HuckfinningMississippiTo generations of small boys, Huckleberry Finn and Jim symbolized freedom and adventures as they drifted south on the mighty Mississippi River.

From the time my sons, David, Michel and Joshua, were very young, I had promised them an adventure every year. They had been flying, rubber boating, canoeing, chasing wild horses, SCUBA diving, motorcycling. . . Life, I stressed, is to be lived with vigor.

“Let’s float on a raft this summer,” David and Michael clamored as the school year ended when they were 11 and 9.

Why not?

They and their friend David McCracken, the son of my partner Bill when I worked Police Homicide, helped me build a “yacht” that consisted of an 8×10 plywood deck mounted on three Styrofoam pontoons. A canvas sheet erected over the deck served as a shelter. The boy promptly dubbed her Huck Finn.

“You are floating down the Mississippi on that?” was how skeptical friends expressed their doubt.

Together for the summer, the boys and I floated the Mississippi River from the Greenville Bridge in Arkansas to Vicksburg, Mississippi. With no power other than oars, taking our leisure to skinny dip, sunbath, fish, and explore mysterious islands for pirate treasure.

In places the river yawns out to a mile wide and is gentle and slow. In other places, it narrows and deepens and crashes between high muddy walls and skids around sandbars. Some days we struggled to log five miles. Others, we easily floated thirty.

When we moored at night, sleeping arrangements consisted of a foam pad spread on the deck with sheets and blankets. One night, a passing tug crashed a six-foot wake over the raft, drenching awake four sleeping rafters and our bedding.

Dining fare consisted of canned goods, potatoes and dry cereal. Catfish we caught provided a welcome respite.

Sights and sounds of the Mississippi: ducks fast winging against a cloudy sky; rain pattering on white sand; tugboats hooting mournfully in the night; sleeping beneath stars as hard and bright as jewels and chatting about God and space travel and future adventures; brown waters rushing; standing on the highbrow of a lonely green island and gazing downriver; rapids of foam leaping over jetties; incredibly glorious sunsets and pastel sunrises. . .

After logging more than 150 river miles, we put ashore with regret at Vicksburg. Three little boys had experienced the romance of floating the Father of Waters just like Huck Finn. Adventure helps install confidence and imagination into young minds.

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