In early times someone built a dam across the Caney River out west of town, just at the bottom of Standpipe Hill. It was a rudimentary dam, not much different in construction from those which small boys to dam up rainwater that runs in street gutters. That dam had only one purpose. It was there to ensure that the Caney Municipal Water System would have an ample supply of water when streams ran low in the summer. The dam was made of concrete and rocks and was about 200 feet long and ten feet wide at the top. It had built low enough to let a little water flow over the top all the time except during a really long, dry spell. When the Caney River flooded, as it did every few years in the springtime, the dam disappeared beneath flood waters.
We got to the dam by walking on the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks. Railroad ties are laid too close together to walk on comfortably. When walking down a railroad track you either take uncomfortably long steps putting your foot down on every other tie or you step on every tie. Stepping on every tie gives a guy a distinctly un-masculine, mincing, gait. Another alternative is to start off with your foot on a tie, step over the next one, let your foot come down in the gravel between the ties, and repeat that process until you get where you’re going. Or you can step up onto the rail and walk on it like a gymnast on a balance beam. Any way you try it is an uncomfortable way to walk.
We found a lot to do at the dam, but swimming wasn't one of them. The Caney River ran thick and brown, carrying a full load of mud and upriver sewage in suspension. Very seldom were any of us tempted to jump into the water for a swim, even on a hot summer day. If water was running very deep over the dam it was scary to wade across the dam to the other side. The tug of water trying to push our intruding feet over the edge was intimidating, and walking across the dam was truly dangerous. If a boy’s feet went out from under him he would be swept over the dam and fall onto the concrete apron ten feet below. Once in a while when the water flowed swift and deep over the dam we would make it across but not have enough nerve to try the return trip. When that happened we had to walk a half-mile to the railroad bridge upstream or go downstream to a shallow spot and wade. The only thing to do on the West Side of the dam was fish. About the only satisfaction in crossing the dam was to know that we had what it takes to do it.
Water falling over the dam created a turbulent stretch of water just below it. That created a short stretch of water that was fairly deep but it quickly became shallow and spread out to form a wide pool with a very rocky bottom. That pool was a great place to catch crawdads. We caught crawdads by a technique we called "noodling." To “noodle” we would stick our hands into the murky, muddy water, find a rock that had a space beneath it, stick our fingers into that space and grope for crawdads. Crawdads have the same weapon as lobsters only smaller. Usually they can't pinch hard enough to draw blood, but a big granddaddy crawdad can deliver a pinch nasty enough to make a small boy forget about catching him. There was also always a chance that our fingers might be invading the home of a snapping turtle. We used crawdad tails for bait if we were fishing. Or, without thinking of how cruel it was, we might snap off the pincers and throw it back in the water.
The dam was just a stone’s thrown from the railroad tracks. Slightly upriver from the dam there was a railroad trestle over a ravine. There were times that we crawled up the bank of the ravine when we heard a train coming until our head was touching the bottom side of the railroad ties. We crouched there, waiting until the train passed over us. It took a lot of willpower to stay there listening to the clanging, clattering, and racketing of a freight train passing just inches above our ears. It sounded like the end of the world. That playtime “fun” undoubtedly had something to do with the hearing loss I developed in middle age.
Two things stand out concerning our using the dam and railroad tracks as a playground. First, there were no warning signs of any kind posted along the railroad or at the dam. Second, our newspaper editor never editorialized about the dangers of allowing kids to walk on railroad tracks or play at the dam. Yet I never knew a kid to get anything more serious than a cut, scrape, or bruise while walking the tracks or playing at the dam.
"Stepping on every tie gives a guy a distinctly un-masculine, mincing, gait." How many of us know that feeling? Too funny!