The Swamp, the Boy, and the Raft

The old swamp spread for several acres among the trees, a dismal, brooding place guarded by fierce tangles of poison ivy. By August it was just a damp hollow filled with beggar's tick. But most of the year the swamp was flooded, a shallow pond steeped in hardwood shadow except where errant sun rays filtered through the canopy and dappled the water. At the most four feet deep, that water was darkened by tannins and the forebodings of schoolboys and their mothers, but nothing more sinister—no alligators, no water moccasins, no bottomless pockets of quicksand. This was, after all, Niles, Michigan, not rural Georgia. But there should have been those things, and I wished there were. Sometimes on the mile-long walk home from grade school, I would stop off at the swamp. At the end of what, with a little imagination, could have passed for a dock, my classmate Delores's older brother kept a raft. The best thing you could say about it was that it fulfilled its purpose, providing a means to go poling among the trees, something I loved to do. But dependable though it was, the raft was an ugly thing, and cumbrous, and tipsy. One wrong step and water would squirt up through a fissure and nail you in the crotch. I knew I could build something better. So one day I did. Heading into the garage with my little toolkit, some pieces of lumber obtained from who knows where, and a head full of ambition and vague plans, I got to work, and by the end of an hour I had produced a surprisingly elegant raft. The fresh blonde planks were evenly cut. There were no awkward overhangs, no bent nails projecting in wild directions, no gnarly, half-rotted logs lashed together loosely with rope and jostling each other like dice in a cup. My raft was trim and tight, a model of economy and streamlining, and I smiled to think how far it surpassed the abomination Delores's brother had built. There was simply no comparison. His was a garbage scow; mine, a yacht. It would be many years before I learned the meaning of the word hubris; otherwise, I might have recognized an example in the making. Somehow, likely with the aid of a rudimentary but serviceable form of transport known as a Little Red Wagon, I hauled my creation the half-mile across the fields to the backside of the swamp, and there, at the end of the dock, I eased my proud new raft into the water next to the ugly old one. It floated beautifully. My hard work had paid off. My raft was a dream, a cruise ship among swamp craft, ready to embark on its maiden voyage. And I was its captain. Me, Bob, builder of ships. Confidently I stepped aboard, and my raft, with the instant responsiveness one expects in a marvel of precision engineering, sank beneath me in water up to my thighs. It occurred to me that there was a flaw in my design. For all its imperfections, the old raft had one thing going for it that mine didn't: flotation. No one had told me I needed a few big logs to keep my raft afloat. What I had created was, in essence, nothing more than a skid. And while a skid has its uses, it's worthless for poling around a swamp. If I'd thought things through, I might have hunted up Delores's brother and tried to consolidate my skid with his log pile. Then we'd both have had something. As it was, I slogged ashore and walked home, disgusted. Going down with one's ship into two feet of swamp water can have that effect on an attitude. I'm quite sure the older raft simply disintegrated. It was already halfway there. As for mine, I have no idea what happened to it. Maybe an alligator ate it. I  don't much care.