We met Harry at Shawnee Creek, under a cooling canopy of hickory and sycamore trees. It was getting late and we pointed our canoe toward the low sandbar that had formed where the narrow creek flowed into the swift running Current River. My longtime canoeing buddy Jim and I wanted to cook up a hot shoreside meal before paddling another hour downriver to a favorite campsite.
We saw Harry standing on the edge of the sandbar, hands clasped behind his back staring out over the Current’s sparkling riffles. The low sun filtered through the trees and silhouetted his stooped figure. Tiny embers of golden sunlight jetted from the dancing waters in front of him. I remembered my camera stashed away in a duffle bag.
Our paddles interrupted his reverie, but he was glad to see us. We could read it in his eyes. He introduced himself, asked how far we were paddling. He talked through one of those voice boxes, holding his hand to his throat to make sure the device worked. Normally we like to visit with these “river rats” who gravitate to the banks of running waters. We enjoy hearing their stories and swapping lies. But this evening we were in a hurry, needing to eat and make camp downstream before dark.
Harry had other ideas. He asked us how far we’d come, what we’d seen, where we were from. His eyes were deep green, a young man’s spark in an old man’s orbs. He told old man’s stories, full of reminisces and cherished weavings of warmly held memories. He’d lived his whole life on the banks of this river, in a small and cozy house high on a bluff. He saw the river every morning and every night. It never changed, looked just like this when he was a little boy, fishing for bass and catching crawdads. He used to swing on a thick rope, high out over the river and let go to fall splay-legged into the cool pool below. The old rope was still hanging on a thick limb nearby. It had been a good life.
Things weren’t going so good now. His wife had died last winter, just after the cancer ate up his larynx. The disease made him sick, and tired. He couldn’t drive to town much anymore. His kids had moved away and they sometimes came to visit, but they had their own lives. The grandkids didn’t care much for the river, they liked to sit in front of the TV. So he came down to the sandbar often, to see the river up close, to watch the water go by, a crystal ribbon of life, rushing by and gone.
Darkness was creeping over the river. Harry had held us captive and the sun had slipped away. We wanted to stay, so did Harry but he had to get home before dark—his eyesight wasn’t so good anymore—and we had a campsite to reach.
We pushed off and waved at Harry’s thin outline receding into the dusky shadows. He watched us drift downriver, out of his life. Dusk enveloped Harry, he melted into a wall of trees and water. I wondered how many things he’d watched drift out of his life, along the banks of this river.
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)