Meredith and Rachel
Isaac and Michael
Ross and Vivian and
Chloe and Lily.
(Like redfish, they come in pairs.)
There really isn’t any town in Mississippi called Atlantis. At least, I don’t think so. But as you get along further into your educations, you will read about a Greek philosopher of long ago named Plato, and among other things, he told a story about a lost civilization named Atlantis. It was a wonderful place with a very advanced culture, but it disappeared. Did it slide into the sea, and is it still existing on the ocean floor? Or was it just a tale told over many years that was really only someone’s imagination? No one really knows. In Mississippi, however, there is a town that may become like Atlantis. Oh, it never was anything wonderful enough for historians and philosophers of the future to tell about. It did not have a fabulous culture and was not a civilization all to itself. But it was, and is, in a way, something to remember, to recall with fine memories and a feeling that we sometimes have that makes us warm inside and just feel good all over. Some of you can remember a little bit of the town that was. You have heard your grandfather call it Clermont Harbor, though Meredith gave it the name “Paw Paw’s Beach.” It is still there, if you think of a place as being the land on which houses and camps and ice cream parlors and groceries used to be. But those things are not there anymore. Nor are the trees that made the town part of Mississippi’s beautiful Piney Woods. A great storm took all away. It was called by a lady’s name, Katrina. But Katrina did not act like a lady. She came in with winds that screamed like a freight train going by fast and she broke some trees and pulled others up by their roots. Then came the water, in three big waves, all higher than the rooftops of even the biggest house. And so the town disappeared. Now everybody knows that towns and even cities can be rebuilt. But it may not be so for Clermont Harbor. For one thing, we know that it is not a good idea to build houses in low areas, where the water can come over the seawall in a good high tide. And even if that were not a problem, the trees are mostly gone now, and the town would not be as pretty. Some brave people will build new houses, and the streets are still there. But such things will never be like what I and my brothers remember. To begin with, we had a father, your great-grandfather, who was a special person. He built our first house in Clermont even before I was born. He did that because he loved the little town. He built the first house just half a block back from the beach, mainly with his own hands. He had help from some friends, but it was his house, on his little piece of land, and he built it with his own hammer and saw, hatchet and screwdriver and other tools. There were no power tools in those days, nothing that could be plugged into the wall to make work easier. The little house stayed where my father built it until after I was born. As the family got bigger, we needed a bigger house. He bought another lot, right there on the beach. My father was a good thinker (he even had two patents to his credit) and so he thought about an easier way to have a bigger house than to build one from the beginning. What he did was to hire a couple of men who put round logs under the little house and then rolled it to the street. Once there, the men kept picking up the back log and carrying it to the front, and they kept rolling the house down to the new lot. Then, all my father had to do was to add on a couple of rooms and a screened porch, and we had a big house.
The new house was not what you are used to when you live in a city house, but it was one that we could be comfortable in during the entire summer vacation. What a thrill it was for us as children to leave our New Orleans home the very day after school ended. We would help my mother pack the car with everything we were to need in Clermont Harbor. Sometimes there would almost be no room for us to sit in the car. I remember that the children would sit up high in the back seat because we were sitting on top of piles of cloths, bed sheets, and other things. The trip was along the old road, highway 90. In those days, there were no interstate highways. We knew the route by heart, almost. I recall that one time I asked my older brother, Uncle Wilfred, if he could have found his way all by himself. He said he thought he could, but all of us knew the main things to watch for. The first was the bridge at Chef Menteur, and then the next, at the Rigolets, told us that we were halfway there. After that, when we came past the West Pearl River and through some swamps, we started to get really excited. My father, sensing this, would join in, and ask what was next. One of us would shout out “the Middle Bridge!” and he might say, “Well, we have West Middle, East Middle, and Middle Middle Bridge!” There were also two historic forts we would pass, sometimes stopping for a spell at one or the other. It was wonderful to climb the ancient brick walls and to imagine how they were built in the olden days. One is Fort Macomb, at Chef Menteur, and the second is Fort Pike, at the Rigolets. When you go to Mississippi with your parents, you might ask that they take the old road, Highway 90, which has a lot more to see than the interstate. In this way, you could pass all these things and maybe even get out at Fort Pike and walk on the walls. If you do, you might see lots of clam shells, and you will be looking at something called an Indian midden. Fort Pike is built on top of a great mound of clam shells left there by Indians many, many years ago. Finally, we would turn on to the Lakeshore Road, and as we approached the beach, I would always look ahead for the canopy of oak tree branches that shaded the road just before we could see the water. And how beautiful was that water! We always expected that everything would be the same when we returned, because things were peaceful in Clermont Harbor. People got along well and helped each other. It did not have some of the conveniences of a city like New Orleans, but maybe that was a good thing. There was less to worry about, and we had few cares even though we did not have a phone in Clermont to bring us bad news. We simply did not expect any bad news. In fact, there were only two phones in the whole town. One was at the Chalona mansion and the other at Ladner’s Grocery. If someone really needed to contact us, he or she would call Ladner’s and we would get the message from Mrs. Ladner. Clermont was such a worry-free place that we often said there was no need to lock doors on the houses. Actually, we did usually lock our door out of habit, but one time when we arrived from New Orleans, we could tell that someone had stayed in our house while we were gone. We could not tell how long, but we knew it was more than a day or two. Nothing was broken, and almost everything was the way we had left it nine months before. There were even some little improvements. I remember one was that where we had always lacked a handle on one bathroom door, a neat little thread spool had been attached to serve as a handle. On arrival from New Orleans, the children could not wait to unpack enough to find our bathing suits and a towel and then get out to the pier to swim. By that time, my mother would say, “All right, I’ll finish unpacking, and you all can go, but be careful.” The pier was one of the most important parts of Clermont Harbor. Unlike other towns where there were many piers owned by different families, Clermont had only one and it was the biggest on the whole coast. It was three blocks long and had a roof at the end to let people get some shade from the sun. Another thing that stood out in the town was a beautiful landmark, the Clermont Harbor hotel. It was right there on the beach, and everybody would pass it as soon as they drove into our little town. We did not know it in the beginning, but one day my father would own that hotel, and what was to happen there was not to be so much an adventure as a tragedy. My father was an important person in Clermont, even though we lived there only during the summertime. He was president of the Civic Association for several years, and he encouraged others not to build their own piers but instead to support our own beautiful pier. In this way, no one was a stranger in Clermont. Everyone used the pier and met other people out at the end, where there was a wide deck under the shade of the roof. If a new kid came to Clermont, he would naturally find his way to the end of the pier. It would not be long before we and our friends would get to know them and make them feel part of the group. And the pier was not just for the city people. Even though the country boys did not like to swim or fish as much, they loved to play music. Many of them would come out to the pier in the evenings with their guitars and serenade everybody. They were good musicians, too, even if self-taught. The person who most enjoyed the country music happened to be our little sister. She didn’t fish as much as her brothers, but she liked to go crabbing and she was an excellent swimmer. But most of all, especially as she got older, she loved to be with those country friends and hear their music. She had close friends among both the boys and the girls and would go to the dances they had back at Harold and Lillian’s. While the rest of the family could stay in Clermont for the whole summer, my father of course had to work. He would go to his business in New Orleans every day but the weekends by a train called the L&N. It would stop in Clermont at our little depot every morning going into New Orleans, and then again in the evening coming back. My father would buy a book of tickets for the train, and one day I needed to go into the city and he took me with him for my first train ride. When he offered a ticket for me to the conductor, he said it was my first time, and the conductor said, “First train ride? Keep the ticket.” The big house did not have heat and we had no refrigerator. But we did not need heat in a house that we were to live in only in the summer. To keep things like milk, butter and meat fresh, we had an ice box. We would buy a 50-pound block about once every week, and it kept things nice and cold. We had only three bedrooms, but one was big. We called it “the long room,” because it was long. It went from the kitchen to the bathroom, and had two beds in it. I slept in one of those beds, which was right by a door that went to the screened porch. This was almost like sleeping outside. I could hear the waves of the Gulf at night sometimes, and in the morning I could hear the birds singing. Some nights we had thunderstorms. That was fun, in a way. Our house had a tin roof, and the rain coming down on it sounded like big drums being played right above us. It didn’t scare us, but excited. When we had such storms, we got a little cold, and because we had no heaters, we would cover with blankets. One I remember we called “the horse blanket.” It was rough to feel, but fun to wrap up in while listening to the rain and the thunder. At times like that, it would be hard to sleep because we were so excited. We would just lie there wide-eyed listening to the noises. People who live in the city did not have that kind of fun. Once in a while in such a storm, we would hear the crack of a really loud thunder, like a cannon, and the house would shake a little. We knew what that meant. Across the street and behind a big mansion called “the Chalona house” there were woods with the tallest pine trees around. They were the ones that would be struck by lightning, as lightning often seeks the highest point. The next morning after we heard such thunder, we would go into the woods, and sometimes we could find the tree that had been struck. We would find a huge tree on the ground, next to the stump that it had fallen from. All around there were little pieces of wood shaped like toothpicks, only a little bigger. I think what would happen is that the heat brought on by the lightning would cause the tree to explode, just as though a bomb had been placed inside the tree. At one time, when only Indians lived on the coast, the woods all around had the most beautiful pine trees maybe in the whole world. They would be as high as some of the tall buildings in New Orleans, fifteen stories or more. That was what we call now, “first-growth forest.” But people in the lumber business have cut almost all of them to make houses and such, and so it is hard to find those tall pines anymore. I like to think that the trees just behind the mansion was a left-over stand of first-growth pines. Another thing that made a good feeling when going to bed was sleeping under mosquito bars. They were made out of a kind of material that you could see through, more like a net. When mosquitoes were bad we would hang them by strings from the ceiling above the beds. It was like having a tent over the bed, and being underneath gave a cozy feeling. Also, we didn’t have to keep swatting mosquitoes all night long. Waking up every morning was not the same out there as it was in the city. I can remember that when I would awake I would actually jump out of bed, just excited to expect whatever adventure I might have that day. And there were adventures. The sea was always there, almost just out the front door. We swam in it, we rowed our skiff to the “Guerin’s reef,” we floundered at low tide. Sometimes the tide was very high and we could dive into the waves from the end of our wonderful pier. It wasn’t really “our” pier, as it belonged to the town, so in a way, it belonged to anyone who wanted to use it. Further out from the pier, we had a platform with a diving board, so that even when the tide was not in, we could go diving. I was not very good at diving. My older friend Sidney tried to teach me to do a “half gainer,” but I would always land on my back and hitting the water would really sting. I could do a swan dive; that was easy. Anyway, it was fun to be out on the platform, knowing that we were in the deep water where the big fish and the dolphins swim. We did not always see them but that just added mystery to just sitting up there and thinking about whatever might be right there under the surface. Of course, we could see dolphins, because they had to come up for air every few minutes. Sometimes we would know that they were close by even when we were not watching for them. That’s when we could hear them blow just as they surfaced. It did not happen often, but once in a long while, we saw a big tarpon dance on top of the water. More frequently, we saw things like jack fish and mackeral jumping. One time, when Uncle Roland was fishing a big Spanish mackeral jumped right in the boat with him. A strange thing happened one time and only once. Nobody else was around when I was on the end of the pier, just looking at the water. All of a sudden, a big head that must have been the head of a giant sea turtle came out of the water and just glided by and disappeared. It happened so fast that afterward, I wondered whether I really saw something. The porpoises were the most wonderful of all the sea creatures. In those days, we called dolphins porpoises. We loved to watch them and did not mind if they were close because we knew that they would not hurt us. Once, I saw a school of porpoises put on a show. They were out in the deep water and they would jump high in the sky, shake their tails and come down with mighty big splashes. They danced on their tails and just seemed to be having a grand time. I was the only audience as far as I know, but I think they might have been showing off for the lady porpoises, too.
The skiff that we had was made for my father. A skiff is the kind of boat that you row with oars. They are like big paddles, and a good person at the oars can make the skiff go pretty fast. It was made of beautiful cypress wood, and each side was just one piece of lumber. There was a live-bait well, which means that one section had holes in it to allow a flow of water in and out, but it was contained so that it would not get into the rest of the boat. In the well, we could keep live shrimp and minnows for bait, and when we caught fish, in the well they would go. That way, we did not need an ice chest to keep the fish fresh. The live bait well sometimes was used to play a good joke on a friend or relative who was not familiar with a well. We would ask him or her to help clean out the skiff, asking that person to bail out the well. Of course, no matter how much was bailed out, the well kept filling up. After a while, we would explain the holes in the well and all of us would have a good laugh, well, maybe not the person who had been bailing. Anyway, there were no ice chests in those days. Speaking of minnows, there were times during World War Two, which I will tell you about later, when my father could not buy live shrimp at Bayou Caddy. This was because so many of the men were called to be in the army or navy that no one was available to take the shrimp boats out to catch shrimp with their big nets. So, for bait, my brothers and I caught minnows. We did it by kneeling in the water next to the skiff at low tide while we stayed very still and held our hands cupped just over the sand. In our hands would be some bread or a piece of crab. Soon, the minnows, mostly called cockahoes, would come feeding, and when there would be five or six at one time the trick was to close hands quickly and throw them into the well of the boat. That way, the next time we could go out to the reef, we would have live bait. When we were small, my father would allow us to use the skiff by ourselves only in shallow water. We could go out to deep water only with my father, and to be even safer, he would take us one at a time. So we had to keep a schedule. I think we followed the schedule pretty well, as I do not remember too many disagreements about it. What I do recall is that sometimes my father would take the early train from New Orleans and that would mean we could go fishing in the afternoon. Fishing was not as good in the afternoon as it was early in the morning, and so there were sometimes arguments about whether an afternoon trip would count as a turn. Morning fishing meant getting up really early. Dad would wake whoever had a turn when it was still dark. He would go to buy bait while the person whose turn it was had to wade out to where the skiff was tied up to a post and bring it in to the seawall. That was kind of scary, wading out in the dark. I would think about stingrays, which we called “stingarees.” Sometimes I wondered whether there might be a snake in the dark water, but I never saw one. While waiting with the skiff at the seawall, sometimes we saw the sun come out of the horizon like a big ball of fire. It was beautiful to see. I was always fascinated by how fast it would rise. Kids in the city never see that. We fished at a reef that I am still proud to talk about. People all over knew it as Guerin’s reef, because my father had arranged for it to be created. He put up the first amount of money to pay for it, and people of Clermont put up the rest. I remember going with him to see a man who owned a barge and could deliver a load of oyster shells where my father asked him to. He said he could do that, but that the shells would not become a reef of live oysters. My father said, “You just do what I’m asking, and leave the rest to me.” Somehow my dad knew that his idea was correct, and sure enough, after a while there was a small mountain of oysters under the surface of the water, and they would attract fish. Because my father arranged for the shells, he had them dumped about half a mile out but right in front of our house. There was a pole sticking out of the water so that people could come in their boats and find the reef. The reef was productive for years. We caught speckle trout, white trout, croakers and flounder. Sometimes, there were more exciting things, like small sharks that would pull so hard they would break the fishing line. One time, when I had taken a visiting priest out to the reef, I was fishing with two rods. One had heavy line on it, and I would just let the bait sit on the bottom and watch the line to see if it moved. When it started to come off the reel slowly, I picked up the rod and jerked it. At that instant a big tarpon came out of the water, made a big splash, and broke my line. It had happened so fast that the priest did not see it, but he turned around and said, “What was that big splash?” I told him but I think he might have believed that I was telling what people call “a fish story,” so nobody ever saw the only tarpon I ever hooked. He probably was about as big as I am now. My father used to tell an exciting story about a big fish, too. He had been fishing in front of Bayou Caddy when he hooked a big fish that started to pull the boat around. When he jerked on the line, a big tail of a fish came out of the water. No matter how many times he told us that story, we always asked, “What did you do?” His answer was always the same too. He said he took out his fishing knife and cut the line. I guess we were always hoping for a more exciting end to the story. You can imagine that fishing must really have been great fun for us to be able to get up before dawn and go out without breakfast. Even rowing out to the reef was fun, maybe because my father always let us do all the rowing and that made us feel kind of important. After all, it was because of the strength of our arms and because we knew which way to make the skiff go, to pull on the right oar or the left oar or both at the same time. And when we got out there, it was the job of the rower to throw out the anchor, because it was always in the front of the boat, but my father always sat in the back. Of course, he was the one to say when to stop and where to drop anchor. A good fishing day had a calm sea. There were little or no waves. We would say that the top of the water was “like glass.” The fish were likely to bite when we first got there. We would catch the most in the first hour, and then continue to try for another hour or two. My dad was a patient fisherman. He would continue to try until he was sure there was not another fish around for a mile or more. When I would get tired, I would lay the two oars together from the well to the bow of the boat and lie on top of them and fall asleep. Eventually, Dad would give up and we would row in. The next thing to happen was also exciting. Breakfast! My mother would be waiting, as she could see from the porch when we were on our way in. She would already have started cooking, but first we had to get the fish out of the boat and bring it back to where it needed to be tied to the post away from the seawall. Sometimes my brothers would come running out to see what we had caught and maybe help count the fish. I remember one time we counted eighty fish! If I had caught an exceptionally big one, I might hold it up but Uncle Roland was likely to say, “That’s not so big.” My mother would immediately clean a few of the fish and have grits and the frying pan ready. Oh, how much we ate and how good were really fresh fish! My mother always said that it was the salt air from the Gulf that gave us such appetites, but the exercise of rowing and all the other activity helped make us hungry too.
Fishing was not the only fun activity. Swimming was certainly important too, but even before that, there were some other activities that we liked to do. One thing, early in the morning, was to raise the flag. Our country was in a war called World War Two for some of the years of my childhood, so we knew to be respectful of the American flag. There might be a little gentle competition when we got up to see who could get outside first to put up the flag. We had put up a long pole in the front yard, and my dad had fixed to the top a pulley so that we could pull the flag to the top with a small rope. Nowadays, people claim to love the flag so much they want to make respect for it a law, but it is all right now to leave the flag up all the time. Then, we knew to take the flag down every evening before dark and not put it up again until morning. And certainly, you never let the flag stay up during a rain! We loved the woods, with all its mystery, but walking along the seawall was great exploring to us. We would search to see whatever we might find, maybe some splash of a big fish way out in the deep water, maybe a crab coming to the top by the shore. Sometimes there would be some driftwood of interest, or maybe an occasional snake swimming with just its head out of water. We always got very excited about that, saying that each such snake was a deadly cottonmouth moccasin. The chances are, they were just water snakes, no more harmful than the little green garden snakes that you might find even in the city. And sometimes, there would be a real live alligator swimming past. The war years still hold some things strong in my memory. We saw more planes than we had ever seen before. Some of them were big, not compared to today’s planes, but big for then. Sometimes they would fly low, and when we heard one coming we would run out of the house to see it. If it had more than one or two engines, that was really exciting. I am sure that we were all thankful that they were always our planes and not German or Japanese. But just in case, Mr. Carr, a friend on my father, built what looked like a lighthouse. It really was for watching out for enemy planes. Volunteers were trained to identify enemy planes, and they would take turns up in the tower and watch with binoculars to keep us safe. Another thing I remember well about the war was that we had blackouts at night. That was because there were German submarines, called U-boats, which were sinking ships out in the Gulf. So that their commanders could not see what was on shore, the government ordered everyone who lived on the beach to have black shades over all windows facing the water. Also, we had to darken lights on the front side of the house. We did that by cutting tin cans in half and attaching them to the light bulb. Car headlights had to be painted black half-way down. Many people smoked in those days, but they were not allowed to smoke by the water, or even to light a match. We knew that it was a good idea to do all those things, because some dark nights we could look out on the horizon and see the red glow of burning ships that would have been hit by a German torpedo or cannon. When walking the beach, we often found things floating in that we never saw in peacetime. Some were pieces of boats or other wreckage. Once, we found a piece of a life preserver with writing on it. My father thought it might be important, and so he reported it. Soon, an FBI agent dressed in suit and tie showed up at our door to collect the life preserver. He would not tell us why he thought it important, but we knew that he did or otherwise he would not have made a long trip to get it. That was one of the few times I ever saw a man dressed in suit and tie on the beach. Of course, my father and other working people dressed like that when they were catching the L&N to New Orleans. But most people did not dress up in Clermont. As for us kids, we wore bathing suits every day and sometimes even slept in them. About the only day we wore anything else was on Sunday, to go to church. Something that we saw that I would rather forget came floating along the seawall one day. It was a large torso, that is, the part of a body not counting head and legs. In this case, I hope it was missing four legs, because I want to believe that it had been a cow or a pig or other quadruped. But it might have been missing only two legs, and in addition, two arms, because it might have been human. We had a neighbor, Dr. Smith, who came out to look at. He could see a heart and other organs, but even with all his medical training, he could not say what it was. We let it continue to drift down the seawall, not because we made a decision to, but just because none of us – not even Dr. Smith – knew anything better to do. The war was a worry to all of us, especially to grownups. We had friends and relatives who were in the army or navy. Some of my cousins and uncles were. My best older friend, Sidney, was in the navy and on a big ship that saw some action in the Pacific Ocean against the Japanese. But in many ways, we were better off during the war than people living in the city. There, it was sometimes hard to get what they wanted from the grocery store or meat market. Things were scarce because supplies had to be sent overseas to Americans fighting in the war. Even when the stores had some things, they were rationed. That meant that you could buy them only if you had the right stamps, which were like postage stamps but were given out by the government to control how much meat, butter, and other things any household could have. In Clermont, we did not need all our stamps, because we could get some things like chicken, milk, butter and eggs from people who lived there. They also sold us fruit and vegetables from their cars. As they drove around, they would call out what they had to sell and sometimes my mother would call out to us to go and stop the car if she needed what they had. Something else they sold on Sunday mornings, and we could all be glad to hear when they called out “fresh homemade donuts.” Besides what we could buy from the grocery and the local people, my father bought some little chicks and we raised them and always had chicken available. Or course, we always had fish and crabs, too. Because steel and other parts were needed in the war, no more new cars were made. Even tires were rationed. This meant that people really had to take good care of the car that they had. Ration stamps were required to buy gas for cars, too, and so people were encouraged to drive more slowly because that used less gas. Most people did not seem to mind these things, because it was what we called then “the war effort.” Even though things were pretty good for us living in Clermont during the war years, we did not have all the things that people are used to nowadays. For one thing, my brothers and my sister and I spent our early years in what was called “the Depression.” You will learn about it in school one day. During the Depression, many people did not have jobs. Banks were closed and they could not get their money out. We lived in a little double house in New Orleans, and even though my parents owned it, they could not always get the folks in the rental part to pay their rent. Sometimes, my mother even gave that family some of our milk because they could not buy any for the baby. Strangers would come to the door from time to time to ask for food. My mother always found something to give them. But we grew up knowing that many of the things we wanted we could not have. For example, to have a Barq’s root beer or a Coke was a real treat. But we did not get a whole one. My parents would buy one for us to split. Whoever had the first turn was told where to put his finger on the bottle, and he was supposed to drink down to there and no further. Sometimes, they would say that my finder would slip and I would get too much. After that, I was made to be last after the others. I was reminded of another example just the other day when I bought three boxes of Cracker Jack. They were sold three to a package. The boxes still look almost the same as they did years ago, but the cover is different. Now it is glued to the box, but it used to be loose so that it could slip off. This made it possible when I was little for my mother to buy one box to share among the three brothers. I guess my sister was too little then. My mother would take off the cover and then divide the box in two. Then she had three containers to divide the Cracker Jack into.
Before the war, one of the great pastimes for many people, adults and children alike, was to go floundering. We did this at night, especially really dark nights when the moon did not show itself at all. We went out with a torch to look for flounders partly because it was fun, and partly because flounders make such good eating. The closest thing you might have ever seen that looks like a torch is one of the “flambeaus” that dancing marchers carry in front of the Mardi Gras parades. They have flames coming out of the top, burning something called kerosene. Our floundering torch had the flames coming out of the end of a five-foot pipe that was wrapped with something called asbestos rope. The part that burned was about as big as a football, and it made a good light so that we could see clear down to the bottom of the shallow water. That was where the flounders would bury themselves with a layer of sand. The man carrying the torch could move it to the left and then to the right, and so it was possible to see all around us. It also kept away the mosquitoes and other bugs that came out at night. And speaking of coming out at night, down in the water all sorts of marine life came out of nowhere. There were shrimp and crabs, some of them soft shells, and schools of mullet that would run around like crazy and bump right into your feet. There were the needlefish that looked like little swordfish that were attracted to the light of the flambeau. There were also jelly fish, and here and there, if we looked hard enough, a flounder. When I was little, my dad was the one to carry a spear to catch the flounder, but when I got a little older, my brothers and I were allowed to make our own spears out of broom stick handles. We would drive a nail into the end of the stick and when flatten the end with a hammer. Then we would sharpen the point by scraping it along the rough cement of the seawall. My mother would always tell us to be careful with our spears. She would say, “You’re going to stick that thing in your foot!” Sometimes I used to wonder how mothers can know some things before they happen. Sure enough, that was one of those times, because not long after I made my first spear, that’s what I did. I must have been little, because I remember crying while standing up in the sink while my mother rubbed the wound under the faucet to make it bleed. I don’t remember whether I used that same spear to get my first flounder, but I did one day chase one between the sand bars until I could spear him. I still have a picture of a skinny little kid holding a spear in one hand and a flounder in the other. Floundering is done at night, the best time being a really dark night with no moon. The tide must be very low. It can be so dark out there, far out in the shallow water, that if you get turned around you may not know which way is the beach. Of course, we would not be scared, because we knew there would soon be a car driving by with its lights on to show us where the land was. Even though it was dark outside the glow of our torch, all you had to do to see other light was to look up. The stars on a clear night could not be counted, there were so many. They were numbered not in the hundreds, but in the thousands or maybe more. And they were beautiful. And they really do twinkle when there are no city lights all around to take away the darkness. In the city, it is rare to see a shooting star, but not out there on a dark night. There is something else about being out there in a body of water that seems to have no end, and under a ceiling of countless stars, that makes you feel very little. It makes everything you know seem small, even your house, your town, or the big city of New Orleans. Kids living in the city miss that feeling.
Usually, when someone finished floundering, the torch would be put on a fence or some safe place where it could cool off. Many torches were to stay hanging from the same place for a long time during the years of the war, because when we had the blackouts, people could not flounder at night anymore. I do not remember how we discovered this, but my brothers and I found out that we could flounder during the day. It was done a little differently, meaning that we had to look harder for the flounders than we did with a torch at night. We would walk between the sandbars and watch for buried flounders, but often they would not stay put as they did at night. So we would have to try to follow the flounder as it made a muddy path swimming away. We also found that if we stayed where it had been, sometimes it would come right back to the same place, and maybe even run into someone’s foot. To make the job easier, my two brothers and I would walk along in different bars but in the same direction. We each had a police whistle hanging from strings around our necks, and when one of us stirred up a flounder he would blow that whistle and the others would come running and together we would search for the flounder. Such cooperation made for successful floundering even during the day. We even kept a log of the number speared by whom and where each flounder was caught and how big it was. For a long time, I think Roland had the record at something like a five and a half pound flounder. My brothers liked to flounder too, but not as much as I did. I guess they had other interests. I would wait anxiously for the tide to go out in the afternoon and when the water was low enough I would get my spear and stringer and head out between the best sandbars. Sometimes I was able to string up a dozen or more before coming in at sunset. As we always had fish in the ice box, my family did not usually need any. At such times, I would go home to get a little scale and then go house to house to my neighbors and ask whether they would like to buy a flounder. I don’t think I ever went home without selling all my flounders. I think I charged 35 cents per pound. Some grownups thought we were telling “fish stories” when we talked about catching flounders during the daytime. An especially good memory for me was the time I walked underneath the pier on which two men were standing, talking. One of them must have noticed that I carried a spear and thought he would have a little fun. He of course could not see that I had a string full of flounders because they trailed behind me at the end of my stringer. He called down to me, “Hey, kid, what do you think you’re looking for?’ I answered, “flounders,” and that made him laugh really loud as he said, “Don’t you know you can’t catch flounders during the day?” At that point I picked up my stringer to show all the flounders hanging from it. I had a big smile on my face while he stopped laughing. Grownups!
We had friends in Clermont, too. They were not kids we knew from New Orleans, but ones that had summer homes like ours. Their names were the Broussards and the Bomboys and the Saleebys. There were others, but they were our closest friends. We did not see each other all through the school year, and so it was always exciting to go out to the end of the pier and renew our friendships. Mostly, we would swim together and sometimes fish or flounder. But we also played ball. In those years, there was an ice cream parlor right across the beach road from the foot of the pier. Behind it was a cow pasture with almost all the trees cut down except for a few large oaks. That is where we played softball. We also knew some of the local kids, whom we called the country boys. (My father would call the people who lived year round in Clermont and Lakeshore “the natives.” He did not mean any disrespect, as it was just a way to distinguish them and us.) The country boys were nice kids, but they pretty much stayed together and so did the city kids. That meant that we could always field two teams on a Sunday afternoon. Grownups gathered all around to watch the country boys against the city boys. I guess we were pretty even, as I do not remember one team winning more games than the other. It was good, clean sport, and we had fun. Roland would usually play left field and I was in center. He was a better hitter than I was, but one day I got hold of one and sent that ball into the top of a big oak tree. My dad made me feel good afterward when he asked which one of us hit the most balls into the oak trees. It may me feel equal to Roland. Remember I said that most trees had been cut down on our cow pasture. That does not mean that all the stumps were removed. One day, one of the country boys hit a long, high fly over my head and deep into center field. I had a bead on it and was running back to catch it while watching the ball over my shoulder. I did not see one of those stumps. When I hit it, it did not move at all. I did, and went up into the air and made a flip. I did not catch that ball, and the last I knew, no one ever found it. My leg swelled up to twice its size and I had trouble walking for a week. But there were no doctors in Clermont Harbor, and for that matter, hardly any in the town of Bay St. Louis. When things like that happened, we just had to heal ourselves. If it was a bug bite or a cut, my mother might make us soak the hurt part in warm water and something called Epsom salts. She also would encourage us to swim a lot, because the salt water helped to heal things. Besides enjoying playing softball, Roland and I were big baseball fans, too. Of course in those days there were no televisions, and radio was all we had to keep up with our favorite team, the New Orleans Pelicans. Being out on the Mississippi coast, we did not get to go to the games, but we listened on the radio to a New Orleans station called WJBW. It would broadcast all the Pelican games at night, but because the station was so far away we could not always hear too well. To make the sound better, we would sting up a wire on the front porch and make a long aerial. On nights when we had nothing better to do, we would almost have our ears glued to the radio speaker.
Because we loved our summers so much, they would go by fast. That’s the way lots of things are in life, and I bet all of you have already noticed that some of what you like to do the most seems to be over before you want it to be. I have not mentioned that the Gulf Coast, because of its almost constant breezes coming off the cool water, was cooler than New Orleans. My father used to say they were “delicious” breezes. In fact, it was a lot cooler than in the city. That’s why we felt so very hot on that first day of school. I’m sure we tried to prepare for the end of the summer, but we did not do that very well. We would talk with our friends about getting together once back in New Orleans, and we would make plans, but we knew that we could not do much of that. We lived in different parts of the city and went to different schools and most of us could not drive. And so we would keep doing all the fun things we knew right on down to the last day. In fact, we would not leave to go to New Orleans until the first day school was to start. My parents would drop us off at the school door. I remember two things very well. One was how hot the sidewalk in front of school was, and the other was the lump in my throat that got there when we drove away from Clermont and stayed there until I started to talk to some of my New Orleans friends. The good news was that we were again with our friends in New Orleans, and we had plenty to talk about with them. There was other good news too, and that was that the sun came up in the East the next morning. That meant that time would go by for the next nine months when we again would pack the car till the springs groaned and be on our way back to Clermont. We knew in our hearts that things would still be the same when we got back, that if anything was changed, maybe there would be a different thread spool for the bathroom door. We were getting older with each passing summer, of course, and in a way we were learning to accept things as they were, not just as we would wish they were. This was important, because some things did change.
The summer of 1946 was a time of change. It should have been all good news, because the war was over and the soldiers and sailors could come home. Things had gone well in town that year, too. Roland and I graduated from grammar school on May 1st, and we had done well and received some honors at the ceremony. Roland even got a scholarship to go to Holy Cross for high school. We were happy that night and invited our friend and neighbor, Ashton Mouton, to spend the night. The next morning, early, the phone rang. We were all still in bed, but Ashton could hear what my father was saying on the phone. It was not good news, and it was about Clermont Harbor. During the wintertime, my father had bought the hotel by putting together a group of businessmen as partners. He owned the biggest share, and it was his job all year long to see that the hotel was made to look like new. It was an old hotel, and it had had its own misfortunes ever since it had been built in the early part of the century. It was always beautiful, however, and people loved Clermont. It was going to be a way that families could come over and do all the things we loved even if they did not own a summer home. For months there had been lots of activity at the hotel. Everything that stood still got repainted, and new furniture had been brought in. My brother Wilfred remembers seeing stacks of new mattresses made from moss to be put on all the beds. There was a new restaurant, and at the dance pavilion next to the hotel a big band from New Orleans had played and people danced to celebrate the reopening of the hotel. My father wore a suit and tie and was introduced to all the people there. My mother wore a corsage and was happy to be part of the celebration. Our graduation was a few days later. What Ashton heard when the phone rang that morning was that my Uncle Lloyd was calling to tell my dad that the hotel was burning down, that it had been burning since last night. My father left immediately for Clermont. What I remember is that he showed no emotion. He did not swear or shout or cry. He accepted things as they were. Wilfred accompanied him. He remembers that because our father could not see a plume of smoke from a distance he expressed a slim hope that the fire had died out. Of course it had not. My mother was driven over a little later by a neighbor, and I went with them. What I recall about the moment when we drove up was her saying, “Down to the ground and still smoking.” Later, we were to be told that one possibility of the cause of the fire was that someone staying at the hotel had gone floundering and on returning, hung the hot torch too close to the building. We never knew for sure. The summer of 1946 was not as pleasant as the ones that came before, but we got through it and had a good vacation.
It was true also of the summer of 1947 that we had a good vacation, but a powerful hurricane hit Clermont just after the summer was over. They did not name storms in those days, so we still call it the ‘47 hurricane. But it was bad, and destroyed our house and every house that had been on the beach. We had gone to New Orleans because school had already started. As it was, the storm came right through Clermont and then on to New Orleans. The eye of the hurricane passed over us in the middle of the day. We had fierce winds and rain, even in the city, but then the sky cleared and the wind was still and we could look up and see blue sky and bright sunshine. We were listening to the radio, and the weatherman was saying that it was OK to be outside for a little while to experience the eye of the storm, but soon we should go back inside. We did that, and then the winds came again, but from the other direction, and they were not as strong. It was a while before we could go out to Clermont and see what the storm had left. There was nothing of our house left, and all around there were piles of debris and in some places dead fish and animals. We never again saw our skiff either. We did, however, hear a story that even now I like to think about. Some people had chosen to stay and ride out the storm at the Chalona mansion. It was a big, strong house and they thought they would be safe. But when their house started to fall apart, they had to swim for it, trying to get back to the railroad track where it was higher land. They had trouble swimming in the rough water and wind, when all of a sudden a white skiff came by. They were able to climb into it and they got back to the railroad safely. We never saw it again, but I have always known that was our beloved skiff.
My dad had our house rebuilt, and other people did the same. But looking back, Clermont Harbor would never be the same. It was beginning to be like Atlantis, and one day would become a legend like Atlantis, but it was already happening, a little at a time. It makes me sad, but it was time for us – for me and my brothers – to become young adults, to finish high school and go to college, to become active in the world of grownups. This meant to put aside the great times we had in Clermont as kids, and begin new lives. But that does not mean that those times were not good. They were, and old as I am, I still relive those wonderful days in my memories.