As a kid certain things are just about impossible to remember, like math homework or taking trash to the curb on Wednesdays. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the things you can never completely forget. I’m not talking about the night you decide to investigate the strange sounds coming from your parent’s bedroom. Those kinds of natural disasters may set a new free-style record on the ‘gross-out meter’ and speaking from experience you’ll feel a mild discomfort as you explain to your literature teacher that you need an alternate assignment when the rest of the class has no problem with the title, Call of the Wild, but in most cases no permanent damage is done.
I’m talking about the serious stuff—the kind that changes the way you think and who you are forever. It’s like something weird happens where every last detail gets permanently etched in your brain. I supposed it was like that for Rodney and Clutch too, but never bothered asking. We swore under oath to never breathe a word about what happened that day to anyone. The pinky-swear didn’t specifically prohibit talking about it amongst ourselves. I figure we were too busy trying to sort things out in our own heads. I don’t know, maybe some things are just too traumatic to relive.
I sensed we were about to embark on a journey that would take us places no neighborhood kid had ever seen and lived to tell about it. The two-story tree house we built in Clutch’s backyard three summers ago was impressive, but I had a gut feeling we were on the precipice of something way cooler. Precipice—edge, steep cliff, or drop off. I remembered the word from a spelling-bee. From that point forward I was into new words and their meanings. This thirst for knowledge certainly wasn’t anything I could share with Clutch and Rodney—couldn’t needlessly risk the loss of ‘cool points’. Good friends are hard to find and even harder to hold on to.
Although he refused to acknowledge it, his real name was Reginald Clemons. We called him Clutch because no matter the odds he always came through. The last person to call him by his real name was Rocky Ford and ain’t no one seen him since. Some kids say he changed schools—reckon he had to after the beatdown Clutch gave him. Clutch was outgunned by close to a hundred pounds and gave up at least two feet in height. Witnesses said it was funny to see Clutch eye-level with the waistband of Rocky’s jock-strap, but I think my buddy saw it as a challenge. Clutch chased him out of the locker room and took him down at center-court, right in the middle of the jump circle. Before it was done Clutch blacked both his eyes and during the melee removed and was using Rocky’s own jock-strap for leverage in a rear-naked choke. That’s when Mr. Livingston broke things up and sent the gathering on their way. I would have died on the spot from embarrassment, but rumor had it that the whimpering coming from the janitor’s broom closet a half-hour after last bell was the broken spirit of a 275lb nose guard. And ain’t nobody even thought of calling him Reginald since.
I figured Clutch was born tougher than most. Kind of like dogs I guess, some are named FeFe or Felix—made of fluff, perfect size for your lap, and perform tricks for miniature treats. Others command names like Moses or Zeus—shoulders wide as a wheelbarrow, go for the jugular every time, and for fun kicks they hunt dogs named FeFe or Felix. Maybe he was born regular, but livin’ on the wrong side of the tracks changed that. Rodney and I couldn’t imagine walking to school every day with thugs hidin’ around every corner—looking to take something from you. I suppose Clutch’s dad took the most from him though. Seemed like he was always beating him with a belt for no reason at all other than he drank too much and he could. If Clutch liked ya he was the kind of guy you wanted to have around and he like me and Rodney plenty. Probably ‘cause we were different from everyone else—me and Rodney tried not to ask him much about what went on at home. A couple punk kids couldn’t do nothin’ to change it and it seemed altogether easier to image the bruises, cuts, and welts came from thugs on the street than a guy he called dad.
Rodney was just plain old Rodney except when he ate fried food. I personally think he had some kind of undiagnosed enzyme imbalance. If he so much as looked at a French fry, within an hour he became a walking, talking, bag of flatulence. That’s when we called him ‘Rotney’, which didn’t seem to bother him much at all. Rodney was the kind of kid that played the smallest detail up—forever coming up with a story to embellish his ‘rare talent’. He told us the Army had secret agents posted outside of his house. Said they were trying to bottle his funk to be used as a chemical weapon in Afghanistan. Every kid’s gotta find something he’s good at—sometimes it don’t matter what it is.
Like Clutch I was saddled with a name that was useless. Why do parents insist on giving kids names that only get used on birth certificates, school registration, and other useless stuff? So Sydney Lyle II became Sid. A three letter name saves on school-supply outlay when you factor in the cost of pencils and writer’s cramp as well. Alphabetically speaking it moved me up a couple of notches in lunch line. There were two other kids in my class with the last name of Smith. Tyler going by Ty didn’t really buy him anything. And Sidon—well, he wasn’t really smart enough to play the game. Sidon was the kind of kid you suspected ate too much play-dough in Kindergarten, or maybe fell off the monkey-bars at a bad angle.
We found the boat weeks earlier, but waited that long to make sure it didn’t belong to anyone, or if it did they wouldn’t miss it for a day. If my calculations were correct and the legend was true we could reach Creed’s Cave, camp for the night, and make the return trip within a twenty-four hour window.
The evening prior to our departure the three of us met for a final inspection. Rodney had a mind for detail so I trusted him when he said the number of cobwebs, in the corners of the boat and from the craft to the surrounding weeds had increased. I verified the lack of footprints in the flour we sprinkled on top of the mud around the bow of the boat. Clutch was busy doing a visual inspection of the craft. Maybe he was testing the side of the boat for integrity, but I think Clutch just bored. That happened on a pretty regular basis. Anyhow, Rodney and I were too busy with our own assignments to see Clutch draw back his right foot and kick the side of boat. Hard enough that echo reached the trees and came back in a matter of milliseconds. Rodney and I both hit the deck and rolled into the weeds. I thought we’d been shot at and was thankful the owner had the decency to fire a warning lob.
I scanned the weeds until I found a monster-set of eyes staring at me. Rodney had worn thick glasses since first grade, but when he got scared the gap between his eyes and the frame got swallowed up completely.
“Sounded like a 12 guage, Sid. You see Clutch anywhere?”
If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Clutch was auditioning for the role of a mad scientist. The scene was that creepy moment when he’s combining test tubes and finally gets the formula right. The laughter rolling from him came in volleys.
Sometimes Clutch played too much. I hadn’t decided whether I was pissed off enough to scold him or not, but trying to wipe away the muck from my tee-shirt was pushing me in that direction.
“You should have seen you two duffus’ hit the deck—it was like a fire drill, stop, drop, and roll. Hey Rodney, look it’s the Army, they’re here to capture that funk of yours, bend over and take one for your country!”
Good sense left me completely, as I walked straight over to Clutch and chest-bumped him.
“Look, Clutch, I know you like to goof on us, and that’s OK most of the time, but we got serious business to tend to. Come tomorrow morning the three of us are going to be starring into the steely jaws of the unknown. If we can’t stick together and know without a doubt each of us has the other’s back—well, well, maybe we all just get swallowed whole!”
Only after I’d acted in frustration did I think about Clutch deciding to use his fist on the top of my head to pound me into the soft marshy ground, and the silence screaming from him did nothing but bolster the vision. I turned to Rodney for support and got a nod of agreement and an almost inaudible accompaniment.
“ Yeah—what Sid said.”
The anger in Clutch’s eyes faded and his facial expressions rolled back in time.
“Sorry guys, you know you can count on me. Some jaggedy, old tooth monster grabs one of you, he better be ready to have his tonsils removed—the hard way. You know I ain’t afraid of nothin’!”
Clutch grabbed a handful of me and Rodney’s shirts, and after bumping us together like bookends, he called for the secret handshake.
The sun had almost vanished by the time we reached the edge of town and split up to head to our respective homes.
“OK, meet back here at 6:30am sharp and we’re doin’ this thing. Rodney, you got the tent, sleeping bags, and lanterns covered, right? I’m bringing cooking stuff, matches, flashlights, canteens, a hatchet, and a bag full of dad’s camping stuff.”
I glanced at Clutch. He had his head down. The shadows were getting long, but not enough that I couldn’t make out an expression I’d never seen before. I searched quickly for the right words.
“And Clutch, you’re bringing a big set of hairy balls and enough ass to steam-roll anything that gets in our way, right?”
Clutch grinned and our fists met.
“Yep…already got it covered”, Clutch giggled.
“Alright, let’s get some sleep men. 6:30am…set your alarms, and don’t forget to tell your parents you’re spending the night with someone other than one of us. We don’t want them checking up.”
As I finished my walk home I sorted through my thoughts. The three of us had always been tight, but tonight the dynamics changed a bit. Two things happened I thought I’d never see. For the first time in his life Clutch backed down. I think I represented the first person in his life he could trust completely and therefore respect. I never considered myself a leader at all. That was a risky proposition; screw up and you got a coop on your hands. But it felt pretty good having stepped up tonight. I’d never be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but half of the battle is recognizing and admitting that. I was however savvy enough to know the leadership road was rocky and filled with potholes. A quality leader needed to be measured and careful in their approach. Those that weren’t became dictators. My decisions had to be for the betterment of the group as a whole. I had a gut feeling that the swirling, ugly water leading up to entrance of Creed’s Cave would demand everything we had—if not more. We needed a competent leader to guide. These weren’t subordinates at work, they were life-long friends and I wouldn’t let anything jeopardize that.