Thursday, October 2, 2014

The River Will Tell You Your Future

Location: Cape Camping and RV Park; Cape Girardeau, Missouri
(click pictures to enlarge)

Warning: Long post ahead, pictures at the end.

I arrived in Cape Girardeau last Sunday (28th) afternoon. Cape has special meaning to me. My family and I moved here in the Spring of 1972 when I was just turning 16 and in my sophomore year of high school. This is where I graduated high school, found out what freedom felt like and made life changing decisions.

This paragraph will either tie a lot of the places together that I visited this summer, or it will confuse the heck out of you. My older brother stopped moving around the country with my family after he graduated high school while we were living in Russellville, Arkansas in early to mid 1960's. My mother, father, sister and I moved to Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and he remained behind (I posted about visiting that old homeplace). A few years later, my sister graduated high school when we lived in Lafayette, Louisiana and she remained there while my parents and I moved to Clinton, Minnesota. (I also posted about that homeplace). After Clinton, we moved to Cape Girardeau, Missouri and I knew it was getting close for me to get off of the moving ride. The only problem was I liked moving and seeing different places. Cape is a very nice town and I could have been happy if I had followed suit like my brother and sister and just stayed behind as my parents moved on. I took a different path. I left and they stayed behind,,,,for a while.

A lot of things happened to me here, things that molded me into who I am today. I guess it could have happened anywhere, but for me, it happened here. Let's see if I can remember a few of them so Olivia and Tucker will be able to read them in a few decades.

I turned 16 years of age shortly after we moved here. April 9, 1972 was a big date for me because it meant I could get my drivers license. I didn't know beforehand how that piece of paper would change me, but it did. My parents bought me a used, but new to me, VW fastback car after I got my license. I loved it. It wasn't a muscle car, but that little thing could scoot down the road and make a U turn on a two lane street. I was beginning to understand what freedom was all about. It was the ability to go wherever I wanted to go. 

In late spring of 1972, word was spreading around town of a youth minister at Red Star Baptist Church. His name was Ron Partain and they said he understood teenagers. During those times in the early 70's, nobody over 20 really understood teenagers, so it was something worth checking out. A group of us went to check out the place. Sure enough, the youth minister was "cool" and had many plans for the teenagers in the church. His boss, Reverend Thorpe (may have been Tharpe, memory fading), did the preaching and together, they teamed up to save many teenagers. I was one of them. I was saved and baptized in that church. In fact, my father and I were baptized on the same day. It was a special day. One of the main things in the church was a youth choir. Ron Partain put it together and taught us what to do and when to do it. After practicing for a couple of months we were ready to put the show on the road. Ron and Brother Thorpe planned a trip for the choir to go to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They arranged for us to sing in churches along the way and their church members would "adopt" one or two of the choir members for the night. This saved costs for lodging and meals. We did this going down and coming back and it was a special and wonderful time. Many people were saved after our performances. We could relate to the teenagers in the churches, which was a big deal. After the trip, we sang in some of the local churches but then a split began to develop in the church. The split was between the older, more established members who didn't understand the changes that were happening to their church and the new members, mostly with teenagers. We as teenagers, had a ringside seat as the two factions fought it out. The devil enjoyed those times, we kids didn't. Several families left the church and the choir disbanded after Ron Partain was asked to leave. Reverend Thorpe stayed on for a while afterwards, but then he left as well. Sad time for lots of people but the summer of 72 was a learning experience for us teenagers.
I traveled every street and highway for 50 miles in all directions in that old VW. I wanted to see what was over every hill and around every corner. When I did stop, it was to sit and watch the river go by. Cape and the big Mississippi River had been tied together ever since the town was a simple trading post. My favorite spots were downtown and by a place called "Cape Rock". I would sit for hours and watch barge traffic going up and down the river and wonder about the places they had been or were going. I saw the river when it was dry, flooded and frozen. Every decision I made while living in Cape was made while watching the river roll on by. But through it all, that water represented freedom just like my good ole VW. Even in the VW, I was burning up a lot of gas money, but I was hooked on seeing things. I learned that if I wanted to run around the way I wanted to, I would have to get a job for the extra gas money. I figured that wouldn't be a problem, I would just go get a job at a gas station or grocery store. Before I even put in the first application, a job fell into my lap. It was the first of many "in the right place at the right time" moments in my life. A friend of mine was planning to quit his job as a dishwasher at a local steakhouse so he and I worked out a plan. He would show up for work, tell the boss he was quitting, but also telling him that I wanted to replace him. It worked out good for everyone. It was a good job because it was in the evenings and weekends. I was paid minimum wage and was happy. I showed up early to work each day and stayed behind to help the waitresses when they needed help. I did these things because that was the way it was suppose to be done. It was the way my father approached his work and I took after him. Later in life, the Navy didn't need to teach me the meaning of the saying; "If you're 15 minutes early you're on-time, if you're on-time, you're late" because I learned it from my father and honed it while washing dishes. Washing dishes gave me the extra money for gas and things. I don't remember how long I kept that job but I think it was about 6 to 8 months. I know it was through the winter because a few times I was slip/sliding to work on snowy roads.

As the summer of 1973 was approaching, my father told me of a job opportunity for me in the northern mountains of New Mexico. We had lived there for a few months before moving to Minnesota. It was in a resort town called Red River. My father had gotten to know a man name Brownie who owned several businesses in town. I don't know exactly how it happened, but somehow he and my father were talking and Brownie said he was looking for a couple teenagers he could trust to run one of his new businesses. Well, my father said I might be interested so he asked me and I said sure. I just needed to find one other person to go with me. We would be given a free place to live, larger than minimum wage salary and best of all, a motorcycle to ride all the time. The job was to run a motorcycle rental business. I asked my friend, Mike Jones, and he said yes. After talks between both sets of parents, everything was set. We loaded up the VW with clothes and stuff and headed west. It is still amazing that both sets of parents allowed their 17 year olds to go over a thousand miles away to work for the summer. When we got there, we found out that it was just the two of us and we were to run the whole show. We filled out the rental agreements, serviced the motorcycles (Honda 90's and 70's), collected payment, kept the books, etc. It seems a lot but in our minds it was just ordinary. Mike and I got along well because we were similar to each other. Work didn't bother either one of us. The VW stayed parked most of time because we used the motorcycles to go back and forth to work. We were also able to close early sometimes so we could take the motorcycles up into the mountains to some of the lakes. It was on one of those trips that I almost died. Mike and I left work about mid-afternoon and headed to Goose Lake which was about an hour up in the mountains. Leaving Red River, there was a wide gravel road until you reached the turn off. You forded a stream and then it was nothing but switchbacks all the way to the lake. We passed several jeeps coming down as we were going up. When we got to the lake, we were the only ones there. It was a beautiful site with a calm lake and the tops of mountains on three sides. The trout were biting and it was good time for a couple of 17 year olds who were far from home. We knew that with such a late start we wouldn't be able to stay very long but it was hard to leave such a great place. If we had brought a bedroll, we probably would have spent the night. We knew we waited too long but we figured it would be OK with the motorcycle headlights as long as we went slow. About half way down the mountain it started getting dark so we turned on our headlights. Mine didn't come on. Ut oh, didn't count on that. Luckily Mike's worked so I fell in behind him and followed him down the mountain. That's not as easy as it sounds since we were on a narrow rocky road with 180 degree switchbacks. I had to react to every one of his movements quickly. It was a little stressful but we made it off the mountain and across the stream. We were now on the wide gravel road which I had ridden on several times and was familiar with each curve. I was tired of riding behind so I passed Mike and started riding where his headlight shined on the road. It was his job to follow my movements now so he could light the way. I felt comfortable on the road even though it was so dark that without the headlight you could not see more than 50 feet in front of you. I thought we had went around the last curve and had nothing but straight road on into town so I sped up and started getting too far in front of Mike's light. I was wrong, there was one more sharp curve. I noticed the curve when Mike's headlight bounced up and shined on a reflector outlining the side of the road. Beyond that reflector was a several hundred foot drop-off and I was heading straight for it. Instinctively, within a split second, I knew I was not going to be able to make the curve at the speed I was going. The only option was to hit the rear brake, lay the motorcycle down and hope I didn't follow it off the mountain. As the motorcycle laid over and I began sliding, I knew I was going over the side and was about to die. A sudden peace came over me and I wasn't worried about anything. I knew I was about to die and it was OK, I was ready. BAM, the motorcycle, while sliding on it's side, hit the reflector post dead center on the bottom of the motorcycle's skid plate and stops. I finish my slide when I hit the stopped motorcycle. Mike pulls up thinking I'm hurt bad. I realize I'm still alive so I get up and check myself out. My jeans are ripped a little and I have a couple scratches on my arms. I pick the motorcycle up and it only has a bent brake pedal. I kick start it and it starts right up. Mike and I look at each other and shake our heads. Remarkable. We continued slowly into town with Mike riding in front and me riding behind while I thought about what had just happened. The luck of hitting the reflector seemed minor compared to that peaceful feeling I had when I thought it was all over. I have never felt that type of peaceful feeling again and I guess I never will until the end. It is comforting knowing what will happen and it has carried me through many rough times in my life.

After the New Mexico trip I began my senior year at Central High School. I had my senior ring and everything. I sold that ring many years later and used the money to buy a pair of childrens roller skates and a ring with a heart and key (Olivia, you may inherit that ring someday) In high school, it seemed like I was standing still in my life. I had tasted life outside of high school by working in New Mexico and I knew there was more to come. As Elton John would latter say in one of his songs, I was "frozen here, on the ladder of my life". Central High School was on a trimester system. That meant the school year was divided into three separate sections and you took 3 to 4 classes per day. Under this system, you could get all of your required credits earlier than normal. I had enough credits to graduate after the first trimester of my senior year. The school would allow students to "graduate early" (gain our freedom), but in order to do so you had to either enroll full time at a college, work a minimum of 40 hours a week at a job or enlist in one of the military services. One of those choices would be used to satisfy your "senior year attendance" and you could still walk with your class at the end of the school year. I chose the last option and joined the U.S. Navy. My parents had to sign off on me joining since I was only 17 years of age. It was strange, I could join the service but I couldn't legally buy a beer. I enlisted on November 30, 1973 and was sent to Orlando, Florida for boot camp. After spending the Christmas holidays in boot camp, I finished up in February of 1974 and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Base outside of Chicago for schooling in how to become an Operations Specialist, which is a fancy name for Radarman. After school was completed, I was sent to the U.S.S. Manitowoc (LST 1180) where I finished my 4 year enlistment. Somewhere along the way I was granted leave to attend my graduation. I did not walk with the class but instead sat in the audience. Any pictures taken of me in my high school cap and gown was thanks to Mike Jones allowing me to borrow his for the picture. I went to the school the day after graduation to pick up my diploma. A friend of mine from high school put it in perspective in one of the letters she wrote me. She said, I was always wondering where in the world I was going while the kids left behind in school were wondering where in town there were going for the weekend. I never got the chance to thank here for helping to get me over some rough times in the beginning of my Navy life. Maybe some day she will read this post. If so, Thank you very much, Terri Henry. 

Now, I'm sure I've bored ya'll long enough with the longwinded post. Here are the pictures, with captions explaining some of them. Ya'll take care.   

Cape Camping and RV Park

Cape Rock. If you enlarge the pic
you can read the plaque.

Thinking benches at Cape Rock

Cape Rock. Lots of thoughts

Last view of Cape Rock as I
drove away.

The city has done a fantastic job
at painting a mural on the
floodwall downtown. Each panel
represents a time in the life of the city

More mural and the gate

More Mural

More Mural

The floodgate with the high water
marks listed on the left

Behind the floodwall looking
downstream at the new bridge

Some of the wall is painted on the
river side. Notice the sitting places

Looking upstream

Looking through the gate into

A nice Coke sign on one of the
older buildings downtown

The last house I lived in with my

The steakhouse where I washed dishes

The state and city saved the gateway
to the old bridge after they built
the new one.

View of the new bridge from the
park at the old bridge site

A thinking bench overlooking the

The new Cable Stayed Bridge

The new bridge

Red Star Baptist Church

The house my folks lived in after
I joined the Navy

Another view of downtown in the
evening town with a street singer

Evening time at the river. I spent
a lot of time down there as a

Evening time on the river

The river is still telling my future

Ya'll take care of each other. Cya down the road.

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