Flat as…Posted: May 6, 2008
You’ve heard the term “flat as a pancake.” Well, that was the landscape I was born to. The flat Mississippi Delta.
First of all, the Delta is a confusing term to some. When you think of the word delta, you think of alluvial deposits at the mouth of a river. I’m sure there is a delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but that’s not the delta I’m talking about. I’m talking about the blues-famous and capitalized Delta that stretches a span of one hundred fifty miles south of Memphis. A more accurate term would be the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the flat plain formed between the Yazoo River — born of the confluence of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha near Greenwood — and the Mississippi River.
If you look at a map of the state of Mississippi and put your thumb on Vicksburg and middle finger on Memphis, halfway in between, just a smidgen east of the Old Man River, a red dot marks a town called Cleveland where Highway 8 crosses Highway 61.
Here’s how flat it is there: the only hill in Cleveland is the railroad track, that being a very slight incline, running along the main street across from two blocks of storefronts. As a little girl, I got a thrill every time Mama drove up, over, and down the “little hill.” When I took drivers training in high school — in a straight shift car, one with a clutch and gears you had to change as you built speed — one of things Coach McCaleb made me do was to stop on the incline of the railroad track and start again without sliding backwards. If memory serves me correctly, I probably wasn’t successful at that, like I wasn’t successful at remembering to use the clutch or at parallel parking. Also, if memory serves me correctly, they have removed some of that downtown track.
If my street flooded during spring rains, there was nowhere for the water to go. It couldn’t just “run off.” It grew higher, crested, crept up over the curbs and into front yards, and stayed for hours. The neighborhood children had about six to eight inches of water to splash and wade in. I loved the flooded streets because after the rain stopped, I put on my swimsuit and got smack dab in the middle of it. Once, someone paddled a little fishing boat down Deering Street.
If it snowed during the winter months — and it rarely did, except an inch or two every three or four years — there was no such thing as sledding. You can’t sled on a flat surface, although some kids did go to the railroad track. We threw snowballs or built snowmen or made hot chocolate and looked at the white frosty stuff out the window.
If we seriously had the urge to slide down anything, we’d have to go to the levee. To anyone who doesn’t know anything about the Delta, there’s a system of levees on either side of the Mississippi River, built to hold floodwaters. Now, folks, the levee is a high hill and steep! Picture an upside down V. A narrow gravel road runs atop it, and grass grows on its sides. The river town of Rosedale is ten miles from Cleveland, the hamlets of Beulah and Benoit just south of Rosedale, all with easy levee access.
I can’t write a memoir without thinking about sliding down the levee.
As high school juniors and seniors, once we all got our drivers licenses, we gained a little freedom and could sneak off to places like Benoit and the levee. I couldn’t drive my car over there because “them tires are thin as tissue paper,” my dad would say; “they’ll blow out.” That was his plan to keep me off the highway and thus safe. A few times when a bunch of girls got bored in town with nothing to do but go “ridin’ around,” swing through Bob’s Drive-In to get a lemon-vanilla Dr Pepper or a real cherry Coke, go to Simmons Drugs and try out all the perfumes, or make prank phone calls, we went to the levee, especially on a spring or fall day when we were itchin’ to get outdoors and in the sunshine. Seven or eight of us would go together, as many as could squeeze into somebody’s Chevy or Plymouth. We’d roll the windows down and crank the radio up. We’d pack big sheets of cardboard in the trunk, flattened out from big boxes.
We’d park on the road atop the levee, each grab a cardboard sheet, and we’d let ‘er rip with abandon. Down we’d slide, squealing, hanging on to the edges of the sheet. I remember the bump and the bounce, the wind on my face, the speed of the ride, the screams, the camaraderie, … and the sore behind. The walk back up to the top was a little taxing and curtailed our fun somewhat, for Delta girls were never good at climbing steep hills. Besides, the ride was so tough it quickly wore out our cardboard sheets.
I’ve been to the highest point east of the Mississippi River, I’ve scaled the Rockies, I’ve been to the top of the Swiss Alps, but nothing matches the thrill of that Delta “hill.”