Floating down a river on a rubber innertube is a timeless experience of Central Florida at its very best. Crystal clear icy cold water, warm sunbeams, blue skies, cypress and oak trees, turtles, snakes, alligators, egrets, sandhill cranes, eagles, dragonflies, bass, bream, catfish, and water lilies—these Florida treasures are never quite as awe-inspiringly beautiful as when viewed from in the river. When you are floating down a seven-mile stretch of a river where you see and hear nothing but natural wonders it’s easy to forget your troubles and imagine yourself transported to a different place in time. The unspoiled beauty allows you to experience the same Florida of Seminole Indians, Spanish explorers, and early settlers. This is the real Florida—the one we had before a celluloid rodent turned it into a plastic fantasyland. Even the names of the rivers invoke thoughts of beauty and history: Silver River, Juniper Springs, Rainbow Springs, Ocklawaha, Homassassa, Ichetucknee.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it was in the late 1970s when some friends and I decided to kick off the summer with a tubing trip down the Ichetucknee River. The trip was planned for Tuesday and after church on Sunday night we gathered to finalize the details of our plan: where we’d meet, what time we’d leave, etc. Our thought was “the more the merrier” so we invited everyone within earshot to go with us. Someone even began pleading (jokingly) for my mother to come along. Clara Estes was not a nature girl and she hadn’t worn a swimsuit in years. The idea of her floating down a river on an innertube was laughable and she knew it. In an effort to quickly end the discussion of Clara going tubing she said, “I’ll go when Bobbie Grant goes.” Mother was positive that Bobbie Grant would never go so she knew she was safe. Her heart almost stopped when Bobbie said, “You’ll go if I go? This I’ve got to see. I’ll go!”
Ever so reluctantly, my mother kept her promise. Unfortunately I missed mom’s first (and what I was sure would be her only) trip down the river because on Monday I got a call that a summer job I’d interviewed for was mine and I had to start work on Tuesday. Mother surprised us all on her return home by announcing that she loved tubing and would like to go again. She later volunteered to chaperone a church youth outing to the river and talked my dad into going too. A couple of years later my grandparents and my cousin came for a visit and Mother even managed to talk her Daddy in floating down the Ichetucknee River.
My PawPaw loved being outdoors and in the woods. For many years he supervised a crew that cleared land for powerline construction for Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative in Alabama. He liked rivers and fishing, but he was not so sure about going tubing. He gave in only after his only daughter and two of his beloved granddaughters poured on the sweet talk.
At the river outpost where we stopped to pick out tubes, Mother and Grandmother decided that PawPaw would probably be more comfortable in a small rubber raft than in a tube. Somehow that seemed a little more substantial for a 70-something year-old man wearing pleated dress slacks, dress shoes, a white short-sleeved dress shirt, and a jaunty gentleman’s hat. That’s how PawPaw dressed almost every day. He wore a suit on Sunday and overalls when he was working in the yard or cutting firewood. Since he was on vacation he didn’t bring work clothes. His skinny white legs had never seen the light of day. He even wore long pajamas. This man so eschewed the idea of exposed legs on men that he kept a special classification for the kind of man who would stoop so low as to wear “Bermuda shorts.” He even said the words with a sneer. He was not one of those men. He kept his legs covered like the good Lord intended. PawPaw going tubing in a raft with his long pants on seemed like the only way.
Getting PawPaw settled into the rubber raft must have been an ordeal. I’ve somehow blocked out that memory. I do remember trying to get him out after sitting so long his legs had gotten stiff and that was traumatic. But what came in between is one of my most precious memories of him. He declined the paddle that came with his raft rental; choosing instead to just float where the current took him. Whether he was mid-river, next to the bank, front ways, sideways, backward, or hung up in the forks of a fallen tree, PawPaw enjoyed every inch of the ride. He gazed into the sky, studied the tree tops, inventoried the fish, and surveyed the wildlife—completely heedless of river traffic. He bumped into other tubers, floated ahead at times and at other times lagged behind our group—never making the slightest effort to control his direction or speed. The only thing that concerned him in the least was the 2 inches of water that seeped into the bottom of his raft. He was convinced that the raft was going to sink. Every time anyone caught his eye he would scoop up a palm full of water, lift it up high and slowly pour it out. He also gave regular updates on the amount of water in his raft. “It’s getting deeper and deeper.” He’d laugh and shake his head and say, “Any minute now you’re gonna find just my hat floatin by itself.” But we didn’t lose him. Instead he lost himself in the beauty of the forest and made us all a beautiful memory of a man enjoying God’s creation.
When Uncle Vernon, Aunt Nellie and their son Cary came to visit, we took them down the river too. Like my mother, Aunt Nellie was not exactly a nature girl. But she figured if Clara could do it, she could too. Her main concern was her hairdo. Mother assured her that is was possible to go tubing without ruining a professional hair-set.
Arriving at the dock to get in the river, Clara (a river veteran by now) stepped confidently to the front of the line saying, “Come on, Nellie, I’ll show you how to get in without getting your hair wet.” She dropped her tube, stepped off the bottom step, chest-deep into the icy cold water. She carefully positioned the tube behind her and hopped on. At this point no one knows what caused an upset in the delicate balance of the universe, but the next few seconds took place in slow motion. Mother’s tube tipped back, her feet flew up and she did a perfect back flip. She sank all the way to the bottom and same up sputtering through her fallen bouffant hairdo.
The ramp was full of people waiting in line to get into the river. We all gasped but no one knew what to say. It was Nellie who spoke first saying, “Well Clara, if it’s all the same to you I don’t believe I’ll do it that way.”