During the Cold War era following World War II, I was busy growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—a “secret city” constructed by the federal government wholly and specifically to help develop and produce the world’s first atomic weapon. But as a five-year-old boy in 1957, my duties consisted only of attending school during the week and otherwise staying out of the house whenever my father was off shift from the Y-12 Plant (the nearby facility that made components for modern nuclear weapons). My father’s three rotating shifts meant he slept odd hours, and the thing he needed most in this world was sleep. Staying out of the house so my father could rest undisturbed also meant that my mother and her friends rotated us kids throughout homes in the neighborhood based on the same shifts. I’m sure they were concerned with our after-school enrichment, but perhaps they were as much concerned about keeping the peace at home.
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”—Benjamin Franklin (attrib.)
If ever you’ve been on a quiet lake in summer, late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon and your body and mind are at peace with the world, you might be privileged to witness the spectacle of thousands of shimmering diamonds of reflected sunlight dancing across ripples of waves on the surface. It’s a soul-mending suspension in time like a liquid dream. But let me stop you right there, because my dream of a trip down the Tennessee River began with a discussion about bologna and beer, not a crock of wimpy poetic stuff.
I had only contemplated the idea—just the possibility, really—of taking a long-range river trip before I got too old or too lazy. I started thinking about it after I discovered through my lovely, dear wife (she may be reading this over my shoulder right now) introduced me to Jack, the spouse of a former teacher colleague of hers. The introduction was well-intended as our wives knew we had a love of boating in common, but they later regretted it, because at every opportunity from that point on, we discussed boats and taking a boating trip ad nauseam. Jack and I had our first serious phone conversation about a trip down river several months after our first meeting. It occurred at the very end of winter at the height of our cabin fever and went something like this:
“How many days would it take to go from here all the way down the Tennessee and back, do you think?” Continue reading