2010-01-13 / Opinion

The River Part 1

by Carol Megathlin

I just sent the following to a columnist for the Miller County Liberal whose writing I enjoy. He is a good old southern boy who loves to fish and hunt. His last column started me thinking.

You might want to pour yourself a cup of coffee before you start this. It's so long, I've divided it into two installments.

The River cradled me from age 11 until I went off to college, and a while after that, too. The River being the Flint, specifically where it is dammed up between Cordele and Americus. Way back in the 50s, my Great- Uncle George and his sister, Aunt Daisy, built a cinder block cabin that crouched on the bank of the Americus side. Those two folks lived to fish.

When the dock was in the final stages of construction, two planks served to connect the end of the dock to the bank. The planks slanted over a stretch of water maybe ten feet wide. But the wood was limber, and even under my 60 pounds it bounced. It scared me. The water beneath could have been 20 feet deep for all I knew. Even today, I have bad dreams in which I am standing at the foot of a dock that does not reach the bank. There are no planks. It is a frightening feeling.

I had a lot of family then. When we gathered around the long table to eat fried bream and hush puppies, there were 20 of us sometimes, maybe more. My sister, brother and I were beloved of our extended family. There were only four children in the group that teased, laughed, and told stories around that table. Four is not enough, and my family has almost died out. The last of the old folks went to heaven just a year ago, and she was almost 100.

Growing up under so much love was a gift I did not understand until I hit middle age. I look at my son, our only child, and realize what a thin, bleached experience of family he has had. He doesn't miss it, of course, but he could have taken root and flourished in much richer soil. That's what we get for not settling near home, for...dying out, I guess. It's nobody's fault, just the way life goes sometimes.

Besides family, the river to me meant sticking the bearded end of a fish hook into the white band on an earthworm and watching the poor creature writhe in pain. I could barely bring myself to touch the slimy things, but one day my brother and I both sucked it up and stabbed the hooks into the hapless worms. We were very proud of ourselves, but that night I had horrible dreams about it. Never baited another hook.

Like I said, I'm prissy. In some ways.

The river meant snakes. My dad could shoot the head off a swimming moccasin. Heck, he could shoot mistletoe out of trees in the winter when we were driving back to Albany from the river. It was at the river that Dad taught my brother and me both how to shoot, how to handle guns and respect them. I have always been grateful that he treated us the same, but he never took me hunting. He understood me too well.

The river meant following Uncle George as he plowed the field up behind the cabin. We searched for arrowheads that the old mule-powered plow turned up. I wish I had kept those things. It meant building a fort out of pine branches in the woods at the edge of the field. Sun-warmed pine needles on the forest floor is the best smell in the world, don't you think?

We rarely went swimming on our side of the river. There were too many trees in the water, too many unknowns beneath the butterscotch ripples. But oh, when my cousin Phyllis and her parents came to rent a cabin on the other side, in Veteran's Park, for two weeks - well, we swam and sunned and skiied like mad, listening to the two weeks crashing into oblivion behind us, one day at a time. We wanted Uncle Frank. Aunt Margaret and Phyliis to stay all summer.

They always came in August. Near the end of their stay, Aunt Margaret always took Phyllis in to town to buy her school clothes. Phyllis would proudly show them to us. I remember a pair of black flats with pointy toes and a T-strap across the instep. I envied her those shoes. But the school clothes were an unsettling presence in a cabin smelling of sun and river and Sea-and-Ski. They put a heaviness in the bottom of my stomach.

I could go on for hours, about Uncle Chubby barbecuing ribs at the cabin, basting them with his homemade sauce, about the swimming pool he built for us kids. It was fed from a well and proved to be too cold, too deep. Because there was no chlorine and no pumping system, a dark, mysterious moss eventually bloomed on the walls. That did it for me.

(Continued next week)

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