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Swimmin' In The Big Slough
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Swimmin' In The Big Slough


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I distinctly remember the hot summers in Arkansas.  There were no air-conditioners all over the place at that time.  I don't remember even learning about an air-conditioner until I was old enough to marry.  Neither were there any swamp coolers.  There were screen doors, and mostly, those were the only thing that separated us from the outside as the regular door was left open the entire summer.

The only means of cooling was a window fan during the night, and shade during the day.  Well, there was the Big Slough . . . but it's hard to get any work done if you're in the swimming hole.  And if you were about eight (8), you were working age!  So swimming wasn't much of an option for you.

But, sometimes, it was time to go swimming!  Since the girls weren't allowed to go in with the boys, the boys could do just about what they pleased!  And, since we didn't have swim trunks, our shorts did just fine!

There wasn't a whole lot of time to go swimming, and neither were the chances too many.  But when we did, it was fun!  Now the creeks back in them days were huge!  Huge bodies of flowing water 1000's of feet wide . . . well, maybe not quite THAT wide, but, to an 8 year old, they were quite wide.

And deep.  Some of them creeks must have been 20' deep, and the bridges high.  I've seen, (in later years, through adult eyes), bridges that were 15' off the water.  And the bridges themselves little more than stick structures looking as if they'd fall under their own weight.

But the swimming was great!  Of course us that didn't know how to swim would not go into the water by ourselves.  Before we were allowed into the water, some of the larger cousins or Uncles would locate the shallow water in which we could play.

Another danger which kept us out of the water more than the fear of drowning were snakes!  We were deathly scared of snakes!  All snakes were evil!  All snakes had to be killed, and that, immediately!  All had to be chopped up with a hoe, (that's a tool, not a woman of the evening . . . a utensil made for chopping cotton), and therewith dispatched to that great snake heaven in the sky!

Just about any time you came up on a body of water, you'd find a snake in it.  That's why when you did approach the body of water, you were ready!  You had your hands full of rocks, or your pea-shooter was loaded and already pulled back to maximum, or, if you were lucky enough to have a gun, it was shouldered, finger on the trigger, safety off!

But to go swimming, you had to run the snakes out.  Sometimes they didn't want to leave, and would simply dodge the incoming ordinance.  We were always told they couldn't bite you underwater, but I was never convinced of that!

Then, there were the days when the work was finished early, and everyone headed for the pickup in which we rode to the swimming hole.  Seldom was a tree close enough on which to tie a rope, so we had to make do with a 2x6 plank stuck in the bank and another holding it up somewhere out in the middle.  This would be our spring board.

We didn't have enough knowledge to call it a 'diving board!'  We'd wile away the hours, getting a good sun tan, (cuz you needed a sun tan to help you make it through the winter better!).

How it helped I never learned, but we always got one.  Everything went while swimming; throwing mud, dunking each other, wrestling, throwing each other into the water, yelling "Snake!" and watch everyone clamber helter skelter out of the water up through the ragweed and stinging nettles.

I remember once when one of the boys, (referring to one of Grandpas boys, my Uncles), hadn't learned to swim.  Grandpa promised him he would teach him how to swim that afternoon.  We all anticipated the swimming lesson, plus, the chance to go swimming again!  The whole ritual of getting there riding in the back of Grandpa's truck (with no tailgate nor seat belts, gathering ammo with which to bombard snakes, being the first in, the screaming and laughing . . . the coolness of the water . . . all much anticipated.

So now, we're standing on the tall bridge and Grandpa asked the one needing to learn to swim, "are you ready for your first lesson?"

An animated "yes! yes!" was the answer.

Grandpa picked him up, tossed him in the water and said "swim or die!"  With that, he walked back to the truck, got in and drove off!  But, the boy learned to swim!

I've told this story over the years and have had some exclaim "what a cruel man!  How could he do that to one of his boys?"

While I would have never done that to one of my children, (or to anyone else for that matter), I learned a few things about Grandpa in later years that kind of put all that into perspective.  Grandpa never did take chances.  Not with a crop, a tractor or piece of equipment, nor a child.  He was always one of the most careful men I've ever known.  But what seemed like callousness on the outside, was nothing but kindness on the inside.

I've heard how in his younger days he was a pugilist . . . (a bare knuckled fighter), and was quite good.  He could hold his own.  Even after he'd retired, he was accosted by someone in downtown Kennett, MO.  The old feller got out and was going to give Grandpa a cussing, then he was gonna kick his . . . touche . . .

Grandpa just got out his car, and the dude thought he'd just go straight for the caboose kicking.  And that's what he got instead!  Grandpa whipped him soundly with just a couple of punches.  Right out in the middle of the street!

Picture that if you will.  Two old Grandpas, both in shambered shirts and worn out overalls, just a dukin it out in the middle of town!  On Main St!  Right in front of Town Hall!

But in that worn, calloused, hard body of Grandpa Sheltons, beat a heart of gold.  And that heart was also kind, and gentle, and trustworthy, full of integrity of the highest order, and when he chucked his boy into the water, he'd already made sure there were several others around that could swim.  So, in all fairness, he actually did his normal thing, and went straight to the juguler, got the job done without a lot of fan-fair.

Later in life, while an adult, I took things I'd learned from him and seen him do, and taught them to my own children and my grandchildren as well.  I patterned my characteristics after numerous ways of his.

And they've helped me in life.  I remember Grandpa was not much when it came to words.  He was all action.  He looked at a problem, figured out the best way to approach it, and just did it!

I remember him smoking all my life.  One day after he'd retired, he decided to quit smoking.  He laid his cigarettes down and quit.  Period.

That's why, when you went to do something with Grandpa, you knew it would always get done.  Just like the day we went swimming in the Big Slough Ditch, and Grandpa gave his boy the swimming lesson.  Those days swimming in the Big Slough will be with me till I draw my last breath on this earth . . .

George Cavaness
10-09-1994



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