My father passed away yesterday after many years battling Alzheimer’s. I wrote this story for him a few years ago. I don’t know if he was at a point to understand it when I gave it to him, but I like to think he was.
This story is a bit dated and I may come around one day to clean it up, but probably not.
Swinging at Strawberry
Strawberry Island is a smallish landmass in the middle of the Niagara River. You may remember this river from such hit movies as Bruce Almighty and Obsession. Actually that second one might not have the Niagara in it at all but it came up when I searched for “Niagara” on IMDB. It’s a foreign film so it probably has nudity and at least one sad clown in it and that’s a decent substitute for a river in any case, even one as mighty as the Niagara.
As I was saying, Strawberry Island is a smallish island in the middle of the Niagara. The Niagara is a largish river, quite a bit larger than all of the rivers I’ve seen in Georgia. Combined. Think of the Niagara as one of those futuristic battlemech giant killer robots (like The Iron Giant). Now imagine that all of the Georgia rivers combined are that mechanical monkey with the cymbals that used to get its insufficiently powered butt repeatedly kicked by the Energizer bunny. That’ll give you about the right sense of proportion.
Strawberry Island was shaped like a strawberry (We Yankees are very literal-minded. I won’t tell you what Beaver Island looked like.) with the more pointy end facing upriver. The currenty side had a bolstered beach. That is, a beach dumped there to resist the erosion of the river. Think rocks. Think smallish rocks. Think rocks that were fantastically painful to walk on. The beach at Strawberry sucked.
At the back of Strawberry Island was a lagoon. The inlet to the lagoon was too shallow for the big boats to get in. It was chock full of weeds and all sorts of nastiness to foul the props on the smaller boats too. Fishing was crappy there and the relatively still water made sandflies and mosquitoes a physical hazard for much of the day. The lagoon at Strawberry sucked too…except for the swing.
You see, there were some sizable trees on the lagoon side and somebody had attached a 3-inch line to one of the larger ones that grew right on the water. This rope was strategically placed so you could climb the tree behind the swingin’ tree (steps were nailed into this launching tree to facilitate), climb out on a limb about 20 feet high and jump off holding onto that too-fat-for-juvenile-hands rope. As you swooped toward the ground your stomach left you, staying nice and safe (if precariously perched) back on the tree limb. When your own weight caught up you would frantically try to hold on to the rope. Your hands would start burning as you slipped down it and you’d redouble your efforts not to slide down too far. If you did (and we did often) you would rack your feet or shins on the roots and rocks under the swingin’ tree as you passed it by. Finally you passed the low point and swung out over the drop.
Did I mention that the bank was about 6 feet above the waterline? No? Well, consider it mentioned now. You looked down as the water got farther and farther away until you were finally looking down at twenty feet of air and five feet of water. You assumed it was still five feet deep anyway. That’s how deep it was the last time you were down there but you couldn’t see more than six inches through the murk. It was at this point that your stomach caught up with you and began trying to squeeze itself inside your liver for protection. It was also at this point that you faced the moment of truth.
You had two choices; let go and face possible death after an interminable fall into too-shallow water or hang on to the rope and face possible death as you swung yourself into the bank at speeds approaching thirty-five miles per hour. Hobson had a better choice than you did. If you were lucky you let go. If you panicked and held on there would be a grand resigned sigh from the other people in your party as they realized you were a gripper and not truly one of the chosen after all. Perhaps one or two would scream at you to let go and maybe you would let go in time to avoid smashing into that root encrusted mud bank. Probably you wouldn’t though and you’d spend the next half hour (at least it seemed that way) trying to draw in a breath while a halo of people looked down upon you with pitying expressions and words of encouragement. Really though they just wanted you to get out of the way so they could use the swing again.
If you chose wisely you let go and plummeted that virtual half mile (everything between 20 feet and a half mile is relative) wriggling and gyrating madly to avoid the certain doom of a belly flop or back splat. For the entire fall only one thing went through your head: “Water has a surface tension higher than that of concrete.” You didn’t remember where you’d first heard that tidbit but everybody there knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was absolutely correct (and perhaps even understated).
Hopefully you managed to avoid either of those aforementioned deadly forms but even so you’d have at least one body area numbed by the percussion of your entry. It might be the backside of your thighs or the soft skin under your arms, maybe your lower back or your chin. Somewhere on your body, guaranteed, was a bright red area that had just been spanked raw by the water gods.
You’d try to let out a whoop of success at that point only to realize that somewhere along that short crazy ride you had already screamed out every bit of air in your lungs. You raised a fist to the hoots and hollers of your companions and then slowly swam out of the way and back to the bank. You crawled up the mud bank using the exposed roots as handholds, your palms stinging and red from rope burn, your feet hurting from their high speed contact with the bank during your outbound flight.
You’d stand up next to that giant swingin’ tree and feel all sorts of hurt in your body and an exhilaration in your soul. Then you’d go get back into line and start cheering on the next flier.
That’s not all that I remember about Strawberry Island. There’s more for sure; barbecues and parties on the rocky beach of the currenty side, rowing the bass boat into the inlet to try fishing it just one more time, the hot dog boat coming within 20 yards of the island so people could swim out and buy a freshly boiled frank (in a Ziploc bag if you wanted to swim back to the island before eating it). But that swing was the true soul of Strawberry Island.
The Niagara is a big river. It is relentless and unbelievably powerful. Over the years it cut a gorge miles long and hundreds of feet deep. A little island in the middle of it isn’t much of a challenge for something that strong. Over the years Strawberry started fading away. That painfully rocky beach wasn’t enough to stop the erosion and bit by bit, year after year, the Niagara relentlessly carried it downriver. The last time I saw the island it had been cut in twain. There was no more lagoon, no more beach. What was once a strawberry was now two halves of a broken heart. You can’t take a boat in there now. Even though the water flows straight through the middle of the island it’s not safe to travel through this erosion channel. There’s lots of fallen trees in there, see…and at least one of them has a section of too-thick rope tied to one of its branches.
Since people have stopped going to Strawberry (no beach and no lagoon equals no reason to go there) it has blossomed as a bird refuge. That’s nice and all but birds just aren’t what Strawberry was all about. Strawberry was about encouraging a kid to be brave enough to let go of a rope and teaching him that when he did let go, he could FLY!