The stairway built over the barbed-wire fence has always intrigued me. Why was it there? Who built it? It had obviously been there a while, and had been sturdily built. Probably for the owner of the property to gain easy access to his field, even though going through a barbed-wire fence isn’t all that difficult. You just pull up on one strand, and push down on the other being careful to put your hands between the barbs. We did it all the time. Sometimes you snagged your shirt, or scraped your elbow though. If someone held the strands down and up for you as you stepped through, it was even easier. Then you reciprocated from the other side of the fence. Sometimes you would be with a jackass like Jimmy, who would let go of the strands while you were stepping through. I’m pretty sure the staircase wasn’t built for us kids to have easy access to the swimming hole on Big Goose Creek but the trail to the trees was well-worn.
The repair on the raft progressed over the next few days. We found some big wood planks behind Doug’s house that we were able to sneak out to the repair site, without being caught, and hid in the bushes. It took several hours to walk the planks down to the river. Nails, hammers, a saw, and other materials showed up. None of it was really planned. Everyone involved in the project just brought what they thought we needed. We found wood floating in the river too, which was probably from the original raft.
Just so you know, cutting a two by twelve with a handsaw, whether you’re twelve or four times twelve, is pretty intensive. Maybe we had a dull handsaw, I don’t know, but after hours of trading off we would finally get through a plank, without a straight edge, but a reasonably close length. We nailed each one to the two logs and soon had a sturdy deck that three or four of us could sit or stand on at a time. We found a pretty straight pole to use for navigating the raft. The trick would be to get it across the current, into the shallow pond where we would later hide it in the cattails. Before we were ready to launch, almost as soon as we put the last plank on the log raft which we had dragged up on shore to make it easier to work on, the big kids showed up.
“Somebody’s coming,” one of the kids said. I looked up from my hammering and saw five BIG kids walking towards us.
“What are you punks doing here?” the biggest of the kids said. The others seemed to walking behind him, like he was their leader, the kingpin.
“It’s a free country,” Jimmy said, looking right at him. The kingpin stood in front of the raft now, his lackeys stood two on either side. He was a big kid. I figured him to be 15, maybe sixteen, maybe the fullback for the high school football team – maybe, it turned out later, I was right on.
“Not here it ain’t. What are you doin’ with our raft?”
“Yeah,” one of the lackeys chimed in.
“It ain’t your raft,” Jimmy said. “We found it and now it’s our’s.”
“Well thanks for findin’ it, and fixin’ it up,” the big kid said and he pushed Jimmy in the chest, knocking him off the raft where he was standing with his hands on hips, causing him to slide down the bank into the mud at the bottom. Now, Jimmy had just gotten some new white Keds which were now a shade of chocolate-brown. He looked down at his new shoes, and then took off running up the bank, flew himself at the big kid knocking him off-balance for a second and starting flailing at him with his fists.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” He kept repeating it as he pounded on the big kid with little effect.
After the big kid regained his balance, he put a hand on Jimmy’s head and held him out far enough so his arms just flailed the air. The lackeys started to laugh. Some of our group had already taken off down the trail, wanting no part of it.
“Look at this. This dude is a fighter.” Then he shoved him down the creek bank again.
I tried to act tough and said, “Leave him alone.” The other four kids started to walk menacingly toward me and I ran like hell, leaving Jimmy to his fate. I waited at the stairway, and within a few minutes he came walking out of the trees, muddy shoes, ripped shirt, not crying but wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
“Damn, Jimmy, there was nothing I could do. They would have killed me.” I wasn’t much of a fighter anyway. I had gotten into one fight up to this point in my life, my glasses had gotten broken, and needless to say, I didn’t win. I got the belt, and a medical tape repair that I had to endure for a month until I got new glasses.
Jimmy said he knew, said something about his mother was going to kill him because of the shoes, and we climbed the stairs to our bikes and rode home.
My attention now turned to the boat shell we had stashed in the garage attic at Doug’s house.
That night at dinner, I nonchalantly asked my Dad where I could get some aluminum. He looked up from his paper, looked at me like I had potatoes growing out of my ears, and said, “I don’t know.” He took a long look at me again, shook his head, and went back to reading his paper.
My Dad sat at the head of the table, the end in front of the window. The older two kids sat on either side of him, out of reach. He needed the extra room for the paper, his butter and crackers, and we knew to give him room. The other kids in descending age, continued on down the table to my mother who sat on the other end, usually with a high-chair pulled up next to her. When my sister, the oldest, and I, moved out of the house, the next two in line moved up to the our positions at the table. If you chewed too loudly, you got whacked with a backhand, without warning. It didn’t matter which side of the table you sat on either. He was just as good with his left as he was with his right. Sometimes you only got whacked with the paper, which he folded very carefully as he read, needing the full area to open the paper and refold it to continue reading. I learned early to eat quietly with my mouth closed and never asked for a cracker. He had “Saltines” and real butter at every meal, and they were only for him.
That same night, Jimmy went down to the river with a flashlight. He found the raft tied up at the bank. Using his pocket knife, he cut the rope, letting the current take the raft downstream, guiding it from shore with the pole until it caught the strong current at the dam and the vortex claimed it again. He shined the flashlight out in the dark and watched the raft spin uncontrollably and bang up against the dam several times. Satisfied, he climbed the staircase over the barbed-wire fence to his bike and rode home.
…I’ve still got more.