Down upon the Swanee River

I think I told y’all the story about Maudie and I camping out at Blue Springs on the Withlacoochee River.  This was the next day.

After Maudie and I left Blue Springs, we headed towards Live Oak, Fl.  On the way we passed a place along side the Suawanee River, with a large sign “Canoe Rentals”.    We both agreed that it seemed like it would be a lot of fun.  We stopped to check it out.  The owner at the canoe rental told us that we could rent a canoe by the day.  He said that he could pick us up at any one of half different places, depending on how far we wanted to go.  Twenty miles, fifty miles, even a hundred miles.  He told us that there were plenty of spots along side the river that we could stop to call him.  He would fetch us back to our truck, in his van, with racks on top to carry the canoe.  He told us that there were plenty of places on the river that we could stop at along the way.  He also said that there were other canoe rental places and that most of the places were like his, small bait and tackle, boat rentals, beer joints and a pool hall or two, some with overnight cottages.swp103.jpg

Even 40 years ago this adventure seemed a little edgy, but promising.  I mean, we weren’t scared or nothing like that.  It sounded like it was just what we wanted, to get away for a day or so from prying eyes and enjoy Mother Nature .  We never decided on just how far we wanted to try.  It was a spur of the moment thing.  I guess it was up to us.

I figured ahead of time, that I would end up doing most of the paddling, no big deal, but in my mind I was thinking that after 10 to 15 miles, I would have enough of it, and call it a day.  We loaded up some of our camping gear, an axe, a sleeping bag, a fishing pole, a pair of binoculars, sun tan oil, a cooler full of beer and a bottle of Jose Cuervo and a transistor radio.

It was early morning when we headed out, dew still on the grass.  It was beautiful, we enjoyed our selves.  Large swamp birds, cranes, egrets, herons etc., squirrels telling all of nature’s creatures we were coming.  We saw big gators and we saw little gators, plenty of gators.  There were lots of large gar, roiling beside the boat, bass jumping, and giant spider webs as big as sails, stretched between branches from tree to tree.  We avoided the huge hornet’s nest sagging from over hanging tree branches bending low, so low, as to touch the top of the water as it swept pass.  The current was brisk, I didn’t need to paddle all that much, just enough to steer us in a straight line.  Every once in a while, we would pass a sand bar in the middle of the river, on these occasions we would beach the canoe on the bar, and swim for a bit, enjoying the cool water and the hot sun.  The further we went, the more we enjoyed ourselves.  There were plenty of sand bars in the middle of the river.  We beached the canoe on one, picnicked, then swam naked for about an hour, before resuming our trip.

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Maudie helped me paddle for about the first 7 or 8 miles, after that I noticed she spent a lot more time with the binoculars and drinking beer, to me that was okay, enjoy yourself, I got this.  I got concerned though when she switched the radio station from country to the “Whiskey Rock and Roll” station out of Live Oak. Then she started taking long pulls off that bottle of Cuervo and chasing it with beer.  I could handle it I guess. Then I thought to myself,  “I might better keep a closer eye on her.”  Drinking hard liquor in the hot sun ain’t no joke.  We did have a good current, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico if we wanted.  The mystery of what lies beyond the next bend, kept us going all afternoon.

Watching Maudie drinking and listening to our little radio I could see her mood swinging back and forth, depending on how much she drank and what song was playing on the radio.  I knew she liked to listen to Skynyrd and ZZ Tops when she was drinking.  She knew every song the DJ played.  When she drank tequila, watch out.

I’ve mentioned before, that it seems to me, that all drop dead gorgeous women have some kind of “hang ups”.  Maudie could have wrote the book on that.  First she was Cherokee Indian, on both sides. Yeah, big complex on that issue, she wanted to be accepted as a person, a human being, but when men got around her, they swarmed like flies.  Even my own step brother, I laughed when she told me and felt sorry for him ’cause I knew what would happen to him if he got too close!   She’d stick him.  She didn’t have much luck telling guy’s wives and girlfriend’s about their man’s advances.  It seemed like they thought it was always her fault for encouraging them and it didn’t matter how many times she’d tell a guy no, they didn’t pay her no never mind.

Maudies older sister Linda had been a beertender at the Keg.  The Keg was famous watering hole on the Westside, Jacksonville’s bestside.  This was a place where the band from Lynyrd Skynyrd was known to frequent.  Linda would let Maudie in to clean tables and partake of the atmosphere.  Maudie grew up with beer, whiskey and rock n  roll on the menu.ls332

Me, how did I get in good with her?  Karma I guess, I remember she asked me to dance, first time I met her.  I saw her sitting with her girlfriends at a table in the lounge at Classic Lanes on Cassat Ave.  Mom had always told me, that if a woman likes you, she’ll let you know.  When the band played fast dance songs, she filled up my dance card.  Instead of questioning my good fortune, I just rowed with the flow.  When it came to fishing, I let her bait her own hook.

At first, I was just a casual observer.  I just figured that she half expected me to try and sweep her off her feet, but after seeing what happened to other guys that tried, I didn’t bother.  Next thing I know, she’s cuddling up to me.  She always had her guard up, like there was an invisible wall between us.  I guess she had call to be moody, it just became noticeable all of a sudden like when she drank, which wasn’t all that often, maybe just week ends and canoe trips.

At the end of our first day, we decided that we had so much fun, that we wanted to keep going.  We had passed a few stopover campgrounds, but we kept paddling with the current towards the gulf until almost dark.

We finally stopped at another “Canoe Rental Place,” just before we ran out of daylight.  I asked if we could use the phone to call our “Rivermeister.”  Come to find out, they were cousins, knew each other’s business pretty good and he had called with a “BOLO” about us.  We talked about getting a cabin for the night, but before we unloaded the canoe, we decide to check out the local watering hole.

I’m pretty sure “Deliverance” got their ideas from this place.  It was a typical board on board cypress building, with low ceilings, torn screens instead of glass for the windows, uneven wood floors, a pool table in the center, a juke box in the corner and a Budweiser beer clock on the wall that didn’t work.  The place was full of dudes (none clean shaven), about 6 or 7 of them, with one female, a short, dumpy, red head with a pug nose that kind of reminded me of a toad.

As we entered the rustic backwoods beer palace, Ray Price was blaring on the juke box, “Crazy Arms.”  We ordered drinks at the bar, I got a soft drink and Maudie, a bottle of beer.  I wasn’t quite sure if we wanted to rent a cabin for the night from this place or not but before I could check out the rates Maudie left the bar to put some quarters on the pool table to challenge the winner.  I found a bar stool that fit my butt and sat nearby to watch the action.  I’d seen this before.  Maudie was going to run the table eventually but first, she had to set them up.  Win one or two, lose one or two.  After about an hour, she had won the table so many times I lost track, she’d won over a hundred dollars.  I think she cleaned them out.  Every time she bent over the table to take a shot, someone would make a rude remark or two.  These she ignored, I was proud of her.  The whole time she was shooting pool she had to swat flies.  I mean bar flies.  These guys saw that she was with me, but kept getting in her face, firing at her, left and right to no avail.  I kept feeding quarters in the jukebox and she would select the songs that reflected her mood.

She played a pretty good center field and kept every one at bay but the drunker they got; the harder it was for her to keep them off.  I already knew that if she wanted my help, she’d ask for it, so I laid off.  I had decided that if she asked for my knife, she wasn’t getting it.  I didn’t want to underestimate her but there were too many people to take on in a knife fight.  After we slow danced a song or two, I could feel her mood changing again.  Once she gave me the “side eye” I knew it was “on”.  She played some “Seminole Wind” on the juke box, just to make sure I got the message, and then asked the bar keep the whereabouts to the “girl’s room.”

This drew a big laugh from the crowd, the bartender told her they didn’t have one, that everyone used an outhouse out by the dock.  She asked “Toadie” if she wanted to go with her to show her where it was at.  Meanwhile I had started playing pool.  All eyes were on me when I scratched on the eight ball.  A whoop and holler went up; the guys started telling me that the local custom was anyone scratched on the eight ball had to buy every one a beer.  I was out numbered but not out smarted.  I wanted to get everyone in the room cornered up in one big group.  I said, “Sure, everybody line up at the bar, I’m buying.

Every one inside was standing in front of me, up against the bar.  I told the beer tender to give everybody a root beer, when they objected, “I said why not?  That’s what I’m drinking.”  A couple of the guys laughed about it, some ignored me at first, with their backs to me, tried to circle around me.  I’m pretty sure they were sore about losing their money, but had something else on their minds, like maybe they wanted to get some of their money back from me.

I could see through the torn screen and could tell that Maudie had gotten Toadie to go into the outhouse first.  Maudie told me later that she asked Shorty Red to check for spiders.  After Toadie got inside, Maudie slammed the door and pushed the outhouse over on its side with Toadie still inside.

I wasn’t sure if any one inside the bar saw what was going on outside or not, it had gotten dark on us but when I saw Maudie running down the dock towards the canoe, I grabbed a pool stick and backed up to the door, guarding the entrance.  No more pretending to be nice or dumb.  It was time to “unleash the beast.”  I let everyone know that the first one to come near me was going to get clobbered.  Wouldn’t ya know it?  There were two sneaky bastards that didn’t believe me.  The first one to get within five feet, caught the fat end of the cue stick right in the kisser, lost his front teeth in a blink of an eye.  I guess I forgot to tell them that I had been in a few bar fights.  His back-up was trying to circle around behind me, he got the front six inches of the skinny end of the cue stick broke off against the side of his head.  He started to walk kind of funny after that.  The others spread out, walking backwards, I had seen that most of these guys were barefoot so the last thing I did before running out the door, was to bust the two florescent bulbs in the light fixture, over the pool table.  Broken glass went everywhere.

I ran out from the bar in the dark.  After a few feet, I was able to navigate my path to the dock in the moonlight.  Maudie had untied the canoe and was waiting to shove off at the end of the dock.  We paddled off into the darkness, the beaming rays from the full moon’s light on the river, guiding the way.

We found a beach on an island, near a fork in the river.  We followed a path the led up to a clearing on the river bank, made a fire and camped out under the stars.  Maudie finally let her guard down, I was 25 years old.  I can remember lying in the sleeping bag, on my back staring at the night’s sky and the autumn moon.  I didn’t know for sure if the Good Lord was looking out for me or not, but I had a strong feeling that he was.

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