Most people in Texas, asked whether they have heard of the Nueces River, would answer, “No.” Over my lifetime, mostly spent in Texas, I have many times been surprised by that answer, for in my memory this river and the Nueces Canyon it traverses on its way to the brush country of south Texas, then finally blending with the Gulf at Corpus Christi, should rightly be known to all. As a boy who had the experience of “living on the River”, learning to swim, often immersed in its spring fed, soothing waters, the beauty and wonder of this River spiritually infuses my soul.
After our father returned from WWII, he brought our mother back to his ancestral “stomping ground”, the Canyon. I came into this world about eight months after V-Japan Day, and over the first few years of my life we moved around a few times. By the time took the lease on this river ranch of my story, I was five, and my one sister had come along, but the age difference was such that I pretty much lived out my boyhood fantasies alone. For about seven years our family lived there, near Montell, Texas. The old ranch house, situated in a wonderful live oak bottom, home to a panorama of flora and fauna, including many great “hoot” owls, with its tin roof that allowed the rains to play sweet melodies and even concerts during storms, was only about one-hundred yards from the cliff like bank of the river’s swath. I was a very fortunate boy in retrospect, and my only wish is that more kids could experience the freedom and joys I have treasured all my days. Sadly, a lot has changed along the river, and even more sad is that it generally is no longer safe for children to roam alone in the countryside.
I think it was in 1955 at dawn one late summer or fall morning, the family was awakened by a distinct roaring sound, unlike anything I, at nine years of age, had ever heard. Our father looked out the window to the river where the sound was coming from. No doubt he knew what it was already, but then he and then our mother were shouting, “The river’s up!” as he was grabbing his camera, and we four headed to the river bank. It was a sight to see, one I certainly never had seen before, although I had seen at least one big flood washing an old truck washed down away, which at age four was pretty exciting to see! But this was something else entirely. From bank to the far bank the river bed was well over a quarter mile wide, and the embankment where we stood close to was, as I recall, probably thirty feet or more in height.
Except when the river flooded, depending on the rainfall on the Edwards Plateau to the north, the stream meanders this way and that, twisting, forming a deep pool here, shallow rapids there, and occasionally spreading out into slowly moving depths. The river is constantly changing, and each pool and shallow has its own constantly changing ecology. At its best the river takes on tones of beautiful blues, greens, true aqua colors. The gravel bed on both sides may have huge sycamores, mesquites, small oaks, and any other variety of tree that happened to sprout and take root at any spot. Straight willows, that for me were the ready source to make spears and arrows, abound.
But on that memorable morning the waters were bank to bank, a churning light brown soup, the water lapping over the top of the bank where we stood. We stood there just a few minutes, sadly watching as livestock were swept along terrified, doing their best to keep their noses above water, a car or truck, trees, huge limbs, and every kind of manmade trash and junk moving in unison with them. Daddy had his Kodak movie camera going, when he and Mama realized that the river was topping the bank where we stood, so herding us kids, we all dashed back to the house. I remember our parents grabbing this and that and tossing it in the car, for our get away. Luckily our house was on a slight rise but by the time we got to the highway a short distance from our house and drove a half mile we saw the river had already spread, wrapping around our place and the ranch next to ours, and cutting off any escape. After a while, our folks talking the situation over with our neighbors, Daddy decided to drive back to our house and found the river had swung around missing our house considerably. Later that day, as it was clear the flood was receding, we piled back in the car and Daddy drove south so we could see what else the flood had done. The road was not flooded by then, until we got to a major low water bridge crossing, and it was still very flooded and damaged. What was “really cool” to me, a young boy, was our seeing that a light airplane had landed on the highway. It was a Texas Ranger who had brought with him loaves of bread and other staples, a best effort to help out us stranded ranch families. This was before helicopters were in wide spread use for emergency response. I was let down that Daddy decided to head back to our home, and I didn’t get to see the Ranger take off on the narrow highway.
Over the years that we lived on this place, I had many adventures and experiences on the river, and each one was unique, as it became the site of whatever fantasy had come to my young mind that day. The river was to our east, and to the west a mile or less were rocky hills, that give the “Hill Country” its name. The ranch we lived on was 640 acres, and was divided by a State highway. During those years our father was often away working at an Air Force base, as a mechanic or electrician, as his income from ranching was not nearly sufficient to feed and cloth us. However, ranching was in his blood, and he was determined to make a go of it. With him being gone so much, as I grew a little older Mama gave me more and more chores, like collecting firewood for the big fireplace where we would be turning in circles on cold winter mornings trying to get warm, milking our old cow, and “disposing” of any baby mice she might find in the old house. Back in those days there was no fear of letting kids roam free, at least in that part of the world, so she would let me go where ever I wished, knowing she would see me when I got hungry. Sometimes I would be on the river somewhere, usually within a half mile or so from the house, and be so lost in my dreams or activity that I would forget it might be lunch or supper time. When that happened I would hear her voice calling out from the river bank edge, yelling my name over two or three octave changes, calling me back to eat, which might be some fried venison from the deer Daddy bagged, and some homegrown vegetables, and maybe some mock apple pie and milk. I was a skinny, lanky boy, and in her opinion a finicky eater, which caused her much chagrin at times. I just remember that having to eat got in the way of living yet another adventure!
While I spent much time out in the expansive live oak bottoms around the ranch, and venturing to the back of the ranch to the hills, always with my trusty little mongrel dog, Amigo, running around getting into dog mischief, the river was close and inviting, and in the summer its waters offered cool reprieve from the scorching heat. In the summer I would be exploring along the river, after frogs, or fishing, usually with a hand line, or swimming. I usually would not swim by myself, but I had a cousin my age who occasionally would stay over, and he and I would bring our stories to life. One day we ran across a small herd of Brahman cattle, that had roamed so long they were nearly wild. We decided it would be fun to toss some willow spears at them, but after one toss, when they started snorting and pawing and charging toward us, we quickly climbed a nearby sycamore tree. It took a while before these cattle decided we weren’t a real threat and lost interest in these two half naked boys. We never tried that again!
Once he and I took a canoe ride from his house which was also near the river and north of our place, all the way down to the low water highway crossing I already mentioned. It was a good twenty miles, longer if measured along the path of the river itself. We spent one entire day to get to our house, where we spent the night, then we took off again headed on the second half of the trip. We were as I recall no older than eleven. It was quite an adventure, fishing, swimming, running rapids, and avoiding cotton mouth moccasins. By the time we completed the trip, we were both terribly sunburned, and my cousin even having water blisters.
I always liked it when the river got on a rise, because as it receded to its final course, it would leave pools of water in all the depressions in the wide, gravel river bed, where there would always be fish stranded. I would “harvest” the larger ones, taking them home to Mama, and leave the small ones for the birds and raccoons. Easy pickings.
When I was about eleven I found out how to build what would be called now, a DIY spear gun. I was actually quite good with tools and very creative with my hands, even doing leather carving and stamping, and lacing to create belts and wallets, so making a spear gun, with surgical rubber bands, aluminum tubing, a wood stock, trigger and spears made from straightened coat hangar wire, was pretty easy for me. And it worked. I remember a couple of walks to deeper fishing holes near the house with the whole family going, and I would be in the river with my goggles and fins, and my gun, looking for a nice big catfish, as they were easier to bag. I think I may have speared one, but it was the experience then that was the thrill, a boy hunting for his food in murky waters, peering beneath big boulders where there might be a catfish lurking. Nowadays I wonder how many parents would let their son swim with a homemade spear gun that could indeed kill a person? As I say, I was allowed to do about anything I wanted, and it was just assumed to be my rite of passage, to have these experiences. We were country folk, and boys were expected to be boys, and one day be men.
In the winter I would also be on the river, usually with my BB gun or from the age of ten, my single shot 22 caliber rifle. I was a “Deadeye Dick” with that little rifle, and ducks were the object of my searching during the winter, when the fog might be hanging eerily low over the waters on cold days, and I would be tippy toeing, peeking, to see if I could see the duck before it saw me. Honesty, the ducks won. I don’t recall ever actually shooting one, but again, it was the thrill of the hunt that thrilled me then.
Over those years I had so countless experiences I vividly recall today, like the early, dark morning I went to the shed where I kept my lamb I was raising for the 4H show. I reached into the drum barrel where I kept the sheep food when all of a sudden there was this awful hissing sound, and a huge chicken snake reared up right in my face. I probably did the 100 yard dash back to the house in a record time!
I was always industrious, and like doing anything that would earn me some money, which allowed me to buy the little things like leather kits. The two ways I could directly earn money was one, picking pecans to sell, and two, shooting or trapping animals for their furs. Picking pecans usually took on a family outing, with Daddy using a long thrashing pole to knock the nuts from the tall trees that grew in one area of the ranch, and we would spend hours picking them, putting into large burlap sacks, then taking them to a store in town to sell. Daddy and I would both go out at night and kill ring-tailed cats, which have beautiful long tails, and in those days there was a ready market for them for fashionable clothes. I also had a “trap line” for a while, until I got so sickened at having to club the poor trapped animals to death I gave it up, but for a while I had several skins tacked to the barn wall drying to sell. As I look back on those days, there are many regrets I have about killing animals, often just for “the sport.” But I have long since forgiven myself, and today I am a vegetarian and a strong animal rights advocate.
There are a thousand fragments of my boyhood that I could share, and the totality is a beautiful collage that I treasure. These experiences, my connection with the outdoors, the opportunity my mother gave me to be free to live like a boy, the ranch life chores and work expected of me by both our parents, all constructed the person I am today, sixty years later. Of all these though, the river fun times were the best. In many ways, I now feel I am the River, and the River is me.