Raised in Northeast Texas

A collection of stories about growing up in Red River County, Texas in the 1940s and 1950s.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Swimming Lessons

by Douglas Fodge and Robert Fodge

I was cock sure about my swimming prowess, but everyone kept reminding me that I hadn’t actually done any solo swimming. All I was doing, according to them, was dogpaddling and keeping my nose above water. So, I constantly begged anyone who would listen to carry me swimming. You needed to know how to swim at our household to avoid a potential disaster since we tried, and often succeeded, to hunt and fish around the clock.

Today we are fair-weather fishermen, never hunt, and don’t even venture outside if there is the least bit of inclement weather, but that was not always the case. When we were kids, the weather never got too bad for hunting, and that included times in which hounds and hunters arrived home from a successful activity with icicles on them. However, we did draw the line on fishing when it was freezing cold. To complete the urgency of needing to know how to swim, imagine for a moment a typical situation encountered on our hunting trips: walking a spindly, slippery, sometimes ice-covered log across a swollen creek in the middle of winter. Do that a few times and take your pulse rate about halfway across the stream! Even experienced hunters like my father, who possessed cat-like agility, occasionally slipped. I clearly recall once when he arrived home wet and about frozen after having slipped off such a log into a creek and in the process he dropped his shotgun in a deep hole of ice-cold water. Mack managed to recover the shotgun about 3-4 months later when the water level retreated. So, swimming was a life-saving measure – your own.

That spring Daddy had purchased a 25’ minnow seine to catch small fish (minnows) to be used for bass fishing. The seine was about 4’ wide and the fine netting portion was suspended between two ropes that ran the length along the top and bottom. The top rope had big corks spaced about 2 feet apart to help keep it upright and afloat whereas the bottom rope had lead weights to help hold the seine down in the water. We attached long poles, about the thickness and length of hoe handles, on each end of the ropes to help control the seine as it was pulled through the water. My job in all of this -- if you could call it a job -- was to paddle along behind the seine as it was pulled through the water. This was an important assignment since the corks were inadequate to keep the seine above water, and the minnows escaped over the top. Daddy and Mack had taught me to propel my body by kicking and to hold the seine above water while positioned about midway between the two ends. I was an eager beaver for this job, and the feat constituted swimming in my estimation, if not by the others. We had seined several shallow sloughs where I could actually touch bottom if something went awry. However, even a cock-sure kid knew that a real test hadn’t been passed, and I really wanted to go to the next level and be able to swim as well as everyone else.

One Saturday afternoon while walking home from an afternoon spent in town with other hunters & fisherman swapping tales (that’s a polite way of describing the situation, but the men traded all kinds of things: animals, cars, wagons) Daddy cut through the Johnny Mack Brown property on a shortcut route toward home. Since there was a small stock pond on this property, he stopped to examine it. Lo and behold he discovered a plentiful supply of small fish, mostly minnows, nibbling at bugs floating on top the water. Unsurprisingly we were there early the next morning with minnow seine in tow.

The pond was probably 8 to 10 feet deep on the south end and gradually tapered to less than a foot on the north. However, it was a tad too wide to stand comfortably on shore and pull the seine along so both Daddy and Mack waded into the south end. They were submerged about chest deep in the water along either side of the pond. I was instructed to take hold of the cork rope and wade in also. I obliged but one step into the water, and I went completely under. It was deeper than any I had seined before, but I held on to the seine and kicked my feet as I had been instructed and all seemed fine as I surfaced and stayed that way. As they advanced toward the shallow end, the center of the seine stretched into a broad circle, and I was out into the deepest portion of the pond and several feet behind then. When they reached shallower water the seine was easier to pull, and we moved more rapidly. The additional pulling stress caused the top rope to sink slightly beneath the water and a few minnows escaped. This was an unpardonable sin, and with encouragement from Daddy and Mack I increased my efforts to keep the cork line above the water. I could see many minnows in front of the seine, a fine haul for one pass through the pond.

As they continued toward the shallower water they pulled even harder, and Daddy kept admonishing me to hold the back of the seine above water. I was doing OK, but I kept sticking a toe down to try and touch the bottom, when all of a sudden something flew through the air over the top of the seine and slapped me with a glancing blow across the top of my head. Unknown to us, someone had dumped a bunch of minnows into the pond and in the mixture was a tiny large mouth bass. The tiny bass had outgrown the small minnows in the pond and without competition for food; he grew into a big fish in a little pond.

I was more shocked that hurt, but the impact of the big bass caused me to panic, and I turned loose of the seine. Immediately I quit kicking and my feet settled and my head sank underneath the water. The latter resulted in a lot of flailing, spewing and sputtering, and I could hear Daddy and Mack yelling for me to “kick your legs, kick your legs”. Almost simultaneously Daddy yelled, “The minnows are jumping over the back of the seine – pull it up, pull it up.” As you can see from this Daddy’s style was old-fashioned Sink or Swim instruction! Actually, it was important not to lose the minnows – and that what’s got my attention. The sudden realization that I wasn’t doing my part was just the thing I needed to ease my panic because I started kicking and even began a swimming motion with my arms. The next thing I knew I had caught up with and grabbed the seine before all the minnows escaped. A bit later I dipped my toe and touched bottom. Afterwards, we had a good laugh about the predicament, and I was one proud fellow – I now knew how to swim, and there wasn’t any stopping me now! We went home and Daddy proudly announced to Mama that she now had another swimmer in the household, and I’m sure I grinned like a possum.

We spent the remainder of the summer trying to catch the bass, and this included fishing with lures, minnows, even Crawdads (freshwater shrimp also know as Crayfish, Mudpuppies and numerous other names across East Texas and Louisiana). We became convinced that the fish could see us appear on the bank of the pond and knew that we were trying to catch him, so we began to crawl on our bellies to the pond so we wouldn’t be seen, but nothing worked. Finally, one day while on the way to the pond, I caught some juicy grasshoppers, and Daddy baited a hook on a cane pole with one of them. We crawled up to the bank and Daddy flipped the grasshopper-baited hook into the edge of the water, and Mr. Bass, all 5-6 lbs of him, couldn’t refuse this tempting offer. That night he was dinner at the Fodge household.

My swimming lessons occurred at the end of Daddy’s tenure as a swimming instructor, and I think that my experience was somewhat milder than that of my brothers.

Robert, my older brother, had a memorable swimming lesson at the same Johnny Mack pool but about ten years earlier. Our family had moved from a place located near Ward Creek to the Red Hill community just a short time before school was let out for the summer in 1940. After the move, the whole family (Daddy, Mom, Robert and Mack—I wasn’t around yet) were heavily involved in getting settled into the new place. A garden spot was fenced, plowed, hoed and vegetables planted (a big vegetable garden meant that there would be canned food for the winter and lots of food on the table throughout the summer and fall). In addition to plowing, planting, hoeing, and tending the garden, firewood was needed.

The need for firewood was threefold: daily meal preparation, canning and for wintertime warmth. A wood cook stove used lots of hickory and oak wood for either of the first two operations, and the canning of vegetables and fruits for winter consumption meant that the cook stove got double duty, even on the hottest days of the summer. Thus, almost daily, wood had to be cut, hauled, and stacked for these activities and in preparation for the cold winter that usually arrived in late October or early November. By the time it was cold weather it was usually too wet and cold to cut much firewood. A lot of hot, sweaty work was involved in accomplishing these tasks and at the end of the day; a dip in the “old swimming hole” was really appreciated. Fortunately, a brand new pool had just been built not more that a quarter mile from house. To top it off, no willows, brush, snakes, turtles, and other impediments had yet taken up residence in the new pool to inhibit swimming.

The male members of the Fodge household could and did take advantage! The pool had been created using a bulldozer, and the bottom of the pool was shallow at one end and gradually deepened toward the other end. When the bulldozer blade was nearly full, it was lifted, and the dozer deposited the dirt load and formed a mound of earth, the dam. The dozer repeated the scooping process until an excavation of about eight to ten feet deep at one end was achieved. Consequently, the floor of the excavation varied uniformly from zero feet at the north end to ten feet maximum depth at the south end. The north-south length was probably forty feet while the east-west dimension was probably thirty feet.
Understanding the pool configuration helps to comprehend some of Robert’s problems in learning how to swim. At the end of a hot summer day, the custom was for Daddy, Robert and Mack to walk from the house to the pool and slip into the water for 20 or 30 minutes of cooling off. Generally, there was a gentle breeze that also helped to cool. This also served a dual purpose, a bath.

Robert, like most boys, couldn’t wait to learn how to swim. Daddy warned him about getting out in water over his head—and finally devised a procedure that seemed to satisfy all the requirements for safety. “Go in the north end of the pool and wade out until the water’s up to your chest. Turn around and dog paddle back towards the north end. That way if you go under, you can stand up and you won’t swallow a lot of water.” Good advice, Robert thought. And, it seemed to work - except that after a while it became boring. After all, he thought he had learned to swim because he hardly ever had to touch bottom with his toes. He even tried the same technique and swam on his back. Nothing breeds confidence like success!

As the summer progressed and swimming practices continued, Robert began to push the limit. Chest deep water wasn’t good enough. If careful, he could back into the gradually deepening water by jumping up and down on his toes until he was neck deep in the water. Then, he would start paddling back to the shallow end. Boy! That was real swimming! Daddy kept a close eye on Robert, but continued to warn. “Don’t get out in water over your head. You don’t know how to swim yet - be careful!” There were more graphic expletives that are unsuitable for this story, but I won’t go into them now.

Sure enough, one evening late, Robert ran ahead of Daddy and Mack to the pool. “I’ll show you how well I can swim.” However, this time he jumped out a little further than usual - the water was up to his nose. When he attempted to swim back to the north end of the pool, his toes and feet slipped on the slick pool bottom - and sure enough, Daddy was right, he couldn’t swim! Robert’s description of the event follows: “I must have yelled for Daddy to help me and as a result I swallowed a bunch of water, and under I sank. It was really a peaceful feeling, and I suppose I started to lose consciousness. That peaceful feeling came to an abrupt end as Daddy jumped in and literally threw me out on the side of the pool. A lot of loud invective was directed at me, and at the water, as water squirted out of my nose and mouth. I choked and gagged and spit out muddy water for what seemed like an eternity, or so it seemed.” [When he was stressed, Daddy could flat out curse; not the one-word expletives of modern times, but real graphic descriptions of all the hateful things known to mankind issued forth in elaborate detail.] All the while, Daddy was shouting at me “Get back in the pool, you’re going to learn how to swim or else.” More invective followed each of these declarations. “But Daddy, I don’t feel like swimming. I don’t want to learn how to swim.” The reply came back “you’re going to get back in that water and swim or you’re gonna wish you had.” Robert was finally convinced! He got back in the water and waded out up to his neck, turned around, and successfully dog paddled back to the north end of the pool. He not only had learned how to swim, he had learned, in some measure, not to overestimate his abilities. This was a good lesson to learn early in life.

Neither Robert nor I remember when Mack learned how to swim. What we remember most is Daddy ‘s first lesson for Mack. It happened on a warm spring day. Mack had been pestering Daddy with the ages old request “I want to learn how to swim.” With each request from Mack Daddy’s stress level rose, “@!##!?, you’re not old enough and besides there’s not a good place around here for us to go swimming” (The Johnny Mack Brown pool was now snake infested and filled with debris just like all the other water holes.), but of course that wouldn’t have been a problem had they only known that it was full of minnows that could be used for fishing. Nonetheless, Mack continued his electioneering and Daddy kept resisting, but finally Daddy’s patience wore thin. Also, he thought of a novel scheme to resolve the problem and stop Mack’s whining.

What Mack needed were some “water wings!” That way he could float around in the water until he learned how to coordinate his arms, legs and the rest of his body. Daddy wouldn’t have to wade out in the mud and water and put up with a little boy’s shenanigans while he learned to swim. If he could just rapidly learn to swim, life for the man of the house would be a lot less chaotic. At least, one little kid, hollering and demanding to be taught how to swim, would be calmed down. Maybe that way Daddy would be able to hear the dogs when they struck up fox or a rabbit trail, and anything that would allow him to hear his hounds barking in the distance was worth a try. Water wings were not readily available around the Fodge household, not perhaps anywhere in Red River County at that time. Folks had to make do with what was at hand.

Daddy had never been accused of being an inventor of mechanical devices (unlike his brothers Carl and Bob), except if it involved designing some trap to catch an animal, but there were times that his ability to think “outside the box” came to the forefront. This was one of those times. Mom was heavily involved in canning vegetables and fruits, and she had a number of one-gallon glass canning jars with screw-on lids available. Daddy convinced himself that if he tied four of these jugs to Mack’s back with a rope harness that they would provide sufficient flotation while the swimming lessons progressed, and in principle he was probably correct. So, with the design firmly etched in his mind, the full implementation of the plan was soon accomplished. I suppose he was aware of the concept, if not of the words, that “the best laid plans oft go awry” so Daddy added one safety feature to his plan. He would tie a rope around Mack’s chest, and should something go wrong in the lesson he would stand on the other end of the pool ready to pull Mack to safety. It didn’t take long to gather the paraphernalia. The jars were tied on Mack’s back and the safety rope secured, and Daddy walked around to the other side of the pool. Then, loud vociferous instructions were relayed to Mack about what to do.

Mack waded into the water on the other side of the pool and with a lot of verbal encouragement, proceeded to strike out across the pool. Everything worked just great for a few seconds! Then, the jugs started to slowly fill with water and come untied, and Mack started to sink (his face had already been submerged due to the weight of the jugs and about all you could see was his long kinky blond hair above the water) and Daddy started to holler and jerk the rope as hard as he could. Mack sank beneath the water and was rapidly pulled across the pool to the other side sort of like a torpedo. By the time he got out of the water all the jugs had come lose and Mack’s nose, ears, eyes and mouth were full of muddy water. This was really scary, and the story was always told afterwards with the proper degree of somberness. From that day on, no one can recall hearing Mack mentioning anything about wanting to learn how to swim or Daddy offering to give him a lesson.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dr. Mullins from 1960

Below are some cut-outs from a Texas newspaper of Dr. Mullins, the frontier doctor that sold my grandad false teeth for $10 in the 1950s in the previous story.

(Above) Caption reads: At this work table Dr. Mullins makes false teeth, does other dental repairs for his patients.

(Above) Caption reads: Dr. Mullins relaxes on couch bought in 19(unreadable). Certificate (on the wall) is dated 1897.

(Above)Caption reads: Dr. Mullins pauses for pictures but he thinks he'll wait 'til he's 100 before he quits his practice. Dallas Morning News Parade Magazine, October 30, 1960.

(Above) Headline reads: 91-Year Old Dentist.

Below is the transcript of the above article. Note from Moonyene (his granddaughter) to Robert Fodge concerning the above article: "This article came out in the Dallas Morning News Parade Magazine on October 30, 1960. I thought it was a good summary for you. A few briefs: 1. He never ate second helpings at a meal. 2. He always took a 15-minute nap every day after lunch."

91-Year Old Dentist
by Paul Rosenfield

Tree salesman, sharecropper and buggy-riding tooth puller—that’s part of the amazing history of Dr. W. N. Mullins, of Clarksville, one of the oldest practicing dentists in the United States.

His hands are steady. His eyes are clear. He walks erect, works six days a week, eats whatever he wants, and has most of his own teeth.

Pretty good for a man past 70? Yes, and incredible for any man of 91. And just how old is a 91-year-old dentist?

Well, he’s old enough to keep as part of his office furniture an overstuffed couch he bought in 1908 from Sears, Roebuck & Co. for $11 and an old-fashioned foot motor that powered early-day drills.

Dr. Mullins bought that museum piece in 1897, and it was second hand then. (He doesn’t use it in his work, but it provokes plenty of conversation.)

And he’s young enough to think about the possibility of retiring in nine more years. Dr Mullins will be 100 then.

"I’m in good health. I don’t wear glasses except to read and to drive my car, and there’s no reason for me to think I won’t be here nine years from now," he said. "Then, I’ll retire and spend my time hunting and fishing."

Dr. Mullins can laugh now about the early days.

"In 1897 you didn’t need a diploma to get a certificate to practice dentistry. All you had to do was go before the board and pass an examination," he said. "I didn’t know much, but neither did the board, and I passed."

He came to Texas in 1889 from Humboldt, Tenn., and first sold trees in Red River County. In 1894 he and his brother, Tom, worked land in Delta County as sharecroppers.

"We worked a widow’s land that fall," he recalled. "And when the crop was in I got half of what we made and half of the widow’s daughters. I married one of them."

After working two years at Enloe, Texas, he went to Louisville, KY in 1897 to study dentistry. Later that same year, he was driving over the muddy, rural roads of North Texas in a buggy, hunting for prospective patients.

In 1899, Dr Mullins moved to Detroit, Texas, when a cousin notified him that the small town’s only dentist had died.

"I found that I could rent a house for $10 a month and office space for $3 a month. We decided it was a good move," he said.

Thirteen years ago, when he was 78, he moved to Clarksville so he could have some conveniences in his office—things like running water.

In his small office on E. Broadway in Clarksville, Dr. Mullins combines new dental techniques with the old.

"I still make a plaster impression like I used to 60 years ago," he said. "Dental progress has been wonderful, but I think some dentists rely on it too much. Some of these high-powered motors may be too strong."

When Dr. Mullins came out of dental school, a gold inlay had never been heard of. Neither had blocking a nerve.

"I had to learn that by just reading, or maybe practicing a little," he said.

Dr. Mullins was curious about the publication date of this very story.

"I may not be here if it’s too long away," he said.

And, considering his age, the reporter thought it was odd that he smiled.

But Dr. Mullins wasn’t talking about anything morbid. He was planning a trip in his car back to see his relatives in Tennessee. He and Mrs. Mullins—the second Mrs. Mullins—drive it almost every year.