This is a non fiction story of the time my dad took my brother and I out of school to pan for gold for the rest of our lives.
One night in 1985, after sixth grade, Dad burst through the door of Grandma and Grandpa’s single-wide trailer after being gone for almost two years. He stood there with wild hair, a big smile, and an armload of threadbare stuffed animals. The light from the kitchen’s dim bulb cast long shadows on his face and muscular build. To my little brother and me, this wasn’t Dad; this was some nightmare carnival barker. When he knelt down and spread his arms open both of us only shied away and stared. A few seconds went by filled with the sounds of shooting and explosions on the television in the living room. Dad stood up, took a step toward us, and shoved a couple animals in each of our arms, patted our heads. I looked down at a plush green octopus in my hands that had smears of grease under one of the googly eyes and the coat of fur of the Golden Retriever had crusted in small patches. They both smelled like cigarette smoke.
+ + +
“Little Phil, take your brother and go put your toys away,” Grandma told me, and I did. Keith and I shared the bedroom halfway down the hall and even though the living room was between the kitchen and our room the walls were so thin we could hear them talking. I didn’t turn the light on. I don’t know why, but we sat in the dark with Dad’s hand-me-down stuffed animals around us on the bed. Keith and I sat close together and strained to listen.
Grandpa didn’t speak but I heard a chair scraping against the linoleum floor, plates knocked around in the sink, and the pounding of his feet as he paced the kitchen. I pictured Grandma in her housedress cross-legged in her Lazy Boy, chain smoking, barefoot with curlers.
Dad announced he won a sixteen-foot trailer and a couple hundred dollars in the Coos Bay Foosball Tournament the weekend before. After a hard night of celebrating he woke with a sudden inspiration. He would take his boys panning for gold up the Sixes River. The man he bought the old dredger from told him the nuggets were all but laying on the riverbank.
“These boys need stability, Phil,” Grandma said. “They haven’t seen you, or even heard from you in at least a year and a half. Now you want to just up and take them?”
“I sent cards.”
“Two, Phil. A Christmas card to the both of them and a birthday card to Little Phil three months after his birthday.”
I heard the chair scraping again, then the water from the sink went on and the sounds of someone washing the dishes drowned out the rest of the words. Grandpa never got mad or nervous; he did housework.
I didn’t make anything else out until Dad yelled, “They’re my boys and they’ll learn something out there, more than they’d learn in school.”
I didn’t notice Keith had fallen asleep until Dad’s outburst made him kick his leg, but he didn’t wake. I didn’t sleep for hours.
+ + +
In the morning, we hugged Grandma goodbye after packing a couple old suitcases with our jeans, t-shirts, underwear, and pajamas. She stayed inside, but Grandpa loaded the suitcases into the Station Wagon and watched us pull out on the road and drive off. Dad sat on the edge of the driver’s seat and leaned into the giant steering wheel. The second we pulled around the first bend of the mountain-road Dad punched it sending the engine roaring like God’s own thunder. Keith sat so close to me we could have shared the same seatbelt if we had one on. When Dad turned the wheel we slid across the vinyl seat from the door to the center and back.
“Don’t worry, boys, we’ll hit the mother lode,” Dad said and ran his hand through his thick, wavy brown hair. He pounded the steering wheel with the heel of his fist. “Davis and sons.”
I ran my hand through my thick, brown hair and pounded the dashboard too. Keith scooted closer to me and I noticed his smile fade when he thought I wasn’t looking at him. Summer air flowed through the open windows filling the car with the smell of early morning pine.
An hour down the road our enthusiasm was still there. Dad mussed Keith’s hair and let out a whoop. Keith whooped too. I waited for his big hand to muss my hair but instead it went to his back pocket and pulled out a pint-bottle of whiskey. He sipped at it and sucked his teeth, then turned to us and started to answer a question neither of us asked. “Working is what’s unnatural. Man wasn’t made to sell his life by the hour. I’m doing you a favor pulling you out of that life.”
The big Station Wagon sped south toward a future filled with gold, pulling a sixteen-foot snot green trailer filled with supplies: a 20-pound mal, a chainsaw, two shovels, three fifteen-gallon water jugs, and whatever else Grandpa could spare from his tool shed.
+ + +
The Station Wagon slowed suddenly and I woke to catch myself from sliding across the vinyl seat to the floorboard. I reached out to catch Keith but he was awake holding onto the armrest of the door. The strain on the trailer hitch went from creak to groan and Dad laughed. “Whoa, almost missed it.”
The road he turned on didn’t have a name, only a number the fire service gave it. It wasn’t paved, just had two deep ruts cut into the dirt with bald rocks poking up all over sending the Station Wagon lurching side to side. The screeching of the hitch changed to sound like a high pitch laugh. Dad laughed too.
+ + +
Dad drove us out as far as he could on that road until he pulled up right on a flat river bank about twenty yards from a small grove of birch and cedar trees. He slammed the gearshift into park and jumped out before the car was done shaking. “This is it. This is it.”
The water was so crystal clear the only way I could tell it was flowing was following the leaves floating on the surface with my eyes. Well, that is until it foamed up in the shallows over river rocks. The rush of the current and the wind in the trees was all there was to hear; it filled my ears. I slid across the front seat and got out of Dad’s door to stand beside him in the direct sunlight. He had his eyes closed, his arms out, and his chin lifted to the sky. I did the same and for the first time in my life I experienced the sun as something physical, something comforting.
“Philip, take your brother and get some fire wood. We’ll make the fire right here.”
His voice made me jump. I opened my eyes and turned back to see Keith still bunched up in a ball on the bench-seat in the car.
Keith and I kicked around through the underbrush of the grove for branches and sticks while Dad unloaded the dredge and rearranged our supplies back at the trailer. Even though I told him to spread out, Keith stayed right by my side and asked, “Are we going to stay out here?”
“Dad said get the birch and not pine. Don’t pick up anything with too many needles cause that’ll smoke bad. Dad don’t want no one to see our fire.”
“Where are we sposed to go number two?”
I hadn’t thought about that and it set me off a bit, but I didn’t want Keith to think I was shook up over it so I picked up a couple branches and said, “Out here, probly.”
“Where,” He whined.
“You dig a hole and wipe then bury it.”
“I want to go home. My ear is starting to hurt again.” Keith was prone to ear infections and when he was younger he had to have tubes put in. “How long are we sposed to stay out here?”
“It doesn’t matter we’re with our Dad now. He’s watching out for us.”
+ + +
The dredger looked to me to be just a generator on two thick Styrofoam pontoons with a vacuum hose on one end that sucked up the river floor into a stainless steel rectangle. The rectangle had several different levels to it and as the water flowed down the levels the vibrations separated the silt, mud, rocks, and gold.
After staking it down Dad primed it by pressing a red button three times. He yanked a cord to start the thing and when he did a thick black cloud of diesel exhaust coughed out and a high-pitched rev screeched so loud it burrowed into my eardrums. Keith stood on shore with his hands over his ears. Dad filled the pan full of silt he had just dredged and shook it back and forth real quick. He yelled instructions I couldn’t hear or understand but that didn’t keep me from nodding. When he handed me the pan I took it and started shaking it just like he showed me. Every couple minutes he’d stop dredging, stand over me, smile wide, and pick out a few tiny slivers of gold.
+ + +
We had no complications the rest of the world had. No rent since we were squatting on government land, no bills, and no contact to the outside world except for a battery powered radio that only got one classic rock station. Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder was on high rotation with Rosanna by Toto.
Every morning we woke before the sun cleared the tree-covered mountains around us. Dad built a fire before the morning dew evaporated off the long grass and he made us pancakes in our one skillet every morning. After eating, Keith and I washed the dishes in the river before starting to dredge in the sun for the rest of the day. When it started to get dark Dad made another fire. Dinner was always the best even though we had to peel and dice the potatoes. Dad would reach into the bowl of potatoes with both hands and grab a bunch. The river water leaked down into the pan of oil and this would make a flash fire so big they lit up the trees standing around us. An hour later we all lay on our sleeping bags around the fire tired from a long day and slowly nodding off to the night sounds of crickets.
+ + +
After three weeks Dad told us we had a little over a half an ounce and gold was trading at 360 dollars. It wasn’t much, but since we had no other expenses Dad was able to buy a sack of potatoes, a couple cases of chili con carne, onions, bags of pancake batter, some fresh fruit, toilet paper, soap, and other necessities. He did it. He was living as a gold miner, so to celebrate he bought himself a few bottles of whiskey too.
+ + +
Trying to remember the day of the week wasn’t as important as working long hours at the dredger to get those flakes and slivers. When we weren’t doing that we collected and chopped wood, made a fires, washed clothes in the river, and even set traps for squirrels although we never caught one. My brother only complained once about his earache in those weeks and it was only during a long night with scary noises. Dad knew the pain had more to do with the sounds of an owl than it did with the tubes in his ears, but he gave Keith a few cotton balls to put in.
+ + +
One day with the river up to my waist I stopped panning to splash some cold water on my sun burnt shoulders and I saw something that didn’t register right away. A dark bulk floated slowly down the other side of the river in the shade of a few birch trees. I cocked my head and after few seconds I realized I was looking at a shirtless man with a straw hat floating on a giant inner tube. I had no doubt that inner tube had seen the inside of a tractor tire for most its existence just like I knew the man had the sort of tan that only comes from not wearing a shirt all summer. When the man saw the three of us he turned over on his stomach and started to paddle to our bank. I tapped Dad on his shoulder. He looked up and without a word killed the dredger and stood to face the man.
“I knew I heard some dredging down here.” The man straddled the inner tube but this set him off balance because the tube was so big and he was still too deep in the water for both feet to be on the ground. Dad still didn’t say anything, but he stood in the water with his feet braced and his hands at his side.
“I’m Andy, how you doing?”
“All right,” Dad said over the sound of the flowing river.
“It’s just I saw your kids, and all. We have a camp maybe a half mile up river, me, my girlfriend, and three other couples. We have kids too.”
Dad lifted his chin and waited.
For some reason Dad’s silence embarrassed the man and he blushed. When he jumped off the inner-tube it popped up and started floating away. The man had to grab it fast and hold it to his chest. “Any luck? Gold, I mean.”
“No, we just set up yesterday,” Dad said. “You live here?”
“Yeah, well, not really. I mean we don’t own the property or anything, but my friends and I camp out here in the summers.” Dad relaxed a bit when he heard this and the man noticed. “Anyway, I saw the kids and we have some kids in our camp. I figured since it’s Fourth of July and all maybe you’d like to come up, have a beer and eat some barbeque. I think Jon said he had some fireworks.”
“Shit, the Fourth already.” Dad looked down at us and smiled. “That’s damned neighborly, Andy. I’m Phil and these are my boys. We’ll be there.”
+ + +
That first night with the river folk stretched out into memories full of laughing, drinking pop, and hamburgers cooked over a grill with pickles and sweet ketchup. Keith and I fell in with three children. The oldest was a half black kid named Kingston with dreadlocks. I never played with a black kid before. The trailer parks we grew up in only had white families. The second kid was a chubby boy who laughed a lot and never wore a shirt. Andy with the inner-tube was his father. The youngest was a frail little boy who always coughed and would always try to impress us by showing us how far he could shoot a stream of pee. His father was a longhaired blond man everyone called Dogberry.
Keith and I had been so long without anyone else to play with we filled hours with amazing fun even though all we did was talk, throw rocks, and swordfight with sticks in the river. Every once in a while I looked over to Dad standing with the adults around the bonfire. They all laughed and passed a joint around while drinking from their cans of Budweiser. Dad fit right in. That was a strength he had. He was hapless, but handsome. At sixteen years old Dad flew through the windshield of his big brothers Mustang in a crash that would have killed them both if they weren’t drinking. Dad liked to tell people the doctor told him that, “If you boys were sober you wouldn’t have lived through this.” Maybe he used that as a theme in life, but my point is that even the scars across his forehead and nose complimented his looks. All of Dad’s flaws tended to do this, his alcoholism, his temper, his ignorance, his immaturity added to his charm somehow.
Every time I looked over it seemed Dad was the center of attention. A skinny girl with long black hair and peacock feathers for earrings seemed to laugh the longest at his jokes and stories. She was the frail boy’s mother.
Late into the night the bonfire was so bright we had to walk a quarter mile away to see the stars. The river was cold now so we stayed on the island and threw rocks into the dark. A big cheer broke out around the campfire with the adults. The man they called Dogberry was laughing with a compound bow in his hand. He bent down and when he stood again he had an arrow with an M-80 tied to the end of it in his other hand. Andy lit it against the protests of the women when Dogberry pulled it back.
Everyone’s eyes followed the sparks marching up the fuse. They almost crawled inside of the M-80 before he let fly and the arrow streaked into the black sky up the river. I lost it in the dark but followed the speed and direction. It blew in a different spot than I thought but it was fun. Dogberry did this a number of times always shooting up stream into the river where I supposed they knew no other river folk camped. Each time everyone was amazed by how far he let the fuse burn down before letting fly. Each time the women told him not to do it again. Finally he was down to the last arrow and as soon as he had it nocked Andy lit it and we watched, and watched.
The ring of sparks made its way up the fuse again and this time they started into the hole of the cardboard cylinder of the M-80. Then with a sudden movement he pointed the arrow straight up in the air and let fly. It left the bow with fling. Every adult face jerked to the sky with a terrified expression but no one moved, no one knew what to do.
Then they all started screaming and running and cussing at Dogberry. Keith and I sprinted to the river tripping over rocks. I tried to look back over my shoulder for an explosion.
The arrow cut through some blackberry bushes when it finally landed in the shallow part of the opposite riverbank. The water didn’t keep it from exploding and when it did Dogberry was the only one who cheered. Everyone else called him names, told him that wasn’t funny, and walked back toward the bonfire. The other three children were with either their mother or father. Dad walked back to the fire with a smile on his face talking to the girl with the peacock feather earrings.
Dogberry grabbed his beer while everyone yelled at him. He shook his long blond hair and said, “Ah come on, my grand finale was shooting off my old shotgun. I got buckshot; it’s cool. Should I get it?”
Everyone protested and threw wadded up napkins or empty beer cans at him and he laughed it off.
+ + +
The next time we went into town we didn’t have as much gold to sell because we had been hanging out with the river folk every other day instead of dredging. Dad bought potatoes, pancake mix, a few cases of chili con carne, and because he was having such rotten luck he decided to commiserate with a couple bottles of cheap whiskey. Keith wanted fresh fruit. I asked for toilet paper. He said we could pick berries and wipe our asses with leaves.
Dad told us we needed to work harder. We’d move up the bank about a quarter mile for a new start. That’s what we did and for the first couple days we did work harder. Keith and I took turns sifting and Dad kept in the water for hours finding the best spots with the hose. Then he would hurry over and hover around us with tweezers really digging through the silt to find even the smallest slivers. Every night at dinner dad swirled the river water in the little one-ounce vial and then let the flakes and slivers settle to the bottom. In a couple days it was almost a quarter full.
Maybe a week passed this way until one night after dinner Dad told us that he was going to the river folk camp but he’d be back in just a little while. He needed us to stay with the trailer and dredger.
“But Dad, we want to go to,” I said gathering up all the dishes.
“No. You stay here with your brother. I won’t be long. I just don’t want them to think we’re being rude by not visiting. That’s all. I’m just going to tell them that and I’ll be back.”
I forced myself to take a deep breath and asked, “You’re going to leave us?”
“Don’t worry. I’m watching out. You can deal with this. You’re a Davis. That means something.” He said and stood up. The fire lit up his front and cast shadows in his face and around his muscles making him looked carved from something, a statue.
“Dad, no,” Keith said.
“You know how to keep a fire going by now right, son?”
Keith and I nodded.
“I’ll be back.” He turned and walked out of the firelight and we watched him until his form faded into the dark.
I threw a log on the fire even though it didn’t need it and steadied my breathing. The two of us sat staring at the dancing flames listening for the splashing of Dad walking up the river. What we heard after those sounds faded amazed us. Even over the flowing river we could hear the crickets jumping in the grass around us, bats flapping their wings overhead, fish surfacing to eat waterskeeters. We could hear the trees stretching and the night breathing.
“My ear hurts real bad,” Keith said.
I stoked the fire a bit thinking for a while then stood and looked at the small trailer. “I’ll go look for the cotton balls.”
+ + +
The next morning I woke and checked Keith. We both slept inside the small trailer. We barely fit. Keith had curled up into a ball on the floor. I carefully stepped over him and opened door to find Dad squatting over a new fire, pouring pancake batter into the skillet. “Come on, sleepy head, get your brother up. Today we make our first million.”
The day went by like one of our first on the river, except Dad was in the best mood I ever remembering him being in. We laughed and even sang made up words for the songs we heard on the radio over the steady humming of the dredger’s diesel engine. We worked until the sky turned a deep blue and the heat from that day’s sunburn was the only thing keeping us warm. Neither Keith nor I complained about peeling the potatoes and when dad threw them into the oiled skillet the light from the flames flashed across the river and lit up the trees of the grove. We laughed and sang along with the radio, but then when we were done eating Dad told us he was leaving again. Our mood changed. His didn’t.
+ + +
Dad leaving after dinner became normal. Most nights he came back before morning. He slept late though, almost to noon, and when he woke up his hangovers made him hard to deal with so I would start the fire and mix up the pancake batter while Keith picked different types of berries to put in them. We refilled the water jugs by ourselves, washed our own clothes, and anything else that needed to get done, but the dredger sat unused most the time.
+ + +
On the day before we left Dad woke up with puffy eyes and told us we had the day off, and that we’d start dredging right the next morning. I nodded and he rolled over in his sleeping bag and covered his head. The morning dew on the tall grass and shrubs around us was turning to steam and rising like smoke. The shafts of sunlight through the grove of trees made perfect rays. The air was cold. Fall was coming. I breathed in so deep my chest felt broader.
We finished cleaning and put the fire out by pouring river water on it. Since Dad gave us the day off Keith and I decided to walk up river to see the other boys.
The river folk weren’t awake yet, not the adults anyway. The boys were up but they didn’t want to play with us. Kingston and the chubby boy wouldn’t talk to us, but the little blond-haired kid asked where Dad was. He’d spent a lot of time with him since his father had gone windsurfing at Blue Lake down in Humboldt County week ago. His mom was the girl with the peacock earrings.
The three of us explored the area. We made our way to the main road with our shirts wrapped around our waists because of the heat. The long grass scraped the skin of my stomach and chest making it itch. When we got to the road the little kid showed us how he would peel the tar from where the maintenance crews patched the cracks. We formed the gummy tar into little people and played for a while.
When we returned to our camp Dad heard us walking up. “Start the fire, let’s make some dinner.”
We didn’t tell him where we’d been and he didn’t ask. None of us spoke, laughed, or sang. Keith and I knew when our bowls were scraped clean and in a pile to be washed Dad would tell us he’d be leaving. That last time we didn’t listen to his splashes up river. We went about cleaning and getting ready for bed. Keith’s ear didn’t hurt that night. We lay on our back with our hands folded behind our heads looking at the bright stars making up our own constellations.
“Dad isn’t teaching us anything, not on purpose. He isn’t even watching out for us, is he?”
“Don’t know, probly not, but you’re watching me and I’m watching you.”
Keith put a branch on the fire even though it didn’t need it and we listened to the night noises until we fell asleep.
+ + +
The boom woke me up, a loud crack that echoed down the river and across the mountains. I sat up and everything was early morning blue, the dim kind of blue that made everything look faded. The fire smoldered and the burning wood smell covered my clothes and my sleeping bag. I listened hard for anything else, but there was only the river and Keith’s breathing. Dad hadn’t come back yet. I put my head back down for a few minutes but I had to pee so I got up, ran to the trailer to dig out a sweatshirt and put on my shoes, then I headed to the grove of trees.
I had an armful of branches heading to the firepit when I heard the splashing. Someone was sprinting through the water, not the regular footfalls of walking on the bank. I squinted to see Dad and he was running down the riverbank waving his arms and yelling, but I couldn’t hear his voice over the splashing.
I walked up behind Keith who was sitting up in his sleeping bag. “I think he’s saying get the gold.”
I dropped the wood to the side of the fire and cupped my ear.
“Get the gold and get in the fucking car!” Dad screamed.
Neither of us moved. We both stood staring at Dad coming toward us with his right hand holding his butt and his left pumping as he ran.
“Get the gold now! Get in the fucking car!”
I ran to the trailer and dug through the drawer where we kept the one-ounce vial.
“What’s happening?” Keith asked.
“I don’t know. Get in the car.”
Keith started rolling up his sleeping bag. I walked toward Dad.
His whole body was soaked, even his hair, and his eyes were wild, his face red. “Get in the car now,” he yelled and ran right by me. I turned to follow him and saw the back of his shorts had a dozen small holes and were saturated with blood thinned with river water. His lower back and the back of his thighs had a couple dozen red welts each one swelling and oozing blood. I thought he’d tripped into a beehive.
The Station Wagon started up and we were heading down the unimproved road before I had even shut my door. All our stuff left on the riverbed. Dad pounded the dashboard. “He fucking shot me!”
“What’s happening, Dad?” Keith asked.
Dad turned his head and when he did drops of water flew from his hair onto the inside of the windshield, on the seat, onto us. He looked at us for a second trying to force some sort of calm, but it didn’t happen. “Just a misunderstanding, with a fucking shotgun and some dickhead pot farmer who got back a little too early.” The last part of the sentence he started to scream and hit the dashboard again. He leaned back hard, picking his butt up off the seat letting it hover there as he drove. The river water and blood pooled on the vinyl and spread toward us. Keith was in the middle and backed away so he didn’t get wet.
We stopped in the nearest town to sell our gold. Dad had me go into a Fred Meyers store and buy him some new shorts and a T-shirt with a starfish on it over the words Gold Beach, Oregon Coast. He filled up on gas, bought us burgers, and we drove for an hour or two. We all knew we were going back to Grandma and Grandpa’s singlewide in the Cascades, back to school.
We didn’t speak too much. Keith curled up in the middle of the bench seat and fell asleep but I looked out the window. Dad took us out into the woods to find his fortune on the river. Keith and I just wanted his time and attention. We had it for a while. Despite how he went about it Dad did teach us something.
+ + +
We went inside together and Dad explained to Grandma as she sat on her Lazy Boy chain smoking that she was probably right about it all. He was very sorry that he lost all our clothes and all Grandpa’s tools, but he was in a fix. He’d make it right as soon as he could. We stood beside Grandpa in the driveway when dad drove the green Plymouth Sation Wagon out the driveway and down the mountain road.
This story originally appeared in Nailed Magazine. http://www.nailedmagazine.com/fiction/memoir-fools-gold-by-sean-davis/