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Down the River

Written by Scott M. Fisher

It was several miles from our neighborhood down to the Mississippi River and Credit Island Park. However, when they took the school bus away from us and we were forced to ride our bikes to school every day, our parents let us ride anywhere we wanted on the weekends. Our newfound freedom resulted in “bike hikes” all over Scott County, including those to the river, and ultimately to Credit Island Park, which flooded every spring and was restored every summer, which kept both U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Davenport Park District workers busy.

Each weekend Bill Weeks, Jenny Osage, and I took a “bike hike” down to Credit Island. We had been in every class together since first grade at Grant Elementary School. Bill and I eventually became teammates on Little League and Pony League baseball teams—never losing a division championship. But of the three of us, Jenny was the best athlete. She could run faster, throw more accurately, and tackle harder than any of us, much to our embarrassment. Of course, back then, girls had no way to prove this in organized competition, only in our neighborhood pick‑up games. That’s another story for another time.

Jenny could also ride her bike faster and farther than any of the neighborhood boys, even the “big kids.” And it was she who always wanted to make the long trip to Credit Island. The trip there wasn’t too bad—all downhill, especially if we went down Division Street which curved past Fejervary Park and the Putnam Museum—over 20 blocks downhill. Of course, the tough part came on the way back. Neither Bill nor I could ever ride completely up that long hill, but Jenny could—and let us know it, too.

Bill would say, “Just once, I’d like to find something I could beat her at!” as he’d huff and puff, struggling to stay on his bike, then finally giving up and hopping off to walk it the rest of the way. Jenny always waited for us at the top, sitting on the steps of the little neighborhood grocery store, slurping a snow cone.

“‘Bout time, you GUYS! Ha ha!” She cared very little about boosting our self esteem.

Credit Island was a fun place for kids to play, especially if unaccompanied by supervising adults. As long as we stayed clear of the golf clubhouse and picnic area, nobody cared what we did. One of our more opportunistic enterprises there was snagging the round, metal, oil‑burning street construction markers (used in the days before battery-powered signal lights) which floated downstream like oversized fishing bobbers after a flood or heavy rain. The city paid a quarter for each one recovered and returned. Jenny, having the longest arms and legs, was always able to snag more than Bill or myself, but we had a prearranged agreement that we would all split the reward money in three equal shares no matter who recovered the most “jugs.”

The lagoon was a great place to catch bullheads and turtles, plus one end resembled a beach area where we could swim—something we never told our parents about. It was shaded by drooping weeping willow trees, so no one from the Park District would spot us and kick us out. From there we could see the river and the several abandoned boat wrecks strewn along the Illinois side. One particularly impressive wreck was an old riverboat which, depending on who one talked to and on which particular day, had several names and origins. In later years it was dragged out and, I understand, sent upriver to be part of a “Riverboat Museum” and given a colorful history, parts of which may have actually been true.

Bill and I invented adventurous scenarios (as in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, which we’d all read in school) about how great it would be to travel on the river. Jenny scoffed at our wild tales of how we’d float down to Keokuk or Memphis, even New Orleans. The “what‑ifs” got bigger and better, until we became obsessed with the idea of sailing, like Tom and Huck, on our raft down to the Gulf of Mexico. Jenny howled with delight as we made our “plans” and insisted that it was something that “only real men could do.” She then proceeded to make us look feeble again on the way back home up Division Street. From the top of the hill she’d yell down at us: “Oh, yeah, I can hardly wait to see you two sailors paddle your way to that Gulf of Mexico! Ha ha! Better take the train! Ha ha!” We’d be too winded to reply, except for sticking our tongues out.

A few days later, Fate stepped in. Bill and I were walking by Mercy Hospital, which was only a couple of blocks away from our house. The workers had been building a brick addition to the nun’s quarters, and we were inspecting the construction area, especially looking for quarter‑sized slugs we could use for the Shell gas station’s pop machine. The workers were cleaning up the place and we noticed they had dragged a metal cement-mixing trough over to the scrap pile. This was unbelievable—why throw away such a great piece of equipment? We decided to verify its status.

“Hey, mister,” I asked one of the workers, “are you guys really gonna throw that thing away?”

“You kids get the hell away from here! You’re gonna get hurt, then it’ll be my butt!” (This was a standard greeting from any worker to young boys fooling around construction zones, so it had no effect on us.)

“How come you’re junking out this thing?” Bill asked as we shuffled away. We were more likely to get a response if we appeared to be respectfully complying.

“‘Cause it’s split up one side—no good anymore, see? Now, scram!”

We retreated to our usual site of important council—up in the elm tree in my backyard by the alley.

“Are you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” I asked Bill.

“That tub would be a great raft, wouldn’t it? It’s even got sides so the water wouldn’t slosh in on us.”

“Yeah, I bet it’d get to the Gulf easy, maybe even down to South America!”

“Or even Antarctica. Maybe even all around the world!”

Geography was obviously not our strong point, followed closely by our lack of navigation and distance skills.

“Well, we’d have to get back, ’cause of baseball practice.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, we should go get it, huh.”

“Well, we got to ’cause the junk truck always comes during the night. It’ll be gone by morning.”

The immediate challenge, of course, was to haul this 8‑foot‑long, 4‑foot‑wide metal tub (complete with several inches of hardened cement) back to Bill’s house. We decided that even though it would be a bit further, it would be a better location because he had a garage and I didn’t. We needed a safe place to make necessary repairs and preparations on our new craft. It wouldn’t do for anyone else to see what we were up to. They’d either want to go with us or would threaten to tell on us (the most effective means of extortion). Jenny, we knew, wouldn’t tell, but she’d find a way to convince us that she had to go along, and this was no trip for a girl, recalling no women in Tom and Huck’s raft adventures. It was finally our chance to demonstrate male superiority.

It took us three hours and two repairs of Bill’s wagon to get the tub to his garage. We had to use the intricate system of alleys and driveways so as not to be spotted on a busy street.

We spent several evenings scraping the old cement off. Underneath this coating was a rusty brown color, which we felt would camouflage us well among the small islands along the way where we would have to hide from the “pirates.” To repair the split seam in the corner, we created an ingenious (we thought) mixture of Elmer’s glue and pieces of old bicycle inner tubes, which we delicately pushed into the corner of our boat until we couldn’t see any more daylight. Good as new.

We planned to take lunches of peanut-butter sandwiches (we debated Jif vs. Skippy and smooth vs. crunchy), apples, and licorice, which would be more than enough once we got into the current headed downriver. We figured we’d make it to the Gulf in a matter of a day or two once we got out into the channel. Of course, we planned to bring a little money so we could buy postcards at stopovers in Memphis and New Orleans and send them to Jenny, just to prove where we’d actually been. We’d show her there were things that boys did better than girls!

“So how’re we gonna get this thing all the way down to the lagoon?” I asked Bill the night before our scheduled departure.

It was obviously too heavy and too far to transport with his wagon as we had done for the few blocks from the construction site. We considered pushing it to the bus stop, but didn’t know what fare the driver would charge us for our “raft.” We also figured that was too dangerous, since we’d likely be spotted. Then half the kids in the neighborhood would want to get in on the action.

At last Bill’s eyes brightened. “We’ll ask Sid to take us in his pickup when he goes to work at the Oscar Mayer factory in the morning—it’s close to Credit Island.”

It seemed like a good idea, though Sid Borders was a bit “off‑center” since he’d worked on the kill floor at the Oscar Mayer plant for over twenty years. He had a ’49 Studebaker pickup truck. We ran down the alley four houses away, where Sid was sitting in his backyard, guzzling a cold Pabst. Five or six empty cans were scattered around his lawn chair. After assuring Sid that we had our parents’ permission, he agreed to haul both our tub and us to Credit Island early the next morning.

It was hard to sleep that night, knowing that we’d be in another country soon. I wondered what language people spoke at the Gulf of Mexico. I had an extra pair of socks, a broken‑off canoe paddle, and three peanut-butter sandwiches under my bed. Bill and I had told our parents that we were going on a long hike early in the morning. Little did they know just how long.

When the alarm clock screamed at 4:30 am, I couldn’t remember ever going to sleep, yet it woke me up. I got dressed, then contemplated whether to pack my toothbrush, but decided against it as it might arouse suspicion if someone noticed it missing later. Besides, I’d just had a checkup, so was safe for at least a week or two anyway, if I chewed some extra bubble gum. I grabbed my paddle and knapsack of sandwiches and quietly slipped outside.

When I got to Bill’s, he’d already dragged the tub out of the garage. It felt a bit lighter than before with the adrenaline was pumping through us. We used the old wagon to drag the thing down to Sid’s house (it never occurred to us to ask him to swing around through the alley to pick it up by Bill’s garage). We got to Sid’s house just as he was walking out the door, black, hip‑roof lunchbox in hand. He helped us load the tub into the back of his truck without even asking a question. We appreciated the fact that he was probably being respectful of our privacy, but I now realize that it is more likely that Sid was too hung-over to care.

The trip down to Credit Island, with both of us riding in the back, each clinging to a side of the tub, seemed to last forever. At last the truck clanked to a stop in front of the chained‑up driveway that led into the park, which didn’t open until 6 am. Sid called back to us, “Okay, boys, yer on yer own.”

Truer words were never spoken.

We pushed and pulled until the tub fell out of the bed of the truck with a loud “clang!” Sid drove away in a haze of blue smoke before the noise of our ship hitting the pavement had even died away. Fortunately, the weeds next to the driveway were wet with dew, and it was no problem for us to drag it along the grass, over to the ditch, and down to the lagoon.

The water was black, rather murky—very different than it usually looked on the sunny days when we’d played there. We decided to launch our craft from near the beach area, which was a bit further to portage. It seemed to be less steep, making it easier to climb aboard as we pushed it in. We were almost to the sandy area when a Park District truck pulled into the driveway and several workers climbed out, getting ready to start the day, evidently there to work on the surface of the road. They spotted us immediately.

“Hey you kids! What d’ya think yer doin’?” yelled a fat man with a yellow hardhat. The others were smiling as if getting ready for a show.

With no hesitation, Bill called back, “We’re heading down the river!” full of determination and bravado.

The men doubled over with laughter, which, of course, hurt our feelings, but we shrugged it off and continued our launching activities. We were just relieved that they hadn’t tried to stop us or ask us a bunch of questions. We were preparing for the final push, when the man in the yellow hard hat yelled at us again.

“So, how far ya goin’, boys?” he said in a scoffing tone.

It was my turn to reply, so I put together all the arrogance I could manage, held up my knapsack, and yelled back, “Gulf of Mexico! We got our lunch!”

The shrieks of laughter that greeted my declaration stung, but we looked at each other and just nodded that it was time. With a gigantic shove, we dug our Keds sneakers into the sand and pushed with all our strength, moving the tub gracefully, we thought, into the water of the lagoon, then jumped in and grabbed our paddles.

Later, I understand, the workmen debated among themselves about just how long our ship floated. Some insisted that the tub sank immediately, didn’t even float for a second. Others, more charitable, insisted that it was our giant wake that caused the corner patch job to break under extreme pressure, and that we’d floated for almost a minute and even started bailing, before the tub did a Titantic number, pitching nose‑first into the inky pool.

In any case, like the Titanic, there weren’t enough lifeboats for the passengers. Once the guys on the work crew realized we were headed for the drain, they ran over and dragged us out. The only damage was our wounded pride and a bunch of waterlogged Jif sandwiches.

Since it was a warm day, even though we were soaked through, right down to our Keds, we trudged home, thankful that nobody chewed us out or called the cops.

“Think we can raise her?” Bill said, showing no signs of defeat, as he wrung out his T‑shirt.

“Nah, she’s gone. At the bottom. Just forget it,” I said with water squishing out of my sneakers and my wet underwear chafing my thighs.

“Guess you’re right,” Bill sighed. “It was fun while it lasted.”

It was almost noon by the time we got to the crest of the Division Street hill. Jenny was sitting on the steps of that old market. We must have looked pitiful, because instead of giving us a line of sarcasm, she got up, went inside the store, and came out with two popsicles, one for each of us. The three of us sat there without a word, just mulling over the day’s events. Finally, Jenny broke the silence.

“Well, next time you guys decide to make a trip like that (she’d found out from her older sister who worked the switchboard at the Park District office), I wish you’d let me in on it. I’d kinda like to go along.” We were puzzled why she seemed to feel worse about our defeat than we did.

Bill and I recounted our disastrous launching as Jenny explained the water solubility factor of Elmer’s Glue and other information which would have been helpful to us. We assured Jenny that she would be included in all our future adventures. And we kept our word in the later years (also, another story or two), but Jenny always regretted that she hadn’t been with us for the attempt at the Gulf of Mexico. She talked about it often, as if we’d cheated her somehow. We just tried to forget about it.

Thirty‑five years later, on a sunny June morning, about 6 am, Angela (Jenny and Bill’s daughter) and I took a small pontoon boat out into the middle of the Mississippi River just off Credit Island and scattered Jenny’s ashes as she had requested a few weeks before, when the cancer was in its final stages. She said, “I want to make it down to the Gulf of Mexico—at least one of us should make it—you boys sure never did. I’ll be able to drift until I hook up with Bill.” (Naval Lt. William Weeks’ F‑4 Phantom jet was reported missing and presumed shot down over the South China Sea in 1973, just three months after leaving his wife and baby daughter for his tour of duty in Viet Nam.)

I still haven’t made it to the Gulf myself, but I think about it every time I make a peanut-butter sandwich.

 

© Scott M. Fisher