We were strictly forbidden to go "down to the river", of course, but every summer when the water was low, my dad would take me down the bank and we would step across the exposed stones in the riverbed to the island in the middle of the river. I remember the island mainly as overgrown and buggy, but exciting simply because it was off-limits to us for most of the year. Over the years, dump truck after dump truck left their loads behind our house, altering the course of the river, and gradually creating a parking lot for the high school across the street. The island became a peninsula, jutting out into the widest part of the river. Easier to get to, but not as appealing.
Our neighborhood was defined by the river. Because the bank cut in sharply behind our house, there was not room for a West Fifth Street or a West Fourth Street. Third Street and Second Street had bridges. Heading away from town, the river curved away, and Riverside Drive ran alongside the river for many blocks. Sometimes my dad took us for hikes along the river, and we were amazed to learn that we could walk all the way to Eleventh Street, where our elementary school was, and beyond, along its narrow banks.
I was thinking about the river today because I learned that the derecho that knocked out our power for five days this week was actually the second one I have experienced. Don't know what a derecho is? Neither did I, of course. Wikipedia defines it as "a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms". Got that? A really big storm that comes really far, really fast and is really windy.
So, the first time I experienced one, as it turns out, was the famous 4th of July storm on July 4th, 1969, a storm that I remember more for its aftermath than for the storm itself. It was a summer storm. A bad storm. One where all the windows had to be closed, and we sweltered in our hot, airless house. The usual, really. But the next morning when we woke up, we heard a sound we had never heard before. The river. We heard the river. Although we lived quite close to the river, the banks were tall, and we had never heard it from our house until that day. The river was rushing and swirling. It was higher than I had ever seen it, and it was opaque and brown and very, very deep. It was fascinating and frightening and I couldn't look away from it. The distant, friendly river that my dad and I threw stones in from the tall bank was gone, and in its place, this new river raged. The toddler I was babysitting that summer had developed a fascination with water, and I was warned to watch him closely, as he had already jumped into the Vermilion River earlier that summer. His mother jumped right in after him, but I wasn't going to do that.
So, yeah, I grew up by a river, and I have always lived by rivers, until now, and, boy, do I miss that. You just never know the things that truly matter to you until you don't have them anymore - you know, just like the song says.