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Guitars & The River

Updated: Mar 9, 2018

This is Gary and me playing folk and bluegrass tunes for family and friends at my grandparent's house in the summer of 1972. Gary was always playing the hard stuff way down the neck. I was still stuck on the top fret space back then, wishing I could learn how to do some of the things he was doing.

We went camping on the North Fork of the Red River that summer too. This photo shows my brothers and Gary. Gary's older brother Ricky went with us too. That hat. I was into my "trying to be a cool hippie" stage then. It was one of those right-of-passage summers where we celebrated our waning teen years, all wanting to be older than we were but still fairly reluctant to move on into adulthood. Our behavior wasn't too bad, though. We were pretty good teenagers. No booze or drug use and only a little cussing when we were off away from our parents, but we still had some smarts to acquire.

The North Fork of the Red looped around the south end of town beneath Route 66 on its way to Lugert Lake nestled in the Granite Mountains to the southeast. There was an old concrete bridge on the west side of town where Route 66 used to run south out to the city park and swimming pool built in the WPA days which had been washed away by flood waters 5 years before I was born. A local medical doctor who enjoyed his drinks had been driving home after having a few and had driven right off the bridge that was no longer there. He survived without a scratch. Some said he told them he was attempting to jump his car across the gap. It's hard to know how true that was. That doctor was more than a little bit wild and crazy. My father told me a story about him driving a blind friend home after they had been out drinking together and his friend, sensing they were swerving around a lot, had commented on his erratic driving, possibly worried he might drive off of the missing bridge again. The crazy doctor, without stopping or slowing down, had flopped over and put his head in his friend's lap and said "Aw, Jack! Don't you love me?"

Photograph Courtesy of Oklahoma Highway Patrol:

We spent two days and one night on the river bottom, exploring and doing anything risky we could think of. In the photo below, Gary is preparing to leap out of a cottonwood tree to a soft sand dune below. I think we were having a contest to see who would go the highest before jumping and land without breaking a leg, or neck. The river bottom had a lot of interesting features including quagmires and quicksand, hognose snakes that flopped over and played dead if you approached them, and there were rumors of wild dog packs that would attack people without provocation. During a supper of fried clams after dark that night, we heard a bunch of dogs barking up river somewhere but they never attacked us.

Sometime before midnight, Ricky went prowling downriver toward the old washed out Route 66 bridge after hearing noises in that direction. He came back to camp telling us a bunch of people were out in the middle of the river partying. They had driven their cars out onto the mostly dry, sandy bed of the river and had a fire going. We snuck back to have a look and while we were watching them, a commotion began to rise. Someone in the party group started yelling "Look at that shit! Where's that shit coming from!". Turns out a heavy summer thunderstorm far up river to the west had dumped enough rain to cause a minor flash flood in the river. The partiers started scrambling to their cars to get them out of the river as the water rapidly rose. All of the partiers survived but I think some of the cars got bogged down in wet sand before they could be driven up out of the riverbed. We stayed as quiet as we could but giggled over the incident, learning a valuable lesson about the unpredictability of river waters.

The next morning, we pulled a stupid stunt by getting up on the train trestle southwest of town to cross back over the river after wandering along the south shoreline. Without talking about it much, we had all sort of been looking for signs of Gary and Ricky's brother Jimmy. We cautiously paused to press our ears to the steel rails to make sure no train was coming and could hear nothing through them. Then while we were crossing, carefully stepping on every other tie to keep from stepping into airspace between them, we heard a train's horn blow off in the distance behind us. Sure enough, here came the train around the bend just as we had reached midpoint across the trestle.

We all started trying to run but running on railroad ties isn't easy to do. As we neared the far side we were all sure we would reach safety and started laughing hysterically. Then Gary missed a tie and one leg went down into the gap. I stopped to make sure he was able to get up but I was laughing hard and I think he thought I was laughing at him, but I wasn't. I was laughing at how stupid we all were and waited to make sure he was going to be able to get up. He quickly recovered and got back on his feet to make it safely across well before the train arrived on the trestle. We stood off to the side and watched it pass, still laughing hard at ourselves.

Fifteen years later I was awake in the wee hours of the morning studying for an Elementary Differential Equations exam and decided to take a break for a snack and a little TV to clear my severely overloaded mind. The subject matter was difficult for me and after Calculus II, I never really achieved maturity in higher mathematics even though it was my degree program minor. So, disgusted with myself (as my mathematics professors were) and munching down spoonfuls of Captain Crunch, I absentmindedly flipped through channels until I landed on an HBO movie that instantly caused a startling flashback.

Four boys–Gordie, Chris, Verne and Teddy–were struggling to race across a trestle over a wide river without stepping between the ties as a train barreled down upon them from behind. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and decided to abandon my night time math studies to watch the rest of the movie Stand By Me. After it was over I just sat there for a long time, totally blown away. The movie had affected me so deeply I had no desire to work on differential equations anymore that night and went to bed to get a few hours of sleep before heading to class to sweat bullets through the exam.

I passed the exam with a C grade and my professor gave me a weary look when he handed the graded test paper back to me. "I know you can do better than this, Mr. Summars" he remarked. I didn't care much for the low grade, but I was glad I got to see that movie and recall one of the best campout experiences of my youth, and a little bit of how we all were back then.

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