It didn’t take long in my neighborhood kid-dom to spread the word about the discovery of the stairs, and the fun-filled water world beyond. By dinner-time I had told my next-door neighbor Jeff about it, who told his brother Curt. Jimmy from across the street was on board immediately. Opie, across the street on Thurmond, couldn’t wait to check it out. A plan formed quickly while we pretended to play hide-and-seek in the front yard. We would all ride bikes to the school yard tomorrow morning, telling our mom’s that we were going to be playing baseball all day. So mitts, balls and bats had to be brought. We would stow those at the school yard. The rendezvous would happen no later than nine.
The next morning, bright and early, I’m telling my mother about our plans to play ball over at the school yard.
“You better be home by lunch-time,” she said.
“Can’t I just take some lunch?” I didn’t want to break up the game, I explained.
“Oh, all right. I’ll make you a sandwich.” My mother didn’t usually offer to make me a sandwich for a day at the ball field, so I think she had an inkling that something was up. I waited while she put together a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on some “Wonder” bread, put it in one of those wax-paper sandwich bags (pre-Zip Lock days) and handed it to me.
“You make sure and eat this.”
The thing about those wax-paper sandwich bags, was by the time lunch rolled around, the sandwich was like a rock. ”Thanks, Mom,” and I ran off out the back door.
“…and don’t slam the screen door!” I heard, as the wooden door banged off its frame with its characteristic thud.
“Sorry, Mom,” I yelled back, ran to the garage, got the Schwinn and slipped the mitt over the handlebars. I decided to forgo the bat and balls. I could always say that others were bringing them. The mitt seemed a secure enough ruse. I carried the sandwich bag in my left hand and carefully walked the bike across the streets until I was out of view. When I got to the school yard, everyone was already there and then some. Peter heard about it from Jimmy, and Doug heard about it from Peter, and Alan just happened to be there waiting for a game to form with Randy, and learned about it from those that had arrived early.
“So, where’s this place at?” Alan asked it matter-of-factly.
“Follow me,” I said, and they did. A veritable bike parade down and around and onto a dirt road. But I had trouble finding it, and we had to double-back and try another dirt road. I was starting to wonder if I had just imagined the whole thing. So were the boys in the bike parade. Then I spotted it. The stairs over the barbed-wire fence.
Bikes were laid down, locked and the crowd climbed over the stairs following the trail into the trees.
I heard, “This is cool.” ”I can’t believe there’s nobody around.” ”Wow.” “I had no idea this place was here.” ”Who does this belong to?” “Let’s go swimming.”
We all heard that last exclamation and started shedding our shoes, t-shirts and shorts. Jimmy, who had no fear, grabbed the rope with nothing on but his tighty-whities and swung out over the water, let go of the rope, and folding up, hit the water in a perfect cannonball. Jimmy didn’t have a full set of wheels up there. The lights were on, but rarely was anyone home. When he made it safely to shore, the line formed.
After a half-hour of swinging into the river by rope, covered with mud, and smelling like fish, a few of us walked out into the pond to see how deep it was. It wasn’t more than waist-high in most places and was swarming with minnows, frogs, dragon flies, bugs of all kinds, including, we discovered, mosquitoes, which started feeding on us as we walked across. It was a bona fide boy’s paradise. Jeff, Opie and I decided we needed a bucket to catch some minnows. We actually found one floating among the cattails and quickly put it into service scooping up schools of minnows, which were probably tadpoles, I later decided, based on the obviously large frog population.
We made a more important discovery in the willows. A boat. At least, what used to be a boat of some sort. It had a wooden frame, with pieces of leather or animal hide still attached in some places. It was about four feet long, and could handle one rider. Kind of like those one-man rafts that float the rapids today. The ones that look like it’s impossible to get into, and they spin over in the rapids, submerging the rider, who rolls back upright paddling like a maniac to avoid the next rock. You know what I’m talking about, right?
This one wasn’t made of fiberglass, but the three of us decided it was salvageable. In fact, my brilliant idea, was to haul the “boat” to a “safe-house” and cover it in aluminum so we could ride the rapids of Big Goose Creek. I didn’t know where we were going to get this aluminum, but there was the “Sears Roebuck & Co.” catalog. You could find anything in there. Then I remembered the raft. The three of us hauled the boat frame to the shore after almost losing it in the current. In fact, Jeff, lost his grip on the boat and ended up several yards downstream, climbing out choking “crick” water and blaming us for his ineptitude in making it to shore with the rest of us.
After putting our clothes back on, several of the revelers said they were leaving and headed home. The rest followed me downstream to the vortex, and the raft, that was still spinning and banging off the blockage in the river.
“I think we can get it out,” I said. ”We need a rope with a hook, and we’ll just throw it from the shore. Then we can just pull it out of there.” The other’s thought it was at least feasible. We would get the necessary salvage gear and head back out tomorrow.
Right about then, I started to get nervous about my mother finding out, so I decided it was time for me to go. A few of the guys stayed behind and I heard them screaming as they resumed jumping in from the rope swing. We had safely stowed the remains of the one-man boat in some bushes so we could retrieve it later.
I rode my bike back to the school yard and continued to worry that I wasn’t going to get away with this. I smelled like creek. That fishy, sour, river smell. I could smell it on myself. How was I going to explain that to my mom? I sat at home plate for a while working up stories, but none of them made any sense. I was hungry, but the sandwich had long ago been discarded in the school garbage bin. As the afternoon quickly started to fade, I decided the smell was wearing off, and headed towards home, being careful to walk the bike across the street as I got in sight of the two-story yellow and brown house on Burkitt Street.
…yep, there’s more.