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.
But was it likely that I would have a rattail file handy? Or—with a pack of killers at my heels, led by a tall man who ran with his monocle in place—the necessary five minutes, undisturbed, for all that reaming and poking of pith? Making every allowance for that, would my bamboo breathing tube, standing stark upright in the shallows of Smackover Creek, really fool anyone? It looked just like a breathing tube.
The war was much on my mind in those days, and it was almost entirely the one being fought on movie screens and in the pulp pages of "funny books," known as comic books in other parts of the country. Both names were misleading for the kind I liked, the ones featuring costumed vigilantes who made violent swoops on spy rings and gang hideouts, with no Miranda palaver. Along with Superman and Batman, there were many others, now largely forgotten, such as Bulletman, Plastic Man, The Sandman, Doll Man (a fighting homunculus about six inches tall, in a red cape), The Human Torch, Daredevil, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Captain Midnight, and Captain America. Under any name the books were quite a bargain early on, at sixty-four pages in color for a dime. Or a kind of color. The palette was limited; Superman had blue hair. I never tired of the repetitive stories or the familiar scenes that were enacted over and over again.
LOIS: But wait, Superman! What about my scoop?
SUPERMAN: (Bounding skyward) No time for that now,
Lois! I'm off to scramble some—YEGGS!!
LOIS: (Tiny fists on hips) Well, of all th—!!??
THE COURSE OF events in the early part of the war, the real war, was much too confusing for me to follow. My picture of the fighting in Europe, vivid if false, was of two great armies, and only two, facing each other at some one fixed place. Like many generals, I was fighting the last war. The armies were locked in constant battle, night and day, winter and summer. The din never ceased, and there was a lot of smoke. I may have picked up the smoke from a popular country song of the time, which still chimes out in my head every two or three years, as though from a long tape loop.
There'll be smoke on the water
On the land and the sea
When our armee and navee
Overtake the enemee.
The only movement was a certain ponderous wavering of the battle line. One side would at last falter and give way altogether, and that would be the end. I knew we would win. A great-uncle by the name of Satterfield Fielding had assured me of that.
I was only eight years old but I remember the day well, early in 1942, when he told me the war would be over in ninety days—that we would sink the Japanese fleet in no time, just as we had taken care of the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in 1898, the work of a few hours. He also told me that if I would dip a brand of snuff called Garrett Scotch, I would never get TB, but that Garrett Sweet was no good and I would do well to leave it alone.
Uncle Sat shot deer the year round, like Robin Hood, in season and out, as the whim or the need moved him, and he may well have been the last man in America who without being facetious called food "vittles" ("victuals," a perfectly good word, and correctly pronounced "vittles," but for some reason thought to be countrified and comical). He was a strong and fluent talker with far-ranging opinions. Attention wandered in the family as he ran on, except when he spoke from experience. There would be bits of hunting lore ("A real turkey could never win a turkey-calling contest") and tips on growing unfashionable corn (nonhybrid) and bumblebee cotton (hill cotton—stunted, unfluffy bolls) and on the best ways of dynamiting fish ("dinnamite," he called it) in the Saline River and Hurricane Creek.
There was some sort of family gathering on that day at his farm, small but his own, in the backwoods of Grant County, Arkansas, and everyone was scoffing and laughing at his notions about the war. Always impatient with him, groaning and rolling her eyes, his sister Emma (my grandmother) could be counted on to check him in his longer flights with "Oh, why don't you just hush, Sat. All you know is what you read in The Sheridan Headlight." Wounding indeed, if true.
He came out onto the back porch alone, already angry, and caught me dropping feathers into his water well. I was hanging over the upper framework of the well, dropping chicken feathers and guinea feathers one by one, to watch how they floated about on the surface of the still round pool down there. He gave me a shaking for feathering his drinking water, and then took me into his kitchen and showed me some blurred newspaper maps, perhaps from the Headlight.
They were scale maps of Japan and the United States, comparison maps, side by side. Here were the Japanese home islands, a little ragged chain of fragments, mere bits of flotsam. Over here, all of a piece, was the great continental mass that was the United States of America. A revelation. No one had told me about this. Uncle Sat watched me closely to see if I alone out of all these dense Fieldings, Waddells, and Portises could grasp his strategic point. It was clear enough to me: a small country had foolishly attacked a big one. It was fangs of doom. There was nothing more to worry about.
And yet I did worry. The war went on and on. Enemy agents with the faces of rats and hogs appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the funny books I read so greedily. These busy men were all around us, wrecking trains, scattering tacks on our highways, stealing the plans for our Boeing P-26 and our Brewster Buffalo, pouring deadly poisons into our city reservoirs, always from a "vial" or some curiously small bottle. They tempted us to waste gasoline and whispered that we need not save cooking fats for the munitions industry if we didn't feel like it. They changed some of our most brilliant scientists into morons with a colorless and odorless moron gas, pumped into the scientists' laboratories by way of a hand-bellows rig and a piece of rubber tubing.
It was possible to lose, as I was reminded whenever I saw my great-grandfather, Alexander Waddell, usually at family reunions, where he would be seated on display in the parlor of a great-aunt in Pine Bluff, holding a walking stick between his knees with his purplish hands. "Uncle Alec," as he was known generally, in and out of the family, was born in 1847, the same year as Jesse James, and, like Jesse, had fought for the Confederate States of America as a boy soldier, though not as a regular.
I don't know how zealous he was for the cause—enough, at least, to take up arms in defense of Jefferson County and the rest of southern Arkansas. The blood was up, at varying degrees of heat, out of a vast agricultural tedium from East Texas to Virginia, and the (white) boys walking behind mules and middlebuster ploughs rallied to repel what they saw as the invader of their new sovereign nation. President Lincoln had called out his troops to put down what he saw as an insurrection, "by combinations of Jacksons too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings." I think he wrote "combinations of Jacksons" in that momentous proclamation, but I quote from memory.
The southern boys responded to such recruiting notices as this one, placed in a Memphis newspaper, The Appeal, by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the rich slave trader and legendary cavalry commander, who was to have twenty-nine horses shot from under him:
I will receive 200 able-bodied men if they will present themselves at my headquarters by the first of June with good horse and gun. I wish none but those who desire to be actively engaged. My headquarters for the present is at Corinth, Miss. Come on, boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees.
N. B. Forrest
I suspect that the first part of that was written or edited by a meddlesome young staff officer, chewing on a pencil. ("Can't have wish here twice in a row, so I'll make it, what—desire, yes—the second time around.") The last sentence, shifting into the imperative mood, is Forrest himself, forthright as a pirate.
Uncle Alec had been a county and probate judge, and he still had his wits about him in 1943—no mismated shoes, no long hesitations in speech, groping for a name or some common noun. But his memories of the Civil War, or the ones he saw fit to recall in mixed company, ran mostly to jocular anecdotes, at least in my hearing. I didn't have sense enough or interest enough to ask him questions, and I was further impaired by lockjaw in the presence of very old people. Apart from the comic stories, three things that he said about the war have stuck in my head.
1. That his duties as a young private, and a small one at that, were, for the most part, watering and saddling the horses, and riding off here and there at a gallop on a partly blooded horse, a fast horse, with messages. (A great drama must have a young messenger appearing briefly onstage, to bring some piece of devastating news and move the story along.)
2. How a heavy bank of fog settled low over the battleground at Jenkins' Ferry on April 30, 1864, and how the steady Yankees from Wisconsin and Iowa, backed up there against the flooding Saline River but not lacking for ammunition, stopped one frontal assault after another by firing blindly but effectively in volleys, through the fog and under it. The Arkansas troops made a try, and then the Missouri and Texas troops, 6,000 men all told. All were cut down or sent reeling back. In a matter of hours they took a thousand casualties. (Missouri, a slave state, didn't secede, despite the efforts of the governor, a Democrat named Claiborne Jackson. Nor did Kentucky, another slave state. But they did provide the southern armies with many fine soldiers—many more wore blue—and the eleven-state Confederacy did claim them as part of the new federation. Thus the auspicious—it was vainly hoped—thirteen stars on the battle flag, in this "second war for independence.")
3. How, after that fight, and after the Union soldiers had made their escape across the river on a shaky "India-rubber" pontoon bridge, hundreds of abandoned mules were running loose in the canebrakes, big 1,200-pound U.S. Army mules—which is to say free tractors for the destitute local farmers, or such few as were left, and them mostly old men, women, and children.
That Federal army of 12,000 men, commanded by Major General Frederick Steele, had set out from occupied Little Rock on March 23 for Shreveport, where it was to meet another Union Army column, escorted by a naval armada of sixty-two gunboats and transports with a brigade of U.S. Marines aboard, coming up the Red River in Louisiana. Neither force made it to Shreveport. The trans-Mississippi South, much neglected by Richmond, still had a few kicks left.
Steele was stopped in southern Arkansas at Camden, eighteen miles from Mount Holly. In a series of battles, culminating with the one at Jenkins' Ferry, the Federals were driven all the way back to Little Rock, on short rations and in cold rain and mud. Steele lost 2,750 men on the expedition, along with 635 wagons, 2,500 mules, and "enough horses to mount a brigade of cavalry," and counted himself fortunate. A fast-moving Stonewall Jackson, had one been present, would have cut him off in the rear and bagged the entire lot.
Steele almost had one more casualty in Wild Bill Hickok, a Union scout, who rode into Camden ahead of the army, put on a gray uniform, and did some spying. Something of a regional celebrity even then, he was soon recognized and had to make a run for it, "a bold dash" across the battle lines at Prairie d'Ane, on his horse, Black Nell. One account has him shooting two pursuing Confederate officers as Nell made "a mighty leap" over "an obstruction" (log? rail fence? ditch?). That is, Hickok twisted about in the saddle or stood in the stirrups and turned, cocked and fired his single-action revolver at least twice, and picked off two closing riders on the fly, all this while Nell was airborne. Well, maybe. In any case, it was a bold escape, and "a shout of triumph from the ten thousand troops in line greeted him, and he was the hero of the day."
In the fight at Poison Spring there were some scalpings, when a C.S.A. brigade of Choctaw cavalry clashed with a Federal regiment of black troops, the 1st Kansas (Colored), which had been operating, and plundering, on Choctaw lands in the Indian Territory, later to become Oklahoma. (The "poison spring," now in a state park, was misnamed through a misunderstanding. It still flows and still bears that name, but the unremarkable water isn't toxic or even bad-tasting.)
A white cavalry regiment, the 29th Texas, also carried a grudge against the 1st Kansas troops, who had driven it from the field in an earlier fight at Honey Springs, in the Territory. When the two met again, here at Poison Spring, in Arkansas, the Texans shouted across the lines that they would give no quarter. This time they won, and they gave no quarter. The Texans, the Arkansans, the Choctaws, and the Missourians shot some prisoners and finished off some of the wounded with bayonets and scalping knives. Not for the faint of heart, these late, bitter engagements. Murder and brutalities on both sides were common enough in this remote corner of the war, where it was waged, as the military historian Edwin C. Bearss writes, "with a savagery unheard of in the East." Little was made of it. To those eastern gentlemen in Richmond and Washington, the trans-Mississippi theater of operations wasn't so much a theater as some dim thunder offstage.
IT MAY BE that by 1943 Uncle Alec was just bored with all that, as with many other things, all cold potatoes now, but the memories hadn't evaporated. Long after his death I heard a few things he had told the men in the family, now a little garbled in the retelling by second and third parties. One said that he had joined a Jefferson County militia unit at the age of sixteen or seventeen, after his brother Joseph was killed fighting in Georgia, and that he remained with that unit until the war ended. Another one said no, that was only partly true, that he and another boy had later left the militia to ride with what Uncle Alec called "a company" (troop) of partisan cavalry, raised and commanded by a shadowy Captain Jonas (or Jonus) Webb, from Pine Bluff (Jefferson County).
This Webb, all business, not much in the chivalry line, carried on a rough and semi-private little campaign of his own across southern Arkansas. He did on occasion, at his own convenience, work with the official C.S.A. command, as at Jenkins' Ferry. A Confederate soldier named Fine Gordon, in a reminiscence after the war, mentioned Webb in passing, and darkly enough, as "a mean captain of the Southern Army at Camden."
Webb's troop and similar bands roamed freely in that last, lawless year of the war, and were something of a nuisance to both armies, to say nothing of the local farmers, who were being bled white by foraging parties demanding food, fodder, livestock, and whatever else they fancied, at gunpoint. Brigadier General Joseph O. (Jo) Shelby, commanding a C.S.A. brigade (and sometimes a division) of Missouri cavalry in Arkansas, regarded the guerrillas as little better than slackers and highwaymen, and became so furious with them as to publish a general warning: "I will enlist you in the Confederate army; or I will drive you into the Federal ranks. You shall not remain idle spectators of a drama enacted before your eyes." Here again, I think, we see the hand of a literary adjutant.
The general did, however, have a soft spot for Quantrill's bushwhackers, and for one in particular, Frank James, who had saved Shelby from capture earlier in the war at the Battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Some twenty years later, in August of 1883, Jo Shelby appeared as a defense witness for Frank, at his murder trial in Gallatin, Missouri. The charge was that in July of 1881, while robbing a Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific train with four other men, Alexander Franklin James had shot and killed a passenger named Frank McMillan. One of the bandits, Dick Liddil, characterized by the prosecutor as "the least depraved" member of the James Gang, identified Frank in court as the killer. Perhaps he was, or it may have been his brother Jesse who did the deed; it was almost certainly Jesse who shot and killed the conductor of the train, one William Westfall. But in 1883 Jesse James was beyond the grasp of the court, having been murdered himself the year before—shot in the back of the head by Bob Ford, of ballad infamy.
It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he does feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid Jesse James in the grave.
Frank was found not guilty, and there followed an uproar in Republican newspapers over what was seen as a scandalous verdict. It isn't clear how much influence General Shelby had on the jury, if any. Not that it mattered. The defense attorneys, in connivance with the sheriff, had packed the jury with twelve Democrats. And Jo Shelby wasn't at his best on that day. He—who had refused to surrender in 1865 and rode to Mexico City on horseback with his brigade, fighting his way through bandits and Juaristas, to offer his saber, in the service of another lost cause, to Maximilian, the young Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico—came to the Missouri courtroom a little drunk and unsteady on his feet.
He had to be guided to the witness chair, and, once seated, had some trouble locating the judge and jury. Twisting about in his seat, he tried to address first one and then the other. He argued with the lawyers and abused Dick Liddil. "God bless you, old fellow," he said to Frank, catching sight of him at the defense table. The judge wasn't amused. He found the general in contempt for coming to court "in a condition unfit to testify" and fined him $10.
That was more punishment than Frank got, or was to get the next year, when he was tried in Huntsville, Alabama, for the 1881 robbery of a Federal paymaster. Once again, a jury with Confederate sympathies found him not guilty.
Other charges against him here and there, such as the one in Hot Springs, Arkansas, near which he and Jesse and the Younger brothers had robbed a stagecoach in January of 1874, were dropped or simply not pressed. (All the coach passengers were robbed. One, a G. R. Crump, of Memphis, got his watch and money back when Cole Younger learned that he had been a Confederate soldier—or so one story has it.) The State of Minnesota might also have made a claim on him, for the Northfield bank raid in September of 1876, but didn't bother to pursue it.
The law, for all practical purposes, was now finished with Frank. An old friend advised him to go back home to the farm in Missouri, to keep his head down and stay away from low company and fast horses. He had already surrendered his cartridge belt and his Remington .44 revolver. That was the end of the James Gang, and in a sense, in a kind of inglorious coda, the end of the end of the war, too, at long last. Or, no, that sounds pretty good, "coda," almost convincing, but it's wrong. The real end of the war came twenty years later, in 1904, in the very heart of the country, far from Fort Sumter, at a reunion of Quantrill's guerrillas in Independence, Missouri. There, in that election year, Frank brazenly announced that his choice for President was the sitting one, Theodore Roosevelt—the New York Republican. This didn't go down well, and he almost came to blows with his old hard-riding comrades. Unseemly spectacle, coots flailing away.
Unless there was another, better ending still later. For more than a century now, at intervals of about five years, southern editorial writers have been seeing portents in the night skies and proclaiming The End of the War, at Long Last, and the blessed if somewhat tardy arrival of The New South. By that they seem to mean something the same as, culturally identical with, at one with, the rest of the country, and this time they may be on to something, what with our declining numbers of Gaylons, Coys, and Virgils, and the disappearance of Clabber Girl Baking Powder signs from our highways, and of mules, standing alone in pastures. Then there is the new and alien splendor to be seen all about us, in cities with tall, dark, and featureless glass towers, though I'm told that deep currents are flowing here, far beyond the ken of editorial wretches in their cluttered cubicles. A little underground newsletter informs me that these peculiar glass structures are designed with care, by sociologists and architects working hand in glove with the CIA, as dark and forbidding boxes, in which combinations of Jacksons are thought least likely to gather, combine further, smoke cigarettes, brood, conspire, and break loose again out of a long lull.
Unlike the border ruffians Jesse (who sometimes called himself J. T. Jackson) and his brother Frank, Uncle Alec taught school for a while after the war, in cahoots with a carpetbagger from Indiana, one of the dumber ones, come south with his roomy bag to get in on the political plunder, to make his fortune in impoverished and all but depopulated Grant County, Arkansas. They were a pair of unlikely pedagogues. Uncle Alec could read and write and do his sums, which is all you need to know, but he was a very young man. The carpetbagger was older but illiterate. Uncle Alec, then, did the teaching, probably of a more basic and effective nature than is common today in public schools, and the carpetbagger did nothing except collect the monthly salary, of something like $20, which they split down the middle. The victor's spoils came to around thirty cents a day.
It was the carpetbaggers, of course, who named the county—a new one, formed largely from the western end of Jefferson County—for General Grant. Rubbing a little more salt in the open wound, they called the county seat Sheridan. That postbellum movement into the South of all the pale cranks in the Midwest, similar to one of those sudden squirrel migrations in the woods, has been overlooked, I think, as a source of some of the weirdness to be met with in our region.
I never knew my paternal great-grandfather, Colonel John W. Portis, who was a much older man (1818-1902) than Uncle Alec. He commanded an infantry regiment, the 42nd Alabama, was wounded in the Battle of Corinth, and was starved out in the siege of Vicksburg. I have the surrender parole he signed there on July 10, 1863 (the garrison had actually surrendered on the fourth), in which he gave his "solemn parole under oath that I will not take up arms again against the United States . . . until duly exchanged."
Some Uncle Sat of the day, looking up from his maps, could have told him and President Davis (shouted it, more likely) that with the fall of this city fortress on the bluffs of the Mississippi, and the simultaneous disaster at Gettysburg, in distant Pennsylvania, President Lincoln's re-election was pretty well assured, and the war lost. They wouldn't have listened. One more good push or two and the weary Yankees—"Those people," General Lee called them (graceless humanoids?)—must lose heart, flinch, and cut their losses. Enough of these Jacksons! Great God almighty! Let them go and be done with them! Such were the hopes. The next summer, duly exchanged, Colonel Portis was back in the field, at the Battle of Atlanta, and he didn't sign his final surrender parole until June 2, 1865, at Citronelle, Alabama, some two months after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. This parole document gives a physical description: six feet tall, gray eyes, white hair. In three years of war he had gone white.
MY ALABAMA grandmother wasn't pleased when her youngest son (a seventh son, my father) told her of his plans to marry an Arkansas girl. She kindly explained to him that the unfortunate women living west of the Mississippi River had, among other defects, feet at least one size bigger than those of their dainty little sisters to the east. No Cinderella to be found in the Bear State. Any mention of that old slander, even a teasing one fifty years later, could still make my placid mother bristle and blaze up a little. In any kind of refined-foot contest, she said, she would pit her Waddell-Fielding-Arkansas feet against all comers with Portis-Poole-Alabama feet.
My father was a dutiful son, but he defied his mother in this matter and married Alice, the Arkansas girl. So, a new family, a mingling of blood, a new combination of Jacksons, so to speak. We fetched up in southern Arkansas, at Mount Holly, where at dusk ("dusk-dark," it was called there) flying squirrels glided across our front yard, from oak to oak. I haven't seen one since.
Now a not quite deserted village, Mount Holly then had two cotton gins, a sawmill, two schools (white and black), a bank, a post office, a café, a barbershop, an ice house, three general stores and a sawmill commissary, a few moonshiners and bootleggers, one auto mechanic, one blacksmith, who was also the constable, and one known white Republican. My father pointed him out to me. (Now in much of the South it is the white Democrat to be pointed out with a whisper, as for a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker.) Some blacks still voted, when not deterred by the poll tax or some courthouse chicanery, for the Grand Old Party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but by that time, the early 1940s, most had switched their allegiance to Franklin Roosevelt if not to the local "lily white" Democratic Party groups. They had also begun to christen their baby boys with his Dutch surname.
What was a bit odd, on two counts, Mount Holly proper had only one church, and that the true church of the elect, Presbyterian. The normal ratio at that time and place was about two Baptist churches or one Methodist church per gin. It usually took about three gins to support a Presbyterian church, and a community with, say, four before you found enough tepid idolaters to form an Episcopal congregation. There was always difficulty in getting a minister who pleased everyone. What the elders of the church kept looking for, my father said, and what was hard to find in the 1940s, was a wise, saintly, hearty, scholarly, eloquent thirty-five-year-old Confederate veteran, who would be content to live on a small salary, in something pretty close to apostolic poverty.
On Saturdays we usually drove to El Dorado, the county seat and a flourishing oil town then, with two refineries. One was owned by Lion Oil, a palindrome. Black-market gasoline was readily available, outside the rationing system, but my father, scrupulous in such things, refused to buy it, and we made do on the four or five gallons a week he was allotted by the B sticker on his windshield. (B was better than A; an A got less.) There was little chocolate to be had. The schoolyard rumor was that all the Clark bars were going to the Japanese-American internment camps over at Rohwer and Jerome, in the Delta, and to the German prisoners of war (most of them from Rommel's Afrika Korps) up at Camp Chaffee, in the hills. A patriot like me had to do without. (We schoolboys would have been hard pressed to explain the difference between the two classes of prisoners. I can't remember hearing anyone, adults included, question or even discuss the need for "relocating" the Japanese-Americans from California. President Roosevelt had sent them here, so it must be all right.) We lived in a place where they sent prisoners; what to make of that?
Gasoline and candy bars were much less important to me than movie theaters, or, as we called them, picture shows. The tale unfolding on the screen was a picture show, and the theater building itself was also a picture show. El Dorado had four. The Majestic was fairly noisy, and the Ritz a little noisier. The shabby and disreputable old Star was very noisy indeed, with the hubbub of a pack of unruly boys, much on the move. At the Star you sometimes had to try two or three of the folding seats before finding one that didn't pinch your leg, or tip you forward and dump you. There were frequent delays, as the celluloid film itself, or an image of it, turned brown, writhed, curled, and caught fire before our eyes. The breakdown would be followed at once by piercing whistles and animal howls of outrage, a performance in itself by little shriekers who had been eagerly awaiting the cue to show their stuff. No rats, though, in disgusting numbers, pattering about underfoot at the Star, as was widely believed. The story was kept alive by my fastidious older sister (Star = rats at play) and others like her who had never set foot in the place. This isn't to say that an occasional rogue rat never darted down an aisle there.
I made a round of these three picture shows (and how well I knew that circuit, starting from the courthouse square), seeking out the best program. Decisions came hard. A very good bill would have been a chapter of the Captain Marvel or Dick Tracy serial, a Spike Jones comedy short, a Boston Blackie feature, and a Western with Tim McCoy, George O'Brien, or Johnny Mack Brown, my favorite cowboys. And yet there were so many things to consider before I committed myself irreversibly to a twelve-cent ticket. For example, Bob Steele was better with his fists than any of my favorites. Ken Maynard was a better rider. Ken—and even I could sense that he wasn't much of an actor, perhaps to his credit—vaulted over the rump of his horse in the fast-getaway mount with a light swagger that always pleased me.
When I was younger and in her keeping, my sister sometimes took me against my will to the fourth picture show, the quiet Rialto, where an attentive and well-mannered audience remained seated, and where the more ambitious pictures played. Even very fat people could settle in at the Rialto without fear of being dumped and laughed at, or of having their tender and spreading flanks nipped at by the seats. I didn't object to the decorum or the comfort, just the pictures. The posters outside, which I always carefully read ("Theirs was a passion not to be denied!"), were enough to sink the hopes of a small boy. In these stories there would be some strange men scheming against each other and beating each other's brains out to see who got to marry Bette Davis, or it might be Joan Crawford. The winning suitor would get to spend every minute of the rest of his life in the company of a harridan. I was soon asleep.
MOUNT HOLLY had its own summer pleasures. We, the village boys, swam like seals by day in the creeks and ponds, and at night, with our carbide lamps, we ran trotlines—a series of fishing lines hanging from a central support line that was strung across a stream. We swung from vines in the bottomlands, trying to reproduce, and never bringing off anything remotely like, Tarzan's aerial glide across the jungle, leaping from one opportune vine to the next. That, I've since learned, was even more of a cheat than I suspected: it was all done with ropes. Ignorant of the laws of physics, I did know from experience that when you jumped from a swinging vine to one that was hanging dead still and vertical, you weren't going any farther, and could only be left looking foolish, dangling there at rest. I was also uneasy, not knowing exactly why, with Batman's practice of shooting a rope line from atop a tall building across to a lower building, and then swinging down to the lower building on that line, which somehow remained taut.
We made model airplanes, little replicas of warplanes built far away from Mount Holly in huge factories with such satisfying corporate names as Chance Vought and Consolidated Vultee. First, with the models, there was the fragile skeleton to be assembled, of balsa ribs and stringers, and droplets of glue; this was then covered with a thin skin of paper, and painted with a dope sealant that smelled of bananas. The delicate work tried my patience, and gave me an early appreciation of how it is that real aircraft, no matter how fierce in appearance, must be the tinny and flimsy shells that they are, in order to leave the ground. In my haste, and with twinges of guilt, I sometimes cut corners, leaving out a troublesome strut or spar, like some crooked defense contractor.
We rigged up our own fireworks, with carbide (granular calcium carbide, bought in cans; it fizzes and gives off a combustible gas when mixed with water) and with black powder we compounded ourselves. We burned our own charcoal, and bought the other ingredients, sulfur and saltpeter, in little paper cartons at Bailey's store, arrayed there on the patent-medicine shelf with the big bottles of liniments, violent purgatives, female tonics, chill tonics, croup tonics, cramp tonics, catarrh tonics, and nerve tonics. No need in those days of tonics to be put through the indignities of "a full battery of tests," at great expense, for every little sinking spell. I no longer see tonics on the shelves of country stores, that space now being given over to videocassettes. Catarrh, with its fine pair of purring rs, seems to have gone away too, whatever it was.
Our watermelons (not always lifted from a melon patch; you could buy one, preferably a long green Tom Watson, for about fifteen cents) we left floating in the creeks to cool as we swam, mostly in Swift Hole, on Beech Creek. The water in Swift Hole wasn't swift; moccasins swam calmly about on the surface, untroubled by the slight current. We—David Bailey, Max Lewis, Gerald Lewis, Francis Crumpler, Richie Bidwell, Buddy Portis—paid little heed to the snakes and soon scattered them with our noise and splashing and, low comedians all, with our strutting antics along the banks. No one, that I recall, was bitten there. But Swift Hole was a hole, deep enough that we could dive into it from a height of eight or nine feet and not crack our necks on the bottom.
A leaning tree shaded the pool, and from a high limb there hung a rope with a stick tied at the end. You grabbed the stick with both hands, ran down the sloping bank, took flight, and at the peak of the upswing let go, doing a back flip or a half gainer on the way down. Some unknown person had patiently spliced the long rope together from the separated strands of a thick oil-field hawser, and hung it there for our delight. One day it was just there. With the ingratitude of children we accepted it as part of the natural order of things, as no more than our due, and asked few questions.
Mount Holly was just outside the oil fields, but we did have one lone gas well, on Cypress Creek. A man would drive up a dirt lane to the unattended wellhead in his 1928 Ford Model A roadster, or his 1939 Chevrolet Master Deluxe sedan, and look furtively about. He would see us, some boys with purple stripes on our faces (pokeberry juice), pulling a ragged seine through the creek. Unterrified by the war paint, he would dismiss us as a threat and proceed to drain off something called "casing head" from the well, which he then poured into his gasoline tank.
This was a liquid condensate that formed in gas lines, and although it burned a little rough in car engines, it did burn, and was unrationed and free for the taking. There must have been some kind of bleeder valve in that tangle of high-pressure gas pipes, but I've forgotten how it worked, if I ever knew. I do seem to remember a Stillson wrench, an adjustable pipe wrench, in the hands of one of those furtive casing-head thieves. I remember, too, that we once dredged up a curious snake in our seine, along that same stretch of Cypress Creek. It was a rusty-orange color with a thick body and what appeared to be a barbed stinger protruding from its tail. Zoologists, who should venture outdoors more often, say the stinging snake exists only in folklore, but we were there and saw that beast. We all agreed it was a stinging snake.
It was in Beech Creek, in the shoal water below Swift Hole, that I carried on most of my underwater contortions with breathing tubes. Reeds were out, and among other rejects was a copper pipe, which left a sharp taste in the mouth. Another one, tasting worse, was a black and smelly rubber hose, a piece of old fuel line from a car, with a spiral curl to it like that of a pig's tail. I had to expose a small but conspicuous hand above the surface of the water to keep this one upright.
I kept coming back to bamboo, the best of a poor lot, and soldiered on. There was always another obstacle. When I was underwater, clutching a tree root, lying more or less supine, and took a deep draft of air through my mouth tube, an equal volume of water would come rushing in through my nose, with a strangling effect. The nose clip existed then and might have solved the problem, but I couldn't be seen with a nose clip. Only girls used nose clips. Far better to strangle. Couldn't I simply have pinched my nostrils shut with thumb and finger? Yes, nothing easier, except that both hands were already occupied, with the tube and the root. And as I lay there more or less supine on the creekbed, struggling to breathe and to hold my upper body down, then my telltale feet would rise. Feet unfettered float, for all their bones, and when toes break the surface and bob about, they will catch the eye of the dullest observer.
I never did get it all worked out to suit me, and when the war ended, in 1945, I lost interest in breathing tubes and model airplanes and black-powder bombs and cigarettes rolled with rabbit tobacco or corn silk. A spell was broken. The world had changed. I put all that juvenile dementia behind me. It was time to take on some serious responsibilities in life. I cut a coupon from the back of a funny book and bought a $1.98 money order at the Mount Holly post office and sent them off to a place in New Jersey for a home-study course in ventriloquism.
UNCLE ALEC didn't quite make it to a hundred, dying a year short, in 1946. He had lived to see the U.S. Army, still with plenty of ammunition, if not mules, on the winning end of another great war, and he was probably the last man who could remember seeing Jo Shelby riding at the head of his mounted column along the Ouachita River near Camden, or hearing another general, the portly Sterling Price, calling out for one more charge into the fog and powdersmoke at Jenkins' Ferry.
No peevish coot, he made a good showing toward the end, still jaunty, laughing quietly in his chair, and with no bits of food on his chin that I can remember. A better showing, in his dark suit, vest, watch chain, and polished leather shoes, than many of the old-timers I see today, men who went ashore at Tarawa and Anzio, now much reduced in their retirement costume of grotesque white athletic shoes, pastel resort rompers, and white baseball cap crammed down hard on the head, bending the ears. Their model seems to be The Golfer.
A coot now myself, slightly peevish, of three score and five, I recently saw a vision in broad daylight of The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The apparition was an old man at the wheel of an old tan Pontiac station wagon. He had stopped next to my car at a traffic light here in Little Rock. The wagon was a long, sagging barge, packed inside to the roof with lumpy objects bundled in green-plastic tarpaulins and tied up with what looked like clothesline. But what objects? At a guess, all his goods, his assets, now luggage: bits of chain, rolls of duct tape, forgotten cans of soup, jumper cables tangled around a jack frozen with rust, encrusted bottles of Tabasco sauce, sacks of Indian arrowheads, sacks of silver dimes, sacks of cat food, an old owlhead .32 revolver with a wobbly cylinder and a pitted barrel, corroded flashlights, ivory, apes, peacocks, and bottles of saw-palmetto capsules to treat the sinister prostate gland. The old man was smirking. It was the gloat of a miser. Stiff gray hairs straggled out of the little relief hole at the back of his cap, above the adjustment strap. In short, another Jackson, and while not an ornament of our race, neither was he, I thought, the most depraved member of the gang. He might even have made some claim to being a gentleman, as defined by my Concise Oxford Dictionary: "n. Man entitled to bear arms but not included in the nobility . . ."
There I was in the flesh, a little more weathered, just a few years from now. The resemblance was close. I saw myself sunk low there under the wheel, even to the string bolo tie with its turquoise slide, and even to that complacent smirk, knowing that all my flashlights and other treasures were right behind me, safely stowed and well hidden from the defiling gaze of others. I could see myself all too clearly in that old butterscotch Pontiac, roaring flat out across the Mexican desert and laying down a streamer of smoke like a crop duster, with a goatherd to note my passing and (I flatter myself) to watch me until I was utterly gone, over a distant hill, and only then would he turn again with his stick to the straying flock. So be it.
Uncle Sat, who never got TB and who wouldn't let young government agents tell him how to prune his peach trees and cure his hams and who ate better food than a rich man can buy today and who never lost so much as a finger while fooling around with his detonator caps and his sticks of dinnamite, was eighty-eight when he died, in 1964. I saw him now and then over the years, talking away, as ever, but I can call up his face more clearly, his red farmer's face, from an earlier time, at that kitchen table, over the newspaper maps. I can see the winter stubble in his fields, too, on that dreary January day in 1942. Broken stalks and a few dirty white shreds of bumblebee cotton. Everyone who was there is dead and buried now except me.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.