Some call it tombstone courage while most just call it stupid……….
The creek was normally a very small brook that ran through the town of Riley. Most of the time you could cross it in one step. The greatest danger was normally from mom. I would come home with muddy and wet clothes from playing in it and get in trouble. Since the creek ran along the west side of the school, it was a constant temptation.
I spent many days down in that creek wading up and down its length through town. We might try to catch the little minnows that darted among the rocks. Sometimes we would catch crawdads and see who could find the biggest one.
I remember stacking rocks and trying to hold the water back or divert it. In the summer it was a way to cool off because at that time there was no city swimming pool. We explored it from one end of town to the other.
In the winter time we would slide around on the ice and see if we could break holes in the ice. It was a game of chicken to see who could get closest to breaking through the ice. Inevitably, you would crack the ice and suddenly fall through up to your waist! OOOHHHHHHH that was COLD! Never mind, you’d just kept playing until it got dark or the cold finally got to you.
I remember many times getting home and my pant legs would be frozen solid from getting them wet and then freezing. I’d take them off and the legs of my jeans would stand up, still frozen stiff. I’d then take a long hot shower to thaw myself out.
When it rained, the creek level would rise and we would do silly things like climbing out onto tree limbs which extended out over the water. You might even find part of a tree limb or log and help it float down the swollen creek by prodding it with sticks. The entire time you didn’t give danger much of a thought. It was too much fun.
There were woods on both sides of the creek most of the way through town. When we weren’t in the creek, we were in those woods playing. There were trails all over the place and plenty of wood for building makeshift forts. You’d then divide into teams and try to sneak up on the other guys fort. Since the town sat on the border of Fort Riley, we would many times just play army. We’d put on whatever items of army surplus equipment we had and sneak around the woods or down the creek on a secret mission.
In essence that creek and those woods became a second home for me. They were as familiar as my own back yard.
The issue is that when you become so familiar with something and connect so many good memories with it, you lose perspective. Nothing with so many good experiences connected with it could be dangerous. At least in my young mind it worked that way.
On the edge of the school playground was a street bridge which spanned the creek along with a seperate pedestrian bridge which paralelled the street. After school there were dozens of kids walking that way going home.
It was the opposite direction from my house, but I’d go that way and visit with friends and then we’d stop and goof around at the creek and those bridges.
As with most places, when ever you had melting snow, the creek would rise. On one particular afternoon the weather had warmed up enough that the snow was quickly melting. The creek had risen significantly and was roaring. When we got to the bridges after school, the creek had risen to the highest I’d ever seen it. The water was up to the bottom of the road bridge. There was no space between the surface of the creek and the bottom of the bridge. It had a large tree limb jammed up under the bridge and contributing to the loud roar of the rushing water. The whole scene was the flood of the year!
This was, of course, more than I could resist. I know that mom had threatened me if I didn’t quit coming home wet and muddy from the creek. In my defense though, this was like a flood. This was a major event that I couldn’t miss out on.
I crossed over the pedestrian bridge with my friends and walked down to the creek bank on the other side. The swirling muddy water was hard to guage. I knew the level was up quite a bit, but I’d played in it before when it was high and had survived. This time it was much higher, but that just made it a challenge.
In talking to one of my friends, I told him I thought I could wade through it. Yea, I’d get my jeans a little wet, but this was an adventure, plus I had the opportunity to show off in front of my friends.
I grabbed a loose tree branch to act as my walking stick. I could use it to poke around out in front of me to try and figure out the best place to walk. I decided to keep my coat on because it was still cold out even though the snow was melting.
The water had risen above the regular stream bank and was swirling past in the weeds above the bank. It was muddy and looked like an angry strip of chocolate milk. I couldn’t see anything below the surface.
I took my first small steps into the water amongst the weeds. It was very cold and sent shivers up my back. My friends remained on the pedestrian bridge and cheered me on. I got up to knee level and I hadn’t gotten to the original streambank yet. As I poked my way along, I found the edge of the bank below the fast running water. It was very hard to maintain my footing because of the immense force of the water.
I slowly took my first tentative step off of the bank and into the main channel. This instantly put the water up above my waist. It was too fast and hard. The cold water was quickly causing my legs and feet to become numb from the cold. I was committed, though, so there was no turning back. About the time I took my third step in the channel, I was swept off my feet.
Now I was completely under the murky water. As I went under the water I could hear the rushing of the water and feel the freezing water on the skin of my face. I bobbed back up and reached out for the bottom of the pedestrian bridge, but I was moving too fast. I was swept past and below my friends. This placed me up against the road bridge.
Since the surface of the creek was at the level of the bottom of this bridge, I was forced under the water and into the complete darkness of the freezing muddy water as it roared under the bridge. I felt myself get smashed into that tree limb that was jammed up under the bridge. I grabbed at it, but since I was now under the bridge, I had now where to go. I couldn’t get to the surface since the water was at the bottom of the bridge. The dark cold water spun me around to where I began to lose focus on which way was up. Somewhere in all this confusion my glasses were ripped from my face and lost.
I was finally swept past the limbs under the bridge and out the opposite side of the road. I tried to grab whatever I could catch and finally felt another tree limb. I grabbed onto it and pulled myself up. The force of the water was working against me and even though the adrenaline had kicked in, I could feel myself losing power. All I knew was that I was very cold and running out of air. Just as the lack of air was getting critical, I broke through the surface of the water. I quickly took a big breath of fresh air and floated on down the creek till I saw a large tree limb laying across the creek and above the water surface.
I bobbed under the water and back up just in time to reach for the limb. ….Success!…. I managed to hook the tree limb with my hand. I then pulled hard against the rushing cold water. I inched my way to the bank and pulled myself out of the deep water and into a shallower area.
My friends came down the bank and caught up with me. I was like a drowned rat as I crawled up and out of the water. My friends exclaimed that they thought I was a goner. All I could manage to do was agree with them…..I thought I was a goner also.
After several minutes of catching my breath and coming to terms with one of the wildest rides of my life, I began to get cold. I picked myself up and walked home. When I got to the parsonage I went in the back door with all my clothes sopping wet.
When mom saw me she asked me how in the world I had managed to get myself completely wet on the 3 block walk from school. I told her that I’d been hanging around at the creek and had slipped into the water.
She reminded me that I should be more careful and that I wasn’t supposed to be in that creek. I never told her that I had tried wading the flood and was sucked under the road bridge. If I’d told her the truth, she might have come up with some crazy idea like walking home with my little sister or even picking me up after school.
That, my friends, would have been a terrible fate. I was just fine with her assuming I was terribly clumsey and living with that.
Like I said, there is a fine line between tombstone courage and just plain stupid. I have to admit that on that day I floated well past that line and into stupid.