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Bayou Blue, Louisiana, United States
numerous aviation dialects spoken,

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

First Deer Hunt

It was February 1958 and my Dad thought it was time for my younger brother and me to experience a deer hunt in the Amite Swamp of South Louisiana.  My brother Pat was 18 months my junior.  He always had a few pounds on me and he loved hunting and fishing more than I did.  He wasn't what you call a fanatic, but he did sleep in his "camo" the night before a hunting trip...a few times.  Dad had a seaplane charter service during our formative years, so it was only natural for us to fly from his seaplane base in Houma, LA to the Amite River Swamp on the southwest shores of Lake Maurepas.
 What was unique about this adventure was we flew in the afternoon before the hunt and spent the night in the swamp with a group of old French hunters as he did in his youth.  We landed mid-afternoon and taxied down the inky black waters of a little "bay" off the river.   The water was high over its banks and Dad was careful not to run over the cypress "knees" hidden beneath the surface.  That would be tough on the aluminum float bottoms.  He pulled the little seaplane up tight against the tangle of tree roots and mud and lashed her down for the night. The old hunters came to the waters edge to see what one of those "dang flyin' machines" looked like up close.  They just shook their heads in disapproval and called it "pas bonne canard" (no good duck!).  We left our transportation to the elements and carried our gear to the camp where the Frenchmen had built a large fire.  The site was located on a mound rising several feet higher than the surrounding swamp.  I looked for the hunting "camp" and Dad told me there wasn't a structure anymore as the river flooding swept it away most every year.  The hunters would sleep on the ground in front of the smoldering embers just wrapped in blankets.
Our wonderful jungle hammocks
 Dad had enough of that when he was a kid so the three of us were equipped with WWII vintage jungle hammocks.  We started stringing up our beds from the huge cypress trees and the old farts started laughing and called us "Les ├ęcureuils"(squirrels) because we slept in the trees!  Well as luck would have it a front came through that night and we had a real "toad strangler".  The heavens opened, the wind blew and the temp fell hard.  The ground crew fought water from above and from the river rising.  Dad hollered at us to  unhook our roof spreaders and tie the ends together.  The rains continued and we were high and dry.  We looked like cocoons rocking gently in the wind as "la vieille garde" (the old guard) turned their wooded boats upside down and crawled under them.

  In the pre-dawn morning we didn't say a thing about the night's events...well maybe Pat did fake a loud sneeze "TURKEYS" and then a cough "TOADS".  Twice was enough and all Dad had to do was snap his fingers and point and the comments ceased.  The group of us crowded against a new fire, trying to get that morning chill out of our bones, the frost still clinging on the roofs of our hammocks.  Pat noticed the smell first...bacon frying.  No, it was a black iron pot with hog lard melting in the bottom.  It reached a golden color a began to bubble.  One of the old gentleman broke open a can of raw biscuits and threw pieces into the pot.  He looked at me and said,"You know beignets?"  Man they were great!  There's probably still clots of cholesterol in my veins from that meal, but it was good.  While still dark we were assigned to different boats and we shoved off down the river, cold, shivering in the damp air.  I stuck my hands in the tops of my rubber hip boots trying to lessen the sting.  I hid behind my old "crack barrel" 20 gauge shot gun, my only break from the wind as we sped into the dark.  The spray from the bow was the only other sound beside the wine of the outboard motor.  Every so often I'd look up at the old man at the tiller, his headlamp showing the traces of light fog from the still warm river against the cold frontal passage.  We finally stopped and the old man motioned me out of the boat to follow behind my little brother.  We walked into the woody underbrush a few yards and he deposited Pat on a small platform nailed between two trees.  I was next placed on a huge stump, sawed chest high and as wide as I was tall, some 50 yards in or so.  He looked at me square in the eyes and said that he would be back to get me before dark.  He pointed in the direction away from the river and said the dogs will be running the deer to me from that direction, and the light turned away and disappeared.  As the splashing of the departing foot steps faded away, the sounds of the swamp started their crescendo.  I never heard such creaking, whooping and grunting.  Only the sunrise quieted the vocal displays.

  From that point on I didn't see a deer, hear a dog or a gun shot for the entire day.  I couldn't even get my brother to answer me from a half a football field away.  I didn't stop shaking until well after the sun came up.  To this day I really can't remember if was because I was cold or scared...although I did step in a hole and filled my hip boots with water before daylight.  The day wore on and stood on that stump in my skivvies trying to dry out my jeans and socks.  My throat was sore from being so cold...or maybe it was from hollering for somebody...anybody.  My fright turned to anger.  All kinds of things were going through my head.  Ya think they were finally gonna get rid of me?  Was Pat in on it?  That's why he never answered me...he wasn't there...he left!  It started getting dark, real dark and cold.  The critter symphony started again.  Frogs, crickets, whistles, started getting to me.  Louder and louder.  Then suddenly everything went silent!  The chills started on my legs and went racing up my back, I shuttered again.  I turned on my flashlight and it glowed orange...dead.  I turned and a voice about a foot behind my head said, "You ready?"  I squealed like a little girl!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Memorial Day Thought....

Before we started school we called him Ronnie. That's him second from the right. At that time in my life it seemed we visited Maw maw every weekend. It wasn't of interest to a six year old why Mom would pile us boys in the back of that '51 Willys Jeep Wagon and drive 90 or so miles every Friday afternoon to spend the week end and leave Dad behind to fly his little seaplane in the oil fields. But as soon as we got there, off would come the shirt and shoes. Ronnie and his little brother, Jr. lived next door and my brother Pat and I wouldn't see my Mom until Sunday afternoon when she dragged us kicking and screaming back into the Jeep for the ride back home. We were the "Four Horseman", the "Sheriff's Posse"...we played hard and Ronnie was our leader. When Ronnie got old enough to start the little country school his Mom told us we couldn't call him Ronnie, any more, (Ronald was his middle name) but Joseph or Joe from now on. "What, can she do that?", my little brother Pat asked when we were alone. We all turned and stared silently at him. "All right, but they ain't changin' my name!" From that day on he remained Joe...Joseph R. Valentine. When we played cowboys he was the Sheriff, football he was the quarter back, army he was the sergeant, our leader, not at anytime did he demand it, it was just understood. He always encouraged civility in our play, word and action. Our best times were when we were young and as we grew older we saw less and less of one another. Our interest took different paths and we didn't know how to maintain a relationship just 90 miles apart.
Vietnam heated up and we both enlisted. He in the Army and I in the Air Force. He was still single and I was married with our first child on the way. He was shipped over first and we got the word he was missing in action the same day I got my orders to 'Nam. They buried him the day of my daughter's birth. Before I shipped out I visited with Papa, my Mom's dad. I always saw him as a hard man, but that day, just he and I, he wept silently. I visited Joe's grave maybe three or four times on the occasions of other funerals. I don't believe in grave sitting...they just aren't there. But there are times when little instances in life bring his memory back. On our last vacation up the east coast I sat and relived some special moments at the long granite wall where his name will live forever with other fallen leaders.