Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

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Part 3

Bill Fleet


Late winter and spring of 1926 and 1927 were wetter than I could ever remember. It seemed that it rained every day for two months. Nobody went outside without wearing rubber boots—not even Mamma. Daddy said he heard the North was mighty wet this year too. He told me, “Yankee rain can mean Rebel floods.”

We had a storm on Good Friday. It was worse than any storm I had ever seen, worse than any storm Uncle Floyd had ever seen. Rain fell in sheets and rattled hard against our windows. It was cold enough to make late April feel like February. We heard that almost fourteen inches fell that day on Greenville, only forty miles away. No telling how much fell on us—not that much but a whole lot.

I woke at dawn. I had to pee. In spite of Mamma’s rule, I did it off the porch. Nobody else was up. Who would know? I looked out at the bayou. It wound through our farm, usually barely flowing because the land was so flat. Today the bayou was full and flowing fast. Water lapped at its banks and splashed into our yard.

And then I saw it. It was flowing toward the east. It always flowed to the west to empty into the Sunflower River. Flowing east was something it shouldn’t do. I shivered, and not because of the April cold.

I ran to Mamma and Daddy’s room. “Daddy, Daddy, the bayou’s flowing backwards!” His voice was hoarse and raspy from sleep as he said, “I thought it might this year.”

“Is that bad?”

“It’s really bad. Flood’s coming. Run up to Mike and Betty’s and fetch them both. Have JT come too.”

I threw on my overalls and ran to the Langston’s. They lived next to our barn, only a quarter-mile from us. I hollered, “Get up, get up. Daddy needs you at the house right now.”

They dressed as quickly as they could and we slogged through the mud back to my house. Daddy and Mamma and Baby Sis and Ruthie and Uncle Floyd were dressed and ready. Flood was coming. Daddy knew. He had seen floods before.

He had a plan. “Our house is built high and it’s on a little ridge. But we need to get ready just in case. Betty, you and Mamma take care of food. If it floods the first floor, we can’t cook, so cook enough meat and cornbread for a week. Cook enough for us and for you Langstons, too.

Mamma said, “You think it’s gonna be that bad? You’re sure?”

“I got a bad feeling about this one. All that rain this spring, all that rain this week, the bayou running backwards this strong—I got a bad feeling.

“Will and JT, you boys move as many jars of vegetables as you can up to the second floor. If we can’t live on the first floor, we can live on the second. Mike, get some help from the sharecroppers and move the mules and cows up to the high ground away from the bayou. Haul some hay for feed.” Daddy was used to giving orders. We were used to taking them—except for Mamma.

JT and I carried jars up the stairs and filled every tub, keg and kettle we could find with drinking water. We talked as we worked.

“What we goin’ to do, Mr. Will?”

“Don’t know. Never seen this before. Daddy says it might flood bad. I reckon Daddy has something figured out. He and Mike talked about it. Y’all do like Daddy told him. Don’t take no chances.”

Our bayou rose day-by-day and spread its nasty water across our yard, into our barns, into the sharecropper’s quarters, even into our high pasture.

I saw Daddy on his horse. He said he was on his way to tell the sharecroppers to head for high ground. Mike and Betty and JT had left last week. They had loaded one of our old wagons with bedding, tarps, a boiled ham, cornbread and jars of beans and peas, enough food for a week. They headed east, toward the hills and high ground, away from the flood. Where they stopped, who knew?

Water began to flow into our house even though it was built three feet off the ground. Nothing could stop it. Soon, four feet of water filled our first floor. Would our house withstand the water? We began to wonder. I asked Daddy, “What you think happened to JT and Betty and Mike? You think they’re all right?”

“They ought to be. They left a week ago. Must have made it to high ground by now.”

Food stocks shrank. Drinking water dwindled. Our house began to settle on the side facing the bayou. The current had begun to wash away the foundation. Daddy announced, “Tomorrow we leave. We’re done for if we stay.”

Daddy had knocked together two blunt-end, flat-bottom boats from cypress boards stored in the barn. The boats were rough; they leaked, but they floated. He used a hatchet to carve four paddles from oak posts and scraped the handles with a piece of broken glass to make a smooth place to hold onto. He tied the boats to the railings of the outside steps leading from our second floor porch to the ground and moved their moorings upward almost every day.
There was no need to stay. Winter crops gone, food gone, barn going, house leaning, stock probably drowning, JT gone—to who knows where.

Water had won.

Daddy woke me early.

“Time to get up. We got a long day ahead. Help me load the boats right after breakfast. Tie your boat to mine with that long plow line. That way, we’ll be sure to stay together. I’ll take Mamma and Baby Sis and Uncle Floyd with me; you take Ruthie with you. Be careful now. I don’t need to be rescuing drowning children.”

We paddled west, toward Macon. Daddy paddled, stoke after stroke. He never let up. He just paddled—stroke, stroke, stroke. My arms began to burn. I couldn’t keep up even as slow as we moved. I thought, why don’t we stop for a rest? Don’t Daddy ever git tired? The rope began to get tight. It rose out of the water like a bowstring. Daddy was paddling for the both of us.

At the first little island of high ground, we stopped. Mamma joined me and Ruthie rode with Daddy. From then on, Daddy led. Mamma and I both paddled behind. We touched the muddy ground of Macon at dusk and collapsed on the depot loading dock, too tired even to eat. No matter that we had nothing since our skimpy breakfast.

Water covered the world. Would it ever go down? It didn’t seem so. Finally, toward the end of June, it began to drop, but not fast. No cotton grew in Washington County that summer.
We camped in railroad cars, just like the Coloreds. They lived in boxcars on a siding a little downhill from us. There must have been twenty cars there. We whites lived in cabooses. I counted a dozen. At least we had stoves and cushioned seats and indoor toilets, even if they emptied into the foot-deep water under where we lived.

Folks from the Red Cross fed us all—and not too good either. Cornbread and bacon every day got mighty tiresome after a while. The Red Cross came around every day or so with water.
Mamma and my sisters did things here they never did at home; they swept out, mopped, made up our pallet beds, set out food and washed up. Mamma paid a Colored woman to do our washing.

The Red Cross gave us a few clothes. Mamma and Daddy and I didn’t care that they were old and worn—they were clothes. At least we had something to wear while ours were being washed. Baby Sis and Ruthie weren’t too pleased about theirs. They wanted something newer and more stylish.

Mamma complained less here that she had at home. Daddy looked for any work he could find—and there just wasn’t any. Coloreds did the levee work; stores were either flooded or didn’t need help; blacksmith shops were closed for lack of work. Still, Daddy refused to sweep and clean. He said, “That’s woman’s work. I don’t do ‘squaw work’.”


We didn’t get home till fall. We moved into the only house that had survived the flood, a sharecropper’s house. Mamma didn’t much like living in a Nigger house but it was a whole lot better than the caboose in Macon.

Our house, our barn, our smokehouse and even our outhouse were just jumbled piles of lumber but we could salvage tools and harnesses and pots and kettles and tin plates and knives and forks. Of course, all the food was ruined. Our pump survived. After pumping a while to clear out muddy water in the pipe, we had water again that we could drink.

All the mules and our two milk cows were dead—drowned or starved. We had no hogs or chickens either. Still, we were lucky. Our water had risen slow and dropped slow—no fast currents to wash out big holes in the fields and to tear up things so bad that people couldn’t salvage anything, like it was around Greenville. Here, there was just mud, mud, mud.

Daddy said, “We got the land. We can make it. Will, I’m goin’ to need you in the field this year and maybe next year, too. School will have to wait. Don’t know how many families will be back. We’ve got to do it on our own.”

“You hear from JT and Betty and Mike?”

“Not a word.”

"Maybe they’re OK and just can’t come home. Maybe they went north like a lot of Coloreds did.”

But they didn’t. They came home right after we did. They lived in a tent until we could build them a house.

It felt good to have all my family home, together again.

I asked JT, “Where’d y’all go? How was it?

“We went to the Hills. White folks stole our mules and the wagon. They stuck us in a refugee camp—more like a jail than a camp. We lived in tents, every one right next to each other, butt to butt; no room to even spit. Soldiers kept us in. Red Cross fed us—just cornbread and bacon—mostly cornbread. Guards raped women and beat up men whenever they wanted to. Couldn’t do nothing about it. It was awful. Folks got rashes wherever the sun hit; they went crazy; they just began to give up; they just sat. I hope I never see things like that again. Lawd, am I ever glad to be home! I ain’t never leaving here again. You can count on that. I ain’t gonna be beholden to no white folks never again. Never!"

“What about me? Ain’t I white?”

“You ain’t white; you’re family.”

***

Bill Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD degrees from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics for nine years before entering private practice in the Nashville area. He began creative writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first book in 2000.

© Bill Fleet

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012