“River Smiles” by Sean Loyless, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

When I was in my late twenties, three of my co-workers and I met every Friday during summer vacations to tube down the San Marcos River.

We would start with burgers at Pepper’s or salads at Palmers’ or, joy of joys, real, old-fashioned Tex-Mex at Herbert’s Taco Hut. Then we’d go to Vivian’s, change into swimsuits, throw tractor tubes into the back of her husband’s old truck, and head for City Park. We’d tiptoe into the bone-chilling water (a “warm” 72 degrees all year, they say), lash the tubes together, and for the next hour, just drift along. Then, after handing the driver limp dollar bills that had traveled downstream tucked, like Lydia Bennet’s lace, into the bosoms of our swimsuits, we would take the River Taxi back to City Park. There we sometimes we tossed the tubes back into the water and floated down again.

If we wanted to take the long route, we drove two vehicles, parked the pickup under the I-35 overpass, and drove the second car to City Park. Then, instead of getting out and boarding the River Taxi, we walked around the dam, and, leaving the crowd behind, floated along a quiet stretch lined with elephant ears and shaded by cypress and pecan trees. At the interstate, took waiting pickup back to Vivian’s for chips and dips and games of Mexican dominoes.

On the river, we talked about school, complained about school, gossiped about school, rehashed last year, and pondered possibilities for fall. We discussed our private lives: would the builder ever finish Vivian’s house, would Patty really leave us for that high-powered engineering job, and was Nell really—really—pregnant? We had enough material to last all summer.

To the uninitiated, this probably sounds dead boring. But we knew–from experience–the potential for adventure every time we got together.

Drifting along in cold water and hot sun, paying attention only to ourselves, we floated into spider webs. We floated into elephant ears. We floated into pockets of debris. We floated into other people. We screamed at spiders and debris. To other people, we apologized.

In drought years, when the river was low, our bottoms dragged on the broken pilings of bridges past. We ducked under low branches and paddled furiously to escape teenagers cannonballing off the old railroad bridge. When a boy lucked out and landed almost dead center, drenching us, Nell yelled, “That’s about a D-minus in maturity!” While the rest of us hissed, “Shut up, they’ll know we’re teachers,” the dozen boys watching from the bridge launched themselves directly at us.

Sometimes adventure occurred away from the water. Whenever we left the pickup under I-35, transportation to the starting point was a challenge. We all drove compacts. Getting four women and four tractor-tire inner tubes into one little car and navigating through traffic, even in a very small city, took courage, cunning, and creativity. I don’t remember exactly how we did it. I think we tied one tube onto the roof and looped the others together; then the non-drivers hung out the windows and held onto the tubes to keep them from flopping around.

At the end of one trip, we found the truck partially blocked by other vehicles. Vivian, who was far from proficient in standard shift, had to back up. “But I’ve never done reverse,” she wailed.

Another time we took Vivian’s little yellow Toyota to Rio Vista Park to retrieve a car we’d left there. June had been wet. On the way in, Vivian drove into a mud hole and the Toyota sank to the axle. We changed cars and returned to Vivian’s. When we pulled up at the curb, her husband emerged from the house saying his truck was making a funny noise and he needed Vivian to drive him to a meeting pronto. A few days later, her husband developed Bell’s palsy. I’ve always felt partially responsible.

The most exciting event involved Vivian’s Toyota, her purse, and a kind stranger. Leaving Pepper’s after lunch, we had to turn left onto Sessom Street, a four-lane racetrack winding along the edge of the university campus. Turning left onto Sessom at any time wasn’t easy; at noon it took a good sense of timing and nerves of steel. Vivian had neither. She turned anyway.

Suddenly the Toyota stalled, straddling the center line, engine running but steering wheel locked. Vivian’s purse strap had looped around the steering column, settled into a groove, and then caught around the handle that operates the windshield wiper. How it happened we never figured out. But without scissors or a knife, we couldn’t free the strap from the column, and without freeing the strap, Vivian couldn’t turn the steering wheel, or, in fact, make the car move at all.

So we sat, blocking the inside lanes, while cars whizzed by on both sides, horns blaring. Somehow the purse strap impinged upon something in the guts of the steering column and our horn started blaring. Intermittently. Long blasts, short blasts, medium blasts. Vivian and Nell worked frantically to unwind the strap. Confined to the back seat, I couldn’t help, so I toppled over and guffawed.

Our savior came in the person of a pedestrian with an amazing configuration of dreadlocks (a style seldom seen in 1970s San Marcos) who dashed into the street, opened the passenger door, leaned across, and addressed the tangle.

I don’t know what happened next, because I was still collapsed, but after several more minutes of cars tearing by and horns blowing and the three people up front pulling and tugging and breathing heavy and muttering, the strap released its stranglehold on the steering apparatus, the wheel turned, Vivian and Nell said, “Thank you thank you thank you,” (I was laughing too hard to enunciate clearly), and the stranger ran back across the street to safety. We eased into traffic and drove the four miles to Vivian’s, right through the middle of town, horn blaring all the way. By the time it was over, I had released enough endorphins to keep me pain-free for the rest of the summer.

The stories I’ve related are a mere sample of the fun four school teachers had on their Friday afternoons on the river.

In fact, we had so much fun we decided to share. Vivian had a relative, Barb, about our age, who had expressed interest in joining us on one of our jaunts. She was nice, but she was so organized and so competent and so confident, and so willing to confess to being all three of those things, and more, that she didn’t fit well with our ragtag crew. But she wanted to go, so we invited her.

She brought her swimsuit and tube. She brought a cooler of sodas and lemonade. She brought a little float to hold the cooler and a rope to tie it to our tubes. She brought cups and a trash bag. She organized the expedition so we could drift along smoothly and efficiently.

And we did. We ate lunch, we floated, we played dominoes, we went home. Period. It was the quickest and least eventful float on record. No spiders, no debris, no dragging bottoms, no submerged axles, no stuck steering wheels, no helpful men with interesting hair. No laughing. No shrieking. No joyful hysteria.

In other words, as my students would have said, bo-ring.

Afterwards, Vivian and I analyzed the situation and pinpointed the problem: Barb had organized all the fun out of the trip. Vivian, who never said an unkind word about anyone, leaned toward me and murmured, “She’s always made me nervous.” I could see why.

Over the past thirty years, however, I’ve thought a lot about that analysis and have concluded that Vivian and I were wrong. It wasn’t the organization. Vivian and I (liberal arts) were scattered, to put it mildly, but Patty (engineering and math) and Nell (business) could have organized things as well as Barb had if they’d wanted to. And what I wouldn’t have given (still would) for the organizational skills Barb possessed.

No. I believe the problem wasn’t that Barb brought ice and chilled sodas, but that she left something at home–the ability to just let things happen, the understanding that fun requires spiders, sunk axles, stuck steering wheels, and screaming.

Looking back, I also suspect that Barb didn’t have the time of her life either. At times, when the rest of us didn’t appear to be taking the project seriously, she became visibly impatient. I think she was as happy to end the day as we were.

From this story about my life in tubing, I draw the following moral: a chacun son gout,* or, to each his own taste.

Or, on second thought, the real moral of this story is that there doesn’t have to be a moral at all.


*I didn’t learn this phrase in my one semester of French. I heard it as chacun a son gout years ago in Die Fledermaus. I’ve always wanted to use it, and this seemed like a good time. But, cautious creature that I am, I checked Wikipedia first and discovered that the correct phrase is the one I used in the text of this post. It doesn’t scan, but I suppose we can’t have everything.


Image of River Smiles by Sean Loyless, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

7 thoughts on “Morals

    1. Tubing down the San Marcos River is one of the best ways I know to relax, in between crises. I’m glad you liked story. If you visit Texas in summer, we’ll show you the real thing.


    1. How very true. Loosen up, run into some spiders, do some screaming, and at the end of the trip you have a novel. I need to write that down.


    1. I don’t normally laugh when I run into spiders, but when I’m with a group of women in bathing suits, it seems the proper thing to do. And good for the soul.


  1. Kathy, This took me gratefully
    today down that same river pathway
    you described;one I have been on more times
    than I had remembered.I bet if I went today
    I could recapture the feeling you wrote about
    so vividly!
    Love it!


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