Someone has said that accidents are unpleasant things that happen suddenly. In this writing, accidents may or may not happen suddenly but they are always unpleasant. The nature of these things varies with the circumstances and the environment in which lives are lived. In the houseboats, it is easy to assume that many of the things that happened had a relationship to water and much of the time this assumption would be correct, but sometimes not. Drownings were not frequent, but even so were the foremost cause of accidental death in the houseboat communities, most other fatalities were related to diseases of some kind. You hear of no deaths due to snakebite, or alligator attack (unlikely in any event) or any other features of the natural environment that common expectations might predict.
It is a curious thing that people who spent their whole lives on or near the water did not put a high priority on learning to swim. While many will say that they could save themselves if suddenly placed in deep water, many will also admit that this is not the case. These are people who would get up in the morning and begin every day by approaching the water in some way. If on houseboats they would either get into a boat or walk a gangplank to the bank, if on land they would almost always begin the day with chores conducted in boats. It is also remarkable that so few boat-related accidents with serious consequences are known. If thrown from a boat, the difference between safety and a serious situation was how careful they were in retaining a connection to the boat. Ida Daigle was always a fisherwoman, and when young she experienced all that came with that. While running tightlines in the flooded swamp, she fell out of her pirogue on a cold day and tells it this way, including her husband’s reaction.
ID: Yeah. Tightlines. … But this here I had tied on a tree. And the tree broke. In the bayou I went headfirst.
JD: You couldn’t swim?
ID: No indeed. What happened - I held on [to] a lil bitty limb, way smaller than my finger. And uh, they had another one on the side, I reached over and I…I broke it and my boat…the wind was north, it was a cold day in July [figure of speech, it must have been in the winter], and my boat was goin away from me so I throwed that lil limb and it stayed caught…
JD: On your boat?
ID: Yeah, and I pulled the boat back to me and I got in it. But when I got in and I realized what could’a happened to me I got so weak…after I got in the boat, I wasn’t scared before. You know I was by myself in yuh, and I know they got 12 foot of water.
And I got back home, I was wet. Jesse started laughing at me, I say “If you’da been in my drawers, you woudn’ta laughed”. I say “Podna, I fell overboard in the…in the deep water”…I say “About 12 foot, maybe better” He went…he told me they didn’t have 12 foot, being that I had saved myself. I say “Oh yeah, they is”. He cut a…he cut a 15 foot pole and he went in there and they had…he barely touched the bottom with the pole he had. Well, he say “I believe you now”.
Life jackets do not feature in the early Myette Point story. Neg Sauce, who spent his entire life on the water as a fisherman, sums it up when asked if accidents occurred often and if they did, could the people swim?
Not really. Not really. Now and then you hear one of em fall overboard and drown, but not…not too many. Lot of people [couldn’t swim].
Many things could cause things to go from dry to wet if you were in a boat. If you were handling unfamiliar steering equipment there was a real potential for finding yourself overboard. Myon Bailey had broken the steering wheel in his bateau so he converted from a steering wheel to a stick that you pushed back and forth. Instead of turning a wheel to turn the motor, the stick controlled it. He pushed the stick the wrong way on a cold morning in the Basin during a deer hunt and nearly went overboard and then did it again and did go over after almost crashing into an oilfield platform. He could swim, but in his surprise he swam the wrong way, hip boots and all.
MB: I was fixing my boat. To rig the steerin. I didn’t have steering wheel, I fixed me a stick back there [forward and back instead of side to side]. I wasn’t used to that, no! I had three or four dogs in there and I had Elton - I had about three mens in my boat. And when I got in it I went in one of them pockets back there….right over the point [of land]
JD: The stick went the wrong way, or something, eh?
MB: Yeah, [pushed the stick the wrong way and turned the opposite of what he expected]. So, pushed it back overboard, went back there. So, Boy [Albert Jr.]….and, uh…put them boys out and they start taking their stands. I was gone leave there and go turn the dogs loose at the other [end?]. With that stick…and they had a oil well right in the middle of the pipeline [canal]. I had hip boots on and a big coat, it was cold! … And, when I turned like that, I push it like that [the wrong way] with that stick, and overboard I went! The boat went up on the bank, I had a brand new Evinrude on there. It went up on the bank and the motor was going prtprtprtprt. Boy yelled “You all right ?” I yelled at Boy, “Don’t worry about me, worry about my motor!!” [Laughter] [And on top of that] I was swimming back to the well. That’s stupid!
JD: Two times in one morning [laughs]
MB: I uh, I had to go put some warm clothes, it was cold!
JD: Well, did you learn to use the stick after that?
MB: Hunh, pulled it off!
Sometimes it could happen that the whole houseboat would sink for some reason. This most often happened when the dwelling was being transported from one place to another and was caught out in the open area of Grand Lake, where waves could come up suddenly. These waves would come up against the side of the barge supporting the house and the water would splash into it between the top of the side of the barge and the floor of the house. There is a six-inch ventilation gap all around the barge in that location. When this happened you could try to bail it out but this worked only if you had enough people to bail faster than the water was coming in. And then it was worse if a houseboat was placed sideways to the direction of the waves, the whole thing would often sink quickly.
When I was a baby [~1940], the old man was livin over there around Willow Cove somewhere. And he kept wantin to move, [but] everyday there was a norwester break out. Every day, you know? In other words, the north wind would pick up and the lake would get too rough. One night he got up, and he was gone come around that night before the north wind picked up. [but we] get out in the middle of the lake, here come a crackin norwester, sunk the camp and everything went down. Other words, I was a lil baby, you know, and they told us that often, you know? How we all got in that pirogue, and we had to go light a old oak tree on fire to dry everybody’s clothes and everything. But, in the middle of the night he was gone come around there to get out of that north wind every day, and when he got in the middle of that lake, a norwester cracked out, and sunk everything he had out there. [Putt Couvillier, 1974]
Many people fell overboard, including children. With the latter, this occurred mostly on the houseboats since the children spent most of their lives either inside or on the narrow porches and walkways. Sometimes a mother would get exasperated and chase an errant boy around and around the outside of the houseboat, she with a frying pan and he with the fear of getting a lesson of some kind. But even though they did fall overboard, you rarely hear of a child drowning near their home. Presumably this rarity is at least partly due to the large number of other children in the families, so that there was always one nearby to pull the child from the water, or the water was shallow enough not to be dangerous. Joe Sauce remembers this happening when he was about four years old and lucky his sister was there. He fell off of a gangplank connecting his houseboat to the levee it was tied up to and she pulled him out.
And Liza Henry lends credence to the observation that the walkways around the houseboats were narrow and were often the cause of near accidents.
I done that twice [fell overboard]. The other time, I was about eight years old, maybe, sitting in a chair and I pushed my chair too far back, and one leg ran off and over I went. So my brother…one of my brothers and a friend of his were sitting down right there too, he caught me. I say, I don’t see how we didn’t fall overboard more than that. We had a board about that wide…around the boat [houseboat] …about 15 inches wide, maybe. And we didn’t fall off of there! We’d run on it! [Liza Henry, 2007]
In the early part of the 20th century, the boats were powered by means that did not allow them to run with speed. The earliest boats were usually push skiffs that only went as fast as a person could row, and the early gasoline engines were not that much faster. The latter could run headlong into something and the person inside the boat might be shaken up but rarely would they be thrown overboard with enough force to prevent them from keeping contact with the boat. Modern boats with outboard engines are another matter. Collisions at high speed can and do throw the occupants away from the boat, often with injuries that make the situation even more dire. The older days of slow boats and the relative safety they ensured might be one of the things of value we sacrifice for greater speed and efficiency on the water. Consequently, most people who lived in the Basin in the last half of the 20th century have a story of some relative or acquaintance who drowned during that time. Many of these stories involve the use of the aluminum, or crawfish, skiff. This style of boat is locally manufactured for use in the harvesting of wild crawfish from the Basin. It has a pointed bow for easy maneuvering between trees, a tough bottom that resists puncturing by cypress knees, and a stern that can support a powerful motor for shoving the boat over, around and through obstacles in the flooded swamp. It is when this boat is operated at high speed in open water that it has been known to suddenly plunge beneath the water, bow first, and throw the occupants out and away from the boat. Damage to the occupant(s) often occurs in these circumstances. When an accident of this kind happens with this style of boat, the boat and motor are sometimes never located because there is no flotation built into most of them. They simply sink, and if the accident happens in deep water, such as the main channel of the Atchafalaya River, there could be 80 feet of water covering the boat and motor. Even with the known dangerous nature of this boat, it is still widely used since nothing else compares favorably with it for use in the flooded swamp.
All of the structures used for dwellings in the Basin were made of wood, and all of the means for cooking and heating involved the use of fire. There are stories of things getting out of hand and serious fires causing occasional loss of material things, but not causing death. Liza Henry describes a scene that could have been disastrous. Her brother and father were across the bayou dipping nets in a large vat of fire-heated tar when they noticed a problem at the houseboat. The stove in question was probably a multiple-burner kerosene model.
One day my daddy was tarrin nets, him and my brother, across the big bayou. And uh, my sister wanted to light the stove…to cook supper, I guess it was. Cause it was in the evening. Anyhow, [laughs] she put a skillet of grease on, and it caught on fire. It got too hot and it caught on fire, and we didn’t know what to do. She threw water in it, made the flame go higher. It just had a lil oil in it, a lil grease in the bottom, but that’s all it take to make a fire. Then it caught the roof on fire. From across the bayou, I think it was my brother that seen it, and they hurried up and jumped in the boat and came and put the fire out. And they go back, [to the net tarring operation across the bayou] then [the] tar was on fire! ‘Cause they had…they had to leave the tar. They didn’t think of covering up, they didn’t have time, so they just left it. So it was on fire. Had to put it out! Yeah. [laughs]. …but it was easy catch them wooden shingles, dry like…like paper. Caught on fire right away. If…if my daddy wouldn’t of seen it from across the bayou, it would’ve burned down, [if] they wouldn’t of seen it. ‘Cause nobody passed while it was burning. And then, my brother’s camp was right next to ours, right up against it almost. So it would of burned up too. [Liza Henry, 2007]
In their daily lives, people in the Basin routinely used tools that were potentially dangerous – saws, knives, etc. In any gathering of Myette Point people, it is usual to find several with less than ten complete fingers. The use of hatchets, axes, and later, power saws, were responsible for most of the amputations. . In the days after 1950, cutting up deer with band saws caused much of this, but any power saw could be responsible. Edward Couvillier has a saying about table saws “They ain’t got no friends” he says, meaning that if you make the slightest mistake or become a little careless, they will do serious damage quickly with no regrets - good thing to remember if you work daily with wood, as he does.
But hatchets and axes are just as dangerous. And you hear a good bit about axes slipping, or hitting the wrong thing, even on the back swing.
I got the mark [scar] just back of my ear, here. My momma cut me with an ax…I was uh…went haul pieces of kindling, when I got back I guess I got too close, you know, when she swing the ax…When she did that [swung the ax back], well, she didn’t do on purpose. When she did that to chop the kindlin [she hit her in the head]. [Ida Daigle, 1996]
People cut themselves, often as a result of being without foot protection, as a preference. Deep cuts on the feet resulted in incapacitation due to infection until healing took place, as Lena Mae relates, pointing to a large scar across the instep of her foot. And accidents causing puncturing of feet by nails were not uncommon. The popular cure for this kind of thing was a mixture of whisky and roaches used as a disinfectant.
We had a creosote board back of the house, at Myette Pt. and the kids was little, and they had a spike, bent, stickin up. And I was goin there and my foot slip and I stuck that between my big toe and my other toe. And I didn’t think it was too bad at the time, but infection set in there. I seen me, to do my work and to do for my kids, crawl on my knees to get to the pot to stir the pot, and stuff, and do their clothes and whatever I had to do. And that roach and whiskey did it. Got all that infection out of there. My foot was that big, swole. [Lena Mae Couvillier, 1996]
The use of knives was so common to the lifestyles of the Myette Point families that accidents with them were not unusual. Small cuts were dealt with by simply pouring kerosene on the damaged spot to stop the bleeding and then the cuts healed themselves, but more serious things happened too. The son of Myon and Agnes Bailey tripped and fell onto a knife he was using and plunged it deep into his throat. He was transported many miles by boat to Morgan City where a doctor could attend to the wound, and did. Transfusions were not that common in 1942 but they were administered and the boy lived.
Fatal accidents caused by gunshots are not common in the Myette Point story, but they did happen. Liza Henry relates the situation that resulted in the tragic death of her two-year old brother as he stood on the porch of the family houseboat – one of several tied up on both sides of the bayou the community was occupying. The shot came from across the bayou and the shooter was never identified.
Several other incidents of death by gunshot are related in the Basin stories, but these are not accidental. People mention that sometimes a person would be found shot to death still in his boat. Because the shooter usually preferred to remain unknown, the nature of the shooting, accidental or otherwise, went unresolved. The years spanning 1915 to 1920 are mentioned in several of these cases.
So, situations that involve water, fire, sharp objects and firearms are identified by the Myette Point families as causes of accidents with serious consequences. That these things happened with low frequency with respect to the number of opportunities is testimony to the skill and care employed daily by the houseboat families. For each time when a notable accident occurred, there were many times that they could have but did not.
The houseboat picture is courtesy of the Darlene Soule collection.
The river is at 11.1 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising slightly in the next few days. Local rain may put a few more inches into it, but the Ohio and Mississippi are kind of sedate where they are large bodies, more than sedate up near the Dakotas.
Rise and Shine, Jim