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On The Banks Of #4 Ditch

I have heard many interesting and compelling stories about rivers, streams and creeks, many with colorful, attractive titles such as, On The Banks Of Plum Creek or On The Banks Of Walnut Creek and also a catchy title like,  A River Runs Through It. I have also heard of adventures along the banks of the Red River. I have never lived near Plum Creek, Walnut Creek or the Red River, but I can tell you about some times when I lived On The Banks Of #4 Ditch, five miles east of Bernie, Stoddard County,  Missouri during the late 1930's and early 1940's. Those times were hard times but they made some good memories. The sometimes surging, sometimes still, stream of water that made up #4 Ditch was a part of the Little River Drainage Project that had been constructed between the years 1914 and 1928. The purpose of the drainage project was to drain off the excess water that at one time had almost completely covered the land in the Southeastern Lowlands area of Missouri. The waters in #4 Ditch generally flowed South, making a few minor twists and turns, then emptied into a floodway, that flowed into the Little River, and miles later, joined the St. Francis River in Arkansas, and then into the Mississippi River. That was the intended purpose and intended flow of the ditch but sometimes, during flood times, #4 Ditch spread out wide and far and we found what appeared to be the Mississippi River in our front yard.

I remember going swimming, skinny dipping, in the waters of the ditch that flowed by our house. We kept a watch out for snakes, which were plentiful, and when I was about seven or eight years old, I often wondered if a turtle might bite me somewhere, like on a finger or a toe, but it was fun. The road bridge that crossed the ditch was only about 60 yards from our house so we had ready access to either side. I remember having small artillery wars from one side of the ditch to the other by using old water pipe as the artillery guns. We plugged up one end of the pipe, stuck it into the ground, and used a forked stick to support the open end. We built a fire around the pipe and poured water into the pipe, then stuck a good fitting corncob into the open end. When the water in the pipe began to boil and steam built up in the pipe, the corncob would suddenly pop out of the pipe and sail across the ditch. It was probably a dangerous  thing to do and I don't recommend it today, but it was a lot of fun back in those days. We sometimes had more than one pipe steaming on each side of the ditch.

I remember times when my cousins, Norman and Charles Ott, came to visit us and we had corncob wars around the barns and corn cribs. My brothers and cousins were all older than I was but I had a lot of fun anyway. My brothers, Gene and Howard, and my cousins, Norman and "Todd", never threw corn cobs at me because I was so much younger than they were but I sometimes got into the line of fire anyway. I remember a time when a heavy corncob landed beside my head, just forward of my ear, and I heard ringing sounds and saw some pretty lights for a moment, but it was fun.

When flood seasons came to that part of Stoddard County, #4 Ditch could become a wide, scary looking stream of water, and it sometimes appeared to be going in the opposite direction from the way it usually flowed. As the water kept getting higher and higher, it leaked at the low spots and pretty soon our entire yard and many of the fields around us would be covered with water. The house was built up on blocks and I don't remember water getting into the house where we lived but it came close. I learned that a pig trough does not make a very good boat because it tips over too easily. I remember seeing fish swimming in our yard and the high waters usually brought some really big ones into the main body of the ditch. I once saw a catfish that weighed 74 pounds, but it wasn't in #4 Ditch. It was in the trunk of a man's car and he had caught it in the floodway that #4 Ditch flowed into.

When the waters finally started to recede, the flow of water in the ditch would seem to change directions and begin to flow back South again toward the Floodway, the Little River, the St. Francis River, and then the Mississippi, sometimes leaving behind some big fish of assorted kinds. I used a plain wooden pole as a fishing pole but I can remember catching some good sized fish, catfish, and several different kinds of perch. They tasted good when fried and it was a lot of fun. The receding waters left more than fish behind and it was always a lot of fun to go exploring, to see what interesting articles had been deposited in the yard and fields around us. I remember finding a lot of bottles, all kinds and shapes of bottles, some of which would probably be valuable now. Some articles would bring questions to my mind as I wondered who had lost them and how far away they had come from. It was like a history and a geography lesson in my mind and it was fun. I didn't have very many toys or store bought things to play with but I remember having fun anyway. Those were hard times but like a line of a song says, "There's Hard Times, Sometimes, Anyplace You Go".

When we lived on the banks of #4 ditch, I attended school at Middle Smith School, a small country school house with two rooms. A long, folding, divider wall could be opened up to make the interior of the building into a one-room-school where all eight grades were in the same enclosure. That environment must have been difficult for the Teacher, who spent some portions of time with each class or grade. I remember a few of my teachers and the one I remember more clearly is Miss Pauline Murphy who started teaching school shortly after graduating from High School. I remember her as being a good person and I liked her. Middle Smith School was two and one-half miles from where I lived and I walked to school each day, usually bare-foot in good weather. There were times when some of my shoes were hand-me-downs from my older brother.

I was still quite young when I moved away from Southeast Missouri and since then, there has been a lot of water under the bridge that crosses #4 ditch. Some of the names that I remember from those times in the 1930's and early 1940's are these:

Bannister,  Bates,  Beaird,  Cunningham,  Gobble,  Hester,  Kildow,  Murphy,  Ott,  Panel,  Pointer,  Potts,  Proctor. 

I remember Mason's Store on the road going East at the Eastern edge of Bernie and I remember the cotton gin on the South side of Main Street, just West of the railroad tracks and I recall seeing the smoke rings that came from the smoke stack of it's diesel engine. The Movie Theatre was a few buildings North of that intersection. I remember my Mom and Dad doing some grocery shopping at Ward's Store on Main Street. I remember seeing Soldiers (Airmen) from the Malden Army Air Base, during the early 1940's. The base was a Fighter Pilot training field at first, and sometimes the planes practiced strafing the farm fields. The Airfield then became a Glider Transport base and I saw a lot of C-47 Aircraft pulling gliders through the air. There were signs on the sides of buildings in town saying, "Shhhh, Loose Lips Sink Ships". I was quite young and I wondered just what I might know, that I should keep quiet about. When my Brother Gene entered the Army then I knew that I should keep quiet about anything that he wrote about in his letters. I can recall feeling very proud of him and I still feel that way.

James Lloyd Clark

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