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youthful memories

The Grotto

In the early 1970’s, I had moved to a small riverboat town on the Mississippi River with a population of about one-thousand. When the river barges stopped for repairs, the population grew by at least one-hundred. I was 22 years old at the time and was drinking beer quite excessively.

Sitting on a bar stool at the Long Branch Saloon one afternoon, a fight broke out between a local and a “river rat”, a name given to the barge boys waiting for their watercraft repair. Having been water-locked on a “dry” barge for sometimes months, these fellows seemed to stampede the ramps to one of the two local taverns where they were eager to imbibe in their favorite alcoholic beverages. Being new to such fiascos, I was stunned to see the lack of aid being given by the local drinkers to one of their own. Of course, in the afternoon, the bar was normally frequented only by older men who seemed to have just enough strength to raise their mug of beer from bar top to their mouth. Spying a 4’ long wooden 2×4 holding up the entrance to the bartenders work area, I pulled it out from its intended purpose. The countertop being released to a rapid fall, made an incredibly ruckus sound that got everyone’s attention, except for the brawling bar customers. I loudly announced my intention of leveling the 2×4 on the back of the river rat that was straddling the bloodied local boy. He continued to pummel the helpless fellow, and I swiftly landed a massive blow between the aggressor’s shoulder blades. The rush of air expelled from his lungs was audible! He collapsed to the right side of his victim, allowing the battered boy to escape his tormentor.

The barmaid had called the police and the owner of the establishment. As the river rat was recovering his breath and climbing to his feet, the police entered the front door. They arrested both men for disorderly conduct and removed them from the barroom. When the bar owner arrived, he asked what happened and was given details by several customers and the barmaid. He turned to me and asked if I wanted a job. Being told that I could drink while I worked, I started a shift the next evening.

In such a small town, news travels rapidly and is usually highly exaggerated. Much like the fable of the “Seven in One Blow”, they had created quite an audacious reputation for me as a brave, bad-ass character. I let this misjudgment take hold, all the while secretly hoping and praying that I would never have to participate in another drunken brawl.

Also in small towns, gossip is a common activity, and if it is not about them, most people see no harm in it. As a new person in the area and a damn good barmaid, I was treated to quite an array of storytelling and more so as the drinks flowed freely. One young lady especially received the brunt of most of these gossipy tales. Men and women alike battered this girl’s reputation more brutally than the river rat that had bloodied the local boy.

I had never laid eyes on this particular person, but it did not keep me from repeating to others the things I heard from my customers. The things said about her made me dislike her immensely. “Nancy Jo” could rate right up there with Lizzie Borden according to local bar-flies. She was never accused of murder, but just short of that. So I wanted nothing to do with this person and made it known she had better not enter “my bar”!

Most nights, after closing down the Long Branch, a large group of young folks like me would head up the road that followed the flow of the “Mighty Miss”. In one roadside curve was a large natural grotto along the river bluffs which created the most beautiful landscape. Although recreated as a religious site, the young locals used it as a party hangout. At night and under the influence of alcohol, I did not notice how trashy the area was becoming. Rarely did I go to that spot during the daylight, so when I happened to drive by one day, I was saddened to see the part I was playing in the ravaging of such a naturally sacred space.

At work that night, I tried to recruit aid in cleaning up our favorite drinking haunt. No one, not a single person was willing to take part in the cleanup. Many thought I was joking or was just being sanctimonious, but there was something inside me that had made a mental shift. I no longer wanted to partake in drinking and trashing up this magnificent grotto. I did not stop drinking, just trashing!

I bought a box of heavy duty trash bags and headed up the river road early the next morning. I had filled three large bags by 9 am. Many people honked their horns and gave me a kindly wave. Sort of what a “thumbs up” would be today. Sitting on the ledge of the grotto with Mary and Jesus behind me, I was taking a break when a car pulled over. A young lady came up to where I was sitting and said “Hi, I’m Nan, do you need any help?” I told her that I would greatly appreciate it, and we began chatting while picking up cigarette butts and beer cans. We laughed and talked on many different subjects, and I found myself thinking how much we had in common. I felt fortunate to have found such a wonderful new friend. She had to leave by noon and said she would put her number in my car. I worked another hour or so, and then loaded up the bags into my car.

The note in my car read “Nancy Jo 594-3312. There was a story about her and a story about me. I know neither revealed a true story!

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About Barbara Duncan Mathies

Owner of the French Lick Dome - Lodge & Retreat Center A 5 bedroom, 6 bath home on 22 acres A place to regain your health - both mental and physical


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