Archives for June 2014

Bridge Diving — a True Growing Up Story — Unpublished


Not a Good Day for a Picnic

In 1947 I was seventeen years old. The world was my oyster; I could do no wrong. Nothing could harm me. I was invincible. And with that attitude I attempted feats that today make me shudder in disbelief.
I was young, foolhardy, and ready to try anything.
I had just graduated from high school, and was at a crossroads in life. I wasn’t quite certain what I would do next or where I would go, but I think that the events of that summer helped me make my decision to join the Marines.
And so it was on a rainy day in July my three friends and I drove to a picnic in Illinois from St. Louis. We were exuberant, although the weather belied this feeling. We knew there would be girls at the picnic — there were always girls at picnics — and there was bound to be good food and probably games to challenge us so we could show off our young manhood.
The rain today was a continuation of three days of rain that drenched the center of the U. S. especially in and around St. Louis. News of floods was on the radio and I could see streams and creeks overflowing their banks as we drove toward the picnic. Two detours on our route supplied convincing evidence that this was a dangerous rain.
We were in a festive mood, for here we were, four high school graduates ready to take on the world and feeling the freedom that comes after graduation, even if for only a little while.
We had each donated to filling the gas tank of Amedeo’s old Chevy sedan and still had money enough to have a fun day at the picnic.
As we neared the picnic grounds we started across a steel and concrete bridge from which we could see the picnic area on the other side on the banks of the small river. The bridge shuddered from the force of the water rushing downstream.
Small groups of people stood by the bridge railings looking down on the fast-moving, muddy-looking water about thirty to forty feet below and pointing now and then. Amedeo stopped the car and we piled out to find out what the others were looking at.
Below us the muddy river churned and rippled, swirling in random surges of water that held debris washed down from upstream; logs, limbs, debris from yards near the banks farther back, all contributing to the surge of water flowing under and past the bridge.
We stood at the rail for several minutes and watched the swift waters flowing by as we took occasional glances at the picnic area. I could see folks there standing by the banks of the river and watching the churning waters just as we were up above them. A man was in the water with a rope tied to his waist and he was looking downstream. The water was swirling around him and he could hardly maintain his balance against the force of the rushing flow.
“Wow, I bet it would be something to jump off this bridge,” said Tom Schneider as he leaned far over the rail and looked down. “I bet I could do it. Anybody want to try it with me?”
We all looked at Tom and at each other, feeling the challenge in his statement. Of course, Tom would think of something like this. He swam for the Beaumont High School Swim Team and had plenty of swimming experience. We had all worn our bathing suits in case we wanted to swim later, so we had no excuse there.
“You gotta be crazy, Tom,” said Amedeo who wasn’t much of a swimmer. “Look downstream. See that dam farther down? The water is rolling over it like it wasn’t even there. You’d have to be a good swimmer just to get back to shore at the picnic grounds with the water moving that fast.” He looked at each of us and shook his head. “You can count me out of that crazy idea, Tom. I don’t swim that well.”
A girl next to the rail had evidently heard our conversation. She touched my arm.
“I think someone drowned here a little while ago. A boy was swept over the dam. They called the Highway Patrol. They’re probably on the way here now.”
We stood quietly listening to the rushing waters below, each making his own secret assessment of how he would handle a jump into the water, the recovery from the jump, and the hard fast swim to the picnic grounds shore. This would be a real test of manhood. We all knew this.
“Come on, Ray. You of all people could do this. You couldn’t lifeguard at the Country Club last summer if you weren’t a good swimmer.” Tom stared at me with that challenge written on his face.
I was in the spotlight without wanting to be. Tom had just thrown down the gauntlet. The gang was watching to see what I would do. I shook my head slowly and stared over the rail at the muddy rain-swollen river.
“Tom, you’re nuts. Even if you could make the jump into that yucky water, the swim to shore would be tough against that current. I would suggest that if you were going to do it, at least move farther down the bridge closer to the picnic grounds side so the swim isn’t so long. That current will carry you downstream faster than you think.”
Tom studied me for a few moments. He smiled broadly showing his white teeth, took my arm and pulled me along past small groups near the rail to an open spot twenty feet farther toward the other side of the bridge.
“How about right here, Ray? This suit you?”
I could feel the challenge again. He was using my own suggestions against me now. The others had followed us to this point and watched to see what I would do. I was caught in his challenge and didn’t know how to get out of it.
Tom climbed onto the grey-painted rail and held on to a diagonal beam above him.
“I’m ready when you are, Ray. Come on. We’ll jump together. Amedeo can count to three and we jump.”
I was trapped.
The last thing I wanted was to be called a coward or ‘yellow’. I thought about how deep I would go if I jumped feet-first into that surging water. Could I dive head first, arch my back, and try to come up quickly? I wondered. That would be the best strategy. I had to ignore the debris in the water, put it out of my mind. If I dwelled on that I would never jump and I knew it. The chances of hitting a log or a limb were slim. I would be a one-to-two-foot spot in the river when I hit the water. I finally decided to accept Tom’s challenge, slipped off my jeans, and handed my wallet to Amedeo. The color of my swim suit was appropriate — a bright, warning orange.
“Okay, Tom. Amedeo counts to three and we jump together,” I said with resignation as I climbed onto the rail next to Tom.
He smiled at me as if he were satisfied that he had won.
I studied the water and decided I would dive toward the shore. Since I was on the left side of Tom, this would work for me. That way I would not need to swim as far.
Amedeo stepped to the rail. “You guys are crazy! But okay, here goes. You ready? One, two, three!”
I dove head first. I knew immediately that Tom had not jumped with me. I was alone, hurtling through the air, falling in a head-first dive into this churning maelstrom below, trying to keep my body straight and not turn over as I plummeted toward the muddy surface before me. Time seemed to stand still for an instant and I thought I would never reach the water. I tried to manipulate my body so that I would hit the water as cleanly as possible, prepared to arch and come back to the surface as quickly as possible. These thoughts only took a second or two.
The water hit me like a solid wall, and my head felt like it had been whacked with a baseball bat. My senses were dulled for a moment, and I would have arched my back, but the water did that for me. My body felt as if I had been bent in half backwards and I could feel the ache in my spine as I rose toward the surface. Reflexively my arms already pulled through the water as I reached the surface, and a quick glance told me I was being swept downstream faster than I thought.
I swam for all I was worth, moving my arms in great long strides as I swam in desperation for the shore, angled slightly up stream to counteract the speed of the current. I could see the picnic area coming up in front of me, and for a moment thought I would be swept past.
An arm grabbed me and pulled me toward shore.
“You dumb kid. You could have been killed! Didn’t you hear that a boy drowned here a little while ago? There is no longer any swimming allowed here today.”
I looked up into the rugged face of an Illinois Highway Patrol Officer. He had a tight grip on my arm and had pulled me into shallow water. He released me and stood looking down at me with concern.
“You okay, son? You don’t look so good. Maybe you need to lie down a while. Let’s get over by the food and get you some hot coffee.”
I rose slowly to my feet, looked around in a daze, and realized that fifty people were standing there gawking at me. My back ached and I stretched my torso.
“He’s alive, mom. He’s okay,” I heard someone shout.
A woman ran down the incline and threw a towel over my back.
“You okay, son? Come on to our table and I’ll get you something warm to drink. I’m Mrs. Wilson,” she said. “You could have been killed in that river. Diving off that bridge! I can’t believe you did that. My daughter is a good swimmer and she said you were just plain lucky. You could have hit a log and smashed your head. You boys! The crazy things you do.”
Still dazed I followed her to her table and met her daughter, Caroline, a beautiful brunette. She treated me like a hero and I bathed in her adulation for a few moments — until my friends arrived.
“You did it Ray!” cried Amedeo, patting me on my tender back as the other guys gathered around, mostly looking at sweet, beautiful Caroline, and quickly forgetting about me, the hero of the moment. I spotted Tom and gave him a long hard stare.
“So where were you, Mr. Instigator? You talk a good game, but I didn’t see you in the water.”
Tom looked at me with a lame expression and dropped his head.
“Leg cramp, Ray. I get them a lot lately. I think I strained something in our last swim meet.”
I nodded in disbelief, ignored him, and drank more hot coffee. My head was clearing and slowly I began to understand the stupidity of my dive from the bridge. A boy had been caught in the swirling currents and was swept away over the dam downstream. Yes, I realized now, I had been extremely lucky to survive this dumb stunt; Caroline was absolutely right.
By late afternoon, I was quite taken with Caroline, just as the other guys were, however, I realized that she was from Illinois and I was from St. Louis, so there was little chance of us seeing each other again. I edged out of her little group of friends and headed for Amedeo’s car. The other guys were sitting on the hood waiting, but Tom was still trying to make inroads with Caroline.
Eventually he sauntered up shaking his head.
“Too bad. She has a boyfriend on the local football team, so I guess that’s that.”
We all laughed and sniggered as we piled into the car for the long ride home.
“What a day. I’ll never forget that dive off the bridge, Ray,” said Amedeo as he flashed a smile at me and turned on the windshield wipers.
“Yeah, but what else can you do on a rainy day in Illinois?” I said with a grin.
The laughter felt good and I felt warm in the camaraderie of my friends as we headed for home.