The leader of our youth group sold us on a trip to Ichetucknee Springs in Florida where we’d get a tube and float the clear, lazy river born of the spring. Rumor was from one of the parents that the spring was haunted, that it could put people in a trance and pull them down and drown them, bodies washing up somewhere else in Florida. They said there’d been divers who’d never come back. We didn't care. It only added to our excitement. The leader shared it would cost five dollars, he couldn't ask the minister for the funds because it wasn't directly related to Jesus, and we'd either have to get it from our parents or sell empty Coke bottles to the grocery store to make enough to pay it.
Most of us got the money from piggy banks, parents, or from working some for others in the neighborhood. After all, it was always better if we got paid tips for our good deeds. The day of the trip was hot and humid, and the air in the church van didn’t work. The youth leader wanted us to sing hymns, but one of the smarter kids brought a pack of eight-tracks in a leather case he'd borrowed without asking from his wild sister. The youth leader let us listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and CCR.
When we got to the springs, I was a little disappointed. The springs weren't as big as the baptismal pool we'd all been dunked in when we'd gone through that ritual. We could see the clear water, but it was surrounded by grass, bushes, trees and vines. A dirt path led to a slippery wooden set of stairs, where we just launched our tubes and jumped in behind them. The water was ice cold and we had full body freezes, like the brain freezes we got from Icees.
Some of the youth group floated quickly with the current and a few got pushed toward the banks. One got hung on a cypress stump. The experience was different and beautiful and felt like we had been placed in an aquarium where we saw fish, turtles, and even a manatee moving along. In the water, the grass and plants swayed back and forth, and once in a while one of the youth thought she'd seen a snake.
The small, round spring opened into what looked like a creek and then expanded more into a large curving river. Then, more sunlight shone through the overhanging Live Oak trees. The quiet and stillness seemed more like prayer time than adventure, and the occasional breaking of branches in the woods, our intuition that something was watching us, and a skunk-like smell caused us to speculate that big foot was out there. At some point, my head was leaned back, my eyes shut, and I felt something cold land on my abdomen. I thought one of my friends had cupped his hand and thrown water on me, but when I opened my eyes, and they cleared well enough to see, I noted a small snake had fallen from a tree, and I screamed and yelled, “god damn it, son of a bitch” so loudly that it echoed down the river to other groups tubing. The water snake slithered off my belly and into the water and disappeared below.
“Sam, I don't think that was necessary,” the youth leader scolded.
“Maybe not,” I said, “but I'd like to see what anyone else would've done had it happened to them.”
“Sounds like Sam Robinson’s family. It's in his genes,” an eight-grade goody-too-shoes girl smarted off from her tube. She wore a one-piece, goggles, and flippers on her feet. Her one-piece looked like bloomers Nellie wore on Little House on the Prairie.
“I'm not even wearing jeans,” I said. I’d worn a bathing suit.
“She meant your DNA,” the youth leader said. He sat up on his tube. “You'll get that next year in eighth.”
I knew I was in trouble, and if it meant him telling my parents, being put on restriction, losing my allowance, or doing extra work, that was fine, but if it meant meeting with the minister, doing biblical homework, or repenting in front of the church, I was out. I’d be a heathen for life like the rest of my extended family---my aunt who made runs to Texas in her Ford Galaxy to haul Coors when it was illegal, my uncle who ran a college football betting ring, or my granddaddy who served time for growing marijuana patches in the center of his cornfields.
The youth leader added, “This is an excellent example, however. It doesn't matter about DNA or family. God forgives us as long as we repent of our sins. So, Sam, shouldn't you repent and ask God to forgive you?”
“I'm sorry, but if another snake landed on me right now, I'd say the same thing and I think if Jesus was here, he'd say it, too.”
The boys nodded, the girls looked away, and the youth leader shook his head and laid back on his tube. The ride home was quiet, except for the crackling sound of the speakers playing Free Bird.
[Check out Niles Reddick's back porch interview]