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Memories of
Little Walnut Creek

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

On 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 of memories.

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.

My step-father 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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