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.
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.