Lacoochee Boys' Entertainment
By William W. "Billy" Mahaffey
Throughout my boyhood, there were lots of things to keep us Lacoochee boys busy, although they might not have been sanctioned by my parents or the other Lacoochee adults. Since the statute of limitations has run out and there is no one to tell my parents, I will share with you some of the things we did to entertain ourselves. This in itself will probably give you a good indication of why the older folks did their best to keep me busy and out of trouble!
One of the most vivid memories I have of my early childhood was the special relationship I had with my big brother, Jimmy. He was four years older than I was and a wonderful brother who looked after me all of his life. However, I am not so sure he was really looking after me on one Sunday afternoon in Lacoochee. On that particular day Daddy was sitting on the front porch smoking his Hav-A-Tampa cigar and reading the "Tampa Tribune". Jimmy motioned for me to come with him as he walked up to Daddy and said, "Daddy, give me the keys to your car." Now Jimmy was probably no more than nine years old at the time, and I was about five. Daddy was so engrossed in the newspaper that he absent mindedly did what Jimmy asked. With keys in hand, we headed out to the car.
As you can imagine, neither of us was big enough to reach the pedals and the steering wheel at the same time. Jimmy solved that by instructing me to get in the floor board and work the clutch, the gas pedal, and the brake while he stood up to steer and change gears. He told me, "Give me the clutch". Then he put the car in neutral and told me, "hit the starter" and then, "now hit the gas". We started down the street. When we reached the end of the street by the office, we stopped. Jimmy told me, "Give me the brake." That was followed by, "Hit the clutch". Jimmy then put it in reverse and told me, "Let it out, and hit the gas."
Well, I really did hit the gas, and we went flying down the street backwards. About that time Daddy came to, realized what was happening, and started running down the street, waving his arms and hollering at us. It did no good! As luck would have it, we managed to just miss Mr. Harper's car and Josh Groover's car. But then we plowed the back end of our old Pontiac into the front end of Mr. Dave Lee Curry's brand new car that he had just brought home from the dealer. Needless to say, when Daddy got through with us, sitting down was pretty uncomfortable for a while.
As we grew older and spread our wings a bit, Jimmy and I frequently went fishing on the Withlacoochee River. We would first go to C.C. Smith's store and buy a nickel's worth of hooks and a spool of black #8 thread to use for our fishing lines. We baited our hooks with river mussels and dropped the lines in fish beds on the river. To give the fish time to bite, we went on down the river to Morgan's Ford or to a place we called "Trees" to swim. At Morgan's Ford there was a swing over the river that we loved. It was made in the shape of a triangle from mill cables.
Now keep in mind, Mama had most likely told us not to go swimming because it was too cold. That did not slow us down a bit. We would pull off our clothes and jump in the water like river rats. After we got our fill of swimming, we put our clothes back on and checked our fish lines. We kept enough fish for supper, and went by Mosstown to sell the rest. By the time we got home our hair was dry, and Mama was none the wiser about our true activities.
Another thing that Jimmy and I enjoyed doing was sitting across the railroad tracks in town and watching all the crazy things that happened outside of Mr. Fred Merritt's place. It was fun to watch the fights that went on between the loggers and the sawmill workers on a Saturday night!
Some of the Lacoochee boys captured wild animals and kept them as pets. Sometimes the adults were the ones with those pets. One was Mr. White, a hotel boarder and retired railroad engineer, who ran the Cummer trains. Our family lived close to the hotel. In fact, our back yard backed up to the hotel. What we called the hotel was really more of a boarding house which primarily housed railroad and mill workers. It had two dining rooms. One was for the boarders and served daily meals. The other was the main dining room where we often ate on Sundays.
Mr. White had a pet alligator that he kept in a pen in the hotel yard right behind us. It was a large alligator, probably about fourteen feet long. A number of the Lacoochee boys would taunt the alligator by jumping over the fence into the yard and then running away when the alligator moved. That was one entertainment that I did not participate in.
One day the alligator escaped and scared everybody to death. He was finally located a few houses away under the Baldwin house. The men used long poles to prod him back to his pen. All the neighbors breathed a sigh of relief when the gator was safely back in his home.
The railroad line ran right through the town of Lacoochee, and the trains were another part of our entertainment. On many days as the train slowed down where the Seaboard and Coastline tracks crossed each other, we hopped into an open rail car or up on the ladder on the side of the car and rode through town, jumping off just before the train picked up speed going out of town.
The train was also involved in what was more or less a "rite of passage" for Lacoochee boys. It involved us playing a game of chicken with the train engineer. We walked out on the railroad bridge over the Withlacoochee River. As the train approached, we remained on the tracks. When the engineer saw us, he started blowing the whistle and ringing the bell. We stood our ground until the train got close and then quickly dove into the river. As I look back now, it is hard to believe we did such a crazy thing. In our youth, we thought it was great fun!
Our Lacoochee entertainment was varied and a little wild. It sure brings back good memories, though!