Rice farming came to the Mississippi Delta in the early 1950’s. There are basically two kinds of soil in the Delta; fine grained river silt that has been deposited by eons of spring flooding along the Mississippi River, known as ice cream land, and a clayey, coarse soil known as buckshot land. Buckshot, when wet would clog up any piece of equipment sent into the field. No farmer in his right mind ever grew anything but cotton on his ice cream land, but all farmers were constantly looking for a crop that did not require a great deal of cultivation for their buckshot. Rice seemed to be the perfect crop.
Rice grows in water. Admittedly not much water, about six to eight inches is enough, but in order to be able to flood the rice field during the growing season and drain it during the harvest, a certain amount of contouring and irrigation engineering is required. Once the land is prepared the water has to be brought in when needed and removed in order to harvest. This is accomplished by a system of wells and ditches.
In a land where the bayous, creeks and rivers were slow moving, turgid and muddy, the system of wells and flume ditches filled with fresh, clear artesian water was irresistible to a variety of creatures such as children, frogs and water moccasins. The rice fields provided the perfect environment for mosquitoes of size and in numbers never before seen. I’ll deal with the mosquitoes at another time.
The first summer or so of rice cultivation we all swam in the ditches and the frogs quickly adapted to the new environment. Then came the moccasins. We quickly gave up swimming in the rice ditches and the snakes kept the frogs from overrunning our part of the world. Nature balanced it all out. Natural selection took a year or two but soon the snakes had thinned the frogs so that the current generation began to produce some Boone and Crocket grade amphibians. We were talking close to a pound a piece with legs like a large chicken.
Now I have always heard that frog legs were a delicacy and that they tasted like chicken. My reply was I would choose to eat chicken; it tasted just like frog legs. While I wouldn’t eat a frog under any circumstances, I was perfectly happy to hunt and gig them.
This is how I found myself in a small aluminum boat sculling down a flume ditch with a carbide light strapped to my head. We were armed with a .22 rifle rather than a gig. Shoot em and net em was our strategy. As the boat eased down the ditch we kept our lights focused on the nearby banks. We darn near filled the boat up with large bull frogs. While we were shooting and scooping I heard a consistent bump, bump, bump on the back of the boat. I turned my light and the night lit up with a thousand eyes. Every moccasin in Bolivar County was trailing behind our boat like an armada of fireflies.
My first reaction was to start shooting. I knew enough to discard that idea; we just didn’t have near enough ammo. I reminded myself that snakes do not have arms and legs and would have a difficult time climbing in the boat, which was somewhat comforting, but raised the question of just how good are they at the high jump. They seemed content to just butt up to the back of the boat; maybe they couldn’t get a firm footing to leap.
All of this begged the question of just how in the hell were we going to get out of the boat and up the ditch bank when we got back to the pickup truck?
“Throw them a frog,” suggested Benny, in hopes that they would be distracted by something that tasted like chicken.
I had no problem with that idea. I didn’t plan to clean them, let alone eat them, and would have gladly sacrificed the entire night’s haul to buy a safe exit back to dry land. Didn’t work. The frog sank and the snakes kept coming. The thought of throwing Benny out as bait had a certain appeal, but best friends are hard to come by and he wasn’t one you wanted to try and toss out of a boat. Back to the drawing board.
We continued to putt-putt down the flume ditch keeping pace with what seemed to be all of the water moccasins in Mississippi. Finally we came to point where an irrigation pipe about three inches in diameter crossed over the ditch on steel supports. Benny said, “Stop the boat and hold it under that pipe.”
I sculled the paddle, holding the boat in place and Benny stood up and grabbed the overhead pipe with both hands, swung his legs up and monkey crawled to safety. He looked down and me and said,
“Now you do it.”
At age sixteen Benny was a wiry, muscular 168 lbs. while I was 6’2” and 235. Benny could do fifty pull ups and I was lucky to get ten. I had a vivid mental image of the likely outcome of me trying to monkey crawl out of danger. I’d grab the pipe, swing my legs up, lose my grip, fall into the bottom of the boat, turn it over and face a massive and fatal dose of snake venom. Bad plan.
“Bull!” I replied, “You go to the truck and get the shotgun and a couple of boxes of bird shot. Then you can hose down the area. That oughta get their attention and I can make a dash for it up the bank.”
Benny came back with my Remington 870 and three boxes of shells. He removed the plug and shucked a shell into the chamber and four into the magazine. We put our head lamps on the back of the boat and Benny began firing away. He fired five loads of No. 8 shot and the water frothed with a pink tinge. He was in the middle of his second volley when I decided to make a break for it.
Just before I jumped from the boat to the bank something from physics class ran through my head. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is exactly what happened. I braced my left foot on the side of the boat and pushed off to propel myself halfway up the bank. What actually happened is that the boat scooted halfway across the flume ditch and I fell face first into the ditch very close to the area which Benny was spraying with birdshot and snake parts.
Every time I tried to gain my footing, I slipped on the muddy bottom and went back under water. Finally I just said, “Screw it.” and crawled on my hands and knees up the weedy bank waiting to feel the first of what I was sure to be multiple snake bites. Miraculously, I managed to drag myself to the top, covered with mud and a variety of plant life, but no snake bites. Benny was holding the smoking Remington and laughing his ass off. He said,
“Larch, do you remember the scene where the monster in The Creature from the Black Lagoon came crawling out of the swamp? Well you just replayed it. It was all I could do to keep from shooting you. By the way you have a dead moccasin on your foot.”
I shook the dead snake into the underbrush and glanced back into the ditch just in time to see our boat drifting along with the slow moving water about twenty yards downstream. Benny laughed and said,
“Since you’re already soaked, why don’t you go back in and chase down the boat?”
“Why don’t you kiss my grits? We’ll come back after sunrise and collect that little dude.” – Tom Lawrence