A Right of Passage
At one point my entire family lived up Magazine Holler. Eventually, the name was changed to Gardner Street and then to Garrison Avenue, but it was still Magazine Holler to folks who lived there. A holler is two hills, usually divided by a creek. Sometimes the roads, which run parallel to the stream, are paved. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes the hollers are broad, or they might be narrow. Magazine Holler was very narrow with some houses built along the creek, others up against the sides of the hills. Every year when spring rains came, the creek became a river and some houses would be washed away. Others came roaring down from the hillside, victims of mudslides. Folks either rebuilt or moved. Year after year it happened. That’s just the way it was.
On hot summer days, holler boys could be found somewhere around the mouth of the creek where it joined Elk River. A few feet from there old men fished for carp off the cement wall where the sewer emptied into the river.
Tall poplar and sycamore trees lined the riverbank. Used automobile tires hung on ropes from high limbs. Young boys took turns, seated in the tires, swinging out over the river where they either dived or simply dropped into the water. All, except Bill and me. Neither of us could swim.
My cohorts pled, coaxed and almost slung me out into the river, but I wouldn’t budge. Mama couldn’t swim. She never went near the water. If she ever caught me near Elk River I knew I’d get my ass blistered.
Swimming across Elk River became a right of passage. Summer after summer, I watched as kids younger than me stroked their way across Elk River with little or no effort. It seemed so easy. I hated myself for being such a coward.
Finally, in mid-June of 1938, I remember the date, because I had turned fourteen the month before, I decided that me and the river were going to the mat. I would either swim or they’d be dragging the river to find me.
Like most teenage boys, I had to be practically dragged out of bed in the morning during summer vacations. We did so much running all day long we simply died at night. Anybody who wonders why teenagers need so much sleep ought to follow them around when they are up and out of the house. Grandma was kind of shocked when I actually got up one Saturday morning in time to join the family for breakfast.
“Well, praise the Lord, look who decided to bless us ordinary people with his presence.”
“Aww, grandma,” I said.
Blanch gave me the old evil eye. She could read me like a book. I could never fool her about anything. But she didn’t say a word in front of grandma.
“Are you and Bill goin’ off somewhere today? If you are, you better wear some shoes and I want you home before dark.” Grandma always worried about two things when I took off with Bill. “Put on some shoes and be home before dark.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere with Bill. I just feel like gettin’ out and, I don’t know. Doin’ somethin’ by myself.” I could tell that Blanch wasn’t buying one word.
I downed a big bowl of oatmeal, some toast and a glass of milk and was out of the door. Blanch called after me. “Raymond, what are you up to? No good, I bet.”
I took off as fast as my feet could carry me, and never looked back. I had something to do all right. I intended to become a man that day, or die tryin’.
Lately, I’d been going alone to the Y.M.C.A. where I learned the basics of swimming and could swim from one end of the pool to the other and back, but that ain’t like crossing no river. I never told anybody about my secret lessons at the Y. ‘Specially not Bill. He had a big mouth.
We lived about a mile away from Elk River. A mile wasn’t nothin’. I walked farther than that to school. Compared to the mighty Kanawha River, it wasn’t more’n a creek. The Elk emptied into the Kanawha which separated the north and south sides of Charleston. I never knew anybody who wanted to challenge the Great Kanawha. Folks used to say that if a boy disappeared he probably tried to swim the Kanawha and got sucked under in the middle. I didn’t really believe that, but then you never know.
I made it to the river about eight-thirty. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun had started to climb. It promised to be a hot day. I sat down on the river bank, took off my shoes and placed them on a rock. Then my socks, stuffing each one into it’s rightful shoe, my shirt and finally my jeans. I wasn’t worried about anybody seeing me. Stuff like that didn’t bother us. Half the guys went into the river naked. I’d never do that. There were a lot of garfish in Elk River and I was afraid one of them might bite off my weenie. I’d heard stories. People laughed, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Down to my underwear, I stepped into the water. I had to do this, and I had to do it by myself. If I drowned, people would feel sorry for me and cry for “that poor boy.” That’s what they said when a kid died from any kind of accident. “That poor boy.”
The river bottom dropped off about ten or fifteen feet out where the creek emptied into the river, so I cautiously waded until the water came up to my chest and my body seemed to lift up and glide forward. The Elk might be a tributary to the wide-wide Kanawha, but the opposite side looked like ten miles away to me. Stroking and kicking slowly, I continued to move out into the stream. The river seemed not to move. My direction was straight across to the sandbar on the other side. The warm water embraced my body and lulled me into a false sense of security.
Without any warning, the water started getting cold and then colder. Something was wrong. How could it be warm in one spot and cold in another? This wasn’t the small pool at the Y. My hands were trembling. Why was the water so cold and why was I beginning to drift downriver? Would I end up in the dreaded Kanawha? Was I gonna drown just like they said? Would Mama cry and tell everybody what a good boy I had been? Would lots of people come to my funeral?
I closed my eyes and began to swim harder. By the time I reached the middle of the river, the water became almost icy. Nobody ever told me that the current in the center of the river was stronger, colder and swifter. No matter the current and the chill, I had come closer to the other side. I couldn’t go back and I was drifting down river awful fast. I just kept stroking harder with my eyes closed and pretty soon the water wasn’t as cold.
In the warm shallows of the other side when my feet touched bottom, I crawled up onto the bank and lay there for a long time, trying to get my breath.
I began to laugh and cry at the same time. To a very startled bird, I yelled out, “I did it. I did it.” The bird lifted off the rock in a swoop and disappeared.
Great. Then a dark cloud formed in my mind. How would I get back? I didn’t think I could do that again. I should have drowned, and they would be saying “poor little boy.” A commanding voice somewhere inside my head intervened. “You better get your sorry butt back across this river because if you don’t your mother is going to beat the tar out of you.”
I piddled along the east side of the river for more than an hour before I got up enough courage to tackle a return trip. I had to swim back. My clothes were on the other side. I sure as hell couldn’t go up on the highway in my skivvies. I could see a disaster coming until I got an idea. Since I’d ended up a good half-block downstream from where I started, what if I moved upstream? That way, maybe I’d come closer to where I started out. Smart decision. By hiking upstream, I didn’t have to swim so hard and the current helped me along so that when I reached the other side I wasn’t so tired. King Kong. That’s who I was. King of the river anyway.
I couldn’t wait to surprise Bill with my great accomplishment. The very next day, I showed up early at his house.
“C’ mon, I wanna show you somethin’.”
“I ain’t had nothin’ to eat yet. So hold your britches.”
“That can wait. This is important.”
“Ain’t nothin’ more important than eatin’ and I ain’t had no breakfast.”
My aunt gave me a suspicious look, but only asked, “You want something to eat, Raymond?”
“No, ma’am. I already ate.” I wanted to get down to the River and show off to Bill.
Bill wouldn’t budge until he’d eaten enough for two boys his size.
When he finally shoved his chair back from the table, I said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
“What’s your hurry?”
“I told you. I want to show you somethin’.”
“Ain’t nothin’ you can show me that’s gonna make me move any faster than I feel like.”
“Might as well talk to a brick wall,” I said. “If’n it was the other way around you be pushin’ me to hurry up. Why are you so stubborn?”
He didn’t move. When he was finally ready, he said, “Okay, let’s go see your secret.”
I wanted to do it in front of him. At the river, we took off our clothes. “So show me your big surprise.”
“Follow me.” I started to wade along the edge. Bill fell in behind me. I stopped wading and started swimming. Bill followed, not conscious of what he was doing. Then I said something stupid. I opened my big mouth and yelled, “Look at you. You’re swimming.”
He panicked and went straight to the bottom.
Without thinking, I went down after him. I’d never done anything like that. For Christ’s sake, I could barely swim myself, but be it a miracle or whatever, I found him in the murky water and literally walked on the bottom back to the river bank, pulling bill along beside me. I saved his life, but I didn’t feel like no hero. I could just as well have caused him to drown. I was so scared I shook like leaves on a tree in a windstorm.
We were even. I saved him from drowning, and he rescued me from disaster in the darkest place on earth.
Bill went on to be a much better swimmer than I ever would be, having enlisted in the U. S. Navy, where a sailor became an expert swimmer in boot camp. He spent most of World War II aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise in the South Pacific.
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