Three Old Men
Whenever Rut Gajan wanted to spend the weekend in the Basin, he had one place that he would go. It was to a houseboat tied in Little Bayou Pigeon. He would take me with him on some of these weekends, and those were special times. You got to experience the swamp not only in the daytime, but by staying overnight in the houseboat you got to hear and see the swamp in darkness too – a very different and captivating thing to do. [see the posting “Lost Lake” for a little background on Rut Gajan]. I visited the houseboat with Rut from the time I was about ten years old until I was old enough to have my own boat, at which point he cut me loose to explore the Basin without him. I got that boat when I was 15, and it had a 25 horsepower Johnson motor, a big deal in those days. That would have been in 1953. So, for five years I visited the houseboat on Bayou Pigeon as a guest, and then for about four years more on my own or with friends my age. It was a glorious time.
To get there we would launch at Charenton Beach and pay Old Man Etienne one dollar to do it. Rut usually had a Mercury outboard of a size sufficient to plane a boat with two people in it. His motors always looked old to me, but they never broke down, at least not on the trips I was on. In those days it was already too late to cross Grand Lake from west to east in a direct manner. Most of the lake had already filled with sand. By then you had to go down river in the Atchafalaya main channel (called the Santiago Channel in those days, after the dredge that dug the channel through the lake, I think) until you got to something called “the crevasse”. You could then turn east and follow that through the sand bars to Blue Point, which was the original other side of the lake. Once at Blue Point you could turn back up current and follow the cypress lakeshore to the two Bayou Pigeons. It took an hour and ten miles of travel to get to the camp from Charenton. The big motors that people had in those days were only 25 horsepower, but that seemed awfully fast to us at the time. Today I saw a picture of a boat with four 250 horsepower motors on it. We do get where we are going that much faster these days, but we don’t see very much along the way. Times have changed and so has the potential quality of our experiences, I’m afraid.
I don’t know who owned the houseboat, but it was always the same three old men who were there when I was. It was never one or two, but all three, and sometimes a fourth. These men were all from St. Martinville. Their names were Bill Thomas, Elmer Fournet, and Shorty Savoie. The sometime fourth was Pat Gary. Since I was just a kid, I never got to know these men on a personal basis, but I did spend enough time with them to know that I liked them all. Bill Thomas was the owner of a bar on the main street in St. Martinville. Though long dead, he is still remembered by people in the area. I don’t know what Elmer Fournet did for a living. Pat Gary was a house painter who mostly lived in Lake Charles. Shorty Savoie was my unofficial education role model, and that nearly cost me a completed college degree. He did this by living what I thought at the time was a perfect life. He was a “sugar cooker” during the grinding season, which limited his employment to the months of October, November and December. During the time I knew him, he worked in a mill in White Castle and lived the rest of the year with a daughter in St. Martinville, I believe. So, for nine months he was free to be doing things in and around the Basin. What a life. Of course, the other two men must have had their lives well arranged too, because they were always at the camp when Shorty was. What did they do there? They fished some trotlines across the bayou when they wanted fish, and sometimes they actually exerted themselves to catch enough to bring back fish to sell and thereby pay for groceries for the next trip. The pirogue shown is the type we used to fish bushlines, it was built by Carl Carline. Note the compartment in the middle that is made to keep fish alive for a little while. Otherwise, squirrel hunting took some time, and they always had frogs to eat if they wanted them. Cooking was something they had time to do, and they did it well. I do remember bottles of cheap wine not being scarce, mostly emptied bottles actually.
The houseboat itself was pretty standard for that, and earlier, times. It was about 30 feet long on a 40 foot cypress barge that was 12 feet wide. It had three equal rooms, a kitchen (on the end) and two bedrooms. There was a porch on both front and back. At one time there had been a walkway around the outside, but it was gone on one side and the other side had rain barrels mounted that prevented walking past them. I think it had a tin roof, but I’m not sure about that.
The kitchen had a wood stove in one corner, a kerosene cook stove in another corner, a table that would seat four, and a “safe” for holding dishes and stuff, and a sink that drained to the bayou for dishwashing. The table legs stood in little cans of kerosene to prevent the ants from claiming the sugar, etc., that always sat on the table. Even the ropes tying the houseboat to the trees on the bank had rags tied around them soaked in kerosene. The kerosene stove looked like a regular four-burner kitchen range. Because of all the kerosene being used, the camp always smelled like that. To this day, that is a welcome smell to me. There was a refrigerator in the middle room. It was a butane refrigerator. That machine came as close to being magical as anything I had ever seen. I mean, you turned the valve on the 5-gallon butane tank, you lit a little pilot light situated in the mechanism below the refrigerator box, and you stood back and watched this little compressor thing start to work. It kind of vibrated slightly and made small noises, and the miracle was that in a short time the refrigerator would be cold – you lit a fire to make the thing cold. I’m still not sure I want to know how that works. But it was mighty handy to have when you stayed out there a week with no electricity.
The food those men cooked at that camp was something I marvel at even now. I don’t know if it was just the fact that the houseboat environment made everything taste good, or whether everything really did taste good. Either way, you can’t lose. On some trips Rut and I would come in late on Friday afternoon and Rut would bring a medium sized gaspergou with him (the ones in the picture are too big to eat, they get too oily). He had a few nets out in the Basin and he could always go and get a fish when he wanted it. He would clean the gou and Shorty would start to make a red gravy in a big black pot. He would put onions and bell peppers and garlic cloves into tomato sauce and water and cook it for a couple hours before putting the fish in. Because we had come late, I would be asleep by the time the fish was cooked but they would wake me up when it was ready. Gaspergou courtboullion over rice with French bread and butter is not something you forget easily – even if you have to wake up from a sound sleep to eat it.
Another favorite food, especially in the winter, was green gumbo. Some people know this dish, many don’t. You start with a good-sized roux in a pot and add onions. After the onions are cleared you put in a mixture of fresh chopped greens – ½ collards, ¼ mustard, ¼ turnip. It takes a lot of greens, and you can add some salt meat too. Add water as in a gumbo and let this cook until the greens are tender and falling apart. Several hours are needed, up to four or five. Add chopped potatoes and turnips during the last 30 minutes or so of cooking. Somewhere in this you would have added salt and pepper. Serve this over rice, just like gumbo. Man! Put the dogs outside! We used to eat the gumbo for supper, and then again in the mornings in the winter, and then go out and split wood for the wood stove. That stuff would hold you for hours. Shorty and Bill would sometimes cook frybread to go with the gumbo in the morning.
And potato stew! A dark roux and cleared onions and garlic, and add a lot of cubed potato. Add water and salt and pepper and cook until the potatoes are falling apart all around the edges, making a thickened gravy. This takes a while too. But served over rice with some kind of bird meat on the side smothered until dark brown and smelling like heaven itself – unforgettable. At times like that you could truly wonder what the poor people were doing because you sure as anything were anything but poor right then. And once in a while the birds were legal.
Sleeping at that houseboat was always accompanied by the smell of Flit. When everybody had finished going outside for whatever reason, someone would get out the Flitgun just before going to bed. Flit was an insecticide and you dispensed it with the Flitgun. There were a lot of mosquitoes, and Flit was cheap, so it was liberally used. At bedtime there was so much of the stuff in the air that the whole camp would get this foggy aura around any lamps that were still lit. But once that was done you could sleep soundly with no mosquitoes to worry about. At least as long as there were no holes in the screens. I do wonder what the insecticide did to us. But, you went to sleep under open windows in the summer with just a sheet over you, and listened to the bullfrogs right outside in the swamp, and the owls – large and small, near and far- in the trees around you. Sound sleep was no problem.
This was the life Shorty had for nine months of each year, and it sure looked good to me. You get caught up though, and things carry you along. Currents move, changing directions and seldom showing you what’s around the next bend. I went off to college at 18, and while I was away they moved the camp south about 15 miles from Bayou Pigeon to Bayou Boutte. While I was in school a hurricane passed by and destroyed the houseboat cabin. Someone got the barge for scrap lumber. There is something fittingly final about that, and I can find no regrets.
The river is at 6.6 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, staying steady for the next several days. But the Ohio and Mississippi are both rising fast up above and we will start to get some of that water next week. We could get more than just a little. Poor crawfishermen, they'll have to move traps again!
Rise and Shine, Jim