Driving back from our annual Georgia get-together this week, Kruse started talking about interviewing our friend and just-retired TB Times colleague Jeff Klinkenberg for a what-I’ve-learned blog post. Somehow the following story from 1987 came up, and I asked Kruse to read it out loud in the car. He struggled through it. We both cried and sat in silence for a few long miles. What is it that makes certain stories unforgettable?
St. Petersburg Times
I liked to climb to the roof at night and throw water balloons at passing cars, and when that lost its novelty I hurled guavas, a common tropical fruit. One night, a couple of teen-agers whose car I smashed with a guava chased a friend and me over fences, through bushes and into back yards where dogs snapped at our heels. We somehow escaped.
One night, a friend and I built a dummy, and, hiding behind a bush, threw it in front of a passing car. The car screeched to a stop, and an elderly man got out, shaking, certain he had killed somebody. I am still ashamed.
By the time I was 14 I was a fishing fanatic. I fished for snook in a canal that passed through a golf course in Miami Shores. I had to trespass to fish, but I was good at climbing high fences, and I didn’t mind running from the cops. The cops would take you to the police station, call your parents, and confiscate your tackle. They never caught me.
Sometimes I wish I had been caught. If I had, maybe I would have stayed away from the golf course once and for all. Maybe Keith still would be alive, and on those nights when I lie awake in a cold sweat I would no longer hear him screaming for his mother.
I went back last week. In Miami for business, I had a couple of hours to kill and drove to the golf course. I walked along the first fairway, crossed a bridge that spanned the canal, passed under the railroad trestle — and then stopped when I saw the dam.
I was staring at the dam when a golf course ranger drove up in an electric cart. “What are you doing?” he asked. I told him I’d come back to the scene of a tragedy that has haunted me for 23 years, a tragedy my mind continually dredges up whenever I am depressed or I start worrying about the safety of my own sweet children. Death is no abstraction to me. That a lot of people live to old age is, I know, a matter of luck, of being in the right place at the right time. I am afraid to trust happiness.
“I remember it,” the golf course ranger said. “I lived across the street from the 16th fairway. I remember all the excitement. It was awful.”
“I was there,” I said.
“Kids still sneak on the golf course to fish,” he said. “I chased 10 away already this afternoon.”
“Take it from me,” I said. “It’s no place to fish.”
I walked along the 11th fairway and looked at the sign hanging from the fence at the dam.
“Danger,” it said. “Automatic Gates Open Without Warning.”
I introduced the twins, Keith and Kent, to fishing. We were 14 and in ninth grade. Kent was tall, thin, and, like me, a nerd who didn’t know how to dress and blushed whenever a girl approached. Keith was short and built like a bulldog, with big bones and a neck about as wide as his shoulders. He got into a lot of fights at school, and when we played football, he always wanted to play tackle instead of touch.
Nobody could bring him down.
It was a Sunday morning. My parents were at Mass. I met Keith and Kent at the golf course fence, and we climbed over. It was March, a little early for snook, but we wanted to try anyway.
Kent did his casting from shore; Keith and I stood together on a little walkway at the front of the dam. From there, you could cast under the dam and reach the spot where water and minnows trickled in from the other side.
Keith threw his yellow Creek Chub Darter lure under the dam. It got snagged on the floodgate, the mechanism that opens and closes to regulate the flow of water. Keith cussed and said, “I’m going to unsnag my lure.” It was the last thing he said to me.
While I continued casting, Keith climbed over a guard rail, to the other side of the dam. He lay on the floodgate and reached inside to recover his lure. There should have been nothing to it: Just lean in, get your lure, get out.
The tide, at that moment, must have reached its highest point.
Suddenly, the dam roared to life. Gears turned, machinery rumbled and the floodgates began opening. That was when Keith screamed.
Actually, it was a shriek. I still don’t know how this happened, and I don’t know if I can adequately explain it to you, but what happened was his upper body somehow got pinched between the floodgate and the rest of the dam. He could go neither forward nor back. As the gate came up to allow water to flow from below, life was squeezed from his body. I’ll tell you what he said, though it doesn’t mean as much unless you can imagine how he shrieked.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy. I don’t want to die. Oh, God, I don’t want to die.”
Kent and I leaped the railing and tugged on his legs, which were kicking, but we couldn’t haul him out. Pretty soon his legs stopped kicking.
Kent sprinted to the clubhouse a half mile away for help. I stood crying at the dam, until two doctors, playing golf, ran over to see what happened. One reached into the dam and took Keith’s pulse. “He’s gone,” he said.
A doctor told me to go home; there was nothing I could do. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to go home and cry in my parents’ arms. I pitched my tackle over the fence, jumped on my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could, my lungs almost bursting with effort. In my front yard, I jumped off the bicycle, while it was still rolling, and ran into the house screaming for my mom and dad. They were still at Mass. I went into their bedroom, fell to my knees and prayed loudly for a miracle I knew was not going to happen.
Keith, my friend, a boy my age, was dead.
Nothing would bring him back ever.