OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — An 83-year-old man sits on a park bench across from his childhood home and faces the Hillsborough River. He motions toward an outstretched tree and the series of circular notches carved in its trunk.
"That's where our toes went," Jack Griffin says. "Imagine, there were 10 guys, one after the other. We would dive off of almost anything."
They were the River Rats. They had a clubhouse. They had three dozen members. And they had a reputation.
"From downtown Tampa to the river here, everybody knew about us," Griffin says.
He'll recount the adventures of the River Rats on the big screen Thursday at the Tampa Theatre, as part of the neighborhood's premiere documentary, Seminole Heights: An Intimate Look at the Early Years.
But on a recent breezy morning, he gave the Times a sneak peek into his past.
• • •
On summer days and after school, this is where kids used to gather, at the park on East Patterson Street. One day in 1939, five boys decided to form a club, including 15-year-old Jack and his older brother Jim. The Griffin brothers turned their mom's washroom into a clubhouse and charged a dime a week in dues.
Picking a name was the easiest part. "Everybody called us river rats anyway," Griffin remembers. "Everything we did was associated with this river.
"We would go way up the river and find big cypress trees and oak trees. We had no chain saws in those days, so we'd cut them in 12-foot lengths with a cross saw. We'd throw them into the river and ride them to a swimming hole."
They assembled their logs to make an octagon-shaped fire ring. One night, the River Rats were sitting around the ring when an old car drove up with two guys from Sulphur Springs.
Strange, Griffin thought. "The Sulphur Springs gang didn't come on this side of the river; we didn't go to their side."
A wiry boy known as "Preacher" Perry stepped out. He walked right up to the biggest River Rat, "Speed" Funderburk.
"Stand up," Preacher barked.
Preacher punched him in the face and took off in the car.
The River Rats hunted Preacher down at his hangout, the back room of a pool hall at the Sulphur Springs arcade, and Preacher convinced them it had all been a misunderstanding.
"They were tough as a pine knot is what they were," Griffin says of the Sulphur Springs gang. "It was a turf war."
• • •
The River Rats were known for spending a lot of time underwater. One night, a police officer knocked at the Griffin home seeking help. A 3-year-old boy had drowned trying to swim across the river. The officer asked if the brothers could dive to find the body.
They jumped in.
"It was dark," Jack remembers. "It's real muddy on the bottom, so you're just feeling around."
They found the body.
When workers in the shipyard dropped expensive tools in the water, they called on the River Rats for help. Then there was the night they saw a man toss his motorcycle into the river and casually walk away.
"We don't know why (he did it), but naturally, we swam across the river and dragged it out," Griffin recalls. "It wasn't underwater long enough to bother it. We would go everywhere with it."
One night, four River Rats tied ropes to the back of the motorcycle and held on from their bicycles. They zoomed all the way to Pasco, where they parked and camped in the middle of the road.
• • •
Griffin grows quiet. With the pause, he's back in 2008, white haired, a cane at his side. "You can't recapture that feeling."
He doesn't come here often for this reason. Nostalgia hurts a little. So much has changed.
Griffin served in the Navy, then returned to Tampa. He married, had children, and his children had children. He's been a schoolteacher, an assistant to the mayor, a lawyer and a judge. He now lives in a retirement community in Temple Terrace.
Most of the River Rats, including Griffin, went off to serve in World War II. A couple of them died in combat. One who ended up flying a B-17 named his plane The River Rat.
The kids who stayed behind still gathered at the fire ring. But they, too, grew up. After their last meeting, they piled up the logs and burned them.
"A symbolic gesture," Griffin says. "The end of the River Rats."
He wonders if he'll see any of them Thursday night.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.