Paddle Your Own Canoe
By Peter E. Gibbons
As far as I know, there is nothing to suggest that Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome got together to discuss their rivers. The mighty Mississippi and the gentle river Thames couldn’t have been more differenter as Huckleberry Finn might have said!
Indifferent to either writer, my father rented a birch bark canoe that we two brothers would paddle up the river Thames during a summer school holiday in the 1930’s. We’d be camping out and cooking our own food. I was made responsible for my little brother as I was older and twelve years of age.
As the huge watertight gates closed behind us, we clung to the hanging chains against the wet slimy stone walls rising above. Our little canoe pitched and tossed in rising turbulent waters when the sluices under the up-stream gates were opened.
Later in the day, I tied up under a weeping willow tree and told my little brother it was fortunate we lived in England, otherwise a huge snake could drop on us crushing our bodies in its coils. Or perhaps another kind that would inject venom into us and we’d die a horrible and painful death. This seemed to motivate him into wanting an immediate pee and while doing so, stung his legs on nettles. Being a considerate big brother, I rubbed some nearby dock leaves on his skin telling him not to be a baby.
We went through another lock and exchanged greetings with folk in an assortment of boats including cruisers and a huge Salters Steamer with passengers sitting on deck drinking cups of tea. The captain gave a toot as they continued downstream.
My brother expressed the desire to have been on the steamer and I reminded him that he didn’t like tea and continue paddling!
As we steered clear of two magnificent white swans with signets, I explained that all swans were owned by King George V1. They were his.
Every year, men called Swan Uppers caught them, nicked their beaks ensuring they wouldn’t be counted twice, and the King then knew how many he had. My brother seemed quite indifferent.
Much later I steered the canoe into a space between huge trees with vines entwined in their branches. The vines intriqued me as I thought of Tarzan swinging on them shouting unintelligibly.
Emulating my Saturday matinee favorite, I grabbed one and letting out a jungle call swung out over the river before it broke dumping me into the water. We both had a good laugh.
Before setting up the tent and preparing dinner, I used my scouts knife to cut off a three inch long piece of vine. Intrigued, my brother watched as I stuck it in my mouth, lit it and inhaled the smoke which smelled like smoldering cardboard. Between gasps, coughs, wheezes and with tears streaming down my flushed cheeks, I explained that he was not old enough to appreciate smoking, yet.
Strange to relate, he never smoked a cigarette up to the day he died!
On our third day I told him we would be choosing a village location for the night as we needed provisions. He seemed quite cheerful with the news and paddled harder.
Little Ted was also fascinated when seeing a gypsy encampment with gaily painted caravans, horses, and dark skinned folk making clothes pegs in a field.
I told him they were the same ones who knocked on our door at home, asking for old rags and scrap iron they’d exchange for a goldfish in a jar that would float to the surface, dead within a week and they’d moved on.
The village I chose was where we had cycled before and we knew the lady who owned the store where I bought necessary provisions.
My little brother unpacked the canoe and started putting up the tent singing the popular song of the day. His change of attitude rather surprised me as we tucked in to the huge dinners the lady had prepared for us.
It was quite light when waking up the following morning and discovering my little brother’s bedding neatly folded ready for stowing in the canoe. On top was a piece of paper torn from an exercise book. In disbelief I read several times what he had written.
“Sorry big brother. I don’t like camping and have taken the bus home.”
As we didn’t have a telephone there was no way of contacting my parents and so I packed everything up and started paddling downstream, alone.
With the passing hours I reflected on the tongue lashing I would receive from my father a few days later. Also what came to mind a fellow student had written on a school photograph.
“Love many. Trust a few. Always paddle your own canoe.”