By Tom Rodriguez
Every summer during the years that I was growing up in Topeka, Kansas, some boy, usually a Mexican-American, would drown in the Kaw River. One of the reasons those boys drowned was that in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Mexican-Americans were not allowed to swim in most public pools in Topeka, and those few pools that did allow Mexican-Americans to swim there did so only on certain days of the week, just before the pool was drained and new water put in. In addition, the public swimming pools were located far away and Mexican kids did not have transportation to get there. As a result, many Mexican kids in our neighborhood sometimes went swimming in the nearby Kaw River.
During the hot summer months, the Kaw River would always run low and that caused large sandbars to form that often jutted far out into what would have been the center of the river. From the sandbars, we would find a deep spot and jump into the river to cool off and swim.
On one particularly hot and humid summer day in 1954, a bunch of boys from our neighborhood decided to go swimming in the Kaw River, near the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge that was close to the large sand pits where we often went to play King of the Hill. Going swimming in that area was always fun since the journey there took us past the horse corrals of the Hills dog food processing plant. That day, after stopping to look at the horses, we traveled on the down-sloping river road to the Santa Fe Railroad Bridge that spanned the river from the south to the north side. We climbed the wooden stairs and crossed over to the north side and then scrambled down the steep north bank to a large sandbar that jutted out about fifty yards into the heart of the river.
When we got to the water’s edge, we threw a few sticks into the water because some of us thought the current might be too strong and the water too deep to go swimming there. It was then that Richard Rocha came up with a bright idea to form a human chain to test the depth of the water. We must have thought that was a pretty good idea because all nine of us joined hands and Richard lowered himself into the water and then was quickly followed by Gilbert Rodriguez. What happened next, shocked everyone because the sandbar we were standing on collapsed under our feet and four of us went into the river behind them.
Instinctively, we tried to swim back to the sandbar where my older brother Richard, Joe Mendez, and Roger Blancas were waiting to help us back onto the sandbar. But try as we might, the current was too strong.
I was near my younger brother John, who was then about 12 years old and I told him to tread water. Paul Martinez then swam over to where we were and we each grabbed my brother’s arm and helped him stay afloat. In the distance, we could see a boat underneath the bridge with two men in it that were fishing. We yelled and yelled, “bring the boat, bring the boat, “ but they must have thought we were playing games because they just waved back at us and kept going.
At that point, my cousin Phillip Gutierrez, the oldest in the group, realized that the boat wasn’t going to come and he yelled out to everyone, “Head for the shore” and “Swim with the current.” We all heard him but were unsure because the shore was at least 50 to 75 yards away and looked a heck of a lot farther. Phillip then swam over to where I was and said that he and Richard Rocha, who were the two best swimmers, would help my younger brother John.
I recall that I was starting to panic at being in such deep water and was getting tired from helping my brother stay afloat and swimming against the current. I could also see that my brother was extremely frightened and was getting tired. Thinking back, we all had good reasons to be scared. It was a dangerous river, full of undercurrents and whirlpools, and it was a river that had claimed the lives of young boys.
Therefore, when my cousin Phillip said that he and Richard would help my brother, I waited until they were on either side of him and remember turning toward the shore and thinking about how far away it was. I then started swimming with the current as fast as I could and let the current take me toward the shore. After what seemed like ten minutes or more, I finally got there and crawled up the bank and kissed the ground. I then looked to my right and saw Gilbert Rodriguez lying on the shore not far from me. Paul Martinez then hit the shore just behind us. Further behind and still in the river were my cousin Phillip and Richard Rocha, and my brother John. Soon, they too reached the shore and we helped pull them out of the water. All of us then quickly scrambled up the steep river bank and came up in an area in the middle of the sand pits where my older brother Richard, Joe Mendez and Roger Blancas were waiting for us. They said that they had watched the whole thing and thought that some of us might not make it.
We all then sat down, caught our breath, and thanked God for still being alive. Everyone then told their versions of what had happened and what they were thinking about when the sand bar collapsed. My younger brother John said that he thought that he was going to drown. We all knew the danger we had been in because we knew of other boys who had drowned in the river near that same spot. I remember thanking my cousin Phillip and Richard Rocha for helping my brother. After that, nothing more was said because we all knew that we were lucky that no one had drowned.
On the way home, everyone agreed that no one would tell their parents what had happened because we knew that we could get into big trouble if they ever found out. On the bridge heading home, someone suggested that we throw rocks at the guys in the boat who did not come to help us. Everyone agreed, and we all picked up rocks and threw them in the direction of the boat, and then ran like hell, laughing all the way down the stairs. I’m sure that the two men in the boat thought that we were just a bunch of little hoodlums.
We talked about that adventure for many years and it joined a long list of special memories of our youth growing up in the Bottoms neighborhood. Many years later when my brothers and I were well into our 40’s and 50’s, we retold that story many times. As the years passed, however, the story got a little more embellished. To our credit, however, no one ever said that there were alligators in the river than day. At least not yet.