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Chipola College in Marianna, Florida takes its name from the Chipola River that originates nearby. This is a story about the incredible talent it takes to get into trouble in both of those places at the same time.
Our adventure started late one night during finals week, a time when all the students were busy preparing for the exams that could make or break their GPA. All the students except for two, that is. My friend Gary Wayne Purvis and I had decided on a bolder, more practical approach to preparing for the end of the term.
By the end of the spring semester in 1984, we knew our only hope for passing was divine intervention, major computer errors or the apocalypse. (And we would have gladly accepted any of them.) So, using the same sound judgment that had gotten us in this pickle to begin with, we came up with a brilliant plan to soften the blow when our parents got our grades.
Knowing how much our fathers loved eating frog legs, we decided it would be better to hunt for frogs to use as a peace offering than to study for tests we weren’t going to pass anyway. (It was the kind of logic that only 18-year-old boys fully understand.)
* * *
We met up with another friend named Emory Godwin around 10 PM and headed down the Chipola River on GW’s boat. My father was asleep in front of the television as I was leaving, so I nudged him and let him know where I was going. He mumbled something unintelligible that I interpreted as, “Fine. Be careful.”
An hour or so later, the three of us – GW, Emory and I – had made our way a few miles downstream to the mouth of the Old River, a small oxbow off the Chipola. Once we got there, however, we found that the water was only about six inches deep for a distance of 20 to 30 feet. That meant we had to get out of the boat and pull it across the shallow entrance and into the deeper water on the other side.
That effort paid off big because the place turned out to be an amphibian goldmine. By the time we made a second pass, we had an ice chest full of frogs and were ready to head home.
* * *
Everybody knows it’s trouble when a redneck says, “Boys, watch this!” Well, here’s another phrase that should raise a red flag: anything that includes the words “let’s get a running start.” If you hear either of those things, nothing good is going to happen next.
Sure enough, on the way back, Gary Wayne decided that we didn’t need to get out and wade across the sand and gravel barrier. Instead, we would hit it at full speed in his welded-aluminum boat and blast our way through. After all, boats like his were built to take that kind of punishment.
To Gary Wayne’s credit – and my great surprise – we actually made it. Of course, it happened with all the grace and half the noise of a major train wreck. GW was in my lap, I was in shock and Emory was in pain on the deck. But we did make it.
It was only when we started upriver that we realized there was a major problem.
Unlike his boat, it turns out that Gary Wayne’s outboard was not built to plow through several yards of river bottom. (Who would’ve thunk it?) The motor was running, but the prop looked like somebody had run a beer can through a blender. One blade was gone completely, one was broken in half and the other was bent beyond recognition.
* * *
They say it’s bad to be “up the creek without a paddle.” I can tell you firsthand that it’s worse to be down the river without a propeller. There was no way in hell we would be able to paddle that heavy boat three miles upstream to the landing. And at the speed we were drifting, it would be a few hours before we reached anything downriver.
Along about 1 AM, though, we drifted up close to Jehue Landing and decided our best option was to land the boat there and walk.
What followed was the kind of journey that inspires epic poems, Bible stories and Disney movies.
Jehue was a couple of miles past nowhere. So our original plan was to knock on the door of the first house we came to. However, a couple of pit bulls explained to us in dog terms that we probably shouldn’t do that. Plus in Calhoun County, showing up on a stranger’s porch in the middle of the night is still a really good way to get shot. If we were going to get home in one piece, it was clear we were going to do it on foot.
So we soldiered on for about six miles – across soybean fields, through briar patches and along dim roads. I had recently sprained my ankle and Emory’s knee was giving him trouble, so our long walk was really a series of short, painful hikes between rest stops. I’ve seen old people shuffle through buffet lines faster than we were going.
About dawn, we finally reached an old trailer owned by Gary Wayne’s family. There, we broke into his Uncle Mike’s Jeep and drove it to back GW’s house. His mother, Susan, greeted us with all the warmth she could muster for three sweaty, frog-smelling guys at 6 AM.
One of my biggest worries at that point was the possibility that my father might have search parties looking for us. I could picture him being both concerned and mad. But mostly mad.
I was sweating bullets when I called home.
“I just want to let you know I’m all right,” I said when he answered the phone. “We just had some problems with the boat, but I’ll be home in a few minutes.”
His response was touching: “Oh, I forgot you were gone.”
And when I told him what happened, his only comment reflected all the sympathy and concern I had come to expect through the years: “Well,” he said. “Did you get any frogs?”
* * *
For his part, GW did manage to swing an ‘A’ in archery class, which he tried to portray as the silver lining to a very dark cloud. His dad, a shrewd judge of the job market, was unimpressed.
“There’s not much need for a modern day Robin Hood,” Big Gary said.
It could have been worse, though. The only ‘A’ on my report card was the one in my name.
But while we might not have knocked the top out of our classes at Chipola, nobody can say we didn’t get an education while we were there.
* * *
The inspiration for this story is Gary Wayne’s youngest son, Colton, who just earned salutatorian honors for Blountstown Middle School’s eighth grade class. Incidentally, this is the same honor his older brother, Brandon, earned just three years ago.
To me, this means two things:
1) Gary Wayne is apparently better at being a father than being a son, and
2) Despite the questionable judgment he showed on occasion, he did have the good sense to marry a smart woman.
Congratulations to Colton for your accomplishment – and to GW and Monica for raising two fine boys! (PS — my apologies to Brandon for inadvertently demoting you youngest son in an earlier version! In my defense, I lost a lot of brain cells hanging out with your dad!)