by Tim Gilmore, 4/23/2017
LeRoy grew up off McGirts Creek, off General Road, off the little community called Whitehouse, says his Gran’pap called those wet sunken lands beyond the trees “Cracker Swamp.” He didn’t know that 200 years ago, Isaiah Hart, founder of Jacksonville, also called this place Cracker Swamp, though he called the Hart plantation here “Paradise.”
His Gran’pap walked him down through the marsh and the land that stepped down through the water, taught him humility in the face of the waters and trees, taught him to shoot. They shot squirrels and pigeons, 49 and 55 years ago.
Time was a different fish back then. LeRoy wandered in wading boots with his grandfather all day sometimes, a justifiable reason, his parents thought, for skipping school.
“We’d’a start out a’fore the sun come up,” he says. “Sometimes’d be this mighty and eerie glow on the surface of the shallow water. Sometimes’d be quiet. Then, and you could hear it, the time changin’, this certain buzz from one insect, rattle from another, then a whistle from the trees sounded like somebody whistlin’ for his dog. All that a’fore the chorus a’ frogs.”
He’d come to know this summer sunrise sound as that of a little and long-tailed bird, a flycatcher, the Eastern Wood-Pewee.
“Once we heard the peewee cry, by then,” LeRoy says, “all the swamp done come alive.”
Standing among cypress knees and sweetgums, LeRoy looks at me delightedly. The light’s dark gold with an odd tinge of blue, but brightening. “Most folks don’t know there’s a music festival out here every morning.”
When he was a boy, he’d wander for miles up McGirts Creek and down.
Alligators he came to know by that particular burbling he calls “knobs in the mud,” usually nostrils, but sometimes the eyes, sometimes just the protuberances standing above the eyes of the killer.
Rattlesnakes he came to know by smell. They reeked of musk, “like a goat,” he says, “’cept evil.”
He’d heard the Devil could appear in the form of a great-horned goat walking upright like a man. He knew the smell of ordinary goats, but if ever he smelled the particular goat the Devil might inhabit, it would smell just like a rattlesnake.
Across McGirts Creek from Cracker Swamp sits a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Incorporated, Tee Em, Trademark. In other words, the chain of hokey Southern-themed restaurants and gift shops, begun September 1969, are as “cracker” as the franchise’s “homemade” chicken and “dumplins” are homemade.
And Cracker Barrel serves neither squirrel nor squab.
“If they done that,” he says, “Big-couch comf’t’ble Southerners today” wouldn’t find their “conception ’a Crackers so goddamn quaint.”
“Squabs,” he says, “is the babies ’a them tall-leggèd birds.”
He says, “The Crackers and the niggers’d kill ’em, a whole hedge of ’em we called ’em, hedge or a sedge, and they was good eatin’ when them was your choices.”
LeRoy, who’s skinny and light black—“blackened or grilled whitefish,” he says—laughs and says too much hamburger and Pepsi and beer is required to keep today’s Cracker afloat in his Ford F-Series Super Duty pickup truck: “You need’a be 300 pounds just to drive it.”
We’d met first, early this morning, where his childhood house once stood. The house is gone now, but in the lot beside it, a small concrete block house roosts in the sad dirt with all its windows broken. Someone’s taped tinfoil over the windows. An electric generator rumbles against a gray wall.
We’d walked the scrapyard through the abandoned open-air CMC Rebar warehouses where LeRoy used to work. The tall rusting carapaces never stop rattling and trembling, whether with the wind, the pace of their own decay, or the subtle movements of the earth underneath.
As we passed Whitehouse Elementary, he’d told me what places to stay away from. Between two new suburban-looking homes, a dirt road stretches back to a series of trailers and metal sheds and junked cars and boats.
“Now,” said Leroy, “Fella live in there, he sell firewood and weed and guns and scrap metal and meth. Strange clouds and smells in them trees. Anything you need that you should’n’a need. A real Jack’a All Trades.”
Down here in the mosquitoes and muck, I ask him if he knows how Cracker Swamp got its name. He looks at me like I’m telling a joke. I admire his wrinkles, how he pushes them wearily across his face with the palms of his disenchanted and jaundiced hands. I hope to earn such wrinkles myself.
I tell him how Pleasant Daniel Gold wrote a 700 page book in the 1920s called History of Duval County, Florida, in which he quotes a Confederate veteran named John R. Blocker, who explains the origin of the name of the swamp.
During the Civil War, Whitehouse was known as Ten-Mile Station. After the Confederate victory west at the Battle of Olustee, a Confederate general who stopped three Union train cars leaving their posts between Baldwin and Ten-Mile for Jacksonville found packed into one car 400 boxes of hardtack rations.
Gold writes in the mid-1920s, “This carload of hardbread was captured by the Confederates at the point where the railroad crosses a branch of McGirts Creek, and for this reason the place was called ‘Cracker Swamp,’ a name it still retains.”
“Mmm,” says LeRoy.
“What’s that mean?” I ask.
“Name it still retains?”
“Yeah,” I say, “a hundred years ago.”
He nods wearily, eyelids sagging, pupils stone-cold resilient against his upper lids. LeRoy says, and we slog through marsh grass, “Gran’pap called it that.”
When he starts to laugh, I ask him what’s so funny.
“I ain’t yet told you,” he says, “the most glorious and terrorous sight ever I did see.” He says “terrorous,” not “terrible,” not “terrorist,” and also “glorious.”
I grab hold of an accidentally convenient liana. Strangely bright yellows and golden greens swirl about my calves.
“That makes you laugh?” I ask.
LeRoy looks back over his shoulder, says, “No, goddammit, no.”
What’s funny, he says, is that Crackers would tell a tale of Crackers explaining to other Crackers whether the swamp was named for Crackers or for crackers.
In fact, the Hart family plantation called “Paradise,” located out here at Cracker Swamp, where Isaiah Hart’s daughter died in an accidental fire in the 1850s, covered more than 2,000 acres. The founder of Jacksonville died out here at Paradise as well, early September, 1861.
“Yeah,” LeRoy says, and his knees cross cypress knees. “I was down here with my Gran’pap, had me some minnows to bait some crawdads, earthworms to bait some mudbugs, and thass when I seen the goddamn thing.”
A bald eagle’s nest had added upon itself and lurched leeward atop a cedar for 20 or 30 years.
LeRoy tilts his head and laughs down deep in his throat and calls this vision his “inn-doctor-nation.”
We stand still in the shadows and shallows, and “I seen,” he says, “the eagle come down to the water, his fishin’ was easy.”
Yet LeRoy had not seen the beast steadily rising from the murk underneath.
The bird descended, its wings raised and out, its talons sharp and open, the bird, full of its own being, wholly bringing death into its life, ready to ascend to the tops of trees with its watery earthen prey.
Then rose the reptile, its jaws wide open, its whole underwater subterranean all-being tooth-and-jaw consummation, the long flat earthbound beast prepared to take in its jaws down to muck chambers in watery depths underground a battalion, a battle tank, your family, or your shaky understanding, assumed strong, of what you think life might be or even mean.
LeRoy pauses for a long moment, looks deep into the dense, self-absorbing, buzzing, singing, and meaning-calling swamp. Then he starts to laugh.
I’m puzzled: “What?”
“Hardbread,” he says. “Place be called Cracker Barrel! Ain’t nobody eatin’ at some franchise call itself Yankee Hardbread!”
“But what happened?” I demand, impatient in spite of myself, eaten up in frustration, mosquitoes, and my sad and attenuated end of patience.
His face drops. His jowls fall. The whites of his eyes seem even to darken. LeRoy looks at me, deeply disappointed.
Through elderberry underwood, we wander forward, as small slick bodies too fast for us to see plunk into the scum of sediment that coats the still filth of the waters everywhere around us.
Finally LeRoy turns back to me, hesitates, choosing his words, and says, “I ain’t tell’d almost nobody that story. Never once. You s’pose to be able to tell what happened without me tellin’.”
He says I should think about it a little more. He’s sure I can figure it out.