Meditation on the Intercoastal Waterway canal behind my childhood home
This poem brought back the memories of my childhood spent on Jacksonville Beach. We had a dock sitting just off the edge of the back yard where the flat grassy lawn dove down and disappeared into the concrete wall of a man-made canal. The high tide hid the treachery of that canal, and as a child, I was forbidden to play past the ridge. The low tide exposed the hundreds upon hundreds of rotten, slimy, razor-sharp oysters that had made a home for themselves upon the convenient surface. My parents never failed to remind me that they ate the legs of little boys that strayed to close. All my neighbors' parents told them the same thing.
The dock was my sanctuary, though, and it provided safe passage over these canal-daggers, out to the calmness of the water. The hours I spent fishing off that dock turned into days and months and years, with the brackish water staining its bright fresh color while hiding my prey from me. Across the canal from my dock was another dock, but no other home and no other boy. The other dock was gray with age, its boards bowed by the wind and the rain, and its left side sagged in the water. It used to have a rail around the edges, I suppose, but only a few cracked posts remained. This dock was a deathtrap, and all the boys knew it, though we were all drawn to it - maybe the fishing was better over there.
There was no way onto that gray dock without swimming. The boards had long since fallen off the old wooden bridge that led up the far ridge to an unending line of pine trees. The spaces between the trees were filled in with undergrowth taller than my house. It was an impenetrable mystery for us to know what lay beyond them.
I went on an adventure into those woods once, along with a cadre of my best allies from the neighborhood. It was my last summer on the canal, and we knew what we were doing, we were sure of it. Fishing poles and multi-purpose sticks in hand, we set out to explore the wilderness. Swimming across the canal was not an option, for we'd have to climb the ridge to get out; and we'd all found out that spring why our parents had warned us of Oyster Ridge (as we'd begun calling it). A boy a year ahead of me in school, Norman, slipped on the steep slope of the ridge and slid into those jagged razors that lined the tide-line. He couldn't pull himself out of them or find purchase on the slick concrete and had to lay there, calling out for help for an hour. He was taken to the hospital by a neighbor whose children had heard him calling. The next time I saw Norman was in high school, he'd been held back a year in school while he recovered and learned to walk again. He always walked with a limp.
It was a bright and sunny day and we decided to brave the very top edge of Oyster Ridge in order to hike down to the end of the canal and then back up the other side. All of the neighborhood fences ended at the ridge, so we always had something to hold onto when we stepped onto the ridge. When we finally made it around the end of the canal, we climbed up into the trees and through the thicket protecting the mysterious wilderness beyond. As soon as we crossed through, the forest opened up into a lush a shadowy place. We soon found a dirt path and followed it away from civilization.
After a bit of hiking through the woods, we spotted a rope in one of the largest trees. One end was tied to a small tree just a foot or so above our heads, the other was tied far up in that enormous oak (I remember this one). We made our way to the bottom of the oak and found that someone had nailed small boards into the tree, making a ladder for us to climb. At the top of the ladder we found a small deck, big enough for two of us at a time. Hanging from the rope tied just over our heads was a the handle from a waterskiing line with a pulley on it and a smaller rope tied around it and fastened to a hook in the tree.
As we took turns riding this contraption, I felt that the mystery across the canal had been worth the danger. When the last boy who rode the line came down, he let go too early - not much early, but enough to get the attention of the canal's real danger. As he fell, he disturbed a thicket of tall grass, landing just past it. The thicket shook and the boy ran toward us, shocked and startled that this nondescript thicket we'd just spent the past hour playing around and over had just come to life. The grass parted and the long green head of an alligator appeared, moving faster towards us than I thought possible. We thought of the old gray dock no more that day.
Now, every boy who grows up in Florida is warned from an early age about alligators, though they are rarely seen. You cannot outrun an alligator in a straight line, but they can't turn very easily, so you should run in a zigzag pattern to get away. By the time Florida boys make it to middle school, zigzag running has been practiced and perfected in form. That day in the woods, none of us ran in a zigzag pattern, but none of us ran in the same direction, either. I ran down the dirt path back towards the canal, but by the time that I stopped running, I was alone. After awhile, a few of the other boys made it back to where I was, but it was several hours before we were all assembled again. I've never felt so thrilled to see the last of my friends come into view, we'd passed through the greatest danger unscathed.
I made it back to my house just before dusk, as our journey back was delayed by bouts of hilarity and mockery at the alligator race and our abandoned fishing equipment. I never told my parents about my adventure, and as they never asked me about it, none of the other boys must have either. After that day, I never ventured past my dock again, and I never thought about how good the fishing might be from that gray old dock, and I definitely wasn't curious about those woods anymore.
At any rate, sorry to ramble, but Roethke's "Meditation at Oyster River" brought this story back to me...in technicolor.