In my memories as a small boy, let’s say from the age of five up to the age of nine, a place called the Big Ditch looms large. No, it’s not the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal or Big Dig of Boston fame or the All-American Canal that winds through Arizona. My Big Ditch was—and perhaps still is—a trench that winds through the city of Columbus, Mississippi, lined with concrete at the bottom and carrying various effluvia on its way to the river—among other functions it serves as a storm drain for the city. I know not what sort of effluvia it carried, nor do I want to know now—I was advised by my folks that playing in the Big Ditch was an unhealthy practice, but hey, it had water in it. As a young boy I was drawn to water, and please forgive the time-worn analogy, like a moth to a flame—time-worn, perhaps, but highly picturesque.
The Big Ditch meandered a half-block or so from a small three-room house with a real toilet added to a back porch, one of the old time stools with a big tank of water directly overhead and a long chain to pull to release the water—trust me, if that tank ever sprung a leak the sitter below would know it. That house on Nineteenth Street South was where I lived for several years with my mother and three sisters—my sisters were all my elders by at least eighteen months.
During my time at that address I cut my reading teeth on romance magazines such as True Story, True Romances, Ladies’ This and Ladies’ That, ad nauseum. However, I’m pleased to report that my early reading pursuits among those periodicals were adequately balanced by True Detective and True Crime and various other magazines of that ilk, if you get my drift!
Now on to my story of the Big Ditch:
I’m fairly certain that if I were standing at the bottom of the Big Ditch now I would have a 360-degree view of my various surroundings, but as a boy if I made it to the bottom I was hidden from sight unless my searchers were standing on the edge of the ditch.
I won’t dally on this posting—my readers may not be ready for a story that follows a young boy uptown from home to the beginning of the ditch, and downtown to the point that the ditch connects to a river, a point which included a long concourse of concrete, a man-made slide of great proportions, a slide lined with algae that allowed one to sit down in and on and zip to the river’s edge, bailing out just before the drop to the fast-moving current. Such slides required that one be clothed from the waist down, whether in long or short pants, especially after numerous slidings had removed patches of the algae.
I realize that such activities may be difficult for adults to understand, but for us, a group of kids that craved adventure, the Big Ditch equaled and surpassed everything that the Bobbsey Twins ever did. Our play mirrored the adventures created by Zane Grey and James Fennimore Cooper and Edgar Rice Burroughs—we played cowboys and Indians, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Last of the Mohicans and Tarzan of the Apes. We sneaked out of the house with matches and cups and a pot and a fry-pan and had lunch in the Big Ditch, dining on frog legs and hackberry tea—the frogs resided in the ditch and the hackberry trees grew along the un-cemented sides of the ditch. Please don’t ask me where we got the water to make the tea.
A special note: I have no memory of having lured girls to join me and others for lunch—I must confess that girls at that particular phase held little interest for me, and I am not aware of any interest displayed by the other boys.
Yes, we caught bullfrogs, and with our pocketknives—every kid in town carried a pocketknife—we dispatched the frogs to somewhere else in the cosmos, then separated the legs from the rest of each frog, skinned the legs and then burned them in the skillet and boiled hackberries to make tea for the repast. Hey, I’m not making this up—it’s a miracle, one of God’s wonders, that we didn’t fall prey to fatal diseases, but the only thing I can remember suffering was awakening with double mumps on a memorable Christmas day—click here for a truly heart-rending narrative of that calamitous event.
As I promised at the beginning, I will not dally on this story. There’s lots more to talk about, some of which I probably won’t discuss until I make my final report to YOU KNOW WHO at the conclusion of life’s journey—let’s face it—all of us have things that we like to keep to ourselves!
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!