The year is 1992.
It’s raining now, just like I hoped.
In the heart of July, an afternoon that would otherwise be insufferably hot finds itself laid low by an unseasonably cool wind. The storms roll in from the north, dumping rain into the woods behind my tiny house.
Summer vacation. Can’t beat it.
As I stride between the maples and swaying pines, I know I’m living a different life than other sixteen-year olds. Most kids who attend Parkview High come from wealthy families, and are off vacationing at faraway beaches, mountain retreats, and golf resorts.
I don’t know anything about those places.
I’m right where I belong.
By the time Liam shows up, I’m thoroughly soaked. We hardly greet each other – just a shared grunt and a nod. We decide the day is too wet to enjoy our usual pastime of cul-de-sac Koosh ball, but far too perfect to flee inside and play video games.
“What should we do?” I ask Liam.
“Wanna play rain volleyball?” he says.
“Wanna see if Tessa’s home? I know you like her, but she doesn’t know, so it’s—”
“Ok.” He says with his hands on his hips. Liam’s a year younger than me, but at least four inches taller. He’d be imposing if he weren’t so skinny. “You got any other ideas?”
“Yeah,” I say. “See the creek over there?”
“Yeah.” He glances toward the narrow waterway trickling beneath a nearby bridge.
“Let’s dam it up,” I say.
He’s all in.
It begins. Without reservation, Liam and I descend to the creek. It’s a pitiful little thing, just eight feet across and six inches deep. Below the bridge, it trickles toward us through two huge concrete pipes. The pipes are big enough for us to walk through, but the dangling webs convince us we’d best stick to our side of the creek.
And so we do.
The thing about north Georgia is that it lies in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. The soil is mostly clay, and rocks are everywhere. Big granite stones mixed with quartz are strewn across the entire northern third of our lovely state.
We’re going to need some of those rocks.
That afternoon, Liam and I get the best workout of our young lives. We move hundreds of rocks, including several small boulders. We don’t have any tools. It doesn’t matter. The soil is rain-softened, meaning we’re able to pry rocks out with ease.
In just one little day, we build a two-foot high wall. It’s at least twenty feet long. The shallow creek slows and deepens. The water is up to our knees.
The hours slide past.
The outside world doesn’t exist.
We’ve never had so much fun in our lives.
“Again tomorrow?” Liam says.
Over the next few weeks, we meet below the bridge almost every day. Our parents don’t care – or really know. We’re both latchkey kids. His mom and my dad both work multiple jobs.
We’re as free as two teenagers can get.
Better still, it’s the wettest July we can remember. The rain crashes down on a daily basis, keeping the rocks loose and the creek flowing.
Our dam grows:
Two feet deep.
Up to our chests.
Deep enough to swim in.
We finish one dam only to start on a second. We’ve got a little waterfall going, tumbling from the tiny lake we’ve built into the pond we’re constructing below. Fish start showing up. Frogs, too. No one else in our neighborhood sees what we’ve built. The trees on either side of the bridge are too thick.
Sometimes I think this is as close as we’ll ever get to living meaningful lives.
Instead of planting ourselves in front of video games or getting into mischief – which Liam and I are known for – we’re building our own world in the woods. It costs nothing but our time, which we’re glad to give.
We expand our journey. We follow the creek into the woods. We even brave the pipes, using big sticks to clear away the giant spiders’ webs. We find a real lake downstream, complete with a snapping turtle. We claim a two-mile stretch of creek as our own.
And then one day, as we’re wading in our self-made pool, Liam looks at me with horror in his eyes.
I figure he’s just messing with me. We’re master pranksters, after all. It’s what we do.
But then I see what he sees.
A water moccasin, slow and serpentine, is in our pool. It’s swimming atop the water, winding its way between us. The water moccasin, otherwise known by its deadlier name – cottonmouth – looks calm.
But we’re frozen all the same.
The five-foot snake heads to our waterfall and slithers into the shallower pool below.
After that day, we never stack another stone atop our dam. We never wade in its shallows again. And while we occasionally stroll along the creek and journey deep into the woods, our little lake is forgotten.
The school year begins.
The rain ends.
It all happens so fast.
* * *
Not all that long ago, I braved a trek back to my old neighborhood. Rocky Hill, it’s called, in the quiet suburb of Lilburn, Georgia.
Our dam was still there.
I wonder if the snake ever came back.
This story is true. It really happened.
For more like it, go here.
J Edward Neill
Creator of Coffee Table Philosophy
Painter of Shadows