Friday, August 24, 2018

Cold Water Shock: A Mysterious Lake George Tragedy

The combined stories of Alma Gatti and Jerry Walker reveal two offspring any parent would be proud to claim as their own. Their young lives were filled with activities and accomplishments, suggesting a promising future ahead.

Jerry (Cuthbert Orton Walker Jr.), an Arkansas native, spent most of his childhood in Little Rock. He attended the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1940s, and roomed with three friends while working as a furniture-store clerk. Life was interrupted by World War II, and beginning as an army private barely a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he spent 30 months in Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East. His service ended in 1946 as a first lieutenant whose awards included the Philippines Liberation Medal and the Bronze Star.

After the war, he was employed as an engineering assistant at General Electric in Schenectady, using his earnings to further his education. In 1947, while living at the YMCA, he began attending Union College, where he majored in physics. At the age of 29, Jerry had a solid background and a plan for the future.

Alma’s youth was one of participation, leadership, and excellence. She emigrated to the United States with her mother in 1926 and joined Mr. Gatti in Schenectady. She was an excellent student, and for at least five consecutive years, from Grades 2 through 6 inclusive, she had perfect attendance. Alma’s interests expanded during the remainder of her school years. She joined the Girl Scouts, and in 1937, at age 14, she won a swimming award at Girl Scout Summer Camp. She became proficient on the piano and performed in annual recitals, played in the junior high tennis tournament, and sang with the freshman choir. At age 16, she was on the honor roll with an average above 90, and was very active in the YWCA, an affiliation that continued for years after she graduated from Mount Pleasant High School.

At age 21, she was a member of the Y. W. Business Girls Club committee overseeing their series, Monday Night Recorded Concerts, and served as chair of the Women’s Membership Committee. She attended and helped organize many events, and in 1948 was director of the Y’s symphonic music show. Besides playing selected recordings, she provided the life highlights and stories behind the music of men like Schubert and Rachmaninoff.

Alma worked for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, the Union College Library, and then GE (as a secretary), all in Schenectady. Their common links to Union College, the Y, and GE brought Walker and Gatti together, and before long they were inseparable. Magic was in the air, and in January 1949, they became engaged, with plans to marry on July 16, six months later.

As the date approached, they anticipated the unofficial launch of summer — Memorial Day weekend. With their wedding day just six weeks away, they accepted an invitation from Muriel Barry, a fellow GE employee and friend of Alma’s, to spend the weekend at her cottage near Bolton Landing on Lake George. Alma and Jerry departed Schenectady on Saturday, spent the night with Muriel, and left on a special outing the following morning. After packing a lunch, they rented a canoe from nearby Lamb’s Boathouse and paddled towards their destination, Shelving Rock Falls, about three miles away, directly across the lake. The plan was to return around 6 pm.

There seemed no real cause for alarm when they didn’t show up at Lamb’s that evening. After all, Lake George is a very popular place for outdoor activities. Although they weren’t prepared for overnight camping, they might have met friends or returned to the lake’s western shore at a different location. But the following noon, when 24 hours had passed, boathouse owner Robert Lamb called the state police and reported them missing, which launched an immediate investigation.

That afternoon, the canoe, damaged and half-filled with water, was found by Hugh Robinson of Marblehead, Massachusetts, not far from his camp on Watch Point. Since the discovery suggested accidental drownings had occurred, dragging operations were begun that afternoon where the water’s depth was an estimated 100 feet.

As the search for the victims continued, investigators worked through knowns and unknowns to determine exactly what had happened. Alma’s car, still parked at Lamb’s, confirmed that they hadn’t returned unseen and driven somewhere else. Jerry’s knapsack, attached to the canoe, contained crushed papers from lunch items, suggesting they had reached Shelving Rock, shared a picnic, and were returning when an accident occurred. Adding credence to that possible scenario was Lamb’s report that the lake was relatively calm when the couple departed, but waves driven by a brisk west wind made for rough conditions later in the day.

With those factors in mind, it was surmised they had encountered difficulties that caused the canoe to flip, and the still-cold waters of Lake George, capable of causing hypothermia, added to the difficulties that ended in their demise. The canoe then floated to the lake’s eastern shore, where repeated wave-driven impacts with the rocks badly damaged one end, causing the craft to partially fill with water.

There was little information to conflict with that scenario, except that Walker’s boss at the college and Gatti’s boss at GE said it was their understanding both were very good swimmers. Supporting that claim were their connections to the YMCA, and that as a teenager, Alma had won a swimming award at summer camp. Still, capabilities in the water don’t guarantee safety: the US Coast Guard says that roughly two-thirds of drowning victims were good swimmers. In waters that haven’t warmed yet, hypothermia is often cited as a factor.

In 2008, Jeffrey Pollinger of the US Coast Guard reported on the dangers of cold water shock. “Unlike hypothermia, the effects of cold-water immersion can lead to death in just a few minutes, and in some cases, instantly. Sudden entry into the water can cause cardiac arrest, even for people in good health. The shock of the cold water can also cause an involuntary gasp reflex that can cause victims to inhale water and drown. After just a few minutes, the ability to swim or tread water is impaired as the victim loses muscular coordination. All of this can occur in water as warm as 69 degrees.”

Added a coast guard colleague, Dan Shipman of Seattle: “Sudden cold-water immersion is a phenomenon that is becoming more recognized as a cause of death as compared to hypothermia.”

Defining “cold” becomes an issue, but for those (like me) who have enjoyed many canoe trips shortly after ice-out in the spring, an important caution comes from Glen Gayton, commander of the coast guard district that encompasses Lake Champlain: “Great. You can swim. But you stand a 50-percent chance of swimming 50 yards in 50-degree water.” A potentially quick death in water temperatures of 69 degrees is very sobering, and may have been an issue for Gatti and Walker. Lake George’s temperature near the surface on Memorial Day weekend in 1949 was just 60 degrees.

Next, the conclusion: the search intensifies; friends and family assist

Photos: Jerry Walker, Alma Gatti (1949, Albany Times-Union); Lamb’s Boathouse, postcard, ca. 1940; headlines (1949, Albany Times Union); headline (1949, Schenectady Gazette)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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