Late-summer: I’m 14, and my family and various friends and relatives have packed ice, beer, pop, and varied sandwiches into coolers. We’ve rented inner-tubes and are stepping into the Rum River to float from one location to another.
That’s right. We’re floating down the Rum River.
Why? No one knows, really. The adults lash the beer cooler to their inner tubes, the children scatter about as the current takes them, and, barring complications, you have a whole day in the sun, butts bitten by bugs and large curious fish, pleasantly inebriated adults giving you money for treats later.
I have to assume, looking back, that sunscreen had yet to be invented, because what came two days after the Rum River Float was always the Peeling of Dad’s Legs, appendages that only saw the sun on this one day out of the year. My sister and I sat at his feet, applying vinegar and competing to see who could coax the largest sheet of skin from his distressed shins.
It was a hard, mean existence.
And yet, it was a tradition.
The Rum is a rather shallow, slow-moving river; but that year, there had been a heavy rain the night before our trip. The river was undoubtedly higher – and faster – than usual.
Not that this would stop us.
The adults lashed their tubes together, the “beer tube” in the center, the kids divided into various contingencies primarily based on age, and we set off.
Did I mention that the river was a little high?
We managed to keep the tubes in the center of the river for most of the day, but eventually one loses track of such things, and I found myself drifting towards the bank – and perhaps for the first time truly noticed how many trees were in the water, how many of them had fallen over, their limbs reaching into the water.
I find myself pushed into a toppled tree.
The water swirls, irritated with my blunder; and I am flipped over, caught under branches who promise to never let me go.
The inner tube is now around my waist. Upside down, I find I can’t get out of it. The tree branches hold me under, scratch at my face and my arms as I fight. I am stuck in the branches, and it occurs to me, as my lungs start to burn and things began to go black, that I am going to die in the river.
I am pulled up and out by my hair. It is my father. The inner tube pops to the surface, I pop to the surface, and I take a hysterical and searing lung-full of air.
My eyes open to my friend Tammy bobbing violently in her tube, one hand clutching a Diet Rite , the other gripping the end of my Dad’s t-shirt.
“You almost drownded!” She looks excited about this.
There would be time later for reflection.
“Jesus Martha, Pearl!” Dad shouts, “Get swimming! We don’t return that inner tube and they’ll charge us $15!”
The other kids get a big kick out of it, of course, as I launch myself down the swollen river in pursuit of the inner tube that had just conspired to kill me, and I secretly vow, in the way that only a teenage girl can, that I will have nothing to do with the upcoming Peeling of Dad’s Legs.
He can just peel those things himself.
And that was The Day Pearl Damn-Near Drownded.