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May 17, 2011

My Mississippi Deluge

Roy Meachum

Reports from my native South mention the huge Mississippi River deluge of 1937; I witnessed that. Living with my grandparents in Wynne, I was eight-years-old and New Orleans city-ignorant. The following quote is from my memoir, “A Redneck’s Progress:”


“A late winter’s day, cold and gray with unfriendly clouds; a friend of daddy picked us up in his car. We drove east toward Memphis, and the real flood. He parked some distance short of the overspill that covered the road ahead. Out in the middle, the turbulent Mississippi rushed downstream, tossing whole trees, chunks of houses and a dead cow; her four legs sticking out and up to heaven. Speaking to the other adults, the driver provided a running commentary; otherwise I might have missed the cow, not understanding what it was.


“For weeks afterwards, Wynne school grounds hosted Army tents, open fires and refugees. They were watched over by soldiers wearing uniforms very much like Uncle Pat’s, complete with brimmed hats and leggings. I didn’t understand whether their rifles were keeping us out or making sure the people didn’t leave. After classes we gawked. Their children stood in front of the tents, playing no games, staring back.


“Since cleaning, propping up and repairing the water-ravaged countryside’s roads required time, particularly up in the Ozarks’ beginnings, youngsters started taking lessons with us. Reportedly 19-years-old, one girl from the hills had difficulty squeezing into an elementary school desk; her long legs sticking out in each aisle. To put her elbows down, she had to bend her shoulders.  I was told she couldn’t read a word. She stuck around for weeks. (Her grim determination to learn made her clearly remembered years afterwards.)”


In 1937, the real villains were incessant rains that caused every Southern river to flood. Of course, in nearly 80 years the U.S. Corps of Engineers provided more protection. Still, the current flood is topping the angry waters I remember; the crest rising higher. After the deluge 10 years earlier, the Army built the Bonne Carre spillway, specifically to divert roaring waters from New Orleans. In any event, the 19th century system of levees was not breeched. I’m sick to death of reading stories that confuse artificial walls with the massive earthen dams.


Holy Cross, the Catholic boarding school I spent years, attending elementary and secondary classes, was a former indigo plantation on the Mississippi; I dawdled many hours on top and on the river’s edge of the levee. It was in a corner formed with the Industrial Canal. The dormitory halls were destroyed in Hurricane Betsy (1965). The brothers taught on the former farm until Katrina (2005).


Because of a decline in Catholic clergy, the sole Congregation of Holy Cross brother departed for the motherhouse in Texas, leaving behind a mess almost unbelievable to me. Five months after Katrina the stink and smells were atrocious. In any event, my old school moved inland taking over the buildings of a defunct institution in the Gentilly neighborhood, sitting on a high bluff. I no longer have direct family in the area; my mother died, at 93, and Billy Jr.’s widow called last week. The man who was a brother when I was growing up was taken by cancer at 80.


Still, I miss New Orleans, and the Old Man River that shapes every human being who lives within its delta. It would be too facile to say I’m glad to not be there in this flood. The city and the Mississippi are in my blood.


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