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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"

The River Rat Boys

By W. T. Block
A factual occurrence about Will Block Sr., embellished with poetic license, as seen through the eyes of his eleven-year-old son W. T. Block, Jr.
He had just made his promise to me, and I knew it was as good as gold. Pa's like that--he always said his word was his bond. Oh, he has his faults, lots of them, of course, like every boy's father has, but telling lies ain't - oops - isn't one of them. But he has a way of putting a 'catch' into his promises, or maybe I should say his 'bargains.' And that is exactly what I'm doing now -- in brief, no home work completed, then no trip tomorrow morning.

Darkness had already hemmed in the area around the old farmhouse when I struck a match to my old kerosene lamp and started up the stairs to the attic with my books. I couldn't do my homework until after dark because, after school, I had corn for the chickens to shuck and shell, eggs to gather from about 200 hens, and cows to milk. Outside, I had watched as the last of the chickens moved to his roost on the nearby fig trees amid a chorus of locust and cricket song. Now and then, an old bullfrog down near the boat landing added his harmonious base notes, while an old screech or hooty owl set up his nocturnal watch on a pecan tree branch outside of my attic window. I added a hunk of cordwood to the hot coals in the pot-bellied stove because the old attic was always drafty. Then I watched as the dry bark blazed up brightly, before sitting down to finish a dozen pages of grammar that Miss Ashley* had assigned for that weekend. She's a stinker when it comes to weekend assignments, and of all my subjects I hate grammar most. Experience has already taught me the price of uttering a double-negative in her presence, which indicates she must be making some headway with me though. She should have, however, considering all of her probing at my brain via the eyes, ears, and hands, and her pile-driving whacks at my caboose with her hickory paddle.

Pa is her ally in all of this. I don't know where or how he gets such funny ideas about going to school. He's a farmer, and goodness knows, even the dumbest folks know a guy doesn't need any schooling to be a farmer. Even the bull gangers in the refinery can't read and write, but that doesn't keep them from bringing home a pay check! Pa's always saying things about me having advantages he didn't have -- just another of his faults, wanting something for me that I don't want.

I know, though, that farming isn't for me because it's mule work and plenty hard. I may be young still, but I've been around long enough to know that. That 'tater patch isn't the school merry-go-round, and neither is the corn field. It just doesn't seem as if going to school is the answer either. The river rat boys have never seen the inside of any school, and their folks make out all right. Ah, the life that the river rats live! Fishing all day, hunting, trapping, and skinning alligators, and to top off everything - no school! That's the life for me! I've already known it for a long time, but somehow, it just doesn't seem right to let Pa in on my secret--not just yet anyway, because that's where we're going in the morning, to visit my river rat friends, and if Pa knew just how much they are influencing my thoughts at this time, well, he might just cancel out on our trip -- promise or no promise.

Just at that moment, I heard a door slam downstairs, and I knew Pa would soon be up to bring me a cup of hot chocolate. This seemed like a good time to hit him up again for that Barlow knife I had wanted so badly last Christmas. Last year, he said I was too small for a Barlow knife, but after all, I'm a year older and bigger now. A knife doesn't seem like too much to ask for, even with times as hard as they are now. Living on a farm like this, I really need a good knife, to cut gunny sack twine and everything else. They only cost a dollar, but of course, that's a half-day's pay for the field hands. Pa sometimes talks about the stock market crash. I don't know what a stock market is, but it must have something to do with how much money people have. I sometimes overhear Pa talking to Ma about the renters not having any money to pay their rent with, so I guess if you don't have it, a dollar's a whole lot of money. There used to be tricycles and teddy bears for Christmas when I was little, but that's all gone now. I also can remember when Pa used to give me a nickel for Sunday School money, but that's down to a penny now. Sometimes Pa even brings back a big load of potatoes from the wholesale house in Beaumont, and he says there's no market for them, not even at 25 cents a hundred pounds.

As soon as I heard Pa's boots on the bottom step of the stairs, I hurriedly scribbled a few words, making some pretense of studying when all I was doing was day-dreaming about that knife. In a moment, he opened the door and placed a cup on the table beside me. In the dim light of the kerosene lamp, the wrinkles seemed to cut so deeply into Pa's forehead, and he looked old to me. I often wondered why Pa was so much older than the fathers of any of my classmates at school. But I guess all that hard field work had made him age quickly. He looked over my shoulder as I struggled with a long word, and he pointed out a mistake on my tablet. As he turned to leave the attic, he stroked one end of his bushy mustache and said, "Don't forget to blow out the lamp and check the fire before you go to bed, William. And stick to your studies and keep your grades up. You'll need it in order to become a good doctor."

"Good night, Pa," I replied. As he started for the door, I added, "Pa, can I have that Barlow knife for Christmas this year? They don't cost but a dollar, and I'm older and bigger now. Augustine and Leroy both have one."

"Never mind just yet. Leroy and Augustine need a knife in their work in order to skin muskrats and alligators. When you're big enough, I'll get you one."

"Yes, Pa, sleep good," I answered as he started through the door to the stairs. That was just one more of Pa's faults -- always an out-and-out "No," never a "Maybe" or a "I'll think about it" so I would have some hope. Another of his faults is thinking too much. I don't mind his thinking about farming -- after all, that's our living. But he's always thinking about things that aren't related to farming at all and it's always me that suffers -- like his ideas of me being a doctor and a fiddler. I'm not really sure what all a doctor does, except that they carry a black bag. And they can sure make your foot hurt when you have a locust thorn imbedded an inch under your foot like I had last summer. And I guess they must bring babies too -- I had that figured out a long time ago -- and that's probably where they keep them - in that black bag. Otherwise, it's sure funny there's always a doctor around when the crying gets started -- like last year when Alta Grey was born. And that miserable violin and those music lessons he bought for me! How I hate that stuff! I've known for a long time that I'll never be a fiddler, but if I tell Pa that, I know it will hurt him. Somehow, he got his heart set on my being a fiddler as good as Uncle Joe Block.

And I know good and well the only reason he wants me to be a doctor was because he had wanted so much to be one himself. After all, you only have to see him reading his big medical books to know that. He told me just the other day how, in the days when he was young and there was no doctor in Port Neches, people called on him to set broken bones. And twice he had taken patients to Beaumont in his wagon so a doctor there could reset the bones properly. Once he even had to remove a bullet in a man's arm. But he doesn't have to do anything like that anymore, because Port Neches has a doctor now.

But for all his bad points, Pa's pretty smart in lots of ways considering, as he says, he "didn't get much schooling." Somehow, he seems to know most of the answers, like the one he just helped me out with. I guess he's learned a lot from just living. That exactly the way the river rat boys, Leroy and Augustine, learn things. Pa sometimes talke about his having gone to the "College of Hard Knocks." I don't know what he means by that because he says there wasn't any building or classes or anything like that. And he tells me that there wasn't much schooling to be had when he was a boy my age -- just a couple of winters of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Boy, if I didn't know Pa like I do, I'd believe he was fibbing, because he knows way too much for just two years of school. He says the school year just lasted through part of December, January, and February because farm kids needed to be home to work in the fields the rest of months. At first, I thought that sounded great, and I wished my school year lasted only three months. Now I'm not so sure. If I was home every day, that would mean I'd just be out in the field all day. But I can see quite well that Pa has never suffered from any lack of schooling. After all, he has a farm and rent houses, and boats and cattle and trucks and -- well, just about everything a person needs. He told me he had been a justice of the peace, whatever that is, when he was still in his early twenties. I think that's something like a judge. And nowadays, he's foreman of the grand jury almost every winter as well as a lawman who captures the whiskey stills up and down the river.

I used to hear him talking about the "changing times" and the "return to normalcy," but I'm not sure exactly what those words mean either. That's another of his faults, using big words that I can't understand. He once told me to that he rode his horse to Spindletop a long time ago, and there he watched that "geyser of black gold dethrone the fluffy, white cotton king in these parts all in one day." Now tell me, what boy my age is supposed to make any sense at all out of that kind of double-talk? Sometimes, I wish Miss Ashley would spend more time teaching us some of those big words instead of worrying so much about our "ain'ts" and "not hardlys."I do know what one thing means. The soot on this old kerosene lamp means the wick is buring pretty low, and it's getting late, and if I really want so bad to go with Pa in the morning, I'd best finish my homework before Pa comes back up and hustles me off to bed.

About the same time that the screech owl decided to bed down and the sun came up, Pa stood beside me and tapped me on the stomach. "Time to get up so we can leave," he commented. I wasted precious little time dressing and putting on my boots -- or even eating breakfast for that matter. But Pa made me finish my hot cakes and syrup though before he left the table. I guess he knew they were healthy for me, or else he had some other reason. Pa's like that. Then he picked up a bag and we started down the bluff of the river toward marsh level and our boat landing on Block's Bayou... next page
W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" - June 11, 2006 column
 
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