In 1971 when my step-sister Madelyn and I were fourteen and thirteen respectively, my parents would often go out of town on the weekends. My father and stepmother seemed to always have some magic convention or gathering to attend in Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, or any number of other venues.
My father knew all the local high school kids from his directing of the senior plays every year. Two of the former graduates, Ronnie and Doug, then about twenty years old, remained very good friends of my father and particularly Ronnie, (who was Peanut’s Uncle). My father decided that Madelyn and I needed a ‘baby-sitter’ while he and Gloria were off on their long weekends, so they paid Doug and Ronnie to look after us.
Now mind you, Madelyn and I were both pretty certain we were over-mature for our age and could easily fend for ourselves, but we loved having two “big brothers” to help us throw the greatest parties in the history of Honey Grove while under their tutelage. We used Marcom Manor as our venue of course and were always in a rush to get the house back into some semblance of order before the folks returned, usually on a Sunday, but occasionally on a Monday or Tuesday.
During Labor Day Weekend of 1971 my parents were off to a big convention in Houston and we had a great party planned for Sunday the Fifth of September. We were to have ‘The Mother of All Parties’ out at Lake Coffeemill, north of Honey Grove. (The party was going to serve double duty for me, as my fourteenth birthday was just five days away.) Right up until the night before, I had no date lined up for this all-day Blow-Out, and I was in a panic.
Around about eleven, I saw and old ex-classmate of mine from the sixth and seventh grade who had moved away the year prior, slowly driving past (we were all on the town square, sitting on the car hoods, drinking beer and planning the next day’s activities). I figured she was in town to visit some of her family who lived between Honey Grove and Lake Coffeemill. I chased her down (literally), stopped the car and asked breathlessly if she would like to come out to the lake the next day for the party. Happily she said “Yes.” And that made my night. Her name was Chrissie.
Semi-Early the next morning Madelyn, Gina (Ronnie’s girlfriend) Ronnie and I (along with some other hanger’s on) were busy gathering all the items for the picnic/party and loading up ‘The Magic Bus’ which was what we called Ronnie’s 1957 Chevy Station Wagon. Some other folks arrived (mostly ‘twenty-something’ folks) with their cars and trucks. All the vehicles were loaded with beer, wine (Cheap Mogan David, Spanada, Boone’s Farm, etc.) hot dogs, buns, hamburger meat, condiments, and on and on. As I said, this was going to be the last big party of the summer and we were going to do it up right. Madelyn and I were to start High School the following Tuesday.
Ronnie loved The Beatles. He once told me, “The Second side of Abby Road is the best side on the best album, by the best band in the history of the world.” Even today, I cannot listen to any Beatles’ music without thinking of him and all those wonderful times we all spent together. He was a good kid, and always looked out for me. Gina was the same, and I have to admit I had a not-too-secret major crush on her. I had been dating her little sister off and on during the previous year, but she and I never could get our act together. She was my very first blonde girlfriend and to tell the truth, I’ve never had any luck with blondes ever since and have historically shied away from them.
Ronnie taught me how to smoke pot, be cool, and turned me on to all manner of wonderful music. He coached me all that summer in my soon-to-become burgeoning High School football career. Most important, by his example, he taught me to be compassionate and patient and tolerant and kind. In short, he taught me how not to be an asshole, which as an arrogant, wet-behind-the-years, knows everything about everything, little shit of a teenager, I was all too good at. Ronnie saved me from that.
He was an easy-going, good-looking kid with a toothy smile and a joie de vivre that made a room light up whenever he walked in. He had unlimited optimism about everything and everybody. Never once did I hear him say one unkind word about anyone, even though there were some in our circle who deserved an unkind word upon occasion (including yours truly). Ronnie saw nothing but good in all people. Absolutely everyone in Honey Grove loved him, old and young alike.
He didn’t even mind that every time we were all together I would invariably find ways to sit next to Gina and just fawn. He laughed that off like everything else. He knew Gina loved him dearly and nothing on Earth could ever separate those two. Gina had a soft spot for me as well, but more in a ‘Big Sis’ kind of way, but try explaining that to a thirteen-year-old with romantic ideas, puppy-dog eyes, and raging hormones.
Once we had all the vehicles loaded, we began our ‘convoy’ to The Lake with The Magic Bus leading the way. Ronnie driving, Gina riding shotgun in her ‘Lake-Party Uniform:’ cut-off jeans, halter top. Situated between them was a gallon of Mogan David, which, as we pulled out of town, Ronnie grabbed and thrust out the window, pumping it up and down for the rest of the parade to see. It was on!
I had the back seat to myself and was in my ‘uniform’ cut-off jeans and t-shirt, hippie sandals, and behind me a huge beer cooler, all the cookout stuff, and about a thousand eight-track tapes that Ronnie kept in the car always. Music was the defining force in all of our young lives and The Magic Bus had the best ‘rigged’ stereo in Northeast Texas and was as close to a mobile concert hall as I had ever seen.
Ronnie had installed some kind of colorful strobe light contraption on the dash over the glove compartment that pulsated with the beat of the music. The Magic Bus was indeed, Magical. There was no ignition switch, just a couple of wires hanging down underneath the steering column which had to be united to start the car. Anyone with a mind to could have stolen that car at any time, but of course no one was ever of a mind to.
Many times during road trips to Commerce to see Gina’s Hippie friends, or to The Lake, or Bonham to the drive-in one time to watch Woodstock, or once to Dallas to see Led Zeppelin, I would love the getting there more than the arriving there. I loved to ride in that car with the good company, the camaraderie, and all the great music and I felt so wonderfully alive. I always hated it when we did finally arrive to our destination of the day, because for me, the best was in the getting there; the riding in that car, grooving to the music and watching Texas roll by.
Lake Coffeemill lies about twenty miles north of Honey Grove and for once I was anxious to actually arrive at a destination. This would be the Best Party Ever. We stopped about ten miles from the lake to pick up Chrissie and she and I spent the last ten miles chatting and holding hands in the back seat.
Chrissie was always an elusive butterfly and I was so proud she was with me on that day. Of course I tried to show off by talking to Ronnie and Gina about ‘older things;’ things like some of the concerts we had been to, parties we had thrown, et cetera. Mostly I ended up looking and sounding like an idiot, but Chrissie didn’t seem to mind. I do think she genuinely was fond of me. She was a long and tall dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty and actually quite different from any other girl I had known up to that point in my life. We were a good match and seemed to have great potential as a couple, but we would never get to explore that potential.
We turned off the paved two-lane and onto the gravel lake road. There are actually two lakes in this area separated by Bois d’Arc Creek and a long gravel road. The other lake is Lake Crockett and is slightly smaller than Coffeemill. The entire area is very heavily wooded with pine, oak, and cedar; all part of what they call ‘The Caddo National Grasslands’ and one of the few national parks in Texas (Texas is unique in that she kept most of her public lands when she joined The Union in 1845 instead of giving them all away to the Federal Government like all the other western states).
The road to ‘Gate 10’ on Coffeemill was the last part of our journey. Now, I say ‘Road’ and I use the term loosely. More like a trail, barely wide enough to navigate the Magic Bus through the trees and certainly better suited for Four-Wheel Drive vehicles. The trail winds around through the woods for about two miles before actually ending on the lake. Gate 10 was our turf. No one ever went there except our crowd, and possibly the occasional hunter. Everyone knew this; even the tourists knew this. By spending so much time there coupled with the fact that most didn’t even know the place existed made it ours. We must have been quite a sight on that day: no less than twenty cars, trucks, vans, all slowly bumping along single file down to Gate 10.
Soon after we arrived and got all the vehicles parked in the only clearing (about 25 yards from the water) everyone got busy organizing all the myriad items we had brought along. Grills were set up, beer coolers strategically placed, plastic-ware and paper ‘wine’ cups and tablecloths and folding tables appeared and of course the big speakers inside the Magic Bus were brought out and positioned on top of the hood, blaring music. Picture a Mini-Woodstock, Texas Style. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon.
Everyone spent the next few hours drinking beer, munching on hot dogs, shooting the shit, swimming in the lake, and lighting up the occasional joint. Doug arrived around two o’clock and he had some unhappy words for Ronnie. Apparently Ronnie had promised him he would stop smoking dope. The two of them were occasional ‘Youth Ministers’ at one of the churches in Honey Grove and Doug was, shall we say, a bit more fervent in his religion than was Ronnie. The two of them were most assuredly best friends and it pained me to see them argue over this. Doug got so pissed off that he just left shortly after he had arrived and I don’t believe he even had one beer while he was there. This dampened my spirits a little, but was soon forgotten. I knew they would work it out later and all would be normal again.
The afternoon was going by and things calmed a little as people gathered in small groups to drink, smoke, and chat. I took Chrissie by the hand and grabbing a blanket off the hood of one of the cars, led her into the woods. She carried a bottle of wine. We spread the blanket under an oak and made love, or what passed for making love then for us. Mostly just heavy petting, kisses, and arms and bare legs wrapped around each other. We could faintly hear strains of Carole King singing ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ back at the party:
Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure
Can I believe the magic of your sighs
Will you still love me tomorrow…
We remained secluded there for some time, getting reacquainted, talking softly about nothing in particular. It is so easy to fall in love when you’re thirteen. My heart was in serious mortal danger. Falling hard for her. She was so sweet and so soft and so stunningly beautiful, with sloe gin eyes and all that implies… But I was prepared, eager in fact, to fall, to fall headlong, and all else be damned…But not yet: There was a party to be attended and tended to…
As it was growing late afternoon, we gathered up the blanket and the almost empty bottle of Spanada and headed back to join the others. I needed to pee so I headed to the lake and saw Ronnie, Jimmy Max, John David, Jackie, and several others climbing a dead tree about twenty yards off-shore. I swam out (after relieving myself in the water) to join them.
They all had towels fashioned about their necks and were acting out ‘Superman,’ climbing the tree and diving in: much rowdy laughter as they critiqued each other’s performance. We played at that for quite a while when my stomach reminded me that I had forgotten to eat anything all day.
Ronnie must have had the same stomach, because we exited the water at the same time and immediately headed over to the Magic Bus to see if there were any remnants of the ham that Gina had brought for us. Not much, but I grabbed a hunk of it, slapped it on some bread and starting wolfing it down. Ronnie and I were standing there, eating, while digging through the rest of the stuff looking for more food. We both obviously had the munchies.
“Jimmy Max is drowning!” someone was screaming.
Ronnie shot away from the car toward the bank and I stuffed the last bit of ham and bread into my mouth chewing and trying to swallow and almost choking as I ran after him. There was a large group of people standing there yelling and pointing out towards where I could just barely make out a figure bobbing up and down in the water. I estimated about fifty yards away. Everyone was yelling, “Ronnie! Save Him! He’s been down twice now! Save him! Save Him!”
Ronnie grabbed an inner tube while running to the shore, threw it into the water and jumping into it began paddling furiously, using his arms and hands like oars in a rowboat, turning his head to mark his course toward Jimmy Max. He actually left a wake. I have never seen anyone move that fast before or since.
I jumped into the lake and tried to keep up with Ronnie. I was a decent swimmer, but he soon left me far behind. I saw Ronnie get to Jimmy Max and watched as he was pulled off the inner tube. Jimmy Max had about twenty pounds on Ronnie and of course he was now strong in a panic.
The inner tube was swept away instantly (it was very windy that day). I continued swimming as fast as I could to get to the two of them. I saw Jimmy Max go under and Ronnie pull him up, his arms flailing about. When I was about ten yards from them Jimmy Max went down again, but this time Ronnie apparently couldn’t pull him up.
Things suddenly got deathly quiet. I could no longer hear the people screaming on the shore. The wind actually seemed to stop. Honestly, I didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation. Things had just happened too quickly. I stopped about ten feet from Ronnie, treading water, not sure what to do next.
Ronnie looked right into my eyes and almost inaudibly said, “Help.” It was the weakest voice I had ever heard. I immediately swam over to him and tried to grab him around the waist. He was limp. Ronnie, who had always been so strong, was now completely weak and helpless. I struggled with trying to hold onto him, but it was no use. I just didn’t have any strength left myself.
Our eyes met again, but he said nothing as he slipped from my arms and sank. I saw bubbles come up from beneath me after his head disappeared. Nausea washed over me like a rolling wave.
Not knowing what to do, I dove down (the water must have been twenty feet deep there), but could not find an arm or a leg or anything to grab onto. After what seemed like five hours, but in reality, probably only five minutes of this, I started making my way back to the shore. When I got to within about twenty feet, I got cramps and collapsed. John David waded out and half-dragged, half-carried me back to the land. I was too tired to utter a word. Everyone surrounded me, yelling and asking, “What happened? What happened?” My mind cleared enough for me to think, “What the hell do you think happened? Ronnie and Jimmy Max drowned while all of you stood here and did nothing. That is what happened,” but I did not say it out loud.
Gina came running up in tears screaming, “Lance, where’s Ronnie? Where is he?” She was obviously in shock and hysterical.
“He’s dead Gina.”
I tried to take her in my arms, but she flung me aside and starting running up and down the shore looking out at the lake. I was too exhausted still to follow her. I collapsed down on a beer cooler and wept.
Everyone was jabbering away. Someone said, “This is just another joke. Any minute now they’ll come walking out of the woods, laughing at us.” I wished it were true, but I knew better.
The authorities came about an hour later with boats and starting dragging the lake. Close to dusk they found Ronnie. It would be another twelve hours before they found Jimmy Max. I got into the Magic Bus with Calvin and he starting driving us back to town. The same eight-track tape had been playing over and over again since the drownings: Moody Blues, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.
We just left it in as we drove, not saying a word. After we had cleared the gravel road and were back on the highway, a car came speeding up to stop us, horn blowing. We pulled over and Chrissie came walking up, opened the back door and retrieved her purse. I couldn’t ever speak to her. To this day I do not know why, but I am sorry I didn’t because she probably thought I was evil for just sitting there with not a word for her. I never saw her again. And I never listened to that Moody Blues album again either.
I promised myself that day no one would ever drown in my arms again because of my inadequacies in the water. And some years later, I took action to ensure that I would always be able to keep that promise.
It goes without saying that Ronnie was the hero that day, but I am going to say it again. Why he was the only man out of the dozen or so equally capable just standing on the shore urging him on, to without hesitation risk his own life to save his friend, I still cannot comprehend. And yet when I try to, I just get pissed off all over again. Most of these men were my good friends, and I did remain friends with the most, but I no longer held any respect for a single one.
Even though this tragedy occurred over forty years ago, my memories are still all too much vivid. My great good friend and mentor heroically gave his life to save his friend. There is no greater testament to heroism. He died as he lived, with a passionate love for life and for everyone and for everything in his life. He will always be remembered. That’s another promise I made that day. It’s an easy one to keep. “Peace to You, My much missed Great Friend Ronnie; We remain here still, soldiering on. We hope you still smile at us and our folly.”
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.