Thanks to the Kentucky River Sweep, our water and its banks contain less visible trash than they have in years. My husband and I both grew up on the Kentucky River; him, a water dog and me, a bank dweller. My parents’ farm borders the river and though they tried their best to keep me out of it, I spent hours on the bank watching boats go by. My husband’s parents owned boat after boat, even living on one for a while. Between the two of us, we have seen almost everything floating in that pool from bleach bottles to cow carcasses and shot most of it with our Daisy Red Ryders. But, until a concerted effort was made to clean the unnatural floating debris left by careless polluters, one particular phenomenon escaped us both. That is, the great number of balls that end up there; easily a natural migration of gravity, or is it something more.
On a recent trip between locks and dams, a twenty mile journey in our 1969 Lonestar Runabout, we spotted at least six different balls. There were virtually no other floaters. So, we figured, with people being more careful, the balls must be getting there on their own. Basketballs, volleyballs, kickballs; if it is round and filled with air, it eventually makes its way to the river. We were surprised we’d never noticed before. Or, maybe it’s new. When I was a kid, we never threw anything away, using it far beyond its natural life and then holding on to it just in case. In today’s fast paced society our sense of value seems skewed. We throw away anything that slows us down, people, mountains, why not old balls. One day, we’ll all be downstream.
I love the river. This natural waterway snakes a path in and out of hollers and past people’s homes, gathering knowledge and strength from its mountain origins, never making excuses for humble beginnings. Every drop of water as important as the next, it eventually spills its wisdom into the great fountain that is its destiny. Along the way, it watches the life and death of farms and children as well as corn, cows and marijuana. Towns and Cities gather at its banks as the gentle lapping of water whispers the secrets of its people. Trees line the narrow banks of the Kentucky like arms welcoming a child come home and together with the sun provide a strobe-like prism across our faces transporting us from our daily worries. This little piece of heaven is as close as our next breath or our next drink of water. No wonder the balls want to go there. They are drawn, like us, to a better place. Who could blame them?
I thought about the lives these balls had witnessed and the children they had entertained. Perhaps, even while being loved, they were taken for granted or sometimes abused. No matter how good the intention, a Chuck Taylor to the gut is never easy to take. I have to say, as a mother in the hollows of an empty nest, I know how they feel. Like a helium balloon cut loose after the party, they are no longer needed. They have entered a new phase of their existence. The purpose they served for so many years now finished, they must re-define themselves, find meaning in their last days. I have seen them, left in the yard, un-noticed, deflated, until one day, I imagine they hear the call of a faint song on a distant breeze, “Brothers and Sisters, come on down, come to the river to pray.” A spa for old balls to soak, carefree on endless days. With no pressure to hold breath against hard concrete or bony fists, the tired, half inflated sphere allows the warmth of the sun to expand its possibilities, breathe in new life. It waits for the earth to move, a wind or maybe a flood to begin this journey of patience and gravity. Like aging, only a slow motion camera could recognize their gradual yet deliberate migration southward. The lesson is not lost on me. We all need patience and perseverance to get where we’re going.
Driving across the river on a one lane bridge, following the railroad track up Miller’s Creek Road, I saw two more balls well on their way. One, a basketball, had made it all the way to the road but landed in the ditch. I wondered how long it would take before a rain would come heavy enough to get it out of that predicament. I pictured an over-loaded logging truck unable to brake on a wet road just as the ball started across. I almost stopped. I thought tossing it over the hill would take months off its journey and ensure a safe passage, but then I saw a kickball down by the railroad tracks waiting for the next coal train to rattle the ground and I realized the path is never safe. There are dangers everywhere. With only six balls in a twenty mile span, it is clear only the strongest survive. It’s the natural order of things and just because I noticed it, doesn’t mean I can change the outcome. Maybe, no matter how much help they receive, the ultimate responsibility is theirs to stay focused on the goal and take their chances with fate. It takes guts…or balls to keep rolling along knowing they may not make it. Maybe they know it’s the journey that matters most. Maybe the obstacles they overcome make the destination even greater and the memories, stories they can tell the next generation.
Things left behind do tell stories. With the recent passing of my in-laws, my husband and I were left to sort through their life’s remains. Packrats that we are, children of parents who lived through the first depression, parents of children who are about to experience one for the first time, we tried to find a home for anything we didn’t want. Even with conscious minds, there are some things that never should’ve been saved in the first place. When the garbage men came to pick up some thirty-odd contractor bags full of trash there was still a basketball on the shelf in the garage, breathless and bounceless, ready for a different view. I couldn’t throw it away. I thought about taking it straight to the river.
“What you gonna do with that basketball?” said one of the garbage men.
“It’s yours if you want it,” my husband said and tossed him the ball.
“We pick’em up every chance we get,” the man said.
“What do you do with them?” I said, feeling hopeful.
“We have an awful problem with dogs chasing the truck, but those balls take care of it.”
“What do you mean? You throw it at them?” I asked thinking this might explain some of the roadside travelers.
“Naw, I’ll show you,” he said. He laid the ball aside and picked up another garbage bag to toss into the back of the truck. We waited. When they finished, he gave a look to the man who was driving. He nodded and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Hold your ears,” he said. We hadn’t noticed that he’d wedged the ball between the tandem wheels of the truck. When the driver pulled up, it sounded like a dynamite blast. The man grinned ear to ear waiting for our praise of his genius. “Stops dogs in their tracks,” he said. He picked up the flat, ripped rubber no longer able to even udder a kerplunk on the pavement and tossed it in the back of the truck without a second thought.
There I stood, a murderous sound in my ears, wishing I’d done something. Kind of like the helpless and hopeless feeling one gets taking care of the dying. I’d spent the last several years in hospitals and nursing homes, called them Heaven’s Waiting Room, wondering who would be called next, how long it would take, what we’d have to go through before we even caught a glimpse of the river. I remembered my son consoling me one day by telling me he’d never leave me in one of those places and not to worry. I thought it was admirable and told him so but declared I didn’t want to be a burden.
“Oh, you won’t be,” he assured me.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because, when you can’t take care of yourself anymore, I’m gonna shoot you in the head.” I love my son. And, I know there are a lot worse things than death.
“Just make it quick,” I said.
So, maybe that’s all it was, a good life with a quick death and one last job to do before they go. We each have a different path to travel and purposes to fulfill. I let it go. But I’ll continue to notice other travelers in odd places and wish them well as I wander along and hope that wherever my journey ends, the stories of how I got there will be good and the view as beautiful as an autumn day on the Kentucky River.