When we were growing up in a small town in Northern Wyoming, the one thing we were absolutely not allowed to do was play by the river. We were not allowed to go near it. But, just like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and their creator, Mark Twain, the river has a draw for kids, especially boys, and I was no exception. The first place we lived in Sheridan was in an upstairs apartment, two houses away from Big Goose Creek, which winds its way through town. Okay, so it’s not a river, but it’s a pretty good-sized creek – pronounced “crick” were I come from – and after one too many damaging floods, that cut the town in half until the water receded, the Army Corps of Engineers built a flood channel through most of the town, complete with arched bridges. When we first moved there, it was a gentle slope from the sidewalk that continued over the Loucks Street Bridge. One day on the way home from first grade, a friend and I decided to walk down the slope to the creek and skip some rocks. The water was probably about three feet at its deepest here, but it was moving pretty good under the bridge.
I had just successfully skipped a rock three times. I was basking, somewhat, in the skill I had just demonstrated when the next thing I hear is a familiar voice. My mother is leaning over the concrete bridge railing screaming at me. She had been to the “Stop ‘N Shop” on the other side of the bridge and was pushing my little brother home in the stroller, when she spotted me. I never could get away with anything.
“Leonard Francis, you get away from there and get home this minute!” You knew you were in some serious trouble when she used your middle name. “You just wait until your father gets home!”
At least the punishment was going to be slightly delayed. When I reached the top of the bank and got back on the sidewalk, she grabbed me by the collar and dragged me half-choking the rest of the way home while guiding the stroller with the other. I won’t admit to sniffling, but I’m sure I did, mostly from the embarrassment I endured as my friend stood by and watched. For the next two hours I sat alone in the bedroom waiting for the belt. I was in solitary, and yes, the belt was the approved method of capital punishment for crimes of this nature. Getting caught at the river’s edge was definitely going to fall into a serious criminal category. To this day, I still believe waiting for the belt, knowing it’s inevitable, is worse than the punishment itself.
We moved away from the “river,” all the way to Hardin, Montana, for a year. I had an incident with a drainage channel by the bus stop one winter morning when, draw again by the water, even with a sheet of ice over it, I fell through and had to go to school wet from the waist down. My sister threatened to tell, which I’m sure she did, as sure as I am that I got the belt and the lecture about staying away from water.
When we returned to Sheridan, my parents rented a small house on the hill overlooking the gully – an area off-limits to me, and, of course, had a small brook running through it. Yes, I got caught playing in the gully, on several occasions. A few years later we moved to the two-story house on the corner of West Burkitt and S. Thurmond Ave. Soon after that, I had wheels. A bike. That tan and brown Schwinn got me places, and I spent a lot of time riding it around town. My mother expressly allowed me to ride my bike around the block. Sometimes two blocks if I walked it across the street. Sometimes to the school yard which was four blocks away with the same conditions. I only “walked” the bike across the street when I got in view from the front of our house.
This particular afternoon I was on a dirt road at least a mile from the house, my mother being too busy to watch me pass the kitchen window periodically on my way around the allowed route. I spotted a staircase over a section of barbed-wire fence just on the other side of the drainage ditch, with a trail leading into a thicket of trees. I laid the bike down, but dutifully put the bike lock on the front fork, and then climbed up the stairs and down the other side. I almost thought it would be like the entrance to “Nardia,” but it was not a “different” world on the other side of the fence. Well, not exactly.
I followed the path into the trees and came to the bank of Big Goose Creek where a deep swimming hole formed at the river bend. Tall Cottonwood trees lined the bank and a large knotted rope hung from the branch of one closest to the water. A shallow pond continued in all directions from there for fifty or so yards, with cattails thick on the far shore. It was a kid’s paradise. Walking along the bank for a ways I saw a long-deserted beaver dam, washed out and rebuilt by nature with floating debris. The “log jam” created a vortex of water as it rushed to get around the blockage. In the middle of the whirlpool was a raft. A raft that could have belonged to Tom and Huck. Constructed on two large logs, it was spinning and banging off the dam. The raft was a good distance off shore, but I started to think about a rope with a hook, and a few guys helping to haul it back to a safer place.
I didn’t see anyone the whole time I was there, and I walked back to the stairs, back over the fence. My bike was where I had left it. I unlocked it, and re-locked the combination bike lock under the seat post. My mother was waiting for me in the front yard as I walked the bike across Thurmond, exaggerating the carefulness of looking in both directions before I crossed.
“Where have you been?” she scolded me.
“I was just riding around the block. That block,” and I turned and pointed. She hadn’t really specified which two blocks I could ride around.
“All right,” she said, “You stay close. It’s almost dinner time.”
Wow, I had been gone a long time. I hadn’t realized it. That was a close call. Now, my mother had “spies” everywhere. It was, after all, a small town. Somebody could have spotted me or my bike, lying on the side of the road, and would waste no time calling to rat me out. For now, it seemed, I was good. I put the bike in the garage, and starting looking for the neighborhood friends. I figured I would need about four or five to rescue the raft.
…there’s more to come.