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. Click here to view a version of this article that was printed in the Beaumont Enterprise.
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.
I sat in the back of the skiff with the bag on my lap. Pa put the oars in the oarlocks and pushed the boat out from the bank. Then his back and elbows went into motion, and the big oars seemed to jump up alongside of me every second. Pa's big muscles moved up, then slid down to his elbows as each stroke of the oars moved the big skiff the length of a bull frog's leap or more. I figured he could lick any bully twice his size, but Pa wasn't prone to fighting or losing his temper. He often said people shouldn't fight, but should settle their differences in a "civilized manner" - whatever that's supposed to mean. Very soon, we left the mouth of the bayou and entered the Neches River at a point where the river is very wide, about 1,200 feet or so, a little south of the Magpetco docks. I looked at Pa a lot as we moved north toward Gray's Bayou. And Pa's face - I don't exactly know how to describe it. He doesn't smile much, or laugh, but still his face is friendly and warm, the kind you know you can trust. He never hollers or speaks harshly, except perhaps at a horse or mule. And he doesn't have to, at least, to me anyway. When the ends of his mustache straighten out, any thought of my disobedience is as far from my mind as the stars are from the earth.
Sometimes Pa looked in back of him to see if a ship or tug boat were coming. As the skiff moved north in the direction of Beaumont, a big ship did glide past us. I braced myself as the gentle waves or ground swells approached, and my emotions were always mixed -- half of joy and the other half of uneasiness. But Pa always knew how to turn the boat perpendicular to the ground swells so we wouldn't capsize. But by then it didn't much matter. Already I could see the houseboats in the mouth of Gray's Bayou, and soon I would be playing with my friends, the river rat boys.
The swells on the river had died away as we entered the mouth of the bayou. Already the big ship was slowing down, and Pa said it looked as if the boat would stop as a place he called the Pure Oil dock. I stopped watching it when I spotted Leroy on the dock at his boat landing. He is exactly my age, but is a lot taller than I am. When I first saw him, he was moving up and down his boat landing with a fish spear. After a while, the three-tined spear sprang out from his arm, and he pulled it back with a big mullet fish flapping on the barbs of the spear. Leroy never missed, I knew that, and he has promised to show me the fine points of that art whenever he has the time. After all, he says it's something you can't learn in books.
Leroy spoke to us as Pa tied up the skiff to the wharf, and always my first impulse was to correct his English. But I thought first and decided not to because Pa had explained to me that Leroy had never been to school and would always speak in that manner. Goodness knows Miss Ashley would have kept him after school for a month if she'd heard his double negatives. She was always threatening to wash somebody's mouth out with soap, but I don't believe she ever did - at least where I could see it. But she knew how to whack the palm of a kid's hand with a ruler whenever he used bad grammar.
Leroy's brother Augustine is only a year older than I am, and already he can slice the hide off a ten foot gator in ten minutes and steak his tail as well. That's exactly what Augustine was fixing to do when Pa and I climbed onto the wharf. He pulled a big black gator off a pile -- there must have been a dozen or more in the stack -- flipped him over on his white belly, and then he reached for that big, sharp Barlow knife of his. Then he opened one of the long blades and made a slit around one of the front paws. It was a pleasure to watch the thin blade glide along under the hide, guided by the hand of a master - one who never left the slightest trace of meat attached to the skin. Although I had watched him before, I still marveled at the way his knife moved along -- at that and countless other things the river rat boys can do that I can't do. They are truly my idols, people I want to grow up and be like, and I made absolutely no attempt to hide my admiration for them. Leroy noticed how I stared at a long gash across the alligator's tail at the point where it joins the body. "Watcha gawkin' at, Bill?" he finally asked.
"That gash," I replied, as I pointed at it with my finger.
"I done that wid my hand axe last night whilst Augustine was a-shootin' 'im in the ear. Them big gators has a heapa hosspower in dem tails after they's shot. They kin plumb tear up a big skiff inter kindlin wood in no time flat."
Again my ears flounced and flinched at the sound of his river rat English, but I said nothing to him. That's just one more advantage of living in a houseboat in Gray's Bayou where the truant officer can't reach you. Goodness, if I just missed one day of school, he'd be right down to Block's Bayou wanting to know why. Pa picked up his bag and went into the first houseboat to see Leroy's daddy, whom Pa always called "Old Rob." I don't know what was inside the bag or what Pa wanted to see Old Rob about -- cattle perhaps, because Pa's cows roamed all up and down the ridges and shell banks on the east side of the river, even back into the cane brakes. Old Rob is revered all up and down the river as a sort of uncrowned king of the river rats. He wears a long handlebar mustache, much longer than Pa's, that hangs down under his nose like two snake tails, and his face is pointed and bronzed like that of a gypsy I once saw in a picture. And boy, is Old Rob ever dirty! I know Ma would have loved to wash behind his ears with that gritty old soap. And Old Rob never wore any shoes -winter or summer - in fact, about all he ever wore was that dirty pair of old jeans, tied up with a length of sail rope, and always, that black-handled gun poked into his jeans at his belly. Boy, if I hadn't known him to be a friend, I'd surely have been afraid to meet him in the dark somewhere!
But Old Rob can really tell some stories -- stories that'll unwind every curl in your hair about the Indian bones in the clam shell mounds nearby and the pirate ghosts that travel along the ridge. The story that still chills my spine the most is the one in which Jean Lafitte's ghost chased Old Rob a half-mile through the marsh, hacking at him every inch of the way with his cutlass, and as he tells it, Old Rob ploughed up twenty acres of cane brakes with his heels getting back to his houseboat. And he still has the scar to prove it -- in back of his ear where the cutlass grazed his scalp.
Why, only a couple of weeks ago, while Old Rob was helping out with our tater harvest, he was telling me one of his best stories while we were drinking some water at the end of a turning row. He said he had been outside at night about a week earlier, hunting a stray hog. Suddenly, the ghost of one of those Karakawa chiefs buried up on the ridge shellbank got after Old Rob with his tomahawk. The ghost chased him so fast along the North Ridge that Old Rob said his feet were only hitting the ground about every 15 yards or so. And he almost didn't make it back to the houseboat in time. The next morning, Rob found some eagle feathers scattered all along the ridge, and he showed me one of them to prove it. And he never did find that hog.
Old Rob always comes over during harvest time to work in the fields and to tell me stories. Pa always gives him sacks of taters or cabbage or turnip greens for helping out. Rob says that's abou lthe only time he ever gets any green stuff to eat, but I'll never understand why anyone would prefer green vegetables who has a plentiful supply of gator tail to eat. Whenever trapping and alligator hunting is slack, Old Rob spends a lot of his time hunting Lafitte's treasures that are buried all up and down the river. He believes that some day he will find a big pot of money, and so do I. Pa sometimes snickers and smiles at some of Old Rob's tales as if he doesn't believe them, but I do. My friend Rob just doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd tell me a lie. And, besides he has the eagle feather and other things to prove his stories.
Leroy took me racing up the bayou in his pirogue while he was checking his fish traps. After we returned to the boat landing, he held my right arm while he was showing me how to spear fish. I made several practice throws and finally, when a mullet came swimming by on the surface, I let fly with the barb. It missed though, and the fish paddled away toward the river. "It's harder than it looks!" I quickly remarked.
"Aw, hit ain't so hard, Bill! You jist ain't hardly had no practice yit," Leroy replied. My eardrums winced again at the discordant grammatical sounds. Leroy's patience with me did hold out until a pound-size mullet graced the barb of the fish spear, and he added it to the string of fish bound for the houseboat's kitchen.
About that time, his mother rang a bell. After we had all feasted on gator tail steak, Leroy and I helped Augustine stretch and salt the gator hides. Then we raced for the clamshell mounds on the North Ridge. I held a good pace at first, but as I became winded, the river rat boys pulled on ahead, then they sat down and laughed at me as I staggered up panting and exhausted. It was plain as day how much I had to master if ever I were to become a river rat equal to them.
Augustine sneaked up from behind me and poked an old Indian skull in front of my face. I froze at first sight of it, but soon I was pulling the bones from the mounds as eagerly as they. Obviously, some of the rudiments of being a river rat are just more easily learned than others.
As the afternoon waned, Pa loosed a blast of his whistle for me to come running, and the three of us raced toward the houseboats. I told Augustine and Leroy goodbye, and again, I sat in the back and held the bag while Pa once more heaved at the oars and rowed the big skiff downriver. As we neared our landing, Pa made some remark about how rapidly the river rats in our area were disappearing from the local scene which, as usual, I failed to grasp the meaning of because of a couple of his big words.
For me, it had been a delightful day, one that I was loathe to see come to an end. And it only confirmed what I had known all along and what my chosen vocation should be. Pa's ideas on book learning and mine will never agree, especially with that doctor and fiddler stuff. I know he has his plans for me, but I'll just sit tight and bide my time till I can grow up and get me a houseboat of my own. This vow I'm renewing, in silence of course so Pa won't overhear -- that someday I'll skin gators with my very own Barlow knife, spear fish, and be a river rat just like Leroy and Augustine are. And I'll learn to be a well-trained river rat like them, and a good one. And no one, not even Pa, is going to keep me from achieving my chosen profession. Pa's ideas of me being a doctor or a fiddler will just have to go hang.
*Miss Ashley actually was one of my grade school teachers, although art instead of grammar. She was killed during the New London, Texas, school explosion about 1938