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Bo's Stories, Page 8

THE FAMILY OF BESSIE EDNA BROWN & THOMAS MONNIE WOODS

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“The Trip to Baton Rouge

            In the summer of 1938 we made a trip to Baton Rouge.  I don’t know how it all came about, but the fact was that we went in Lloyd’s car.  He drove.  Mama’s sister Jewel and her husband, Uncle Jim Gaston went along on the trip as did Mama, my sister Patsy and myself.

            I believe Uncle Jim and Aunt Jewel were to pay for the gasoline.  It was touch and go there for a while if Patsy and I would get to go.  But we did.  We had to sit on syrup buckets on the back floorboards.  Making this trip was a huge undertaking.  I don’t suppose any of us had ever been out of Texas, except to Shreveport.

            It was about three hundred miles to our Aunt Kate’s house at New Roads, which is up the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge.  Aunt Kate was Mama’s sister, just younger than Mama.  Although three hundred miles doesn’t seem far now, it was a long trip.

            Roads were narrow and winding with lots of steep hills. They were generally in bad condition, as were the cars. Thirty-five miles-an-hour was a brisk pace.  We left early in the morning and got there in late afternoon.

            When we got near Aunt Kate’s house we were out on the country roads and lost.  Lloyd saw a guy walking along the road and stopped to ask directions.  We might as well have been in a foreign country.  Couldn’t understand a word the guy was saying.  Don’t know if he could understand us or not (he was a “Cajun”).

            We went on and came to a store where Lloyd inquired again.  This time he had more productive results.  We were only about a mile from Aunt Kate’s house and the man at the store was able to direct us.

            We stayed there a week or ten days.  I really enjoyed our visit.  I especially enjoyed my first cousin Tyrus.  His daddy, my Uncle Earl, was an avid baseball fan.  Tyrus Cobb was his favorite player and he named his youngest son Tyrus Cobb Crawford.

            Tyrus was a lot of fun.  We explored the bayous, which seemed to be everywhere.  We fished, frog hunted, caught crawfish and just had all kinds of fun.

            Near the store up the road from their house was an artesian well.  I had never before seen one.  There was a pipe about four inches in diameter sticking out of the ground.  Onto this was an elbow and another piece of pipe sticking out over a tank for stock water.  There was a solid stream of water flowing from the pipe, twenty-four hours a day, every day.  I was amazed.

            But the highlight of the visit was our day trip to Baton Rouge. In 1938 the bridge had not yet been built across the Mississippi at Baton Rouge.  We had to cross the river on a ferry.  This was a major experience for me, in a day filled with them.  We went to the capitol building for a tour.

            The capitol building was new.  Had only been open two or three years I think.  One of the first things they did was take us and show us where Huey P. Long, “The Kingfisher” was assassinated in one of the hallways.  You could see the pockmarks in the granite the bullets had made.

            But, I saw other interesting things.  One was the aquarium in the basement with large catfish and other kinds of fish in it.  The fish were just lazily swimming around.  I was fascinated.  There was also a beehive there. It was made of glass with a glass pipe for the bees to come and go to the outside.  You could see the bees working inside the hive.

            Two, we went up to the observation platform on top of the capital.  If I remember correctly it is 34 stories high. I could look down and see automobiles that looked like toys and people that looked like bugs running around on the ground.  It was almost more excitement than I could stand.

            I wrote essays about this trip all during my school years.  It was the most exciting thing that had happened to me, or to most of the other kids in school.

            In the fall of 1990, when Mary and I along with her sister Edith and brother-in-law, Tony Bettencourt made the cruise on the Mississippi Queen, we made a stop on the river so people could tour the old plantation homes at St. Francisville, Louisana.  We tied up on the riverbank where the ferry crossed from New Roads to St. Francisville.  Had I been sure I could walk the mile or so to New Roads and back before our boat left, I would have gone for a look but I was afraid the boat would leave without me. We later made a stop at Baton Rouge and I toured the capital building again.  The tour guide, a young woman of about 30, asked me if I had been there before and I said, “Yes, in 1938”.  That tickled her.

 

“Fish Tales”

            When I was about thirteen, Mr. Roy Gentry got a metal fish stringer of the kind that is common now, and known as the safety-pin type.  That was the first one of those I had ever seen.  He was proud of it.

            I went with him and his family (Mr. Roy, Miss Billie, Roy Kelly, Jimmy Russell and I think they had Reagan then, but I’m not sure) on a camping and fishing trip to Martin’s Creek northeast of Beckville.  This was the first time I had been to this place, and I really liked it.  We caught a lot of fish and used the new fish stringer.  We had a really good time.  Except that while we were there we lost the fish stringer.  Mr. Roy was devastated and complained long and loud about losing the stringer.

            A month or so later, Lloyd and I were planning a trip and I suggested we go to that place.  He said fine if I remembered the way, which I did (I seldom have ever forgotten the way to a good fishing hole).  We went in there and set up camp and we too caught a lot of fish. 

            There was a small creek coming into Martins Creek just across from our camp.  I can’t remember now which, but one of the creeks was a little muddy and the other was clear.  Lloyd set out a hook (on a pole) right in the flow from the small creek and the next morning when we got up there was a fish on that line, just tearing the water up.  Lloyd grabbed the pole and swung the fish out on the bank and it was a bass that would weigh 2 or 3 pounds.  I don’t think I’ve ever caught another bass on a set hook or line. 

            Lloyd and I had a lot of good fishing trips.  I guess when I was a little kid that he took me fishing more than anyone else and I learned an awful lot from him.  He was patient with me, always teaching me the right way, whether we were seining bait or fishing for catfish.

            I need to tell you how we typically fished the creeks back then.  We would cut poles, 10 or 12 feet long if we could find them.  Sometimes we could find switch canes (native bamboo) which made excellent poles, but most often we would use some other sapling indigenous to the creek bottoms.  Long, straight and limber was preferred.   

            Onto the small end of the pole we would tie a drop line.  We usually made these about eight to ten feet long with a hook on one end with a sinker two or three inches above the hook.  The big end of the pole (usually sharpened) would be stuck into the bank, with the small end of the pole from one to two feet above the water and the baited hook just off the bottom of the creek.  Excess line was wound around the pole to get the needed length.  Of course then, there was no nylon line.  All the fishing line was cotton that rotted quickly and was not particularly strong.  We always stretched our lines out to dry as soon as possible after a fishing trip to maintain their condition.

            We liked to put the hooks in the deeper holes and near logs, stumps, or brush tops.  Sometimes we would have hooks strung up and down the creek bank for a mile or more.  We would put a pole out anywhere we could fight our way through the briars and underbrush to the creek bank, if there was a good hole of water there.

            That was a difficult and at the same time exciting way to fish.  Flashlights were rare, so we used a kerosene lantern for light.  There was an old joke about striking a match to see if the lantern was lit.  They gave off little illumination, but we got by.  The adrenaline would begin flowing when we could hear one of the poles splashing in the water.

            I remember the time Ray and I were at the old Mill Pond at Martins Creek when such a thing happened to us.  All but about two feet of the pole near the bank was under water and churning the water.  We thought we had a monster catfish, but we really had a turtle.  It weighed twenty-six pounds when we weighed it at home a couple days later.  Ray cleaned it and Mama baked it in the oven and we ate it.

            Well back to my story.  While Lloyd and I were there, I found Mr. Roy’s fish stringer.  He had lost it in the fire, or someone had found it and thrown it into a campfire.  Anyway I got it and washed it off and it didn’t look too bad.  It seemed to be O.K. so I took it home and gave it back to Mr. Roy.  Sometimes later, maybe a year or two we went back to Martins Creek out of Beckville to a different place.  I think this time Ray was with us.  Maybe he was just home from the Navy on leave. 

            Anyway we caught two nice Opelousas catfish that Mr. Roy said would weigh twelve pounds each.  This was really a fine and rare catch.  He put them on his stringer (which I had salvaged) and staked them out in the creek.  When he went back for them they were gone from the stringer.  They had straightened the wire pins out.  I’m sure the pins had lost their temper and the metal softened from being heated in the fire.  Of course this was totally my fault for finding and returning the stringer, or so I felt.  I was sick about it.

            Another time, some years earlier, Ray, James and I went to Martins Creek on horseback.  I’m not sure how we came to have three horses but we did.  On this occasion, James and I had ridden way up the bottom from where Ray was.  We were off the horses, but they were tied nearby.  We heard Ray calling, (yelling really) to us so we took off in a hurry to see what he wanted.  When I ran to get my horse I approached him from his left rear and I was probably running.  Anyway, I startled him and he kicked out and his hoof caught me on my right knee and bruised it pretty badly.  It turned green and yellow and black before it got all right.

            By the next day when we went home, my knee was twice its normal size and I could hardly walk.  Now days I would be rushed to the emergency room x-rayed and put on crutches.  Then, I just toughed it out.  I’m happy to say the knee has never bothered me to this day.  On the way home, my right leg stuck out from the horse’s side.  I couldn’t bend it at all.  I must have looked like Chester on the old Gunsmoke TV show.

            Another time I was with Ray and James, we had not caught anything for our supper and we had not taken anything from home either and by supper time we were really hungry.  I don’t remember, but I suppose I was perch fishing, but when they came in to camp they told me they had killed a crane and dressed it. 

            One of them, Ray I think, cooked it for our supper and we ate all of it.  It sure was good too.  I didn’t find out till I was grown that it wasn’t a crane at all but was a chicken from the nearby farmer.  They knew if they told me, that I would tell Mama and they would be in trouble, so they didn’t tell me.

            This farmer, I never did know his name, lived up the hill and around the bend from the Waller Bridge crossing of Martin Creek. His house backed up to a bluff over the creek bottom.  At the foot of the bluff was a spring that flowed a good stream of cold clear water.  The farmer had a cable strung from his back porch to the spring.  He had a bucket on the cable with a rope tied to the bail.  He could drop the bucket down the cable where it would fill with water from the spring.  He would then pull the bucket of water up the cable with the rope.  Just like drawing water out of a well.

            When Lloyd was teaching school at Brooks, he, Ray and I got up one morning in late spring and left for the creek.  We stopped on the way and dug a bucket of earthworms in a steady drizzle of rain.  One thing you could always get in East Texas was earthworms.  And I mean big ones.  They were as big around and as long as a new pencil, and were really good catfish bait.  I’m sure when there was a heavy rain, lots of worms were washed into the creeks where the catfish fed on them.

            On this day we got to the creek and began setting out lines.  Usually at a place like Waller Bridge where we were, there were poles already cut where we, or someone else, had left them from last time.  It continued to rain with some pretty hard showers and the creek was rising pretty fast.  We went up and down the creek checking our hooks and taking fish off.  We had to keep moving them up the bank as the creek rose.

            The creek was overflowing into the old Mill Pond and we had to wade water (waist deep on me) to go up the creek, but the water was warm so it didn’t bother us.  By mid-afternoon the rain stopped and the sun came out and we picked up our hooks and went home.  The fish had stopped biting when the rain stopped.  We had a #3 washtub over half-full of channel catfish.  All about the same size, which I guess now was about a pound each. 

            Along about this same time, I went, in the spring, to Irons Bayou between Youngblood and Delray, with Mr. Roy Gentry and family.  Several interesting things happened on this trip.  Mr. Roy Gentry was fishing with minnows that we seined from a nearby slough.  Irons Bayou at that place is not but 10 or 15 feet across at its widest.

            Mr. Roy put a minnow on his hook (he had a pole about twelve feet long and a line about eight, I would guess) and tossed it under a cut bank on the far side of the creek.  There was an immediate explosion of water and then a real fight for a couple of minutes until he got the fish out on the bank.  It was a grennel (Bowfin).  I had seen them before when caught on set hooks, but that was the first time I had seen one caught on a pole.  I’ve caught a good many over the years, and pound for pound they can outfight any other fish I know about.

            On this day I caught my first crappie.  They were on their spawning run up the creeks and we caught a 10 gallon milk can full of crappie.  Mr. Roy caught most of them.  I was not really rigged up for crappie.  All I had was a small perch hook on my line.  In the afternoon we almost ran out of bait and Mr. Roy sent me and his two boys, Roy Kelly and Jimmy Russell, two or three years younger than me, to seine some more.

            I dropped my hook down in the creek by a large leaning tree and laid my cane pole in the fork of the tree and left it there while seining bait.  I guess we were probably gone to the slough about half and hour before we came back with a bucket of minnows and small perch. 

            My pole was still where I had left it.  I picked it up and when I did something began to pull, but my reflexes were quicker than his.  Before he knew what had happened I had an Opelousas that would weigh four or five pounds on the bank.  The largest fish I had caught on a pole up to that time.

 

“My First Steak”

            Early during World War II I was visiting my cousins Jim Brown and Bobby Joe Gaston.  They and all their family lived in my Grandpa Brown’s house.  The original part of the house was a large (about 16’ by 16’) one room log cabin.  Rooms had been added on three sides and then a porch on two sides.  A large room had been added on the eastside of the east porch.  This was Grandpa’s room that he shared with my Step-grandmother Miss Sarah (Sallie Lee) Brooks. 

            Grandpa and Miss Sallie Lee (that’s what we called her) stayed in their room, but took their meals in the kitchen with the Gaston family.  I always loved to go there because they always had lots to eat.  At breakfast they had ham, bacon, or sausage, eggs and biscuits and gravy.  They frequently had fried chicken and there you might get more than one piece of chicken if you wanted.

            Aunt Jewel was a good cook and always fixed a lot of food, so you could frequently have all you wanted to eat.  This was not the norm for us.    

            Grandpa had a nice farm which, when he was still able to work it, was always very well kept.  A model farm.  Uncle Jim was a very good worker and he and Grandpa produced some very good crops.  I don’t know what their arrangement was, but they lived very well.  Much better than we did.  Mama, the saint she was, must have felt some envy at the way they lived while we bordered on hunger after Daddy died. 

            At this time, Grandpa was just about past farming, but still gave Uncle Jim his advice and counsel on when and what to plant.  Uncle Jim had an acre or two of tomatoes that were ready for market so he, his friend Mr. Hoyle Williams, Brownie, Bobby and I picked the tomatoes and put them in bushel baskets.

            Mr. Hoyle had a sizable stake-bed truck and by early afternoon we had the baskets of tomatoes stacked on the truck.  The baskets were up to the top of the cab.  Mr. Hoyle and Uncle Jim were going to take them all the way to Jacksonville to the tomato sheds to sell them.  At that time that was the closest tomato market to us.  I guess Brownie and/or Bobby had been talking to their Daddy asking him to let them go along and he consented.  There was not enough room in the cab for all of us (of course I got to go too since I was there visiting and had no way home), so we boys were consigned to the top of the load of tomatoes.

            We lay on our bellies on top of the baskets of tomatoes looking over the cab and down the road ahead.  I guess, over the roads then it was probably a fifty- mile drive to Jacksonville, which on a loaded truck was at least a two-hour drive.

            When we got there we found a long line of trucks loaded with tomatoes ahead of us.  There must have been thirty or forty of them.  Mr. Hoyle got in the line and prepared for a long wait.  Uncle Jim gave us boys a dime apiece and told us we could go to the movies (that’s what it cost, a dime).  This was on a Saturday and the theater was open and it didn’t take us long to find it, but I don’t remember how we did it.  There were two movies playing.  One was a western and I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember the other one.  It was “To Hell With Hitler” and it was a comedy.  A spoof if you will, which cast Hitler and Mussolini in a very unfavorable light.   I don’t remember the details, but it was nice and cool in the theater and it made the time fly by.

            It was dark when we got out of the movie and we were walking around town killing time and probably wishing for our supper when Uncle Jim and Mr. Hoyle found us.  Those two men were in sky-high spirits, having sold the entire load of tomatoes for the unheard of price of 11 cents per pound.  They were in the money and we all went down the street to a nice cafe and Uncle Jim ordered a steak dinner for each of us.  That was the very first steak that I ever ate.  Outside of fish and game, we ate considerable chicken and pork, but almost never beef.  Up to that time I think the only beef I had had was chili made from the Roosevelt cows (cows killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stimulate the market for beef). We sure did enjoy that supper.  I don’t remember the trip back to Grandpa’s, but I expect we boys slept all the way home in the back of the truck.

 

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt

            In my own mind I am convinced that FDR saved this country.  When he was elected to be President in 1932, the country was in dire straits.  The markets for agricultural products were in disarray.  The financial markets had not recovered from the stock market crash of 1929.  Unemployment was sky high.  Men out of work were roaming the country.  Soup kitchens were doing a big business in all our cities. Cotton was $0.05 per pound.  There was a glut of milk, eggs, meat and other products.  Prices were very low, yet people couldn’t buy because they had no money. 

            I don’t know who was the architect of the Roosevelt programs, but Roosevelt was the man that had the vision and the courage to put them into effect with the help of a pliant congress.  There were few people who sat on the fence where Roosevelt was concerned.  People either hated him or they loved him.  Enough people loved him to see him elected to four terms as president.  He died in 1945 during his fourth term and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman.

            President Franklin D. Roosevelt had numerous “New Deal” programs to improve farm life, (most Americans then lived on farms) and stimulate commodity markets.  Government agents killed cows to reduce the glut of livestock that existed in the country.  The cows were not supposed to be eaten, but when you are hungry you eat what there is, so in many cases, the old tough cows were ground up and made into chili.

            Other programs put in acreage allotments and paid farmers to raise legumes such as peas and beans to enrich the soil.  For raising the peas, farmers were paid so much per acre.  These payments were known as “Pea Checks”.  The peas were not supposed to be harvested or grazed, but of course they usually were.

            A Soil Conservation Service was established, where government agricultural agents went around surveying farms and laying out terraces to encourage farmers to plow on the contour to reduce erosion.  One of these agents is who told us our spring was higher than the house, and that we could have running water without a pump.

            The Agriculture Department implemented a program to eradicate ticks from our rangelands.  They went around the country building dipping vats in which to dip cattle.  No cattle were exempt.  All of them were to be dipped.  The vats were concrete.  They were wide and long enough and deep enough to submerge a full grown cow or horse.

            One of the vats was built by Odie Williams’ pond just north of Ben Weir’s house.  There was a pen at the entrance of the vat, with parallel fences leading to the vat, much like a cattle loading chute, except here instead of an up ramp there was a down ramp into the pit which was filled with a solution that would kill ticks.  It smelled like creosote and probably was.  There was an attendant there with a forked pole that he used to push the animal’s head under when it went through the vat.  I was there and got to observe once.  The day I was there I saw a fight.  Seems one of the farmers had a strong objection to his milk cow being forced under in the dipping vat.  The fight was brief as the men were separated by others.

            Another of Roosevelt’s programs was the Civilian Construction Corps that my brother James joined.  These quasi-military troops built roads and parks all over the country.  One of the requirements for joining was that you had to have a needy family to help support.  James certainly qualified on that score.  The pay was $21.00 per month; of this, $15.00 went to the family, and the Corpsman got $6.00.

            There was a program called the National Youth Administration that set up trade schools around the country to help youngsters learn a trade.  My cousin Drew Woods took an NYA course in metalworking.  This led him to be a metal smith in the Navy during WW II and then into the air conditioning business which burgeoned after the war.  Drew went on to become a millionaire contractor before his life was cut short in an automobile wreck.

            Perhaps the program with the greatest impact over the longest period of time was the Rural Electrification Administration, or REA.  This program built electric lines to rural America throughout this country.  It enabled farmers everywhere to have electric lights, electric refrigerators, radios and later televisions and air conditioners.

            When they ran electric lines by our house, Mama hired a guy to wire our house.  He, and a helper, put in a fuse box and ran wire to white porcelain light receptacles with pull strings for room lights with a duplex receptacle in the living room and another in the kitchen.  If I remember correctly, he charged $40.00 for the job.

            All of the programs put into place by the Roosevelt administration were designed to either educate people to increase productivity or to improve infrastructure and stimulate markets.  That put people to work so they could buy products which in turn created the need to produce more.  The impact was slow but things were beginning to improve.  World War II put everything into high gear and saw the country finally shake off the “Big Depression”.

 

“The Ice Man Cometh”

            The iceman didn’t always come to our house.  In fact, much of the time he didn’t come by our house at all.  When he did it was about 3 or 4 times per week.

            A card about a foot square was provided to each customer.  This card had numbers printed on each edge facing the center.  The numbers were 25, 50, 75 and 100.  The card was placed in a window facing the road with the number representing the amount of ice you wanted at the top of the card.  In those days people didn’t lock their houses.  When the iceman came, he could see the card in the window and would know how much ice you needed that day.  He would get a block that size and take it in and put it in your icebox, if you had one.  The iceman picked the ice up by tongs and placed it on his shoulder where he had a piece of heavy canvas or leather to keep him from getting too cold and wet.

            Our first ice box was an old gas refrigerator from which the gas refrigeration system had been removed.  It was a nice box, well insulated with a good door and latch.  Ice kept in it pretty well and was a big step up from where we had been.

            People now cannot understand how much we enjoyed a simple glass of ice tea.  When the weather was very hot, the house was hot too.  There was no relief from the heat and that cold glass was really something special.

            I remember once during the time when the truck was not coming by our house.  Then, the closest it came was to the lane to the Jack Adams house that was close to a mile from our house.  Mama had been looking forward to a cold glass of tea.  On the day the truck was to run, she had the tea made and sent my sister Patsy, and me, with fifteen cents to meet the truck and bring home a twelve and one-half pound block of ice.  We never knew exactly when the truck would come, so Mama sent us over there early to wait for the truck.

            There were some large shade trees there by the side of the road where we were waiting and we played in the shade of the trees.  During the wait, somehow or other I lost the fifteen cents.  We looked and looked, but couldn’t find the coins in all the leaves and debris on the ground.  I never hated to go home but that once in my life, but I really hated to go home that day without the ice and so disappoint Mama.  She had so few pleasant things in her life.

            Eventually, the ice truck route was expanded and we had ice delivered, on a fairly regular basis, until Mama finally got a refrigerator so she could freeze her own ice cubes.

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