By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 11: Swimming
According to what my mother told me, I drank some Coulee Kinney water very early on in life. I was born in September, and sometime during the next summer, my mother allowed my three oldest sisters to take me to the coulee, where a number of people from four or five different families were enjoying a combination swimming and bathing event. By bathing I mean washing and soaping and shampooing. While I was being soaped and washed by one of the sisters, I slipped out of her grasp and disappeared. She screamed out a warning and everyone started searching for me, and I believe it was my oldest sister who located me, probably after I had swallowed a mouthful or two of water. Maybe this explains my life long love for the little stream that snakes through the area and drains a good part of north Vermilion Parish.
I remember participating in the community bath at least two more times when I got to be about eight or nine years old. The men took their shirts off but kept their trousers on. The ladies kept their dresses on. The children wore less, according to their ages. There was some swimming done, but there was a lot more soaping and shampooing going on. These events usually took place on Saturday afternoon. You have to remember that there were no bathtubs or running water in any of the homes. The water in the coulee at that time was clean and clear rain water, much softer than the shallow well water that was available at the homes.
My maternal grandmother accompanied me on one occasion. She was a small person, barely five feet tall. She had grown up on the bank of Bayou Vermilion, somewhere between Milton and Abbeville and could swim like a fish. On that day she stood on the coulee bank for a short time, fully clothed with a long black dress, and watched other women sit on the bank with their legs dangling in the water and then gently slipping into the water. Memere did it differently. She dove in head first and popped up like a cork. I think some of the others almost went into shock, as Memere was at least eighty years old. She swam around a little then did like the others—she took out her piece of home-made soap.
I learned to swim in Coulee Kinney, but not at the conventional swimming spots. At that time the coulee was shallow, and each time there was heavy rainfall it would overflow its banks. There in clearings where the water was deep enough to swim and shallow enough to be safe, I did my swimming. However, when I did know how to swim, I did some foolish things, like swimming in the coulee alone. In addition to the danger from leg cramps, there were alligator gar fish that were bigger than I was. Thankfully my guardian angel was vigilant and I survived. One of the reasons I swam alone was that my hero, Buster Crabbe, an actor who played Tarzan in the movies, was a former Olympic swimmer and I wanted to be like him.
There was a swimming pool in Abbeville during part of the 1930's, but I never swam there. There was a fee involved, plus you had to wear store bought swimming trunks. I didn't have either, so I confined my swimming to the coulee, Bayou Vermilion, the Hunter Canal and various small rice canals conveying water from the coulee or the bayou to the rice fields.
I had a friend my age named Roland who lived on the bank of Bayou Vermilion. I often joined Roland and his three younger brothers for a swim in the bayou. I got there one day and was told that there would be no more swimming. The day before Roland and his three brothers were swimming when the youngest, who was about four years old, let out a yell. A garfish had him by the foot and was pulling him under. Roland managed to grab the child and there was a brief tug of war which happily Roland won, but the child's foot was badly lacerated. He recovered with no permanent disability, but the parents would no longer allow swimming in the bayou.
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron