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Remembering Boyd Len Carpenter & Jackie O’Neal

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By Gwen Carpenter Roland on Facebook, Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.


 

Pictured: Boyd Len Carpenter (top) and Jackie O'Neal

    Inseparable friends and next door neighbors, they died 45 years ago today when a bluff of the Comite River caved in on them. They had just picked up their 9th grade report cards, and our moms let them go swimming to celebrate. I'm sure this is the only time their names have appeared online. In 1966 they never even imagined computers or cds or men walking on the moon. They will always be 14 and 15 years old, wearing cut offs and no shirts. Front teeth and ears still a little too big in that young adolescent way. Crew cuts always needing a trim.  Hard to believe, but now most of the people in our family who knew Boyd Len are also gone. So many of his childhood friends are now my Facebook friends, and I thought you might enjoy remembering him and Jackie with me.

    In the fine old Southern tradition we used the full double name—Boyd Len—never Boyd.  The pick of our small litter, Boyd Len was the natural leader even though he was the youngest. He was the only person who could talk me into playing ball. He was forever building a team for some ball game I had no interest in.  I still don't know how he weaseled me into it, unless I was out of books to read at the same time that my horse was lame. His most dependable team mates were Jackie and our cousin Claudette Watts—Plette, as he called her. I was always the last and most reluctant recruit.

    Boyd Len had a strong sense of fairness and wouldn't put up with big kids picking on little kids at school or church– the only social groups we had. He planned to be a coach, and he would have been a good one.

    He loved to tease and was smarter than me so it was easy for him to play jokes on me. Once he convinced me to drink a bottle of green food coloring to see if it was really tasteless. I remember that I had a date that evening, so I was WAY too old to fall for that. My teeth were grass green with very, very dark green streaks between them, and my tongue was black-green. I used every cleaner I could find, including Clorox, but still had to go out with green teeth that night.

    He was daddy's favorite and got away with pranks that would have been disastrous for Roger Dale or me. He put chicken poop under the handles of Daddy's Gravely tractor and inserted tiny explosive devices in Mama's cigarettes. Despite his penchant for practical jokes, he was so responsible that by the age of 11 he was allowed to drive daddy's truck “Ol’ Henry” on our country roads. He would putter off to R.A.s or ball practice sitting on phone books to see over the steering wheel. He was allowed to ride his bike from way out in Central to the other side of Baton Rouge to play ball. This meant he pedaled along dangerous roads like Greenwell Springs and Florida Blvd. It seems unthinkable now.

    We learned to cook together when mama started spending months at a time at the state hospital in Jackson. A fourth grader, he would sit on the kitchen counter and read directions from the backs of packages or the Betty Crocker cookbook. I stood on a wooden soda pop crate to reach the stove. The first thing we learned to cook was Rice a Roni. The second was chicken jambalaya.  By the end of that first summer without mama, we could cook most any food we knew about except for things like gravy or biscuits, which require a hands-on teacher.

    We are not a family accustomed to supernatural happenings, but two weeks before he died mama woke up from a terrible dream that he had been killed by a school bus. She could see his leg in cut off jeans and his black tennis shoe sticking out from under the wheels. Aunt Ida Mae told her not to worry– to just look at him, safe and sound, waiting at the breakfast table for his biscuits and coffee. I'm sure we all laughed.

    A couple of weeks later when he and Jackie didn't come back from the river in time for Wednesday night prayer meeting, mama knew something had happened. Sure enough, searchers found them because Boyd Len's leg was sticking out from the pile of sand that used to be a bluff.

    It's good to write about him on Facebook, knowing some of his friends will stop a moment and remember him, too.

Gwen Carpenter Roland is the nationally acclaimed author of Atchafalaya Houseboat.

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