The Peg-Legged Man in the Hollowed-Out Tree in the Middle of the River
Introduction by Mickey Dunaway, Publisher
If you have read my as-the-spirit-moves-me-columns, then you have already met my former high school student from the early 1970s at Mary G. Montgomery High School in Semmes, Alabama—a tiny town known mostly for its azalea and camelia nurseries with plants sent all over the country and for its almost always excellent football teams.
What it was not known for was its alligators. Oh, there were probably a few in Big Creek Lake, Mobile’s water source, and maybe in a few farm ponds where baby gator souvenirs from Florida outgrew their cage and were thrown in a pond on the back forty.
Mobile has an excellent alligator population, but most are found in the estuaries at the north end of Mobile Bay, where there are reed islands for hiding to ambush small fish and other animals in the water or on land.
The body of water Russell describes in his story (you decide if it is a tall tale) is just such a body of water. It is named Dog River, but it is hard to call it a river because the current moves so slowly—mostly at the whim of the tides. There is almost no current when the tide is just before reaching high. When the tide roars out of Mobile Bay, you might find it hard to paddle a canoe up the river, and you might find sandbars where none existed hours before.
This is the setting where Russell set his story of the man who made his home in a hollow tree in the middle of Dog River, probably on one of those shallow sandbars.
I won’t tell you that this story did or did not happen. Russell’s story is way before my time. I can tell you that my wife and I spent many summer afternoons skiing on that slow-moving river, and as we put the boat on the trailer, we occasionally asked, “I wonder if there are any gators in the water?” We never encountered any gators or the feared mythical balls of writhing moccasins.
Peg-legged The Man in the Hollowed Out Tree in the Middle of the River
My Dad, Frank Robert Haas, was a big man with a big voice who liked telling stories. And, I think because of his size and his booming voice, sometimes it sounded like he was exaggerating. Maybe he was. I wasn’t sure. However, like most little kids, I enjoyed these big stories, but as I began to get older, I began to wonder whether the stories were real, heavily embellished, or maybe not true at all.
My Dad told us one story about the time he and his uncle Frank Venturini were fishing on Dog River and found a one-legged old man living in a hollowed-out tree on a high spot in the middle of the Dog River—a short meandering river that drained into Mobile Bay. As the river got closer to the bay, it widened out and slowed. Rather perfect for a man who lived in a hollowed stump in the middle of the estuary.
The story, as Dad told it, was that they took the old man home to my Uncle Frank’s Alligator Creek fish camp, and he lived there until his death many years later.
Exactly how the man ended up in the middle of Dog River, living in a hollowed-out tree, or anything else about Mr. Bishop’s life was unknown to us except for the one thing, my Dad was most proud of—that he had helped carve Mr. Bishop a pegged leg out of an old cypress tree— using cypress because it doesn’t rot.
As a child, the stories got bigger for me as the years passed. The story I remember best was that an alligator had been hanging around the pier at Uncle Frank’s fish camp—as gators are prone to do. Uncle Frank was worried he would grab my Dad or Uncle Will, both small boys at this time. So, Mr. Bishop and Uncle Frank devised a plan to catch a coon, skin it, and use it for as bait to catch that alligator. This story clearly teetered on believability, and I was sure it was nothing but entertainment for my siblings and me.
For most of my adult life, well into my 60s, I assumed the story was a “big fish/gator/peglegged-man” story out of my Dad’s vast imagination with little factual basis, concocted by my larger-than-life father to amuse his kids. Several years after my father passed away, I was going through some old pictures at my Uncle Will’s house, Will is my dad’s younger brother.
“Uncle Will, who is this?” I asked as I was puzzled by an old yellowed picture. “Why, that’s Mr. Bishop, the pegged-legged newspaper man, and at the bottom of the photo is the alligator we caught with that skinned coon!”
A little more research in the Mobile Press Register Obituaries turned up the story that the old man, Mr. David Bishop, had been a newspaper editor in the St Louis, Missouri.
I guess it would do us all good if we checked out some of those stories we heard as children, because—
SOMETIMES “BIG FISH/GATOR/PEGLEGGED MAN” STORIES ARE TRUE!!
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