Many of you know Terry Palm as a watercolor artist, born and raised in Billings. He now lives in Minnesota and his annual art show in Billings draws hundreds of admirers, but it is less known that for several years Terry has been writing short stories based on his early adventures along the Yellowstone River in what is now Josephine Park. Today’s installment, Boys and Water, is the first of six short stories in a series he’s titled, “Always a River”
Boys and Water
There seems to be some kind of mysterious attraction between boys and water, mostly moving water. In Watertown, Arvid and I had Willow Creek which was about three miles east of town. My dad and Arvid’s dad hunted together so we got acquainted and did a lot together during grade school. His dad worked at Wards so they got good deals on things we liked, such as BB guns and bikes which Arvid had. In grade school, neither one of us had much to do so we quite often hiked the three miles down the railroad tracks to the creek.
In the spring, we would charge down the bank, letting arrows fly at the ‘running’ suckers which were in the shallows with backs exposed. It was a lot of action and great fun but I don’t recall ever getting one. We made our bows from lilac limbs, which had quite a bit of spring. Tie a stout string on one end of the 3-foot limb, bend it a little, and tie the string to the other end and the bow was ready. There was more engineering that went into making a good arrow. Most any kind of a branch was OK if it was long enough and straight enough. For the point, we would snip the head off a nail and drive it backwards into the end of the arrow. On the other end, we would tie a section of a large feather onto the shaft and put a groove in the end for the string to fit into. Ready to hunt.
One cold early-winter day, we headed out to the creek, thinking we could find some jackrabbits to shoot arrows at. It was cold, really cold and the water was recently frozen with ice that was rubbery. We weren’t seeing any rabbits so we started looking for other things to do. Neither of us knew how deep the water was but it was fun walking carefully across the creek on the boucy ice. First Arvid, over and back. Then me, over and back. Each trip, it felt like the ice would give way, but never did. After several trips, we began to think we were pressing our luck so we stopped for a while to visit and figure out what to do next. Maybe we should start a fire. It was snowing harder now and the temperature had dropped significantly but, because of the back-and-forths, we didn’t notice.
Some movement on the other side of the creek caught our attention. Partway up the hill was a big jackrabbit, partially hidden by some brush. It was too far to take a shot so we took off running across the ice. Let’s get him!
The ice had been good enough to hold us one at a time but under the weight of both of us, it gave way. Thankfully, there wasn’t much current– we were up to our chins in ice-cold water and had it been a foot deeper, it would have been fatal. We struggled to get back on the ice but it kept breaking as we tried. We used the bottom of the creek to spring from and finally got on top and then to shore. The wind had picked up and it went right through our soaked clothing. The matches in my pocket were soaked, too. Shivering and shaking, we were in trouble.
We were three miles from home and there was no shelter between here and there. Walking into the northwest wind, our clothing froze within about 5 minutes. Levis were iced-over and it was nearly impossible to bend at the knee. This turned out to be a good thing. The layer of ice over our clothing kept the bitter wind from freezing our skin. Walking was a struggle. Walking with our heads down, trying to avoid the stinging wind, we were losing energy, strength and desire to keep moving. Arvid was about 50 yards ahead and I was fading fast. I was weak. All I wanted to do is sit down somewhere and rest. I used a snow-covered rock for a backrest and it felt good to stop walking against the wind. I just wanted to sleep and dozed off, probably for a few minutes, when Arvid came back and shook me by the shoulders. Come on, let’s go! If you stay here, you’ll die. I got to my feet and we trudged on and eventually made it home. We both had some frostbite on our toes, fingers and cheeks. Some areas stayed discolored for a while but healed up just fine after some time.
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