Story Billy Hairston | Photograph Birney Imes
James and I met in the late summer of 1947 when we entered fifth grade at Demonstration School in Columbus. When I think back to boyhood, the two years we had until we entered junior high and began to drift apart were its heart and soul. We got 15 years of boyhood out of those two years.
James lived in a two-story house at the south end of First Street. It was on what was then the GM&O Railroad, right where the tracks crossed the Tombigbee River. His daddy was a section foreman for the railroad. Directly in front of the house, on the north side of the tracks, was a cotton seed mill.
We came to know every inch of the Tombigbee River on both sides as far south as the mouth of the Luxapalila. We knew the fields and forests, the swamps and sloughs, the gravel bars. We crossed the railroad trestle with no more concern than if it had been a city sidewalk. We sat on the middle pier and shot bottles and sticks with our .22s while trains rumbled by above us. We swam ’til we were wrinkled. We were Tom and Huck, or maybe twin Hucks, skinny and towheaded and living by our own rules.
This morning, 64 years later, I returned. I parked my pick-up at Carrier Lodge and walked down the crumbling remains of what used to be the last block of First Street. Nothing remained of the cotton seed mill. One of my last memories of James and his daddy was their planting a small stand of bamboo behind the house. The house, barn and fences are long gone and bamboo has overtaken everything. Even the landscape is unrecognizable. All that’s left is what I can see in my mind’s eye.
James is gone, also. I don’t know where, and I won’t be far behind.
The Tombigbee is gone, too. For millions of years it rose and fell with the seasons and went where it would, creating those fields and forests, those swamps and sloughs and gravel bars as its gifts for two little boys to explore and grow up in. The channel is still there and water still goes down it to the sea, but the River itself died in 1985. That’s the year it became a hyphenated waterway, owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of pleasure craft and an occasional tow of barges.
James and me, and the River, we were a ‘one-of-a-kind’, a unique confluence in time and space. We won’t be back.