the topo map, the name says Little Walnut Creek, but to me and my
friends back in the late 1950s, it was simply "the creek."
All these years later, the creek is still there, but it is not the
stream that still flows through my memory, a young boy's adventure-rich,
temporary haven from an abusive step-father and a mother who willingly
or not let him get away with it. To me, that modest waterway, which
empties into Big Walnut Creek and eventually flows into the Colorado
River, ran as wide and deep as any river. The area along its banks
seemed as wild and remote as any national park.
Our part of the creek, not far from the long-vanished Travis County
community of Fiskville, started at a small pond full of bream, crawfish
and turtles. A low water bridge carried Georgian Drive across the
stream at that point.
Periodically over the years, I've come back to the creek to see
how it's doing. Each time, it looks less like the stream I knew.
While the creek has changed, and not for the better, it evokes plenty
On one visit, I thought about the day my friends and I launched
our homemade boat just below the bridge.
We had bent a large piece of corrugated metal into a hull-like shape
and then nailed it around a board about two inches thick and a couple
of feet wide, forming the vessel's stern. We used a short two-by-four
for the bow, tacking the metal to it to make a sharp prow. A black
gummy substance we'd found in someone's garage served as waterproofing.
Once we'd proclaimed it creek-worthy, we laboriously carried our
boat three blocks from my house to the pond. Reaching the creek,
we pushed the boat into the water, some of my buddies holding the
stern to keep it from drifting off as I got aboard. It was just
big enough for one hefty fifth-grader.
Mamie Eisenhower not being available to smash a bottle of champagne
across the bow of our new vessel, I ordered my shore crew to shove
off. They gave a push and the boat slid gracefully to the middle
of the creek, floating just like a real boat.
Suddenly, the caulking started giving away. Water shot up through
a dozen old nail holes we'd plugged with the black gooey stuff,
turned out to be bug bait, not tar.
My seat already getting wet, I tried to bring her about and return
to shore, vainly paddling as the craft became more and more sluggish
as it continued to take on water. Giving up, I sat gamely prepared
to go down with the ship. After all, I was captain.
The boat sank on an even keel. Fortunately, all I had to do was
stand up and wade to shore - soaking wet on a cool early spring
day -- as my friends howled.
Armed with spring-powered BB guns, my friend Bob and I spent a lot
of time making and maintaining "forts." Rumor had it that the eighth
graders hid out at certain places along the creek to smoke cigarettes
and we were always conscious of having a place of concealment and
easy defense in case war erupted between the big kids and us.
It wasn't just the eighth graders we had to keep an eye out for.
A haunted house sat on the south side of the creek, adjacent to
a grass-and mesquite-covered field. The house had been abandoned
for a long time, and we weren't helping with its maintenance. We
had broken out all the windows, and others before us had carried
off anything of value.
Of course, we never had any real indication the place sheltered
any ghosts. But it was out of sight from our neighborhood, and the
wind whistled through the open windows in a reasonably spooky way.
It definitely was not the kind of place you'd want to go poking
around without a BB gun.
About midway between the bridge and the I-35 culvert grew the most
prominent landmark on the creek, a towering, centuries-old oak with
two thick trunks several feet in diameter and a huge exposed system
of bark-covered roots. Years before we started playing around the
creek, a bolt of lightning had smashed into the space between the
trunks, burning a large hole in the wood.
We called this place "the burned-out tree stump." Since it offered
a commanding view of the surrounding woods and the creek below,
it was our central meeting place.
One cloudy afternoon Bob and I headed for the stump to build a camp
fire and melt some lead fishing weights in a tin can. We'd then
gouge a hole in the black dirt of the creek bank and pour in the
red hot lead to cool. Our plan was to eventually manufacture toy
cannons, but our collective metallurgical skill never progressed
to that point.
As we watched in fascination as the lead liquefied like so much
silver cooking lard, the clouds got heavier and the distant boom
of thunder echoed through the woods. It got darker in a hurry.
We easily could
have made it to Bob's house. But then that wouldn't be roughing
it, so we decided to shelter ourselves under the caliche and limestone
overhang below the big tree. We made it just about the time the
rain started pouring down. Lightning crashed all over the woods.
Bob and I huddled
beneath the cliff, staying reasonably dry. The rain kept up and
it was getting late, about supper time. We finally decided to run
for it, easy targets for a fatal blast of nature's electricity.
By the time we got to Bob's, we were soaked. My house was still
a major uphill bike ride away, so I got even wetter.
probably whipped me when I got home, and I'll admit that deliberately
staying outside during a thunderstorm is a dumb idea, but it had
sure been fun.
Several years ago, Bob and I returned to the creek. We hiked from
the new Georgian Drive bridge to the burned out tree stump. Or what
was left of it. A flash flood had eroded the bank to the extent
that the giant old tree had toppled and appeared to be dying.
But that ancient tree, and the creek it stood guard over for several
hundred years, will live on in my memory, still a place of refuge.
© Mike Cox
- September 25, 2014 column
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