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. Sometimes itâs not that hard recognize the difference.
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. You can no longer camp in that areaâŚ..it became too popular, and people didnât pick up after themselves. Some of the mess started to affect the wild life in the area.
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 couple of boats to fit through at a time. The lagoon was a few hundred yards wide, and as long as the isthmus. It was perfect to swim or just lounge in. The water temperature was in the mid-seventies or above during the spring and summer. The open river was much colder; it was about sixty five degrees all the time, even in the hottest parts of the year. This was because it constantly flowed from a colder place.
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 nice clearing that was just big enough to put up a cabin tent and a sun awning. We would tie the boat up to the beach, play in the water, water ski, and fish. Then we would disappear into the thicket to our tent and awning to relax, eat meals, and sleep. It was like paradise to me.
As you progress down the isthmus, the bushes gradually disappeared, leaving a nice wide sandy beach. People would use those beaches to overnight on, before floating in inflatables down through the beautiful Topock Gorge and on into Lake Havasu.
I was a very 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 also short and chubbyâŚ..definitely not a kid acceptable to the âin crowdâ at school. I didnât really get bullied, but I got ignored or made fun of quite a bit. I had a nice circle of friends, most of whom were also excluded from the âin crowdâ.
Music was one of my main interests, and I would use it to withdraw. 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 taped music off of the radio all the time, and had a pretty good collection of tapes to bring with me where ever I went. I brought it to the sandbar during our Easter Week trip.
In the late afternoon, when things were cooling down, I would set up a blanket under the outside edge of the bushes by our campground, play music, and watch people who were stopped to camp overnight. There were often 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 them over. It was loud enough to make it quite a ways down the beach. They would talk to me while listening to my music. This was wonderful to me, because most nice looking girls wouldnât give me the time of day at school.
The music didnât just attract young girls, though. I remember a hippie couple that came over once. I happened to be playing some psychedelic rock â Creamâs âWheels of Fireâ. I didnât notice them until they were pretty close.
âHey, man, cool music,â the man said as he walked over. I looked up. The man had a full beard and long hair. He was skinny as a rail, but had a warm smile. âMind if we sit over there and listen?â
I would usually be a little nervous around strangers that were older than I was, but this guy seemed harmless to me.
âSure, no problem,â I said.
âCool, Man,â 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 play music, and would glance over at them every once in a while. They were getting closer and closer, and started hugging and caressing each other. My adolescent mind was on overdrive, hoping that I was going to see something I shouldnât. 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. I got startled.
âHey, man, nice tape deck,â 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.
âHowâs it goin?â 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 didnât have the predatory look of his friend.
The two boys sat down next to me.
âIâm Mike,â the blonde kid said, âand this is Phil.â
âIâm Charlie,â I said. âFloating through the Gorge tomorrow?
âYeah, leaving at six in the morning, if my dipshit foster dad doesnât get too drunk tonight. The two boys looked at each other and snickered.
I didnât know what to say. I was hoping they would not stick around. They made me uneasy, partly because they were too âcoolâ to be interested in talking to me. It didnât feel right.
âWhat other music do you have?â 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.
âPew, whatâs that smell?â he asked. I laughed.
âOil of Wintergreen,â I said. âForgot about that. Iâm used to it.â
âWhy does it smell like that?â
âI 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.â
Philâs eyes lit up.
âI used to love slot cars,â he said. âMy dad used to take me to the track, before he split.â
âSounds kind of queer to me,â Mike said, staring at Phil. Phil shut up.
âNo, it was actually pretty cool,â I said. âSome of the cars were really boss.â
Mike started pulling out my cassette tapes one by one and reading the titles I had scrawled on them.
âBitchen, you have the Led Zeppelin album. This has âDazed and Confusedâ on it.â Now his face was lit up.
âWant me to put it in?â
âNaw, later,â he said. âI love Cream.â
âMe too,â said Phil, looking sideways at Mike. I got the impression that he was completely under Mikeâs power.
âGreat, now you are going to tell us one of the bullshit stories about your brother.â
âThey arenât bullshit,â Phil said. âAnd shut up about my brother.â
âWhat stories?â I asked, jumping in to cut Mikeâs next nasty remark off at the pass.
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.
âI remember this music playing when my brother and I were cruising,â Phil said. âHe had a bitchen Firebird 440. That thing hauled ass.â
âYeah, thereâs one of those on my street,â I said. âThe guy who owns it burns rubber down the street whenever there is a cute girl around.â We both laughed.
âWhy donât you tell us what happened to the Firebird, lame-o?â Mike said, that smile back on his face again.
Phil looked at me, and then looked down.
âI donât want to,â he said.
âPhilâs brother stole the car, and the cops busted him for it. Heâs in jail, rotting like the rest of the losers.â
âMy brother is not a loser.â
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.
âMikey and Phil, itâs time to come back to camp for dinner,â one of them 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 they saw us watching them.
âHey, did you get her?â Phil shouted. Then he circled his thumb and forefinger on one hand, and started sawing his other forefinger in and out of it. Mike looked at the shocked look on my face, and then back at Phil. He slapped his hands down.
âShut up. Thatâs not cool,â he said. He looked over at the hippie guy, who was starting to walk over. âSorry, man.â
âMikey, we got to go!â the little girl said.
âAlright, alright,â Mike said. He looked down at me. âYou going to be around later? Maybe we can mess around for a while.â
âMaybe,â 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.
âYou want a Hi-C, Charlie?â
âYes, but Iâll get it, Mom.â I got up and walked over to the ice chest. âYou want another beer?â
âNo thanks, honey.â
I fished the Hi-C out and opened it. The first swig of that sweet nectar always tasted so good in the heat. I sat back down. The rest of the family came back into the clearing â my younger sister and brother, and my Dad. They had been floating on inner tubes out in the lagoon, and they were tripping wet. My dad toweled himself off, but my brother and sister didnât bother. They both hit the ice chest for a drink, and plopped down on the two chairs next to me. My brother looked over at me with a grin.
âYou should see that big family down there,â he said.
âItâs a dad and a mom with about 8 kids. The dad is drunk off his ass. The mom is pissed.â
âReally?â I looked over at him, and then at my sister, who shook her head in agreement.
âDad made us come in, because that creep has one of the older girls on his lap. It didnât look right,â my sister said.
âGood Lord,â 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.
âI think that guy had a rod,â he said, laughing.
âWhatâs that?â asked my sister.
âNever mind,â I said. She got mad and walked into the tent.
My brother and I looked at each other and snickered.
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.
âWant to mess around?â Mike asked, smiling. Phil stood a little behind him, off to the right.
âYeah, letâs do something,â Phil said.
Mike was looking around to see if any of my other family members were around.
âWhereâs your tape recorder?â
âBack at camp,â I said. âIâm busy right now. I have to go back to camp.â
âWell how about this,â Mike said. âThereâs 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.â He looked over at Phil, who nodded his head in agreement.
âI donât think so,â I said. âNo way my parents would go for that, for one thing.â
âCâmon, Charlie, donât be a weenie,â said Mike. He was starting to get an impatient look. I could tell he was trying really hard not to get mad.
âThey wouldnât even have to know,â Phil said quietly. âYou could sneak out after its dark. Weâll come get you.â Mike nodded in approval.
I was just about to respond when I heard my Dad coming out through the brush.
âWhatâs going on, Charlie?â he asked.
Mike and Phil looked at each other nervously.
âThese guys want me to spend the night with them back in the canyon over there, by the spring.â
My dad looked at me. I think he could tell I didnât want any part of that. Then he looked at the two boys, and his eyes narrowed.
âSorry, but Charlie wonât be doing that. I donât want to see you two in our camp again. Take off.â
Mike got a nasty look on his face. He tried to stare down my dad, but my dad took a step towards him. He looked at Phil, and turned to leave. I listened to them as they were walking off.
âShit, that would have been easy,â said Phil.
âShut up,â Mike said. âFathers can be such assholes.â
My dad put his hand on my shoulder, and we walked back into camp.
âMake sure your tape recorder gets put in the tent tonight, where your mom and I are sleeping,â he said.
I looked at him and smiled.
As time went by, I slowly forgot about this incident. Within a year or so I lost all of my baby fat, and grew to the point that I looked the same age as my other class mates. I never fit into the âin crowdâ, but I did start getting my share of attention from girls, and my circle of friends at school blossomed. Most of my friends were in music and art. I went on to be a happy, self-confident young man. 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 at the sand bar. 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. The two kids were at camp with a large foster family. They ended up killing the younger kid by bashing his head in with a rock. Iâll never forget the feeling I got when I remembered the event from so many years ago. Would that have been my fate? Itâs Impossible to say now.
It was a path that Iâm glad I didnât go down.