If my mama had known that my little brother and I were playing so close to the river that ran by our house she would have had a hissy fit. Not to mention the times we actually played IN the river. And the time I walked across the dam would have given her heart failure and earned me a sound spanking, I’m pretty sure. But luckily for me she was blissfully unaware of our exact whereabouts on those beautiful days of our childhood in the Carolina countryside. Mama was a city girl who had moved to the country – an unfamiliar landscape for her but she had known the freedom of walking city streets with her siblings and friends and playing outside for hours on end without her parents knowing her exact whereabouts. And although she was more guarded in my earliest years as time passed she became comfortable with her new environment – sprawling fields, woods, a nearby stream and the river – and allowed us to play and roam as we pleased.
Little River is a tributary. It originates in Franklin County and crosses through Wake, Johnston, and Wayne Counties where it eventually joins the Neuse River somewhere around Kinston, North Carolina. The Neuse goes on to enter the Pamlico Sound, which eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean. A portion of Little River flowed about 150 yards away from our house in the Wake County countryside between Zebulon and Wendell, North Carolina. I’m pretty sure my mother never considered this bigger picture – with a bird’s eye view of the rivers and how way leads onto way. Or maybe she did the time my next-door neighbor, Danny, and his friend, David, decided to canoe down part of Little River in the dead of winter. Unfortunately, on their return home they ended up tipping over into the freezing water. The young boys righted the canoe, climbed back in and continued heading upstream. Night was beginning to fall and by that time a search party (which included my daddy) had been rounded up. The men were relieved to find the boys wet and chilled to the bone but otherwise unharmed. Danny said he thought his was in big trouble until he saw the look of relief on his dad’s face. Mama had rung her hands anxiously until Daddy got back and reported the good news that the boys had been found more or less intact. Right then Mama gave me and my brother a little “talkin’ to” about being careful which, of course, we didn’t really think applied to us because we were always careful. To soothe her we nodded solemnly and decided via telepathy that we weren’t going to share any of our daring adventures that involved the river.
Directly across the river was Tarpley’s Mill – an old grist mill that had been in full operation through at least 1955. I actually found an old advertisement from a 1955 local paper that read:
“Tarpley’s Mill has a complete new corn-shelling, feed grinding, mixing and molasses blending plant. We also have platform scales, electric truck dump to make your trip to our mill a pleasure. This new plant will be in operation by November 7 to 10. Everyone interested in seeing grain or feeds of any kind is invited to look our new plant over as soon as we can get it going. Yours for More and Better Service. J.W.Tarpley, Route 2, Wendell. Phone 5386.”
Clearly Mr. Tarpley was expecting a bright future for his newly outfitted mill. Unfortunately, the electric portion of the mill proved to be its demise as it created a huge fire and the mill was never reopened. The building was abandoned and the dam that had been built now served no useful purpose. With no prying eyes to observe our escapades on or in the river my brother and I were free to explore, stomp, splash, and climb as we pleased. When there had been lots of rain the river would overflow its banks. Depending on the amount of rain the flooding could be a little or a lot. It was pure delight to take our shoes off in the summer and splash through the gushing water. Climbing around the twisted and tangled tree roots now submerged in water was exciting, if not a little scary. During a drought the water level naturally fell and yielded new ground to explore. It was particularly tempting to put our bare toes on the soft moss or make footprints in the soggy black silt. Sometimes the level was so low there was no water flowing over the dam. It was on one of those hot days that I dared to crawl up onto the dam, balance myself, and walk across to the other side. I had the good sense to forbid my little brother (who was five years younger) from joining me. I often considered walking across the dam when the water was flowing over it because it looks so cool and inviting. Probably lucky for me that I never did.
There are thirty-eight different species of snakes in North Carolina – six are venomous and reside in the Piedmont area of the state (where I live, in case you’re wondering). Even though I was well aware of this fact it never occurred to me to worry about meeting up with any of them. Now that’s not saying that I like snakes. In fact, they freak me out – poisonous or not. It just never crossed my mind to think about anything other than being a carefree kid. I was more worried about the monster under my bed than I was a snake. And I should have been way more concerned and careful because Lord knows! there were plenty of water moccasins (also called Cottonmouths) in and around every river in the country. How we missed encountering one is nothing short of a miracle. My daddy used to say: “The Lord protects children and fools.” I’m pretty sure he was right. When I think of it now I am reminded of the Bernhard Plockhorst painting, “The Guardian Angel” showing an angel and two little children close to an abyss. Our assigned angel probably worked overtime on occasion.
The only time Mama ever really worried was when we didn’t respond to her calling us. She would stand on the back steps and “yoo hoo” and add our names until we called out, “Coming!” Somehow we always managed to hear her no matter what we were doing – except on one particular occasion. My brother and I had gone next door to play with neighboring children, Vicky and Danny (yep, the same fellow who tipped over in a canoe with his friend). Danny was my age and sometimes boyishly surly or off on his own adventures. Vicky was an age between me and my brother, Douglas. On this summer day, Danny was not available but Vicky was up for adventure. I was on my bike and Douglas was following behind furiously pedaling his trusty little tractor. Vicky grabbed her bike and we headed down a path that led behind an orchard, through a bit of woods, and over a small creek. We were caught up in some imaginary world when Vicky’s dog, Brownie, an old hound mix, lumbered down the path toward us. Brownie was a sweet, lazy old soul but on this day infused with high imagining Vicky declared that the fur on her neck and running along her spine was standing up and this was a most unusual occurrence. Since she wasn’t my dog I had to take Vicky’s word. I wondered aloud what this might mean and Vicky diagnosed it immediately and emphatically as “Rabies!!!” Rabies? Really? Oh, no. We need to get away from her as quickly as possible. I commanded my brother to get off his tractor and “Come on! Hurry! Run!” And the three of us proceeded to run as fast as our little legs could carry us. Whenever we looked back there was Brownie loping along behind us, which simply heightened our fear and we began to actually “run for our lives” scrambling up the slight incline toward Vicky’s house. Gasping for breath we reached the back door steps and yanked open the screen door. Sure enough there was Brownie right at our heels and we imagined her foaming at the mouth and in hot pursuit when in truth she was merely loping along thinking what a great game this was. Once inside we locked the screen securely thinking to ward off the “mad dog” in case she tried to break down the door. Poor Brownie.
In the meantime Mama had been back at our house calling us to come home. Now count our huge garden, my daddy’s bird dog pen, the chickens, another branch that led down to Little River, a field, an apple orchard and all the way to the little bottom between the trees where that little bridge crossed the small stream. And now remember that we were caught up in the terror of a rabid dog chasing us while we ran for our lives. It was no wonder we didn’t hear Mama’s sweet soprano “yoo-hoos” floating across the summer air. It was most unusual for us not to respond and when we didn’t Mama began to worry. Soon she set out on foot to find us. Eventually she saw the tracks our vehicles had taken down to the little stream between the woods. There she found our abandoned bikes along with my little brothers tractor turned on its side and lying in the dirt. She also found my little brother’s red baseball cap without its owner. Douglas never took that cap off his head unless Mama made him. Fear struck her and she began running and calling our names loudly. When at last I heard her I called out from behind the locked screen door, “Mama, we’re here.” By this time Vicky, Douglas and I had armed ourselves with weapons – croquet mallets – ready to do battle with the Monster Brownie. When I next heard Mama’s voice it had an edge to it and I peeked out tentatively from the screen door. I could see she was anxious and maybe she was mad. I could also see the dreaded Brownie. I yelled out, “Mama, watch out. Brownie has rabies!” Mama looked at the old hound with her sweet eyes and happily wagging tail. Within two seconds Mama ended that fantasy as easily as a pin might pop a balloon,
“Linda, what are you talking about? Come here! Why didn’t you answer me? You have scared me half to death.”
I remained cautious of the possible rabid dog but I was also eager to assure my mama that I had not been ignoring her. I wanted her to understand we’d been dealing with our own set of problems – big ones, too! And then there were three of us all explaining to her at the same time – our words tumbling out and over each other. Mama hugged us and began to laugh. When she had made sure Vicky was alright and convinced us that Brownie was just fine we headed home to wash up for supper. On the way I decided to change the subject. We didn’t need a lecture about being careful and she didn’t need to know every single detail of our adventures. It might put a picture in her mind that would do me no good in the end. That night at supper she recounted to Daddy how we had scared her and we got a stern warning from him: “You answer your mama when she calls.” We both said, “Yessir” and we mentioned that we’d been busy running away from Brownie because we thought she had rabies, which made Daddy laugh. And that was the end of that adventure. After that we kept keener ears and sharper eyes ‘cause way down deep in our souls we knew we were doing plenty that would have scared Mama way more than she was on the day of the rabid dog incident and we cherished our freedom.
I remember my adventures on Little River fondly and am so glad for the role she played in my childhood. I’m glad my mama never knew what we were up to because we had a wonderful time and learned things they don’t teach in school. I’m also glad my own children didn’t grow up there. If they had done the things I did I would have had a hissy fit!