For The Register-Herald
When I was a child, my family would take Sunday drives. Dad called them “adventure days.” I was never informed prior to the excursion where we were going or why; I was simply a backseat passenger along for the ride and the sounds and smells open-window drives provided.
The smell of a freshly cut hayfield, creosote-soaked railroad ties alongside a track or the coolness of a river as its water snaked through a water-willow shoal were often brought to my senses as the car’s tires crunched the gravel on some backcountry West Virginia road. It was on just a road my life would change forever.
Dad pulled the car under the shade of an enormous poplar tree that stood just off the road. My brother and I perked up and looked out the window toward the river — neither one of us had the nerve to ask why we were stopping. Under the canopy of the ancient tree stood a shack of a house with brush and junk leaning against its tired board-and-batten siding and barely visible from the road was a sun-bleached sign that read, “For Sale.”
The property’s backyard was steep banks that lead to a sandy river bank that had a river birch arching over the water. In the tree was a rusty light fixture with a bullet hole in the shade and the bulb was broken. The family watched as Dad walked the property studying every corner in great detail and not saying a word we could understand. All we heard were mumbles and grunts as his eyes fell on something he found unsightly or displeasing. After a thorough inspection, he whistled for us boys and we ran to the car in high anticipation. All he said as he pressed the accelerator and turned the wheel onto the gravel road was, “We’ll buy it if the price is right.”
We spent every weekend for the next two summers hauling rusty trash and cutting sticky briars off the property. Everything we touched in the old house either needed repaired or destroyed depending on who was in charge of the particular project. My brother was a rip-it-out-and-start-a-fire kind of worker while Dad and I were more into saving things that gave the camp house character. After we would complete our portion of the “project list,” Dad would turn us loose to fish the riffled waters of the shoal upstream while he continued on his last project, which was generally to create another to-do list for his boys.
The camp eventually was livable, at least for long weekends, and we spent most of our family’s free time there. It’s where I first learned how to paddle a canoe, where I caught my first trophy smallmouth bass, learned how to fry frog legs, roast a pig in the ground, how to shoot passing ducks and, most importantly, my love for water and porch swings.
As life passed by, so have the camp and my father. I no longer have the joys in my life of his laughter or the smell of Elk River from its screened-in porch.
This past week, my son and I took two days to tear down an old building at a river camp I just purchased. In all the sweat and spiders, I paused to hope he too someday will think of the camp and his father on Father’s Day and recall the sounds of moving waters and hear his father’s laughter in them.