Wednesday, May 11, 2016

I Go Pogo

-- By Tom Phillips

It wasn't on my bucket list, but it should have been.  The Okefenokee Swamp was a part of my childhood -- I felt I knew the place, though I had only a dim idea of where it was, until we passed right by it last week, driving from Jacksonville to a small college in south Georgia, where a friend was running a writers' workshop.  By the side of US Highway One was a sign pointing to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.  So we had to go.

I knew it from my childhood because Okefenokee was the cartoon home of Pogo Possum, Albert the Alligator, a feather-brained pontificating Owl, a Porky-pine, and a turtle named Churchy la Femme, all characters in a comic strip that was politically over my head, but had humor enough for a smart 12-year-old.

"Pogo" was the brainchild of Walt Kelly, a Yankee journalist and cartoonist, and he used it to skewer the attitudes and platitudes of Eisenhower-era America.  Being a child of Eisenhower-era America, I was oblivious to all that.  I just loved the swamp-southern dialect and the slapstick humor, such as Albert lighting his see-gars by striking a match on the edge of the cartoon panel.  And along with all the swamp characters, I too developed a crush on Mamzelle Hepzibah, a chic little visitor from France with an intoxicating perfume.  That a skunk could charm and disarm so easily served as one of my first lessons on the vagaries of love.    
Kelly's Okefenokee, I think, was culturally a mash-up of the Georgia swamp and the Louisiana bayou, with a dose of Beltway humor before there was a Beltway.  But the cartooning was good enough to give you the feel of living amongst oozy bogs and trees hung with Spanish moss.

The real Okefenokee is one of the largest wetlands on earth, and still in its primal state. Covering nearly a thousand square miles of southeast Georgia, it stretches to the horizon in every direction.  This picture was taken from the observation tower at the end of a boardwalk, three-quarters of a mile into a vast spongy depression that is unfit for humans to walk or navigate, but home to billions of creatures -- among them alligators, dragonflies, frogs, minnows, turtles, snakes, long-legged wading birds and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

Once we leaned over the walkway fence to snap a gator's picture, and he snapped back, rolling from side to side in the black water, chomping his enormous jaws.   Albert, was that you?

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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