I was ten years old the first time I saw a dead person up close. It wasn’t at a funeral, where most people see their first body, because I had not yet been to one. It wasn’t at the scene of a horrible highway accident, for I usually looked away when we came upon one. Car crashes happened with some frequency on the two-lane roads of the 60’s, and I do remember seeing a body lying half in and half out of a car once, but only from a distance. Mom managed to shield my eyes before we got close enough to see blood. No, when I first met death up close it was on a beach.
Dad had surprised us early on that Saturday morning. It was a rare day when he had the weekend off and felt like doing something with the family. We piled in our ’63 Impala, stopping at a bait shop to fill our metal chest with soft drinks and ice. Mom had made bologna sandwiches. It was not yet ten when we reached the beach at Grand Rivers, but it was already crowded. We settled for a spot near where the cliff met the shore, which was by far the rockiest. But we were happy.
It was a splendid summer day–mostly sunny, with just enough of a breeze to cause small waves. We had not yet made any trips to an ocean, so the little waves of Kentucky Lake were all I knew. There was no sand, unless you counted the ground-up shells. You had to pick your way carefully through sharp rocks on tender feet. I couldn’t swim yet, but I made do on a plastic raft. Rafts back then were so flimsy they rarely made two trips to the beach. Sharp rocks punched many holes, and I spent more time blowing up the raft than floating on it.
I remember how shocking and cold the water felt at first, but after a minute I didn’t want to leave it. It wasn’t long before mom was telling me I was turning red, and to put my shirt on. That always happened, because I was red-headed and fair-complexioned. Some of my worst memories are of terrible childhood sunburns. We didn’t know (or hadn’t heard) about SPF back then. Every once in a while you would see someone with zinc oxide on their nose, but that was about it.
I was putting my checked short-sleeve shirt on and drinking a Pepsi when I noticed a crowd gathering at the other end of the beach. Dad was pretty far out into the lake, so I told Mom I was going to walk over and see what was going on.
When I reached the crowd all I could see at first were a lot of bare legs in a circle. People were looking down at something on a towel. And then I saw the boy. He was thin and pale, with brown hair and blue eyes–eyes that looked up at the crowd but didn’t blink. I think I knew at that moment he was dead, but it was quite a shock. Somewhere in the crowd a woman sobbed.
From the general mumbling I picked out one man’s voice. “Hard to believe he was lyin’ there dead in two foot o’water,” he said. “Wonder how long he laid there drowned?”
Another voice, “I don’t know but they said that a boy stepped on him and that’s when they found him.”
And yet another voice, “He’s just ten years old. It’s such a shame.”
As I stood listening–trying not to believe what I was hearing–I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go home, Son,” said Dad. We walked back to where Mom was feeding my baby brother on the blanket. She and Dad spoke quietly as I gathered up the floats, and we drove slowly up the beach and headed home. No one spoke or turned on the radio. Even my younger brother and sister—who usually hopped around the car like kangaroos–sensed something was wrong and remained quiet.
When I went to bed that night I lay awake a long time. I couldn’t get the image of that nameless boy out of my head. I don’t remember ever thinking about death before that day. A ten year-old boy was dead, and I had seen him. I had looked on his motionless white face and realized his life was over. I was also ten years old. If that little boy could die, I could die. I had always thought that things were going to go on like they had been forever.
Something within me changed after that. Life seemed scarier and more fragile. For a time, whenever anyone in the family was sick, my mind jumped immediately into a dark place. I worried needlessly over minor things. Seeing the dead boy had profoundly affected me.
Eventually, the impact of that day lessened, though it never completely went away. Whenever I remember it now, it’s like a sad scene from a movie I saw a long time ago. A movie where everyone was having a good time until suddenly they weren’t. Life can be like that.
© Wade Kingston