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 bootsnot 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 usnot that much but a
I woke at dawn. I had to pee. In spite of Mammas 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 shouldnt do. I shivered, and not because of
the April cold.
I ran to Mamma and Daddys room. Daddy, Daddy, the
bayous flowing backwards! His voice was hoarse and
raspy from sleep as he said, I thought it might this year.
Is that bad?
Its really bad. Floods coming. Run up to Mike
and Bettys and fetch them both. Have JT come too.
I threw on my overalls and ran to the Langstons. 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 its 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 cant cook, so cook enough meat and cornbread for a week.
Cook enough for us and for you Langstons, too.
Mamma said, You think its gonna be that bad? Youre
I got a bad feeling about this one. All that rain this spring,
all that rain this week, the bayou running backwards this strongI
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 cant 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 themexcept for
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
What we goin to do, Mr. Will?
Dont know. Never seen this before. Daddy says it might
flood bad. I reckon Daddy has something figured out. He and Mike
talked about it. Yall do like Daddy told him. Dont
take no chances.
Our bayou rose day-by-day and spread its nasty water across our
yard, into our barns, into the sharecroppers 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 theyre 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.
Were 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
There was no need to stay. Winter crops gone, food gone, barn
going, house leaning, stock probably drowning, JT goneto
who knows where.
Water had won.
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, well be sure to stay together. Ill
take Mamma and Baby Sis and Uncle Floyd with me; you take Ruthie
with you. Be careful now. I dont need to be rescuing drowning
We paddled west, toward Macon. Daddy paddled, stoke after stroke.
He never let up. He just paddledstroke, stroke, stroke.
My arms began to burn. I couldnt keep up even as slow as
we moved. I thought, why dont we stop for a rest? Dont
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
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 didnt
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
Folks from the Red Cross fed us alland 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 didnt
care that they were old and wornthey were clothes. At least
we had something to wear while ours were being washed. Baby Sis
and Ruthie werent 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 findand there just wasnt any.
Coloreds did the levee work; stores were either flooded or didnt
need help; blacksmith shops were closed for lack of work. Still,
Daddy refused to sweep and clean. He said, Thats womans
work. I dont do squaw work.
We didnt get home till fall. We moved into the only house
that had survived the flood, a sharecroppers house. Mamma
didnt 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 deaddrowned or
starved. We had no hogs or chickens either. Still, we were lucky.
Our water had risen slow and dropped slowno fast currents
to wash out big holes in the fields and to tear up things so bad
that people couldnt 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, Im
goin to need you in the field this year and maybe next year,
too. School will have to wait. Dont know how many families
will be back. Weve got to do it on our own.
You hear from JT and Betty and Mike?
Not a word.
"Maybe theyre OK and just cant come home. Maybe
they went north like a lot of Coloreds did.
But they didnt. 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, Whered yall go? How was it?
We went to the Hills. White folks stole our mules and the
wagon. They stuck us in a refugee campmore 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 usjust cornbread and baconmostly cornbread. Guards
raped women and beat up men whenever they wanted to. Couldnt
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 aint never leaving here again. You can
count on that. I aint gonna be beholden to no white folks
never again. Never!"
What about me? Aint I white?
You aint white; youre family.
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.