It took another two days to cross the Florida Panhandle and finally we arrived in Pensacola. Escambia County Florida teemed with my Dad’s family, including his mother and father and we spent two wonderfully restful nights at their home. Because I was a military dependent and my grandfather was a retired Naval Officer, I was taken to the hospital at the Naval Ari Station, where my back was cleaned, lanced, drained and bandaged. I wanted to stay in Pensacola, but my Ruleville grandmother had been gone for several weeks and needed to get back home, so we started north at our usual 40 MPH pace.
We might have made it to Hattiesburg, Mississippi had Julia Belle been willing to drive through the Bankhead Tunnel, which connected the causeway across Mobile Bay with the City of Mobile. We discovered that Julia Belle suffered from claustrophobia, in addition to extreme body odor and a fear of speed and so we took the back roads, east of Mobile and spent a day going a net six miles. The good news was that we were within 300 miles of our destination, and with any luck we would spend the night in Hattiesburg.
This was not to be. Julia Belle had dropped by her local AAA office and picked up maps and a travel guide for the trip, which had been the source of the bargain accommodations and low budget eateries we had been patronizing for the entire length and breadth of Florida. The guide also included helpful hints about local customs along the way, and made a point of identifying speed traps, which were common across small towns in America during this era.
Wilmer, Alabama just north of Mobile on US 98 was cited as the most blatant of all of these, and until the Governor of Alabama shut it down in the 1980’s it was indeed notorious. Julia Belle, who had not exceeded 40 MPH since we left Miami, decided that she could not risk a ticket, so once again, we took a detour. She consulted her maps, and concluded that we could cut cross-country and avoid Wilmer and its corrupt law enforcement.
This decision led to the most interesting day of our trip–actually two days and a night, as it turned out. In the 1920’s Mississippi had been among the first states to build a statewide network of modern concrete highways, and it included six east-west routes and four north-south all-weather roads. While the main highways were first class, the secondary roads could be iffy, and this proved to be painfully true in Southeast Mississippi.
After much consultation with the AAA map, it was decided we would take a two-lane county road due west from just outside Wilmer, and connect with a network of farm-to-market roads, eventually leading to US 49 and on to our elusive destination of Hattiesburg. All went well for about twenty miles, when the two lane paved road turned to one lane of black top. Julia Belle reoriented her maps, and we pressed on until the one lane turned to gravel. Now gravel farm-to-market roads were the norm, not the exception, and after another brief consultation we continued.
If Julia Belle averaged 40 MPH on major highways, she was lucky to manage 25 MPH on the two-lane paved roads and down to 15 MPH on gravel. Just before sundown the gravel gave way to dirt and it began to drizzle a light rain. We had made it about four miles from the gravel, when the bottom dropped out of the sky and a torrential rainstorm descended upon us. We continued about a hundred feet in the driving rain before sliding into a deep ditch beside the road.
The rain poured, the ditch filled with water and night fell like a pitch black fog. The right side of the car was in the ditch and soon the muddy ditch water began to seep inside the car. I moved into the empty area that usually housed a back seat, in order to give my grandmother room to get her feet out of the rising water. After a few futile attempts to regain the road, Julia Belle set the emergency brake and cut off the ignition. I was glad she had set the brake, otherwise we might have floated back on the road. You can’t be too careful.
The three of us sat silently in the Plymouth as the rain beat a steady rhythm on the roof. Finally the downpour settled into a steady rain, the water in the ditch receded and we faced the fact that we were stuck for the night. Outside there wasn’t a light to be seen, and in spite of Julia Belle’s sunny optimism that we would soon be rescued, I knew we would be right here in the morning.
The sun was high in the sky when a light rapping on the driver’s side window woke us. A man in bib overalls, standing beside a pair of large brown mules, gestured for Julia Belle to roll down the window. She did so and he said,
“Mornin’ Ladies, looks like y’all could use a little help. I’m Lester Ledbetter and I live just down the road a ways.”
“Good morning, Mr. Ledbetter, and you are quite right that we are in need of assistance.” replied Julia Belle. “It would be a great help if we could use your telephone to call the local AAA office and get someone to tow us out of this ditch.”
“Well ma’am, I ain’t got a telephone and I didn’t realize that you could depend on a bunch of drunks to tow your car. They don’t seem to be a particularly dependable bunch, at least not ‘round here.”
“If you don’t have a telephone, perhaps you could direct us to the nearest pay phone so that I may call the American Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous.“
“Ma’am, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, but the nearest phone, pay or free is in Mt. Moriah and that’s about twenty miles away. If y’all are willing to let me do it then Jenny and Bill here can have you out of that ditch and back on the road in no time a’tall.”
Julia Belle eyed the two mules with skepticism. She was a longtime member of AAA and a real believer in their towing ability, and she was clearly torn by the prospect of depending on mule power to get us back on the road. Finally she said,
“I have to say that I doubt that your mules are strong enough to move this car, but I guess it won’t hurt to allow you to try.”
“Yes’ m, I’m pretty sure we can do it.”
Mr. Ledbetter moved his team to the back of the car and began connecting a heavy duty chain to the rear axle. As he completed the hook-up Julia Belle muttered to herself,
“I knew he didn’t know what he was doing; he’s already using the wrong end of the car. I wish we could get in touch with AAA.”
“Just be patient dear, mules are much stronger than you might think,” my grandmother replied.
In a minute or so, Jenny and Bill were all hooked up and Mr. Ledbetter called their names and gave them just a light slap on their haunches. The pair took the slack out of the chain in two steps, and pulled us out of the ditch without even straining. Mr. Ledbetter began unhooking the chains and when he was done he came back to the window and said,
“There you go Ladies, the rain is gone, you’re out of the ditch and the road is dry enough for you to be on your way. Just where you folks heading?”
Julia Belle got out of the car and said,
“I want to thank you Mr. Ledbetter, how much do I owe you and your mules?”
“Well ma’am, I’m glad to help you and you sure don’t owe me a thing. No sense giving Jenny and Bill anything, theyd just throw it away on carrots or apples. You ladies be careful on the rest of your trip. By the way, where did you say you were going?”
“We’re on our way to Ruleville, up in the Delta, but today I’m planning to get to Hattiesburg.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, just how in the world did you manage to get here on your way to Hattiesburg?”
I could see Julia Belle stiffen a bit and her voice took on just the hint of an edge. She replied,
“I wished to avoid Wilmer and carefully consulted my AAA map and plotted an alternate route. Here, you can look on the map and see that we are on the road to Wiggins.”
“Yes’m, you are surely on a road that leads right into Wiggins, and the good news is that it is blacktopped on the other side of the Pascagoula River, which is about seven miles west of here. The bad news is that there is no bridge across the river.”
With this, Julia Belle spread her AAA map across the hood of the car and pointed to a faint gray line crossing the aforementioned river. She firmly said.
“Mr. Ledbetter, you are a very kind man and I know you mean well, but I’m afraid you just don’t know what you are talking about. My AAA map clearly shows that one can cross the river right here.” And she pointed to the little gray line.
“Actually, we’re both right. There’s no bridge and you can get across the river anyway. There’s a ferry run by Elroy Skinner and his brother Bubba. They have a dilapidated one-car ferry that they hand pull across the Pascagoula. That is to say they do it if they ain’t fishin, huntin, playin cards or just dead drunk. You might just wanna turn around and take your chances in Wilmer.”
“Again Mr. Ledbetter, I know you mean well, but if there were a problem with the ferry, my AAA guide book would certainly warn us and show an alternate route.”
“Ma’am, I’m sure you’re right and I’ll be takin my leave of you folks. I do want to say that in all my years of going to church and attending tent meetings and revivals I have never seen the level of faith that you have witnessed in that automobile outfit. With faith like yours, I won’t be surprised if the ole Pascagoula just parts like the Red Sea and gives you a dry road to get across.
With that testimonial, Mr. Ledbetter and his mules headed back toward Wilmer and what passed for civilization around those parts. We, on the other hand, had a quick breakfast from Granny’s endless basket of sustanence, and headed west.
It was close to noon when we reached the banks of the Pascagoula River and the ferry landing. There was on old houseboat tied to a fence post on the opposite side and alongside of houseboat was a barge just about the size of a car. Our side of the river was completely deserted, but there was sign nailed to an oak tree proclaiming,
FOR FERRY SERVICE
BLOW YOUR HORN
Bubba & Elroy Skinner
Julia Belle quickly complied with the instructions and began relentlessly tooting her horn, though nothing on the opposite shore showed any sign of recognition. Julia Belle persisted, achieving the same result, but continued to blow the horn to the point that I was certain the battery would soon run down.
Suddenly, a window on the river-side of the houseboat opened and someone threw an empty whisky bottle in our general direction and shouted.
“Hold all that damn noise down over thar, we’re trying to get a little sleep.”
Julia Belle was stunned, and grabbed her AAA guide book and began frantically leafing through it, looking for instructions on summoning ferries. Apparently, there were none to be found and as her shoulders sagged and she slumped against the steering wheel in defeat she said,
“I guess there’s nothing we can do but turn back and go through Wilmer.”
She had no more gotten that out of her mouth, when my grandmother pointed to the southwest and said,
“I hate to mention it, but that looks like a pretty bad thunder storm coming this way.”
At this point I’d had enough. I said, “Just let me out of the car and I’ll go get the darn ferry. We can’t go back with that storm coming and the road’s paved on the other side. Just let me take care of this.”
Now the Pascagoula is about 250 yards wide at this point, and has a fairly strong current as it nears the Mississippi Sound. I had no idea if I could actually swim across it, but I had suffered enough, and there was no way I could face another day. I pulled off my shirt exposing the bandages on my back, which I ripped off, I kicked off my shoes and dove into the river. My grandmother went ballistic, and I was about ten feet into the river when I heard her jump in after me. I think she would have caught me and pulled me out, but I had a distinct advantage over her. I could swim and she could not. She was up to her waist when the dawn of realization hit her, and she slowly waded back to shore, certain that she would never see me again.
About half way across, I thought I might have to agree with her. The current was pulling me downstream and I began to tire. Now there comes a time in every life when one believes that all that can be done has been and is finally willing to succumb to fate. God invented adrenalin for just such occasions. Fear of drowning released a huge burst of it into my system, and somehow I made it to the other bank. At this point however, I was downstream around a bend in the river and out of sight of the ferry.
I managed to pull myself to shore and stumble to safety, and after a brief rest, I gathered myself together and started walking down stream toward the frantic shouts of my terrified grandmother. When I appeared in her line of sight, her shouts quieted down, and just then the first drops of rain began to fall.
I walked through the brush on the river bank until I got to the ferry and the house boat. The rain was pelting down now, and I began banging on the side of the door frame until finally someone cussing a blue streak threw the door open.
Standing before me was an apparition straight out of Deliverance. Bubba Skinner had on long johns that appeared never to have been changed. He was barefoot and his gray hair stood almost straight out from his tobacco colored head, he had a two-week stubble of a beard, and he smelled like Early Times meets Jack Daniels. He was not in a good mood; he burped loudly, cut a big fart, looked down at me and yelled,
“Boy, just what in the hell do you want?”
I still had a good shot of adrenalin working and I answered,
“Listen, you big damn redneck, I just swam across that damn river to get your sorry ass up and operating your damn ferry! So drag your scrawny damn butt out here and go get our damn car.”
Believe it or not, that is exactly what he did.
We made Hattiesburg that evening and we had another meal from my grandmother’s cornucopian basket, and I slept the sleep of the righteous. Early the next morning we set out north on US 49, a fully paved and modern road, at a steady 40 MPH. Just after noon we went under the wrought iron sign that said, Welcome to Belzoni –The Heart of the Delta, and I experienced the same feeling that the Israelites must surely have felt when they saw the land of Canaan. Salvation!