Memory of the Day: Lake Providence

Most people , of a certain age, in West Carroll Parish have some memories of Lake Providence. Mine are complicated, but then most things are.

I was driving home from church this morning and listening to the 40s channel on Sirius/XM radio. The Glenn Miller tune, “American Patrol” came on and it always reminds me of the Lake Providence drive-in theater. We didn’t go there often, but one of the memories burned into my psyche is “American Patrol.” It was in the music line up that played over our speakers before the show started. I can’t remember any specific show I ever saw there, though I seem to remember watching “A Night to Remember,” an earlier movie about the sinking of the Titanic than the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. I remember watching the ship sink with the orchestra playing “Amazing Grace” on the deck as she went under. Funny, they keep making movies about the Titanic, and they always end the same way. Anyway, thinking about the drive-in led to a rush of other Lake Providence memories. I am trying to capture them in some sort of order because, as I said, they all came at once.

Aside from the drive-in, Lake Providence had the Legion Pier, White’s Pier with the skating rink, White’s Motel and Restaurant, Hugo’s Restaurant and other delicacies to attract folks from Oak Grove.

Some of the restaurants in Lake Providence in the 1950s had slot machines in the lobbies. I remember, on very rare occasions, going to Lake Providence to have dinner at White’s or Hugo’s (usually Hugo’s) and seeing the machines. Then, between 1952 and 1956, the Louisiana State Police began a purge of the “one-armed-bandits.” They would raid the establishments holding the illegal gambling devices and confiscate them, smash them and get rid of them. I never heard it confirmed, but seems I heard that they threw some in the lake at Lake Providence. My dad liked to play cards and bet on sporting events and later in her life, mom got seriously into slots. She used to play in slot tournaments in Vicksburg and was good at it. Still, I don’t think they played the slots in Lake Providence. I do remember being allowed to play the juke box though. You could get 4 plays for a quarter then. I remember listening to Hank Williams, Teresa Brewer, and Patsy Cline on that juke box.

Of course, the big draw in Lake Providence was…Lake Providence. Lake Providence is a horseshoe lake formed when the Mississippi River decided to take a different path and allowed this particular bend in the river to become blocked on both ends to form the lake. Dad along with Dr. Jim Craig (optometrist) and a few other friends would play golf at the county club in Lake Providence every Thursday. Dad wasn’t a member, but either it was open to the public or one of his buddies was a member. Anyway, they would play golf and Mom would take us to swim at the Legion Pier. I taught myself to swim at the Legion Pier and once saved a kid who had gotten caught under the water level board walk under the pier. He had gotten caught under it and couldn’t figure out how to get out. I grabbed him and pulled him from under the boards and everything was fine. Not nearly as heroic as I may have thought at the time. I was almost able to stand on the bottom there and wasn’t afraid of the water. I jumped off the tower at the end of the pier once. One time only. I am not a big fan of heights and even more afraid of the effects of gravity coming off of high places.

The other primary swimming hole there was at White’s Pier. It was generally more crowded there because there was a skating rink that all of the older kids would use. On the few times we went there I remember listening to the organ music playing inside. There was also a gas pump for boats to fill up so there was always that smell of gasoline in the air there.

One last swimming anecdote about Lake Providence. When I was 13 I was working on my Eagle Scout award and needed the Boy Scout Lifesaving Merit Badge in my quest. Our scoutmaster, Mr. John Kester, arranged for a college student home for the summer to train us and help us pass the requirements for this badge. The student was a girl and that just tended to make things tougher for shy 13 years old boys. On top of that, I had my left thumb in a splint. A few weeks before we started our lifesaving training I broke my thumb at football spring training. That is another story I’ll save for another time, but for the interest of this anecdote, just know that my thumb was in a splint. This made it really difficult to drag a simulated drowning swimmer to safety, but I managed. In this particular case, I preferred the hair pull carry to the cross-chest carry. I think you can see why.

In an earlier story, I mentioned Little Doug Lawton. He was one of my very good grade-school friends. His dad, Doug Lawton, Sr. was a contractor/architect and we would play with his drawing materials when Little Doug lived in Oak Grove. Before high school, Doug moved to Lake Providence into a house right on the lake. They had a dock and a boat and everything. My first attempt to water ski was at Doug’s house. I got up on the skis a few times, but never stayed up on them for long.

Fast forward a few years from these memories and I am playing football for the Oak Grove High School Tigers and we hated our arch rivals the Lake Providence Panthers. I made few trips over to the lake in my high school years. Mostly too busy. I did get over there once in my senior year. Just before graduation some of my classmates rented some cabins at the lake and several of us went over there for a graduation party. Pretty sure I went over there with Eddie Cannon. I never knew who footed the bill for the party, but it was nice to be with all my classmates for a short time. So, if you were one of the hosts of this party, thank you so much for a fond memory.

One last Lake Providence complication story. As I said, I despised the Lake Providence Panthers and all of those who played football for them. Well by the spring semester of my freshman year at Northeast Louisiana State College, I was rooming with one of those dreaded Panther players. I soon became fast friends with Smokey Whatley and other Panther players like Tom Ed Nelson. When I was married to my beautiful bride of, now, 49 years, Smokey stood with me in front of the pastor and along with my brother Wayne (best man) and David Butler. I am pleased to say that I am Face Book friends with Wayne and David, and I am friends with Smokey’s wife Tina. Well I said it was complicated, but damn it was fun.

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