Rubber inner tubes have become a staple of the Stokes County economy. There must be at least 20 different stores around the Dan River that specialize in selling these inner tubes along with Styrofoam coolers and cases of Busch Light.
The idea is simple. People will rent inner tubes for the afternoon and float down the Dan River with coolers of beer. It’s one of those things that should be done without thinking too much, like playing horseshoes or drinking from twisty straws.
So one day in the late summer, with beers and a cooler in tow, we set out on the Dan. We began our voyage in high spirits, whistling songs and bobbing merrily in a mixture of dirty water and cheap alcohol. Despite the warm air, the river was frigid. At its deepest point, the water only came up to our knees, so we were lying down on top of our tubes as the current carried us in no particular pattern, like fallen leaves on the surface of the water.
I saw the river cops before they saw me. My friend Kelly Fahey [Editor’s note: Yep, that’s our intern] was a ways ahead of me and I watched him get off his inner tube and meander towards them.
Why the hell is he talking to them? I thought. I knew he wasn’t asking for directions because there was only one way down the river. I did the only thing I could do: spun myself to face the brush on the opposite side of the river, paddling with my hands to distance myself from them.
“Hey slick,” I heard one of the river cops yell. “Hey you, with the PBR can.”
I pretended not to hear them. But slowly, my inner tube rotated until I was forced to witness my friend shivering on the riverbank, his arms folded over his bare chest and flanked by two policemen.
“Why don’t you come over here and join us?” the tall cop yelled. I stood up, and the water only came up to my calves.
“What’s the problem, officer?” I asked, knowing damn well that we were busted because of the beer can Kelly had let slip out of the trash bag and into the water. The truth was that we were both under 21; Scott, who had bought us the beer, was of legal age.
“How old are you?”
I didn’t have identification with me. I could have been anyone, but to my own demise, I’ve always been terrible at talking to the police.
“I’m 19,” I said, looking at my beer can. “Sorry, I thought these were international waters.”
Technically, I believed that we were on international waters, given my knowledge of the rain cycle and the fact that this could have been the very same suspension of hydrogen and oxygen that carried Moses down the Nile. But I had a feeling the river police wouldn’t understand this.
“Alright, slick,” said the taller one. “You know you can’t be drinking if you’re not 21.”
Scott was now coming into view. I’m not sure why, maybe it was because we were the only three people on the river not drinking Busch Light, but the river police stopped him, too.
I watched Scott walk languidly towards us. Before I could tell them that he wasn’t a part of our group, he broke down crying.
“Officer, what’s going on here?” he asked. Not only was he whimpering, but he suddenly adopted a Southern accent. I understood his strategy; make them think he’s one of their own. The police could hardly say a word as Scott spoke over them. “Oh God, I can’t lose my job. Y’all, I’ve been working at a hospice for over three years now, I can’t take this charge.”
In reality Scott was a manager at Banana Republic and he would never be caught in a room full of old people, much less those with an expiration date. He was becoming hysterical now. His breakdown wasn’t making me feel any more confident about our predicament. The cops deliberated between themselves for a moment, before grabbing a few yellow slips from their canoe.
Kelly and I were charged with consuming alcohol while underage. Scott was charged with littering. Each one of our charges included a $180 fine for court costs. They made us pour out our open beers and confiscated the rest. The police employed a catch-and-release policy, so we were soon back on the Dan.
I looked at Kelly, who had his head down, staring at the water. I looked at Scott, who was rotating ever so slowly so that I would occasionally have to see the contempt in his eyes. A light rain even began to fall. We floated the three miles back to the car in a solemn silence.
And that’s how our tubing trip ended: beerless, cold, each clutching a little plastic bag that held a yellow court summons, a pretty crappy souvenir.
Danny Wirtheim can be found floating in a Greensboro pond, saving up for a canoe of his own.