“one dumb thing”

One of my final columns as features editor of The Daily Reflector, the Greenville, N.C., daily newspaper, about one of the defining events of my young-adult life.

Originally published July 16, 2006, in The Daily Reflector| (c) 2006 Cox Newspapers, Inc.

One dumb

One dumb thing

How to explain a couple of grown men riding a fallen tree down the Tar River in the middle of the night?

In nearly every person’s past, there’s that one dumb thing. Some decision so profoundly un-smart as to become a point of perverse pride if its consequences are survived unscathed.

But over the years, I’ve realized there’s more to this story than just a few Gallo-emboldened goofballs floating atop a slow-moving log by moonlight.

This must have been 1986, definitely summer, and I was in Greenville. My tight-knit band of high school buddies was also around, home from college or wherever.

We had suffered a monumental loss not long before, the sudden death of an amazing friend, a gem. I think now that the four of us who remained held together for as long as we did because we all understood the others’ grief. I think, in the end, that’s also why we drifted apart.

But that summer night, we were tight like drumming.

We had this place we went, the train trestle that crosses the river maybe a quarter mile west of the Town Common. We’d discovered it when Matt and Jon and I ran cross-country at Rose High.

By the night in question, the place had become ritual. All four of us were there, just as we’d been the morning before being pallbearers at our friend’s funeral.

We were passing around a bottle of wine, talking, sitting in the dark on the concrete piling you could climb down to from the train tracks overhead. A section of uprooted tree had somehow lodged up on the piling.

And Matt soon got it in his head that we needed to set the log loose.

The thing about Matt is that when he decided something, that was that. Our protests gave way to grumbly assists. And with a dull splash, our sanity gave way completely to what seemed like a good idea at the time.

But Jon was having none of it, what came next. His reasons were all those you’d likely come up with yourself.

So the rest of us pressed our personal effects on him – I wasn’t wearing my cowboy boots in the Tar River. That would be, y’know, dumb.

Our unlikely perch is gone now, by the way. Hurricane Floyd. The bridge has since been rebuilt. No ladder down, no place left to sit. I visited the trestle not long after moving back to Greenville in 2004. I found myself crying.

But that late evening, beneath a moon that might just be courtesy of my memory, nothing akin to tears.

We scrambled onto the log, Matt and Scott and me, pushing off the piling out into the muddy river. And we whooped. And we sang. And we boasted and thumped our chests, fools that we were, forgetting for a short time the tragedy that bonded us. We were just good friends. And along the bank, we could see Jon, running through underbrush and waving, until he could go no further.

Jon met us at the Town Common. Smelly water ran from our jeans and shirts as we exited the river. No way we were getting in his car like that. So, newly reshod, we set out walking to – where else? – Krispy Kreme. Coffee and hot-glazed, hallelujah.

You know that joke about how if you can’t find a cop, check a doughnut shop? Well, that night, I swear it.

So in we paraded, feeling lawless, giddy. Jon was already there.

The tables of police took one look at our lot … and went back to their conversations.

Apparently, three grown men in soaked clothes, muddy and stinking, aren’t all that threatening to the social fabric, even after midnight.

And in between our conspiratorial laughter, our coffee and crullers tasted like ambrosia. And by that I don’t mean the marshmallow salad.

That was the last time the four of us were ever together again.

I’ve revisited that night in my mind repeatedly through the years. And I’ve realized that for all the foolishness, there was nothing dumb about it.

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