Old-timers help ‘pilgrims’ learn about outdoors

This picture of a young Leather Britches with a beaver hide brought up memories for the author.

“Be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” — 2 Timothy 2:23-24

In the movie “Jeremiah Johnson,” the title character, played by Robert Redford, arrives at a fur trading outpost planning to set out into the wilderness. But when it comes to the mountains, he’s a complete greenhorn.

After nearly starving and freezing to death, he meets an old bear hunter, played by Will Geer, who takes him under his wing. The old man refers to his understudy as “Pilgrim.”

I thought about all this recently when my nephew Forest Herndon, 29, ran across an old photo of me holding a fresh beaver skin. I was in my early 20s when it was taken and had arrived in Amite County, like Jeremiah Johnson, as a complete greenhorn. But like him, I ran into some old-timers who took me under their wing. Plenty of them, in fact.

The beaver skin, for instance, made me think of Bunyan Duck (1900-1997).

Mr. Bunyan was an old-timer who pretty much lived off the land, farming, hunting and trapping. Every so often he’d drive up in his beat-up little truck, beep his horn, and when I’d come out he’d say, “Look in the back there, Hoss.”

In the back was a beaver he had caught, minus the tail, which he kept for the bounty the state paid back in those days. I’d take it and skin it out for the meat.

I also thought about longtime game warden Smith Brady (1910-1995). When I wanted to learn how to beaver trap, somebody sent me to him.

Mr. Smith didn’t just tell me how. He showed me. He took me down to Waggoner Creek, we waded out and he demonstrated how to set a Conibear body trap for beavers.

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The first old-timers to help me out when we moved to Amite County in 1978 were my two uncles, John Davis Tynes (1924-2007) and T.P. Herndon (1914-1980).

John Davis let Angelyn, Andy and me live in my grandmother’s house till we could get situated. He was a taciturn farmer and mail carrier who was an artist when it came to woodworking. While we lived in Grandma’s house, he let me have the run of his farm, hunting, fishing — he even disked up a garden for us.

T.P. was a former tax assessor-collector and chancery clerk who used his knowledge of the county to help us find a home for ourselves. He also gave me the lowdown on everything and everybody, and took me to Lake Mary where he was setting up a camp.

Up the road from Grandma’s house, Homer Fenn (1913-1998) operated an old-time sugar cane mill next to his country store. He let me join him for the multi-day effort in making syrup, an experience I will never forget, with the hot steam off the cauldrons and the sweet juice right out of the spigot, not to mention the cans of golden syrup to take home.

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One of the first friends I made in Amite County was fiddler Monette Freeman (1928-2013). When my cousin, the late Johnny Tynes, learned I played guitar, he called Monette, who played his fiddle over the phone. Soon Monette and I were playing music all the time, and he introduced me to other local musicians.

Monette’s brother, Hance “Son” Gordon (1914-1982), was a fan of old-time music, too, and he pretty much adopted Angelyn, Andy and me. He came over to visit us often, accompanied me on some newspaper stories, and taught Andy to drive way before he reached legal age.

Meanwhile, Thomas Dawson (1915-1981) and his wife Bobbie recognized young pilgrims when they saw them and helped us out in numerous ways. When I painted their house, they served me huge country meals, and one time Mr. Thomas drove his big farm tractor 10 miles on crooked country roads just to disk a garden plot for me.

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When we moved to our new home between Liberty and Gloster, I met some of the old-timers in that neighborhood as well.

Larrie Hinton (1906-1994) showed me photos from his world travels in the Navy Seabees. He also played the musical saw. He and his wife Eloise lived in one of the oldest houses in Amite County, and I loved visiting them.

Neil Toler (1919-1988) likewise regaled me with stories of his adventures in New Guinea in World War II and later on a wild logging adventure in Central America. He didn’t talk much, but when he did we paid attention.

My mail carrier at the time was E.L. “Buddy” McKenzie (1923-2015). One day he honked his horn and suggested I put in an application for substitute mail carrier. I did and wound up carrying the mail for years on Route 2, Gloster, then switched to Route 1 under Raymond Iverson (1920-1998), all while working at the Enterprise-Journal.

Both men not only showed me how to handle the mail, they shared their vast knowledge of roads, people and places across Amite and part of Wilkinson counties.

A man who shared his fishing knowledge with me was Walter Neil Ferguson (1935-2007) of Pike County. I met him through my newspaper writings and we wound up going on several fishing and floating trips together.

Each of these men is a story unto himself, and as a matter of fact I did newspaper articles on every one of them.

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This is far from a complete list, and I have only focused on people who have passed on. There are others still living who mentored me as well.

One thing they all had in common when dealing with me was patience, kindness and gentleness, like the passage in 2 Timothy cited above.

They could easily have been dismissive of such an ignorant young pilgrim as myself. In hindsight, I marvel with how much they put up with.

Well, it looks like I’m the old-timer now. I’m in my 60s, which is the very age many of these men were when I met them.

So when I get impatient with younger folks, all I have to do is think back to the pilgrim I used to be, and remember the kindly older people like these who helped me figure things out.

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