Cousin Robert

Kids growing up in North Louisiana during the Depression Era before the Second World War found interesting, inexpensive ways to entertain themselves. We boys tramped in the woods, playacted as soldiers and went skinny dipping. Most girls tended imaginary houses and played with their dolls.

Tom Pat and Robert

A visit to my cousin Robert, who lived out in the country, always proved interesting.  The paper mill town of West Monroe where I lived was no New York City itself, but Robert lived way out in the country.

Robert, about two years older than I and an only child, provided me with instructions about the ways of the world and harassed me at will. Being a practical joker and intent on demonstrating his superior command of the language to me, one morning while visiting us in town he sidled up close to me and said in a secretive voice, “You slumbered in your bed last night.”

Thinking he had accused me of peeing my bed, I protested “No I didn’t.”

Robert insisted, “Yes you did. I saw you. You slumbered all over your bed all night long.”

Heartbroken by my elder cousin’s accusations, I sobbed to my mother “Robert said I slumbered in my bed last night. But I didn’t do any such thing,  Mother.” She gently explained the joke Robert had played on me.

At one time Robert and his family, Uncle Roy the Preacher and Aunt Anna, lived on a little, hardscrabble farm way, way out in the red clay, piney woods. They had a well that Aunt Ann hauled water from, which she used to to cook and wash clothes. And wash she did–every day. The preacher’s white shirts had to be stiff starch perfect for him to have a good appearance for his congregation, especially the lady worshippers. She made her own soap by boiling fat and lye in a large skillet over an open fire in a cleared space beside the small, unpainted frame house. The toilet facilities had its own space outside the house.

The first night I spent with Robert and his family at this desolate place, I heard sounds coming from the woods that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. Being very young, the noises scared me so badly Aunt Anna had to drive me the thirty miles back to the security of West Monroe. It took awhile for her to invite me back for an overnight stay, but she had a lonely son who needed some company.

As young boys, on Saturdays Aunt Anna made Robert and I bathe in a Number 3 galvanized wash tub with cold water she had lugged up from the well. She required that we scrub down with her strong homemade soap until our skins turned cherry red. Aunt Anna was strong on cleanliness. In her preacher-wife tone she would declare “Cleanliness is akin to Godliness.”

Cousin Robert on right

Since I was a guest, the first time I bathed in the Number 3 tub I was allowed to bathe first, then Robert could use the slightly soiled, valuable water. Using another of Aunt Anna’s favorite axioms, she would admonish us “Waste not, want not.” When I sat my fanny down in one of Aunt Anna’s cold baths, I could not help myself and did what I thought Cousin Robert had accused me of doing in my bed. This upset Aunt Anna no end. She chastised her city-slicker nephew, using some Biblical story I didn’t understand.

When I was about seven, Robert and his family moved out of the woods to the community of Choudrant, Louisiana, into another tiny house, but one with running water and an indoor bathroom. Choudrant, a small community not even big enough to be called a burg, is located between Monroe and Ruston. A railroad track runs through the little borough.

At eight or nine years old I would visit Robert in Choudrant during the summer. When not busy raiding watermelon patches, busting open choice melons and eating the juicy, sweet hearts, Robert, his neighbor friend Bob, and I  strolled down to some shady creek and fished for bony perch and brim with cane poles.

Skinny dipping in a wide, shady part of a creek about half a mile down the railroad track occupied the better part of an afternoon for the three of us. Walking on a railroad track in bare feet in the heat of a Louisiana summer requires knowhow acquired through painful trial and error. In those days of the Great Depression, our parents had warned us, “You boys should not waste good shoe leather during the summertime.” Only school or church deserved shoes.

As we walked we debated how to best negotiate the hot tracks to the swimming hole.

Bob, not the brightest boy in the hay fields, declared, “I like to walk on the rail. I can practice my balance.” He must have had asbestos soles on his feet because the steel got hot enough to raise whelps.

Robert advised, “Walk on the cross ties. You just have to hit every second one so you go faster.” But even every second cross tie oozed hot, smelly creosote that stuck to your feet for days.

We all admonished one another, “Don’t try to step on the crushed granite rock in the track bed. Those rocks are hot and sharp enough to cut your feet to pieces.”

Thinking I was more clever than them, I told my country cousin and Bob, “ I am going to walk over here in the cool grass alongside the tracks.” They just both snickered knowing that I would encounter fearsome stickers that would puncture my feet if I strolled through the grass. They laughed out loud when I did a little jig trying to avoid the stickers all the way to the swimming hole. I had challenged their wisdom and now just had to grin and bear my decision.

Once we arrived at our swimming hole, we would use our 22 caliber rifles to shoot any snakes sunbathing on logs in the creek on one side of the track. We would then descend the other side of the track to our shady swimming hole. For some odd reason, I never figured out that snakes we just shot on the opposite side of the tracks were in the same creek we swam in and could have just a well found their way over to our side of the railbed.

When Robert and I could not figure out some way to escape at night, Aunt Anna would corral us, require that we clean up, and feed us supper. The whole family would then pile into Uncle Roy’s shiny black Pontiac. Cardboard protected the pristine floor mats of the car from any dirt we would certainly have on our bare feet. We would be off to some country church, way, way out in the piney woods, to hear for the umpteenth time Uncle Roy intone with great passion one of his three sermons.

Once, after one of our long days of activity, Robert and I were plumb wore out from all the mischief we’d been up to. We sat on a rough hewn wooden bench in a half-filled rural church. Robert, who sat on the end of the hard bench, dozed off and and began to snore loudly just as his father reached the crescendo of his sermon. Uncle Roy had denounced, “The Devil would lead us into the ways of iniquity if we allow him to tempt us with the ways of the flesh.”  Now, Uncle Roy glared at us.

The situation became embarrassing. I tried to nudge Robert out of slumber, but he just fell off the edge of the bench onto the hardwood floor with a great thud which alarmed the whole congregation.

The commotion unnerved the Reverend Roy, who condemned us with one of his “Wait until I get you home” stares, but did not miss a beat in his sermon. We were all still doomed to hell-fire and damnation.

Robert and I would go on to have many more childhood adventures, but that is another story.

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