There are many rivers and creeks across the land, and boys play in them all the time.
They slide down the muddy bank, hanging their britches or shirts up on a low-hanging branch, wading into the water alongside the salamanders and snakes. That's what boys do. They've been doing it for as long as there have been boys and creeks, and will continue until all the creeks on earth run dry.
Most days, they get back out. Sopping wet. Safe and sound.
But earlier this week, we were reminded once again that life can be a slot machine -- that nothing is guaranteed in this world -- and on certain days, death comes calling to the very places it should never visit.
Like the places where kids are playing.
"Kentory L. Ray, 11, died Sunday," the newspaper obituary reads.
"Thomas M. Ruffin, 11, of Chattanooga, passed away Sunday," reads the other.
Both boys died Sunday after drowning in the South Chickamauga Creek.
Apparently, they had been playing with two other boys, rough-housing by the creek. Kentory, who couldn't swim, fell in.
That's when Thomas, his good friend, jumped in to save him.
It would be the last time anyone saw them alive.
"Did you hear they found the second body?" my friend said to me on Monday afternoon, as police announced they'd discovered the bodies of both boys.
My friend is not from Cromwell Hills Apartments, where the boys lived. He didn't know them, and had all involved lived to be 100 years old, probably never would have.
But he's a dad.
And their death shook him.
It did so many parents across the city, as we paused, and projected the lives of our own children onto those drowning boys.
The two boys weren't playing with guns. They weren't texting and driving. Weren't popping pills or gang-banging.
They were playing.
On the banks of a creek.
Which is what boys so often do.
Rivers and creeks are supposed to bring life. They are sources of water and we all -- not just boys -- are drawn to them. They are present in literature and myth and religion; Moses found life on a river, as did Perseus, Huckleberry and Jim.
So many of us grew up swimming in creeks and playing on their muddy banks, or if not that, then something equal to such. We've all got stories of falling into a mess of danger -- accidentally -- and somehow, miraculously, we make it back out to dry land.
Years later, with the groundedness and more developed prefrontal cortex that comes with adulthood, we shake our heads at these memories, as we realize: yes, something bad could have happened.
But it didn't.
So why did it happen to those two boys?
Why couldn't one of their terrified and struggling hands find a grip on something, just something that would keep their head above water?
Why couldn't God move some tree branch or submerged rock into their path?
Why did guardian angels turn a blind eye?
"Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth," says the book of Genesis, as God promises to Noah never to flood the world again.
Yet in Cromwell Hills, there are families that have just been destroyed by water.
We can't legislate against it. Can't form a task force. Can't criminalize the creek or boys playing. These things ... just happen.
Can we blame the neglected basketball court and playground nearby? Maybe, just maybe, had they been in better shape, the boys would have played there instead of the creek bank.
Can we call for swimming lessons to be taught in more places? Of course.
But beyond that, we are left, as in all tragedies, with the unending If Onlys that call to us like crows from a crooked tree.
In Cromwell Hills, people continue to mourn.
Their tears fall to the ground.
Their tears sink into the soil.
And no matter how diluted or dissolved they become, their tears will flow downward as all things do, one day reaching the waters of the South Chickamauga Creek, which flows into the river, which flows into the ocean, as it gives life to so many things.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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