Thursday, September 22, 2016

Smackover Salt Creek

As a kid, I always dreaded the beginning of school and, once it started, I dreamed of summertime. I loved being outside and free. Oh, I had jobs—mowing grass, trimming hedges, washing cars, helping Pop clean up at job sites—but I had a lot of leisure to enjoy not having to worry about tests, math problems or term projects.

My friends and I went for the first swim of the year usually by the end of February. One warm Sunday in February when I was 14, our gang was torn between two bodies of water with the same name: Salt Creek. There were probably more creeks so named, but we only knew about two of them. They both originated in the oil fields. One was out beyond Dumas pasture, the territory of ornery Brahma cows and an alert and very protective bull named Sammy. The other was almost to Smackover, a distance that required someone in our group to acquire a car or truck. That Sunday, Tommy sweet-talked his Mother with all kinds of promised domestic labor and came up with the family sedan.

No worries about Sammy the bull; we were headed to the Smackover Salt Creek. Nine of us arranged ourselves like sardines in the De Soto. We were full of advice for Tommy, whose driving skills had not fully matured. He put up with our banter for a while but, at length, pulled over and said, “If y’all don’t shut up, I’m putting you out.” That did it. We started singing “Do, Lord” disharmoniously and continued the adolescent praise service the rest of the way.

When we arrived at the Salt Creek bridge, Tommy pulled off onto a little two-rutted trail and drove up into a fairly thick canebrake. There, we shed clothing and made our way to the high bank. No one had to teach us to walk carefully in snake country. We just knew to watch the ground (and water) for any movement. That day, we only saw one moccasin, peacefully ingesting a bullfrog. At first it looked as if the snake had legs, but those appendages were the frog’s, on his way out of this corporeal realm. He looked so resigned to his fate, stoically accepting his role as nourishment for the ugly snake.

We had a blast cannonballing, belly flopping as well as creating other diving techniques, such as the alligator, the plank and the helicopter. It was so great to be back in a summertime mode, however prematurely, that we ignored the rather pungent odor emanating from the creek…and us.

I don’t know about the others, but when I got back home just enough before church time to eat some cheese and crackers and take a quick shower, Mother hit the ceiling about the smell. “Where have you been! Get some Lysol and wipe that chair down when you finish. You stink to high heaven!” she cried. “We went to Salt Creek, Mamma. I’m fixing to take a shower.” She could not believe that we would be so foolish as to go swimming in February, but, since it happened almost every year, she let it slide. She made me scrub the tub, though, and throw the washcloth and towel away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Eating Habits

Back when I was on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, some board members had a meet-and-greet cookout at a deer lodge way out in the boon docks and my wife and I were invited. The spacious well-furnished lodge was on the Bartholomew Bayou and rather difficult to get to. As soon as my wife and I arrived, we were offered liquid refreshment and they passed around a tray of hors d’oeuvres. These were little chunks of fried meat on toothpicks that tasted like fishy chicken. We both had several. Then, just before the main course, our host held up a huge rattlesnake skin and mirthfully announced that the meat of that creature had been our cordial repast. My wife and I looked at each other with that “Oh, well, the deed is done” look on our faces and moved forward to more familiar fare—rib eye steaks and baked potatoes.

I tell that story to assert that most of us like to know what it is we are eating before ingesting it. Sushi bars have all their fish, eels, squid, shrimp, etc. out there in plain view. That way you know what you are getting. Some people are squeamish about eating raw fish, but I imagine our ancestors did so a lot. I love that scene in Castaway in which Tom Hanks learns to spear fish and eat them still wiggling. Elia (Charles Lamb) wrote a piece on roasted pig in which he asserted that cooking came to be in this fashion: a man kept his pig in his house. His house burned to the ground. The man touched the hot pig in the ashes and put his fingers to his lips. Yum. Thus, cooking was born.

Historic Washington State Park had a week-long encampment and reenactment recently and those assembled tried their hardest to be authentic 19th Century soldiers. Some had live chickens in cages. I watched a bevy of them, who obviously had but little experience cleaning farm critters, preparing a big hen for the pot. It took a long time, and the carcass looked untidy as all get-out. I was told later that they were so hungry that they took the chicken up before it was well done and some got sick. I have a tendency to cook chicken to unsavory hardness on the grill. A well-done hamburger is one thing but a scorched chicken is quite another.

My Pop had strange tastes and I usually ate what he ate, be it tripe, raw oysters from the can, brains and eggs, dry salt meat, pickled pig’s feet or sardines. Tripe is cow stomach and Mother used to bread it and fry it. It smelled good cooking and I enjoyed eating it, though it was quite chewy. It took a while for me to develop a taste for raw oysters, but when I started adding Louisiana hot sauce like Pop, I managed well. Hog brains scrambled with eggs had a musky taste, but that just made the dry salt meat, the constant companion of that dish, taste better. Pickled pig’s feet, sardines and sharp cheddar with crackers were usually Sunday evening meals. Mother cooked a major lunch on Sunday, so we were on our own the rest of the day. Rarely there was some fried chicken left, but more often we had Pop’s exotic stuff. As far as I know, he never ate rattlesnake, though.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


I am told that amniotic fluid is identical to ocean water in its makeup and that our bodies are mainly water. Considering the preponderance of H20 on the planet, its influence upon literature is not surprising. Our most ancient extant tale, Gilgamesh, relates the flood story paralleling in several passages the flood in Holy Scripture. And Homer’s work is full of water, as is Beowulf. Some of the best stories of the 20th Century written in English are all wet, in the best sense. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim swim in the complexity of the human condition. The main character of the greatest American novel is the Mississippi River itself—of course I refer to Huckleberry Finn. The second greatest American novel, Moby Dick, is likewise afloat in the dark turbulence of self-discovery.

Consider the vast waterish themes of the Bible: The world came from a formless void in which darkness was upon the face of the deep. Noah withstood the worst storm ever recorded. Moses led the Hebrews through the Red Sea on dry land. The prophet’s axe head floated and leprous Naaman came up pink from the murky Jordan. Elijah soaked the sacrifice, taunting the heathen, and Yaweh’s fire lapped water up. A glass of water offered in the name of a prophet will get a prophet’s reward. The rich man in Hades wanted his poor servant to give him just one drop of this precious substance. Jesus strolled on water and told the Samaritan woman at the well about water springing up to eternal life. All the followers of the Lord baptized folks with or in water and finally, in Revelation 4 verse 6, we see God himself sitting on his throne before a sea as calm as glass. That must mean everything makes sense to him. From the churning chaos of creation to the crystal sea, water tells our story.

There is an odd report in Second Samuel 23:13-19. After a furious battle with the Philistines, David longed out loud for water from his hometown, Bethlehem, which was under the control of the enemy. Hearing his desire, some of his mighty men took off for Bethlehem and fetched him some water. But David would not drink it because it was to him like the blood of those men who had risked so much to get it. He poured it out as a drink offering to the Lord. In the Christian worldview, that is likely a foreshadowing of the mightiest man of all time pouring out unto the Lord a sacrifice for all mankind. He gave his righteous life in exchange for the sinful life of all who believe in turn to him in repentance. Considering that heaven is the home of the redeemed, that sacrifice is like water from home.

When I was eight, Mother and I visited my sister in Boston. The water tasted horrible up there. I could not wait to get back home to drink a huge quaff of water that tasted right. According to Psalm 46 (which Shakespeare himself probably translated for King James) there is a river flowing from the throne of God. That water tastes right.