Jack M. Willis
Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Recently I had the occasion to visit a dealership which sells and services timber-harvesting equipment. In chatting with the receptionist, she related she was from the little hamlet of Gaars Mill in Winn Parish, Louisiana.
Instantly, with the mention of that little community, my mind reverted to an incident that happened in 1967.
My father was a patient in June of that year in what was then Baptist Hospital in Alexandria. He was suffering from suspected lung cancer, and when they cut him open, the surgeons immediately saw the situation was hopeless, and simply stitched him back up. My oldest brother and I were taking turns sitting up with him at night, providing moral support, even though we had round-the-clock nurses in attendance. I would make it pretty good until between four and five in the morning and then I would get so sleepy I would almost doze off sitting in the easy chair. I finally resorted to getting up and leaving the room for a stroll down the hall to revive.
There was regular sitting room sofa in the hall and I would walk down there and take a seat for a little variety to my “seating capacity.”
I noticed that an older gentleman in a security guard’s uniform would make his rounds shortly after I exited the hospital room. He usually would be ahead of his schedule, so he would take a seat on the sofa also, after going to the Nurse’s station and getting us a fresh cup of coffee, and we would visit.
Come to find out he was a native of Gaar’s Mill, and about the same age as my Dad. I had explained to him that my Dad was native of the Ebenezer Community, located between Jonesboro and Chatham, La. and we decided that, as the crow flew, they weren’t over about 15 miles apart, which at one time had made them practically neighbors.
This was all taking place about the middle of June and a mini-drought had set in, and crops were hurting everywhere. Inevitably, our conversation turned to the present state of the weather cycle. He chuckled about the dry spell and launched into a tale of his childhood.
He went on to tell about when he and his brothers were growing up on a farm in the 20’s near Gaar’s Mill. He related that his father would pull the same trick on him and his brothers every year around the Fourth of July, and they’d fall for it every time, without fail.
He recounted that towards the end of June, the corn crop would be about a foot tall, and ready to thin out by hoeing, and then laid by with a generous helping of nitrate of soda per stalk. His father would gather him and his brothers together on the First of July and lay out the same scenario every year. “Boys” he’d say, “You know this here corn crop is a-ready to be thinned out and laid by. As a reward, if y’all can get it done by the evening of the Third of July, we’ll have a big fish fry down on Caney Creek on the Fourth!” He looked at me and said, “Come to think of it, we was the ones that was going to have to furnish the fish. But, I’m getting further down the row than I need to be at this time.” The older Security Guard droned on, “We’d be in the corn field before good light, and as soon as we could see enough to keep from chopping down too many stalks of young corn we’d commence hoeing.”
The boys would plow out that last middle, taking turns with the old plow horse and Georgia stock at dusk dark on the Third. Then they’d beat it to the house and get a lard bucket of chicken guts, with the lid on, that Mama had saving for two or three days. The brothers would head out with a pine knot torch for Caney Creek to put out set hooks, baited with the chicken guts, which after about three days were getting some kinda fragrant.
The next morning at daylight they’d be on the creek to check the set poles. They’d just about all would be bobbing up and down indicating that they had a good size catfish on each bouncing pole.
He continued. “We retrieved the catfish and set about jerking the hide off ’em, and cutting the filets up to good frying size. By ten o’clock we’d already have fires started underneath two wash pots full of lard when the ladies would drive up in a couple of wagons with the trimmings like potato salad, French fries, pies and cakes, corn bread and hush puppy mix. About that time we’d hear the first far off rumble of thunder. Us boys would all look at one another and all chorused together, `Oooooh No! Not again!'”
Sure enough, before the grease was hot enough to light a kitchen match, indicating it was time to start frying, the rain would start falling in torrents. The Security Guard looked at me as serious as a fellow could and made a profound statement. “We always ended up with rain water in the fish grease on the Fourth of July!”
He stood up and dropped his used styrene coffee cup in a nearby wastebasket. He adjusted his cap on his head, hitched up his gun belt and took a step or two down the hall and turned around. He pointed his finger at me and said, “Remember this, young man, it always rains around the Fourth of July!”
Well, sir…. I been watching this phenomenon of nature he made mention of that night, for over 30 years now, and I’m here to declare he’s right!