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We drove on the dirt road through the woods on the river bank.

 


TIME OUT



BAPTISM IN MUD: SIDE TRIP INTO THE MISSISSIPPI

by Gerald D. Murley, Sr.

In March of 1976, the year after we moved near Germantown, we were having a few problems with our Ford Pinto car. After getting some work done on it, we decided to take a short Sunday trip to visit two aunts (my mother's sisters), Jewell Cheek and Virginia Walker. We had not seen them in several years. They lived in Ripley, Tennessee, which is about 50 miles north of Memphis.

We did not have any reason to tell anyone – family, neighbors, or church friends – that we were taking a trip or where we were going. We also had not called Jewell and Virginia to let them know that we were coming, which was not a good idea either: they were in church when we got there. So, we decided to drive a few miles out of Ripley to see my grandfather's (Papa Daniel) home and farm where I used to go a lot when Papa Daniel and Mother Daniel were alive. We slowed down also to see the adjoining 25 acres and path to the two-room Little House. Many years ago the Little House was equipped with a piano, a record player, and a collection of about 1,000 78-rpm records that supplied the music for my brother's weekly parties there.

To pass a little more time before turning around to go back to Ripley to see my aunts, and to give them more time to get home from church and to get lunch out of the way, we decided to drive a few miles farther to Arp, a community on the Mississippi River.

It did not take long to reach Arp, where we drove on the dirt road through the woods on the river bank. The road was about 30 feet above the river water level and the banks went straight down. As we headed back through the woods, I attempted to make the sharp curve in the dirt road. The accelerator stuck and Elizabeth and I went through a few feet of small growth and over the embankment straight down into the Mississippi River.

Fortunately for us, if anything can be considered fortunate at that point, a few minutes before we went over the embankment, we heard a noise and rolled our front windows down to see if we could find out what it was that we had heard and from what part of the Pinto the sound came. When the car hit the river, the impact knocked the windshield inward and threw me against the steering wheel, knocking all of the breath out of me.

I felt to my left and my window was down. I had to get to the surface to get some air before I could help Elizabeth. She could not swim and was at least 20 feet under the water by that time. In the meantime, Elizabeth felt outside of her rolled-down window to the right; she did not find an escape route, however, she only felt the embankment dirt against which the Pinto was leaning. When I reached the surface and took some deep gulps of breath, I tried to determine where the car went into the deep muddy water. To further muddy the water, so to speak, the car had gone over the embankment straight into the water and did not make tracks that indicated where the car went in, as it would have had it rolled down or gently slipped down the bank into the water. Just as it looked almost hopeless that I would be able to go down into that muddy water and find the car and Elizabeth, up she popped. She popped up from the surface of the river and began dog paddling like crazy. And she said that she couldn't swim!

By this time I had pulled up on the muddy bank to try to get a better view in my attempt to locate the car and Elizabeth. She later said the best thing that she had ever seen was me holding my hand out to gab her hand and pull her up on that little bit of muddy bank that I was standing on.

"When I was under the water, I felt at peace," says Elizabeth, as she recalls the experience today. "But I knew if I was going to live, I had to get busy and get out. First, I felt outside of my window and found the hard wall of the river bank. Then I felt the driver's side of the car and found that Gerald had gone. So I pulled myself to his side the car and crawled out of his open window. I guess God wanted me to live and He helped me because I could not swim. When I reached the river's surface, I was very happy to see Gerald's outstretched hand ready to pull me to the river bank."

After we took a few minutes to get our breath, to rejoice, and to try to figure out what had happened to the car, we made it to the top of the high embankment. The river bank was high because at that time of the year the river was low. But the water was still. After the March and April rains it would become deeper, wider, and more turbulent.

Elizabeth says, "The sun was going down by the time we got out of the river, collected ourselves, climbed up the river bank, and reached the road. In the dark, I thought that we might not be able to get a ride away from that out-of-the-way place."

I was able to flag down a couple in a truck. I explained to them what had happened to us, and they were nice enough to drive us back to the Ripley Hospital. We were lucky to have come out of this ordeal with Elizabeth only having a broken finger nail and a little piece of glass in her foot – and having her purse still somewhere at the bottom of the Mississippi River, although it could now be in the Gulf of Mexico someplace.

"We lost the cleaning that I was going to take to the cleaners on Monday," says Elizabeth. "The billfold that was lost in the river contained my driver's license, credit cards, and the only pictures that I had of myself as a child. Needless to say, I had to get a new driver's license and report lost credit cards, but I could never replace my early childhood photographs."

To make matters worse – in Elizabeth's mind – for the remainder of our road trip, as she puts it, "I had gone to the beauty shop the day before the accident. After going into the river, my hair was a muddy mess."

From the hospital we called Virginia and she came and picked us up. She took us to her house for something to eat. From Virginia's I reported the accident to the local police and filed a claim with our insurance agent in Memphis, who told us that we could not get anything done about the car until Monday. We borrowed Virginia's car and thankfully drove to Memphis. We drove back the next day to return the borrowed car to Ripley.

There was a delay of a few days because of rain, but a service station in Ripley eventually sent their wrecker to Arp, attached cables to the Pinto, and tried to pull the car out of the river. The wrecker nearly turned over itself in the process before pulling our car out of the water and up the high embankment. The wrecker took the car back to the service station on the highway in Ripley. After several more days of rain – and before the insurance adjuster could get there – someone stole all four wheels and some other parts off of the car. As a result of the wrecker dragging the car over the embankment, even more damage was done to the car. The service station mechanics and the adjuster were never able to determine if it was an accelerator or a steering-mechanism problem that caused the accident.

Elizabeth made some firm resolutions afterwards: "I resolved to never go back there again. And I decided that when we took a trip, we would tell someone where we were going."

Whatever caused us to go into the river that day, we feel very fortunate about the outcome thinking back on it 33 years later. No one knew that we were taking a short trip out of Memphis. It would have been hard for our family to figure out the route of our side trip to see my grandfather's old home place and the Mississippi River at Arp. We came awfully close to a dreadful situation. If we had not survived our crash into the river, no one would have had any idea where we could be found. We could have been consumed by that muddy place. When high waters came again, what remained of us and our car could have ended up washed a long way down river.

Upon hearing about our ordeal and survival, a friend, John Willingham, told me that God must really have something important that he had saved us to do. A plunge into the muddy Mississippi was one journey that we never dreamed of taking to whatever it is that we were meant to do.

 

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