It’s A Wonder I’m Alive

My childhood was the last great childhood in America.

Everyone says so.

It’s not about me, it’s about timing and geography.
The time was the 1960’s and the place was a small town in northern California.

Kids had freedom back then and there.
We roamed free like wildebeest, from fields where we road bikes, to the river where we threw rocks, ending up at an old oak tree with a fort about 20 feet off the ground. We’d take peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches up there and maybe some potato chips. Prone on our bellies with our chins resting on our stacked fists, we’d swear undying allegiance to each other and pick apart the cool girls who were going on vacation to Disneyland or taking ballet lessons.

And there was the irrigation flume.
That’s the second time I almost died.

The first was in the ocean in Santa Cruz.
Peg Brown, a neighbor whose mom had a beach house there, pulled me out of the surf and gave me a hot dog. I was four.

The flume presented an irresistible attraction. It was back behind our neighborhood, bordering the large open grain field. Woodsy and cool in the brutal heat of summer and far away from any adult interference. It was only about 4′ wide and 3’deep, but the water flowed fast and it was cold. Not cool, cold. The old flume was elevated and we loved to run the boards.

old irrigation flume

Constructed of a metal bottom it was topped with 2 x 4’s and running along them was child’s play.
A 3′ tumble to the ground was your safest option if you slipped.
Fall into the flume and you were in real danger.
What followed was a fast ride to a steep drop that dumped the unused water, and anything in it, right back into the Sacramento River.

Every kid in our neighborhood knew the river was swift, cold, and deadly.
Grown men drowned in it while fishing.
Steep banks offered no purchase and cold temperatures afforded little time.

We showed due respect and kept our distance.

But the flume seemed to us unconnected to the river.
Childhood reckoning is notoriously foolish and ignorant of risk.
Challenge and competition were in our play.

I was good, but one day I caught my toe and lost my stride.
My slight frame slipped between the boards and the shock of cold sucked the breath right out of me.

We were three that day on the flume.
Cathie, who was ahead of me, dropped over a 2 x 4 and grabbed my arm. Like spaghetti hanging over a fork, she dangled and struggled to keep her balance, lest she join me. Scrawny 11 year old arms found strength beyond their years. Terri caught up to the terror and together they dragged me up and out.

Can kids have a rush of adrenaline?
Maybe there was an ‘angel assist’.
Because I shouldn’t have lived through it.

By the next summer we had discovered boys.
Danger on an all together different scale.
That’s a story for another day.

. . .and in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
Psalm 139:16


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