It was a time of gar, charcoal, late-night radio|GUEST COLUMNIST

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Part nine

During the Depression, and especially on the ragged outskirts of Vicksburg, whites and blacks lived in what could be called shared poverty. There were degrees of poverty, from marginal to abject, and because we never went hungry, I suppose we would have qualified as “marginal.”

My parents hated to apply for relief food, being poor but proud, but did, mostly to get the cheese, flour and dried milk that the government handed out. The relief workers also handed out loads of prunes, grapefruit, dried beans and on rare occasions, canned corned beef. I never saw black people in the waiting lines for relief food. In retrospect, I believe it was because they weren’t told they could qualify for it, and because virtually none had transportation into town. I don’t really know: Jim Crow laws may have forced them to come in on designated days.

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Their pervasive hunger was brought home to me one night when Dad went on one of his illegal fish and frog gigging forays. As usual, he brought along Victor, a young black man who lived up East Grove Street from us. I never knew Victor’s last name, and regret to this day not asking for it. He was extremely strong and from the few conversations we had, also highly intelligent.

That he was also a caring man came out one night when Dad was wrapping up to return home. I heard Victor say, “Mr. Ed, remember the garfish.” Dad nodded and handed Victor the long-handled gig while he switched to a backup gig with a 6-foot handle. Dad lit up the water with his carbide lamp, and about 6 feet out from the shore we could barely make out the shape of an alligator gar at least 4 feet long. Victor waded out beyond the fish, carefully aimed, and plunged the gig deep into the fish. It takes great strength to penetrate the armored scales of big gar and to hold on to the thrashing beast. Victor managed both with ease.

It was around 2 a.m. when we dropped Victor and the garfish off at his house and continued home. When we looked back at the houses of our black neighbors we saw lamps coming on, one after another. Victor had apparently spread the word that they were going to have a fish fry and the promise of food was enough to get people out of bed.

I had best explain that Victor could have had his share of the smaller fish that they gigged, but he preferred the big garfish. Even at my young age, and having contributed little but enthusiastic support, I nevertheless felt gratified at being able to help make a sorry situation better.

‘Mother heated her irons that way and would run them over a sprig of cedar to make the ironed clothes smell better. We didn’t buy charcoal; we made it.’

Our poverty lessened as Vicksburg eased its way out of the Depression. Once or twice a year we could find enough money to drive into town and buy tamales. Black men sold them out of carts that could keep the big, fat, corn-shuck-encased tamales heated. In later years I wondered, “How did tamales, a food we would now call “Tex-Mex,” jump from Mexican cuisine to fast food prepared and sold by a black man? I know that Creole cooking employed African, French, and Spanish cuisine, but Mexican? Perhaps some gourmet cook will know the answer.

Tamales were kept warm over charcoal fires and charcoal was burned in fire-brick-lined buckets to heat sadirons. Mother heated her irons that way and would run them over a sprig of cedar to make the ironed clothes smell better. We didn’t buy charcoal; we made it. Dad would drop a hardwood tree (once he used a mature holly tree) and while it was still half-green, pile it in a special way and mound up soil over it, like a primitive kiln.

The object was to slowly cook the wood so that it became charcoal instead of ashes.

Dad never lacked for customers for his charcoal. It came in big, irregular chunks instead of the uniform briquettes you see today.

Nighttime radio was very much a part of our life. We couldn’t stop to listen to it during the day but tuned in to “Amos and Andy,” prizefights and on Saturday nights (what else?) “The Grand Ole Opry.”

We had a metal-box Atwater Kent with a morning glory horn, and to serve as an antenna, we tossed a roll of flexible copper wire up into the chinaberry tree in the front yard. Late at night it was remarkable what we could tune in: KMOX in St. Louis, WCKY in Cincinnati, and WMC in Nashville. Of course, we could get WHBQ during daytime hours. You can understand our surprise when we got station XERA out of some town on the Mexican border and heard Dr. Brinkley promoting his now notorious monkey gland operations. More important, we heard Mama Maybelle and the Carter family. Late one night I flipped on the short-wave channel and picked up Leopoldville, Belgian Congo. To me, that was better even than reading ancient copies of National Geographic in the Carr Central Library.

Jim Wilson, an honorary Master Gardener in eight states, was a presenter for 10 years on PBS’s “Victory Garden” and is the author of 10 gardening books. He now lives in Missouri and in this series remembers his youth in Vicksburg. Mail reaches him at 4200 E. Richland Road, Columbia, MO. 65201 and e-mail reaches him at