My mother often referred to my little brothers as ragamuffins. I believe that “ragamuffins” was a term of endearment, yet when she used the term, my brothers were noticeably unkempt and not so “dear.” Eventually, I thought of my little brothers as ragamuffins, wearing hightop scuffed leather shoes, ragged, soiled jeans, spiky hair, dirty hands and faces. They emanated a smell, peculiar to little boys: leaves and dog and grass and dirt and grease? After I'd left home, I noticed that homesickness was more acute when “little boy smell” happened to waft my way. I missed my little brothers after I went away.
I admit that I envy little boy spirit. Where do they go? What do they do when they go out to play – without supervision? I never investigated back then because I feared that I might be obligated to put an end to some adventure. Neither did I investigate the activities of my own sons; they were ragamuffins, especially when they were playing at the creek. (Add to “little boy smell” the distinctive smell of algae.) When they returned from their escapades, they acted happy, and they acted proud. To go turkey hunting, fishing, dam building, creek hiking, fort building, bike jumping; these were their ideas, not mine. They were free! “Bored” was an unfamiliar word at our dinner table. My little brothers and my boys were free to play until dark and to enter into the timelessness of childhood with license to be a ragamuffin.
In the early 80's, we lived on our land. It was a hot summer to live without air conditioning; we went from the marine layer reprieve of the coast to the desert-like heat of the mountain foothills. (The nights, however, were cool and sensual.) On impossibly hot days, we went to the river.
Bear River is beautiful. The canyon walls are dense with tree and vine greenery. Clear water flows over a bed of cobbles and silky stones, punctuated with sculpted boulders. Perfection is a sandy beach, shaded by old oaks, with sunny riffles in the river. We found such a place by floating.
The problem with floating on inner tubes is that you have to return on foot – which can be a trial when you have to negotiate thorny vines, poison oak – and hooligans.
That was the name that we gave to the squatters on the flat near the road. (We did not call them ragamuffins.) They lived in trashed trailers or tents with the boundaries of their campsites indicated by bags of reeking garbage and hysterical dogs. We avoided them by walking in the river, and minding our business. I thought then, and I think now, that if it were not for the trash everywhere and the excrement in the rocks, I might be more tolerant of these nearly homeless people. As it was, access to the river from the road was eventually blocked, and the squatters went away.
I did not want to be afraid of the “river rats” we encountered on the rivers when we first moved to the foothills, and if I had not had five children with me most of the time, I might have engaged some of these folks out of curiosity: “Where do you live in the winter? Are you really a gown-up ragamuffin?”
“Why do you carry a gun?” I asked once (for real).
“I thought maybe, claim jumpers.”
As I walk away, he calls, “You don't recognize me do you?”
“You do look somewhat familiar.” (Like Indiana Jones.)
I am embarrassed when he identifies himself as one of our teachers in the county.
I say to the kids as we begin our climb out of the canyon of the Yuba, “Well, that just goes to show.”
They don't ask what it “shows.”