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River of Mind by Carol Niederlander

I grew up in Washington, Missouri, situated on the Missouri River about 50 miles west of St. Louis. Front Street there literally fronted the wide, muddy river—and ran along next to the train station and the Corn Cob pipe factory, in my childhood it was a somewhat derelict venue, often inhabited by hobos and drunkards who’d hopped trains and gotten off when one stopped in Washington. Some evenings, though my father would drive my younger brother and me down to the station to watch trains come in and also just to watch that river flowing by just beyond the tracks. At sunset, the sky, river, and trains approaching and departing--whistles blowing and headlights sweeping—formed a lovely and somewhat lonely but memorable landscape.  And once when I was a teen, a riverboat stopped at Washington and some friends and I took a long ride along the river, my only time actually on the water. At sunset again, I stood near the enormous paddle-wheel at the stern and watched the sky and water and wheel turning, leaving long waves in its wake. Even at age 14, I caught the sense of timelessness the river, sky, and slow-moving boat evoked in me.  It seemed then as if it could have been any time, any boat, and anyone watching the water.  And it probably was.


 


‘Cross the Wide Missouri
By R.D. Puller
 
            “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you,…  Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, 
             …Away, I'm bound away 'Cross the wide Missouri.”          
 ~Oh Shenandoah  [American folk song]
 
I
 
           My best memory of the Missouri is the time I decided it was a good idea to swim across it.  It was on a pre-dawn day in summer, sometime in the mid-1970s when I was yet young and fit and brave enough to be stupid (or vice versa).  I had pulled an all-nighter at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge where I was the front-desk clerk and had a double-shift because the night auditor was a no-show.  I drove down the South River Road to an old friend’s shack on the river.  I loaded up a cooler of beer and planned to go fishing with a friend named John.  I got there about 5:30 AM.   John was a river-rat, a term he embraced with pride.  Usually an early riser, John and his wife Sherry must have had a late-night shindig, his bonfire still glowed with embers and the debris field around the fire-pit looked like a riverboat had washed ashore and cracked open.  Their bedroom door was shut and I might have awakened him, but his new wife Sherry was a no-nonsense nurse and a fiery redhead.   A great lady, but I was not brave enough to rouse her ire, especially if she were hung-over.  I would have taken old Seamus, but he must have been asleep in their bedroom, worn out from the late night antics.  
 
     The sun was barely up, could see it through the mist that hung in the trees on the island across the narrow slough from John’s shack.   Grabbed my tackle and rod and cooler and waded across the muck. I had stripped down to shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.  It was humid and already heating up.  The muddy banks of the slough were a miasma of slime, skeeters, gnats, and flies. The crickets and frogs were in fine fettle, a hosanna to my ears.  Night birds and bats were winging through the trees as I reached the island.  I took one of the deer trails that crosshatched the island and along the way I heard a hoot owl and a murder of crows cawing overhead. I kicked up a pheasant and saw a wild turkey, some white-tailed deer and startled a red bushy-tailed fox too.  Saw squirrels and rabbits, turtles and lizards, dragonflies and snakes, oh my!   
 
     After a while I saw the river flowing strong beyond the rocks and gravel and the jumbled driftwood.  There I found the secluded bar of sand shaped in a crescent and an old, well-used fire pit near the base of a huge boulder.   Sweaty and sorely abused by the posse of bugs trailing me, but I was glad to be there.  I had planned to make a small fire and nap but it was too hot already.  So I fished awhile and drank a few cold brews.   Maybe I would sleep later when the sun passed beyond the tree line but I hadn’t any bug spray (or sunscreen) because I really hadn’t planned this thing.  To cool off and to escape the biting bastards I stripped off my shorts and skivvies and slithered into the cold, cold waters of the Big Muddy.  The water wasn’t as polluted back then, but you didn’t want to swallow it either.  It changed colors according to the light and the weather and the conditions upstream. Today it was green in the shadows and amber in the light and silver on the skin. 
 
     And it was a slice of Missouri heaven.  It was the River Lethe!  It felt so damn good I quit fishing, rolled and played like a puppy.   After coating myself head to foot with good Missouri mud I went back to fishing.   Must have been a sight to any humans, but part of the charm of this morning on the river was just that I was free from human eyes, a sauvage, a wildling cavorting along the rim of the great roiling river.  Oceans are far away and nebulous, as poetic as the Milky Way.  Rivers are as real as good prose, they do the work by connecting this to that and back again. They transport and receive and give and release the continental soil and waters in reprisals of mud, in layers of silt, in the currents of time and the branches of place.   
 
     The sun rose in tribute to the river.   And the heat rose, too.  The mud started to dry and contract along with my discomfort.   Itching became chafing, chafing became abrasive like I was wearing an iron maiden of heavy-grit sandpaper. It wasn’t long before the sauvage(me) went back into the river.  And that was when I got the not-so-bright idea to swim out into the river, maybe even to the other side.  I knew the current could be treacherous, but remember, I was young and brave.   And I saw a piece of driftwood sticking up from the river about halfway across and about a quarter mile downstream.  That was where I was going to swim.  If I could make it there, well I could rest and make it back, or all the way across.   Why the hell not?  A question favored by certain young men and imbeciles.
 
II
 
     Most Americans of a certain age know well the great American folk song, Oh Shenandoah.
It has been, for over two hundred years, a popular song or shanty (a work song) sung by voyageurs.  They were the fur traders, frontiersmen, mountain men, and bargemen that plied the dangerous rivers of America for exploration and commerce. They helped to connect the `civilized’ communities in the East with the wild and `savage’ regions of the American West.
 
     While some of these intrepid men and women co-mingled with and helped to assimilate the native indigenous peoples of the West, most whites exploited and were complicit in the cultural destruction of American Indians along with the negative impacts on the landscape and environment of North America, the original sin of American history to be quickly followed by its evil twin, the importation of slavery.  The rivers accelerated European expansion into North America.  Rivers cannot wash away those sins.     
 
     The Missouri River is the largest watershed and most important river in the country.  For most of my life I have never lived more than a thirty-minute drive from this river. I have crossed the wide Missouri countless times.   On bridges of every size, crossed by ferry, by outboard, skiff, johnboat, or kayak. I went swimming in the great river (though not lately) many times since I was a tadpole.  I am a Missourian to my core; grew up reading about Missourians: John Colter, Nathan Boone, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont (married Jessie Benton, daughter of Thomas Hart Benton), Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse & Frank James, Mark Twain and many others. Missouri is in the heartland of American history and our rivers here carry much of the lifeblood of this nation.
 
     A river crossing implies both leaving and arriving, a natural and metaphorical boundary, borders crossed (or invaded), or a new frontier to explore, or escape into.  Borders are a test, a test of the will and character of a nation or an individual.  Or at the very least a border should give us pause, time to reconsider or reflect upon whether to cross, or not to cross.  Life is full of Rubicon crossings.  And I carried the baggage of history, both as a young man and imbecile.     
   
     Mankind and river are in constant flux, never at rest in transformation from the roiling chaos beneath the surface.  Like America itself, never at rest, ever changing, inconsistent, difficult to understand.  Rivers provide powerful lessons on risk, failure, and impermanence.  The wild, unmapped places, the desolate spaces beyond our rough edges are bound away seeking to be nourished (or redeemed) by the river of chaos that is our soul in turmoil. 
 
     In December 1970 I returned to Missouri after serving three years in the U.S. Army, most of that time overseas, in West Germany and then in the Vietnam.  I was newly liberated from that insane, absurd, and destructive war and just twenty-one years young.   I was living in an old apartment building on Third and Monroe in St. Charles, a five-minute walk downhill to the Missouri River.  In was a `hippie house’ in a conservative town where the tenants knew one another and looked out for each other.  The old Rock Road Bridge was built just before the 1904 World’s Fair and it carried both automobiles and streetcars.  It was a rusty, distinctive old bridge and was still in use (this was many years before politicians blew it up) and I took out onto the pedestrian walkway day or night in any weather, a great place to ramble.  There was a jungle of brambles, scrub, and briars on the eastern fringe of the Missouri where I would sometimes hike or fish, but mostly I would stop halfway across the river where the vantage was best.  Up or down the river or overlooking the town and waterfront where many of the buildings were a century old or older.  Early morning or late at night were the best time to bridge-walk. Even saw a ghost in the river one strange night.
 
     There are many ghosts in the lore from old St. Charles.  Some had to do with the river.         
I glimpsed the blue ghost-girl, a haunting swirl of pale skin in a gossamer blue gown with flowing hair.  Her were arms drifting in the depths beneath the old bridge in a blue halo of light that eventually winked out.  Supposedly the girl was a suicide (or thrown?) from the bridge (when?), but no one knew for sure.  She was said to be a harbinger, bad juju coming.  Come to think of it, we got hit with a bad flood soon after I saw the blue ghost-girl.  And floodwater came up over the River Road onto Main Street where my favorite tavern, The City Club, became a veritable island.  Me and some buddies sandbagged inside for a day and a night where luckily the kegs kept us afloat and we saved the tavern.   Later floods (especially ’93) would erode and wipe out Johnny’s island and the shack. The river always wins.
 
III
 
     I got just twenty feet from shore when it dawned on me that it was a mistake to take the swim across the Missouri on that early morning in the mid-1970s.  Where the current grabbed and conveyed my young ass downstream lickety-split.  Eight to ten miles an hour doesn’t sound like much, but plunked like a bobbin in the mightiest river in North America, it felt like being tossed down a log-chute with a torpedo up my fundament.   It was quickly apparent I was going to miss my mid-way driftwood unless I swam against the current with all the Johnny Weissmuller (with a splash of Buster Crabbe) that I could muster.  I have read about the punishment of being keelhauled.  The Missouri keelhauled me for desperate minutes in a churning chaos of heart, legs, and arms pin-wheeling against the relentless current. 
 
     I managed to reach the closest limb of driftwood, but it broke off.  But I held on, hoping it had enough buoyancy to keep me afloat because now I had reached the bottom of my grit.  My lungs were gone.  I must have swallowed a pint of river and it was gorging.   It was a fight to keep my numbskull out of the water tugging me down.   I felt something large swipe across my legs. It was clammy and colder than the water (a huge carp, a mud turtle, the ghost-girl?).   I kicked my legs in fury and using the chunk of wood as support I veered at a vector toward the opposite bank.  I calmed down and was able to catch my wind while I paddled-boated for many minutes.  The closer I got to the far shore the easier it got.  By then I was perhaps a mile downstream of Johnny’s island.  I had crossed under and past the new bridge and came to shore about a hundred yards south of the old Rock Road Bridge.  
 
     Ashore I lay in the brush and tangles for a spell to catch my breath and kiss the earth. I knew how lucky I had been testing the river gods.  Must have looked like a wraith crab crawling up from the muddy bank and fumbling on my tender feet.  I trudged up the hobo path toward the Rock Road Bridge abutment.  The traffic was in the rush hour (I just had my own) and I didn’t relish the commuters gawking at the near-naked bozo limping into old St. Charles, but I was alive, so I would prance and dance it unashamed.  Just hope a black-and-white squad car didn’t find me. As luck would have it, good old Johnny came to the rescue.  I saw his laconic, grinning face up ahead leaning up against his prize pick-up truck `old Sadie’ along the shoulder of the Rock Road.  I wanted to hug and kiss him, would have if he hadn’t said, “No way, you crazy bastard!  Get into these before you soil Sadie’s seats” as he threw a shirt and pair of his old coveralls at me.  John had surmised what had happened when he found my car parked at his shack, tracked me across the island and saw my rod, tackle, and cooler on the far shore.   
 
     “Figured you’d wash up `round here if you survived the river, you stupid pup. Didn’t I warn you of the treachery in that river, son?”  He chided me (and for years after), but mostly we laughed all the way back to his shack where Sherry was up and fixing us a hearty breakfast and pot of strong coffee. I wish I had a snapshot of the look she gave me when she saw me alive, just before she hugged the breath out of me. Before I sat down she handed me a bar of soap and threw me a towel.   Ordered me back outside to the hose, the mud-hose where their Irish terrier, Seamus watched me strip down.  Seamus yipped (with his Irish lilt) at me as I danced around shrieking under the hose.   
 
The End
 
 
 
 

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