Chapter One Preview
A colleague is helping with this effort. He lives and teaches up north, having arrived at formal education down here and then giving in to the need for employment. He will write some of the descriptive material and I will try to provide the “people” part of the story. We will see.
The first thing on the list of things to write is an introduction to the people who will be the constant heroes in this book. They are members of about 25 families who lived mostly as a nomadic community in the Basin, sometimes tying their houses next to one another and sometimes living farther apart than that. The oldest voices here were born in 1905 but their memories include their parents and grandparents, which extends our ability to witness life as it was lived in the 1850s in the Basin.
While all aspects of their lives for which I have documented evidence from interviews will be addressed, the beginning of the story may need to root itself in the primary way they kept body and soul together, and that was fishing. This is far from a simple thing to write about. We think fish and we think just go catch one. No, when you have to rely on fish as a product to convert to clothing and housing and guns and ammunition, it becomes a far more complex and more serious subject. We will try to convey as much as feasible about the actual means that were used to catch fish in chapters provided for that but now I would like to just introduce a little of the story by talking about how these people learned to do what had to be done to earn a living with hook and line.
It was not unusual for children of the houseboat life to begin to explore fishing as a daily activity, some as young as seven or eight years. They would get permission to take a pirogue out and paddle in the swamp near home and set what are called bushlines. These simple lines tied to a low limb and suspended about a foot underwater were often what the children first learned to do. Albert “Putt” Couvillier told me:
JD: What do you remember about when you were a boy on a houseboat, concerning things like…like fishing?
PC: Well, back then we was too small to go out by ourselves, Jim, and uh, the onlyest way we could…in other words…go out, was if somebody [was] with us, you know? Till we got a lil older, about seven, eight years old, then we could go out on our own fishin.
JD: You were fishin on your own [at] seven or eight years old?
PC: Yeah. You take a boat, you know, a pirogue? And uh, Jessie [his brother] was a lil older than I was, you see, but we’d fish around…pretty close to the house, you see?
Lena Mae Couvillier was proud of how she also learned early how to be a productive part of the family. She learned to fish bushlines when she was about eight years old and living along Grand Lake. Talking to me Lena Mae is sitting comfortably in a very nice house on Bayou Teche. The man she sells her fish to in the story was a fishboat operator who bought swamp products from the houseboats and brought items from Morgan City that they needed. She tells this story. Remember, this is an eight-year-old child.
LC: I remember, uh, must have been about eight years old. I wanted to go put some bushlines out, between the canal where we lived, and that other canal at Blue Point, that Blue Point canal? … And I’d fish in between there. Paddle a pirogue.
JD: Along the lake edge?
LC: Along the lake. Oh, I looked and looked and looked [for] some old swivel to put on my lines, you know? Couldn’t find none. Say, “… I’m gone do it like this”…so I just put me a hook on my bushline and I tied it in a tree, no stageon, or nothin. Just tied onto the line. And I was fishing out of that pirogue. And it was cold! They had ice! Barefooted, barefooted…no shoes to put on. Well, I wanted to go run my lines. I had baited with live perch. And I got in that pirogue, by myself now, and started catchin them goujons.
JD: Big goujons! [she measures with her hands] Three feet long.
LC: I mean goujons! Twenty, 15, 20, 30 pounds. Well, I got about halfway, I had to turn back, my pirogue was loaded down with fish. I done forgot how many head of fish I had, but anyhow, I come home, unloaded my fish. And I wanted to go back, Momma said “No”. I say “Momma, I got to go back and run my lines I didn’t finish runnin”. And they got all excited about the fish I had caught. Boy, I went back and I caught just that much on the rest of the line!
I must’a had 250, 300 pounds of fish. But it was too much for the pirogue. So, then, they was all excited about my fish. So the fishboat came, and I sold my fish. I had over $100 worth of fish. I mean, in them days, it took a lot of fish to…for $100. But boy I got there and went to dividing the money. Boy, I give Momma and them so much, I say “Momma, I gone keep this much, I want Pinkerman to bring me two dresses”. I wanted some dresses. So I told Mr. Pinkerman, “Bring me two dresses”…and he did. He come back with my two lil old dress, and I wore the heck outta them dresses. And that’s what I bought with my money, and they didn’t costed maybe four or five dollars apiece, if they cost that much. The rest of it, give it to Momma and Daddy. Everything I’d make, I’d give it to Momma and them.
There are many other accounts of children of this community learning to fish alone by the time they were eight to ten years old. As adults they speak to you with a visible pride in accomplishment. Some of them were needed to help a father raise nets. Sometimes the first children were girls but they learned to do what had to be done just as the boys did. The younger children caught bait in the form of small bluegills to bait bushlines with. This live bait would often yield the biggest fish (as Lena Mae says above) in the form of Opelousas cats or flathead cats (goujons), and so the children would render a direct service to the family as a whole even before they were big enough to work on more physically demanding jobs. Sometimes they would find items in the swamp to help a father repair a tool, like a long slim cypress tree to make a net handle with. Often a child would ride with a parent to just help with things that needed doing, or push the oars on a pushboat if they were strong enough.
These are some of the things that helped these families function as a unit, a single working unit that was able to wrest a living from an environment that would be absolutely impossible for most of us today to even consider as a way of life. But they did it, and their stories will be expressed in this book as well as we can tell them.
The river is at 3.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge. My raft is sitting on the bottom. The Ohio and Mississippi are not going to provide much water for at least a couple weeks. The cold north wind is creating conditions tonight that will make the first run for white eels possible.
Rise and Shine, Jim