Copyright©Jim Long, 2007
Some of my most satisfying moments of childhood were those spent on the Osage River. I made a committment each spring to put out trot lines to catch fish, and that meant checking the lines before heading off to school, and later, before leaving for whatever summer job I had at the time.
Not being an early morning person by nature, once stirred from bed, I slowly awakened during the pre-dawn walk down the hill, past the old Methodist church and into the ancient woods beneath the bluffs. By the time dawn light was beginning, I would have tromped groggily through weeds wet with dew, across the sticky, muddy river’s bank and launched myself into the old wooden rowboat that my father kept tied there to an old willow tree. An old gunny sack, when I remembered it, would protect me from the dew-soaked boat seat, as I plunked myself down and began to row upstream.
Dawn on the river was having entered an enchanted landscape. There was no sound other than the water lapping against the side of the boat and the rivulets of water that drained from the oars when I held them still. Fog, always present in early morning in summer, acted as a baffle, not just muting but negating even the loudest of far away sounds.
Early morning there on the river could have been anywhere on earth. The density of the fog not only kept out sound, it blocked the view, as well. In the boat, at dawn, you could see the water, and fog, but not the far shore, not the line of trees that stretched along the banks from Kansas to the west, back east, halfway across Missouri. Neither bluff nor tree, not a cow nor horse, intruded on the dawn’s view.
But the river, some days, could be the Nile in Egypt, with herds of hippopotamus floating quietly along the banks. Banks of papyrus grew nearby, palm trees towered overhead. On other days, it was the mighty Amazon, with lions and giraffes nearby, waiting for a drink. Crocodiles floated just under the surface, pirahanas swam beneath the water and monkeys swung from vines, tree to tree.
But one didn’t need to imagine, one had to only look. The boat, on the perpetually moving water, was a magical place. Suspended in time, protected from noise and sound, the magic of the river could stand alone, otherworldly and serene, without having to become something it was not.
As the dawn’s light brightened, the rowing of the boat would startle an occasional shikepoke, those small, blue herons that gave a shriek as they launched themselves from an old snag sticking out of the bank. Occasionally a fish would leap out of the water, falling back with a loud plop as it broke the water’s surface. From time to time, a drum fish would bump the underside of the boat. Mornings, drum didn’t make it’s typical drumming sound on the bottom of the boat, but in the evening, one or two or more of those fish would be constant companions to boaters, sounding as if they were grinding their teeth beneath the boat. Known as “drumming” it’s what gives the fish its name. Over time, on the river, you start to look forward to the drumming noise, as if it were background music to your own activities.
Sometimes I went to the river with my friend, Frank, a retired old fellow in his 70s or beyond. To me, in my teens, Frank was ancient if not worldly. He’d worked all his life at odd jobs, carpentry, building fences, digging cellars, had traveled very little except for a frightening trip overseas in the war. Frank was a simple old fellow, needing little beyond a daily supply of hand-rolled cigarettes and a constant supply of beer - except when he was on the river; those times, he didn’t drink, or at least not as much. While the river looked placid and peaceful, over the years it had killed more than once when men had misjudged it.
Frank, like me, even though we decades apart in age, was so moved by the river some mornings, that he was completely silent. We both sat reverently quiet, letting the slow, steady current of the river move us to the center of the river, where we drifted in stillness. Sometimes Frank grew so quiet I thought he had gone to sleep. If I spoke, Frank would clear his throat and come back to the present in a way that let me realize he was simply absorbing the stillness. As a teenager, it wasn't easy to be quiet, but I learned from Frank that to be still, is to see the world around you.
For me being on the river was like being in church, better actually. You couldn’t help but sit in awe, in the presence of something so great, so big, so powerful that one’s only response had to be respect and submission. The river was like a sleeping god, peaceful and benevolent when pacified, but a terrible beast when aroused from its nap.
What could rouse the river was rain. You would know a day ahead, or even two, when the river was going to become enraged. News, spread by gossip, later by radio, when eastern Kansas received storms. When Kansas received rain, it’s primary drainage area was into the Marais de Cygne River, a name left by the French back when there were French forts in the area, built for trade with the Great and Little Osage Indian tribes.
During the influence of this region by France, they named rivers, left their names on fur trading forts like Fort Carondolet, near Schell City and Fort Manoa, which later became the town of Taberville, where I grew up. But later residents renamed the river, Osage, to commemorate the Osage Indians who had occupied the region. So then, as now, the Marais de Cygne River turns into the Osage once it crosses into Missouri. And with the name change, so does its personality. From merely a big creek in Kansas, as it comes into Missouri it gains a split personality, at times placid, and at others, raging and snorting like a bull that has broken free of its pasture.
When news of the river’s rising would come down the river ahead of flooding, fishermen would remove their trotlines they'd stretched from bank to bank. Limb lines, too, were taken down from tree limbs that hung out over the river. The thirty or forty feet long hoop nets, illegal for fishing but necessary for fishermen’s livelihood, were lifted out and folded away safely in the woods or taken home for repairs.
Boats were pulled up on the bank, or tied high up on a tree. But even then, when the river became angry, churning and boiling, it sometimes took boats hostage, breaking them free from their chains. After rains upriver, the water might raise a foot an hour for a day or more.
You could tell easily whether the river was rising or falling by the position of the debris floating down river. When the river became really angry and vengeful, enormous trees would be ripped from river banks and pulled into the current. Trees fifty, eighty or more feet tall, became gigantic missiles, ripping and tearing anything in sight as they were tossed and turned in the boiling current. Those times, when there was a constant highway of dead branches, gigantic trees, old logs, bottles, fence posts, railroad ties, parts of old buildings, the rising water would keep them in the middle of the river. Boats, caught in tree branches were tossed like toys in the center’s current. But when the river level had crested, and began to wane, the debris would be floating on the edges of the current, drifting to the side, eventually settling along the banks, being left hanging in tree tops on the river’s edges or left deposited in farmer’s bottom land fields. Roads that were impassible during the flood, would be left strewn with the detritus of the Kansas landscape, brought downriver by the river's fury.
Those times, when the river became a vengeful beast, our town was surrounded by water. First the road from the north would flood and school children would have to be rowed across by boat to catch the bus. The mail carrier would come to the north water’s edge and honk until the postmaster heard him, and would walk the block and a half to his boat, row across and bring the mail back.
Bread and milk, too, came by boat during those times. The bridge across the river, a block south of town, flooded soon after the north road, and that sealed off our little town completely from the outside world. Telephone lines would be underwater but the electric lines generally remained above the flood plane. We became an island, isolated, peaceful, cut off, but content. In those times, people would walk to the water’s edge, to the backwater on the north and marvel at the way the water could rise before our eyes. Or townsfolk would walk south, toward the bridge and admire the strength and power of the angry waters as it tossed trees and logs like toothpicks in a bowl.
But dawn on the river, when it was placid, was the place where I came to realize there was a world beyond. Floating, when the river was at peace, unable to see beyond the fog and yet drift on a stream that went across our entire state, made me realize that no matter how peaceful my life was, there was more. Those sleepy walks down the muddy river bank to the boat, with the dawn breaking over the river as I floated and rowed, made me see the world as bigger than my own rowboat. The river is what gave value and meaning to where I lived, and yet propelled me beyond to larger rivers and bigger boats. Those days of childhood on the river remain with me to this day and sometimes I close my eyes and go back and relive the timelessness of the river’s journey and how it formed who I am today.