In the Delta, 1974


Huck Finn had the mighty Mississippi, but growing up my friends and I found refuge along a wooded section of the Sacramento River.

The muddy Sacramento flows slowly between fat levees en route to an expansive delta and a sprawling bay beside the Golden Gate. From the arching freeway bridges of Highway 80 the waters look tamed and constricted. But below the city of Sacramento the river extends for miles, long enough for a grand adventure or the chance to get yourself into real trouble. And in a few places the levees sit back far enough to provide an inner bank for exploring – a no-man’s land filled with sickly looking cottonwood trees and thickets of pale brush.

Along one such embankment, at the site of a former marina, a few friends first brought me during my ninth-grade year. They had joined a Sea Scout troop,  “Ship 30,” and they wanted me to come along. On the outskirts of West Sacramento, the group had amassed an odd collection of surplus World War II vessels, including a rusting steel barge and a 45-foot wooden patrol boat that the U.S. Coast Guard had deemed unfit for cruising. Even so, the ship’s members talked of delta voyages to such locales as Steamboat Slough, Hogback Island and Rio Vista. And they spoke of dances and a summer rendezvous at King Island where you could meet girls, or “Mariners” as they called them. That was enough for me. I joined and started wearing the navy dungarees and light blue work shirts.

The Sea Scout base, circa 1975

Almost every Saturday we had work parties at our secluded base. One day there three friends, Ron, Mike and Pat, watched as a couple of girls rode horses down the levee and into the woods. A few moments later came the sound girls screaming and horses thrashing in the brush. At once my three friends leapt to the rescue, rushing along a wooden dock and up a crumbling dirt bank. Pat led the way with Ron close behind him. As they neared the girls, Pat tripped and fell. He got up and fell again. He began to scream. Then a swarm of insects attacked Ron.

Apparently one of the horses had stepped into a wasp’s nest hidden in the earth. Pat also must have found it, because the wasps went up his dungarees. Ron, meanwhile, had them all over his back. He turned to Mike, who had stepped back from the fracas. Ron begged, “Get ‘em off me!”  Mike did what he does best is such situations. He laughed and laughed.

Pat and Ron made for the river. Those back at the barge said later that they looked like two rag dolls careening down the embankment. The cold waters brought relief for Ron, but Pat still had to pull down his dungarees to get rid of the wasps. Both had been stung close to 40 times.

Ron’s back was going to look like he had developed a case of gargantuan chicken pox. Even so, he always could find a thread of humor amid life’s chaos. As he swam back to shore, he noticed the second hand on his soaked wristwatch was still moving. He lifted it high and shouted, “And the Timex is still ticking!”