Tubing or Not Tubing: Recalling Days Spent Floating the Salt River

Floating in tandem is totally a thing. (Beer coolers are optional.)
Floating in tandem is totally a thing. (Beer coolers are optional.) Victor Palagano

click to enlarge Floating in tandem is totally a thing. (Beer coolers are optional.) - VICTOR PALAGANO
Floating in tandem is totally a thing. (Beer coolers are optional.)
Victor Palagano

In my fickle mind’s eye, I hold a fading image of a scrawny boy with seaweed hair who’s had too much to drink. He’s wedged into a black, much-patched inner tube. It’s a blistering July afternoon in 1976, and — because he’s a suburban, Sonoran-dwelling teenager — there is nothing more urgent or more cooling to his sun-baked skin than floating down the Salt River. And from the distance of nearly half a century, I try to imagine the pleasure of this thing my friends and I only ever referred to as “tubing.” Were we there for the scenery? Was this a forgotten rite of passage? Was there really nothing at all better to do?

And where did I get the hooch?

In this idyll, I am always in the company of Michael Encyclopedia, a girl I almost never called by her real name, a fierce young woman who — like so many of the wild children I kept company with back then — grew up to be a conservative grandparent who prefers not to remember how we kids kept ourselves occupied. In my clouded vision of this long-ago day, Michael and I are silent, slathered in baby oil, lolling in sun-seared rubber doughnuts, our ankles entwined — a trick we learned would keep our tubes floating in tandem. My Camel Filters and her Salem Light 100s are sealed in a plastic sandwich bag, resting on her shiny brown stomach.

I think about telephoning Michael, to ask her to recall this time with me. Did we have a battery-operated radio with us? I want to ask, because when I think of this day, I hear Elton John pleading with Kiki Dee, Johnnie Taylor asking an unnamed disco lady to move it in, move it out, shove it in, all around. Was your mother really there with us? I’d like to ask my old friend, and if so, did she buy the beer?

I don’t call. Instead, I head to faceless Facebook, to a page where strangers gather to remember our collective past. Did you tube? I ask them. How did that go for you?

They had tubed, many people write in reply. And mostly it went well, they say.

“We built a special tube to hold an ice chest and a cassette player,” a man named Richard Ryan says. “There were lots of partially dressed women.” One summer, Richard and his friends watched a small plane crash into a power line over the river. Another time, he tells me, a boy drowned in the Salt. “The sheriff’s deputies asked us to keep an eye open in case the body floated downstream and got stuck.” It did, Richard remembers, and he and his friends watched while the dead boy was pulled from the water.

People lost things to the Salt, Esta Simon emails to say. Her mother lost her wedding ring there, more than 50 years ago. One time Esta’s father drove a guy all the way back to Phoenix to get his spare key, because the poor slob had lost his keychain in the river. “We never lost the key to our car,” boasts Esta, who’s been tubing since before Salt River Recreation came along “with their yellow striped tubes and their bus service.” Esta doesn’t seem to like that Arizona has made tubing an official thing, with its own website, its rented floatables, its marketing campaign and list of rules.

Diane Chaplin remembers that everyone on the river wore a bandanna or a baseball cap, T-shirts and cutoffs with a swimsuit underneath and some old tennis shoes. Everyone was nice to one another as they floated past, Diane says. “I don’t go tubing anymore,” she confides, “as people have changed. Also I no longer have a swimsuit-with-cutoffs body.”

We were young, and nothing could hurt us. Who wore sunscreen — or had even heard of it? Everyone got a sunburn back then, according to a woman named Lynn Lucke-Simpson, who worked at Dairy Queen in the '70s. “I remember standing in the walk-in freezer a lot after a long day of tubing,” she admits.

Not everyone who responds is a stranger. A woman I know named Laura Dragon offers a bittersweet memory of tubing the Salt. “My friends took me when I was first diagnosed with cancer,” she tells me. “We all floated on blow-up mattresses at sunset, together most of the way. There were at least 20 people. It was a wonderful way to connect with nature and those I love, one of those unexpected joys that I experienced in the pain and fear of early diagnosis.”

I call Michael Encyclopedia. “Didn’t we go tubing?” I ask her. “Was that you?”

Yes, she says. We did. “And I have pictures around here, somewhere, of that day.”

I quickly change the subject. “How did we get beer?” I demand to know. “We were 14!”

“My mom was with us,” Michael remembers. “She always said she would rather I drink with her than when I was out running around.”

While I’m thinking about this, Michael tells me she has gotten married again. Her new husband owns 34 guitars. Their love language is music. She says some positive things about the president and tells me about her bunko group and a Pink Floyd cover band she went to see perform. I think, "We are no longer floating in tandem."

“Michael,” I interrupt her. “Why were we children, drinking beer? Why were we floating down the Salt River that day in 1976? What was that about?”

“The sun was hot,” she replies after the briefest pause. “The water was cold. The beer tasted good. That’s all.”

She pauses again. Longer, this time. “Can’t you really remember that kind of thing at all?"
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela