Grim Choice

Grim Choice

By Pia Kraus Aitken

Tom SawyerFrom the time I was eight and read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I wanted to see Hannibal, Missouri. Off we drove, tent, sleeping bags, and cooking gear in the back of our station wagon.

After camping out a few nights in the beautiful Missouri countryside, we drove into Hannibal, a charming little town with wood frame houses that, from their single-story, prairie style, appeared to have existed since Mark Twain’s boyhood. Our first stop was his childhood home with its famous fence and a small bronze sign:“ Tom Sawyer’s Fence. Here stood the board fence which Tom Sawyer persuaded his gang to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing. Tom sat by and saw that it was well done.” The house looked very much like the one on our farm in Nebraska, wood floors, simple wood cupboards, a plank table with four simple chairs . . . precisely what I expected Tom Sawyer’s house to have been. I’m not sure if it was just because of my personal frame of reference, or because I remembered details from the book.

“Is this exactly how the house looked when Samuel Clemens lived here?” I asked the tour guide whomever referred to him as Mark Twain.

“Uh, well, I’m not really sure. I’m pretty new at this tour,” she answered. Her idea of a tour was saying almost nothing but appearing miraculously if anyone touched any small objects to make sure nobody lifted anything like the old white metal cups with red edges. She needn’t have worried. I have those exact cups that Grandpa used to hang on the water pump for us to drink out of at the farm.

Because the day was getting hotter, we headed for Tom and Becky’s Cave. Descending 250 feet into its depths brought sweet, cool relief from the heat and humidity outside. During the tour, I could clearly envision all kinds of mischief Sam Clemens, alias Tom Sawyer, might have dreamed up down there with his buddies even though it’s now being used for, among other things, aging cheese. After an hour in the cave, I was actually getting chilly. This time, the heat outside was welcome.

Next, some lunch, and a walk down to the Mississippi River – Old Muddy – to see from whence Huck and Jim had sailed off on a raft. As we passed the local bank, the temperature on their sign silently blared 104o F. There was no dock on the riverbank, just another bronze marker in the center of a concrete circle. The whole area was strangely vacant, perhaps because no one else was crazy enough to be running around in the heat looking to mentally re-enact Huck Finn’s great adventures.

My husband stood looking at the water, then got that mischievous look in his eyes.

“I’m goin’ in,” he announced.

“In your clothes?” I asked, astonished. It looked so dirty!

“No, they’re going on that tree branch over there.”

I was so hot and I was dying to jump in that cool water, too, except I’m terrified of huge bodies of water where my feet can’t touch the bottom. Instant visions of my drowned body floating up downstream in Memphis flashed before me. Plus I’m a bit squeamish about immersing myself in dirty water intentionally. It’s not called The Big Muddy for nothing.

Before I could say anything else, he was in, swimming joyfully out toward the center of the river. Before he had taken 30 strokes, a tour boat filled with passengers sailed into view. No problem, except that, at the same moment, I saw a muskrat swimming fast his direction. Muskrats seek things that dangle in the water, usually indicating edible goodies like fish. Perhaps this would include things that dangle off men when they swim naked.

He headed back. The muskrat followed in hot pursuit. Luckily, my husband swam faster. The boat, however, had now stopped, the loudspeaker on board blaring the tour talk . . . “Huck Finn probably stepped onto the raft here blah blah blah . . .”

Muskrat approaching fast. . . husband wanting to escape onto shore, but that would risk total exposure to a hoard of tourists.

A few meters down river, large tree branches dipped into the river. He swam past me, yelling, “Bring my clothes. I’m getting out under the tree.” I grabbed the clothes and headed for the overhanging branches. The muskrat, a bit put off by his shouting, laughter and pointing coming from the boat, had slowed and changed direction. Husband emerged safe but muddy, and re-clothed himself, grinning at the laughter still coming from the boat. They had seen something!

We spent that night in a motel with a shower.



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