You go down a lot of paths when you are growing up. Some of them are life changing paths; paths to success in life, or paths to disaster.
When I was a child, my family took us boat camping several times a year. One of my favorite places was a sandbar right on the outside of Topock Gorge.
The sandbar was an isthmus about a hundred yards wide, and about five hundred yards long, which jutted out from the rocky coastline of the Colorado River. It protected a lagoon from the main river, having a small opening onto the river at one end that was big enough for a boat to get through. The lagoon was a few hundred yards wide. It was perfect to swim in. The water temperature was in the mid-seventies during the spring and summer. The fast flowing open river was much colder; it was about sixty five degrees all the time, even in the hottest parts of the summer.
We would get to the sandbar early enough on the big vacation weeks to get the prime spot, which was the crotch of the isthmus. There were dense bushes at that end of the sand bar, with a clearing close to the water that was just big enough to put up a cabin tent and a sun awning. We would water ski and fish, then pull the boat up to the beach. We would disappear into the thicket to relax under the awning. It was paradise.
As you progress down the isthmus, the bushes gradually disappeared, leaving a nice wide sandy beach. Groups of people would spend the night on the beach, before floating in inflatables down through the beautiful Topock Gorge and on into Lake Havasu.
I was an awkward boy during the days when we were camping at this spot. I was in Jr. High, but looked and acted younger than my classmates. I was short and chubby…..definitely not a kid acceptable to the “in crowd” at school.
Rock music was one of my main interests. I constantly had something playing. My parents bought me a nice portable cassette tape deck. It was a Christmas gift, and I just loved it. I recorded music off of the radio all the time, and had a good collection of tapes to bring with me to the campouts. I brought it to the sandbar during our Easter Week trip.
In the late afternoon, as the breeze started to cool the air, I would set up a blanket under the outside edge of the bushes by our campground. I would play music, and watch people who were stopped to camp overnight. There were teenage girls out there, frolicking around the water in their bikinis. Of course this was very interesting to me at that age, and images of these girls stayed burned into my brain for a long time afterward. Every so often my music would draw a couple of them over. The girls would talk to me while listening. I just loved this, because few of the girls at school would give me the time of day.
The music didn’t just attract young girls, though. I remember a hippie couple that came over once. I happened to be playing some psychedelic rock – Cream’s ‘Wheels of Fire’.
“Hey, man, cool music,” the man said as he walked over. “Mind if we sit over there and listen?”
I would usually be a little nervous around strangers, but this guy seemed harmless to me.
“Sure, no problem,” I said.
“Cool, man,” the hippie guy said. His girlfriend had on the smallest bikini I had ever seen. She was holding a blanket. This girl was beautiful, with short black hair, a sweet smile, and a dark tan. I still remember her face after all these years. She noticed me looking at her. I got embarrassed and looked away. She smirked.
They walked over a little ways and put their blanket on the sand, under the cover of the bushes.
I continued to listen to my music, and would glance over at them every once in a while. They were getting closer and closer to each other, and started hugging and caressing. My adolescent mind was on overdrive, hoping that I was going to see something I shouldn’t. The next time I glanced over, they were taking the blanket into the bushes.
As I was looking where couple went, two boys wearing cut-off jeans appeared out of nowhere.
“Hey, nice tape deck,” said one of the boys. He was a couple years older than me, with short blonde hair and a wiry build. He smiled at me, but it was a smile that made me nervous. It was a mean smile.
“How’s it goin?” I said. The other boy nodded at me and smiled. He was a little bigger than the blonde kid. He had longish dark hair and glasses. He didn’t have the predatory look of his friend.
The two boys sat down next to me.
“I’m Mike,” the blonde kid said, “and this is Phil.”
“I’m Charlie,” I said. “Floating through the Gorge tomorrow?
“Yeah, leaving at six in the morning, if my dipshit foster dad doesn’t get too drunk tonight. The two boys looked at each other and snickered.
I didn’t know what to say. I was hoping they would not stick around. They made me uneasy, partly because they were too old to be interested in talking to me. It didn’t feel right.
“What other music do you have?” asked Mike. I pulled the case that was next to me over to him. It was an old 45 record case that I got from a family friend. Mike pulled it over to him and opened it.
“Pew, what’s that smell?” he asked. I laughed.
“Oil of Wintergreen,” I said. “Forgot about that. I’m used to it.”
“Why does it smell like that?”
“I used to be into slot cars before all the tracks shut down. I kept my car stuff in there. You use Oil of Wintergreen on the tires, to soften them up and make them sticky.”
Phil’s eyes lit up.
“I used to love slot cars,” he said. “My dad used to take me to the track, before he split.”
“Sounds kind of queer to me,” Mike said, staring at Phil. Phil shut up.
“No, it was actually pretty cool,” I said. “Some of the cars were really boss.”
Mike started pulling out my cassette tapes one by one and reading the titles I had scrawled on them.
“Bitchen, you have the Led Zeppelin album. This has ‘Dazed and Confused’ on it.”
“Want me to put it in?”
“Naw, later,” he said. “I love Cream.”
“Me too,” said Phil, looking sideways at Mike. I got the impression that he was completely under Mike’s power.
“Great, now you are going to tell us one of the bullshit stories about your brother.”
“They aren’t bullshit,” Phil said. “And shut up about my brother.”
“What stories?” I asked.
Mike looked like he was going to say something, but then he stopped, and continued to look through my tapes. Phil glanced over at him, and then back at me.
“I remember this music playing when my brother and I were cruising,” Phil said. “He had a bitchen Firebird 440. That thing hauled ass.”
“There’s one of those on my street,” I said. “The guy who owns it burns rubber down the street whenever there is a cute girl around.” We both laughed.
“Why don’t you tell us what happened to the Firebird, lame-o?” Mike said, that scary smile back on his face again.
Phil looked at me, and then looked down.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“Phil’s brother stole the car, and the cops busted him for it. He’s in jail, rotting like the rest of the losers.”
“My brother is no loser.”
I saw several younger kids running towards us. They were laughing, stopping to pick up sand to throw at each other. I was relieved to see them.
“Mikey and Phil, it’s time to come back to camp for dinner,” one of the young girls said. The others stood there giggling. Mike got an annoyed look on his face, and tossed the tapes back into the box. He got up. Phil looked at me and shrugged, and then got up too. Just at that moment, the hippie couple came crawling out of the brush. They looked disheveled, and the girl looked embarrassed when she saw us watching them.
“Hey, did you get her?” Mike shouted. Then he circled his thumb and forefinger on one hand, and started sawing his other forefinger in and out of it. Phil looked at the shocked look on my face, and then back at Mike. He slapped his hands down.
“Shut up. That’s not cool,” he said. He looked over at the hippie guy, who was starting to walk over. “Sorry, man……he didn’t mean anything.”
“Mikey, we gotta go!” the little girl shouted.
“Alright, alright,” Mike said. He looked down at me. “You going to be around later? Maybe we can mess around for a while.”
“Maybe,” I said. I tried not to sound too enthusiastic.
They turned and left. I felt relieved. I picked up my stuff and walked back into our clearing. I sat down on a sand chair under the awning. My mom looked at me, and could tell that I was a little upset.
“You want a Hi-C, Charlie?”
“Yes, but I’ll get it, Mom.” I got up and walked over to the ice chest. “You want another beer?”
“No thanks, honey.”
I fished a Hi-C out and opened it. The first swig of that icy sweet nectar always tasted so good in the heat. I sat back down. The rest of the family came into the clearing – my younger sister and brother, and my Dad. They had been floating on inner tubes out in the lagoon, and were still dripping wet. My dad toweled himself off. My brother and sister didn’t bother. They both hit the ice chest for drinks, and plopped down on the chairs next to me. My brother looked over at me with a grin.
“You should see that big family down there,” he said.
“It’s a dad and a mom with about 8 kids. The dad is drunk off his ass. The mom is pissed.”
“Really?” I looked over at him, and then at my sister, who shook her head in agreement.
“Dad made us come in, because that creep has one of the older girls on his lap. It didn’t look right,” my sister said.
“Good Lord,” Mom said. She walked over to my dad, and they began a hushed conversation.
My brother looked at me and cracked up. He moved closer to me so he could whisper.
“I think that guy had a rod,” he said, laughing.
“What’s that?” asked my sister.
“Never mind,” I said. She got mad and stomped into the tent.
My brother and I looked at each other and laughed.
After a couple of hours, I went out to the boat to grab something. Mike saw me out there. He grabbed Phil and came trotting over.
“Want to mess around?” Mike asked, smiling. Phil stood a little behind him, off to the right.
“Yeah, let’s do something,” Phil said.
Mike was looking around to see if any of my other family members were around.
“Where’s your tape recorder?”
“Back at camp,” I said. “I’m busy right now. I have to go back to camp.”
“Well how about this,” Mike said. “There’s a great little canyon back on the other side of the lagoon, with a spring. Maybe we can take sleeping bags and your tape recorder back there and spend the night. It would be bitchen.” He looked over at Phil, who nodded his head in agreement.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “No way my parents would go for that.”
“C’mon, Charlie, don’t be a weenie,” said Mike. He was starting to get an impatient look. I could tell he was trying really hard not to show any anger.
“They wouldn’t even have to know,” Phil said quietly. “You could sneak out after dark. We’ll come get you.” Mike nodded in approval.
I was just about to respond when I heard my Dad coming out through the brush.
“What’s going on, Charlie?” he asked.
Mike and Phil looked at each other nervously.
“These guys want me to spend the night with them back in the canyon over there, by the spring.”
My dad looked at me. I think he could tell I didn’t want any part of that. Then he looked at the two boys, and his eyes narrowed.
“Sorry, but Charlie won’t be doing that. I don’t want to see you two in our camp again. Take off.”
Mike got a nasty look on his face. He tried to stare down my dad, but dad took a step towards him. He looked at Phil, and turned to leave. I listened to them as they were walking off.
“Shit, that would have been easy,” said Phil.
“Shut up,” Mike said. “Fathers can be such assholes.”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder, and we walked back into camp.
“Make sure your tape recorder gets put in the tent tonight, where your mom and I are sleeping,” he said.
I looked at him and nodded.
“And stay away from their camp,” he said.
As time went by, I forgot about this incident. Then, when I was in my early thirties with kids of my own, I saw a true crime show on TV that brought me right back to the camping trip. Two older kids lured a younger kid off to spend the night in a remote part of the camping area, because he had something they wanted. They ended up killing the younger kid by bashing his head in with a rock. I’ll never forget the feeling I got when the memories of our campout suddenly washed over me. Could that have been me?
Yes, I could have taken that path. I could have snuck out to meet Mike and Phil. It might have been fun. Or not.
Copyright Robert Boren 2014