The day after school ended my sixth grade year back in 1963, my friend Billy drowned in an irrigation ditch after hitting his head on a rock when he dived into the water. I was hiding under a pickup truck when I heard the news. We were playing touch football in the street when I saw someone coming on a bike. I somehow had the sense that he was bringing bad news and didn't want to hear it.
I heard the news anyway while lying in the cool darkness and the dirt and staring at the feet of my friends. Looking back, it was the perfect place to hear such sad news. It was like I was dodging both God and the knowledge of death and God showed me that I couldn't escape either.
The last time I saw Billy was the day before. Him and I were sitting on the swings by the kindergarten classrooms at Mark Twain Elementary. It was getting dark, and so we decided to go home. Billy flipped over the fence at the corner of Letts and Oregon as he always did. The last image I have of him is walking east on Oregon waving good-bye by sticking his right hand up in the air and not looking back.
Billy was cool. He was a sixth grade Lenny Bruce. He was Ray-Ban cool. I have often thought about how different my life would have been, if...
He had asked me to go swimming that day, but I said no. For some reason, I decided this one particular time that my mom wouldn't allow it. Believe me, if I had done that every time I was faced with some morally conflicted issue, I could have saved myself a lifetime's worth of hard lessons. But, this one time, it stuck. In fact, I can still conjure up the same image of my mother saying no that I envisioned on that day.
I've wondered many times about that tragic period in my life. As I've aged, I've started looking for meaning in nearly everything that happened in the past, mundane ordinary happenings, as well as the more traumatic moments.
I've red flagged the fact that he died the day after sixth grade ended as something worth noticing. Was Billy's death some sort of sacrifice to the imminent changes that were fixing to occur. Was it a bargain of sorts used to guarantee the ability of the rest of us south side kids to cross over Bainum Avenue in order to attend John Muir Junior High on the north end of town?
I know that it's a crazy idea, but I've noticed over the years how many tragic deaths seem to happen around moments of transitions like this. For awhile, it seemed like a young person or two died in a car wreck every time CHS sent a graduating class off into the world at large, or in the beginning of a new school year at a school in a different town.
People write things like this off to youthful exuberance and rash actions. But maybe such exuberance comes with a price tag of flesh, bone, and blood.
Maybe such sacrifices are still demanded by the powers that be, our ancestors certainly thought so, and maybe now we don't pay near the attention required to detect the patterns anymore. And even if they are just a mixture of youth and rashness, it's still a pattern, and it's still a sacrifice.
Most likely, it was nothing more than a tragic accident and nothing else. I would hate for that to be the case though, to think that I lost such a good friend to something so meaningless and random.
Nowadays, in my mind at least, the idea of channeling water carries even more of a psychic significance. I've written several times over the years about the epiphanous moments of understanding I've had on at least three occasions in my life.
I have come to believe that each was a moment where the flood waters of the unconscious temporarily broke through a weak spot in the membrane that separates my subconscious reality and my daily conscious awareness.
I wrote about such an experience in a book I named The Lazarus Letters, a book that I have been writing to exorcise the demons from my life since my wife left me thirteen years ago. I swear, I just now noticed that this character I wrote about is not only named Billy but this particular passage referenced drowning.
"I could tell from what they said that the fragile wall between Billy’s subconscious and conscious had suffered a serious breach, and that the waters of his subconscious had started to leak through. He immediately needed to put his finger in the hole to help buy some time.
The waters of the subconscious are truly wondrous, and if channeled correctly can be used to irrigate the fertile fields of this material world to produce an abundance of joy and wonder, but if their flow is not carefully controlled, they can also drown a person in an flood of madness and despair."
The idea being that the waters of the subconscious are vast and powerful and must be channeled, but even channeled waters are just as dangerous as floodwaters, as any movement of water in any direction, contained or not, is fraught with peril. We remove the danger somewhat by confining the flow, so we don't tire of dog paddling and just sink down into the deep.
But we can never account for all the rocks, weeds, old shopping carts, and hidden barriers beneath the surface of what passes for reality. We must always be prepared, learn to swim, and never dive into things without knowing what hidden dangers lie beneath the otherwise tranquil surface even while admitting to ourselves that there is no way of ever knowing for certain.
Swimming in ditches on the Southside of Corcoran back in 1963, the year that Kennedy was murdered and the last year that us sixth grade Southside kids were safely ensconced in the warm embrace of our own little world, was more than just a recreational activity, it was an act of defiance and of freedom. It was a way we showed our friends that we weren't tied to our mother's apron strings and a way to show the rest of the world that we were both resourceful and somewhat fearless.
On the other side of Bainum Avenue, kids swam in swimming pools. I don't think there was a pool south of Bainum.
Later on, as we grew older, we didn't water ski much behind boats in lakes either but rather in the Homeland Canal, dodging mud hens and dead fish in a water channel just wide enough that anything could and did happen. On one occasion, a friend jumped out of the car that was pulling us and went and stole a road grader in an awkward and failed attempt to profess his love for an estranged girl friend.
There have been many times over the years, that I have wished that I could shout back at Billy through the ether of time,
"The city pool's got lifeguards, Billy! The pool's got guards. Let's just wait!"
I didn't sleep well the night after I heard the news. I spent the entire night dreaming it was all an illusion, that I'd wake up and Billy would come strolling down the piece of dirt road that was the southern end of Estes Avenue where it ran past my house, knock on my door and ask me if I wanted to go shoot some pool down at Pop's while sipping on a Coca Cola bottle full of peanuts.
But alas, that dream was a lie, the first of many, an urgent, heartfelt, yet ephemeral wish written on a piece of tissue, and I was forever stuck instead with the wistful memory of Billy flipping himself over the fence at the corner of Letts and Oregon, and walking out of my life forever and waving goodbye with an upraised hand while never looking back.