
“I actually have something for Uncle Snake at my house,” Blake told his grandmother. She said they might visit again on Memorial Day, which was just four days away.
A few days later, the gravesite had gained a pair of small, imitation rose bouquets. Last week, as the 30th anniversary of Snake’s death approached, the roses, a bit weathered by the summer, remained among the other flowers. They stood next to a dreamcatcher and wind chimes, a helix of blue, Snake’s favorite color, tinkling gently in a light summer breeze.
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.