Tuesday, 04 November 2014 18:55

Johnson's Shut-Ins Rules

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Scrounging though old letters and other keepsakes housed in a 78 record box, I spotted a button from the 1970s. The message "Do it." - devoid of an exclamation point - struck me as a pretty good description of how a bunch of kids I grew up with briefly lived their lives. Unlike the "Just Do It." that an athletic shoe company used to sell overpriced shoes in the 1980s and beyond, the simple "Do it." rung closer to home. The slogan wasn't about challenging one's physical endurance. No, it was about our knack for doing impulsive, stupid and downright illegal things, yet somehow most of us managed to survive. If there was one place where a carload of us managed to attempt to "Do it." that was Johnson's Shut-ins.

Driving all night in the '68 Plymouth, we made it to the Shut-Ins while the crickets were winding down their evening's song. The trip was uneventful, with the exception of a stop at an old truck stop, a 24-hour establishment where the local health department would have had a field day had they stepped foot in the place. Half-stoned and bleary-eyed, we sat in a booth and ordered breakfast. Before the meal arrived, unease crept over me from a weird sensation in my Converse shoe. Reaching down and pulling off the worn sneaker, a roach dropped and scampered off. Nasty! We were hungry and stayed on, ate quickly and went to pay. It wasn't until we were leaving that I noticed something seriously wrong with the establishment. The blotchy pattern in the linoleum floor wasn't for decoration. Those black splotches that were scattered all over the room were crushed roaches. This trip wasn't off to a good start.

Sunrise at the campground brought our spirits back and we set up the tent. My friend Joe hid cases of Busch in some brush about 100 feet into the woods. After we unloaded, we drove to the Shut-Ins. High upon the cliff we each took our turn for the big leap into the river. Stepping up to the edge, the view almost buckled my knees. The water glistened in the sunshine sixty-feet below. If I had hesitated, I wouldn't have jumped. Fear would have frozen me in my tracks. With my heart pounding, I leaped into space. It probably took less than a second to hit the water. Strange how a split-second in one's life can be recalled so many years later. Hurtling downward, the time it took to hit the water was alternately terrifying and exhilarating. That space in time wasn't enough to exhale, and the free fall abruptly ended when my feet smacked the water. Warm water quickly turned cool as I plunged deep in the river.

As my limp body rose to the surface, relief flowed over me. Thoughts of death were long gone. I had to get back up there and do it again. For the next hour, we each jumped off the ledge a few more times. Joe liked to push the limit. When it was his turn, we watched in horror as he stepped off the rock. At the base of the cliff the rocky shoreline had made it necessary to leap, not step off the ledge. We peered over the edge and were relieved to see he narrowly missed the rocks below.

Back at the campground, sleep came with ease. A few hours later we awoke, ate and made our way back to the shut-ins. The Missouri attraction is an incredible natural waterpark. For thousands of years, the currents from the river carved the stone formations into small pools and slides. Snaking and slipping from pool to pool, it was the closest thing to paradise on that hot summer day. After a few hours we went back to the campsite and prepared our appetite along with dinner.

As we kicked back in lawn chairs, the park police slowly drove around the circumference of the campground for the third time that day. But on that round, they paid us a visit. Showing no interest in welcoming four longhaired teenagers, one of the cops made a beeline to the picnic table and seized our smoking apparatus. While he began to question us about his discovery, the other cop took a stroll back to the woods. A minute later he emerged with cases of beer. Judging by how fast he found them, it appeared that our hiding place had been a weekly visit for these good ol' boys. "You kids need to empty your pockets," they instructed us. We obliged and tossed our keys and wallets on the table. Although they didn't find anything else, sadly our stay at the park came to an abrupt end. They instructed us to count the beer prior to putting each can in their trunk. By then Joe was furious and went to assist the confiscation. As he counted each beer he gave the can a good shake before placing it in the trunk. Fortunately the cops weren't watching. After we loaded their trunk with their refreshments, we began to pack up. Joe grabbed a hatchet and buried it in a post that held lanterns, which got a rise out of one of the officers. "Hey, that's government property," the ranger barked. "I didn't see a sign," Joe snapped back. The park rangers warned us they could take us to jail, but the punishment wound up being eviction from the campground. Once we were packed, we got back in the Plymouth and headed for the highway. To ensure we weren't coming back, the cops followed us all the way to the county line. It was the first and last trip for us to the Shut-Ins.

Thinking back, it was understandable why they chased drunken kids out of the park. Sure they got some free beer but a few visitors died on those cliffs, including the former owner of Co-Op Records in Granite City. It seemed every year someone hit those rocks at the base of the cliffs. Despite the trip cut short by the bust, the moments in the shut-ins were an experience that was worth the hassle.

Within a half-hour from the park, we came upon the first water slide anyone of us had ever seen. Somewhere in the hills of Missouri was a slide that was wider than ones that later became common. To take advantage of the fun, we signed waivers and headed up to the top of the slide. If there was an attendant at the top, he wasn't bothering to enforce any rules. Four of us tossed our plastic mats down and rode simultaneously through the snaking attraction. We collided and shoved each other on the way down the slide until we shot out as a big mass of arms and legs into a pool. It was there we left our troubles miles behind.

A couple weeks ago I stopped at a pretzel stand on the way home from work. A twenty-something kid behind the cash register asked, "Would you like to sign up for our rewards program?" Initially, I thought, "what do I need another rewards card for?" I thought what the hell, pretzels are good. He asked for my ID and I handed it over. Looking at my driver's license, he said, "Wow, you grew up in the 1970s. You must have had a lot of fun." I almost laughed, and simply said, "Yeah, I sure did."