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Footprints From The Past
The Beginning of the Quest
I believe part of the growing up process involves learning about one's ancestors, or at least those who are remembered fondly by their children and grandchildren's progeny. But sometimes we are also affected by those relatives who aren't recalled in such a loving manner. This was one of those occasions.
My great-grandmother was born deep in the Okefenokee Swamp. She lived in a house on the banks of the Suwanee River with her other siblings in the late 1800's. She was a mere child when her father, who was a deputy, and his brother, her uncle, who was sheriff at the time, were murdered by a band of outlaws seeking revenge for a family member the lawmen had arrested a few days before.
The outlaws caused so much terror among the remaining families of the lawmen that all of them decided to return back to where they originally came from in Middle Georgia. All but one of my great grandmother's cousins, that is. “I wonder what ever happened to Ike” my great-grandmother said while we were sitting on the front porch at my grand parent's house one late afternoon.
“We never heard from him again after we fled thuh swamp. I wisht you boys would go on down there sometime, and see if y'all could get any word of 'em. I'd like to know what become of Ike afore I pass on.”
The Journey to the Swamp
But she died before learning of Ike's life, of how and where he ended up. So it was that my two uncles and I decided to visit the swamp again to see if we could grant my great-grandmother's ghost—or spirit if you will-- a bit of peace of mind about her cousin.
It was the winter of 1964 with me being only 14 years of age at the time, and I looked at the quest as an adventure of sorts. Feeling lucky to be able to accompany my two uncles to the great swamp, I never considered it would be anything but a fun and enlightening experience for me. The innocence of children.....
We lived only an hour or so from the swamp so it was no long trip by car, although the scenery along the route made it seem much further because of the monotony of the endless pine forests and arrow straight roads on this not-too-distant past ocean floor.
No hills to speak of, and not many vehicles traveled this way, unless you counted the occasional log truck you could see coming miles before it passed by going in the opposite direction. Except the buzzards feasting on roadkill,l and the occasional herd of wild hogs browsing along the roadside, we seemed to be the only livings things out that day
It was one of the first really cold days we'd had here in the deep south this winter, one of the reasons we could get out of farm work for a bit. My uncles also farmed and they too seemed excited about the quest we were on.
We first checked at the Clinch County courthouse to see if we could get some sort of starting point to consider. We did indeed find where Ike had paid taxes on on piece of land in 18--, but nothing more was found concerning his whereabouts after that date.
Rituals of Country Living
It seemed every small town in southern Georgia had its own “Dead Dick Corner” back then, and if the truth be told, many still do today. Sure enough,we soon sighted a hardware store with several old men out front enjoying what little bit of warmth they could absorb from the sun.
After passing the time of day with them for a few minutes—it would be considered rude to merely blurt out a question without showing them we were also good southern folk—one of the old men wearing a faded pair of overalls, a red plaid flannel shirt, and a battered gray felt hat, ventured an opinion.
“Ole man Jim McKay is the one you want ta talk to,” he said “ he knew all the old timers and their families too.” After getting directions to Mr. McKay's place near the swamp itself, we proceeded with our gallant quest, and after another half hour of driving some isolated sandy roads we finally found the McKay homestead.
There were several trucks parked in he yard and around it leaving us to pull our car into a side lane. Only then did we find out this was the day Ole Jim was killing hogs.
Lucky for us Ole Jim's grown children—including a brood of grand-young 'uns, running around like a covey of baby quail—had started well before day and were finishing stuffing the last of the sausages as we drove up. I could see the many hams, shoulders, and sides of bacon arranged on fresh palmetto fronds and completely covered in salt.
The smokehouse was already showing wisps of smoke redolent of pecan and peach wood. The link sausage would begin curing today but the salt meat would need a few days before it too would do time on the smoking racks.
One of the little red headed hen's in the covey kindly pointed out her “Granpa” when we asked for Ole Jim, took her thumb out of her mouth an aimed her hand just like a pistol, with the forefinger making no mistake as to who was the intended target. Mr. James McKay was enjoying the sun, his old chair--barely bothered by his solid weight—was propped up against the outside wall of his weathered house.
Mr. James looked like many old men his age. It seemed to me—and I was 14 years old you remember-- like you could take an old man and slap a pair of faded jeans or overalls on him, add a light colored shirt and suspenders to his attire, and top it off with a with an equally faded 'go-to-hell' hat, and you'd come out with some version of Mr. James.
Obviously, the old dwelling had never known a paintbrush on its sun bleached surface, and it seemed to be fitting for some reason or other. Even here in the sun it was still cold, though it was around noon by now. I was hungry, cold, and ready to get to the heart of the matter. So we all were pleased when Ole Jim invited us to share lunch with him and his brood.
Meeting Mr. Jim
Asking of Ike
After a fine meal of pancakes covered with cane syrup and a slab of butter, scrambled eggs, fresh pan sausage, bacon and biscuits, and of course grits with red eye gravy, all of this downed by plenty of hot coffee, we finally got down to the heart of the matter.
Both of my uncles were a bit on the shy side, disliked talking to strangers for some reason. I strongly suspect this was the main reason I was invited along on this adventure. Yes, they knew I would ask plenty of questions as I was known for my curiosity in the family.
“Mr. Jim” I began, “we shore appreciate the fine food you provided, it really was good on this cold day. I hope we haven't hindered y'all as we didn't mean to interrupt your hog killin'. We're just on a gallivant, looking for a lost relative who most certainly is dead by now. His name was Ike Brady.”
When I uttered Ike's name, Mr. James snapped his head up quickly and whispered, “Ike Brady.” And by the expression on his face, and the way he stared at my uncles and I, I could tell he cared little for Ike. I only hoped he didn't carry a grudge like some of the swamp people are wont to do.
But He relaxed after a moment and apologized for his reaction saying, “I'm sorry boys, it's just thet name brangs back memories I'd just as soon forgit, were buried I thought, but sometimes memories are harder to kill than them who fill 'em.”
Acts Of So-Called Honor
It seems Mr. James was about my age when he first met Ike on Billy's Island in 1905. This piece of high ground in the very midst of the Okefenokee Swamp became a small town filled with lumberjacks of all races of men. It was as rough an environment as one can imagine at the time, was a place where men toiled in the great swamp for their livelihood, and often fought for their lives doing so.
The vast cypress and pine forests of the Okefenokee were sold after the Civil War ended when the carpetbaggers moved in for the kill. Ancient cypress trees thousands of years old were put to the ax and saw for the pennies per acre the land cost.
There was a big sawmill on Billy's Island, connected to the outside world by a railroad mounted on pilings driven deep into the peat of the swamp. And Ike was part of the devastation posed to the men who worked in this watery hell.
“He wuz a bully” Mr. James remembered, “wuz always pickin' at my Pa, a-tryin' tuh get a rise out ov 'em. He wuz right tall, with long arms, while my Pa was short and stocky. Pa wasn't scared, not at all, but he didn't like tuh fight like some o' thuh men did. But when Ike slapped me down in front 'o my Ma, Pa thought he had no choice but tuh stand up tuh 'em.”
On Billy's Island
Being A Man
“The logging company frowned on the men fightin', but they so did all the same.” Mr. James had started his memories and they wouldn't be denied. “Thar wuz a small clearin' 'bout a mile from town, a circle cut clear fer jest sech a purpose. I remember Pa rubbin' his body with hog lard tuh make it harder fer Ike to get a grip on 'im."
"He also coated thuh palms of his hands an' thuh soles of his feet with pine tar so he could hold Ike better. I also 'member Ma beggin' 'im tuh back out of thuh fight, cryin' her heart out tuh no avail. But I knew Pa would go, he had no real choice in thuh matter, not if he was tuh call hisself a man.”
“I had tuh go, o' course, if nuthin' else tuh show 'em I was a man too.” Mr. James looked his age now, the telling of the past seemed to put years on his old frame, made him more ancient to the eye. I suppose bad memories have a power of their own, can often wield that power when it's least expected. I witnessed the truth of this effect that cold Georgia day.
They “went at it like wild hawgs a-fightin.” said the old man. “I never seed sech a savage brawl afore, an' ain't never seen one sincet.” He tilted his back and seemed to be picturing the long ago event as if watching a movie reel in his mind. And perhaps it was just as clear to him.
I've heard blind people develop their other senses to make up for their loss of vision. Old Jim seemed to possess such a power today as he said, “Ike Brady wuz one o' thuh meanest people I ever knowed, wuz allus lookin' fer somebody tuh torment,but my pa finally had his fill of it."
"There were quite a few men waitin' in the circle when we arrived. Ike was already in attendance, talkin' his talk as usual. There was to be no bitin' nor gougin' of eyeballs as there was in the past. It was to be a civilized brawl."
“ Some said they fought for over an hour, but it seemed much longer to me at the time. Sometimes they would get out of the cleared circle and end up amongst the palmettoes and scrub oaks. Pa held his own till finally, Ike threw him headlong into a small pine tree and knocked Pa unconscious."
"With a blood curdling scream of victory, Ike launched himself into the air and landed with both feet on pa's chest. Pa never regained consciousness. The doctor said a broken rib punctured his heart.”
“I can still see him laid out at thuh ole house with my mother cleaning his body up for thuh funeral," Old Jim said. "You could clearly see thuh footprints Ike left on Pa's chest with his last victory stomp.” After a reflective pause Mr. James said “I cain't tell ye fer sure what happened tuh Ike after thet boys."
Then Mr. James looked us all straight in the eyes and said " I heard he went a-missin' in thuh swamp a few weeks later. In fact, I feel right shore he died in thet swamp.” With that he smiled for the first time since he began his story.
I suppose some things are better left unknown and untold. On the long ride back home we decided what we'd discovered in the swamps fell into that category. It's true you know, you cannot choose your kin...
True stories are often harder to tell than those of fiction. This tale is an example of such. These events happened much as I related them, with the exception of using real names of course. Also. I was not along for the ride to the swamps. Creative license and all that..........