Quick thinking saves swimmers’ lives at unforgettable picnic

By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist

“There was an air of excitement in the group for we had planned a big picnic for several weeks,” said Lucille Matlock. “We departed for a far-off destination, Cottonwood Grove, about 10 miles west of Melrose. We all felt a great adventure was in store for us that day. If we had only known!

“Ranchvale school had volunteered their school bus for us to ride in on that beautiful summer morning in July 1935. We were the Ranchvale Extension Club, and our kids went with us.

“Cottonwood Grove was an old landmark, and the highway to Fort Sumner went through it in the old days. A spring had been there before the white man came and used by Indians. Lots of people had picnics there.

“We arrived at Cottonwood Grove, a huge stand of giant cottonwoods and other trees and a house, a garage, and store there, and just south of the house and a little west was a big cement-lined pool fed by a pipe from a windmill on the high west bank. On the west and north side was this high bank, but on the east side near the trees the pool was quite shallow, which made it great for wading. There was a raft too.

“We soon spread our lunch and enjoyed the food and fellowship. As we talked and laughed and packed up the picnic leftovers, and the little kids romped in the sand, we suddenly heard ear-shattering screams and all eyes turned to the pool.

“Here’s what happened. After lunch some of the group had gotten on the raft and pulled or pushed it out to where it was deep. Willie Woltman, 14 years old, was a good swimmer and so was Aurvil Price. Crystal Harper, about 16, was also on the raft but couldn’t swim. However, she had jumped off in the water following Willie.

“The deeper water was over Crystal’s head. By then, Willie was over at the bank and saw what had happened. It was Crystal’s mother screaming as the girl was thrashing about in the water. Willie rushed back into the water to help her, but Crystal was larger and before Willie could get the right hold on her, she grabbed Willie in her fighting and hysteria and pulled her under. That way she was managing to stay on top and breathe.

“By now Myrtle Woltman was so alarmed she was crying for fear of her daughter’s life. Many years later Willie said at that moment she thought that her lungs would burst and knew what it was like to be drowning. She managed to get her head above water intermittently and a long enough breath.

“Everyone on the bank was in hysterics. The entire scene was pandemonium. Aurvil Price came out of the pool, ran to the bus and got an inflated tractor tire tube that had been brought to play on. She rushed back into the pool and held on with one hand to the raft as she maneuvered the tube so Willie would get hold of it and so they got Crystal dragged to the bank. It was awful! They thought her dead!

“They laid her on her stomach and someone pumped on her back to push the water out of her lungs. They turned her on her back and she regained consciousness to the great relief of us all. When we knew she was alive, we all cried for joy!

“Needless to say the picnic was over, and we all packed up and returned to Ranchvale. Our picnic experience at Cottonwood Grove was etched in our mind and was a point of conversation for years!

“Willie (Woltman) Madera says even to this day she believes both girls would have drowned if it hadn’t been for Aurvil Price and her quick thinking.”

Remember folks, it took this writer a lot longer to write this account than it took for the whole episode to happen. Let this be a lesson.