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Tom Chaney: A Merrier Companion there never was
Of Writers And Their Books: "A Merrier Companion There Never Was". Tom reviews Atchafalaya Houseboat by Gwen Carpenter, who together with Calvin Voisin, "a merrier companion there never was," decided in 1970 to recreate the vanishing life of their ancestors in the Atchafalaya Swamp. This column first appeared 15 June 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Joy of Drinking
By Tom Chaney
"A Merrier Companion There Never Was"
Some books cry to be read aloud. Atchafalaya Houseboat is one of them.
Forty-six years ago, I was teaching English to freshmen at Lee's College in Jackson, Kentucky. My colleague Bill Dizney had designed a reading list of fiction to give a sweep of history in the hopes students might be peaked to write about some idea found within.
Tucked in the midst of some dozen splendid novels which I can still name was a slim little Irish volume by Donn Byrne called Messer Marco Polo. After reading it I decided that I could not teach it in any usual way.
I read it to the class. I don't recall how they took it, but I learned a wonderful lesson about storytelling. It is not about opening trade routes to Cathay, but about the Venetian young man in love with the daughter of the Great Kahn, Golden Bells, as Malachi o' the Glen says to his friend Brian Oge. "Golden Bells is as alive to me as herself there by the fire, and I can see Marco Polo as plain as I can see my cousin Randall, and he playing with the dogs. . ."
"If they weren't real and live and warm, what would a story be, Brian Oge, but a jumble of dead words? A house with nobody in it, the poorest thing in the world."
Friends On The Water
I was visiting a friend the other day. He lives on a houseboat moored on one of the larger tributaries of the Green River. I won't say just where he is because he doesn't want the burden of excessive company. He doesn't mind friends, but he doesn't care for the company of high sheriffs, judges, tax collectors, and any more cats.
I spent the night with him and he moved his domicile the very next day -- one distinct advantage of a houseboat. Our talk ranged over forty years of friendship including the pleasures of living on the river.
Of course we told stories -- about the river; about our friends; about scoundrels we have known and books we have read.
Said friend pulled out this beautiful little book by Gwen Roland, Atchafalaya Houseboat [Louisiana State University Press, 2006]. I scanned a couple of chapters and knew that, like Donn Byrne a world away, that Gwen Roland is a storyteller who deserves to be read aloud.
Now, I must admit that living on the water has an appeal to me that transcends logic, comfort, and any of the other things which keep me tied up securely on shore.
Years agone Mark Twain got me hooked on the Mississippi -- first with Huck Finn and Jim on that raft, booming down the river, finding the usual list of human evil on shore and peace on the river. Then in the pilot house with Twain himself as he learns the river. Pretty soon came the river adventures of Harlan Hubbard and Ben Lucian Burman. Storytellers all.
And I've been with my friend to the Atchafalaya River and basin. We've spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon listening to the music of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and tooling around the water in a one-lung steamboat right out of The African Queen.
Gwen Carpenter together with Calvin Voisin, "a merrier companion there never was," decided in 1970 to recreate the vanishing life of their ancestors in the Atchafalaya Swamp. Without power tools and with the aid of a book called How to Build Your Home in the Woods they carved for themselves a houseboat and a decade of life together.
Along about 1974 a young photographer C. C. Lockwood happened by to ask directions to Buffalo Cove. According to Carpenter, "Back then it was unusual for someone to be looking for Buffalo Cove; you either knew where it was or you didn't know it existed."
The three became friends. C. C. brought a little of civilization, news, ice, and a few new friends.
C. C. took so many pictures that Gwen and Calvin came to see his camera as just a part of him. (For one of the photos, click to Plank walks for our chickens on Bayou Chene) He was becoming a fine nature photographer who knew that a few human beings in the shots made for better sales and gallery exhibits. Though he has traveled the world as a maturing environmental nature photographer since, he comes back to the Atchafalaya and his first book.
As the decade wore on Gwen began to write of and publish stories about life on the houseboat in a series called "Swamp Gas Journal." Swamp gas being kin to foxfire.
Leaving The Atchafalaya
Late in the decade, the need for a bit more hard cash to pay a vet bill led Gwen to take a post as cook on a tugboat plying the Louisiana to West Virginia run up the Mississippi to the Ohio and the Kanawha rivers.
She said, "Our flicker of swamp gas lasted just about a decade. It started fading when I fell in love with the riverboat engineer Preston Roland. Calvin and I tackled the problem together like we did everything else. After all, new projects were our specialty."
First they moved the houseboat out of the backwater of the bayou into the main channel of the Atchafalaya. Then Gwen worked with Louisiana Public Radio; then traveling widely doing investigative reporting about other alternate lifestyles.
"Calvin couldn't live without the water."
Preston adjusted well to his new lifestyle: leaving a position of authority "at the age of thirty-seven, he knew he was choosing a future of always starting from the bottom and learning on the job." Gwen taught him welding and photography while she wrote. When Preston's son Brit came to live with them, they learned to live in another swamp, the Everglades.
Gwen wrote, "I'm not the first person to be struck by life's resemblance to a giant circle dance where our first partners hand us off to a succession of dancers, all with their own style.
"We influence each other and take the best of what we learn on to the next, building a repertoire of new steps but always coming back to the ones who taught us to dance.
"It's been a pleasant surprise to discover that as we turn gray and grow rounder, the youngsters we once were remain firmly at our core."
This mature look in life's mirror is far different from the much younger Gwen who had trouble knowing herself in the first photographs.
But it is the stories, well told, that matter. The stories by and about Alcide Verret who lived just down the bayou and whose welcome to all was robust, well laced with red beans, gumbo and seven dollar bread pudding. The pudding took that name when Alcide's social security check was increased by seven bucks. "Hmmph," he snorted. "That will only pay for one of my bread puddings."
"Some of the stories are startling or funny in their own right, but many are entertaining simply because of the vivid language in which they are told."
True of Alcide and true of storytellers from Homer on down through Mark Twain and Donn Byrne to Gwen Roland.
And it was true of my friend those few nights ago on the waters of Kentucky as the mists rose around us and we each found a place to rest telling stories across the darkness. Our talk drifted down to murmur and sleep.
True also the next morning as we sipped shanty boat coffee and quietly watched four neighborly deer come down for their drink and morning graze.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
This story was posted on 2013-06-16 04:14:50
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