Location: marengo, il, United States

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Trouble at Black Oak, part two

Lost my way just the other day…ended up in Arkansas

The next day we caught a lift that took us to Memphis. Around mid-morning, silver girders supporting a massive suspension bridge over the Mississippi River came into view, and the kid leaned forward to get a better look. As we approached the entrance to the structure he turned around to ask me,

“Hey, dude. Let’s get out up here, okay?”

After our kind gentleman drove away, the kid and I stepped over the guardrail and into a willow thicket, and from that point we searched to find a way down to the edge of the river. Breaking free of the grove, we stopped first at a ledge on a bluff that overlooked the Big Muddy. The grove muted all sounds from the roadway behind our backs , while the open space before us presented a magnificent vista, so we sat down and rested there awhile.

A gentle current of warm air stirred the surrounding trees tops, while small clouds sailed far above our heads. A rain crow cooed repeatedly from somewhere close by. Several yellow skippers flirted with tall milkweeds as the kid pulled out his worn letter and began reading the pages to himself quietly.

Seating myself on a luxuriant bed of grass, I spent some time studying a line of barges moving cargo upstream. A pair of tugboats worked at the far end of the long procession, guiding their heavy-laden row with flawless precision. Just after sighting the figure of a lone man aboard one of the two vessels, the kid rattled his papers and stood up suddenly.

“Dude, I’m going exploring some.”

He slipped the letter into the back pocket of his jeans, and then turned to follow a trail down the hill where he disappeared into more willows.

I leaned back on my elbows and kept an eye on the flotilla’s tedious progress until I heard the kid returning through the brush. For some unknown reason he thought it essential to whisper loudly,


I looked to my right but saw no one.

“What?” I said. I didn’t yell, but I didn’t bother speaking softly either.

“Come check this out.”

An armful of willow tendrils pushed aside, and then the kid stepped out where I could see him.

“Dude, you got to come take a look at this.”

He was half out of breath with excitement, or maybe from exertion, but how was I to resist? I got up and followed him down the steep bank.

The footing became softer where the ground leveled out, and the smell of the river reached my nose as we weaved our way through the last yards of overgrowth. Parting low-hanging branches, we stepped into the half-light of a small clearing. Walled with taller willows, a glimpse of the river shone between two trees near the bank. The bare earth between them sloped gradually down to the water where a small dock floated. The place gave an impression of being well hidden, but it also had a troubling kept look.

“So what do you think, dude?”

The platform appeared to be anchored securely, and the kid hopped out on the thing. I stood back while he tested it for support. A few feet away an aluminum skiff had lodged itself in a tangle of drooping branches, where it bobbed rhythmically over tame waves of the river. A length of rope hung between its stern and the dock.

“I don’t know. It looks nice and private, I guess.”

“Dude, it is. I done checked around.” He bounced on the dock a few times.

“There’s no houses around or nothing that I could find.”

I took a couple of steps and joined him on the raft.


“So? Dude, we can take that boat there and go for a ride down the river. What do you think?”

The intent look on his face let me know he was serious as a judge. But without trying to sound harsh I told the kid what I thought.

“I think it’s a bad idea.”

He squatted at the edge and grabbed the line, and then he tugged on it twice before the boat broke free.

“How come?” He hauled the boat up to the side of the dock, and then he sat there holding loops of the wet rope, staring at the craft while he listened.

“There’s a couple of reasons. First of all, look inside the boat. How do you expect to go anywhere without paddles? Take off like that, and we’ll never get back here.”

That piece of information seemed to stun him. He stayed hunkered down while he chewed his lip some and studied, but then he never asked what the other thing was. He eventually dropped the rope and watched the skiff go careening backwards into the willow branches again, but he looked let down.

I sat and took off my shoes and socks. Putting them aside, I then swung my legs over the edge and into the fluid waters. The kid did the same. For awhile we sat there kicking our legs without saying much.

He slipped his vest off after a bit, and I watched him turn and carefully place the garment across his shoes. Then without warning he leaned forward and tumbled headfirst into the water. Before I knew it he got swallowed up by the mighty river, but then a few seconds later his head broke the surface. He sputtered once, and then let out a loud whoop.

“Dude, this feels great! You got to come on in.”

Well, swimming I could handle. It was bad enough to be trespassing on someone’s private dock, but that wasn’t the same thing as stealing.

Afterwards we lazed on the dock to dry out and watch more barges going by. When we felt ready to go, we slipped our shoes back on, and after a steep climb we stood on the shoulder of the highway again. The first car that came along slowed down and stopped. We trotted to the waiting vehicle as the kid said to me,

“This looks like a good sign, dude.”

In a way he was right. The man took us all the way to the Black Oak exit where he dropped us off around seven that evening.

Held my thumb high as the day went dragging by, trying to get away from the law

We hurried up the exit ramp to a two-lane highway that would take us to this land of hippies and the good life. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, so we began walking. We both felt a spirit of good expectations, having high hopes one would come along soon.

The first one flew past about a half an hour later. Fifteen minutes passed before a pickup shot by, and it never slowed either. A third one honked as it went by, but they kept right on going too.

That was the last of any cars we saw for the rest of the evening.

“This doesn’t look so good.” I told the kid as the sun slipped behind a thin row of clouds on the horizon.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

My feet hurt. My legs were weary from all this walking, and my patience had now faded along with the light. As far as the eye could see, flat fields stretched away to the skyline. I had a hard time picturing anything resembling a mountain within a hundred miles from here.

And he’d been talking my ear off about hippies till I had become sick of it. By now I was about half-convinced the kid was plain crazy, or even worse, that I was even crazier for listening to him in the first place.

“Getting a ride around here is going to be impossible. That’s what I mean.”

“Why do you say that, dude?”

“Look around you, dude.” I snapped.

“This is farm country. I grew up in a place that looks exactly like this, and if I know anything, it’s how these people are. We’d never get a ride around here during the daytime, much less at night.”

“You know we don’t have all that far to go,” He replied.

“That’s not what I mean,” I said, and I pointed up ahead to a grain elevator.

“Look. You see that?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” He said. “So?”

“So when we get there, I’m going to find me a nice place to sleep. And in the morning, I am getting the hell out of here.”

We walked the last mile in silence, and we arrived at the elevator right at twilight.

Three dusty grain trucks sat parked between the road and the elevator. I felt right at home climbing up into the cab of one. The kid followed me over, and then he crawled up in the next one. Feeling a lot better about the decision I made, I locked both doors and stretched out on the bench seat. Then I closed my eyes.

I had almost drifted off to sleep when I heard a muffled voice say,

“Hey, dude.”

I opened my eyes, but I didn’t respond. When he tapped on my window I raised up on one elbow.

“What?” I managed. All I wanted to do was sleep.

“This truck’s got keys in it.

Well, that got my attention then, so I sat up.

“Are you kidding?” I rolled down the window wondering, what was he thinking now?

“Dude, we can take this and go on up the road, and we can be there in no time. I just know it’s not all that far from here.”

He was mighty wound up, that much I could tell. But I didn’t say anything.

“You want to come or not?” He asked.

I thought about it for a split-second.

“No,” Was the best I could do for the moment.

He turned around to leave, so I laid back down after rolling the window up again. A minute later his engine started up with a roar. I lay there in the dark with my eyes opened and listened as the truck lurched forward and died. Then it fired up again, but this time he managed to get the beast moving. I closed my eyes and listened as the whine of shifting gears and the motor faded away into the distance.

I awoke next, startled by sounds of tires skidding on gravel, and both eyes opened wide.


I sat up again and looked out through my window. A thick cloud of dust rolled through the beams of headlights as the engine of his truck idled noisily next to mine.

“I found them!” I heard his muffled but keyed-up voice exclaim. I rolled my window down one more time as he leaned his head out of his and pointed back down the road.

“I just seen them, dude. Hippies, everywhere! You just got to come see. Dude, you just got to.”

I have to admit that his excitement had some affect on me. I hated to leave my warm spot, but if he had in fact found this amazing place...

I gave in and got in his cab. He turned the truck around then, and we both headed down the road for magnetic Black Oak.

We drove for about fifteen minutes. Little points of lights sparkled here and there out on the dark horizon, but before too long before I started seeing more lights twinkling up ahead. He slowed the truck as we passed the city limits sign, and then he pointed to a place up the road.

“There it is, dude. I told you we’d find them!”

The kid was about to come out of his seat. He actually bounced up and down when we passed a few closed buildings. But the only place that I could see lit up was a Dairy Queen a block away. And as we drove past the place, I noticed a handful of kids and a couple of adults seated at an outside picnic table.

We cruised right on by, and as we did he turned his head to gawk at the group. Then he exclaimed,

“Dude! Look at all them hippies! I told you my brother never lied.”

Relieved that he kept on going, I slouched down in my seat. It seemed like it took the longest time to pass through the downtown area, but I stayed quiet the whole time. What was there to say?

I mentally kicked myself for how gullible I had been. I was about to tell the kid to turn around and take me back to my truck when the one we were in one sputtered a couple of times, and then the thing coughed and died. As we rolled silently to the shoulder I hissed,

“Kill your lights.”

Great, I think. Here we are out in the middle of nowhere and this damn truck decides to runs out of gas. All I could picture was a mob of angry farmers with pitchforks and a long length of rope.

We both sat there in the still darkness until I spoke up.

“Dude,” I said. “This is it. We are in big trouble now.”

He didn’t argue with me over that. But he did ask what we ought to do next.

Get as far away from this truck as we can, that’s what. When these farmers find their truck that we stole, they will kill us first and call the cops later.

We climbed out of the stalled vehicle and headed on foot back towards town . Hopefully no one would notice or remember seeing two men walking.

Then a small miracle occurred. A car filled with teenagers pulled over and offered us two a ride. But then as soon as we got seated, one asked if we would get them some beer. That was the price for a ride, one of the lads announced.

Since they were all under age, they needed someone with an ID. Since I had an ID and a powerful desire to get out of here, I agreed.

“Drive us to a liquor store.”

A few miles later I bought them a case of cold beer.

Twenty minutes later they dropped us off at the same bridge from where we had started. They drove off acting drunk and happy, so the kid and I retired to the ledge under the bridge where I slept soundly till dawn.

I woke up stiff but pleased. After stretching for a few minutes, I hopped from my bed and scooted halfway down the slope where I sat and watched a few cars fly by. I glanced up the road and spied a little diner not too far away. The kid was still asleep, so I headed for the place alone.

Two men sat at a counter inside, drinking coffee and talking. A lone waitress stood behind the counter holding a coffeepot in one hand while she listened. I waited over by the register and stood.

“Yeah, there was two of them,” One of the men was saying.

Both men wore overalls and both had on straw hats. The waitress gave them her full attention and hadn’t noticed me yet.

“The cops are out looking for them all over the place too.” He told her.

One man stirred his coffee slowly while he spoke. Both of them looked like they were in no hurry to go anywhere.

The waitress asked, “Just what did these two guys do?”

The thought crossed my mind to run out the door right then. I already knew what they did, but I ignored the notion and forced myself to stand still.

The man telling this story seemed to be enjoying the attention of the lady. He also wanted to drag it out, I could tell, so he took his time in telling every little detail.

“Well,” He drawled, “It was all over the news this morning. Me and Ray here heard it on the radio in the truck coming over here.”

He pronounced the word as ray-joe.

His friend nodded in agreement, and then he slid his cup over to the waitress. The first man stopped speaking as she poured the coffee, but he continued his tale while she wiped up a small spill on the counter.

“They was in prison for murdering a man over in Osceola.”

The waitress set her coffee pot down on the counter and exclaimed,

“You don’t say!”

“Yup.” He nodded. “And they both went and broke out of prison last night.”

His partner nodded.

“But they’ll catch them two boys, just you wait and see.”

I had a vision of the kid and me dressed in stripes.

Ray finally spoke up and said,

“Oh yeah they will. We passed three different patrol cars on the way over here.”

I had Ray and his friend pictured leading the mob with the waitress carrying the rope, when she noticed me standing at the register.

“What can I do for you, hun?” She asked me so sweetly that it made me more nervous. By this time my mouth was so dry that all I could do was hold up two fingers and point to the pot.

I paid her for two coffees to go and she handed my change. I managed to stuff the coins in my pocket without my hands shaking, while all that I could imagine was her gawking at me like she thought I was one of the escapees.

It took some effort to walk out the door easy-like, but as soon as I got away from the building I rushed over to the bridge. I climbed the embankment and found the kid sitting on the ledge yawning. After handing him a cup, I told him what I had just overheard back at the diner.

“We need to split up,” I said when I was done. “Or we might get picked up.”

“But that’s not us, dude,” He laughed.

His innocent expression told me that I wasn’t getting through to him.

“Look,” I said. “If cops stop us they’ll find out what we did for sure. You want to go to jail?” He looked down at his feet and said no.

“It’s just too risky for us to hitchhike together now.” I added.

I asked who should go first. He said he would, so he finished his coffee and hopped down off the shelf. We shook hands, and then he made his way down the slope and stepped over the guardrail.

The last time I saw the kid he had his thumb up in the air walking backwards down the shoulder of the interstate. I stayed up on the ledge and took my time finishing my cup.

A half-hour later I jumped down and went to the highway below. I looked up the road both ways. I saw no cars in either direction, and I saw no kid. Satisfied with the latter part, I spent the remainder of the day trying to get a ride out of that place, plus worrying the whole time until I did.


Blogger Gone Away said...

For a moment there, I thought I was back with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Then we moved on and it was Of Mice And Men. If we'd found those hippies, I just know it would have been the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test all over again. Wonderful stuff, Harry. And you have stung me enough to attempt a little tale of Africa (even with two glasses of wine numbing the senses)...

7:46 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

Don't you just love it when life lets you down?

8:15 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Had Lenny been the kid, we might both still be in Black Oak, Gone. Hey, may your first five paragraphs flow like the wine, unlike mine.

11:36 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

When life gets me down in a hammock I do, J.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Loved it

8:29 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

But you write about it so beautifully, that has to turn the tide.

12:48 PM  

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