Creek Lessons from a Boy

Damsel Fly

When I was a boy, Summer Sundays were adventures into the undiscovered frontier of a child's imagination.

After church, my parents wrangled the lot of us into a gold Oldsmobile wagon and routed us to Sebald's creek. I had heard rumors that Sebald was a park commissioned by the town through generous donations from people in the paper or steel industries. It was the seventies. New parks and other goodwill projects were effective at keeping the middle and lower-class distracted from air and water health issues.

Still, Sebald satisfied family needs. 

Taking refuge in the park's shade and breeze relieved us during heat and humidity spells. We didn't have air-conditioning, and the body heat of thirteen humans inside the home didn't lower the mercury. The old rooms became saunas during stagnant days.  A break was needed, and deserved.

We also needed a break from the boredom of usual summer activities. Twelve weeks without school is enough time to get so bored that trouble starts. But, summers were magical times. It was an age of gun sticks and all day bike rides, of heavenly visits from the ice cream truck and knothole baseball games, of girls with cooties and secret clubs, and of a world becoming bigger than a ten-year old's eyes and mind could grasp. 

A trip to Sebald meant my dad cooked. And he did his best. The best that he could, anyway. He was in charge of the barbecue. My mom had two tasks. She was in charge of keeping us from escaping while preventing my dad from blowing us all up. The picnic shelter, a canopy on four pine stilts, was in charge of capturing the blue smoke that billowed from my dad's lighter-fluid soaked charcoals.

The rafters in the shelter were popular among wasps, and my dad's cooking prowess would smoke them out of their holes. Naturally, instead of going about the business of being wasps, they kept themselves preoccupied--until the smoke cleared--by being our dinner guests. I don't recall any of us getting stung. But attacks did seem imminent.  

My dad believed that all good meals needed a big flame and a lot of heat. He liked his meat well done. The Influenza Outbreak and Polio Epidemic had their obvious influences upon his technique. Every hamburger and hotdog was sterilized into carbon-crusted discs and rods.  

These trips to the creek were supposed to relax mom and get her away from the house. Being a homemaker of that many kids with only one car to the family has an impact on the psyche, especially if the scenery rarely changes. Every so often, a few people on horseback would pass the trail near our shelter. On one occasion, the sight of those horses sparked a raiding party desire in mom's eyes. I imagine she was dreaming of horse rustling despite never having been on a horse. Her look said it all. She was being swallowed by a cacophony of two older brothers fighting over a baseball glove, three girls teasing the middle brother, a toddler tugging on her pant leg, and the baby crying from a dirty diaper. That alone was enough motivation to jump on a horse and kick into full stride. Peace was an unfamiliar state of existence for her. The house was always full, the car was always full, the church pew was always full. With no escape from her husband, from horny and clumsy teenage boys, with no break from the dramas of emotionally charged and confused teenage girls, angry middle schoolers, pouting kindergartners and crying toddlers and babies---all at the same time--why wouldn't a mother want to mount a horse and hit full stride into those hills yonder?

Still, despite the stressful logistics my parents endured, they made it possible for me to recall with a happy heart these expeditions for eleven young souls. Even lighter fluid tasting meat brings back a nostalgia for my youth.

That was a different time. I've been to many parks since then. I've been to many creeks. I've been to remote mountain streams above tree-line and spent weeks at a time in wildernesses. By today's standards, my boyhood creek wasn’t much of a creek. Sebald was muddy and foamy in many places. It was a natural sink for farm runoff and yet became a place to which many folks fled on weekends to escape the stresses of steel and paper mill shift work. Even then, fishing there was a health risk though most of us did not know it. To swim in that creek was a sure way to get some weird skin rash. I imagine some might say drinking that water would have been a life-changing decision. Whatever was in the cocktail spilling into the creek miles upstream---cow urine, pesticides, sludge--I cannot recall ever being sick from drinking the water. And I had many gulps, planned or unplanned, in those days.

In fact, my recollections of playing in Sebald's creek are more of cherishing than dreading.

I loved to dive in those deep, muddy pools, scattering the water-striders as I went. Swimming with bullfrogs and an occasional snake--neither of which tolerated my youthful energy--was a boy’s delight. I was tested for my quickness too, especially when trying to catch crayfish under rocks in the rapids. Occasionally I’d take one home as a new friend though I do not recall what became of them. They just seemed to go away or die in a Hellmann's jar. Perhaps I do not recall my parents talking to me about crawdad heaven. Perhaps he escaped through the saintly John portal. Whatever became of those bug-sized lobsters may never be unclassified. 

Of course, dazzling my imagination were damselflies hovering upon the creek surface like mini rescue helicopters. Such good friends those metallic blue and green mosquito-killers were. To a child entranced by water, flight and shiny things, they epitomized what I wanted, and who I wanted to be.

Every so often, when child's play quieted and daydreaming took over, even when standing in two feet of rushing water, a kingfisher would do its flyby, squawking with either discontent or instruction about my innocent, yet perfectly imperfect ignorance.

But most of all, I remember the banks, lined with birch and honeysuckle. In between trees and a maze of vines in patches of sunlight, I’d find some of the prettiest little yellow flowers with hundreds of rays—which I now know are classified as weeds. But innocence brings forth the most wondrous gestures. I'd pull up a handful of them, breaking their hollow stems about grass height and make a bouquet to bring to the picnic table as a gift for mom. Maybe one reason I did this was to stand out from my other brothers and sisters to get much needed attention. Or maybe it was because, often, the only way a child knows how to say thank you beyond words is through gifts of beauty. I know my mom deserved more than what the cynics and apocalyptics refer to as invasive weeds, but my hunch is that mom was more into the gesture, into my little, bright, yellow offerings of love. And she still would be.

I am fond of those youthful summer days because I came to know that creek and its surrounds intimately, not in the way a parent, tourist or fisherman does, but in the way a child does, from a thousand viewpoints, with tiny hands upon flora and feet upon wet, slippery rocks, and a nose that smells grilled foods and lighter fluid and blue smoke and babies crying and older siblings arguing and family union in the cool breeze. This child had ears that heard the proclamations of who I was, and, naturally, the broad eyes to see a whole universe within a tiny space that most seem to take for granted. Yes. I was unaware then, but the entire universe--all 13.2 billion years of it--expressed itself to me through that creek. It never left.  

Even today I can still feel the living movement of water flowing around my ankles and I can still hear the frogs and crickets divinely singing. Back then, I knew of God. And perhaps more intimately than I do today. For it was then that I knew what it was to dive into a shaded muddy pool on a hot, humid day. I knew the connection of human and earth when catching a crayfish and swimming with frogs. I knew the trance of the damselfly dance and the teaching of the kingfisher’s call. Yes. Back then, I knew what it was to be a creek. And I knew how it was to be an early summer afternoon. And I knew how it was to be a family. And I have been trying to get back there ever since.