I had a lump in my throat and was trying not to cry. Two Sheriff cars were at the pickup point and people were hollering. My eyes scanned the river. Fucking Eugene!
We were just kids but we could really instigate fun. This particular Saturday afternoon we had cajoled an adult to drive us to a jump-in spot along the North Platte River in South Central Nebraska.
When I was tiny the school had books about Boy Scouting adventures staged during WWII when the men folk were off to do business with the enemy so the Boy Scouts had to take care of themselves and the women folk. Great books by the way beings how the books were written before Boy Scouts of America sissified the club to satisfy the cravings of a miserable bunch of weaklings to make Scouting ‘safe’. As an adult I volunteered with the Scouts but Scouting has weakened now to the point that the adults are doing everything for the kids. It ought to be called the Adult Scouts Baby Sitting Club of America.
Back then we were always wishing we had a Scout Master so we could have more fun but since we didn’t, we made due with a Pathfinder Manual which is a watered down Scout Handbook made for churches. It was good enough so off we went.
For the most part no one cared what we did as boys as long as we didn’t piss anyone off. Three times the local paper had an ad offering a $500 reward to catch who ever had performed our mischief but that’s not bad considering how much time we had and how much we did plus that was a small price members of the community had to pay to produce such capable adults.
Anyway, we were floating, wading, and occasionally swimming down the river for a 4 hour jaunt.
I was the youngest by at least 3 years and wasn’t in high school yet but I seemed to be responsible for making most of the stuff we did happen. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure things stayed OK. Keeping track of these guys was a lot like taking big dumb dogs for a walk through the grocery store. It usually produced the kind of miserable fun that gave us stories to tell to the grand kids.
About half way down the river Eugene started getting tired. He was a fair amount lower on the smart scale than Forrest Gump and had a mean disposition towards me. I liked him OK and since he wasn’t at all bright and he was awful looking most kids were mean to him. I would have been mean I suppose except I was making up for being mean to a retarded girl when I was in 2nd grade and still felt bad about it. It took a lot of convincing to get the adults to let me bring Eugene with us and now I was starting to get concerned.
He kept getting slower and further behind and the other guys were getting tired as well and they were getting interested in finding the bridge where someone was gonna pick us up. I kept hollering at Eugene to hurry up and he started telling me to fuck off. The other guys were getting way ahead and no longer had any interest in waiting for Eugene and me.
Even as a little kid I knew better than to be alone in the river with evening coming on and something primal understood that if you can’t make it, you die. I started grieving his possible demise and started busting hump to get caught up with the guy that waited the longest. I didn’t see him for a long time though. I ran in the shallows and lunged into the deep and swam with the urgency that consumes a young boy alone on the river, all along looking back and praying to God to take care of Eugene.
Finally I saw the next guy and he was heading for the South shore. Coming around the bend, the bridge came into view. “Where’s Eugene?” “He’s way back there somewhere. Why didn’t you guys wait for me?” “You guys were too slow.”
We waited and worried at the bridge and tried to figure out how to fix this mess when the pick-up car arrived about an hour late. “We can’t find Eugene!” The story was told and they waited around for about 15 minutes before heading off to find a farm-house to borrow a phone. Our ride showed back up and a half hour later a couple of Sheriff cars came skidding in. Now the story was pretty well rehearsed so they got the polished version.
Now these two Sheriff Deputies were as good as any and they yelled through the bull horn and ran the sirens in short bursts to hopefully draw in a lost boy but to no avail. I felt a lot of emotion and a few tears slipped out. This might have been the last time I ever felt this much grief about the possible suffering of another human being. It was strong.
One of the Deputies took off and I had walked up close to the remaining Sheriff car and overheard the Deputy talking with the State Patrol about Eugene’s description: We’re looking for a 16-year-old white male with a brown afro that sticks straight up. He is about 5’5″ with a pot belly and they said he is dressed in shorts and had an inner tube around his waist. From what they said he ain’t too bright. We might be looking for a body.
I went back to the rail and started looking for a body. Every emotion I knew how to have was running up and down the scales but it didn’t distract me from realizing that if Eugene was dead everyone was gonna blame me. I was done grieving Eugene and was now grieving myself. The whipping for killing Eugene was gonna be bad, not like the ones you pay extra for in Las Vegas. I was calculating how long it was gonna take to catch the Wyoming border on a bicycle.
An hour later a horn started honking and the Deputy call us over with a bullhorn. THE STATE PATROL JUST FOUND A YOUNG PERSON WITH THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTION: (He described Eugene in perfect detail) THIS PERSON WAS FOUND WALKING AGAINST TRAFFIC ON THE FREEWAY HEADING TOWARDS CHEYENNE. WE WILL HAVE TO WAIT TO CONFIRM BUT I THINK YOUR BOY IS SAFE!!!
Turns out he got out of the river a few hundred yards from the bend where he would have seen us at the bridge. It was a ways through the brambles and over a few barbed-wire fences. He was barefooted and still had that stupid inner tube around his waist. Sunburnt, scratched, and totally at peace with the world as the sun was setting.
I was real happy to see him but I still waited to cancel my plans for heading for Wyoming. Nothing much came of it since the Deputies insisted to the adults that we did everything right. After that though, I was much more careful about bringing someone along ‘just to be nice’.
I wonder what ever happened to Eugene.
Post Script: This might seem like a good reason to sissify the Scouting program. Maybe, but I’d still rather die or be permanently injured being fully alive and fully human than live for eternity by someone else’s idea of safety.
Post Post Script: In case you’re wondering, no, we did not get caught for our mischief.