I can still remember the huge old green Buick we had when I was 6 or so, when the four of us used to go out to Miller's Fork Creek of a summer Saturday, and come back after dark. The radio and heater didn't work, so we could play with the buttons with impunity. No seatbelts, of course, not in those days. It had those big useless oval holes in the sides, that used to be such a Buick signature. They had a name, you know, those holes: Cruiserline Ventiports.
Even then the road to Miller's Fork had begun to sink back into the earth from which it had once been scraped. A Federal project was in progress, the dam was being built that would create Beech Fork Lake (to which Miller's Fork was tributary), and so there was no point in maintaining the roads. Soon the whole valley would be under water, leafless trees poking up through green muddy water to snag speedboats and shelter largemouth bass.
But when I was a boy, the waters had not yet risen.
Dad would drive us out early on Saturday morning, park the car in a certain place where the creek curved close to the road, a graveled turnout next to an old school bus shelter, its silver-gray driftwood sides slanted in the sun. Scattered around the old shelter was a treasure trove of bottle caps left there by the hundreds of kids drinking pop while they waited for the school bus; I collected Hires, Nehi, Double Cola... all the good old brands from when you couldn't get metric soda. When I wasn't collecting bottle caps, I was poking sticks at the tadpoles newly hatched in the puddles left after the last rain, small black punctuation marks wriggling around in shallow muddy water that would soon dry and cake around them into raisin-dotted ovals of cracked earth. The frogs' appalling lack of foresight never seemed to bother me when I was young.
The sun beat down on us as we fetched styrofoam coolers, lawn chairs, fishing poles and bags of toys from the trunk, walking them down a few feet on a deeply-rutted dirt road to the creek, where a rickety suspension bridge three feet wide hung swaybacked over the water. We would walk across that bridge, stepping carefully to avoid the missing boards, then turn sharply right to set up our creekside camp. Every time we came out, we'd go to the same flat spot right next to the water, shaded by weeping willows from the summer sun and the occasional shower. In spring it would be muddy; in summer the gnats would hover in clouds underneath the branches, but that's where we went. Dad would set up the hibachi and fire up the charcoal for burgers or hot dogs, and we kids would dive into the water with our old Converse tennis shoes on.
Life was all around us, unstoppable outbursts of fertility overrunning everything in the summer heat. Bees and horseflies zipped busily by. Queen Anne's Lace bloomed on the shore, punctuated by flamboyant tiger lilies. The waters teemed with all sorts of creatures, shy crayfish ducking under rocks and freshwater clams leaving tiny kisses of open-mouthed sand as their only trace. Minnows thronged the water, nibbling at our legs if we stood too long in one place. There were somewhat larger and more exotic fish hiding in the deeper pools... bluegill and bass, mostly. Every now and then we'd make a pretense of fishing for 'em, but the angling was never really the point.
What was the point? Getting away, I think. A place where Dad could sit and drink without feeling surrounded and small. And we had fun, my sister and I. We'd fake dog-paddling in the wide spot a few feet downstream where the water was exactly an arm's length deep, our legs pale fronds streaming out behind us. We'd trap minnows in the cylindrical plastic trap, baited with bread, or lure them into mazes dug out of the creekside sand. We'd build dams, catch bugs, eat lunch. We'd never go too far away from our site, nor go too deep - the pool just upstream of the suspension bridge was (just) deep enough to drown us, and once we saw a cottonmouth swimming across that part. Mostly, we just played.
It's all underwater now, of course, the stream, the trail, the silver-gray bus stop and the gravel turnout. All drowned by water, and by years. I don't really want it back - from this distance I can see that our childhood pleasures depended upon our remaining oblivious to the inevitable tensions of our ride home, of Mom driving scared or Dad driving drunk in the gathering dusk, sometimes stopping off at the tiny cinderblock tavern in the West End (there's a library there now, of all things) for yet another quick one before the day was entirely spent. Our survival was sometimes more in doubt than any of us realized.
But neither would I give up the memories, of the days and years of simple play at Miller's Fork.
--April 5, 2001 and June 26, 2002
©2002 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated July 3, 2002