Skimming Along Old Man River

This weekend the Sooner football team defeated Notre Dame and I skimmed along the mud flat shoals of the Red River in an air boat with four college buddies. We powered upstream through the shallow grassy sandbars pausing to shut down the engine to chat with our guide. We then headed downstream until we reached a giant dredger pulling sand from the river. We wore no seat belts, no life preservers, there wasn’t any safety railing…just the wind in our hair, or in my case on my head. We did, however, don ear protection against the roar of the aft engine. We’ve all operated mowers, chain saws, weed eaters and tractors, sans ear protection, yet felt strangely compelled to protect our hearing against the roar of the engine and fan blades. It might be too late, like applying sun screen at midnight, but we do what we can. Sometimes we protect less vital parts of our bodies, like ears, because it’s easy and convenient. But power is fickle and sometimes it reminds us of our tenuous hold on this earth.
Red River Cabin
My friend Kelly Kemp just turned fifty-five but he looks forty, like he could run his college event, the 800 meters, in two minutes. Living with Kelly in Rector House at Harding University, I had seen him often in running shorts, but on this day, I looked down at his thigh from my catbird perch on the air boat. There was a scar across the meat of the left thigh, running side to side about a half-inch wide, a toothy serration longing to tell a story.
Longhorn Kemp
Saturday afternoon we sat in the living room of the Kemp’s home south of Bonham, Texas, watching football games, east and west windows affording views of Texas grassland and Longhorns, the herd spiced by a lone donkey. I had forgotten about Kelly’s scar but the subject eventually arose through our meandering conversations. Kelly and his wife Lee Ann were out near the highway on their property and Kelly was chain sawing a tree and the blade struck an adjacent metal fence post which instantly kicked the saw down to his upper thigh. Once Kelly realized the cut had not just torn his jeans, but had sliced into the thigh, he grabbed both sides of the wound and told his wife, “I’m hurt bad, call 911.” They had no cell phone so Lee Ann ran to the highway and flagged down a passing car, occupied by two trained emergency responders. Upon reaching Kelly and coaxing him to take his hands off the wound, they began to care for him and when he released his hands, blood jetted high into the air. The EMT shouted, “Catch her!”, as Lee Ann went all woozy. Kelly stayed amazingly calm as the EMT took his pulse and told him, “Your pulse is 48!.” Kelly was life-flighted to Parkland Hospital in Dallas and they cared for him and he came home the next day. Just another inch and the saw would have severed the femoral artery in the inner thigh, and the story would have ended differently.
Bonham Texas 2013
Kelly, Jinx the dog, Mike Howell, Ralph Rowand, Brent Taylor, Alan Adams

It’s an illusion that time passes more quickly as we grow older. I can remember sitting in grade school watching the minute hand pass from 2:00 to 3:00, days when I was bored to tears. Today, a week passes more quickly than that glacial hour of waiting in my youth, a time when everything I could see was in front of me. At my age more of my life is behind me than ahead, in proportions I can never know or understand, since tomorrow isn’t any guarantee. As we said goodbye today, someone remarked that our last gathering was fifteen years ago…and if we wait another fifteen, Kelly would be seventy.

And so we went to worship service Sunday morning with Kelly and Lee Ann in Bonham and I was thinking thoughts about time and our place in it and how we grasp for these moments, ephemeral, holy moments, sometimes unexpected, moments that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. As we worshipped at the Bonham, Texas Church of Christ this morning, I noticed a lady sitting just ahead and slightly to my right in a break between the pews, in a wheelchair, perhaps ninety years old. I looked at her profile, at her jaw jutting prominently through her translucent vanilla skin, projecting through sagging cheeks like the rock of ages. The congregation sang Paradise Valley a capella and I watched her jaw move like a stone through time… “As I travel through life, with it’s trouble and strife, I’ve a glorious hope to give cheer on my way, soon my toil will be o’er, and I’ll rest on that shore, where the night will be turned into day.” I couldn’t hear her voice but she sang the words like she was seeing an old friend again after fifteen years. I caught myself missing the entirety of verse two watching her sing, and shamed, sang verse three loudly to make up for missing verse two.

She was sitting next to a lady directly in front of Ralph and me, her friend or perhaps her daughter, younger, seventy? Who can tell anymore? We had spoken to the younger woman before the service began and she had told me about growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma, and I asked her if she had gone to Edmond High School. She said, “Yes.” I told her there were three high schools in Edmond now.

During communion, the lady in the wheelchair received broken bread from her friend, making a cup of her hands, collecting it and tossing it into her mouth as best she could, with all the dignity and reverence she could muster. When the juice came, the younger woman took the cup and tilted it into the mouth of the older lady, like a momma bird feeding a baby sparrow. Her mouth was wide open, probably as wide as she could make it, and she swallowed the juice like a wandering nomad swallowing rain drops in a parched desert.

We are all collectors, dealers in memory. Keepers of time and space. It’s really all we have. Our money doesn’t travel well, our stuff gets put in dusty garages, our houses need painting, our cars break down, our clothes wind up at Goodwill. But moments in time, that’s the stuff we keep.

This weekend I talked to my good friends about work, children, wives and parents and we shared our memories of college when we were young and stupid. We told stories and white lies and we prayed and laughed a ton and we did nothing except be in each other’s company in the good graces and hands of Lee Ann who took care of us like we were kings. We ate delicious pie and cobbler, steak from the Kemp’s pastures, and fresh salsa and peaches from their cupboards. And for just a moment, time slowed down and we peered upstream and downstream along old man river, reflecting on the good stuff. Skimming along a river like modern-day Huck Finn’s, talking about our scars, looking at the stars and being thankful for our blessings.

6 responses to “Skimming Along Old Man River”

    • You have made my day! The Sunday lunch with you and the rest of the guys yesterday was an occasion that Kelly’s Mom and I will remember with love, affection, and admiration for all of you. With love and respect.
      Roy P. Kemp ( Kelly’s Dad)

  1. Grateful for your wisdom in gathering memories with friends and family and for sharing your thoughts – a reminder of the importance of loving relationships. To see the beauty in people around you is a gift and you use it well. Love you.

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