Major Lloyd Hill was not a real major. He did not mind being called "the Major," but he appreciated it being made perfectly clear that he was not a real major. It was not because he was not fond of officers. He just preferred his old rank of private in War II; by some circuitous reasoning he believed it to be more individual. "I could have become a real major," he would say quickly, admitting that he often pondered the sound of Major Major Lloyd Hill. He said he would have become a real major had he not ingloriously dropped a case of ammunition on his big toe, which later led to the Major being separated from his right leg; the incident irritated him. He really had wanted to be gassed like his father, Old Red, a private who had wanted to be a major in War I.
It was a soft, cool day on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, almost soundless except for the sullen roar of the white, mean waters below and the Major's voice. He had been trapped amid the ghosts of some lost regiment or other, but now seemed to be emerging with a wistful lament of never having had the chance to become a "crack mercenary" in Africa. It was suggested to the Major that his military past did not seem pertinent; whereupon, a bit struck by such irreverence, he said he was only trying to show the spirit and backbone behind the saga of the Hills of Niagara. He then moved on to the subject for which he was best known: Niagara mania, and how to invest $1,000, draw 300,000 people and then kill yourself by going over Niagara Falls in a barrel—presuming they ever found a piece of you to prove that you were killed.
The Major was not just a mere historian or weaver of tales about the Niagara and its deadliness. He was the last of a legendary clan that believed the river to be its own, a people drawn to the Falls for over half a century by its rage and beauty. It went much deeper than peculiar fascination. It had been a fatal obsession, one that was visible in the eyes of the Major's old, old mother who sat and rocked from dawn to dusk, listening to the hypnotic thunder of the Falls. The obsession also could be heard in the words of the Major, who spoke of the Niagara as if it were flesh and blood, a beckoning enchantress who embraced you and then dissolved into a toothless witch begging for another life. "We have been generous to her," said the Major, pointing to a copper plaque that read:
The Hills of Niagara
William (Red) Hill Sr.
William (Red) Hill Jr.
The plaque spoke plainly—next to the first three names were crosses: these were the dead. Following the Major's and Wesley's names were horseshoes, for the lucky and alive. Wesley planned to stay that way, and he restricted his river fever to hunting and fishing. The Major was of a different disposition. Sometime in the next few months, on a day (as some say) suitable for dying, or a day when he felt the police were ripe for deception—for they have always viewed the Hills as a public menace—the Major would discard his crutches and be strapped into a contraption far up the Niagara. It might be a barrel, some sort of capsule, surely something worthy of so consummate a death wish. Its nomenclature aside, the object would measure five feet in width and seven feet in length. It would be made of stainless steel with an inner casing of ?th of an inch and an outer casing of [1/16]th of an inch; there would be four to six inches between the casings and the interior would be packed with Styrofoam.
The Major was ecstatic as he probed deeper into the esoterica of his invention. His mother just shook her head, never missing a rock. She was very sick, but she had seen too often the river spit back her men, seen too much of Niagara death not to be still torn by the wolf-like madness that continued to trail her family. She knew what the bodies looked like with their backs snapped as easily as if they had been dry twigs, and she knew what they looked like after they had been trapped behind the force of 25 million tons of water an hour and had run out of oxygen. "I'll be strapped inside in a standard parachute harness," continued the Major, "and I'll ride in a sitting position. I want to go straight over the middle. I figure when I hit, the capsule will plunge 50 feet under water, and I'll come back to the surface 200 feet downstream." The creaking of the rocker was suddenly the only sound in the room.
"All my life," said Mrs. Hill, still facing the window, "all I ever had was that river. It took my men, and I never want to see it again."
"Mom's been the main one to suffer," said the Major. "She never could understand the way it was with us and the river."
"All I ever had was the worry," said Mrs. Hill. "Just nights walking the floor. Two weeks after Wesley was born in 1930 they rolled my husband's barrel past my window. And I wrapped the baby up and carried him down to the river in my arms. It was so cold that day. I stood down by the whirlpool, and I watched Red's barrel be stuck there for six hours. I passed out three times. One time a doctor caught my baby falling out of my arms."
"We made 11 barrel runs in all," said the Major.