Todd and I traveled the back roads to Okatoma Creek intent on salvaging what remained of an otherwise dismal spring break. All week long the rain fell in buckets, trapping us indoors and subjecting us to severe boredom. Then, on the last day of our vacation, the rain ended. We seized the opportunity to release our pent-up energy. After mulling over many options, we settled on floating the Okatoma because it seemed adventurous and it was outdoors. Upon our arrival at the canoe rental store, a guide took our money without hesitation or a liability waiver, loaded an old aluminum canoe in his truck, and drove us upstream to the launch point, which was hidden beneath a small bridge near Seminary, Mississippi. The guide was a chipper fellow about five years our senior, and he talked nonstop about people he knew from our school. As we finalized our preparations and sat in the canoe, he predicted that we would have the creek to ourselves since it was running at flood stage. With that comment and the sight of vortexes spawned by the turbulent water flowing under the bridge, there may have been a brief moment of doubt. But the second thoughts were short lived, as the guide wished us good luck, with a snicker, and shoved us off from the shore with a kick from his muddy boot.
Immediately, the current snatched our vessel and hurled us downstream like a runaway roller coaster. Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed the uneasy look on Todd's face and knew that he too was contemplating the plight to which we had so eagerly subjected ourselves. It was apparent that the thin shell of the canoe was the only thing separating us from certain disaster. With no time to lament our decision, we set our minds and energy on one seemingly simple goal: not flipping the canoe. A simple goal, maybe, but challenging nonetheless given the stream's choleric disposition. But this wasn't our first dance with danger, and it wasn't long before the paddles moved like extensions of our arms controlling our speed and steering our vessel toward the least threatening lanes. Although there were no other people on the creek that day, we weren't entirely alone. We noticed logs, debris, and a couple of water moccasins floating nearby — additional motivation to remain in the canoe. When we hit the deep spots, we stopped paddling and caught our breath. But rapids were more common where we bumped and scraped against the rocks and fought to remain upright. Over the roar of the rushing water, we shouted to coordinate our actions and openly debated the blame for our predicament. We swept by the 1-hour pickup point, unable to reach the sandbar and indirectly committed ourselves to the full 3-hour float.
The remainder of the trip was a fight against the sinister will of the creek, but with each small victory our confidence grew and, near the end, excitement displaced our fear. When we saw the outdoor adventure store, which marked the end of the float, we mustered one last burst of energy and paddled for the shore. By God's great mercy, we ran aground on the sandbar, pulled our canoe out of the water, and took a seat at the water's edge. We congratulated one another, but agreed never to repeat the experience. As the guide emerged from the store, he picked up where he left off rattling off additional names of acquaintances that he had remembered since shoving us off. As he collected our gear, he informed us that we finished the 3-hour float in just under an hour. And that is how a spring break to forget became one that we always remembered.
Floating the Okatoma at flood stage was just one of the many exciting adventures that Todd and I shared in our quest to enjoy life. We didn't flirt with danger often, but when we did the experience tended to be memorable and sometimes downright terrifying. When we rose in the mornings, we never intentionally planned to subject ourselves to harm; rather the predicaments were usually the result of bad decisions, inexperience, overconfidence in our abilities, or just bad luck. That we survived, usually unscathed, seemed to only be explicable through the direct intervention of God.
The freedom and independence we enjoyed enabled us to experience such adventures. Many kids from our generation were latchkey kids who came home to empty houses until the parents returned from their work. I was a latchkey kid, except I usually forgot my key. In such situations, my only way in was to crawl through the small window over the kitchen sink, which my mom always left open for this purpose. Maybe it was the thrill of breaking in my house or the fact that I didn't have to carry a key, but I actually preferred entering our home this way. Our parents allowed us a certain amount of freedom to roam without direct adult supervision, for the most part, on the condition that we obeyed the rules. Such independence was feasible due to the safe, close-knit community that surrounded us. If we did break the rules or found ourselves in need of help, the watchful eyes of our neighbors would see and intervene. With such freedom, we matured quickly as we learned valuable lessons about life, often the hard way.
While the early years of our childhood were generally uninteresting, there were a few rather traumatic experiences. There was the time Todd literally played with fire while trying his hand cooking solo at home. In the process, he started a grease fire on the stove, which prompted a call to the Petal Fire Department. I wasn't with him when it occurred, but I saw and heard the fire trucks racing to his house. Fortunately, his mom was home and the fire was quickly extinguished with little, if any, damage. The only casualty that day was Todd's pride.
Then, there was the time I attempted to change a flat tire on my bike. I was about 7 years old at the time. My tool was a cheap knife that I found in my dad's shop while he was away at drill with the National Guard. As I grew frustrated at the tool's ineffectiveness, the flimsy blade slipped off the rim and plunged deep into my left wrist, puncturing a major artery. Oddly, I felt no pain, probably because I was too busy panicking about the arc of blood that gushed from my wrist like a geyser. My mom couldn't hear my screams as I sprinted to the house for help because she was on the lawn mower in the front yard. It was the only time I remembered her cutting the grass. I rushed into our home and ran down the hall to my sister's room where she was on the phone with her door locked. I often pestered her, especially while she was on the phone, so it was understandable that she ignored my pleads for help telling me to go away and leave her alone. Then, in what I have often considered one of my most ingenious acts, I pressed my wrist under the door so that the blood jetted into her room. It worked like a charm as she immediately thrust open the door, rushed me to the bathroom, wrapped my wrist in a towel, and told me to hold it tight as she bolted outside to get mom. My mom rushed in, loaded me into the car, and we headed to the doctor's office. The efficiency and speed of my sister and mom probably saved my life. Mom drove with one hand and firmly applied pressure to the blood-soaked towel with her other. Looking her in the eye, I asked her if I was going to die. In reply, she assured me that no I wasn't going to die, and I never doubted it. My tire maintenance attempt earned me five stitches and a stern lecture from the doctor about cutting away from the body — a lesson I wouldn't soon forget. Meanwhile, while we were at the doctor's office, my dad came home to a trail of blood from the shop, up the driveway, and into the house: he said it looked like a scene from a horror movie. Fortunately, Todd wasn't present for the bloody incident.
The same arm was also subject to a bad burn from Todd's go-kart. After an afternoon ride, we were putting the go-kart away and needed to lift it, for some odd reason. We raised it with Todd at the front and me the back. As I stood up, my arm pressed against the hot muffler branding the Briggs & Stratton logo on the skin of my bicep. And soon I was, once again, riding in the car for an emergency trip to the doctor. I'm sure it hurt, but Todd's mom later bragged to my mom that I never cried or complained. Perhaps the knife incident toughened me up. Todd's mom had a way of complementing me in such situations, which made me forget the bad circumstance.
We also had our share of broken bones and strains, which never failed to hurt. I once chipped a bone in my hand playing football in Todd's living room, of all places. It was small chip, but the pain was incredible. I had a hard time explaining it to the doctor, but the story made an impression on him as for years he asked about my arena football career. Like most of our peers, we periodically needed crutches for sprains, breaks, and fractures. However, in those early years, casts brought instant popularity at school because everyone wanted to sign them. Furthermore, it also meant automatic permission to leave class early, usually with a friend of our choosing to carry our books. So, with such perks and the transient sympathy of the girls, we had few complaints as we needed all the help we could get.
Then one day, while we were playing football in Todd's front yard with Michael, another great friend of mine, an injury occurred that changed our thinking about broken bones. Todd was playing all-time quarterback and Michael was running with the football while I played defense. As Michael turned the corner, I dove head first to tackle him. His leg bore the full force of the impact as we crashed to the ground. As we fell there was loud pop that seemed to echo off the trees. It sounded like a rifle shot. Immediately, Michael started yelling in pain. It was clear, even to our untrained eyes, that his upper leg was broken. Later, we learned it was his femur, a portion of the anatomy that etched itself in our minds.
Once again, the family ambulance was called into action, except this time it was my dad who rushed to the scene. As my dad worked, it was like watching a scene from the TV show MacGyver. Dad braced Michael's leg with two wooden boards on either side and secured them with rope. Together, we lifted Michael into the back of dad's Bronco, which he had layered with padding to soften the ride. I sat in the back allowing Michael to squeeze my hand as tight as necessary while my dad sped down the road, with hazard lights flashing, to the nearest emergency room. After surgery, Michael laid in traction for several weeks in the hospital while I felt absolutely terrible. Thankfully, he never blamed me for the accident. In fact, the only complaint I heard him utter was that the nurses ruined his Mississippi State sweatpants, which they cut off with scissors. When I returned to visit him the next day, I presented him with a new pair of sweats.
Some experiences were traumatic due to emotional rather than actual physical harm, and a few of these occurred on our extended bike rides. Eastabuchie was a map dot, at best, but it held the nearest gas station, which was about four miles from our homes. One summer, in the middle of July, we began making regular pilgrimages on our bikes to the gas station, about once every two weeks. With our pockets full of change, we rode to the station and cashed in on Nehi peach sodas, ice cream sandwiches, and candy bars. Savoring our sugary snacks, we would sit on the sidewalk outside the store. The normal route to the store and back involved traversing a small winding road that ran in front of our homes. About two miles down the road, it paralleled Highway 11 with a busy railroad track in-between. When we heard a train approaching, we would place pennies on the track to be flattened. These were long freight trains and after they passed it was nearly impossible to find our pennies. We assumed the pennies were vaporized. Once or twice, we were present when the Amtrak flew by blasting its horn. If we stood too close when it passed, we felt dizzy and slightly nauseous, so we learned to watch from a distance.
One sweltering afternoon, we decided to return home from the Eastabuchie store via Highway 11 because it seemed like a faster route. About a quarter of a mile down the highway, the shoulder of the road ended along with any illusion of safety or enhanced speed. What followed was a real-life game of Frogger as the steady stream of cars caused us to alternate between pedaling our bikes a few feet, just enough to start moving, and jumping into the tall grass along the side of the road. As they sped by, some travelers honked to pay homage to our stupidity. The progress was slow and demoralizing. Soon we ditched the idea of riding and begrudgingly walked our bikes in the grass until we reached the railroad crossing two miles up the highway. Back on familiar ground, we declared Highway 11 evil. A few years later, that judgment would be reinforced.
Behind the Eastabuchie gas station, there was an old decrepit cemetery, which was rumored to hold the graves of civil war soldiers. The rumor may have been factual, as we saw a story on the local news station about grave robbers who were caught digging up caskets in the area for the muskets and other relics. Then again, even the legends we created seemed true as we recited them regularly adding new details each time. True or not, the story piqued our interests and one afternoon, as we enjoyed our peach sodas and moon pies on the sidewalk, we succeeded in psyching ourselves up enough to visit the cemetery.
Neglected for several years, the cemetery was filled with scraggly brush and imposing live oaks. The low, sprawling limbs of the oaks reminded me of monster arms with knots that looked like elbows and a gradual tampering of the limbs' girth to branches that resembled bony fingers. Thick masses of gray moss draped from the limbs nearly touching the dusty ground below. Even in broad daylight, the cemetery was cast in darkness under the shadows of these ancient trees. As we pushed open the rusty iron gate with its ornamental spikes, it emitted an eerie creak. We tiptoed into the sinister necropolis and jumped at the caw of a crow taking flight from a nearby limb and then sweeping over us. A cool breeze rustled the fingers of the tree monsters causing strange shadows to dance on the ground and tombstones. I felt my heart thumping wildly as the last of my courage vanished like a vapor. In our overloaded minds, we assumed our trespass had disturbed the dead souls that were seeking revenge for the recent thefts. We scurried back to the gate, stumbling over sticks and each other until we reached our bikes. Mounting our trusty steeds, we pedaled back home at break neck speed, never looking back, and setting a new time record in the process. Sleep came with difficulty for the next few nights as we thought about the spirits we had possibly disturbed. As usual, the fear diminished each day and we soon resumed our trips to the store. But we never set foot in that cemetery again.
They tore down the old Eastabuchie gas station several years ago to make way for a larger station complete with a restaurant where you can get a greasy burger and fries. I've gone out of my way a few times to top off my tank at the store. Just being in the area, caused the memories to flow like the waters of the Okatoma. Staring at the sidewalk, I could almost hear our laughter as I envisioned us enjoying our snacks, which were free at home but somehow tasted better when purchased at the store. At the sound of a train horn, I turned toward the railroad tracks and imagined us sacrificing pennies on the rail while waving at the conductor in exchange for a blast from his horn. I glanced at the old cemetery, now well maintained, and pictured us racing by on our bikes, standing as we pedaled to gain extra speed.
As I have grown older, the scar on my wrist has melted so that it is less visible, but I can still make it out and it gives me shivers to think about how I got it. Likewise, some of the details of our adventures have faded, but I doubt I will ever completely forget them. I certainly hope not. They aren't the kind of experiences one would recommend or hope to repeat, but like the swirling brush strokes in a Van Gogh painting I can't imagine our story without them.
© Chad A. Steed
Return to Writings index