Sometimes it is people we attach to, but sometimes it is places. I have a few places on this great earth that are near and dear to my heart, and as it turns out most of them include water. From ages 4 to 18, there was a mighty river known as the Wapsipinicon where I spent good portions of my time and had some experiences that lasted me a lifetime.
The “Wapsi”, as it was affectionately known, was a river that ran abutt to our farm property. It was about a third to half mile back from the portion of the land we used with any frequency, but its presence was rarely forgotten. This was no creek, nor was it a delicate, meandering stream. This was a River with a capital R. It was a force to be reckoned with, a constant reminder from Mother Nature who was really in charge. Unless there was a drought, you could count on the Wapsi to charge through our acreage with force and determination. Oh yes, the Wapsi would ruthlessly take the occasional life, but on its best days it danced and popped and shimmered with life.
The Wapsi was a proud and dignified river, but also one of overabundance. Some rivers flood only once every ten or twenty or hundred years. Not the Wapsi! Nearly every spring thaw of my formative years, the Wapsi would swell and exceed its steep banks by literally hundreds upon hundreds of yards. At least four times in my recollection, the Wapsi flooded to such a degree that it made its way the nearly half-mile trek up to our barnyard, leaving the poor horses standing knee-deep in sloppy mud and water until we got them moved to higher ground.
But the Wapsi was otherwise more like an old reliable friend. I was never allowed as a child to go anywhere near it on my own, but my dad and I spent a fair amount of time down by the river. It was an oasis of sorts, a place where we could talk and laugh and share our dreams. Dad always had pie in the sky ideas and sometimes we would even make our own kites (dubbed “The Swearingen Special”) and run along the banks of the river in an attempt to fly them. Other times, we would spend a lazy afternoon fishing for the perfect catch. I only recall one time we actually landed that “perfect” catch–a 20 pound catfish that was so heavy we had to pull it out with a garden hoe borrowed from an ogling bystander who was a fellow river-loving visitor. As a ten year-old, I can assure you that catfish felt like a Marlin to me.
One memory in particular that has always remained with me was a time that Dad and I were again attempting to go fishing. Apparently Dad’s exuberance got in the way of things, and he didn’t have the patience to wait for the heat of the summer to dry out the riverbanks. About 200 yards from our starting point, my feet got stuck in the mud. I remember how panicked I felt, because Dad was far ahead of me and I could not move. I was paralyzed with fear and screaming out for Dad. He finally came and rescued me by lifting me right out of my shoes. The shoes stayed stuck in the mud forevermore, but I was carried to safety. I’ve often reflected back on that moment, that moment of sheer panic in which I feared nothing more than being stuck and being abandoned. I’ve had both experiences numerous times again in the years that followed, being stuck and being abandoned, and I think that fateful day in the muddy banks of the Wapsipinicon and the assurance that followed were hallmarks in my development.
As a teenager, the Wapsi took on a new level of meaning for me. It was a perfect place to engage in the throes of teenage debauchery. Boring summer days often resulted in going “tubing” down the river for a few miles, scorching our tender skin beyond recognition. We often had parties by the river, and nothing good ever came of them. And it was in this very river that, on a dare, I made my first and only attempt at skinny dipping. A few rites of passage, or brushes with danger and stupidity at least, and the river was lovingly standing by, watching me grow up and learn to make right choices by making the wrong ones first.
The Wapsi is permanently stored in my psyche. I think this is because it was one of the few constants in my life during that era. Even today, I often have dreams of this river. I have a recurring dream where I am on the farm but have misplaced my red sports car, and in this dream my first thought is always, “Oh, I bet I parked it by the Wapsi!” I have dreams and recollections and fond, warm memories of this special place. It is literally etched in my heart.
Joan Didion wrote, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” I have always loved that quote, because I find it to be so remarkably true. You can return to the same place, with the same expectation, but the reality of life is such that both you and the place will have undoubtedly changed, so that the experience you harken back upon cannot be precisely duplicated. Such are the dynamics of life. As badly as we sometimes long for it, we simply can’t go back to the times and places that were easier, more pure, less adulterated. Armed with that knowledge, however, we simultaneously have no choice and every choice in the world to become a river of our own, flowing freely, confidently, and occasionally a big jaggedly, toward the destiny that is uniquely ours.