Fiction May 1999

Combinations of Jacksons

I MADE MY first experiments in breathing underwater at the age of nine, in 1943. It was something I needed to learn in life so as to be ready to give my pursuing enemies the slip. At that time they were Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs.

The trick looked simple enough in the movie serials, which pulled me along from one Saturday to the next with such chapter titles as "Fangs of Doom!" and "In the Scorpion's Lair!" First you cut a reed. You put one end of the reed in your mouth and lay face up, very still, on the bottom of a shallow stream. The other end was projected above the surface of the stream, and through this hollow shaft, as you lay buried alive in water, you breathed.

Agents of the Axis Powers were never far behind me. I could slow them a little with pinecone grenades, but I couldn't stop them. They came crashing through the woods firing their Lugers at me as I raced barefooted for the reed beds of Beech Creek, a last hope. If I could get there in time to make my arrangements, then the agents in their stupid fury would overlook the life-giving reed, one among so many, and, with their boots splashing down eight inches away from my rigid underwater body, go stupidly on their way downstream.

My attempts to bring this off took place in Cypress Creek and Smackover Creek, too—"smackover" being an Arkansas rendering of "chemin couvert," covered path, or road. These and Beech Creek were the swimming streams nearest to my home town, at the time, of Mount Holly, in Union County, Arkansas, which adjoins Union Parish, Louisiana. The name dates from the territorial days of the 1820s, when "Union" had a pleasing ring to it in the Jacksonian South, where the many sons of Jack came to settle and multiply.

Reeds grew here in abundance, in ponds and swamps and along creek banks, or what I took to be reeds, but they were the wrong kind of reeds, if in fact they were reeds. The green ones weren't hollow. The brown ones, the dead and withered stalks, were somewhat hollow but too thin to carry much air, not even enough to sustain a gasping kind of life in a skinny little boy. They also tended to collapse, like wet paper drinking straws, with the first sharp intake of breath. In or out of the water, you couldn't breathe through our reeds.

Our quicksand was a bust too, or I would have lured those running men to their deaths in the slough near Cypress Creek. Not Cypress Slough or the Slough of Despond or of anything else. That dark marsh wasn't big enough or distinctive enough to have a proper name; it was just "the slew." When I had led the men there and they were stuck fast in the gray mud, I would have looked on from a hump of firm ground, deaf to their pleas, refusing to hold out a pole to them, waiting—will these spies never sink?—until the earth had swallowed them whole. It couldn't have worked out that way though, because our quicksand, or quickmud, while quivering nicely underfoot, had no lethal depth, and may even have been slightly buoyant, and therapeutic to boot. I could never manage to sink more than about knee-deep in it.

Bamboo ("cane," we called it) was more promising than reeds, and we had plenty of that in the canebrakes. These woody shafts were thicker and stronger than reeds, and almost hollow, if not quite. Inside, at each circular joint, there was a partial blockage of some white pithy matter. With a long rattail file and a good deal of poking and blowing, it took me about five minutes to clear the pith. This was more like it. Now I had a sturdy and serious breathing tube, made on the spot from the materials at hand. I was man, the toolmaker.

Still, questions remained. My knife would be there, ready, in my pocket (or one of a series of knives, two-blade Barlows mostly, which I kept losing)—ready for cutting reeds and cane, for carving crude, nonreturning boomerangs, for slicing two neat little drainage Xs across snake-bite punctures, for cutting off the sputtering ends of fuses leading to well-marked kegs of BLASTING POWDER planted in the bowels of hydroelectric dams, for cutting loose the ropes from any female reporters I might come across who had been left bound and gagged in remote cabins—ready for any wartime emergency. My Barlow was at the service of the nation. So much for the knife.

Presented by

Charles Portis, a novelist and journalist who lives in Arkansas, is the author of the book True Grit.

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