The Good Life Wasn’t Our Life
Since I was a boy, the weather patterns seem to have changed. I don’t know if it’s global warming or the rotation of the earth but there definitely is a difference. Most people in my age group all agree that our winters today are mild compared to years ago. Millard Cox talks about the extreme cold in East Texas and icy conditions being common in the winter months.
I recall the year 1940 because it was the strangest year of all. In August came the famous flood in South Louisiana, 38 inches of rain fell that month. Most of it was in a ten-day period. Everything was flooded. We had to be evacuated by boat from where we took refuge in a neighbor’s barn. Nearly all of the roads were dirt and washed into the drain ditches filling them with mud. Abbeville is located in a low flat area and when the Vermillion River overflowed its banks, it was months before roads were restored.
Mom and I lived in a little one-room shack that had been a storage shed on a farm. She had bought it for $70 and had it moved on our little lot on a mule drawn sled. The structure was made from planks that were probably constructed when the wood was green. When it dried, it left cracks. We filled the large cracks the best we could but it didn’t prevent the wind from coming in. The house wasn’t on piers, just a couple of bricks on each corner. The floor would sag when walked on it. It wasn’t much but it was a roof over our heads and it was home. We had no utilities and warmed by a coal oil stove that helped only if we were close to it.
January of 1940 was the coldest month I recall. The average high temperature for the month was 40-degrees. The average low was 29 degrees. The temperature dropped below freezing on 22 of the 31 nights, including 17 nights straight. During that cold stretch, the temperature dipped into the teens on five nights. The cold weather worsened a flu outbreak that took several lives. Fortunately, that was one of the hardships Mom and I avoided. On Jan. 23, a blanket of sleet and snow covered the area after a hard rain that froze, leaving long icicles hanging off the house eves. Some were five-feet long. I liked eating them dunked in sugar. With the snow we could make snow cones by pouring syrup on a cup of snow.
All of Louisiana and Mississippi were blanketed in one of the heaviest snows in years. Because of the extreme cold, pipes were frozen and burst all over town. The only water we had came from a well, with a pump that always had to be primed. The handle, during these bad times, was frozen to the pump. In fact, the pump looked like a big clog of ice.
Most of the time we could defrost it with warm water but I recall that the pipe was frozen too far down to draw water. During those bad days, the water pail in the house would be solid ice when we awoke in the morning.
We would bundle up as best we could. I slept on a corn-shuck pallet on the floor as close to the stove heater as I could. Mom would warm a Sad Iron that she used to iron people’s clothes with. She wrapped it in a burlap sack and put it at the foot of her bed and my pallet. We had no income that entire month of January. Mom was a wash lady, who washed and ironed clothes for city folks. Unable to hang clothes on the line or wash outdoors really created a hardship.
The cold lingered into February. People talked about floating ice on the Vermillion and ice seen on the Mississippi River as far south as Baton Rouge. Overnight lows occurred in April also when it dipped to 32 degrees. August that year is still one of the coldest on record and September 1940 is the coldest ever. No doubt this was one of the worst years but I recall many cold winters.
The outhouse, a very poorly constructed shed, was some distance from the house and extremely cold. In the winter I didn’t hang out there any longer than to do my business. At night we would drain our bladders in a pot called a ‘Po-cham,’ it was always my job to dump it out and rinse it. For most of that month we didn’t have water to use, so we couldn’t waste it. Bathing was out of the question. We washed up with a soapy rag. We never went to bed without cleaning our feet. I believe it was a superstition, something about dying with dirty feet. Maybe it was like the lady washing Jesus’ feet or something like that.
You might recall the ice storm we had here a few years ago. Well, I recall several ice storms and almost every year some hard freezes. Those weren’t only extremely poor days, when food was hard to come by, but life itself was hard for poor folks. I’d go back tomorrow if I could walk Down Life’s Highway with Mom just one more time.