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The Nation : Travels With Huck and Jim on the Mississippi--Today

July 25, 1993|Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett is the author of the novel, "Vacationland" (Viking).

BALTIMORE — The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jim, a Person of Color, During a Period of High Water: We Escape From Sandbag Duty. On the Raft Again. We Meet a Man From Arkansaw. Encounter Two Gallants From CNN. And Are Enlisted in the Service of the First Amendment. "Larry King Live" Beckons.

Aunt Polly and Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas had me and poor ole Jim out early the very next morning filling sandbags. The river was rais ing up mighty and strong.

"Put your back into it, Huckleber ry." "Fill the bag all the way up, Huckleberry." "Can't you work any faster, Huckleberry?"

They kept pecking at us and pecking at us, like we was a whole Illynoise National Guard unit, and it got tiresome and lonesome.

So after a while, ole Jim and me gets to talking, and I figured we be better off high-tailing it back to that pine raf' on the river than filling up these here sandbags.

The river went on raising and raising day after day until at last it was up over the banks. All them people in the river towns was filling sandbags and hustling and bustling about to no great avail.

That night we run off to the higher ground or the territory ahead or whatever come first, even Cairo. Miss Watson and Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas had us both praying and praying for the river to cease and desist. Miss Watson brought all the persons of color in and they was praying hard, too. I prayed and Jim prayed and then we went down to the levee, but the river had not gone down one inch. So much for praying, we agreed.

Right after this we seen Pap. Hadn't seen my old Pap since more than a year and some, figured he was drowned or in the penitentiary up in Joliet. But then Jim says that he seen old Pap down on the levee in a National Guard uniform looking just like hisself, only different. You know the way them people get when they get in a uniform.

So we moved off on the raf' down the river, sleeping by day and traveling by night--the better to avoid the National Guardsmen who be out and about looking for boys like me and persons of color like ole Jim to fill sandbags.

Next day, we was drifting along and fishing, but we figured we couldn't eat anything we catched here in this river now because the fish we seen glowed in the dark most strange like and ole Jim took a terrible fear because of this, and I soothed him.

About this time, two fellas was shouting and waving to us from the shoreline and we figured them to be National Guardsmen or some such members of the constabulary or worse, low-down humbugs, rapscallions. As it turned out we was right. They was journalists from CNN. And so we brung the raf' in close and they palavered with us about who we was and what we was up to and when they heard that we was Huck and Jim, they asked if we wanted to be special consultants to the network. And they said they'd pay us a whole dollar a day and Jim, too.

And so we pulled the raf' in and there was folks from all the networks there filming us and asking questions. Jim he met Ed Bradley and Bryant Gumbel and other famous persons of color and I was afeared that this might turn ole Jim's head but no, he came back on the raf' 'n away we went down the river.

After that, we come upon another of them photo opportunities we heard about from the CNN men. The President of the United States, fella from Arkansaw, was standing knee deep in the Big Muddy consoling the suffering and those whose houses had floated away. And they was passing out checks from gov'ment monies. So me and Jim pulled the raf' alongside and we took some. If there's one thing ole Pap learned me about is that when anybody's giving away anything you best put your hand out right quick. Jim seen the righteousness of this, too.

Of course them network people didn't want no 10-year-old boy smoking a corn-corb pipe on "Good Morning America." They required me to have a wash, too. This producer lady said "You sure is cute, kid." Called me a regular "Macaulay Culkin," whoever he is. Was a tribe of Culkins back home, but they was trash.

There was questions about me being in the company of Jim and him being a person of color and me being a minor without no parents. I didn't mention nothing 'bout ole Pap back on the levee. Some fella asked about my relationship with Jim. And someone else said "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." We never did figure out what they was driving at.

Later, we come on a fella running along the riverbank waving at us and me and ole Jim figured, what the hell we seen it all now, might as well put in and find out what ails him. It was Dan Rather. Hardly knowed from the fancy fly-fishing outfit he had on, but we was mighty glad to see Dan because in his heart he's a Southerner and a country boy and we chatted with him.

Just to be fair about the whole thing we done the same with Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. And we talked with the BBC and the Wall Street Journal and a very eager lady from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

We was beginning to think we would have been better off back with Aunt Polly and Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas filling them sandbags than floating along this ole river being interviewed and filmed and photographed to distraction. Our jaws was sore from answering questions about the river. And Lord knows, we didn't know half of what we was saying. Tomorrow we're going to be on "Larry King Live." But I do believe we look good on the television and ain't that what's important.

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