Fortunately for me, the cooing of the mourning doves helped bring me around before my alarm clock could sound. Normally, I would have let the sun from my window bring me out of my slumber, but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I didn’t have school today, and it was a Friday morning, so hopefully, the rest of the anglers would be at work. Also, I hoped to slip away without my mother noticing. She hated it when I took off on my own.
“A nine-year-old shouldn’t be wandering off into the woods alone.” She would say.
Yet, that’s exactly what I often did, without being caught. Except once, when my older brother showed up at Lake Bassola, where I was fishing for perch. His car pulled up and he got out, and looking as if he might kill me, just said, “Get in the car.”
Which I did, and then suffered the wrath of my mother’s belt afterwards. I had gotten accustomed to this ritual. I did something she thought was wrong and in turn, suffered her wrath as she beat me repeatedly with a belt. This was why my brother didn’t have to worry about punishing me, he knew our mother would happily do the dirty work for him.
However, this time I was determined to get to the river to do some fishing because I wanted to try out a spot that I knew would be the perfect spot to catch big channel or flathead catfish. At least, I hoped so.
Once outside, with my Zebco rod and reel combination, and tan and brown tackle box, I was on my way to the Neosho River. It had flooded a few weeks before and the water was just now receding enough to go near the water without being swept away. I knew that what had flooded downstream would be trapped at the edge of the falls. I had seen it before. All the logs, branches, twigs, and anything else unlucky enough to become caught in its current ended up bunched together at the falls and formed an unusual bridge that a person could walk on. I had seen many anglers do just that, and because of that, I was certain it would be the perfect place to drop a line into some deep water filled with monsters.
As I was heading toward the falls, I thought of the time when I was fishing off an embankment by the falls and lowered my line into the water. After a moment, I felt a tug and pulled my line up to discover that a large sea turtle was at the end of my line. I had caught it by the edge of its shell, and for some reason when I pulled on the line, it just floated to the surface. It was perfectly fine and seemed a bit surprised that someone had disturbed it. I was so shocked that I let my line go slack and the turtle went back down, and I unsnagged its shell, and it disappeared in the mad rush of the water and its current. I remember telling my brother about the turtle, but he did what he usually did, he laughed at me and called me a liar. Well, I wasn’t lying. And because of that incident, I knew massive fish must also be hidden within those currents, and I was determined to catch one.
When I arrived at the river, I hid my bike and made my way along the embankment, which was made of cement, and had a hard rise also made of concrete, designed to keep anyone from falling into the water. But if you looked over the edge, you could see the rusted metal ladder that went all the way down to the water and below. I assumed it was there in case someone needed to help clear away the logs or whatever. Who knows? Perhaps they used it to help drag out bodies of people who drowned upstream, I thought. Anyway, just as I looked down over the embankment, I got a little dizzy trying to focus on the metal rungs and the rushing water below it. The river was quite active, and. I could see the logs as they rose and fell with the movement of the current, almost as if a creature were below them that was alive and breathing.
It looked to be a much longer climb than I remembered when I once watched an angler use it. Also, I noticed that a couple of the rungs had broken away and so when climbing down, one would have to climb further at some points because there was nothing to stand on. But I wasn’t about to let this stop me. I came here for a purpose, and I intended to complete my mission, no matter what.
I had often tried things that people might consider foolhardy, such as when I once reached a tad too far for a pear while climbing a pear tree, and I ended up stepping on a branch that broke and dropped me straight to the ground, making me hit so hard that I crapped my pants.
Fortunately, no one noticed my pants, as they were too busy marveling that I wasn’t dead. I staggered home, stripped off my pants, and hid them, and then I cleaned off and climbed under the covers and fell asleep. I’m not sure, but I think I hit my head as well because I was sick to my stomach and slept on and off for about two days. But I never told my mom and those with me kept their mouths shut because they weren’t supposed to be climbing the pear tree either.
Or the other time when I decided to go down an almost vertical concrete street on my skateboard and hit a crack in the street and went down halfway down the length of the street before landing hard against the curb. Then too, I never told anyone, and no one ratted me out.
Well, one good thing this time, there wouldn’t be anyone to worry about tattle-telling because this time I would be alone.
As I made my way down the ladder, I noticed that it was also much older than I expected, which made me wonder just how stable it was. Would it hold me?
I decided that it would, and I continued my descent. The hard part was trying to manipulate my rod and reel, along with the tackle box, while climbing down what were mostly small lengths of steel jammed into the side of the concrete, which itself looked as if it were about to break apart.
As I neared the last step, I looked down at the breathing walkway of wood I was about to step on. It was breathing up and down in a slow rhythmic pattern. In between many of the logs, there was water rushing up from the openings, swirling up and around and down, like it was waiting for anything or anyone to make the mistake of stepping into it.
Well, I didn’t plan to make that mistake, so onward I went. When I first stepped onto the makeshift natural-made bridge, I noticed it gave a bit under my weight. I was happy that I was small because had I been any heavier, I’m not sure just how well it would have held.
Once I had managed to get on the bridge and look around, I let go of the ladder and balanced myself upon it. This was one of the scariest parts because now I was committed. I didn’t have anything to grab onto because I was now using both hands to hold the tackle box and my rod and reel. I was on my own.
Looking out at it, I could see that the ladder stretched to the center of this section of the river.
Man, I thought, I can fish directly under the falls at the very center of the river. There had to be massive fish down there. The only thing I had to figure out was how I would get there.
I started looking over the logs and their woven design to best judge where the weaknesses were and where the openings were as well. If I misjudged, then I could end up cracking one of the log sections and going down. If I lost my balance, then I could end up slipping into an opening and going down as well. And going down meant going under the logs and being forced to find an opening. I remembered seeing a horror movie where a kid got caught under the ice and desperately tried to find an opening before he drowned. I guessed the same thing could happen to me.
But I put that garbage out of my mind and started toward the center of the log jam. With each step, I did my best not to think about the water, which of course was impossible, since it was all around and under me. It was ever present, no matter how much I tried to put it out of my mind.
Somehow, I made it to the center and found a spot that looked solid, where I could sit and drop my line. It had several logs woven together and a nearby opening that I could sit beside and drop my line. It was perfect.
After I sat down, I quickly baited my line and dropped it down as far as I could. It wasn’t until that moment that I fully realized just how deep the water was. Because no matter how much I let drop, it just kept going down and down. Finally, I just let it hang there, I think mostly because I started to get a bit creeped out that it kept going down for so long. Was it really that deep here?
After a while, I felt a tug, and I pulled on the line, but it was just the current. I hadn’t thought about how much the current would be playing with the line. I could try and add more weight, but it was difficult to do much in that situation because too much movement increased the chance of my losing my balance, and that was the last thing I wanted to do.
So, I let out the line again and just waited. As I was waiting, I looked toward the bank where I usually fish, and I noticed that no one was there. And after checking out the rest of the area around the river, I realized I was indeed alone. I had gotten what I wanted. I wanted to have the place to myself, and now I did. Only, this started weighing a bit on my mind. If something bad happened there wouldn’t be anyone I could call out to. No one would be able to help me.
It was at this point that the gravity of my decision hit me. I couldn’t swim! What was I doing out here when I knew I couldn’t swim? Why hadn’t I thought about that?
This was quite normal for me. I often just did things without any forethought, much like my fishing at the lake and getting the belt for it or climbing the tree, and then falling and being forced to hide my injury because I had done something I wasn’t supposed to do in the first place.
Years later, I would find that there was an explanation for this behavior. I would be diagnosed as being bipolar, and I would have many similar events in which I didn’t think before I leaped, and lied when needed to get what I desired or out of self-created difficulties.
But for now, I would need to get myself out of the current difficulty I had gotten myself into. I wasn’t afraid until my mind had time to catch up with my actions. Once my mind assessed the situation, I realized just how perilous it was coming out here, especially since I couldn’t swim. My mind now started visualizing my body going through an opening and being caught under the logs, desperately trying to get out and desperately trying to breathe when dragged under the water. Even once I got out from under the logs the current would be incredibly strong here and I would need to know how to swim, and I didn’t. I now understood that if I screwed up here, I would more than likely drown and be carried far downstream, and since no one knew I was here, I might never be found.
It was odd how brave I was when I wasn’t thinking and how much of a coward I became once I did start thinking. So, I had to do what I did when I first came out here. I had to drown out all thoughts of fear. I wasn’t afraid when I got out here, so I wasn’t about to let fear allow me to drown now.
I carefully gathered up my gear and began mapping out my way back. Which logs look stable and which ones might give way? Where is the water clearly rushing up and out on top of the logs, and where isn’t it doing this? I didn’t want to walk on any wet logs because I could lose my footing and slip under.
I made my way back, only this time I was much slower. Funny, how thinking tends to make a person a tad too cautious, because a couple of times I almost lost my footing, and I was certain I would fall. At one point in my journey back, I became so unbalanced that I felt it was a choice between my tackle box and me. Fortunately, I was able to regain my balance and use the tackle box to help me gain my composure. Once I had made it to the ladder, I felt I was almost home.
However, it was difficult to get up the ladder because my feet were now wet from the mist that was all around me, and the first rung from the bottom was difficult to reach. The logs had moved enough to make the log jam a bit lower for my return visit. Immediately, panic entered my mind and I had to shove it out to continue. I managed to get a firm hold of the ladder and pull myself up. Funny how much stronger you can be when terrified. Once I was able to get a foot on the first rung, the rest of the journey was easier. Mostly, it was my own fear I had to worry about, not the ladder.
Once I made it to the top, I looked down to where I had been and asked myself, what the hell was I thinking? But of course, I knew the answer, I wasn’t thinking. I went down in search of monsters and a monster inside of me, still in its infancy, almost consumed me. In time, I would learn that my uncontrolled impulses would send me down many such ladders. Fortunately, channeling my self-control got me out of this dangerous situation, but unfortunately, this was only the beginning.