February 7, 2015
By Michael Calvert
Exploring Alum Creek was irresistible for 10-year old boys — in part, because it was forbidden territory. We were not allowed to go there or even into the woods between our subdivision, Amvet Village, and the creek. In those days, children, particularly boys, often were not seen nor heard for hours on long summer days. Parents thought boys should be on their own, “out playing” with our buddies within our large subdivision. We were expected to be like Tom and Huck. Just not in the woods and not at our river, Alum Creek.
Our initial expedition took us on our bikes to the creek bank near the intersection of Mock and Sunbury Roads on one of the first warm days of spring. The exhilarating high speed ride down the hill to the creek made the day memorable in itself.
Ronnie, his older cousin Mike, Bernie, and I side-armed flat rocks over the surface, counting the number of skips, hoping to outdo each other. We searched for turtles and looked out for snakes. A large sycamore tree slanted over the creek at an angle of forty-five degrees. The trunk was a more than a foot thick, and it was easy to crawl up the trunk over the broad creek, which ran fast but was only three feet deep.
We brought a thick, brown rope to the creek that we found neatly coiled at the Twentieth Century Building Company’s supply yard near the stacks of brown bricks, cement blocks, asphalt shingles, sheets of plywood and two-by-fours during an after hours visit. Twentieth Century was building a new subdivision near ours. The rope was just too appealing to leave there.
At the creek, Bernie hooked the rope around his belt and climbed onto the sycamore and edged out over the middle of the creek where the trunk was skinny and bending with his weight. He lay on the trunk with his legs clutching it, carefully unhooked the rope, and tied it around the tree just above a small branch. We cheered. Holding onto the rope with one hand, Bernie scooted backed down to the ground.
Mike, the tallest and oldest of us, gripped the rope as high as he could reach and launched himself from the bank. He glided above the water magnificently. We grabbed him from the creek bank when he swung back like a pendulum so he would not be left hanging over the water. We learned how to make a running start to be sure to get back to the bank. Everyone took a turn. Ronnie showed us how to do a roundhouse for a longer ride. We all did our best Tarzan imitations as we sailed through the air in the afternoon sunlight filtered by trees and reflected by the fast flowing water. We returned many times that spring and summer.
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On another day, we made our way downstream from Mock Road. Ronnie, Mike and I found a hillside covered with empty bottles behind the Valley Dale Supper Club. Dad and Mom had gone to dances there before they married and Dad went overseas. Glistening liquor bottles were scattered on a sea of duller glass, long-necked green wine bottles and smaller brown beer bottles. Clearly it was a deplorable dumping ground, but we saw other opportunities for fun.
Ronnie tossed a couple of bottles upstream into the creek, and we were surprised that the uncapped bottles didn’t sink. They bobbed along in the current with open mouths skyward. Perfect targets! Bernie grabbed one of the abundant, water-rounded stones, shouted “Bombs away,” and threw it at the bottles as they floated by. Soon the fragile flotilla in the creek drew our fire. When a bottle was smashed by a direct hit, a brief argument followed about who launched the missile. Stones bounced off the sturdy liquor decanters and the wine bottles. Only a few of the beer bottles were broken despite the barrage of stones hurled at them.
By the time the temperature soared above ninety degrees in June, we had discovered a small sand bar that was only partially under water. We heard that older guys went swimming there. Of course, no swim suits here in the woods. Inevitably it was called Bare Assed Beach.
Ronnie’s cousin, Mike who was a couple of year’s older than the rest of us, was the ringleader. He casually mentioned how cool the water looked as we wiped sweat from our eyes after our hike along the creek from Mock Road. “You guys can swim, can’t you?” he asked. He noted that the creek was not half as wide as the pool at Morningside Pool and the the current was slow and steady here. “Bernie, I’ll bet you don’t have the guts to go into the creek?”
“Screw you, Mike. I’m not scared of Alum Creek. I’d swim in it if I wanted to,” replied Bernie. We stood on the sand bar at the water’s edge wondering how deep the brown water was, how hard it would be to swim to shore in the current, and whether it had any of those poisonous water moccasins we had heard about. A crow was cawed, maybe mocking us.
Ronnie said, “I’ll go for a swim if you will, Mike.”
“I hope you meant that,” said Mike, laughing loudly as he stripped off his shirt and stood on one leg tugging off a tennis shoe.
Soon we were all self-consciously naked, stepping gingerly on the gravelly-strewn sandbar toward the water. “Hell, I ain’t scared,” said Bernie as he took two long steps into the creek and launched himself. He turned, treaded water, and said, “Come on in, you chicken shits.” Of course, we did. We had to.
We assured each other that the creek felt great, nervously at first. Just as we got comfortable treading water, Mike, cried out, “Oh, shit. Ugh!” Thoughts of snakes’ fangs and treatment for snakebite flashed through my mind. “The bottom is squishy mud. Really deep mud,” said Mike. I let one foot drop downward and felt it sink into fine, mushy muck. A puff of light brown appeared in the water next to me and moved away with the current.
“We’re going to have leeches all over our feet,” said Mike as he headed back to the sandbar. We all climbed out after him. Standing unsteadily on one leg, we hopped about examining out feet, ankles, and between our toes. “Shit! One of those damn bloodsuckers is is on me,” said Ronnie. Mike had two. Theses critters had sunk their hooks into the skin. We sat on logs, hesitant to touch the ugly creatures but eager to be rid of them.
“I‘ll burn them off. It’s the only way,” said Bernie brandishing a book of matches. Ronnie and Mike groaned in unison as Bernie approached. He gripped Ronnie’s shin, lit a match, and held it beneath the leech on his ankle.
“For Christ’s sake, you’re burning me,” cried Ronnie. Bernie held onto Ronnie tightly as the leech curled and dropped to the ground. “It didn’t hurt much,” Ronnie said as he inspected the fallen leech. Bernie moved on to Mike and calmly repeated his procedure. Mike endured it stoically. When the threat of the leeches passed, everyone hurriedly pulled on their clothes. We didn’t swim at Bare Assed Beach again.
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During the summer, we hiked upstream along the creek with small army surplus bags on our backs and canteens on our belts. Mike’s friend, Dennis Kostora, joined us and had a device that cast a shadow telling time, an army-issue portable sundial and compass. We agreed not to eat the sandwiches and snacks we had carried until high noon. Then we retraced our steps. Mike compared our hike to an army patrol. He had recently seen Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back.” I was reminded of the explorations of Hernando DeSoto in the New World, the subject of our current lesson in American History.
On another Saturday, we rode our bikes on Sunbury Road that followed the Alum Creek for more than 10 miles. Cars and trucks whizzed by us on the two-lane road. Mike had an speedometer-odometer on his handlebars, and he kept us up to date on our speed, miles traveled, and when we would reach the picnic grounds at Blendon Woods, our lunch destination. He spread out a map and showed us our route. We fancied ourselves knowledgeable, experienced travelers along the course of Alum Creek.
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During the following winter, the creek froze solid. I found some hockey skates in the attic that belonged to my Dad when he was a boy. With a sock in the toe, they fit well enough. Ronnie and Mike had new skates. We had been to a rollerskating rink a couple of times, so ice skating was not too difficult for us after a few spectacular falls to the hard ice with arms flailing like windmills.
Mike proposed a night skating party at a wide spot on Alum Creek. We planned to build a campfire to roast marshmallows. We invited others in our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade class at St. Gabriel to join us at 5 o’clock on Saturday when it would be almost dark. We all told our parents that we were having dinner at someone else’s house. A wet snow fell that afternoon and clung to the trees along the creek bank but only added a quarter of an inch to the ice. The campfire on a flat rocky space next to the creek became the only illumination. Most of the creek was dark. Our skates created smooth arcs in the snow. We speared marshmallows on small tree branches, browned them over the flames, and carefully popped them in our mouths. Someone always waited too long and had flaming charred, sticky messes on their sticks.
We resumed skating in the dark after the fire was reduced to embers. In an instant, we were immersed in brilliant light that illuminated the snow on the ice and in the trees. We were all still, silent figures in a tableau. Thoughts of the Biblical miracles Father Faistl had described in sermons came to my mind. Was God or an Angel of God about to appear with white gowns and a flaming sword? Was I ready for judgment?
I blinked as the light flowed down the creek bed and disappeared. In the silence, we noted the deep rumble of a plane lumbering toward the Port Columbus Airport. Someone said, ”Landing Lights.” Everyone took a deep breath. But the skating party was over.
I was eager to tell Mom and Dad about our nearly miraculous experience, but I was supposed to be at Bernie’s for dinner. I fell asleep envisioning the bright, white scene on Alum Creek.