NOTE OF APOLOGY: I found this sitting in my “drafts” folder and didn’t realize I hadn’t shared it. My bad. It was pre-set to publish on Aug. 1, but somehow it went to and stayed in “drafts.”
Here’s the conclusion to a four-part story from July 26-27, 1978, when my best friend, Mike, and I followed our sense for adventure from the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River. I generally try to keep blog posts to 600 words or less, so here’s fair warning that this is a long read: over 1,200 words. Rather than split this up into two more installments, I think it’s important to keep the stream unbroken — at least from my perspective. As I finished this up, a flood of long-dormant memories, details and emotions clutched my soul.
It’s odd ‑ the things you think about when you think you’re drowning.
“Will this hurt?” “Will I lose consciousness before, well, you know?” “Will I survive long enough to have a memory of what happened so that I’m replaying the horror as I … die?”
I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes, and even if it that happened, the soupy warm, sick-green, gritty water clouded my sight and burned my nose. I struggled hard not to inhale, aware that a mouthful of the murky river water was already in my stomach. The back of my throat burned, but I broke the surface just in time to spit and spew before another gulp of the Gasconade River went down my gullet. I turned my head in every direction, screaming Mike’s name.
I didn’t see him.
Fighting the paralysis of terror, I was certain the Gasconade had claimed two more victims.
My head jerked back under the surface, water pushed its way into my lungs, and an other-worldly force clutched my feet.
Within minutes of arriving at Rollins Ferry Access, Mike and I spotted the perfect camping spot for our three-day stay. A narrow gravel bar about a third of the way into the river beckoned my best friend and I, and we quickly waded and splashed our way through knee-deep water to stake our claim on the gravel bar.
The long-awaited but ill-planned hike to the river had become a hitch-hike via Highway 89, but we were there. By not following the meandering Turkey Creek for who knew how long, we’d have more time to spend at our ultimate destination. Somehow that rationale eased the disappointment of giving up on the hike. The gravel bar immediately yielded an arrowhead and Mike located a good pile of driftwood. He pointed to a deep pool just across the river and announced, “That’s where we’ll catch our supper.” I stepped into the river, cupped my hands and sucked up a long, gritty drink.
Both of us had long forgotten our mothers’ unified edict, and the only condition of their reluctant agreement to let us go: “Stay out of the river.”
The raft we fashioned out of the driftwood was barely sea-worthy, but in no time we were on the other side of the river. Mike piloted the raft and baited our fishing lines as I hung on to the side, floating and navigating our crude watercraft into position. Our casts were quickly greeted by hungry crappie, and our rods reeled in a half-dozen or more for our stringer when a woman stepped out of an Airstream RV parked along the bank and chased us away. “You’re on me,” she said. “You’re on my part.”
We slowly made our way upstream, just west of the Highway 89 bridge, where another woman told us we were welcome to fish in a little eddy just a stone’s throw from her back porch. She even brought out cold lemonade, offered to make us something to eat, and warned us to be careful. She didn’t even pretend to be impressed with our driftwood raft.
“Respect the river, boys. It’s dangerous.”
As dusk settled in and the mosquitoes became the size of small birds, our little gravel bar turned into a soon-to-be-15-year-old’s dream buffet: fried fish, fried potatoes, snack cakes and campfire cornbread. The disappointment of short-changing the hike-of-the-century quickly faded as we fell asleep, stretched out on our damp sleeping bags under the stars.
Thick fog lingered just above the surface of the slow-moving water and the increasing regularity of cars and trucks crossing the bridge announced the start of our first full day at the river. As Mike slept I walked into the water, stopping at thigh-deep and splashed my face. The cool river soothed the massive mosquito bites on my arms and neck. Still tasting the salty fish and taters from the night before, I put my face in the water and filled my belly.
The moment the fog lifted, the late-July sun baked and the humidity basted. We hunted for arrowheads, flipped and skipped rocks, stacked some firewood, ate a big breakfast of bacon and eggs, and chatted with boaters that passed by. By noontime, the sauna-like heat was unbearable and Mike stepped into the river.
I joined him. I laid back and floated, my mind empty and my belly full.
Maybe it was several seconds, maybe a few minutes. What I do remember was realizing I was several feet downstream from our gravel bar campsite when I put my feet down to stand.
Instead, I sucked in a mouthful of soupy warm, sick-green, gritty water. My head went under and my feet weren’t able to find the bottom.
After discovering that Mike was also drowning and going under a second time – this time gagging and throwing up in my throat – the undertow showed mercy, and my head bobbed above the surface again. In an instant I heard Mike screaming my name and caught a glimpse of him tossing something my way. The deadly undercurrent snatched me again and as I stretched my arms high, a massive piece of driftwood splashed into my hands, giving just enough buoyancy to bring my head and torso out of the drink.
In that split-second, just moments before the Gasconade River was going to become my watery grave, Mike Thompson saved my life.
We reached the bank and lay on our sides, throwing up, coughing up and sobbing. Every inch of my body was numb. There was sand in the pockets of my shorts, sand in my hair, mud in my mouth and under my nails, and a sick odor of sick-green river water in my nose and deep in the pores of my skin.
I wanted to go home.
As we recovered on our little gravel bar, the woman who let us fish behind her house shouted from the other side of the river. “There’s a storm coming! I don’t think you’re safe there!” She invited us to wait out the storm in her house. Instead, completely discouraged, dispirited and stinking of river muck, we packed up and less than 24 hours after a kind motorist dropped us off at the river, we walked back to the highway to flag down a car to take us home.
Heavy rain was already falling when a northbound car stopped to let us in. It was the superintendent of the Linn school, Joe Phillips, heading to the middle school in Linn where my mom was working, getting ready for the new school year to start.
I don’t think either Mike or I ever told our mothers the real reason we cut short our stay at the river.
My mom brought us home, but not before we waited out the storm at the school. Radio reports indicated that a tornado had been spotted somewhere in rural Osage County, in the vicinity of the Rollins Ferry Access. Torrential rain fell all day and all night. The Gasconade River rose dramatically. I later heard that the Airstream RV washed downstream just after the woman who’d chased us off had run for higher ground.
A few days later, Mike’s dad, Raymond, drove us around to look at flood damage. As we crossed the Highway 89 bridge, I looked to the east to see our gravel bar.
It was gone.
It never has reappeared.