I graduated from Brandon High School on the afternoon of Sunday, May 26, 1996, at the Jackson Municipal Auditorium. Once we all finished walking across the stage (with the exception of Mark who was on crutches after falling out of a tree while wearing a tutu a few nights before), I turned in my rented cap and gown and took pictures with my friends and family. Then, my fellow graduates and I  boarded charter buses and spent the next 15 hours going all over the metro area in order to prevent us from getting drunk and dying. We had a great time with good food, a band, dancing, and gambling until 7:00 the next morning. (Here’s the point where Mom and Dad should probably stop reading.)

At about 9:00 the next morning, I got in the truck with two of my friends, Pete & Joey (names changed to protect the guilty), and set out for the Many Islands Campground on the Spring River outside Hardy, Arkansas. We had a cabin reserved for several days and planned on fishing, canoeing, grilling, and generally celebrating our new freedom. The drive was about seven hours and we were running on little to no sleep, so we took turns driving and napping as best we could being stuffed into Pete’s single-cab truck.

Around 5:00 p.m., after a brief stop in Vaiden, MS to stock up on… let’s just call it barley soda and a short lunch with Joey’s grandparents outside Jonesboro, AR, we parked in front of our base of operations for the next few days. We unpacked and briefly surveyed the landscape before heading back to town for dinner at Shoney’s and a jaunt through the Price Chopper to get some groceries. Most of the supplies were chips, beef, and sandwich components. Oh… I also got a huge bag of chili cheese Corn Nuts that I would come to regret later.

The next day, we all woke up feeling sluggish with splitting headaches. So, we took it easy, piddling around the cabin all day, fishing unsuccessfully, wading in the cool, swift water of the Spring River, and grilling lots of beef. We may have had a few sodas during the day too. That was a long time ago, and my memories of that afternoon are a little fuzzy.

I do remember sitting on the screened in porch that night, though. The air was cool and smelled crisp,  a welcomed respite from the bloated soup I was used to in Mississippi. The low rumble of the rapids just downriver rolled through the darkness and fought for my attention against the country hits of the mid-’90s coming from the radio beside me. I just remember feeling at peace.

Around 9:00 the next morning, Pete and Joey decided to hop on the van operated by the campground store and canoe the river. The van took customers and canoes upstream 10 miles or so and put them out, leaving them to canoe back to the campground. I wasn’t very hip on the idea, so I told them to take off and I’d just hang out at the cabin. I wasn’t sure canoeing was something I was able to do. So, I spent the day napping, fishing, and sitting on the screened-in back porch watching the vodka-clear water slipping by the cabin before spilling over the rocks downstream. I probably had a few sodas while I waited on them to return. Dehydration is a real concern in the warm months according to the doctor that removed my kidney stones a few years ago.

Sometime around 4:00 that afternoon, the two drunken sailors docked their ship and interrupted my porch nap. One of them poured cold soda on my face and sodaboarded me! They got a good laugh out of their little prank, and I was foul for a few minutes while they showered and put on dry clothes. Afterward, they regaled me with the story of the day’s adventures. Apparently, Joey tumped the canoe over once or thrice on their expedition, almost losing the cooler containing their lunch and other stuff a couple times.

Pete made a discovery at the camp store that morning before vanning upstream and purchased an orange foam soda can hugger with a bright pink nylon strap perfect for hands-free soda retention while paddling. So, he wore a soda necklace for the rest of the trip. I have to say, it looked tackier than a MAGA hat on a Cheeto, but you can’t argue against its functional genius.

That night as we feasted on steaks, Pete and Joey insisted that I was going canoeing with them the next day. They assured me they’d do all the paddling, and all I had to do was just sit on the floor in the middle of the canoe leaned up against the cooler containing our lunches and stuff. I’d also be the expedition’s Hydration Distribution Engineer, though. Apparently at some point later that night, I agreed to go.

Too early the next morning, I found myself on the campground van sitting beside Pete who was already wearing the pink and orange soda necklace. The van ride was not very long, but I was uneasy about the float trip, so it seemed like no time before I was standing knee deep in cold water beside the dented and rock-scraped aluminum water-coffin. I was thinking about what it would feel like to drown and if I would feel the rock scrapes before my lights went out.

After psyching myself up, I took a deep breath and managed to get comfortable on the floor of the canoe leaned against our cooler. Before we shoved off, I grabbed a soda to calm my nerves and hydrate. Then, with a stroke of the paddle, we were off.

The first hundred yards of the river were pretty calm, and we only almost turned over once. Then, we got to the first change of elevation. My butt puckered so hard that it almost ripped my shorts off as I threw my drink down and gripped the gunwales like a fat kid with a chicken leg. The water sped up and got louder as we got closer, but the canoe slid down the transition like a knife in a mayonnaise jar and my fears melted away like edible underwear on a hot summer day. I attributed our successful passage to my role as the ballast keeping the canoe rock-steady.

My memories of the rest of the float trip are a little fuzzy. I remember it was really hot, I forgot to wear sunscreen, there were water moccasins in the trees everywhere, and somewhere near the end of our excursion, Pete popped the drain plug on the cooler flooding my drawers with ice cold water. I didn’t think it was nearly as funny as my boat motors did. We did manage to make the whole trip without tumping over, though, and I was having a blast by the time we floated up to the landing next to our cabin.

After stumbling up the hill and into the air conditioning of the cabin,  we cooled off, got showers, and commenced to cooking the rest of our food since we’d be heading home the next morning. We also tried to finish off the rest of the cold sodas so we wouldn’t have to worry about packing them.

A large time was had by all that night at the Many Islands Campground, but I ate some Corn Nuts that were apparently spoiled because I got sick and tossed them up while sitting on the tailgate of Pete’s truck. He took care of me and brought me another soda to settle my stomach, though. My head was starting to spin at that point and I had to lay down in the bed of his truck. Being the great friend he was, he poured the rest of my soda in my mouth as I laid there, and apparently, that did the trick because before I knew it, I was in my bed and the alarm clock was beating me mercilessly over the head. It was 8:00 a.m. and time to get on the road.

The trip home was pretty quiet. Not much was said, and we took turns sleeping and driving just like we’d done on the way up. My only memory of the return trip was something Pete said somewhere just south of Canton, MS. We weren’t able to finish off all the sodas on the trip, and there was a mixed assortment of them stuffed deep in the truck’s toolbox under dirty clothes and jumper cables. As we passed a Highway Patrol car heading the opposite direction, Pete joked, “If we get pulled over and the cops find the sodas, I’m gonna tell him to get his hands off. Those are mine!” I added, “You’re damned right! If we get pulled over, those are YOURS!”

Thankfully, we were able to finish the chapter of our high school experiences and make the whole trip without incident. Then came college, and… well… no comment.

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