Apparently, my life will be bookended living in proximity to a stretch of water I’ve never actually touched.
My father was a cotton farmer in the Bradley River Bottoms, barely inside the Arkansas border, approximately sixty-six miles north of Shreveport. His father, my grandfather, owned some land, but much of what they farmed together they leased from other landowners. There had been land once—ninety-eight acres of it, but the Red River took it. They say the river changed course and by the time I was born in 1964, the land had been eaten away by the current and washed downstream.
When my father died, we got washed downstream too. Daddy died in the VA Hospital in Shreveport in October of 1969. I was five years old, the youngest of six. Even today the big, red brick hospital looms over the trees whenever I drive north on Clyde Fant toward downtown. I drive with the river that took our land on one side and the building that took my father on the other.
Like many memories of my memories of Daddy, I have a hazy recollection of being taken to the hospital to see him. My brother, two years older than me, insists we were let into the room, but I don’t recall this. What I do remember is standing in the parking lot, my grandfather, smelling of Aqua Velva aftershave and Prince Albert pipe tobacco, kneeling between my brother and me, instructing us to look up at the rows of windows.
“There he is. He’s waving to you. Do you see him?”
I could not see anyone. Papaw told me to count and look again. I pretended to count and then I pretended to wave to my dying father.
I never asked my mother, who remained in the room, if Daddy saw us waving. Could he tell I couldn’t see him? That I couldn’t pick his out from the rows and columns of windows in that high up building? Was that the last time he ever saw his youngest children? Was that the last time he saw his parents and they their only child? Did he watch his mother and daddy shepherd his two youngest to the car? Another question I never asked.
We would have had to cross the river at some point to get back to Bradley, in whatever sedan Papaw drove at the time. Back when seatbelts were considered no more than a nuisance to be shoved into the cushions, I gladly relinquished the front seat to my older brother for the roominess and freedom to loll in the back. Maybe we crossed from Shreveport into Bossier on the Texas Street Bridge, then went north on Benton road all the way to Bradley before turning off to head to the bottoms. Maybe Papaw turned north first on Highway Seventy One and crossed on the Spring Bank Ferry.
I loved riding the ferry. I found it fascinating that the road just stopped, sloping down to the river. The only barriers were the metal gates, painted the same bright orange as the ferry, the operators placed across the roadway at sundown before going home.
I always hoped the ferry would be idling on the opposite side of the river whenever we got to the loading area. Papaw would sometimes let me honk the car horn to summon it to our side. It was low slung, loud and held a maximum of six cars. We were never allowed to get out, feel the wind rushing past or stick our hands outs to feel the spray the engine kicked up. Too dangerous. There was a big sign anyway, one of the first things I learned to read because it was stressed so often. “ PASSENGERS MUST REMAIN IN VEHICLE” it said in bold, black letters. So we did.
I crossed the river at the Texas Street Bridge on foot, alone when I was ten. (We settled in Bossier City, for a time after Daddy died.) One night Mother ran out of gas on the Shreveport side. She somehow thought sending me over to the Mobil station that once sat at the foot of the bridge on the Bossier City side was a fine idea. I can’t remember what I was supposed to do once I got there. It was windy, cold and dark and I fought off panic as I half-ran across the span, never looking down to the water. A plain-clothes police detective stopped to help mother and found me just I arrived at the gas station. After flashing his badge and calling me by name, he filled a gas can and took me back to Mother and our car. He sent us on our way. Sometimes I wonder what he thought of us and if Mother ever paid him for the gas he bought that night. Another question I forgot to ask. And my mother was never one to talk much about the past.
The river has never held any allure for recreation for me. I don’t have the patience for fishing and the danger of swimming in it was impressed on me early. When Daddy was a teenager, on a dare from friends, he waded into the water near where the bit of useless land remained. He swam to a sandbar in the middle of the current. He stood up on it, waving to the friends, to prove he won the dare. The sandbar gave way beneath him and he got sucked below the surface by a strong undertow. He struggled for several minutes against the current and the swirling whirlpools. Managing to fight his way back to shore, his friends dragged him from the water. As he sputtered and coughed up river water, they swore each other to secrecy. My grandparents did not find out for many years that their son had almost drowned in the rust-colored, muddy water that day.
All of his children heard (I only second-hand) about his harrowing experience the very last time he swam in the Red. We were taught to fear it. And if family legend wasn’t enough to keep me out of the waters of the river, a hot August afternoon in 2010 drove the point into my heart. Six children dead in one afternoon. No, I’ll never go in.
After all the moving around I’ve done in my life, from Arkansas to Louisiana, to Texas, back to Arkansas to Germany and then California, I have landed back in Shreveport, mostly likely for good.
The river is back in my life, but only its periphery. I’ve walked above it on the boardwalk and piers, jogged alongside it, crossed it too many times to count, in vehicles and on foot, felt it sway beneath a riverboat casino, watched its slow march out of its banks two years in a row, eaten fish from its waters, even admired it, but that is all.
Perhaps the river means more to other people. For me it has only ever been something to be gotten across—an impediment to getting where I want to go. It’s untrustworthy ribbon of water winding its way through my shaky family history. Water near enough to touch, but won’t, if I’m lucky.
Loretta Casteen, 2018