Some People Never Learn, But You Can If You Watch Them

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It has been 65 years now since I first learned to duck whenever I heard four small words.

“Don’t worry. It’s OK.”

To me, those words mean, “Ladies and gentlemen, the next event we bring you today is a full blown disaster.”

The person who taught me the duck-or-die routine was a pudgy 13-year-old kid named Jay-Jay Ruckford.

I spent the summer of 1943 in a little town named Brashier Falls located in upstate New York, and during that summer Jay-Jay said those words at least a dozen times.

The first time he said them was the day we launched our newly acquired rowboat into the Saint Regis River, paddled it across to the far side, and prepared to send it over the falls so that we could get it down river to our camp.

The falls were not too high, just 20 feet or so, but the river had been narrowed at that point by an old dam which blocked half its flow, sweeping the river up onto one bank, scouring the rock ledges clean and creating a churning rush of water that shot under the bridge and over the falls.

We planned to walk along the river bank holding onto the boat until we were close enough to the falls so that we could be sure it would go over in a spot where it would not run into Split Rock, a huge boulder that divided the river just below the bridge.

My brother Charlie’s best friend, Jerry, was in the boat with a paddle as Jay-Jay walked along up to his waist in water that swept across a sloping water-scoured ledge.

Charlie and I were on the bank, ready to haul in the boat when we got close enough to the falls. “OK, Jay-Jay,” Charlie yelled, “this is close enough.”

“Nah. Let’s get closer.”

“That ledge is slippery, and that water’s fast.”

The next words spoken?

“Don’t worry. It’s OK.”

Out from under Jay-Jay went his feet. Into the fast-running current went the rowboat. In seconds it was 20 feet out and moving fast as Jerry turned around and hauled Jay-Jay aboard.

Two minutes later Charlie and I watched from the bridge as the boat shot straight out into the air with Jay-Jay standing up and yelling his lungs out.

Straight down it plummeted, still upright as it disappeared into a mass of foaming, churning water.

We watched for it to come up but it didn’t. Then, 50 feet down the river it emerged, still upright but now filled with water — and Jay-Jay, still standing up and yelling.

Jerry tossed the paddle to Jay-Jay who was at the stern of the boat and yelled at him to steer away from Split Rock as he bailed water with his hands as fast as he could.

“Steer left!” Jerry yelled.

“Uh-uh, right!”

“Left dang it! You’re going to hit the rock!”

“Don’t worry. It’s ...”

They hit Split Rock head on. Out into the high leaping rapids on the right side of the rock went Jay-Jay, as Jerry hung on for dear life as he and the boat went down the other side backward.

Later, down at our camp, after we got Jay-Jay pumped out and more or less dry by a fire, Charlie showed us a diving helmet he had made out of a square five-gallon tin. He’d cut shoulder slots in it, put in a rectangular glass port, and made some straps to go under your arms. You couldn’t stay down long because the only air you had was what the can held. But it was fun to use, he told us.

Jay-Jay, of course, immediately grabbed it and donned it.

“Don’t bend over like that,” Charlie told him as he strode into the river.

“The helmet will fill with water.”

“Don’t worry. It’s OK.”

A minute later we were watching a teenage kid waving his arms as he stood on his head on the bottom of a river in a tin can.

“Should we pull him out?” Jerry asked, still not too thrilled about going over the falls in a rowboat.

“We better,” Charlie said. “Otherwise we’ll have to waste a whole day wearing white shirts and ties at the funeral.”

That night — yes that very same night — we had just climbed down off a fence that stood between two apple trees, one that grew small but juicy apples and one that held inedible crab apples.

“Oh, nuts!” Jay-Jay said as we came out under a streetlight. “I got mostly crab apples.” Then he laughed. “Hey, here comes a car. Let’s throw crab apples at it.”

“Don’t be stupid. What if you hit the driver and he crashes?”

“Don’t worry. It’s OK.”

An arm swung. An apple sped toward a vehicle.

Bam!

Right on the driver side door of the car as the State Police insignia showed under the streetlight.

Brakes screeched. Apples flew up in the air. Five kids with their hair standing straight up leapt the fence into the nearest yard and ran hell bent for leather.

“Be careful!” Charlie yelled. “Wire clotheslines!”

“Don’t worry. It’s ...”

Wang-g-g-g!”

When we got him home, the line across his throat had mostly stopped bleeding, and we figured if he lived it wasn’t our fault, so we just dropped him off on his doorstep.

And then there was the black powder incident!

We couldn’t get it to explode no matter how carefully we made it. We thought the reason it only fizzled was because it wasn’t mixed right. Actually the reason was that it wasn’t contained.

Half a pound of freshly mixed black powder in a Ball Mason jar. A hand holding a flaming match and reaching deep down into the jar, thereby sealing it.

Every window in the Ruckford cellar was blown out and Jay-Jay didn’t hear too well for a while.

Didn’t matter. He never listened to anyone anyway.

If you think that’s the end of the Jay-Jay stories, you’re wrong. I’m just out of space for this week’s column. When it comes to Jay-Jay, I got a million of them.

Oh, well. There’s always another day.

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