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Rated: · Other · Biographical · #1577092
A story about the adventures of three young boys over one summer of their youth.
Summer of Lost Innocence

The year was 1961. I would turn eleven that summer. I don’t know if it was a safer world that we lived in back then, or just a more trusting one. It was a much different era than the children live in today. Remember this was the beginning of the decade of the 60’s. The period of free thinking, free spirits, exploration and experimentation.
My parents had divorced two years earlier. My mom, my sister and I moved to a low income housing project in the little city of Farrell, Pa. Moving from the country to the city was a real cultural shock for me. As a young white boy living in a mixed race neighborhood, for the first time, I had been in more fights, the first month that I lived there than I had been in the previous three years. I was learning to fend for myself. I was learning more about life than ever before, but, my mother was getting worried about me. She thought that I needed a change of scenery for the summer, so she sent me to stay with my aunt in the country. My aunt, mom’s twin sister, was always like a second mom to me. She had seven children of her own, so one more or less wouldn’t even be noticed. She lived in the little village of Clarksville, a close knit community that sat on the bank of the Shenango River. There was a post office, a little country store called “Joe’s Grocery”, a small two pump island gas station sat on one of the two roads that lead into town. There was a bar and restaurant called the “Clark House”, this was the local attraction, for the adults, on the weekends. It was a quiet, sleepy little town, where everyone knew and looked out for everyone else and no one ever locked their doors.
My aunt had a son, Owen; he was two years older than me and Curt, two years younger than me. We were like the three amigos that summer. If you saw one, the other two weren’t far behind. This was a summer of real adventure for me. There was always something for us to explore. The town sat on the bank of the Shenango River. The old Erie Canal ran parallel to the river through the town. The canal had been drained for years, but, you could still see it. The tow paths, on either side of the canal, were still visible. They were overgrown with brush, vines and trees, but, they still existed.
As boys, we knew there had to be something exciting to do at the old canal. It didn’t take us long to discover the vines that hung over the canal. We cut several of the vines and would spend hours swinging from one tow path to the other on the vines.
One night, early that summer, the three of us lay in bed planning what adventure we would take the next day. Owen, my older cousin, was our ringleader, after all he was 12 years old. Owen was wiser to the ways of the world. He knew things that I had vaguely heard about. He was the daredevil of our group, either to test his limits or just to impress his younger cousin. I don’t know which, but, I looked up to him and was willing to follow his lead. Owen suggested that we go look for an abandoned boat along the banks of the river. He said if the boat was under water and we could salvage it, then we could keep it. To three young boys, the idea of floating up and down the river in a boat was about as exciting as country living got. So early the next morning, we had breakfast and were heading for the river at the crack of dawn. My aunt would always ask “Where are you boys going today?” Our answer could be as vague as “Just out to play” and that would satisfy her. As long as we were back for supper she didn’t worry about us. Lunch was eaten at whoever’s house we were playing at when lunch time rolled around. This morning we headed down the road that crossed the river at the east end of town. Once at the river, we started up the north bank and headed back towards town, looking for the end of a submerged boat awaiting our rescue. We scoured through the brush along the bank. Finally about noon, the three of us were taking a break on the bank, when Owen spots something red jutting out of the water on the other side of the river. We took a closer look and decided that it had to be a boat. We also knew that the only way to cross the river was to walk all the way back to the bridge.
We were getting pretty hungry, so we headed back through the woods and fields to home and lunch. We had been knee deep in mud all morning, searching for our treasure. The dried mud caked to our legs. We were scratched from the thorns and brush. My aunt saw us walking up the driveway. She looked at us and shook her head and said “You boys are filthy, don’t you dare go in the house like that. She told us to hose off and dry before going inside. As she fixed us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she asked what we had been up to. We told her that we were looking for a submerged boat to pull out and fix up. All she said was to “Be careful.” It wasn’t that she had an apathetic indifference to our well being. It was just the feeling of security and trust that the era had spawned. Kids were given more freedom to do what they wanted to do back then.
After lunch, we headed back down the road, towards the river, discussing how we would retrieve the boat from the muck of the river bed. It took us a couple of hours, sometimes clawing our way through the undergrowth along the river banks. We finally spot the red prow sticking out of the water. As we get to the boat, we see that it is full of river muck. The three of us took off our shoes and waded into the squishy muck. We had to bale the muck out of the boat by hand. After a couple of hours of back breaking work we were finally able to move the boat. It seemed like a sturdy boat and worth the continued effort to salvage. We struggled with the boat for the rest of the afternoon. We finally managed to get the boat up on the bank. Using river water, we got it cleaned off. We surveyed our new craft and determined that it was still solid. All it needed was some tar, to seal up the seams, and paint and it would be ready to carry us up and down the river. We cleaned ourselves off in the river, the best we could, and headed for home. We were all talking like excited magpies about our new discovery. We would ask my uncle about getting us the tar and paint. After supper, my uncle took us out to the shed where he found a five gallon bucket, almost full of tar and an old can of green paint. He told us to make sure the boat was dry before we painted it.
In the morning, the three of us headed back down the road toward the river, lugging that big can of tar. It was quite a chore for three young boys, but, we made it. We cleaned the rest of the mud off of the boat and sealed all of the seams with the tar. We hid the boat in the brush, to let the tar harden, and headed home for lunch. We worked harder on that boat than you would think possible for three young boys.
After lunch, we decided to go swimming. There was a long lane, across the road that meandered through the woods and fields, past the Little League Ball Fields, to a wide spot in the river that the locals used for a swimming hole. There was a small sandy beach on the shallow side of the river. When the three of us weren’t off exploring on our own, we usually played with Owens’s buddies. They were older than Curt and me, but, they tolerated us. The older boys could swim, so they swam to the other bank that had a rope hanging from a tree out over the river. They would spend the afternoon swinging on the rope and dropping into the deepest part of the river. Since Curt and I couldn’t swim, we stayed on the shallow side of the river.
The next morning, we headed back to check on our boat. The tar was dry and we were anxious to put it in the water, so we gave up on painting it. We didn’t have any oars, so we found a couple of limbs that could be used as poles, to push the boat along the river. We slid the boat down to the water and pushed it in. We all waded into the water to inspect the boat for leaks. The three of us started inspecting the boat and after a minute or so, we all looked up with a big grin on our faces. No leaks! We grabbed our poles and hopped in the boat. Owen was the self appointed captain of our new craft. Off we went, upstream and off into our Tom Sawyer type summer. The Shenango River was no Mississippi, but, we had as much fun on it, as Tom and Huck ever had. After that, we spent at least part of everyday poling up and down the river. Some days we would have my aunt pack us a lunch and spend hours exploring the islands in the river. There were three islands located in the river from one end of town to the other. We would build hidden forts in the brush and protect our little island worlds from pirates. It was every little boys dream, come true. It was our own playground, with vines to swing on, trees to climb and nature to explore. Best of all, there were no adults. We took our big bag of little green army men with us and played for hours. We would hide the boat, in a different place each day, and return the next day for new adventures on the river.
The fun didn’t stop at sunset in the quaint little country village. Every evening, at least, 15 or 20 neighbor kids would get together some place in town, and a game of Kick the Can would get started. There was never a dull minute for the three amigos. One day we were trying to think of something new to do. Owen says “Let’s go out to Uncle John’s and ride his horses.” At the time we knew it was far, but, not how far. I now know it was about 12 or 13 miles. So we walk to the edge of town and Owen sticks his thumb out when the next car went by. I had never hitchhiked before, but, since my older cousin was doing it, I was game. The fourth or fifth car that went by stopped to pick us up. The lady gave us a ride all the way to the road that we had to turn on. We proceeded down the dirt road. A minute later, here comes a car, we all stick our thumbs out and the car stops for us. This guy gave us a ride all the way to our Uncle’s lane. We started the trek, up the lane, to our uncle’s house. As we crested the hill, we see Owen and Curt’s parent’s car, sitting in the drive. We had never asked permission to go to Uncle John’s, so we were a little apprehensive about going in the house. We mustered up enough courage to go in. My aunt and uncle just looked at us with surprise and said” How did you boys get here?” We told them that we had hitchhiked. They just shook their heads and said we’ll talk about this later.” They never did. It is just another sign of the times. We asked Uncle John if we could ride his horses. He asked us if we remembered how to saddle and bridle them? We said “We did” and he said “Then go have fun.” We spent the afternoon riding the horses around the farm. My Aunt and Uncle stayed and gave us a ride home, never mentioning the hitchhiking again. It wasn’t that big of a deal. We were really testing the limits of our freedom that summer.
We spent the rest of the summer either on the river or just roaming around town, playing with whoever was outside. We played a lot of baseball at the Little League Field then we would all go swimming afterwards. I was having the time of my life. In late July, the carnival came to town. So every evening we were at the carnival, riding on as many rides as we could. One of the Carnies asked us to work his stand for awhile, so he could go out back. He paid us 50 to 75 cents, depending on how long we worked. He told us to stop by a couple times a night. It worked out great for all of us. We got money for the rides and the old Carnie got to go out back and drink his whiskey.
By the end of summer, Owen had started smoking. He would get some of the older boys to write him a note, to buy cigarettes, and sign his Dad’s name to it. Joe, down at “Joe’s Grocery”, would sell cigarettes to kids as long as they had a note from their parents. Either Joe was really dumb or just didn’t care, because, it was obvious the notes weren’t written by adults. Anyway, Owen had been puffing on cigarettes for a couple of weeks, when one afternoon he talks me and his brother into trying them. There was a tree beside the big shed, behind the house, that we would climb to get out on the shed roof. The three of us climbed the tree and hopped out on the backside of the roof. He passed out the cigarettes and told us to suck in as he lit them for us. We sat there huffing and puffing on those cigarettes, when all of a sudden we hear someone say “What the hell do you boys think you are doing up there? Get your asses into the house.” Quickly throwing the cigarettes away, we gagged on the smoke and went into a coughing fit. As we climbed down that big tree, we knew we had found our limit. We had crossed the line. We plodded into the living room, where my aunt was waiting with my uncle’s belt in her hand. Without any further ado, she proceeded to give each of us three whacks where the sun don’t shine and sent us to our bedroom, for the rest of the day. At supper, my aunt had to explain to my uncle, how she saw three little smoke signals rising from the shed roof. When she investigated, she found the three of us up there smoking. I thought my uncle was going to give it to us, as well. He gave us a stern look, but, said nothing. The small grin on his face gave his true feelings away.
We finished the summer playing in our boat on the river, swinging on vines over the canal, playing baseball several times a week, and swimming at the local swimming hole on hot afternoons and kick the can at night. Most days we went non- stop from morning until night, looking for new ways to have fun and explore.
We went swimming for the last time of the summer. For the past couple of days, the older boys had been picking on me and Curt a little more than usual. As we get to the swimming hole, the older boys tell us that if we didn’t go off the rope, we weren’t allowed to come back to the swimming hole. We were both terrified. Owen finally talks me into it, by saying he would take me across on an inner tube and when I dropped from the rope he would be there waiting for me in the middle of the river, with the inner tube. I, reluctantly, went across the river with him. I slowly crawled up the bank, to the taunts and jeers of the older boys. I grabbed the rope and swung out over the river, but, I couldn’t let go of the rope. My little hands would not release that lifeline. It looked like at least a mile down to the fast flowing river. As I approached the bank, the older boys were lined up along the edge and wouldn’t let me back on it. So, there I was hanging about 10 feet out from the top of the bank. I had to drop into the river in order to get back up the bank. I let go and landed in the muck at the bottom of the bank. I crawled back to the top, with the promise, that I would drop in the middle of the river the next time. I grabbed the rope and got a good running start and swung out over the river. As I reached the apex of the swing, I looked over my shoulder and saw the boys lining up on the bank. I hear Owen yelling for me to drop. It was only about a 15 foot drop, but to a 10 year old, it looked like a mile. I let go of the rope. I’m dropping, what seemed like forever, finally I hit the muddy water and I’m sinking lower and lower. I hit bottom, with bent knees I push myself towards the top. I reach fresh air just as I’m about to swallow a belly full of river water. My arms are thrashing around when I hit the inner tube. Owen was there waiting for me. He towed me back to the shallow side of the river. I had proven myself to Owen and his buddies, but most of all I had proven my courage to myself.
I believe that summer played a big part in shaping my life. I learned a lot about life and myself that summer, a long time ago. I was coming of age that summer as I lost my innocence and gained some confidence. It was definitely a summer to remember. It was the beginning of the 60’s.

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