We could see it out near the water, a dark hump in the dark mud, a pimple on the flat sands of the unusually low tide. We made our way out to the thing, each step sinking into the dark, smelly puff mud as it squished between our toes and clung to our skin, up to our ankles sometimes even our knees, turning us into swamp monsters from the knee down—our mothers loved this, the troop of us marching across the sand every afternoon to their pristine lounging area where they traded mystery novels and island gossip, each of us covered from head to toe in sticky grey mud, mud that stained our brightly colored swim suits and sun-bleached hair. Every so often someone would cry out, having sliced their foot on a discarded oyster shell. Gritting our teeth through the pain, blood mixing with the dark mud, we pressed on. We were on a mission this day. They mud only got thicker and deeper as we neared the water. We walked in a line, sticking the boys out in front so they were the first to hit the really deep pits of the stuff. Finally, there it was. Fifteen feet or so from the lowest point of the tide, it loomed there in front of us. This thing, this huge mass half submerged in puff mud and salt water, was something to be conquered on this hot, sticky summer day: our very own Everest.
It was one of those summers that we’re never getting back, a summer that falls close to the end of a very specific stage in our lives, a much simpler, more innocent stage. It was one of those summers where we didn’t know how good we had it. We thought, then, that we were bored—that we were lucky to even stumble upon an adventure. We didn’t understand, then, that everyday that we spent on that beach was an adventure that would impact, dictate even, our entire childhood and the rest of our lives. We still talk about it, even now as we spend much of our time together stressing over our next shift and whether or not next week’s hours actually give us any daylight together. Our nights tend to revolve around a case or two of Corona. Two or three beers in, leaning back into the hard wood of the cabana chairs as the sky turns to a fiery orange, it comes out: “Remember that summer when we didn’t know how good we had it?” Then someone suggests a walk, and we pull ourselves, exhausted from the day, up off of the chairs, digging our bare feet into the sand as we taste the lime on our lips, and trudge down the beach, up to our ankles in warm sea foam, to the bridge.
We discovered the bridge during one of those early summers. This simple, wooden structure arching awkwardly over top of the ocean-fed marsh creek is one of the most important physical, tangible objects of my life—of our lives. In our younger days we would perch on the edge of the railing, contemplating the depth of the murky water below and the softness of the stinky mud with motherly warnings about jumping into unfamiliar bodies of water echoing soundly in our minds, only to be pushed prematurely over the edge by the next kid in line. We watched in awe as the bigger boys, the older brothers, got fancy, flipping through the air like trapeze artists without swings landing hard in the depths of the creek, soaking us in muddy salt water as we watched from the above. We would build things, rafts or other small crafts, and race them down the murky creek into the ocean beyond. Sometimes we’d catch blue crabs bigger than bread plates and race them over the bridge, making bets on whose would be the first to take the plunge, or whether Hannah was going to lose a finger if she kept picking them up. Yes, those were the days. As we got older, all of our drama, our teen angst, everything, ended up there: all of it. Leaning out over the flimsy railing, gazing over to the mainland or down into the murky water below, water that somehow still managed to reflect with impeccable accuracy the bluest blue of the sky, we could let everything out. We could, and we did, and we still do.
The day with the tire was different. We didn’t make it down to the bridge that morning; we got distracted by our Everest, half-buried out there in all of that mud. We trudged toward it, the six or seven of us, all the while trying to figure out our course of action: trying to figure out what to do with the thing. The tire was huge, probably came off of a tractor somewhere, Jacob declared. As the oldest boy in the group he had some authority, and we all kind of took his word for it; it’s funny how things like that work when you’re young. The tire was lying on its side, the inner wall filled almost to the brim with mud and water and sand and various creatures. The treads were as wide as my wrist and caked together with blocks of dark, grey mud. We circled the thing a couple of times, trying to figure out the best way to tackle this project. Simultaneously, eager to get started, several of the boys dropped to their knees, and were, almost at once, swallowed up by the mud. Their skinny bodies, glowing white with the sunscreen liberally applied by their mothers that morning, were quickly making the transformation to swamp thing.
They dug their hands down, way down, under the bottom edge of the tire. The rest of us just stood there: stood and watched, watched and waited. Muscles straining, the boys grunted in frustration as they tried to free the enormous hunk of rubber, bigger than two of them together, from its captor. The suction was too strong and, much to the boys’ dismay, the mud won its first battle. It wouldn’t budge. Shovel? Someone asked. Maybe if we can find a board or something we can pry it out? Ben, the littlest, suggested. We gazed back toward the beach and the pool, but everything looked so small and so far away over there. We recognized the mothers because they sat in the same place everyday: next to the outer edge of the pool with their chairs turned toward the beach. “It’s for the view,” they would say back then, denying what we knew to be true—they were actually keeping an ever-present watchful eye over the group of us. Ultimately it was this watchful eye concept that kept us from trekking back to civilization in search of a shovel. We could hear them all the way out by the water, wondering what we were doing, not nearly as intrigued by the task as we kids were, begging us to stay up by the pool, out of the mud, to stay clean for once. We stared at the half-submerged tire and then at each other in silent agreement that, thanks to the watchful eye, a shovel was not a very realistic option. There was nothing else to do but dig, all of us at once, quickly moving the mud out of the way before it could eek back in.
Mud was everywhere, our eyes, hair, nose, mouths, under our fingernails, and progress was slow. Our proximity to the water, the closeness of the tire to the creeping tide, made the task much more difficult than it should have been. We needed help. We needed a tool. Three of us elected to make a trip, one that would involve a certain stealthy sneakiness, up the beach in hopes of procuring some kind of a tool. So we left, the three of us, scouring the far reaches of the beach for anything that looked like it might do the job. Nearing the campsites down at the far end of the point close to the bridge, we found it. A two-by-four, several feet long, covered in tiny, clinging hermit crabs and sand spiders. We carefully extracted the board from its resting place, shaking off all of the creatures, and took turns dragging it back out to the site. Mud caked all over the dragged end of our lever, from the halfway point down, mud that was not much of a concern as we were all completely covered from head to toe.
It all happened very quickly. Somehow between the seven or eight of us, and this discarded piece of scrap wood, we jimmied that hunk of rubber right up out of there, just before the tide could claim it. I remember rolling the massive thing up to the beach, splashing mud and water up around our knees and thighs, merely adding to the damage already done there. We were ecstatic, I remember that too, so proud to have really done something. Other children stared, out of jealousy we were sure, at our prize as we rolled it across the grass and up to the pavilion. We leaned it against the wall at the far end and hosed it off with a long green garden hose littered with tiny slits that shot out unruly streams of mist that streaked clean our muddy legs. We took turns stuffing the smallest children inside the tire, trying to roll them across the dry grass before finally landing the thing in the pool where it, too heavy for us to drag out, ultimately died a mysterious death as it was completely disappeared the following morning. We had it for a while though; we all helped, pulled it right up there out of the mud in one powerful go. There are those days, you know, that just stick out. This is one of few from the blur that is this stage of my childhood that has really stuck with me—with all of us. And it is this particular day, I believe, that really cemented us together forever.
[circa february 2007. creative non-fiction. probably one of our favorite childhood memories, ever.]