It is a little unfair of me to think that my parents did not support me in my endeavors when I was little kid. I felt they were antagonistic to me, wanted me to do things I did not want to do, and of course they did that. They were parents. What kid wants to practice violin? They did encourage me in some things and did give me me two physical things, though, that were incredibly important to me then, and I suppose many in modern America would question the wisdom of these two items for young kid. The first was a little hatchet, made in Germany, with a steel tang that ran all the way to the butt given me at an age when Kenny and I were roaming the woods terrorizing trees and in the manner of young boys everywhere, took breaking things a sign that we were tough. This hatchet had two wooden grips riveted on to the steel tang coming out of the head. It wasn’t especially comfortable, but it was all but unbreakable. You could miss what you were chopping and hit the handle against the tree, or a rock, and nothing broke. Kenny and I would broken a wooden handled one pretty quickly. We could chop to our heart’s content and that hatchet never let us down. It survived my childhood. I still have it. The other thing, which meant even more to me but I now no longer have, was a genuine imitation Bowie knife. Jim Bowie and Davie Crockett were big heroes to us kids, from television I suppose. And when my dad gave me, at the age of ten, this whacking big hunting knife I was thrilled to my socks. We were making the grand preparations for what would be the camping trip of our lives and he got me a knife that could not be surpassed in my ten year old mind. It was about a foot long. In the hands of a ten year old, it was an absolutely gigantic knife- almost a sword. And of course Jim Bowie carved out a life with his knife, and died, we believed, wielding it in the last stand at the Alamo. Jim Bowie is a pretty interesting character. His name was pronounced Boo ie and he was born in Kentucky in 1796 to a man who fought in the American Revolution. He was one of a passel of kids and they were raised on the frontier- his dad moved to Louisiana when Jim was four, and as such had to be capable in many ways: clearing land, planting, hunting. Guns and knives were tools he had to use. Jim Bowie had an Indian pal who taught him how to rope alligators. He grows up learning to read, speak English, French and Spanish, and was quite the plucky fellow. A few things just to tantalize you. He notices that Louisiana is growing by leaps and bounds and he and a brother decide that land speculation would be the way to go. They need money. They have each inherited some slaves and horses from their father, but to speculate you need real money. They get into a slave trading scam with Jean LaFitte, the famous pirate. Jim Bowie- remember that’s Boo ie, not Boh ie, would go down to LaFitte’s place on Galveston Island, and buy some slaves. He would then go to the authorities and inform on himself as a slave trader. The law read that whoever informed on a slave trader would get half the value of the slaves at the auction block. The slaves would then be auctioned off, Jim Bowie would buy them, and he would get reimbursed half their price. The birth of the fifty percent rebate! He got them, they were cheap, and now they were his to now legally trade. trade the now legal?? I’m not sure why they were now his legal slaves. Wouldn’t they just take the slaves and turn them free? But this is pretty early on- emancipation doesn’t happen for another fifty years. Slaves and sell them elsewhere for a lot more than he paid. but he and his brother amassed $65,000. That was quite a bit of money back then. Just to give you an idea, a carpenter would make anywhere between 80 cents and a dollar a day. Three hundred bucks a year? 65 K would be more than two hundred years wages. With his brothers they buy a plantation in Thibodeau and have the first steam powered mill in Louisiana for grinding sugar cane and it’s a pretty successful operation and they sell it two years later for 90,000 dollars. Seems like the Bowie brothers are doing quite well. But they get hauled into court over some land speculation. It’s a right royal mess. The United States had promised with the Louisiana Purchase, to honor all former land grant claims and turned over the authority to superior courts of each territory to hear the suits of those with claims that had been overlooked. The Arkansas Superior Court got 126 claims that involved having purchased land from the Bowie brothers. It seems the Bowie brother had never owned the land. Original land grant documents had been forged. My. Swindlers? And when the unhappy purchasers considered suing the Bowies, it seems that some documents went missed from the court. Oh my. No evidence? No case. Bring up the theme music…
“Jim Bowie, Jim Bowie, he was a brave, adventurin’ man. Fighting for right with a powerful hand.” And a con artist.
Kids don’t care about shady business deals. We want glamour. The stuff of legend. Action. Flashy heroics. That’s what Hollywood picks up on and presents to us young boys back then. So here’s the stuff behind the legend. It’s pretty good.
There is something called the Sandbar fight. Bowie had supported the opponent of Norris Wright in the race for sheriff. Wright won. Wright was also a bank director and was instrumental in turning down a loan application Bowie made. Hmmm. A little bad blood. One afternoon Bowie and Wright have a confrontation. Wright fires a shot at Bowie. Bowie resolves never to be without his famous Bowie knife. The following year, on September 19, 1827 both men attend a duel on a sandbar each supporting a different man in the duel, of course. The duelists each fire two shots and miss- you must get pretty nervous standing there at short range with a pistol aimed at you and yours aimed at the other guy. Since they’d been through the ordeal of the duel, honor had been upheld, they settle the difference that they had with a handshake. But you know how it goes. The crowd wanted some blood, and fights break out. Bowie gets shot in the hip. He rushes the guy who shot him, gets clocked in the head with a pistol, which breaks, and goes down. Wright then shoots at Bowie while he’s down. And misses? Bowie shoots back, but Wright, not knocked down by the shot, has a sword cane and impales the prostrate Bowie. He comes over, puts his foot on Bowie to extract his sword, and Bowie- ever the trickster, pulls him down by the leg, and with his handy foot-long Bowie knife disembowels Wright. Wright dies instantly. It’s not over. Somebody else shoots Bowie, and somebody else stabs him. Say what you will about his business behavior, he is one tough buzzard. A doctor present pulls out the sword and bullets and patches him up. Newspapers pick up the story and Bowie’s reputation as a knife fighter spreads like wild. Apparently, he was attacked by so many because he already had a reputation as a dangerous man. The newspaper cemented his reputation as a knife fighter and talked, too about his knife. A Bowie knife, and of course the origin of the knife is shrouded in legend, mystery. Like Excalibur. Arthur’s mystical sword. There’s a lot of nonsense about it too, which we boys of course swallow hook, line and sinker. Basically, it is a knife with a heavy blade, nine inches long or so, with a point that is sharp on both sides, and has a pretty good hilt to protect your hand. Did Jim Bowie invent it as we all heard. It is called the Arkansas Toothpick, too, so we may wonder. Jim’s brother Rezin claimed to have invented it, too, but the truth is probably that some blacksmith took a design that had been evolving for decades, and under Rezin’s direction, made a version of it. Once the knife became famous, everyone scrambles after a bit of that fame. No question about it, though, Jim Bowie was a dangerous man with a knife.
And of course we kids like that, right. The idea of being formidable. Of being respected. Of being left alone to do what you want to do. It’s still around. Think about it.
Last word on Jim Bowie. He does die at the Alamo. He was a pretty good military leader, but he was apparently ill and in bed at that last battle, and he emptied his pistols into attackers and used his knife to the end against those who came to kill him. They did kill him. Forty years old. The relationship between legend and truth, truth versus fiction. Bowie moves to Texas, becomes a Mexican citizen, marries into a wealthy Mexican family, is a leader in the Texas Rangers, fights a battle against incredible odds- hostile Indians, and kills forty attackers, wounds many more and loses only one man. Reports of the attack precede his return and everyone assumes they whole party had been wiped out. He gets back into land speculation. He dances with the political winds pretty nicely. At the end., he has sent his pregnant wife and their first child away to her family to avoid a cholera epidemic, but the epidemic finds them all.
At various points in his life he had claimed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems after he died he wasn’t worth quite a hundred bucks. Wow. Just goes to show you, if you can talk a good line and fight with a knife you can die broke at an early age.
My hero, Jim Bowie?
My hunting knife was a cheap imitation of a Bowie knife. Plastic bone handles applied with some skinny little rivets. They fell off pretty quick, but I made a great handle for it out of old bicycle tubes and some copper wire. It gave the knife a nice heft and a lot of cushioning and was a terrific handle. I wish I had that knife today. Rosebud. I wore that thing everywhere. It had a sheath and I’d wear a belt just so I could wear the knife. It wasn’t a cute little hunting knife that you could kind of unobtrusively wear under your untucked shirt. This sucker was a foot long and besides, I was proud of it. I was Daniel Boone and Jim Bowie rolled into one. Now I could survive anywhere.
The plan for that summer was to visit three seashore places. My parents had decided we had the wherewithal to buy a second piece of land to build a summer cottage on. We’d hear them talking about it after we’d gone to bed. They decided that they’d visit New Jersey, Maine and Cape Cod, and the place we liked the best would be where they’d buy the land. Once this was revealed to us we all got pretty excited. My dad could get you worked up about stuff. My brother Mike had a job, so he was going to have to skip the New Jersey part, but the rest of us and our two dogs would all pile in to the old Chevy and go.
We had to equip the expedition. Off to Mickie Finn’s the outdoor store. To a boy who spent three hours a day tromping around the golf course with a hunting knife and a bad of cornmeal, this was a trip to heaven.
“Joe, I think I’ll stay behind, I’m kind of tired.” My mom was probably looking forward to a few quiet hours. Five kids must get to you. Claudie and Joey, and Ginny and me. And Daddy. We used to fight over who got to sit near the window. This was great because you could be in charge of whether the window was up or down, and you’d usually have a dog to share it with. NO fights, today. Ginny got to it in the middle, because she’s so little. We all had a window. Rolling down the Berlin turnpike had a magic to it. You can still feel it forty years later. In its day it was a grand turnpike, and we all felt proud that this magnificent road ran through our town. Seems funny now. It was lined with small businesses. Motels with ten rooms. The Olympia diner, chrome railroad car where Mrs. Bacon our neighbor was waitress- she had five kids, too. We never went there. We never went anywhere on the Berlin turnpike. It was too far away and thing s cost money. Unlike the Bacon kids. They went to the T Bowl a lot Friday night, to shoot pool and bowl. And they’d call up for a taxi when they wanted to go home at 11 or 12. Their father had the car and he was out drinking. Shocking. We went past the Pike drive in theater. There aren’t many drive ins around, now, but they were all the rage then, and we had two in town both on the Berlin Turnpike. E. M. Loews was the other one and it had a stroboscopic sign that was endlessly fascinating to us all. My brother Mike worked at the Pike drive in and loved it. Watching movies, serving popcorn to pretty girls and getting paid for it. Hot cars. Late nights. It was the scene. Then we drove past the Connecticut Light and Power estate, a grand building way up on a hill off to the east with sprawling lawns. Then at last Mickie Finn’s hove into sight. We were no longer in Newington. This was big adventure. You had to go past Mickie Finn’s. The pike was two lanes in each direction separated by a median and you couldn’t just drive through anywhere. You had to get to turn around. There was another another bowling alley on the right, this is the fateful bowling alley my sister Claudie would meet her first husband years later. It was way down. You’d get up to that bowling alley pull a u turn to the left at the light, and head north towards Newington again and then you’d pull into Mickie Finns. Tents were set up outside, and there were canoes out there, too. It was awe inspiring to see such gear outside! And inside would be coolers, lanterns that ran on gas with backpacks, knives, boots, rugged wool shirts, canteens, cook kits made of aluminum. My heart would race as we climbed out of the car. Claude would have her transistor radio up to her ear. Joey would be picking a scab, Ginny was too little to know what was going on, but I was electrified. So was my father.
“Yes sir. Much better than canvas. Different animal. Aluminum poles that come apart. Mosquito proof netting in the windows. Floor included as part of the tent. And it’s space age nylon. Waterproof? You ever sleep in a canvas tent? You touch the sides you get soaked. The paraffin wears off you get soaked. The wind blows you get soaked. It rains too hard, you get soaked from underneath. This tent folded up fits in a bag your boy could carry with ease. It don’t weigh much more than thirty pounds. Real portable. Sleeps six. They used this same stuff on Sputnik. The best.”
We got the tent and a cooler and a Coleman gas lantern, the kind that burn a silk mantle that is just ash, and a tarp and some poles. We eventually each ended up with a sleeping bag- lined with flannel, but my Dad explained how we didn’t have quite enough money to buy them all at once. He’d pick one up every couple of weeks. Oh when it was your turn to get the sleeping bag you got pretty excited. My Dad was quite good at stirring you up. We all slept in them on our beds when we first got them, and boy were they warm And our dad would show us all how to roll them up. They’d be two foot wide and about a foot and a half around when you got them properly squooshed and cinched down with their built in straps that we thought were silk but in all probability were cheap rayon because they frayed and broke pretty quickly. They also probably weighed about ten pounds. We ended up using string to tie the roll tight. They also weren’t so warm when you got them outside.
The great day came. We loaded the car. We were all excited, even my mom who always viewed with some skepticism whatever my Dad was up to. But this was really happening. We were going camping with the whole family. Well except for Mike. We drove pretty close to forever. I have absolutely no recollection of the trip, except that with four kids and two dogs and two adults and five hundred pounds of camping gear in a 1955 Chevy four door, we were all cramped and uncomfortable. Both my parents smoked, too, but they held the butts near those little windows that cars used to have ahead of the regular window. The vent window it was called. You could crack the vent window a little and the smoke would just sneak right out if you held the burning butt near it. The two adults are sitting up front smoking with one chosen kid which got to rotate every stop. The three of us and the dogs in the back having a high old time with our heads out the window, and the dogs’ heads out the window getting those 50 mile an hour breezes in our faces along with that smoke and we were headed for Chip’s Folly. a little camp ground. We stopped at a rest area, to stretch and swtch around. I was taking a little tromp in the wilderness, or course wearing my Bowie knife and some guy called me over and said, “Hey, you can’t wear that thing around like that. That’s a weapon.” I’m ten at the time. And not a real talkative ten. I listened, and left. I went right back to the car and told my parents what he’d said. My father got indignant. My mother said, “Well maybe he shouldn’t wear it inside city limits.” It kind of took the starch out of me. I thought we were camping. What if a grizzly came out of the woods?
We made it to the Chip’s Folly. Probably named that by his wife. It was a small camp ground with a little pond for swimming just like Churchill Pond back home. We would stay for week while my Dad kind of cruised around looking for land to buy.
I thought that pond was about the greatest thing that had ever happened. My brother Joey and I were down there all the time. We took our trucks and toys and our air mattresses and we had non stop fun. The only time you could get me back from that little pond was when it was time to go to bed. I loved it. The sun was slow to show itself that morning. A little mist. I was still in camp when my father got up that morning. He stretched- he was 6 foot three which was pretty tall back then. And yawned. I’d hear him fart in the morning when he thought nobody was around. He walked over to the ring and began get a fire started. As the flames began to dance, he put the coffee pot on. He wasn’t worth much till he’d had a cup or two of coffee. I didn’t understand that then. I’m sitting there poking sticks into the fire and my father finally gets himself a cup of coffee, and brings one over to my mom. “Here, Evie” as she climbs out of the tent. Sleepy kids emerge. Along about cup two my Dad says, “I thought we’d take a trip over to the beach today.” I get pretty excited thinking it’ll be kind of fun to have everybody down at the lake . I called it a lake, but I think nobody else would. Mud puddle. Muddy pond. “Yeah, we could go over to the ocean over by Atlantic City. There’s a boardwalk and lots of sand and waves. It’ll be fun.”
My mom exhaled a puff and had a sip. Joey and Ginny and Claude were mildly interested- something to do. I was silent.
“There’s a lot to do at the beach. You can build walls and castles, and play in the sand. You can swim in salt water. It’s fun.”
My mom took a sip of coffee and inhaled a puff. Joey and Ginny and Claude were still mildly interested. I was still silent.
“There’s a lot you can do at the ocean that you can’t do at a little pond.”
I didn’t like that reference to my lake as a “little pond.” That was my lake you were talking about.
“You can see for miles and there’s more beach than you can imagine and the ocean has waves in it. We’ll go right after breakfast.”
After breakfast I went right down to my lake. That’s where I was when they called for me. I didn’t hear them calling because I kept repeating in my head, “I’m not leaving my lake. I’m not leaving my lake. I’m not leaving my lake.”
“PAUL!” shattered the stillness.
“They can’t make me. They can’t make me. They can’t make me.”
My mother came down to talk to me. My father came down after she left. “I’ll show you how to body surf.” He said a bunch of other stuff too. Finally he picked me up after words didn’t seem to have much effect. He carried me to the car.
I sat for the entire trip with my arms folded not saying a word. “You can bring me there,” I thought, “but you can’t make me like it.”
There was smell to it. I was fighting it tooth and nail and I was little scrapper. But there was an unbelievably attractive smell to it. Kind of subtle and nice. Salty? Maybe some kind of marsh fragrance floating around too. A little salt water pounding the sand putting its ozone into the air to intoxicate everybody. A grumpy little kid included. There were people everywhere and squeals that I couldn’t mistake for anything but delight. Kids were whooping it up in the waves. Racing up and down the sand. Playing in the sand. And there was sand everywhere. And it was deep, soft warmed by the sun. The light played off the water and that sand and it kind of hit you. Blue and white out there. Blue and white up there. This was nice. I started to get a little less grumpy. I didn’t even have to be carried to the beach. We kids romped a bit. Then my Dad came over and said, “Come on. I’ll show you guys how to body surf. The waves are perfect.” We waded out, our skinny little bodies tensed against the cold and holding our arms up over our heads and jumping when a wave came. And grinning from ear to ear. And our Dad, ahead of us- we all knew how to swim. When we were little we weren’t allowed in the water above our waist until we could swim. We had all clamored for tubes and floats and absolutely not, not until you could swim a certain distance. We won’t need the floats then we’d argue. Well need ‘em or not you can’t have ‘em until you swim. So to get the floats we learned to swim and then we never wanted the floats. “Those are for little kids. A little orange translucent plastic inflatable circle? Who needs that? Kids” And here in a flash came our Dad! My god, like an arrow, right toward us. Arms out ahead of him, head down in the water, being pushed along by a wave way faster than you could ever swim!!! And then he burst out grinning himself. “Come on! I’ll show you how.” And he did. We had a glorious day in those waves. And I have been hooked ever since The seeds were sown.. I became a surfer when I was ten because of my dad and a little side trip to the beach in Atlantic City. My dad had to carry me out of the water, shivering and blue. I didn’t want to leave.