As widespread rains begin to slowly refill lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, Thanksgiving thoughts turn back to the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth where the Mississippi River, just a mile from our dairy barn, was a constant, often dominating presence.
Except, that is, in the late summer months when everything around the farm — cows, hired men, and even the river — moved in a slow granny gear. That was especially so on Saturday evenings where nearly a hundred panting Holsteins and an airless milking parlor promised a sweaty session of steamy drudgery.
Those languid Saturdays were, however, the perfect time for two young adventurers, my older brother David and me, to ask our overheated mother if we could “go camp on the river.”
It was a rhetorical question: Two fewer sulking teenagers for supper and another long night in an un-air-conditioned farmhouse? The answer came quickly, “Go!”
Like most Tom Sawyers, we traveled light. Two cotton sleeping bags, some frozen hot dogs, potato chips, butter, a handful of sliced bread, a black skillet and a half-dozen eggs were breakfast, supper and sleep. A rinsed chlorine jug from the dairy barn held a gallon of water and, of course, we each carried a pocket knife and matches.
We never took a tent because we didn’t have a tent.
Ten minutes later we were crossing the heifer pasture to climb the levee that shouldered the western bank of the Kaskaskia River. Our “trail” was the levee and its biggest danger was a sleepy dry cow or two blocking the way. When the Kaskaskia levee married the Mississippi River levee, David and I left it for a short hike through a forest of silver maples, rattling cottonwoods and swaying willows.
Adventurous as it sounds — and it was for us — the simple geographic fact remained that had we backtracked to the levee we could have seen the dairy barn, dry cows and Mom’s clothesline in the distance.
Still, we were in the middle of our own personal kingdom, a massive sandbar at the meeting point of the brown, lazy Kaskaskia River and the wide, roiling Mississippi. Here was enough driftwood for an all-night fire and acres of sugary sand on which to make our starlit beds.
In no time at all we were Marquette and Joliet, or Lewis and Clark, risking our sacred lives, used baling twine, and fast-melting butter by walking through a forest of ancient trees, uncharted creeks and hordes of hot dog-hungry opossums and raccoons.
And we were free; the kind of free that farm boys only felt when there were no cows or alfalfa fields within sight. We were buccaneers on a free-flowing river with the freedom to go anywhere.
Except into the water. Our mother’s only condition to get us out of her frazzled hair was no swimming in either the Kaskaskia, a lazy, oversized creek most summers, or the broad, secretive Mississippi. And we never did. Honest.
But we explored the nearby woods, ran barefoot through the sand, and sat for long silent minutes watching the Mississippi flow around the next bend. Supper was hot dogs roasted on the end of sharpened willow branches. Breakfast was eggs cracked, scrambled, and eaten from the skillet, and toast made over the still-hot fire. Butter soaked both.
Nights were the best, though. We always made a roaring campfire to ward off all things real and imagined. Often we were awakened by towboats’ drumming diesel engines as they clawed their way up the Big River’s strong current. Other times their powerful searchlights, looking for channel markers, lit our camp like the noon sun.
The next morning, after more dangerous deep-woods explorations and less dangerous sandbar sitting, we’d slowly make our way home. Somehow we always arrived a few minutes after the rest of the family had departed for church, another sweat-dripping event we never regretted missing.
Now, though, that would be a small price to pay for two old men to meet back on Old Man River for one more starlit, lazy night amid the sand, willows, and memories.
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