Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The River People (June 1960)

We lived two blocks above the flood wall on a main artery leading directly to the river. Most summer days, an early morning breeze transported evaporating sweat from the river’s belly above the wall, through  dampened trees directly into eyes and nose. It was an intoxicating blend of dirt, industry, decay, petrol, nature and raw sewage. The river had a way of churning uninvited elements blended with clay and silt into a steaming broth, then pass light and wind through before pushing the liquid remains back into the air stream. Some days the smell of rotting fish was stronger but mostly it was neutral to organic to downright putrid.

One June morning dad walks me to the river’s edge. During the short three block stretch he never once hinted of his intention. As we cross the short grass past a community of reeds which had grown around the tattered remains of a near disabled dock - I see the restless frame of a small forsaken wooden craft roll back and forth rocked by the slow rhythm of waves near the river's edge. On closer inspection I recognize a small green out board motor once stored for months on our back porch now safely attached to the rear.

 “It’s ours boy. What’ll you think?”

 Think? I was elated. Never once had I’d crossed the mile-wide river on anything other than Goodyears. This was the way I wanted to see everything.

 “We’ll have to fix it up a bit…. maybe plug a leak or two, but I think we can make it up to Six Mile island, maybe even Twelve Mile this weekend,” he said with all the confidence of a professional fishing boat captain.

 The following week was spent scraping paint down to exposed flesh and bailing water overboard with coffee cans. I would soon learn neither dad nor I had a solution for the persistent leaks. It was difficult locating the source with three inches of surface water throughout the craft.

Dad examined the sidewalls, loose planks, hidden areas beneath the benches, along the baseboards; but the problem refused to reveal itself. Then a neighbor suggested we dry-dock it for safety’s sake and he resolved the mystery in a matter of moments. 

Dad didn’t even bother giving the cabin cruiser a name like Prince Of The River, or the U.S. Independence. Instead, he splashed a coat of battle-ship gray on and a couple layers of white trim; bought four life preservers and a few cushions and left it at that and just referred to as the “boat.”

It was two weeks before proper repairs were completed and the “boat’ passed inspection. The launch was a magnificent event at least from a 14-year olds point of view. From the trailer to the river seemed an interminable distance but once the boat slid free, time was of no consequence.

No more than ten or fifteen feet from the launch site the waters were rough and choppy.  The current seemed to be in a rush to greet Cairo, Illinois next stop before spilling into the Mississippi.

Dad hoisted me into the boat then yanked the power-chord and the Mercury outboard came to life spitting a curtain of black mist into the air. He then pointed the boat into a lane traveled by mid-sized crafts a safe distance away from working tugboats and transport barges.

I had grown to admire the power and beauty of the Ohio. The waters would rise during spring thaw and sometimes flood low-lying communities. The last big flood struck in 1937 leaving the whole town submerged except for a church steeple or two. Then they built the flood walls. After that the river resigned itself to transporting large chunks of ice and miles of severed tree limbs, small branches and the occasional ruptured shack.

Beyond the right side of the falls during the dry period of the day, the land would share its age. As the water receded, all shapes and sizes of prehistoric skeletons basked under the drying sun next to rotting fish trapped in carved stone pockets.

I’d pack a knapsack and a small hammer and walk the lunar surface with my younger brother, sometimes chisel a fossil from the roof of the short cave, which was actually a cracked limestone formation with a small entrance and not much beyond. I’d pretend like some over sized cave beetle was lurking inside, ready to spew some kind of paralytic preservative on me so it could stash me in it’s personal meat locker. I’d come in blasting my ray gun and zap it before it decides to comatose the rest of civilization then celebrate my bravery with a long swig of cool aide from an old military canteen.

I hadn’t been informed this was a historically protected area where the great mastodons once roamed. The unexpected intervention of a wise man with knowledge of the river’s origins put a stop to my sculptures. It was driftwood he suggested I cart away. Only items the river discarded, never those she embraced.

First view of life along the river proved to be much more intriguing than imagined.  As we lose site of the industrial outfits I can see near-palatial homes hidden behind thick vegetation both sides of the river. I watch closely as the small estates eventually fade behind the remaining overgrowth. Everything looked as if Tarzan may have camped with his entourage of wild animals behind the swollen bushes. One could only hope.

“If you strain your eyes a little you can see Six Mile Island up ahead,” says dad. “There are river people all over that place.”

River people? Did he mean like those in the picture books at school about the “Great Depression” or maybe like the old man who comes to the back door ever summer begging for breakfast.

“What kind of river people dad? Do they have fins?”

“They’re poor people son, like the old man who comes by the house looking for work. They won’t mess with no one unless you come looking for trouble. Take the wheel for a moment.”

I’d obviously grown big enough to steer a boat. Here I am about to guide us across the mighty Ohio, a man’s job while dad tends to other matters a boy never had it so good.

“Keep her straight son and pull back a bit on the throttle. We don’t want to surprise anyone.” I did exactly as commanded.

As we reach Six Mile Island, all I can see is tall willows, maples, spruce, fortified by dense layers of cattails and reeds.

“Keep her to the right son.”

From a distance the island looked like it rest center in the river but on closer inspection I could see it was only a few hundred feet from shore.

“Slow it down a little…” Suddenly, I started to panic. This was more reponsibility than I could handle.

 “Dad, you’ve got to take over now. I don’t want to crash.”

 Dad springs to his feet, grabs the wheel and pulls back the throttle until the engine hums contentedly.

 With things now under control, I free myself to climb to  front deck of the boat and play scout.

 As we turn into still water separating the mainland from Six Miles I catch sight of smoke billowing above the first patch of bushes camouflaging what seems a makeshift campsite. My eyes focus on a shaded area. Soon the dense foliage gives way to brown earth and scattered ferns exposing the private lives of the mysterious river people.

As we cautiously cruise past the shoreline I sit erect llke a hood ornament on an old junkyard car wreck . There were cut bits of blankets and sheets secured to adjacent trees serving as cover. Underneath, people of various ages stare back, suspicious of our intent. I’d seen that look on occasions when we’d visit dad’s relatives in the backwoods of Tennessee. They were kind folks who could turn on you without reason.

 Oblivious to our intrusive presence, an older woman hunches above a contained fire, cooks in what looked to be various size-rusted cans. Near her feet a small child struggles in soft earth to reach the seams of her dress. Men of all descriptions - with and without shirts relax at various intervals some smoking cigarettes and pipes. Two men scrape the innards of what appears to be some kind of edible river fish while another busies himself repairing the damage to a rather primitive fishing net.

 “How’s it going there,” dad hollers.  A few heads turn then quietly return to matters at hand.

 “I hope we’re not intruding. My son’s never been over here before.” Dad waits for a response. “I’m from Tennessee and my granddaddy worked up and down this river and the Mississippi on steamboats. It was hard as hell on him.”

Suddenly, a voice speaks from the highest point of the island, “What chu want mister? Nobody bothering you here nobody asking you no questions so why don’t the two of you get along.”

“I apologize! I was just showing my son the island. We’ll be on our way.” As dad looks away the voice responds.

“Mr!……. Have a look around. Do you see any of your relatives here?”

 Dad, hesitates momentarily, and then slowly increases the speed.

 “Hey Mr.? Does your boy want to come up here and play with these poor dirty children?” With that remark comes a unified outburst of laughter that rumbles and coughs like the last wheeze of an emphysema sufferer.

 Dad ignores the jibes and directs the boat towards the middle of the river. The next six miles seem the longest. Fearing the worst possible circumstances, there were times my heart raced. What it we were smacked by an errant log, one hidden among the continuous flow of debris? What happens if the unseen punctures a hole in the soft wood? Are life preservers enough to save us? What about the current? It seems at times to race along as fast as most cars.

The river never slept quite as sound as it did the night after stealing Charles White’s seven-year old son Wesley. Up and down the shore line past the falls the black fishermen swore there would be no more reprisals. No more sudden bursts of anger. No cause for revenge. “Let her rest peacefully,” they would say. “The lady never forgets. She can wait a long time before settling old grievances.” But what crime did the seven-year-old commit to incur the wrath of the normally objective lady?

Mud and silt carried away shreds of dismembered flesh whittled from the blade of the unseen executioner. Through the night the coast guard beamed hard light around the perimeter of the coal-hauling barge hoping to find any evidence Wesley and his uncle where still with the living.

Downstream chunks of the boat flowed towards the falls carrying with it the blood and flesh of two family members whose lives centered on the fishing holes near the banks. The search continued until the first light of morning. It would be mid-day before a local policeman discovers the remnants of Wesley and his uncle drying among the bleached limbs of driftwood beyond the falls after their small fishing boat collides with a massive barge.

Wesley sat across from me the early weeks, the second year of elementary school. We’d stare each other down, twist our lips, stretch our eyelids, anything for a laugh and then suffer the consequence of Miss Spencer’s punishing ruler. Mostly, Wesley slept. He was always being chastised for arriving late and forgetting his homework. Beyond that Wesley stayed mostly invisible accept for his larger-than-the-rest-of-us frame.

I couldn’t remove the haunting image of Wesley being sifted through the barge’s propellers, the cold murky autumn waters and the thought of being forever trapped beneath the river’s surface. The sun always shined across his face even when he looked troubled. This was no way to die. He had the face of eternity - no hand of circumstance could rob him from living large.

Deep in thought, I’d gaze through the discolored panes of glass back into my subconscious and replay my own version of the accident until Miss Spencer interrupts.

I could see Wesley struggle; his plump thighs tread water, trying to distance from the slashing blade. Without warning, the current overwhelms then sucks him onto the butcher’s block. After that, the scene dissolves into cold darkness.

Daily news reports assured us the boat was struck, capsized, and the two occupants where instantly killed. I couldn’t willingly accept the version believing there must have been more thought, more time, more fight.

Two bridges towered above, one used by the railroads the other for daily commuters. On occasion, I’d climb the corroded beams but never much farther than half way before the sound of father’s voice resonated in the back of my head. “Don’t ever climb that railroad. If you fall, I’ll have to scrape you off the cement and while I’m speaking at you stay away from the rock quarry.” Dad was right about the rock quarry. Two boys lay smothered below an avalanche of wet limestone a couple years before I was born. I’d often think about biking out there but didn’t have the nerve to disobey. 

With caution I remove myself from the front deck and slide through an open window inside the cabin. Dad said little mostly looked ahead. A good hour pass before the announcement comes.

“There it is son, Twelve Mile Island. I think we’ll be alone over here.”

We slip into a clearing next to the roots of an ancient willow and secure the boat to a fallen branch. While dad fiddles with the line I inspect the dense marsh ahead.

“You go ahead boy. This place ain’t big enough to lose you.”

Twelve Mile was not anything like Six Mile. This was no place to camp. The soil was too wet and the ground covered in tree high weeds, reeds, cat tails and whatever. There was only one color, forest green.

Before entering the seemingly impenetrable woodland, I collect the sturdiest limb I could find amongst a pile of forgotten timber. With sword in hand I begin slashing my way through the scrub with all the bravo of a conquering invader. Footing was near impossible. Water seeped from underneath leaving every footprint a murky reservoir. I never liked anything to dirty my shoes not even blacken the soles.

I soon find myself alone in the grassy grove surrounded by oozing earth. In my haste to locate a dry patch I slip face down in the sludge. Confused and somewhat distraught I lose sense of direction. I didn’t really have a plan other than walk to the other side to watch the river. As I lift myself a small black dog leaps abruptly from behind the bushes facing me and starts wildly barking. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should approach or ignore it. Instead, I waited until he began rolling playfully around the slime near my feet.  As I reach down to pet him, he snaps upright then blazes a path back into the interior. I knew I wasn’t alone.

Good time passes before I cross to the other side the island and face the middle of the river. Along the shore piles of garbage and tree roots collect forming a giant web catching everything within reach. I begin walking in the shallow water beyond the river bank but quickly find my ankles stuck in river clay. As I work to free them a heavy black slime rises up my legs. The nasty compound holds my body in place as if I’d been caste in stone. Suddenly, the worst that could possibly happen, happens. I begin to sink deeper in the swamp water. First I think about screaming for dad then decide to give myself more time. Dad made me captain surely he wouldn’t want to hear this sailor beg for help.

I extend my left arm and reach for  a vine wrapped tightly around one of the few trees on the island. I lunge forward, still unable to liberate my legs, then unexpectedly crash face down in shallow water. My head fills with the sour liquid before I come up snorting and heaving.

Barely able to hold myself upright, I catch a breath and wipe the wet leaves and silt from my face. Once again I begin to sink in place. By now, fear is driving me near hysteria, I cry out for dad.

I wait for an answer, a signal anything to restore my confidence. No reply. Again I try to catch the long-neck vine just beyond reach with similar results. Once again I slip under. This time I hold my breath.

As I’m about to scream for dad the black dog returns and starts circling madly, then starts barking.

“ That’s it, that’s it, keep it up,” I encourage. Dad will surely hear my distress calls.

Moments pass when I hear the crackle of branches and approaching foot steps.

“Over here. I’m over here!”

Just then the tall weeds part and a lanky middle-aged woman appears.

“Look at you young man. You’ve got yourself in a fine predicament,” she scolds.

Embarrassed and relieved I admit to my stupidity.

“Grab this branch, I’ll pull you in,” she offers. “Where’s your parents?”

The struggle continues until I feel my shoes drag onto a pile of leaves and smother a pile broken twigs.

“Please don’t tell my dad. He’d never trust me to be on my own again. It’s all my fault.”

 “I didn’t come here to lay blame,” she says in an indigent tone.

“I’m sorry, I messed up. I just don’t want dad to know about this.”

 “Then you’d better clean up and get moving or he’ll miss you,” she says with a slight smile before calling for her dog .’Buck’ let’s get goin’ – we ain’t got much time before light goes down.’

I was about to accept her recommendation then it occurred to me this was no ordinary encounter. Why and who was this person and how’d they come to be as isolated as me.

 ‘Wait, a minute, ‘ I shouted. ‘Do you live here? Are there more people in this place - you know, river people.”

The old woman kept moving forward not bothering to answer my inquiries. “You can’t leave just like that.’ I pleaded.

I quickly rose to my feet and followed closely behind while squeezing the mud from my jeans and thanked the woman until she disappears into the high weeds. I kept pace following a trail of crushed grass until I see her in full view standing next to a weathered row-boat.

“Is this your home?” I ask.

 She pauses as if an answer was forthcoming then continues placing a reef of greens into the impossible craft. This gave me enough time to close in. “ Dad, says a lot a people live out here ‘cause they got no other place to be.”

I could see the woman was more interested in tending to weeds than responding to this boy’s interrogation.

"You should head back that way – you won’t slip under, it’s much safer. Now git goin.”

 I stood firm, more curious than ever. “ Are you the caretaker or owner of this island?”

 Without hesitating she turns towards me.” Nobody owns nothing out here. It’s just mud, weeds and trouble. I come here for the tall grass. This is the best stuff to weave a sacred reef. My husband been dead twenty-three years – died out their in the currents. I come here to make him something born of the same roots that pulled him under. I want him to remember what he’s done to me.”

The situation played in my head like the last moments of Wesley’s drowning. In an instant the river could had grabbed and claimed me as her own. Drying from the knees to the soles of my feet the black paste marked the depth of my misfortune and level of discontent.

Around me lay the natural tools for cleaning the muck off my skin. I make a half-hearted effort, then slash my way back through the bush to find dad still messing with the boat.

Without seeing me dad says, “We’ve got problems son. This damn thing has still got a leak somewhere but I sure we can make it back. You’re just going to have to scoop while I steer.”

There was no argument. I’d just as soon dry off and toss water on water.

The sun began to dip below the skyline both sides the river, not as spectacular or exotic as Africa, but nonetheless inspiring. The bridge above carved a black geometric trail across the sky while the caution lights near the falls went about  business as usual. Dad never said a word about the condition of my clothes or the dried mud cracks up and down my body.

When we arrive near the dock most daylight had been replaced by the incandescent lamps of men working near the shoreline. Dad came prepared with one flashlight.

“Hop out son. See if you can catch this rope and tie it around that post.” As the words spill off dad’s lips I drop both cans and climb out of the rickety boat on to the warped dock.

“Do you want me to tie the front end too?

Dad starts to hand me the rope when suddenly the piercing squeal of multiple sirens come from behind the great flood wall.

“Hurry up boy, this don’t sound good.”

 I wind the cord as tight as I can before dad leaps out and twist a fisherman’s knot.

 By now, the river is alive with Coast Guard and emergency vehicles all steaming towards the falls.

“Let’s go and see if we can give ‘em a hand,’ says dad. I wasn’t sure what he had in mind but after today I’m sure there’s something we can do on the river.

We arrive, to find people crowded at least two or three hundred yards along the upper embankment. From the commuter bridge above two fire trucks shine their high beams near the point where vast pools form below the thirty foot drop.

Normally, this is the time when the gates open down river and water quickly floods the land below. I couldn’t tell how deep things were. All I could hear was the howling rush of water slap at the rocks near the shore.

“Let’s have some room. I want you folks to get back. We got a serious condition down here.” We all heard the police officer’s command but few were willing to give up their positions.

Dad walked up and down a line of fishermen and locals and cronies from work looking for answers. Moments pass before he returns.

“We can go son. Not much either of us can do here.”

With his massive hands, dad then reaches down, lifts me near his shoulders then squeezes both arms tightly around my back.

We don’t need to talk about this until we get home,’ he says in a somber voice. “It will make us cry.”

 I knew something severe had happened, something possibly as frightful as Wesley's nightmare. Minutes pass before we walk through the front door. Mother was already waiting. She’d heard the news.

“I’m glad my men are all right that’s all I can say.  I was worried about the both of you out there in the dark.” Dad didn’t say anything. “What a tragedy. I guess God only takes the good ones, “says mom.

The house stood quiet. The only last sounds I hear the next half hour were mom’s words.

“Rudell Stitch drowned. You know who Rudell Stitch is don’t you boy,” asks dad.

 I knew somewhere in my brief history Rudell Stitch had appeared.

 “He was on the fights the other night. Rudell was our best hope for winning a heavy weight championship. He would have knocked the poetry right out of Cassius Clay big mouth.”

 It wasn’t long before the memory of this hazy black and white image of Rudell fighting comes back. He was hard looking, one big mass of muscle with eighteen victories under his belt and no losses. Everybody knew he could give Cassius a better fight than all those meat bags Clay piled up every other week or so. In fact, they say Clay’s scared of him.

The frightful account of Stitch’s drowning surfaces the next morning. It seems Rudell had been fishing near the falls when this guy starts screaming for help. He then drops his gear and runs to one of those whirlpools near the base of the falls and tries pulling the man out of the swirling waters. Neither could get a solid hand grip. With little concern for his own safety Stitch jumps into the spinning torrent, hip-waders and all, lifts and pushes the man safely onto the rocks. While everyone is tending to the near drowning fisherman, Rudell struggles to free himself from his hip-waders. The falls keeps pounding down on him, eventually driving Stitch under, into the rising current out into the body of deep water. Stitch never came up. They wouldn’t find his body until morning, not far from where pieces of Donyell’s corpse baked under the September sun.

The Coast Guard found Rudell’s body tucked into a bed made of driftwood and clinging moss. The newspapers said it was incredibly weird. Like the guy had been sleeping a hundred years. Just the kind of nagging picture I needed embedded in my memory.

The ‘boat” lasted another summer or two before dad forgot about it. It sunk itself in shallow water. Too many leaks - too many rotten planks.

 The years that follow, I stayed clear of the river other than driving a few honeys around for the view or whatever. I think I may have spent one afternoon on a friend’s houseboat but never once stuck a leg in the water again. I guess you’d say I sort of cut myself a reasonable deal with the river. I’ll never know for certain if she agreed. I can live with that.

1 comment:

  1. Moving, evocative tale beautiful written. Well done Mr. King.