Box fans, window fan, ceiling fan, tuna-fish sandwiches, train horns, sand, donuts in the morning, the beach, seining, hot summer days, cold-water showers, afternoon naps, no TV, no telephone, sand, stacks of Reader’s Digest books, dart board, cards, sand, late-evening thunderstorms, crabbing, fishing, and oh, I almost forgot to mention…sand. These wonderful memories all seem to bundle up together in my mind when the long days of summer come and make me long for “The Coast,” “the camp” — or more endearingly dubbed by the kids as the “Choo-Choo Train House.”
The Choo-Choo Train House was located in Clermont Harbor, Mississippi and was originally a school house that sat five blocks inland from the beach and a few houses from the railroad. It had been a school from 1911, when it was built, until the 40′s when the town built a new school. At that time it was put up for sale and my grandmother and my step-grandfather (Pa-pa) bought it when my mother was about thirteen years old. They would spend the entire summer down at the coast while Pa-pa would go back to Baton Rouge on the weekdays to work in his store. He would head back to the coast on Friday evenings to be with his family again. When I was a child, we’d go down at least a few times each summer.
The old camp was one big room divided into three parts with half-walls surrounding the kitchen area in the middle. It also contained two fully-enclosed bathrooms — one with a tub and one half-bath. There were large windows on every wall for opening to allow a cross-breeze when the weather was hot. The old ceiling fan in the front room made a loud, grinding noise as it started spinning, but when it got going, could blow a part in your hair. There were beds in the front room and beds in the back room. But there was one special twin bed right by the front screen door where my Pa-pa took a nap every afternoon. It was difficult to keep a bunch of kids quiet for two hours and not let the screen door slam while he slept!
Special days for me started at 4 AM when I would get up to go fishing with my dad. It was still dark as I tried to get dressed quietly. My dad would turn on a small lamp at the kitchen table and make French bread toast in the old Munsey toaster. After scraping the blackened toast into the sink with a knife (quietly) because we left it too long in the toaster, we would finish eating and head to Bordage’s (pronounced Bo-dash’s) fishing marina inland on Bayou (Bye) Caddy. It would still be dark outside as I put on my orange life-preserver and got into our skiff. Daddy would start the outboard motor and it always seemed so much louder in the early morning. As we made our way down the bayou toward the Gulf with the marsh grass on each side of us, shining in the water as the boat glided through were phosphorescent organisms that would glow briefly in the darkness. About 30 minutes of winding through the watery passages we would reach the mouth of the bayou just as it was getting light. We’d fish for an hour or more and then head back to Bordage’s. We always ended our trip with a Barq’s rootbeer and a pack of peanut butter crackers. I still love that combination!
We would get back to the house just in time to put bathing suits on and go to the beach with my brothers and sister and whichever cousins happened to visiting at the same time. Playing in the shallow surf, if the tide was in, or playing on the sand of the sandbars running and splashing through the tide pools was our fun when the tide was out. We’d head back to the camp around lunch when it got too hot to stay out there. Each of us got a turn at the hose out back to rinse the sand off of ourselves and then we’d do the complete job in the cold shower inside. Brrrr! And no matter how much you rinsed off, you still found sand somewhere on your body when you got out!
Lunch usually consisted of tuna sandwiches or other cold lunch meat sandwich, then the sleepy people would find a bed and flop on top for a nap under the breeze of the ceiling fan. Those of us who never napped, would read comic books or play a quiet board game or card game. Sometimes Mom would give us each a dime to walk down to Garcia’s (Gar-sha’s), the local general store to get an ice cream. I believe she did that mostly to get us out of the camp during her nap time.
Finally when the nappers awoke, we’d get our damp swimsuits back on and head to the beach and play until the sun went down. If the tide was out, we’d seine between the sandbars in the tide pools and see what little fish, shrimp or crabs we could catch. The youngest children always enjoyed the flipping minnows jumping on the net as we pulled the seine up onto a sandbar.
When the sun went down we’d head back to the camp for a meal of hot dogs or boiled crabs if we went crabbing at the train trestle that day — after going through the “de-sanding” ritual again of the hose and cold shower. By the way, one of the best feelings in the world is to be clean, cool and in fresh pajamas after being hot all day and in a damp sandy bathing suit.
After supper it was time to get on — not in –our beds until it cooled off. We had our radio tuned to WWL- New Orleans at 9:00 PM to hear CBS Mystery Theater. We listened intently as the opening trademark “creaking door” would open and E. G. Marshall would introduce that evening’s suspenseful tale.
Before we went to sleep, we would dust any sand out of the bed — and there always was some — and Pa-pa would tell us to cover our heads with our sheet while he sprayed the inside of the camp with the flit gun to kill the mosquitoes. Going to sleep hot, but waking up in the cool morning with the birds chirping in the trees outside the open windows is one of my fondest memories of being at the Coast.
The Coast is where my parents met and courted. It is where all of us kids put our feet in the water of the Gulf for the first time. It’s where we went each summer to relax. It’s where we had family reunions every year around my parents’ anniversary.
Yes, it was hot. Yes, it was sandy. But it was a nice place to go and have no distractions, to be with family, to bring friends, to enjoy the beach, and to eat and sleep as much as you wanted.
The Coast is where we used to enjoy all of these things, but those days are gone. Along with many other people’s precious possessions, the Choo-Choo Train House and Clermont Harbor were destroyed in August of 2005 by the unprecedented power of Hurricane Katrina. This stretch of the Mississippi Coast was one of the hardest hit areas of the hurricane. The sadness I felt from the loss of our camp and Clermont Harbor was the same as if I had lost a member of my family. I mourned for many years, and I still do.
Nothing can replace the old camp, or Garcia’s, or Bordages, but one story demonstrates the resiliency of the place and its people.
One hot day a few weeks after the storm while we were cleaning up debris on our property, my mom proceeded to pull out a checkered table cloth, spread it on the surviving picnic table and began to set out cold lunch meat and sandwich fixings. We all sat and enjoyed our lunch under the sparse shade of one of the remaining, bedraggled trees. It was at that moment that I knew that not everything had been destroyed. The heartbeat of the Coast was still there.