The River likely near the point where Daddy and his cronies swam: This view looks from the Algiers side across to the Arabi shore where the Domino sugar refinery is a prominent Arabi landmark.
I found myself lately relating some of my Daddy’s childhood memoirs to friends and family. As I consider the purpose and usefulness of this site as a respository of family lore, I decided to transcribe the oral versions of some of these tales while some of us still remember them. I as well as future generations would lose the richness of these ancestral accounts of feats and adventures unless we otherwise capture them by writing them down.
Today’s post visits the banks of the Mississippi River just downriver from New Orleans in the blue-collar suburb of Arabi, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. That’s Daddy’s home town, the place where he worked and played and got into mischief (by his own accounts) as a child. And the Arabi Riverfront provides a fascinating and adventurous setting for many of those accounts.
To me, one of the most fascinating activities he and his boyhood buddies engaged in was swimming in the River. And not just swimming along the levee’s edge, but crossing the River in its entirety, from the Arabi shore to climb on a barge on the opposite shore, dive in, and make the return trip to the Arabi side. Of course, they didn’t swim non-stop. He and his mates were accompanied by one or more who rowed a wooden skiff alongside the swimmers, so the trip was more than likely a combination of swimming and paddling. Still, I can’t imagine what an adventure that aller et retour across the immense breadth of Old Man River must have provided, including close-up encounters with massive ships and barge tows plying the current in this high-traffic stretch of River just downriver from the busy Port of New Orleans. I also remember Daddy explaining how they would have to account for the current of the River in their strategy to reach the destination on the opposite shore: You couldn’t row straight across because of the drift, in other words, so they had to estimate the correct angle of attack so they would land on target on the other side.
Daddy always confessed that he engaged in that activity without the blessing of his mother, who sternly forbade swimming in the River. This was a diversion that he had to pursue on the sneak, so to speak. He never specified whether he got caught or not, but by Daddy’s accounts of his childhood in general, I can imagine my grandfather administered a disciplinary action or two as a result of Daddy’s River shenanigans.
I’m pretty sure too that Daddy was a braver boy than I, because when I would stand on the levee as a child and hear him recount those stories of swimming across the River, I would have been too much of a chicken to as much as dip my toe in the intimidating water’s edge. But Daddy, he was one of that generation. I guess they don’t make ‘em any more like that World War II gang. Maybe their adventurous-bordering-on-foolhardy character was among the traits that enabled the nation to triumph over Germany and Japan.
I labeled this “Life on the Mississippi” post as Part I because I have some other River tales worth recording. I’ll save those for another post, which could be Parts II and maybe III of this River thread. Return often, reader, if you find this piece endearing, humorous,entertaining, nostalgic, or otherwise ispirational.
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