By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 13: Friends I
My first playmate was Paul "Brother" Bruno, who lived less than a hundred yards from Coulee Kinney. He was a couple of years younger than I, but he was as big and also stronger. His parents were my God parents. Brother and I started exploring the coulee and surrounding woods when I was about eight years old. We were usually shoeless and dressed in short pants and always accompanied by my faithful dog, Tootsie. Tootsie was some kind of "shepherd" dog. She had long hair like Lassie, but was only about half that size. She had apparently been someone's unwanted pet and had been dropped off in the country. When she came into our yard, half starved, and we saw each other, it was mutual love at first sight. She was not only our constant companion during our explorations but also our guardian.
One of our favorite places to explore was a small island we called "Bamboo Island". It was probably no larger than one acre in area, bordered on the west by Coulee Kinney and surrounded the rest of the way by a narrow, shallow unnamed coulee. The vegetation was solid bamboo—not the huge bamboo that we occasionally see in someone's garden, but small diameter bamboo that made perfect fishing poles and things like pop guns to shoot china balls and blow guns to shoot darts. There was really nothing else to see there, but for some reason we were drawn there time after time as though a magnet had a hold on us. Today the island no longer exists. The bamboo has disappeared and the small coulee filled in.
It was in the little coulee around part of the island that I had my first encounter with a cotton-mouth moccasin. It was coiled in the mud on the side of the coulee, partially obscured by some water hyacinths. When I first spotted it, it looked like a large bullfrog. As I began to approach it, it suddenly began to beat its short, stubby tail on the mud, making a popping sound. Tootsie heard the sound and came running and barking. I immediately went into a reverse mode. I was backing away slowly at first, but when I spotted that huge, wide open, white cotton looking mouth, I definitely increased my speed. The snake appeared to take note of Tootsie, which very wisely kept at a safe distance, and very deliberately, almost nonchalantly it seemed, made its way to the water and disappeared beneath the surface. We came across other snakes occasionally, but usually Tootsie detected them first and gave us ample warning.
It was Brother who was with me when we discovered the moonshine still in the woods. I sometimes think that it was a very good thing for us that we were not discovered by the bootleggers. Bootlegging was a federal offense, and the penalties if caught were severe—fines and jail time. Who knows what might have happened if we had been discovered while we were in the old house. The finding of the bodies of two little boys drowned in Coulee Kinney would probably have been attributed to an accident while playing near the coulee.
One day Brother and I saw a group of men and boys pulling a seine in the coulee. We watched a while but did not stick around to see if they had caught anything. Some time later I ran into one of the boys and asked about the results. He told me that they had caught so many fish that they had to get a farm wagon to bring the fish out. I didn't believe it at first, but that was confirmed by someone else that I considered trustworthy. In those days there were a lot of fish in the coulee. There was a species of catfish that we called "mosh-wa-rons" (probably a Native American word) that were lemon yellow in color and grew to 50 or more pounds. Plus there were other types of catfish, lots of garfish, including five and six footers, carp, and probably gaspergoos (another Native American word).
Brother and I fished in Coulee Kinney occasionally. One day we hit a jackpot that nobody would have ever believed possible. We were fishing for catfish, using chicken gut for bait under corks to let us know when we had a nibble or a bite. Our corks would sink suddenly and the lines would draw taut, but when we jerked the lines upward, no fish and sometimes, no bait as well. We both did that several times before one of us had the good sense to lift his pole slowly, and lo and behold, when that was done, a great big, beautiful crab, just like the ones I caught in Vermilion Bay decades later, came into view. We couldn't believe our eyes, because we had never seen that before nor had we even heard of a crab being caught in Coulee Kinney. We did not understand why, but we pounced on the opportunity to make history. Brother ran to his house, which was just a short distance away, and came back with a dip net and a burlap sack. We caught a bunch, enough for a crab boil and a crab stew. The answer to the phenomenon, obviously, is that salt water had intruded into Coulee Kinney, probably because of an extended dry spell and prevailing southerly winds. The rice farmers along Coulee Kinney must have had a hard time that summer, because all of them used water from the coulee to flood their rice fields.
There were a couple of other things that Brother and I did to put food on the table. When we were old enough in the minds of our parents, we each got a BB gun. In those days all kinds of game was plentiful. Our kind of game were the black birds and rice birds that fed in the rice fields and then rested in the trees along the fence lines. The rather primitive manner of harvesting rice in those days caused a lot of spillage, so there was a lot of feed for the birds and they grew butterball fat. It was easy to get within range and we were both good shots. Our birds wound up in the pot as blackbird jumbalaya. Don't turn up your nose at this dish. If you ever have the opportunity to partake of blackbird jumbalaya, be sure to grab some. It's tastier than pork jumbalaya. (I know that the dictionary spells the word "jambalaya." But that comes from Hank Williams' song written in the 1950's. As one old Cajun said,"Rednecks sing jambalaya, but Cajuns eat jumbalaya)."
Another food producing activity that Brother and I engaged in was the planting and harvesting of sweet potatoes. His father planted several acres of yams, and Brother and I helped by distributing the seed vines to the rows, where an adult would push them into the soil using a notched stick. Then at harvest time, Brother's father would use a large plow behind a pair of mules to open up the rows and expose the potatoes, and Brother and I, along with other family members, would help pick up the potatoes and throw them into the farm wagon. My personal reward was a sack of delicious sweet potatoes delivered to my house in a wheel barrow.
The last project that Brother and I worked on together involved his family skiff and my father's animal clipper. This clipper had been designed to shear sheep, but my father had bought it to keep his mules well groomed when he drove a mule powered school bus that was a converted farm wagon with a top and canvas curtains. The bane of every horse and mule owner was the cockle burr weed. The manes of the horses and mules and the tails of all animals picked up those cockle burrs and it was impossible to pull them out. So you had to cut off the affected hair, and a clipper was the best way to do it. To activate the clipper, someone had to turn a crank, which turned a shaft, which made the clipper work. I had heard about someone who had removed the clipper and used the rest of the mechanism to motorize a boat. The crank turned the shaft on which a propeller had been installed and the boat moved at a pretty good clip.
So Brother and I went to work. We took the clipper off. We installed the mechanism on the floor of the skiff. We put an old automobile fan on the end of the shaft, with the blades in the water. We started cranking and the boat began to move, but the boat kept going around in circles. We figured out that the shaft would have to be realigned and that we would have to get a smaller prop or somehow cut our present fan to a smaller size. So we tied the skiff up until we could come back to finish the job. Less than a week later, we went back, all excited about the new motor boat we were about to create. When we got to the coulee, there was no boat. Someone had swiped it. All those years that it had existed as a skiff, powered by a paddle, no one had ever attempted to steal it. But now that some technology was being applied, somebody got possessive. We hoped that maybe someone had just borrowed it and that it would be returned, but we never saw it again.
It pains me to tell you that Brother did not reach adulthood. When he was sixteen years old, a high school student and a proud member of the Abbeville High School band, he succumbed to complications from a flu like illness. He was buried in his band uniform.
Next: Part 14: Friends II
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron