January 13, 2018 11:26:20 PM
For as long as I can remember, I've been walking the trestle. By that I mean walking out on the old railroad bridge over the old channel of the river near the south end of First Street near Carrier Lodge. My children have "walked the trestle," so have the grandchildren.
It's something you did growing up in the small-town South. As kids we would climb down on the center pier, sit and watch the river and have long conversations.
Judging from the condition of graffiti on the rusting iron supports, kids still venture out onto the old bridge.
My most recent visit to this childhood haunt came late Christmas afternoon. The guests had gone, the kitchen put back in some semblance of order and all was quiet, so I set out on foot. Down Eighth Street, up the gravel cut-though past Jane and Goodwin Myrick's home, now Michael and Katherine Kerby's.
The remains of an ancient hackberry lay in a pile next to Seventh Street in front of Jon Fortman's. Telltale piles of trash identified homes with young children. The day was cold and clear; the streets were empty.
There is no light quite so beautiful as the late afternoon sun on a winter day in Mississippi. In the cold, clear air, its rays can transform a stark landscape into something ethereal and incandescent. Such was the case Christmas Day when I stood at the middle of the trestle and watched the yellow-gold sunlight play on the spread of bamboo along the shoreline.
Billy Hairston, in a piece for the Fall 2013 issue of Catfish Alley magazine, explained the origins of that bamboo. The tagline at the end of his essay describes Billy as, "a Columbus native and a retired college teacher and soldier. He lives on the Alabama side of the Border Springs community near Caledonia where he reads, plays guitar and writes the occasional letter to the editor to his local newspaper."
One week later, a reader responding to my Sunday column about the Mississippi River wrote this about Billy's essay ...
"This article haunts me. I love it and hate it. I had it framed, and it's hanging in my house."
I wrote him back and said I'd just been out on the trestle contemplating the bamboo Billy mentioned.
He responded: "Every time I boat past that bamboo patch, I think of the article and Cletus Metzger who operated the boat/restaurant."
I reread Billy's piece. It is lyrical, poignant, timeless. And, as did my correspondent, I found it haunting. Here it is, reprinted with the author's permission:
James and I met in the late summer of 1947 when we entered fifth grade at Demonstration School in Columbus. When I think back to boyhood, the two years we had until we entered junior high and began to drift apart were its heart and soul. We got 15 years of boyhood out of those two years.
James lived in a two-story house at the south end of First Street. It was on what was then the GM&O Railroad, right where the tracks crossed the Tombigbee River. His daddy was a section foreman for the railroad. Directly in front of the house, on the north side of the tracks, was a cotton-seed mill.
We came to know every inch of the Tombigbee River on both sides as far south as the mouth of the Luxapalila. We knew the fields and forests, the swamps and sloughs, the gravel bars. We crossed the railroad trestle with no more concern than if it had been a city sidewalk. We sat on the middle pier and shot bottles and sticks with our .22s while trains rumbled by above us. We swam 'til we were wrinkled. We were Tom and Huck, or maybe twin Hucks, skinny and towheaded and living by our own rules.
This morning, 64 years later, I returned. I parked my pick-up at Carrier Lodge and walked down the crumbling remains of what used to be the last block of First Street. Nothing remained of the cotton-seed mill.
One of my last memories of James and his daddy was their planting a small stand of bamboo behind the house. The house, barn and fences are long gone and bamboo has overtaken everything. Even the landscape is unrecognizable. All that's left is what I can see in my mind's eye.
James is gone, also. I don't know where, and I won't be far behind.
The Tombigbee is gone, too. For millions of years it rose and fell with the seasons and went where it would, creating those fields and forests, those swamps and sloughs and gravel bars as its gifts for two little boys to explore and grow up in. The channel is still there and water still goes down it to the sea, but the River itself died in 1985. That's the year it became a hyphenated waterway, owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of pleasure craft and an occasional tow of barges.
James and me, and the River, we were a 'one-of-a-kind', a unique confluence in time and space. We won't be back.
Birney Imes' email address is [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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