— A memory – first published in a very limited circulation book titled “Personal Demons” I found this doing some file cleanup, read it, and got lost in the memory all over again. Hope my buddy Randy forgives me…hope you find it of interest.
—David Niall Wilson
Some memories never leave you. Some things you can shrug off, walk away from, squash into the back recesses of your mind, and some others have a will of their own. In other places, on other pages, I have put a name to the moments that lend themselves to such memories. I call them defining moments. Some of them haunt me still.
The hill I lived on as a child overlooked Charleston Lake in Illinois. We lived at the very top of the hill, where a single road wound around and up and one end and down the other. In the winter, this road was a menace because you had to ride the Illinois snow and ice down from the top and make a very sharp turn at the bottom to avoid going over the edge of the road and into a large field. In the summer, that same hill was a place for the release of insanity – two hands gripping the handlebars of a green “Hiawatha” stingray bicycle from Western Auto, no way to hit brakes on a hill that steep, not on the old bikes. There were no hand-grip brakes on those machines. You reared up, kicked back, and sent the rear tire into a skid. On that hill, you didn’t use the brakes at all.
I lived on that hill for over a decade. I survived that stingray bicycle and two others, graduating through five and ten speeds. I survived my mother’s driving, despite the ice and snow. I survived things, in short, that should have scared me, creating those memories you can’t ignore.
What I remember most, though, is the lake – and the river below.
I lived by the water. Not in the sense that our home was near it, but in the sense that I fished nearly 365 days a year, threw stones to skip across the surface, swam in the small ring of cable-tied barrels each summer where the city posted a lifeguard, flew down the river with my step-dad in his air-boat, and generally made the water a part of me. I took it for granted, ignoring most dangers – poisonous snakes, steep cliffs, deep pools – combinations of the above.
Then there were other times.
On the day in question, I had a friend visiting, and we started out as days on Charleston lake usually started out. We went fishing. The fishing hole of choice was the pool that gathered at the bottom of a concrete spillway. Giant carp would leap at the base of that slanted surface, vainly attempting to move from the bottom, which flowed off into the Embarrass River to the more placid lake waters above. Catfish gathered at the base, as well, and even a few Crappie and Largemouth bass sweetened the pot.
Old and middle-aged men would drive down to that small stretch, following a gravel road that brought them to the shoreline. Each had huge coolers, tackle-boxes that opened to three-tiers, and station-wagons with wood paneling, or large trucks filled with minnow buckets, fancy spin-casting gear, fly-rods – the works. Each of them tried to outsmart my lake, and, for the most part, they failed. They didn’t know the secrets.
I would slip up with my Zebco 202 rod and reel combination, crab-walk across the slanted concrete slab angling away from the very base of the spillway, toss a line in with a single weight and a hook, baited with whatever form of insect or worm was handy at the time – or even a bit of kernel corn bread dough, and drop it in the corner nearest the spillway. I knew the secrets, you see. I’d watched, and I’d learned. I didn’t have much money for fishing equipment, or fancy bait, but it never mattered. I always caught fish – mostly given away after the thrill of the hunt to the men and women in the big trucks. For me it wasn’t the fish themselves, but the secrets.
That was how the day started. If it had ended as most other days at Charleston Lake ended, all might have been different, and my dreams might be troubled by hair-rasing rides down the side of that hill beside my house. That isn’t the story.
There were others who came to that spillway besides the fishermen. Eastern Illinois University wasn’t far away, nestled in the center of Charleston itself, and the students would come to the lake in droves, mostly drunk on beer, or whiskey, or life and the reckless, never-going-to-die attitude that permeates the world of those who have yet to suffer enough defining moments.
A favorite pass-time at the lake, despite the threat of arrest, or fines, was to swim across the top of the spillway, then slip over the top and slide down. It was like a big, concrete water-slide, coated in green, smooth algea, and water flowing over concrete about a half a foot deep. The current, on most days, wasn’t so strong you couldn’t hit the bottom and pop free, swimming past the angry middle-aged fishermen and the two kids squatting at the bottom, actually catching fish. You could come over that top, bounce free, and swim to the side before the water poured over the next small, man-made structure – a wall of concrete – and two feet down to the river itself. Then you climbed back up the slanted concrete side to the top, hopped into the water, swam out to the middle and did it again.
I was only about ten at the time, and though I could see the merits of such insanity from the side of fun, I was also afraid enough to remain where I was, watching, fishing, and dreaming about the day I’d be in college and brave enough for such foolishness. That was most days. This day, Randy Overton was visiting – my best friend – and there is something about the proximity of friends that lessens the intellect and raises the courage.
So there we were. The sky was relatively clear, the sun was shining, it was warm out, and there were idiots galore slipping over and down the spillway, ruining the fishing for those below and screaming at the top of their lungs. Somehow, with so many bodies lined up along the top of the spillway, it didn’t seem big. The other side seemed very close – you could see the people clearly on both sides of the concrete, and you could even make out the winding road that led from the main highway into the park on the far side of the river. It was the kind of day that made everything seem safe and possible all at once.
I’m not sure where my younger brother Bill was, but if he’d been there, he might have prevented the whole thing by his presence. No way would I have risked his safety. For some reason, though, he was absent. Randy and I slipped into cut-off blue-jean shorts and t-shirts and waded into the lake at the top of the spillway.
I had feared it would be deep, that we would be fighting current with only our ability to swim protecting us from slipping over the top, but this turned out not to be the case. There was a concrete ledge, just along-side the curved top of the spillway, where you could get your footing and brace against the side just enough to keep your balance. Laughing at how easy it was, we set off across the lake. Somehow, as we progressed, we failed to note how the others were disappearing. The fishermen were packing up their things and driving off up the road. The college students were growing fewer, quieter. The sky – in fact – was darkening, and it was far too early in the day for sunset.
I mentioned the river earlier. I see that river in my dreams, some times, dreams where I wake up every bit as wet as I was that day, crossing that lake – coated in sweat with the whirling, out-of control waters of the Embarrass river swirling through my mind. When the rains came, and the lake rose, the river was not my friend. Most times I could camp along those banks, swim and fish, toss stones at the snakes and turtles, and go home with a smile. When the water was up – and the Earth had shed her veneer of calm for a more honest glimpse at the raw power beneath, the Embarrass was a huge, roiling monster.
I remember clearly watching that river slash trees from the banks, rolling the logs up and under and crashing them through rapids. I remember watching boats overturn, slide beneath the water, and not come up again until they were nearly out of site.
I looking back and seeing that the water was pouring over the spillway, twice as deep and twice as fast as it had been when we started across.. There was a large branch that had not been there when we first crossed, caught halfway with branches reaching down the spillway, trailing tendrils of moss and algae.
In Illinois, when it storms, the sky goes greenish yellow – hints of brown around the edges – and you can feel the crackle of the lightning in the air. Things break, in those storms. From wind, lightning, the force of the water. Colors change and you can almost believe you have shifted partially through some sort of veil into another existence to a darker place. Things that were safe are not, and that veil is never quite the same once you’ve seen past it.
All blustering and courage were gone. We were cold, stranded on the wrong side of the lake / river – the park we stood in was within site of home, but the only way to reach home by foot was to trek a mile or so up the dirt / gravel road, find the main road, and another two miles down that to turn back into the drive leading up and around my hill. Too far in bare feet, thunderstorm, alone and hungry. Too far, too dark.
The next few minutes, which seemed to drag into hours, are not completely straight in my head. I believe I’ve relived those minutes in dreams, but they are no more clear when I wake than they are now as I try to sort them out. I know that we went down to the river, tried to find a narrow / shallow place to cross. The storm had raised the level everywhere, and the water was whipping along with unbelievable force. I remember stepping out into it – the sensation of my feet being snatched away, the force as I gripped the roots of a tree on the bank and pulled and prayed and pulled some more until my body dragged free, back to the muddy bank. Colder still than I’d been, and shivering with fear.
And that is when the real nightmare began.
There are times when you come up against a test you could never have expected – times when your heart hammers so hard against the inside of your chest you feel like it might explode, and you shiver until your bones rattle. Those sound like cliches until you live them.
Randy and I stood at the top of that embankment overlooking the spillway. It was nearly dark, though it couldn’t have been more than four in the afternoon. No one was in sight. No one. Our parents didn’t know where we were, though by then I know they were starting to worry that we were out in the storm. We were alone, and we had one choice – a bad choice. We took it.
At first I thought the battle would end before it had begun. The water pressed me against the wall of concrete so hard it nearly took the breath from my lungs and dragged me over and down. Somehow, I hung on. I clung to the top of that spillway, that tiny ledge, only my head above the water, and I started across. It wasn’t as cold in the water as it was out, with the wind, and by some miracle, the rain hadn’t hit yet. There was lightning. You could catch the scent of ozone, and I was never more acutely aware of being immersed in water around electricity. I knew if the lightning hit nearby, it was over.
Randy was very close. I know he wanted to cling to me as we went, I felt the same, but we had to hold on to things that were solid. Things that were not likely to go plunging over the spillway and down, churning off along the length of the Embarrass. I would love to describe what he said, what I said – how we shared the moment. We didn’t. My memories are a very selfish, self-preserving wash of fear.
Not long after we left the far side of the lake, that log-sized branch in the center of the spillway gave way and slipped over the side. I remember stopping. I vaguely remember Randy pressing up behind and slapping at my back, desperate for me to move on. I watched that log slide to the bottom, twisting as it went in a sort of slow-motion dive. It hit the churning, white-crested waves at the bottom, and it dove. One moment it was there, the next, it was gone, and then it burst from the surface of the lake, nearly clearing the water, and shot toward the river, rolling to one side and smashing into the rocks that lined the shore, only to whirl off and away.
I think it was about that time I heard thunder, and I started to move again. It took forever. Mechanical motion, one hand in front of the other. No swimming involved, the current a lot stronger near the center. We dragged ourselves across that lake, and onto the bank on the other side – at last, and part of me never left the lake.
I know it is there, still. I know it slipped over that edge, and down, because when I dream of that river, I can feel the churning, the vertigo brought on by being held, helpless, in the grasp of something that is part of nature – -uncaring, powerful, and deadly.
Some memories never leave you, nor do you really leave them.
I still fear rivers when the water runs high, but I love thunderstorms, and maybe . . . just maybe . . . that river saved me from endless nights gripping my sheets like handlebars as I plummeted down the hill from my house. One day, I’ll have a beer with Randy, and I’ll ask.
Do you remember?