It was impossible to open my eyes beneath the muddy water. The Hatchie River is known for its thick, brown color and is sometimes so thick with particulates that you can almost stand a spoon in it.
Roger and I were hot, riding along with my Dad for hours in that aluminum boat. Almost all the paint had been worn off from years of hard use, and not a small amount of abuse. The shiny aluminum that shone through the green reflected the hot Tennessee sun right back into our faces, ensuring a burn on our noses, even under our straw hats. We had had enough.
At the next stop, while my dad was tying a new trotline deep into a willow tree, Roger and I piled out into the river. I remember that my mom, before we left the house, had threatened me to keep my ears dry, and not swim in that filthy river. My dad remembered, too, and he in turn threatened to tan my hide if I didn’t keep my head above water.
Roger and I walked/floated/swam a few yards from the boat, mainly to stay out of dad’s way, and to avoid any slimy creatures that may fall out of that wispy willow tree. We’d seen that happen too many times for two 10-year-old boys to be comfortable playing there. Where we were, the bank was slick with mud from the slides of muskrats. They loved to slide into the muddy water to cool off, and to dig for mussels, a delicacy for muskrats and some humans, too.
The Hatchie is mostly rather shallow close to the banks, except for where erosion and strong currents kept the sand and mud from gaining a foothold and building up over time. Like places where muskrats slide. Like the place where Roger and I were swimming.
We were goofing around, digging out mussels from the bank, when I either stepped in a hole or off into a deep pool. I was immediately under water, frightened at the suddenness of being submerged. It was impossible to open my eyes beneath the muddy water, and I struggled to find the surface. In the confusion, disorientation, and panic, I could only think of two things: my mom was going to be really mad for getting my ears wet, and that if I could control the panic that dominated my senses, I could control my motions and I would float to the top.
Only I couldn’t control the panic. My flailing arms never reached the surface; kicking feet never found the bottom. I knew my dad was close, but I also knew I had drifted away from him and the boat. I had no idea where Roger was, but I was bigger than he and I knew he couldn’t help.
I was still struggling for orientation, aware that my lungs were now burning, when I noticed a horrible pain in my scalp. I thought my hair had become entangled in an underwater root. However, I could feel myself moving swiftly in the water. I was both surprised and confused when I felt my head and chest break the surface of the water, but I took that chance to suck in a double lung full of air. I opened my eyes as I came flying out of the water into the steamy hot summer air, now with one arm above my head, and landed hard on hot metal.
Noticing my struggle, my hero dad had reached down into the muddy water, found me, and yanked my entire body to safety by my hair and my left arm.
I coughed and sputtered a bit while my dad, purple-faced and short of breath, screamed at me to never play around like that again. Man, he was mad!
Over the years, however, I have come to realize that at that moment, Dad wasn’t angry. He was afraid-afraid because he almost lost a son beneath the muddy waves. His fear erupted in emotion that looked and sounded like anger to a 10-year-old. But I always knew. And I have thanked him more than once for reaching into the water and grabbing me by the hair and pulling me to safety.
There were to be many more years of goofing around at the River, both in the water and on its banks. After Dad was diagnosed with cancer, we fished as much as he felt like fishing in that muddy water.
Now that I have kids of my own, I really understand how fearful parenting can be. Maybe not life and death actions, but decisions that affect life now… and forever.
Miss you, Dad. Thanks for watching out for me. And for not telling mom.