Frankie,” he shouted to himself over the roar of the river, “this is it. If this stick breaks, you are gonna die.” His mother told him not to go to the river–there was a storm coming. But Frankie Johns was eighteen now and of independent mind, and he needed to show it. So, he went to the river, decided to cross it on foot, and found himself up to his neck in fast-flowing water, struggling against the current to get to an island in the middle. Only his walking stick, jammed against a rock on the riverbed, saved his scrawny body from the river’s deadly bear hug.
He had underestimated the ferocity of the flowing water. If he lost his footing, he’d be swept away and dragged across rocks and rapids. The paramedics would find his stinking, bloated carcass, in a day or so, snagged by some branch.
His objective, what he and his friend Dan called ‘the island,’ was little more than a strip of sand with a few trees on it, barely large enough for a tent. He had camped on the island many times, and had crossed the river here before with no problem. But the spring rain had caused the river to swell. He inched along using all his strength to stay upright. He considered retreating, but it would be better to continue to the other side. Anyway, it was his rule never to go back, once he started to move forward, though after today, this rule might come under review.
As he moved, he developed a system. He slid the stick a bit, and then moved his feet to catch up to it. The river pushed violently against his body. He wasn’t a big boy. Maybe 120 pounds, and not tall–well under six feet. Maybe his size helped to save him–he was less of a target.
Funny thing, though. Despite feeling a certain concern for his well-being under the circumstances, he was not afraid. Was he too stupid to be afraid? Did he not yet fully comprehend the danger? He was either very brave or very stupid. So far, stupid was winning. To him, however, it wasn’t stupidity, but courage that made him feel that way. That’s the way he was. Faced with a situation like this, he did not panic, but plowed through, doing what he had to do.
He slid the stick a foot or so along the river bed, then inched his feet over to meet it. He repeated this process several times, until he encountered a large unstable rock, which sent him tumbling into the rushing stream. The river grabbed him. “Now I have you,” it said. His face went under the water, the river gurgling in his ears. He gasped, taking cold water into his lungs. He coughed and spit, but in an instant, as by reflex, he planted the stick and leaned against it, saving his cold and waterlogged hide. After another dozen movements of the stick, the river grew more shallow, pressing on less of his body. He dragged himself from the water and collapsed on the narrow and sandy bank.
“Okay,” he said out loud, “lesson learned.”
He wasn’t sure how he was going to get off the island, but the immediate danger was over.
It was 1974, and Frankie, less than a year out of high school, and after being eighteen for about twelve hours (making him an adult under the law) went camping on the island over his mother’s objections. She told him he could not go. She had seen the weather reports and knew there might be tornadoes, this being the State of Michigan, and it being the season for tornadoes. As an eighteen-year-old, however, he no longer had to listen to his mother, which fact he made clear to her. As a matter of honor he had to go camping anyway. So, here he was. Not dead yet, but working on it. His efforts in that arena were not over for the day–he had other death-defying feats up his sleeve. Although, like crossing the river, they didn’t seem so at the time of their conception or initiation. He didn’t engage in them because he chose to tempt fate, it just happened.
He and Dan had not stashed any food on the island, but they had managed to hide cans of beer, which dangled in the water secured by a rope. He drank one, then decided to go for a swim. The notion of swimming so soon after nearly drowning in a raging river might seem strange to some, but it was all part of Frankie’s new-found freedom–the ability and the right to do as he pleased without asking anyone’s permission.
The water on the other side of the island was relatively still, as there was a small cove there. They had rigged a rope from a tree so they could swing out and drop into the river. As there were no lifeguards here, he swam at his own risk which, as it turned out, was considerable.
He took hold of the rope, swung himself out over the water. He had done this many times, and it was about as much fun as a boy could have in the absence of a girl. He released the rope, and floated for an instant ten feet above the water, then fell to the surface–landing squarely on his back. He presently found himself fifty feet from the island with the wind knocked out of him.
Being in the water that distance from the shore, with the wind knocked out of you, is not a healthy state of affairs. It could be called a near-death experience. “Son, you gotta get to the shore,” he would have said to himself, but he had no air in his lungs to push through his vocal cords, so he thought it, instead. Whether spoken, or merely thought, it was good advice, if only from himself, which didn’t matter, as he generally didn’t like taking advice from others. Otherwise, he would have stayed home and be nice and safe and warm, watching TV.
Being young and brave, although not particularly strong, he struggled to get himself back to the island. Half way there his breath came back, and he gulped air just in time to keep himself from passing out.
“Damn, son,” he said to himself, “perhaps you should stay here, keep out of the river, make a fire, and drink the rest of the beer.” This advice he took, and was what he wanted to hear. He fortunately had been a Boy Scout, and had brought matches coated in wax, which he carried in a plastic bag.
He got the fire raging to such an extent he feared the trees would catch fire. Although a small island in the river, it had large trees on it, and the flames and the sparks licked the branches and leaves. He toned down the fire because he was tired of living dangerously that day, and he just wanted to get warm and dry.
He intended to stay the night on the island, but he didn’t have proper camping gear. He had a few sheets of plastic and an old coat, but that was it. He set up his camp as best he could near the fire and settled down to rest.
It soon became dark and he tried to sleep. He had neglected to bring any food so, cold and hungry, he shivered in the damp chill of a late spring night, laying on the stony ground, listening to things moving around in the bushes. In the darkness, he imagined that all sorts of things caused the noises, which put terror in his heart. Raccoon? Snake? Hobo? Or could it be a creature not known to man, but living in the woods by the river waiting for wayward young men trying to prove their independence to their mothers? On top of that, he could hear things crawling around under the plastic ground cover. But, by God, he was not going to leave here until morning.
Shortly, the wind picked up, shaking his “tent,” which he struggled to hold down against it. At least the sound of the wind covered up the noise of the things crawling around in the woods looking for him.
His mother had predicted a storm and maybe a tornado. He did not concern himself with that so much because she was always over-concerned with the weather. Anyway, he was young and could not be killed–that’s why he rode his bike for miles in a lightning storm, and why he walked across a deep-flowing river in water up to his neck. Nothing could hurt him, and that’s what he wanted to do, and nothing and nobody could stop him. The storm grew more intense. His mother had been right about the weather, and now he was in it deeper than he had been before. It looked as though he would spend the night freezing on a tiny island in the middle of a mean river, with nothing to eat, during a tornado. So be it. He settled down on his plastic sheet on the stony ground with his old coat for a night of shivering independence.
The hard earth sucked the heat from him like a sponge soaking up water. He shivered violently and wanted to go home, but he couldn’t. There was no way he was going to face his mother, hearing her sing, “I told you so.” He would just stay here and take his medicine.
A voice came from the top of the hill. “Frankie?” It sounded like Dan.
“Yeah?” Frankie called.
“You wanna come up to my house?”
It was Dan.
He had not prayed to God for a way out, but if he had, this is what he would have asked for. This was the answer–he would not freeze, he would get something to eat, and he did not need to go home to his mother to do it.
“Yeah,” Frankie said, “that would be great.”
“C’mon, then, let’s go.”
Dan’s mother and father were two of his favorite people in the world. They were always very kind to him, and there was a certain calmness about Dan’s house not present in his own. The only time he saw Dan’s mother show any real annoyance at them was the time they went to the nearby gravel pit to collect metal scraps so they could weld a metal sculpture for art class. They came back covered in mud, toting several large pieces of scrap iron. Her disapproval was not thunderous, or violent, or mean, but it didn’t need to be. Her disapproval was all the punishment Frankie needed. Other than that, though, she had always been a pillar of pleasantness.
She fixed them cake and milk, and they retired to Dan’s basement to play the stereo.
Dan put on a Black Sabbath album. “Why did you go out on a night like this?”
“Because my mother said I couldn’t.”
Dan laughed. “I know. She called and asked me to go get you.”
Frankie frowned, then shrugged. “She’s smarter than I thought. She knew I would sooner stay out and freeze, or be blown away in a tornado, than to come home.”
Dan patted him on the shoulder. “That’s okay, I saved you.”
Dan was his best friend, and they did everything together. They had discovered the island, they had camped on it, they did the welding art, and many other things. Dan was taller and stronger and better looking. He could play basketball, baseball and football, and could run and jump like a gazelle. Frankie didn’t play sports. His scrawny frame had no business on a football field, baseball held no interest for him, and he hated to run.
They listened to music and shot the breeze for a while. Frankie, exhausted from an afternoon of trying to drown himself in the river, fell asleep on the sofa in the basement.