If we had brought fishing gear, I probably wouldn't have much to say about the afternoon Todd and I spent in the shadows of a bridge over the Leaf River on Highway 11. But fishing wasn't on our minds when we left home. Todd's sole intention was to get away from the crowd of visitors gathered at his house and I had nothing better to do. Family and close friends filled his abode to pay their respects after his grandfather's funeral, which was held earlier that day. When he returned home, he called me on the phone to see if I wanted to go somewhere and hang out. I picked him up in my truck a few minutes later. The sun was still high when we arrived at the bridge. It was larger of the two bridges that spanned the Leaf and separated Petal from Hattiesburg. Due north of the bridge, another river, the Bouie, merged into the Leaf. As a child, I would sit tall in the back seat of my family's car as we crossed the bridge to catch a glimpse of the point where these two rivers became one. Sometimes I would see men in bass boats fishing as they floated down stream. Each year, we would hear reports of fishermen drowning in the Leaf and I often wondered why since, from a distance, the river showed no apparent signs of danger.
I parked on the Hattiesburg side of the bridge and we meandered along a well-worn path down a sandy bluff to the bank of the Bouie. After kicking around it to check for snakes, we sat on an old piece of driftwood. As the afternoon passed, Todd talked about his grandfather and I listened. During this time, we passively gazed at the seemingly infinite supply of muddy water and debris that rolled past us. Occasionally, we stood to hurl sticks or skip rocks; with a nice flat one we could easily manage 6 or more hops. Our attention was also drawn to the opposite bank some 60 feet away where a patch of secluded and mysterious woods grew, difficult if not completely impossible to reach by land. Like most days, the rivers were full of water that afternoon — runoff water from connected streams mixed with soil on a turbulent journey to the steamy Gulf of Mexico.
As the sun gradually lost the sky, we exhausted topics for discussion and a hazardous situation developed — we became bored. Yet going home wasn't appealing, so we pondered what we could do to pass the remaining daylight. The best we could think of was swimming across the Bouie to the opposite bank for a better look. We stripped down to our boxers and slipped into the turbid river to begin our swim. We reached the other bank with ease. In fact, it was too easy. If we had taken the time to think about it, we probably would have realized that it was the Bouie's strong current that propelled us over. Yet we had no such luxury because as soon as we reached the bank, we spotted of a couple of men with fishing rods walking through the brush toward the area where we had disembarked. When the thought crossed our minds that they may steal our clothes, we aborted our expedition and plunged back into the river to make a swift return.
Motivated by the thought of driving home in our boxers, we swam with urgency. But our progress was slow since we swam against the powerful current in the bend where the two rivers joined. To make matters worse, the strength of the current seemed to increase with every inch we gained. Todd was about 10 feet ahead of me, primarily because my body tended to sink, not float. We continued to swim, barely closing the distance to our destination. In between gasps for breath, we expressed our growing concern.
We had experienced tight spots before, but this one was different. When I accidentally stabbed the artery in my wrist, it was terrifying but my mom and sister took charge and reassured me. When Todd and I floated the Okatoma at flood stage, the stream was ominous but we knew keeping the canoe upright was within our power. But I felt utterly helpless in the Bouie that afternoon and the thought entered my mind that this may be our last adventure. It was the first time in my life that I felt that way. The frustration I felt overpowered the whispers of panic as I tried to swim harder, ignoring the burning in my arms and legs. With the bank so close, it felt like a bad dream that I couldn't escape. I caught a glimpse of Todd climbing onto the bank ahead of me. Sensing my fading strength, he began to shout words of encouragement. I summoned one last burst of energy and broke free from the hold of the jealous current. When I reached the bank, I grabbed Todd's outstretched hand and he pulled me out. We dried off, dressed, and headed home. The two fishermen that prompted our hasty return disappeared. I suppose they ventured further upstream.
Later in life, our recollections of swimming the Bouie would end with laughter about our boldness and stupidity. Oddly, we never discussed how close we came to drowning. But I'll never forget the battle between my tired body, which was ready to surrender to the current, and my stubborn mind, which refused to give up. I also think about how God orchestrated the combination of two forces to save me: the encouragement of my friend and the determination to close the gap. Either force in isolation wouldn't have made much difference.
The only other escapade that sticks out in my mind is the night we climbed an old fire tower in Eastabuchie. It happened during our early college years, the period when our lives began to diverge. Abandoned many years before our time, the tower consisted of a rusty steel frame that encased several flights of stairs with wooden steps. It rose into the sky like a skinny pyramid, wide at the bottom and gradually tapering to the top where a covered observation deck was perched high above the tree tops. On a clear day, one could probably see for miles from the tower. Or so we imagined each time we rode past it on our bikes. But our decision to climb the tower wasn't about the view; it was dark after all. Our motivation was more about bragging rights, since we had been dreaming about the climb for most of our childhood. With our childhood behind us for the most part, perhaps we sensed it was our last chance.
After squeezing through a gap in the chain link fence that surrounded the tower, we began our ascent. The only illumination came from the moon and stars above, so it was a slow and painstaking process. Even though it was a mild fall night, the cool breeze that whispered through the needles in the pine trees made us wish for our jackets as we climbed higher in the air. About halfway up the tower, we rose above the canopy of trees and saw the twinkling lights of Hattiesburg in the distance. Distracted by the sight, I stepped on a rotten board and it broke. Thanks to my grip on the rail, I managed to keep my balance. The first inklings of doubt entered our minds as we heard the broken pieces of the board ricocheting off the steel on its descent to the ground. Stubbornly, we kept climbing until a few steps later when another board cracked under Todd's foot. For a moment, we paused to reconsider our mission. Although reaching the top would be memorable, it was obvious that the deterioration of the steps only increased as we moved higher. The more we discussed it, the more our doubt turned into fear as we imagined the whole tower may collapse at any moment. We decided it wasn't worth the risk, and we carefully eased our way down the stairs while clutching the meager handrail. During our descent, we felt every vibration, heard every creak, and cringed with each step. It took us twice the time to climb down, but we made it. We failed to reach the top, but we were satisfied and standing on solid ground never felt better.
I find it ironic that Todd's grave is located at a small church less than a mile from that old fire tower. Mere words cannot describe how much it grieves me that he is gone. I miss him the most when memories such as these pop in my mind. Sometimes I forget and type a text message about a memory that I never send. The first time I visited his grave, I was surprised to see the old fire tower still stands, although most of the steps are either entirely gone or rotten now. In time, a strong wind will probably topple the tower, but as a memory in my mind it will continue to stand like most of our adventures. When I leave this world, only the woods will remember our times, except for what we've passed down. This realization causes me to dream about all the untold stories from other ramblers that these woods must hold.
Thoughts of these and other adventures that we shared remind me how we often came to the aid of each other. Sometimes we found ourselves in peril together, and we locked arms to ease our way down to solid ground. Other times, one saw the other caught in an undercurrent and offered a helping hand. I don't know the details of Todd's last swim against the current — the one he didn't survive. It would be futile to speculate about the circumstances. Still, it haunts me to think I couldn't help him when it mattered the most. My experience in the Bouie reminds me that it was the coalescence of two forces that enabled me to crawl out, yet the burden persists.
© Chad A. Steed
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