Water-centered activities common in the 1930s|GUEST COLUMNIST

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Part 11

During the late 1930s, our financial situation had improved from hopeless to serious and we had been able to trade up to a much-used 1932 Chevrolet. I was 12 when the great flood of 1937 covered the lowlands around the Vicksburg hills as far as the eye could see. We drove south to Yokena until the backwater covered the road. From a hilltop vantage point it appeared that the state of Louisiana was one large pool of slow-moving water, dotted with uprooted trees and all sorts of household and industrial debris.

I don’t remember if Morrissey’s watering hole survived the flood. I never crossed the Yazoo Canal to see it, but from the waterfront, it appeared to be a barge topped with a large shed. A launch was moored at the waterfront so that customers could get across to partake of the pleasures offered. I suppose that the venue would have included liquor and gambling, both illegal at the time, but have no way of knowing.

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That canal came close to sweeping my oldest brother down to where it dumps into the Mississippi. Charles was a strong young man, and brighter than his daredevil stunts indicated. I don’t know what itch he was scratching when he stripped to his undershorts and slipped into the canal to swim across. We watched as he went bobbing downstream until, nearly out of sight, he hauled out and lay exhausted on the weedy bank just short of the confluence with the Mississippi. Earl and I persuaded a man with an outboard motor on a scow to go down and retrieve Charles. Leander swimming the Hellespont, he was not. He was just one lucky, if foolish, young man.

‘Local creeks shrank to a series of puddles during dry spells. Therefore, to swim we had to head east to Clear Creek, which had a sandy bottom and was blessedly free of suspended clay.’

As Vicksburg citizens know, the local soil doesn’t make the best farm ponds, as it tends to be porous. Local creeks shrank to a series of puddles during dry spells. Therefore, to swim we had to head east to Clear Creek, which had a sandy bottom and was blessedly free of suspended clay. I can remember being able to fish from the narrow bridge that crossed it, usually unsuccessfully, because the bass that I could see could also see me. A pond in Buckle’s pasture, out near Grammaw Penley’s place, was where we went when we had to have fish for a fry. We headed home one day with 132 sunfish threaded on heavy twine. My brothers conned me into carrying it, even though the fish on the near and far ends of the string nearly dragged on the ground. On our way home, a couple in a coupe stopped us so they could take a picture of us. Three boys in overalls, toting several pounds of sunfish — I suppose it did sum up rural Mississippi, pictorially.

A once-a-year treat for us was a drive over to Jackson to see the zoo. As a small child, I can remember the gravel road winding between hills. Imagine my amazement when, after several months of WPA labor and funding, the road became straight and paved, with two wide lanes. It looked like a roller coaster, undulating off into the distance. The zoo seemed to be the greatest thing ever, even more impressive than the huge, redolent, very dead whale that a showman hauled into town on a railcar, with the carcass half-submerged in a for-maldehyde solution. Yes, we rubes paid to see the poor, dead beast. Back then, few people expected ever to actually see an ocean, much less a whale.

News spread when attractions came to town. It was around 1938 when a USN submarine docked at the waterfront, there on a recruiting mission. How they ever got that small diesel-burning sub past the sandbars, snags, and sawyers on the river all the way from New Orleans is a mystery to me.  It was summertime and probably a sure thing that they cruised on the surface, but the commander had to learn and respect the river traffic protocol and the inherent dangers of navigating treacherous waters. Perhaps he picked up a river-wise pilot at New Orleans. At any rate, they offered a tour of the sub to the citizens, hoping to entice some young worthies aboard. Our dad took us three brothers aboard. My heavens, it was hot and humid below decks! Most visitors couldn’t wait to climb up the ladder to the conning tower and scurry back over the gangplank.

I will close this chapter with a cautionary tale that I hope adult readers will pass on to their little ones. I was on my way home from school one late summer day, following a route that cut a mile off the distance. I walked out Clay Street almost to the Arch and turned left, following a small creek that led through Flowers’ pasture and the Franco place. Keeping an eye open for snakes, I was surprised to see a bat on the ground. When he saw me he spread his wings and bared his fangs, but didn’t attempt to fly. I had no idea that bats could be rabid, even though I had heard much talk about “mad dogs” at family meetings. But the bared fangs convinced me not to mess with the bat, and I gave him a wide berth. Many years later I learned that rabies in bats is rather commonplace, and when you see one alive on the ground but unable to fly, he or she could well be rabid.

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 gardengeezer@centurytel.net