How We Were

The summer of ’62 didn’t seem like much at the time. It was just summer. The County of King George was a forested section of Tidewater Virginia, peppered with small farms, and home to watermen who crabbed on the Potomac. To us it was just KG. It was about all we in high school knew. Only later did I realize what we’d had.

I can’t say exactly why those long slow days of fishing poles and tired hotrods were special. We had no “organized activities.” There was little to do that we didn’t think of ourselves, yet little we couldn’t do once we thought of it, as we had few rules and less supervision. If we thought to go to the woods, we did, or to the broad brown expanse of Machodoc Creek or to the rougher waters of the Potomac — in boats, canoes, or inner tubes, or on skis behind a crab boat. Nobody worried or cared where we were, even our mothers. Water and forest were not viewed as hostile environments. Why would they be? In summer we spent half our lives in or on the water. We didn’t drown worth a damn.

Where Williams Creek, a branch off the Machodoc, crossed Route 206, then a sleepy road, we sometimes put the canoe in. “We” were gangly, sun-browned, half-wild boys just trying the world out. A couple of hundred yards of paddling left us in mud-banked wilderness with bugs keening high and plaintive in overhanging trees, amid the stillness of hot sun on quiet water. We usually took cane poles to fish for bream because they are a quick fish and you needed to set the hook fast.

Sometimes, pursued by something hungry, a school of minnows broached the surface in glowing green grass and sparkled in the sun like mirrors before dropping back. Iridescent green and blue dragon flies flittered and hovered with a papery zip of double wings. Having lived farther South, I knew that they were properly called ‘skeeter hawks or snake doctors, but I didn’t proselytize. Kids were then allowed to be kids. I will forever be grateful.

The freedom we enjoyed would horrify today’s worried delicates. We had guns but enough common sense not to think of them as weapons. Nobody wanted to shoot anybody, and nobody did. We just liked firearms. The first day of deer season was a school holiday because everybody knew the boys and Becky Burrell weren’t going to come anyway. Country stores sold ammunition. You didn’t need to be any particular age to buy it. Why would there be such a law?

We’d pool our arsenal in my rattletrap ’53 Chevy that thought it was being extravagant if it fired on three cylinders out of six, and set out for Colonial Beach and its town dump, which is now a subdivision. Me, Chip Thompson, Itch, and my lever-action Marlin .22 and a box of long rifles, a couple of .410s, a double-twelve and three rounds, whatever we had. We’d shoot rats till we ran out.

One night Rusty and I accidentally set the dump on fire while hunting rats, but escaped before the fire trucks arrived. (What’s the statute of limitations on accidental dump-arson? I’ll deny everything.)

Parents weren’t scared much, nor were kids — not of water, woods, guns, boats, or anything really. We were a hardy and self-reliant lot, but didn’t know it. One night Wendy and I paddled the maybe three-quarters of a mile from the boat dock on the Navy base in the county to a duck blind on the other side of Machodoc Creek. She was cute and fifteen, two years younger than I was. We had neglected to tell her mother where we were going.

The black water was alive with seasonal phosphorus, as we called the luminosity that came over the water like a hant. A pale light swirled away from the paddles. The peace and isolation muffled us; the scrape of paddles on gunnels was loud in the silence. Almost no lights were visible. The population had not yet grown, or Route 301 gone four-lane and full of trucks howling and blatting up toward Edge Hill, nor had engineers from the Navy base yet bought the shores and put up ugly houses with ghastly mercury-vapor lamps.

We reached the duck blind, tucked the bow of the canoe under a pine trunk, and spent several hours in the blind. At first, we heard waves lapping against the aluminum of the canoe, plonk-plonk, plonk-plonk. Then we didn’t.

Much less happened in that duck blind than I would have wanted my friends to think. Girls then were not expected to go all the way, as we said, or even most of the way, and usually didn’t. It didn’t make them any less attractive. I think they liked it that way, and it didn’t seem to do the boys any harm.

Meanwhile the tide went out and the canoe, freed, floated away. We had no way back. Wendy was going to catch hell if her mother found out that she wasn’t really at the movie theater. “Well, guess we have to swim,” she said. Which we did. It was a pretty good haul, all deep, and nobody knew we were there. But it was just water.

Kids were happy then, I think, to the extent that adolescents are prepared to entertain the idea. The clanging steroids of the teen years afflicted us, of course. We had the customary tragic sense of life, our parents didn’t understand us or know about sex, and we fell into despond with every breakup, these coming at a rate of about one a week. It wasn’t really misery, just sixteen.

But we lacked the overlay of deep (maybe I mean underlay) and serious unhappiness that rules now. We were just kids. The girls liked the boys, and liked themselves as best I could tell, and the boys liked the girls. The latter never had bulimia or anorexia or pills for depression, probably because they weren’t depressed. We had no idea what “therapy” was. You could date a girl for two years without getting laid. (I promise.) She didn’t feel used because she wasn’t, and though the boys fussed I don’t think they really cared that much.

We didn’t have much materially. I don’t mean that we were necessarily poor. I certainly wasn’t. Maybe there were just fewer things to buy. I think we got more mileage out of the things we had. Steve Hunt and I once made a raft out of scrap wood, with inner tubes under each corner for flotation, and set out on the creek. It turned out that one of the tubes was leaking badly. We put back into shore and got the bicycle pump. Off we went, Steve paddling, and me pumping….

It seemed to work. So did the age.

Fred, Sprat of Twelve. Note Lack of Life Preserver

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.