This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Keepers of the Flame - One Spark at a Time

It was a very good day. I was invited to and did attend the annual get-together of the men and women who build and maintain the old putput technology – the boats and motors that provided the transportation for watermen in the first half of the last century. Mr. J.B. Castagnos, (on the right in the picture)from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, was the host of the gathering today, as he has been for years. I do not think there is a name for the group, they are not that formal. This is a point in favor of their sincerity and depth of dedication in my opinion. The other men in the picture are, left to right, Ory Mendoza, Tony Latiolais and Dick Gibbens.

The day began with an interesting twist. In order to get to the place (camp) where the meeting was to take place it was necessary to cross a bridge and then proceed down the bayou crossed by the bridge about ½ mile. When I approached the bridge there was a sheriff’s vehicle blocking traffic. When asked the problem, I was told that the bridge was out and would remain so for at least four hours. What to do? Well, while standing on the bank wondering if I had the appropriate phone number on my cell phone, I heard the distinctive “POP POP POP POP” of a small, antique, marine inboard engine. Each pop being the sound of the spark to, and firing of, a cylinder of the little six-horse Lockwood Ash engine. Sure enough, it was Dick Gibbens coming up the bayou in one of the very boats that was being celebrated this day. I waved him down, and over he came. He offered a ride to the meeting, via the bayou, and I thought what a perfect thing to happen – to arrive at a boat party by boat. And so began a wonderful afternoon among people who are keepers of the flame, one spark at a time.

There were probably fifteen of the old boats there, each with one of the truly antique engines in it, and maybe 75 of the people who carry the tradition forward. Some of them just build the boats, some primarily acquire and maintain the engines – whether they are in a boat or not and some both build the boats and place engines in them. In any combination these add up to keepers of the flame. And they will go long distances to show their pride in the old craft.

Each time you place yourself in an environment so rich with potential friendships, you always find it easy to allow good things to happen. And they do. Among the many people I met, some again, and some for the first time, I would like to mention a couple. First there was a pair of men who are heavily involved in the whole world of wooden boatbuilding – Keith Felder and Jules Lambert. They retired from careers in “The Plants” along the Mississippi River and began to find people, such as Raymond Sedatol in Pierre Part, who could teach them the various styles of small-boat building. By learning from such teachers, over the years they have become experts in dugouts, pirogues, skiffs, bateaux and Lafitte skiffs. They not only build the boats but they find, raise, and make lumber out of cypress “sinker” logs to do it. It is such a pleasure to meet such wonderful craftsmen.

Another man I would like to mention is E.J. Fournet. It was getting toward the end of the day and this man, about my age, was standing next to me. He had on a name tag and it noted that he was from Port Arthur, Texas. That seemed pretty far away to come to this gathering since I thought this group was pretty much a local thing. I asked him about that, and he said his family had originally been from St. Martinville and had moved to Texas long ago. I suppose to place himself in this arena of Louisiana boats he then mentioned that as a boy in St. Martinville his uncle used to take him out into the Atchafalaya Basin to a big old houseboat. Noting again his last name, the alertness factor went up to HIGH and the hairs on my neck did seem to move. It was one of those truly magical moments of anticipation. I said to him that I would ask him something that had very deep meaning to me. Had he known someone from St. Martinville named Elmer Fournet? Why, that was his uncle, he said. And then, did he know who Bill Thomas was? Yes, a bar owner from St. Martinville and friend of his uncle’s. And Pat Gary? Yes, that was his uncle too. I truly could not believe it. Anyone who is curious why this was such a huge thing to me should read the blog posting from 2007 entitled “Three Old Men”. It relates my memories of having spent much time with these old men in the Basin on their houseboat. So, this man, E.J. Fournet, was going out to the same houseboat with the same men as I was 60 years ago, and our paths never crossed! Both of us were around 12 years old. What astonishes me is that I was sure when I wrote the blog posting that all possible connections with that most significant part of my life were gone forever, and here I was speaking with a living connection to the men who had this big impact on my early experience in the Basin. What a wonderful thing to discover. He said that, for his part, also finding out that someone previously unknown could provide a link to his early life made the trip to Louisiana worthwhile regardless of the distance. I could tell him that I felt the same way. What a wonderful thing! Who said serendipity went out of style.

Another way of realizing why the effort being made to keep the flame alive is to note that younger people have no idea why those old boats and motors were important in their time. On returning to the dock to reclaim my truck, I saw a twenty-something young man looking down into the boat I was in. He leaned over the dock railing, beer in hand, and said that he bet the boat could really push through the mud. No, not this kind of boat. He was mistaking it for the modern mudboats that are built to push through marsh ditches that are mostly slush rather than water. Those boats have large engines with thick driveshafts and big, thick propellers. The boat I was in (J.B. Castagnos’ boat) had an engine rated at six horsepower. No, the times have changed and the twenty-somethings no longer have any reference to these old boats. But they always want a ride in one when they are told what they are and what they represent. You can hear the engines coming a long way off, one spark at a time.

The river is at 14 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge right now, rising slowly to 15 feet in the next few days. The Mississippi and Ohio are not doing much so not much change in our water is expected for the time being. Weather’s warming, water’s up, crawfish are growing. Just in time for Easter and Good Friday and a 50% price drop to the fishermen. They just can’t win. But maybe we will be able to afford to eat some.

Rise and Shine, Jim