God is always watching little boys or….”Why I don’t Smoke.”
© Thomas C. Dugas - 2014
I grew up in South Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country. In those days, hunting and fishing were daily activities for all of us red-blooded American boys. When I wasn’t hunting, I was fishing, and when fishing I always had a firearm at hand lest I be overwhelmed with boredom and not have a diversion to occupy my mind. I required stimulation… as they say.
A little background is in order. For those who aren’t schooled in the ways of Louisiana and its unique French heritage, we don’t have counties, we have parishes. We don’t have creeks, we have bayous. The Mississippi, Red, Sabine, and Atchafalaya were rivers little boys were warned to steer clear of. I spent most of my time on the Bayou, Bayou Teche to be precise. Bayou Teche meanders it way through central Louisiana from Port Barre to its eventual end near Patterson, Louisiana. It passed right through the middle of my hometown and ended my backyard neatly.
I was always thinking of the Bayou.
Bayou Teche was my Interstate, it’s on ramp was my Pirogue dock in my back yard and the exits were all the usual stomping grounds for a little boy with a cane fishing pole and a Winchester 22 Pump Rifle. I was always in or near the Bayou… or so it seems.
There were many fishing holes along the Bayou where I patiently stalked Bream, Carp, and Catfish for the family table. I would set trot lines in the late evening and get up before school to run them for the nights’ catch. The 22 rifle was always at hand to deal with the numerous snakes that inhabited my world. I didn’t like snakes and dealt with them rather abruptly and from a distance.
In our tiny little town of less than a 1,000 people, a familiar sight was me on my bicycle with a cane pole tied fore and aft with the Winchester 22 in an old leather scabbard tied to the handlebars, I would ride to school and leave the rifle in the janitors shed until the 3PM bell. Once I was re-armed, I would head for the Bayou and my trusty Pirogue. The afternoon would be spent paddling and fishing until the sun went down.
Summers were long and hot in those years past. My friends and I would try almost anything to stay entertained. We would ride our bikes up and down the exactly one point seven mile long main street at least a hundred times a day. We sometimes let boredom creep in despite our best efforts. And boredom usually got me in trouble.
In the center of town, there was a single traffic light at a 4 way intersection. A business was on each corner of the street. It was the center of town. One corner was the local pharmacy. Unique to this building was a low brick ledge in the front of the structure about chair height off the ground.
It made a perfect spot for the town’s old-timers to sit and gaze at the goings on in our sleepy little town. It offered a slightly downhill view to the Bayou and the town bridge. Often, five or six wizened locals would be seated there discussing the events of the day. Little boys were shooed away as pests so me and my pals would simply ride past the old coots and nod our heads out of respect. The nods were sometimes returned. We felt older every time it happened.
I had many friends, but Theron was my best friend that summer of 1972. Theron fished as much as I did, hunted as much as I did, and generally stayed a year or two ahead of me in all things little boys aren’t supposed to know about. Theron had an older brother, which I did not. Therefore, Theron had access to many things that required deep investigation.
One morning when I went over to his house at 5:30AM (my usual time) I rousted him out of bed and stated I was already bored and the sun was barely up. His mother had thoughtfully left out a plate of saucer sized biscuits, jelly, and milk for us early risers. She wasn’t a morning person.
Theron and I sat at the table and buttered up two biscuits apiece and pondered the next fourteen hours of daylight.
I mentioned it had been some time since we’d gathered the local boy tribe for a baseball game, and after all, it was summer and we were American boys and it was required that we play baseball. “It’s in the Constitution” I said.
“Too hot” said Theron.
I inquired as to whether he could convince his mother to drive us to the next town over for a day at the public swimming pool. “Nope, she said she’s sleeping late today because we kept her up until 10PM last night playing Bourré. (a card game popular in Louisiana)
I was out of ideas.
“I know, let’s go fishing under the bridge, I got something I want to show you.” Theron offered. I was always game for fishing. My cane pole was already in its usual spot on my bike.
In the middle of our town there was a large steel bridge that crossed Bayou Teche. Our favorite place to fish was under the cool concrete deck of the bridge, right at the Bayou’s edge. We were out of the hot sun, and loved the sight and sound of the cars driving over the perforated steel deck above our heads. Boats passing under the bridge were a fun sight.
“WOOOM WRRRROOMM” the cars went as they passed over the bridge. It’s a sound that is forever etched in my memory.
Because of the local ship building business located just down the Bayou, each day at 6AM the bridge tender would operate the deck by raising it and lowering it to ensure its function. Barge and boat traffic in those days was numerous and the bridge tender lived a short five minute walk away from his office.
Theron and I rarely missed the bridge deck operating, and were well versed in the procedure.
Minutes later we dropped our bikes on the ground and soon were in our favorite spot under the bridge. I was busily baiting a wriggling worm onto a hook when I looked over at Theron. He had a pack of Marlboro Cigarettes.
I was immediately nervous and looked around for anyone who might see us. The coast seemed to be clear.
Smoking was a high crime in my family, as heinous as murder, treason, and armed bank robbery... as I was told by my older sister.
I watched Theron take a cigarette and expertly light it up. And then I burst out laughing when he immediately began coughing violently.
Theron dared me to try one. I declined. I didn’t want to have to lie to anyone in my family if they somehow found out. Theron dared me again. I hesitated. I really didn’t want to smoke but I didn’t want to suffer the taunts of my friend.
“Let’s go up under the deck where the ground meets the concrete” I said. This was the spot under the bridge where the ground nearly met the deck and was where we could see everything around us but it was difficult for anyone to spot us. I didn’t want to be seen. I sat on the ground and Theron handed me a fresh cigarette. I took the zippo lighter and flicked it open and spun the wheel. I pictured myself as Marlon Brando on a motorcycle about to roar off into the sunset.
I sucked hesitantly on the lit cigarette and winced as the burning smoke entered my throat.
It was exactly 6AM when I lit that cigarette.
How did I know you may wonder?
Because, as I mentioned earlier, Lance the Bridge tender exercised the bridge every morning at 6AM… promptly. And Lance started the process by pressing a large round red button on the bridge dashboard labeled “Air Horn.”
And that horn, unknown to Theron and me, was located about 12 inches over my head behind a concrete beam out of our sight.
I don’t remember running. I just remember lighting the cigarette, picturing Marlon Brando in my mind, and then God whispering in my ear via the loudest sound I had ever heard in my young life.
As the old coot brigade up the street told the story for months later, they watched as two boys popped out from under the bridge at the same time as the horn sounding. And then laughing as we came running and screaming all the way up the hill to the intersection.
I was crying, panting, and having a mental breakdown all at the same time. Theron was shaking next to me, but still had the burning cigarette in his hand.
Right at that moment, when my vision began to clear, and I managed to catch my breath; I turned to see my mother and father sitting in our car at the town’s sole traffic light waiting for the signal to change. They couldn’t have been more than five feet from me. They were on their way to 6AM mass at the local church just down the street. My mother always ran five minutes late, even for God.
I am not sure, but suspect I was supposed to be fast asleep in my bed. My mother seemed genuinely surprised to see me.
She appeared to have a facial expression that said “Whose poor misguided child are you?”
My dad knew what was going on before I could come up with any worthwhile story.
It was a long summer working my first job that day at my dad’s garage.
There was no interview.
Theron said the pay sucked and we rarely had time to fish or explore new and dangerous things. We used to meet every once in a while at the bridge at 6AM just to hear Lance blast that horn and then we’d double over in laughter.
We never smoked again. Ever.