This story is based on actual events. It arrives here in semi-fictional form.
A broad old tree leaned over Johnson Creek just upstream from our family's swimming hole. A precarious position, perhaps, but the healthy oak seemed so stout and sure that if it fell in a storm, at least half of the creek bank must surely go with it. Its roots twisted out from the dirt of the bank through the air above the water. Beneath that mass of roots, Indigo snakes liked to hide in summer and glide out into the creek to surprise us.
The most marvelous thing hung from a sturdy branch of that stout tree, something that would provide years of childhood pleasure to my siblings and me. It was a rope swing, a thick braided barge rope Dad had found while he and Mom were rolling wreaths near the Cumberland River. He brought it home, used old powerline equipment to climb high into that beautiful tree, and suspended it carefully to dangle above the clear water of the creek. In understanding the potential of that rope with its large loop at the end to bring his children happiness, Dad gave us a wondrous gift.
Every spring and summer we four were there to pull the loop overhead and under bottom to swing gleefully across the water, giving each other a push, leaping over the water to retrieve it if it lost its momentum in the middle, or using it as a base to climb as high as possible toward the tree's branches. On really hot days we'd swing out with feet and bottom free and drop into the water before splashing out to the pebbly beach opposite.
So one year when the creek swelled with a massive amount of late spring rain to overrun its culvert and wash away the stones from the dirt road, you can see why, despite the danger of it, we ended up there - Annie, Nate and I.
Dad had stictly forbidden us to go down by the creek to look at the flood in the couple days of unending rain when the creek broke its borders. But when the sky cleared at last and was its normal hazy humid blue surely, yes surely, we thought he would let us look at it. It'd already receeded to rush beneath the culvert. Dad had said as much when he'd returned home from a walk down the lane that morning to check its level, so there could be no harm in us kids standing and gazing at it from the road, too.
Annie and Nate approached Dad. I wasn't allowed to do the talking in delicate business such as this for fear I'd wreak our chances of adventure by being too honest or giving up too easily.
Annie hovered near his weathered brown recliner for a few moments as he perused a book over a morning cup of coffee. Finally, he looked up, sensing childish enthusiasm compressing the atmosphere around him.
His pale green eyes planted themselves with all their strange intensity on Annie's face as he said, "Yes, Annie?"
The creek's not over the bridge anymore, right, Dad?"
"No. But it's still flooded. Why?"
"Well, we were wondering...I mean Nate and me...and, uh, Hoo-doo..."
"I hope you kids didn't think you were going swimming?" Dad said sharply.
"No! We knew we couldn't go swimming. But we were wondering if we could just, you know, look at it. From the bridge."
Dad put down his book.
"It's still high - and fast. Why do you kids want to look at it? You can't play in it."
"Oh we didn't want to. We just wanted to see it. We promise we'll be careful. You said it's not over the bridge..."
Dad examined Annie's face, directed his piercing gaze at Nate for a moment, and then turned back to Annie. He didn't even glance at me.
"Be careful, and stay on the bridge. The path is gone. Do not leave the bridge. Understand?"
Is Hoo-doo going with you?"
"Please can I, Daddy?"
"Yes. Be careful, all of you. Stay on the bridge. And watch out for your sisters, Nate."
"Alright, I will, Dad."
As she turned away, Annie rolled her eyes at this; of course she could take of herself without Nate's help.
Hurriedly we put on our sneakers. After a few days of being boarded up in that small square house, we were raring to go out into the big wide open. Vinca declined to join us. She was reading, and a good book was more alluring to her than scrambling around outdoors.
As we started out down the driveway, Rueben, Dad's labrador, began to trot beside us. We didn't think to tell him to stay; he probably wouldn't have anyway, so we turned past Nate's and my favorite climbling tree near the mailbox and headed down the lane with the large black dog by our side.
The lane seemed shorter than on school mornings when we were forced to trudge its considerable length to catch the bus. This morning, instead, the trees that bordered the field to the left and the fencposts that hid beneath them flew by. We were skipping or half-jogging without being fully aware of our speed. In a few moments we could hear the creek.
The sound was like a tribute to the white water of the great western rivers, a rushing that did not resemble Johnson Creek's normal bubbly nature. Annie, Nate and I looked at each other with glistening eyes and started to jog earnestly toward the noise.
We could have keeled over into the water with shock when we came to a halt seconds later, because the creek was there, just inches below us where we stood on top of the culvert; it was scraping the two wide tunnels underneath our feet while emitting a ceaseless roar, and the road bore the evidence of its recent passage. We stared down its length in silence for several moments before Nate bent down in the mud, leaning over the torrent. I peered over his shoulder as he dropped pebbles into the rushing water.
"Careful," said Annie, coming closer herself.
"Look at it," said Nate, sitting on his haunches to turn his gaze back upstream.
"Wow," I added.
"It's really fast," said Annie, and already a familiar tone was creeping into her voice.
"No kidding," said Nate, and his voice, too, carried the same tone - something that rang of speculation and a lust for adventure. "It's deeper than I've ever seen. Can you imagine how much fun it would be to swim in this?"
I think that's when I caught on and sharpened my ears as I tore my eyes from the spectacle of a little stream on steroids to my older siblings' faces. Yep, I recognized those looks, alright.
"I wish we could," said Annie, but her words had more the seed of suggestion in them than the sigh of wistfulness.
"It's too fast, and Dad said we couldn't, anyway," I spoke up.
Annie looked to the side where our path to the swimming hole used to be.
"Our path's all flooded out."
"We'd have to walk along the higher part of the bank, " responded Nate. "We could use the trees to help us. But I'd like to see our swimming hole."
"Me, too," said Annie.
"What about what Dad said?" I asked fearfully.
But Annie was examining the hill above the creek. "It's pretty steep, but it's not too bad. We could make it. You want to?"
She and Nate stared at each other.
"Let's go," said Nate.
"Won't we get in trouble?" I asked. It was a rhetorical question; I was already following them off the bridge into the wet, loose soil above the flood water.
"Don't worry, Hoo-doo," said Annie. "We'll be real quick. You want to see the swimming hole, right?"
Well, duh. I was scrambling on the side of a hill above a rushing stream behind my adventure heroes, using tree branches as life supports.
A tree whose trunk stuck out from the bank like a sore thumb usually curved several feet above the creek. On normal days we ducked under it where it overhung the path, but this day we were climbing over it and hanging onto its spindly branches for as long as we could. A few feet ahead of it the spring that flowed from the rock of the bluff joined the creek. Its crystal clear waters were muddied and rough. We'd have to jump it.
"I'll go first," said Nate. "Give me some room."
We girls backed up as Nate did so. He paused and crouched with muscles tense before running full force to leap across the breach. He didn't stick his landing; the water-logged soil slid beneath his splayed feet, and he went down on hands and knees.
"You're dirty now, " said Annie in exasperation. "Dad will know."
Nate merely shrugged and brushed at his jeans, serving to mark them all the clearer.
"Watch out, Hoo-doo," said Annie as she in turn backed up for a running leap.
It must have been her long legs or ballerina classes, but she landed with more success then Nate.
"C'mon, Hoo-doo," said Nate impatiently.
I tried to imitate their form but ended up ankle deep in the mud of the spring.
"I'm wet!" I cried in dismay.
"Oh, let's go," said Nate as I waded out. "Hurry!"
The path was now clear of any encumbrance, because we were on the little peninsula that dissected the creek from the spring and bog that resided beneath the bluff. At times the path wound close to the aggressive water, but there was plenty of dry land. We could now make out the dying tree that pitched dangerously over the stream just above the dam we'd made in the summer. Beyond that was the swimming hole.
I think we all had some fear that The Tree, our swimming hole tree with its prized barge rope swing, would be damaged, but as we ran toward it, we could tell it was secure and untouched. True, its tangled roots were in water and the rope swing, rocking gently over the current, was mere inches above the water, but the tree itself was unfazed by the creek's hyper-activity.
We were all panting as we stopped to stare at it, and then Nate walked over to the great tree and with a hand on its massive trunk, gazed down into the deep water and out at the swing which hung above it.
"I'm gonna get the rope," he said.
"How?" asked Annie, coming nearer.
"Jump out and grab it."
"I'll do it," she said.
"No," said Nate. "I thought of it. Stand back."
"Better not get wet," she warned.
We watched him walk several paces back from the tree and turn around. Before we knew it he was taking a ferocious, half-crazy leap into the air, making brief contact with the rope before splashing into the creek, the water roaring around his chest.
"Are you okay, Natie?" I called urgently.
"I'm fine," he called back, wading with difficulty to the opposite bank, rope in hand. He climbed a large rock there and shook himself a little. The he peered over at us and said defiantly, "Actually, that was fun."
"I'm going to do it," said Annie.
"You want me to swing you the rope?"
"Sure," she said, excitement making her voice shrill. Catching the rope, Annie ran off the old oak's tangle of roots out into space, making a graceful arc over the water before launching herself into the deepest part. Her head disappeared for several seconds, and Nate and I both rushed to the edge of the water in fear calling her name, but Annie popped up slightly downstream and waded laughing through the strong pull of the current to the other side.
The rope pitched like a pendulum above the water. With my hands on the tree I inched down toward the spot where the roots nearest the trunk made a sort of rough stairway but were now submerged. As the rope came back, I caught it and hauled it up to higher ground. My siblings were laughing still on the opposite bank, examining their drenched clothes.
"I want to try," I stated when they finally looked up, searching for the rope in order to come back to the tree.
"You're too small," said Nate. "Swing us back the rope."
She could do it probably," said Annie, searching my face. "We're right here, Hoo-doo, but be careful. And don't go for the deep part, either."
But I didn't take calculations of where I should land. If I thought of that unfamiliar flood of water, I'd freeze, so I simply pulled back and jumped out with the rope swing in hand, tightly clutching it for an instant before letting go.
A whoosh! and then, suddenly, I was facing downstream with all the force of the creek behind me, pushing me toward the dying tree near our destroyed stone dam. I could hear someone calling from a distance, and then the sound seemed to settle in my skull with a thud and become decibels louder, and I realized it was me - my voice crying for help as I grasped in blind panic at the reedy plants at the creek's edge. They slipped through my fingers or broke in my hands, but I saw faces full of fear with hands outstretched racing along beside me - Annie and Nate.
My attempts to grasp their hands failed, and I was sputtering as I continued to cry for help when someone grabbed my shirt and hauled me out. It was Annie, and she began squeezing me and saying repeatedly, "Hoo-doo, you almost drowned. You almost drowned. I'm so sorry."
Nate's face was inches from mine and pale as he huddled near us on the bank. I was quivering, too stunned to break down in tears.
"I'm so sorry, Hoo-doo," said Annie, letting me go at last to look at my face.
"It's not your fault," I answered shakily.
I barely had time to stand up and look myself over for some lingering evidence of my ordeal, before we all heard something that struck terror in our already pounding chests.
"Annie! Nate!...Hoo-doo! Where are you?" a voice called stridently from the lane.
We all crouched in unison like a bunch of scared rabbits hoping to avoid the keen eyes of the hawk. We could hear Reuben barking as Dad continued to call. Silly us! That dog had been playing sentinel for Dad, ever loyal. When he had deserted us we could not tell, but he had obviously returned to his master to report our disobedience.
"Dad!" hissed Nate in a low, urgent whisper
"We're in big trouble," I said, quaking with cold and the fresh chill of fear.
"Kids, where are you?" we heard someone wail.
"That's Mom," said Annie. "We have to answer." She got bravely to her feet and called, "We're here!"
"Where?" demanded Dad, and then a bellow, "Get up here right now!"
There was no hope for it but to trudge up that side of the creek to the lane. We dare not take the time to swing back across, but this opposite bank was never used to reach the swimming hole. It was rough going, and our wet clothes made us clumsier. As if performing the duties of arresting officer, Reuben trotted easily through the tangled growth to meet us as we stumbled along, painfully slow. From the sheer length of time it took us, Dad could not but know we'd been to the swimming hole.
Mom started crying when we scrambled to the road. Dad examined us with eyes that burned with unadulterated anger. We were all forced to lower our faces to avoid that fierce gaze.
"What were you doing? Didn't I tell you to stay on the bridge?"
What could we answer? We were dumb.
"Where were you? Why are you wet?" Still we were silent as we looked sidelong at each other for some inspiration. Dad decided individual interrogation might be more profitable, so he turned to his son. "What were you doing, Nate? Why are you wet?"
"I fell in," said Nate.
"Don't lie to me, son."
"I..." she hesitated and then lifted her small chin in an effort to be brave as she looked back at Dad. "I jumped in. From the rope swing."
"Jumped in?" repeated Mom in disbelief.
"I'll handle this, Karen," said Dad sharply. He turned back to us with his blazing eyes, "What about you, Hoo-doo?"
"I jumped in, too, Daddy," I answered, breaking down finally in tears.
"Do you realize you could have been killed?" he cried. "You could have drowned! - all of you!"
Nate and Annie glanced at me, and I stuttered through my crying, "I d-did! I d-did al-most...d-dr-drown!"
There was silence except for the cacophony of my sobbing now mingling with Mom's, and then Dad yelled hoarsely, "Do you realize how stupid that was? That was stupid! I told you to stay on the bridge! Never - never - disobey me again! Do you understand me?"
He glared at us for several minutes longer as we squirmed uncomfortably before him. Then he uttered in disgust, "Let's go home."
We followed Dad and Mom down the road, not sure if our discipline had been served or not. Annie and Nate whispered accusations at each other as we dripped back up the lane, shifting blame like it was a soccer ball they kicked between them until Dad turned and gave them a harsh stare. I sniffled as I shuffled along, weary and grateful to be alive.