A Country Town Fourth
Some of my best memories are those of the Fourth of July when I was a young boy in the small town of Wheeler, Texas, up in the Texas Panhandle. You want to know how small it is? The zip code is 7. That’s how small. But what our town lacked in size, it made up with its annual Fourth of July celebration at our local park, a twenty-acre field of weeds and grass dotted with giant cottonwoods and two croquet courts. A creek meandered through it, widening enough at one spot for our swimming hole.
Back during World War II, everything was at a premium, except the mischief we boys could get into. My dream was to have a bicycle, but after raising and selling a pig, I had enough for a New Departure bike.
Finally, I could join my friends in their bike excursions around town. And our favorite spot was the park. You see, for us boys, the park made a challenging follow-the-leader course–through the creek, around the trees, along the croquet courts, through the gazebo, and ending with the Mother of all Obstacles, the Creek Jump.
We were the Evil Knievels of our day, decades before the real thing came along. You see, just before the creek reached the old wooden bridge, it narrowed to about six feet where it cut through two perpendicular banks about eight or nine feet high. It was from the higher bank that we launched ourselves across the stream below.
I was reluctant to try the jump, not so much because of my new bike, but because I was chicken. It usually took a ‘double dog dare’ and threat to tell my Mom I kissed Sally Jenkins under the stairs at school to get me to jump.
One day while Jerry, Donald, and I were trying to tear our bicycles up, we saw the city workers come in to clean up the park and gazebo for the Fourth.
The holiday was an all day and well into the night affair, filled with food, games, contests, singing, speech-making, entertaining, and among the men, sneaking out behind the cotton-woods for some of the moonshine Burl Adams’s sharecroppers made.
No sooner did we spot the tractor pulling the bush hog than Jerry, our leader, said, “We ought to do some entertaining ourselves.”
Donald and I looked at each other, remembering the year before when Jerry had tried to jump the swimming hole and missed, completely destroying his bicycle.
I shook my head. “No. You liked to have killed yourself last year.”
His eyes bright with excitement, he nodded. “Yeah. But, this year, I’ll build a bigger ramp. You going to help me?”
Donald and I looked at each other. He rolled his eyes.
“Well,” Jerry demanded. “You going to help or not?”
He was my best friend. You’ve heard the sayings about best friends. I read somewhere that a friend will help you move, but a best friend will help you move a body. I suppose I was that kind of friend. “You’re going to break your neck, you know.”
With sawhorse and ten-foot long planks, we built the ramp.
He pointed up the hill. “We’ll start up there, and by the time we hit the ramp, we’ll be going lickety-split.”
Yeah, I told myself. I’ll probably lickety-split my head clean open, too. Donald said nothing. His face was a little pale, and he kept gagging like he wanted to throw up.
The big day arrived. We had decided to make the jumps just before the mayor spoke to the crowd. That way, we would have a ready-made audience.
We pushed our bikes to the top of the hill. Strange how hills that don’t look so steep when you’re at the bottom suddenly turn into precipices when you’re on top looking down.
Donald gagged. “Not me. I’m too young to die.”
“Me neither,” I said, elated I wasn’t the first to chicken out. Jerry sneered at us. “Yellow bellies,” he said, jumping on his bike and racing down the hill.
Now, I don’t know how fast he was going when he hit the ramp. Lickety-split at least. He hit the ramp and soared through the air just like he planned. The other problem was he also soared off the bicycle seat. His legs flailing out on either side of the crossbar.
I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, the bike was on the ground, and he was writhing in the shallow water near the shore. I hurried to him, knowing exactly what had happened. “You all right,” I shouted.
He shook his head and moaned. “No, I ain’t all right. I didn’t break my neck, but I broke something else,” he muttered, doubling over once again and groaning.
That was over a half century ago, and it is still bright and clear in my mind.
Jerry never forgot either.