I cannot remember ever being afraid of the river (here I mean the New River, in Grayson County, Virginia). In fact, fear of the river never entered my mind. Dad’s family had pioneered the river in the area of Pleasant Grove and Baywood and we spent many summer weekends in the area of the Hampton place, near the mouth of Little River. Dad had bought a Sears and Roebuck 12-foot aluminum johnboat and he and I cut several birch poles for propulsion. He spent a great deal of time and patience teaching me to pole the boat and it was a seemingly impossible task for an 8-year-old, but after a few years I did get the hang of it. By the time I was 12 my poling ability (and my vocabulary, once again, thanks to Dad) had expanded.
We started our river trips with a daylight stop at Meadow Creek where I learned the art of the minnow seine, and where I gained a better understanding of my Dad’s sense of humor, as he walked me into the deep holes. We filled the minnow bucket with the best chubs and by sunup we were dragging the boat through the joe-pie weed and nettle to the rivershore. In the early morning light the wisps of fog stood up from the surface of the water like pickets on the confederate lines; Dad called them ‘the river ghosts’ and even today when I start an early-morning float I look for them.
Most of the time that we spent on the river was near the old homeplace, poling upriver to the big shoals near the Shaw place and floating down to the mouth of Little River, then poling back up to land near the Hampton home. Smallmouth were our target, along with the redeyes and horny-heads, and seldom did we come home without at least enough fish to make the pan smell. During those floats it was not uncommon for me to slip over the side and swim and wade along side of the boat; at that point in my life I did not even know what a life jacket was. I had been taught that if I stepped off into a deep hole or lost my footing, I was to simply float on my back with my feet pointed down-river, and eventually I would find the bottom again. Simple.
In the summer of my 12th year Dad and I planned a weekend float trip, starting at the Hampton place on a Friday evening and expecting to be picked up by Mother at Boyer’s Ferry on the following Sunday, a leisurely 15 mile float. We started that evening with a short float and set up camp at the Nean Calloway place (near where today the new bridge crosses the river between Independence and Galax). Dad wasn’t feeling very well and I was worried about him, but he soldiered on and got us some supper cooked over the campfire. We slept under a tarp in our sleeping bags, the sound of the river right beside us; it was just a wonderful night for a kid. However, by daylight it was clear that Dad was very sick (unknown to us at the time, he had the mumps). He told me I would have to break camp and load the boat, and we would have to make a run to Boyer’s Ferry as quickly as possible, and I would have to take care of the boat work. We got the boat loaded and Dad comfortable and I took us down the river.
Ten miles doesn’t sound like much these days, in the era of good roads and fast cars, but ten miles on the New River with a 12-foot johnboat and a sick father was a different story. Dad did not fuss at me; he helped guide me through the shoals and showed me how to choose the best runs to limit collisions with the submerged rocks, always offering encouragement. I must have asked him a thousand times “Are you alright?”, and in later years we would joke about that. But on this day, we made a record effort and when I saw the old ferry landing I could have cried. I landed the boat, ran up the hill to the old store and called Mother to come get us. Within an hour we were headed to Galax and the hospital, where Dad would spend the next week.
There has been a lot of press time spent lately talking about the ‘age of adulthood’, as it pertains to guns. All of this hype made me think about growing up here in Appalachia, and how I remember being treated by my parents and other adults at that time, and more importantly, what those adults expected from me. With my Dad at my side, at age 9 I bought my first shotgun, a Stevens .410, at Mathews Hardware in Galax, Virginia. By the time of our river trip three years later I could drive a tractor, help scald and scrape a hog and skin the squirrels that little 410 brought to bag. If you are waiting for the point to emerge, here it is:
The concept of right and wrong, the trait of character and the concept of adulthood are not genetic; we are not born with them. Children must be taught these things by caring and loving parents. Many people today want to talk about the problems our country is facing but the answers seem to elude them. I was raised to believe that the answer is YOU AND ME. I was expected to take responsibility for my actions, to know the difference between good and evil and to do the right thing. Even if I made the wrong choices (and I did, more than once), it was done with my eyes open and I knew that I owned the consequences of those choices.
I learned that lesson on a hot summer day in a 12-foot johnboat, on the New River, with the man that meant everything to me. Our kids have not changed; how we raise them has.