Iowa Writes

FREDERIC WILL
Excerpt from "Rivers"


1. A small river near Mayer, Arizona, 1940

When I was ten I was sent to the high desert of Arizona to conquer my asthma.  The site of this cure was a working ranch at which there were eight other boys or girls fighting the same problems and left there for a year or two by regularly visiting parents. The ranch personnel were caring and muscular, and much of the life that transpired there involved cattle herding and horseback riding.

Like the other kids (I presume, since they were more or less my age) I was feeling the first urges of sexuality. I valued private time, was delighted to be away from my parents, as well as from the staff of the ranch. I had obscure feelings of longing, enjoyed taking walks alone, and more than once eyed the three or four girls who were there. Things were changing, and I was vaguely excited. I felt this aura keenly when I walked away from the ranch and out into the scrub plain.

It was on one such walk that I discovered the modest river that ran through the mesquite arroyos, a half mile at most from the Ranch house. It seems to me, after so many decades, that the event occurred in early afternoon on a searing summer day. I sat down on a rock by this unnamed river, alone and far from the ranch house. What happened next, I cannot honestly remember. I masturbated for the first time. Then I felt hot and sweaty and thrilled with...thrill. I have never before felt so astonished by a feeling the body can bring. I have to say it. Yet my subject is rivers, and now this particular river, of no consequence, probably no name, that ran through a neglected edge of the dry gulch pastureland that surrounded the Ranch. I experienced this new event of my body beside the river.

1. A small river near Mayer, Arizona, 1940

When I was ten I was sent to the high desert of Arizona to conquer my asthma.  The site of this cure was a working ranch at which there were eight other boys or girls fighting the same problems and left there for a year or two by regularly visiting parents. The ranch personnel were caring and muscular, and much of the life that transpired there involved cattle herding and horseback riding.

Like the other kids (I presume, since they were more or less my age) I was feeling the first urges of sexuality. I valued private time, was delighted to be away from my parents, as well as from the staff of the ranch. I had obscure feelings of longing, enjoyed taking walks alone, and more than once eyed the three or four girls who were there. Things were changing, and I was vaguely excited. I felt this aura keenly when I walked away from the ranch and out into the scrub plain.

It was on one such walk that I discovered the modest river that ran through the mesquite arroyos, a half mile at most from the Ranch house. It seems to me, after so many decades, that the event occurred in early afternoon on a searing summer day. I sat down on a rock by this unnamed river, alone and far from the ranch house. What happened next, I cannot honestly remember. I masturbated for the first time. Then I felt hot and sweaty and thrilled with...thrill. I have never before felt so astonished by a feeling the body can bring. I have to say it. Yet my subject is rivers, and now this particular river, of no consequence, probably no name, that ran through a neglected edge of the dry gulch pastureland that surrounded the Ranch. I experienced this new event of my body beside the river.

Why was the river an important part of the event?

The river was there when the event happened. A gentle current flowed along, between banks not more than ten yards apart. Clumps of sagebrush and brittle twigs were ferried along by the current. Dytiscid beetles skimmed along the surface. Those perceptions stuck. But what mattered was what was containing all that: the removed and gentle presence of the river, its way of saying OK to the extraordinary circumstance, its breath of dampness in the remorselessly hot cicada-drilled air. 

I will always remember that little river. It was there when my life changed. It still gives me joy and confidence.


2. The Charles at Cambridge, 1949

I went to Harvard for a year and a half before dropping out. I was unfit for the high-octane social and intellectual setting I found myself in.  I have distinct memories from that high-pressure growing time. One of them involves the Charles River.

As I had few friends at Harvard, I used to go to bed early Saturday nights and get up early the next day to walk around the University campus. One crisp autumn morning in my second year I headed out around eight and made my way onto the embankment of the Charles, not too far from my room in Eliot House. As I walked down Boylston Street I realized that the embankment was covered with small white objects, condoms as I discovered on closer inspection.

At that time I was sexually virgin and had never seen a condom. In fact the very word was foreign to me; in my still adolescent stage I fumbled inwardly with the word prophylactic, which was all I knew, and which I believe was at that time still the reigning term for these objects. (It was in fact a term of preference for me, for in my Greek studies I valued the blend of pro with phylasso, that strong verb for to protect. Prophylactics were protection devices, a comforting metaphor. Condom, a word of unknown origin, still doesn't cut it for me.) I knew what those objects were for, and what was probably in them, but I didn't know their use was so flamboyantly widespread. Nor did I understand the logistics of the activities that had so thickly covered this green grass over night. Were couplers lined up side by side?

From that standpoint I came on this embankment of condoms, set against the gray flapping waters of the Charles, with the vast Colleges facing us across the river. The river seemed a cleansing agent, though I wasn't sure exactly what needed cleansing. The river was a bulwark of peace and control, as it had been at Mayer in 1940.

At Mayer the river made me know that something was right, at Harvard that something was wrong.

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Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

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FREDERIC WILL

Frederic Will is currently working on a long text about the possibility of belief. He teaches literature and philosophy at the University of Phoenix. This essay first appeared in The Iowa Review, Fall 2009.

This page was first displayed
on May 19, 2010

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