Tag Archives: clay pits

Memoir in progress: Stay out of the river

Welcome to part two of a four-part story from July 27-28, 1978, when my best friend, Mike, and I realized our lifelong dream (I was not yet 15) to follow the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River. Look for Part 3 on Tuesday and the conclusion on Aug. 2.

My collection of Belle High School yearbooks from the mid-70’s to 1981 includes photos of classmates and schoolmates who never made it to graduation because they drowned. One classmate was horseback riding with her younger sister when her horse bucked, tossing her into a water-filled clay pit. The remnants of the clay pits in and around Belle were huge hills of dirt and gravel, the material removed during the extraction process to mine the clay that was used to make bricks and cement in by-gone years.

The clay piles made wonderful sledding hills and terrific fossil-hunting territory. My pal Jeff once found a trilobite fossil, making him president-for-life of our explorer’s and fossil-hunter’s club.

Besides the clay piles, what also remained from that long-dormant industry were deep, water-filled quarries, and many clay pits didn’t have safe entry points for swimming. A few adults warned me and my friends to stay clear of the deep holes, telling scary stories about deer that stepped into the water to drink, only to instantly disappear because the depth at the bank was the same as the depth in the middle – 40, 50 or even 90 feet deep. And once you were in the water, the wet clay banks were too slick for escape.

Glub.

I avoided clay pits like the plague.

The other drownings that I recall or heard about all occurred in the Gasconade River, which moves a bit slower than most rivers, except that the Gasconade has a mysterious force called the “undertow,” a subsurface current that lurks near the river bottom – a force that grabs unwary swimmers, pulling them under. If the undertow stretched for miles, that’s how far away they’d find your body.

The warning was clear: no one escaped the undertow. It sounded a bit far-fetched, but some of the drowning victims from my school were athletes. Strong people.

No one escaped the undertow.

Most of my friends – in fact, I think all of my other friends – also liked to hike, splash around in the creek and even camp out under the stars, but they usually wanted to achieve some greater purpose. What was the point of the hike? What were we after? With that attitude – when the destination was more important than the journey – those friends got bored.

I never, ever got bored traipsing through the woods. And neither did Mike. I wrote about a night in August 1977, just a few days before my 14th birthday (Mike was a couple of years younger) when we stayed up all night on a clear hilltop in the forest, watching the Leonid meteor shower.

My other friends didn’t share my breathless fascination with nature and astronomical light shows. The night we watched that meteor shower, Mike and I brought a Bible and a flashlight, so we could take turns reading aloud the scriptures that mentioned stars, creation, the heavens, and the awesomeness of God. True, we were goofy nerds. But we were Christian nerds. I had other friends who would have read the Bible with me in the woods, but they wouldn’t have sat in silence for hours in the chilly night air to watch meteors and to hear owls hooting and night creatures scurrying.

I shared that connection only with Mike.

We wondered about the stars, about the deer that we could hear but couldn’t see. We watched a momma skunk waddle past with three little stinkers. We whispered about the Great-horned owl that stared at us from its perch just 20 feet away. We quietly talked about our next adventure.

We wondered what it would be like to follow the creek all the way to the river.

Leave a comment

Filed under MIP: Memoir-in-progress, Nature & Animals

Rock Island snow tunnels, ‘Little Fenway’ and other stories

Memoir-In-Progress

 

From my Black Book of Great Adventures

March 5, 1975 — Four days ago I went fishing. Today is the fourth straight day of snow; about 18 inches on the ground, but not real cold. Our dog Mo-Mo is pregnent. Build more tunnels beside the tracks. Fritz got killed by the train, Leroy buried him. I said the prayer and thanked God for little dogs …


Rock Island Rail Snow Tunnels, March 1975, Part 2/Conclusion

Any account of my life at the green duplex and tales of adventures along the train tracks is incomplete without at least a review of my back yard at Eighth and Swanson. I called that lovely lawn Little Fenway, the best Wiffle ball field in the history of the planet. We lived in the house, of course, but the green duplex’s most important function was filling the role of Little Fenway’s “Green Monster,” our version of the left field fence at Boston’s Fenway Park.

My brother, Robert, and I played our most epic, one-on-one Wiffle ball games there.

Occasionally, other neighborhood Wiffle-ballers gathered for a game or a tournament. In the summer of ’78, just weeks before we moved to the house on Johnson Street – where the oversized yard and empty lot became Little Wrigley – Stephen White hit the longest home run ever in my Wiffle ball experience. His one-handed-swinging blast connected with the most perfect, fastest fastball I ever threw. The ball sailed over the house, err, I mean the Green Monster, across the front yard, over the street and halfway into Beulah Phelps’s front yard.

A hundred and fifty feet.

We silently formed a circle around the ball. A few of us recognized the sanctity of the moment, something so incomprehensible, powerful and reverent that all we could do was gaze at the ball the same way we would have stared in awed silence if someone had stumbled up on a vintage, 1927 Babe Ruth baseball card. It was that profound.

I felt tears well up from the surge of emotion, but I knew Stephen would probably beat up anyone who cried. My best bud Mike Thompson did cry. And Stephen beat him up.

Ah, good times.

The week-long snowstorm of March 1975 delayed the start of Wiffle ball season. We missed the entire week of school and spent Monday and Tuesday making tunnels down the side of the clay piles (small mountains of clay deposits from mining) in the field across the train tracks. One tunnel was large enough to actually take a sled through. The other was traversable only with your body laying flat with arms tight to the chest.

Both tunnels were absolutely terrifying.

And exhilarating beyond description.

The tunnels were on the west side of the steep, rocky hill. The east side was forbidden because it sloped down to the bank of the many-feet-deep clay pit that was covered with slushy ice.

Just west of Stacy and Lacy’s house, we made tunnels that connected two or three haphazard snow domes (similar to igloos) in the deep ditches that ran parallel to the north side of the railroad tracks. On Saturday that week, March 5, the three of us celebrated our week of snow-sculpting creations with a picnic — inside the snow domes.

Our constant companions that week were Stacy and Lacy’s dogs, Hobo and Fritz. Hobo, a terrier-mix mutt, was the most intelligent, bravest and smelliest dog I’d ever known up to that point in my life. His name was fitting for a dog that lived near railroad tracks. Fritz was a young Dachshund, a red wiener dog that was always a step or two behind us and light-years behind Hobo in terms of brain power.

Hobo and Fritz were outside the snow dome when we heard the Rock Island locomotive coming. Lacy shouted for the dogs to get in the tunnel and rejoin our picnic, and Hobo was beside us instantly. Lacy poked his head out of our snow bank hideaway and screamed at Fritz to “come.” The wiener dog was clumsy in the snow, so he preferred waddling between the rails where the snow wasn’t as deep. Lacy screamed again as the train barreled past.

Fritz didn’t make it.

A little while later, we had a short funeral for Fritz. Stacy and Lacy’s dad, Leroy, chopped at the soil and dug the hole. We all cried. Even Leroy.

I said the prayer and thanked God for little dogs …

Songs of the 70’s …

Television in the 70’s was full of “variety shows.” The Carol Burnett Show. Donnie and Marie. Sonny and Cher. Those were real productions with choreographed song and dance numbers, and comedy skits that often went awry (I’m thinking Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on The Carol Burnett Show).

Saturday night, March 5, 1975, was The Tony Orlando & Dawn Show. (No, I didn’t write about it in my journal. I had to Google this). Special guest star was Tony Randall. Charo was one of the performers. Tony Orlando and Dawn – Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent-Wilson – sang a “40’s Medley” and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You).” 

The No. 1 song on the pop charts that week was Have You Never Been Mellow by Olivia Newton-John.

1 Comment

Filed under MIP: Memoir-in-progress