The clock of life is wound but once,
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.
To lose one’s wealth is sad indeed,
To lose one’s health is more,
To lose one’s soul is such a loss
That no man can restore.
The present only is our own,
So live, love, toil with a will,
Place no faith in “Tomorrow”,
For the Clock may then be still.
– Robert H. Smith
Every year since 1985, a group of friends, all or in part, have gathered at a place called Turner Bend to test their whitewater canoeing skills on Arkansas’ Mulberry River. At their core were five river rats: Alan, John B., Dana, Hoot and John G. They called themselves The Baker Boys in honor of their alma mater, Baker University. But each spring when joined by their buddies, Eric and Kevin, they transformed into The Mulberry Madmen.
In 2004, within days of returning from that year’s high-water hiatus, they lost Kevin. It was sudden. Just as suddenly they began to share Anna Nalick’s observation, “…life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table.” And just as soberly that Aprils, like summers, aren’t endless.
It was then that Alan suggested a tontine. He explained that during the First World War a group of brothers-in-arms were down to their last bottle of brandy. They decided to make a pact and pledged that as their numbers dwindled, the bottle would pass from man to man, until the last, to toast the memory of each dear, departed comrade.
The Madmen embraced the tontine concept with enthusiasm. But instead of brandy, they agreed that a paddle would be a more apt symbol of their fellowship. Their names and birthdays would be listed, and the dates of their passing added accordingly. As a lasting testament to their brotherly bond, they arranged to have the sole survivor hang their paddle in Turner Bend’s general store.
In 2016 Alan followed in Kevin’s wake. Last year, John B. cast off for Valhalla to join them.
Another April approaches. Another date of remembrance. Another empty seat at the campfire.
In the springtime of the new year, and deepening autumn of their lives, the old friends once again find themselves humming Shall We Gather at the River? Creased, tattered and chicken-scratched gear lists are pulled from the depths of desk drawers. Duffles are stuffed and camp boxes stocked. Decades-old wetsuits are tested for dry rot and stretched a little tighter over stomachs a little broader. And the “new” – now very old – Carlisle bent shaft paddle is pulled from the rafters. There are blossoms bustin’ all along the Pig Trail, the ditches ain’t near dry and the old boys’ pulses quicken as they descend on a Mighty Mulberry risin’ faster than the sap in the dogwoods.
The sun sets, silhouetting 40-foot pines they knew nearly as many years before as saplings. The paddle is raised. Somber hearts ache. The clock of life has stilled once more.
They hang a third photo,
And toast another glass,
As wistfully each ponders,
Who will be the last?
– John Genther