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A RETURN TO CROSS CREEK // OLD WOMAN RIVER

I loved the Creek, I loved the grove, I loved the shabby farmhouse. Suddenly they were nothing. The difficulties were greater than their compensations. I talked morosely with my friend Dessie. I do not think she understood my torment, for she is simple and direct and completely adjusted to all living. She knew only that a friend was in trouble.

She said, "We'll take one of those river trips we've talked about." _ from Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1942.

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Dessie Prescott, who taught her famous book-writing friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings how to hunt and fish, could use a good river trip right now.

"I can't cast a plug anymore with an ordinary fishin' rod," she tells me. "Not since I boogered up my shoulder takin' a tumble. But I can still cast a fly rod. You use your elbow more than your shoulder castin' a fly rod. I would like to catch me some bass. This is a good time of year for them."

Dessie Prescott is 90, and like Old Woman River, she goes rolling on. She is healthy except for that ailing shoulder, some allergies and a knee sore from a fall in a boat. We are sitting on the back porch of her ranch in Citrus County; behind us, through the oaks and the cypress, the Withlacoochee River flows toward the gulf like spilled moonshine. "Oh, there's big bass to be caught in the river," she says. She is sure that over the years she has tangled with world records, gape-mouthed bass likely to tip an honest grocer's scale past 23 pounds.

"Those big bass, they always broke my line swimmin' into the lily pads." She sighs.

Although Dessie is still passionate about her hunting, she no longer is comfortable firing a shotgun _ the recoil is too great for her tender shoulder. Still, she sleeps next to her trusty 12-gauge and hopes she never has to use it. But give her a rifle and a quiet spot to sit in the woods, and she might down a wild pig _ and do the butchering herself.

"I'm a tough old heifer," she says, daring me to argue.

Dessie has been an orange picker, a salad maker, a bus girl and a waitress during her nine decades. She has killed, skinned and sold skunk hides for money. She worked as hairdresser, a real estate agent and sold cars. She was a municipal license inspector, a barnstorming pilot and a military officer. If she were to describe herself as any one thing, it likely would be "sportswoman." And if people want to identify her as the late Marge Rawlings' best Florida friend, that is perfectly fine with her, too.

"She is an astonishing young woman," is how Rawlings described Dessie in Cross Creek, a biography of the place and the people who lived there more than a half-century ago. "She was born and raised in rural Florida, and guns and campfires and fishing-rods and creeks are corpuscular in her blood. She lives a sophisticate's life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise."

"I'm like an old bird dog'

I first met Dessie Prescott last spring at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society's annual meeting. I was sitting in the orange grove at Rawlings' old house at Cross Creek and interviewing Idella Parker. Idella worked for Rawlings 10 years as a maid and has many joyful and painful memories to share. Dessie hobbled up, using a tomato stake as a cane. Her long white hair was bundled up under some kind of ball cap, and her face was as creased as old leather. Idella, a vibrant African-American woman at age 82, beamed when she saw Dessie, a dyed-in-the-wool Florida Cracker.

"Let me tell you about Dessie, honey," Idella told me, embracing her friend. "This here's a travelin' woman."

Dessie grinned. "I'm like an old bird dog," she said. "Open the car door and I jump in."

I asked Dessie if we could talk in the future. "It better be soon," she warned, sounding ominous. I wondered what she meant. Was she seriously ill?

No. But she had a hankering for some traveling. She was going to Colorado to visit a gold mine she owned with one of her husbands _ she divorced or outlived six of them. Then she planned a North Carolina summer vacation. In the fall, of course, she would make her annual sojourn to Wyoming to hunt antelope.

"There's still light in her eyes," Jake Glisson once told me. An old friend of Dessie's, he lived next door to Rawlings as a boy.

"As long as Dessie is alive," Jake went on, "Miz Rawlings is, too. When you're talking to Dessie, you're talking to Miz Rawlings."

After a journalism career in the North, Rawlings and her husband, Charles, bought an orange grove at Cross Creek in 1928. They intended to use profits from their farm to finance their writing. Charles wanted to pursue a career writing adventure stories for big magazines. Marjorie was determined to write Gothic romance novels.

She failed as a romance writer. But her colorful letters about her Florida Cracker neighbors engaged her editor, who encouraged her to write about rural Florida. Success followed, including a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Yearling.

When they first moved to Cross Creek, Marjorie and Charles were dreadful farmers. The Depression had begun, orange prices had fallen, and the Rawlingses were struggling even to put food on the table.

Dessie knew how to survive. She was 2 when a man bludgeoned her father to death with a fence post. Her mother died of pneumonia when Dessie was 12. Living with relatives, Dessie helped out by hunting and fishing, gardening and picking fruit. She moved to Atlantic City for work in the hotel and restaurant trade. "My Yankee period," she calls it. She had not reached her 20th birthday when she moved back to Florida determined to build her own log cabin in the woods.

She picked the cypress herself by walking shoulder deep into a swamp and marking trees. She found someone to cut them and haul them out with oxen. She found someone to lay a foundation and then found carpenters to build the cabin. She watched the carpenters set the first log and threw them off her property.

"Boys, pick up your tools and git goin'," she told them. "This is too painful to watch." She found carpenters who could do the work the way she wanted.

In 1928, a friend asked her to visit the new people at Cross Creek, the Rawlingses. They needed advice, and Dessie reckoned she could help.

Fooling the tom turkeys

November 1996. I finally track down Dessie in Crystal River _ she has finished her gallivanting for a while, thank you. Over the telephone, she gives me crisp directions to her ranch. "I'd be happy to talk about Marge Rawlings," she says before hanging up. When I arrive, I try to impress her by telling about the immature bald eagle I saw soaring over the highway just down the road.

"I see them on the river all the time," she says. "They'll wait until an osprey picks up a fish, then they'll dive-bomb the osprey. The osprey drops the fish, and the eagle catches it in midair. I like the effect of wildness around me."

She shows me around her home. It is 75 years old. Originally a log cabin, it has been fixed up and added to over the years. Deer antlers and antelope prongs hang from the walls. She hunted in Africa, and one of her trophies includes the head of a warthog. There is a stuffed bonefish from the Bahamas and a salmon from British Columbia. Nine tackle boxes, bulging with antique lures, are stacked in a corner. She has a lamp made from a stuffed largemouth bass. Watching over it all are two stuffed wild turkeys.

"I've always liked huntin' turkey," Dessie says. Wild turkeys are among the world's wariest birds, which makes them difficult to hunt. In the spring, when male gobblers grow amorous, they are more likely to become careless. Dessie liked to get into the woods before dawn, hide in the palmettos and do turkey calls. She would imitate a female turkey looking for a mate, and the racket would woo a gobbler within range of her shotgun.

"One time I was sittin' in a windblown oak calling a turkey. Eventually I saw a man come creepin' across a clearing toward me. He thought I was the turkey. I stood to let him see me, and me standing scared the real turkey which was in a tree behind me. The turkey went flying, and the guy up and shot it. He picked up my turkey and run off. That wasn't very sporting of him."

Talking about turkeys makes our stomachs rumble, and we decide to go for lunch. Dessie steadies herself by holding my arm as we walk to my vehicle. "Nice truck," she says, when I open the door. "What kind is it?"

I tell her.

"I'd never buy a Japanese vehicle," declares Dessie, a World War II veteran.

We could have taken her Jeep, I suppose. It has 140,000 miles on the odometer, but it runs, usually with Dessie behind the wheel. A few weeks ago she passed all the appropriate tests and was granted a new driver's license.

"But I object at having to buy a six-year license," she says. "Hell, I could be dead next year."

I try to picture Dessie behind the wheel of a modern Florida road.

"Oh, I'm fine," she says. "I don't like to drive in the rain or at night, but I do okay. Some friends of mine, they get nervous about me driving around by myself. So we dress up this big toy bear I have in men's clothing and put it in the passenger's seat. Looks like I got a hefty passenger with me."

A wild life

We end up at Dessie's favorite Dunnellon restaurant, the Dinner Bell, after a 20-minute drive along curving, oak-lined back roads. "Watch it!" she calls at one point, as I creep into an intersection that has not quite cleared.

She backseat drives in the restaurant, too. When she tells me what she is going to order, and I say that her choice sounds tasty, she orders baked ham, mustard greens, tomato and okra and corn bread for both of us.

As we eat, she talks. No, she never killed a panther, but she saw a number of them. She killed a dozen bears, including one that tried to break into a little house she had in the Adirondacks in New York State. She has had 300 skin cancers. "Hell, I didn't have a closed automobile or boat 'til I was 45." Now she protects her weathered skin by wearing any of her dozens of hats.

She was never bitten by a venomous snake, though only by the grace of God. No such luck with cats. A mad tomcat once sank its fangs and claws into Dessie's leg.

"Aren't you going to get the rabies shots?" her nervous employer asked.

"Not yet," Dessie told him. "There are a few people I need to bite first."

The Rawlingses

"Marge and Charles, when I first met them, didn't know how to survive," Dessie says, back at her ranch after lunch. "They didn't have no chickens, no cows, no pigs, not even a garden. Marge and I liked each other right off. I asked her to go hunting with me. I had bird dogs that liked to point quail.

"Marge had a 12-gauge shotgun. I noticed every time she fired she flinched. The shotgun had too much recoil. I had a little LC Smith double-barrel 20-gauge with not that much recoil. I gave her that gun, and she started hitting quail right off.

"Anyway, I taught her to hunt. Then I got her a bird dog. We planted her a garden. Collards. Cauliflower. Rutabaga, turnips, radishes, cucumbers. I made her a little chicken pen. I told her she needed a hog. Hogs eat all your garbage and produce little hogs that you can sell or eat.

"I taught Charles and Marge how to fish. We went after perch in the lake."

Dessie asks me to fetch her a Tootsie Roll Pop from the table.

"Thanks. I ran out of saliva with all this talkin'. Where was I? Charles. Not enough is known about Charles. He was a tremendous-looking man, about 6 foot 3 or 4 and about 300 pounds. But no fat. He wanted to write about the sponge divers over at Tarpon Springs. My husband was a doctor, and we spent a lot of time over in Tampa, and we knew people in Tarpon Springs. We introduced Charles to the right people, and he ended up writing for the big magazines.

"Marge was getting famous, too. South Moon Under, her first book, was selling like hot cakes. Charles was hot stuff, too. The problem with Marge and Charles was they both wanted to be the big dog. One wanted the other to dance when the other one whistled. There was lots of friction, and I think their success is what destroyed their marriage.

"They fought like cats and dogs. Marge was very high strung, and she'd get more high strung after she had a few drinks. She had a mouth on her. Charles was normally pretty placid, but he could get riled after a few drinks. One time I came over and Marge was crying, cleaning the floor. She'd failed to season a crab casserole the way Charles liked it, and he threw it at her."

Traveling the river

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings sometimes shocked her Cracker neighbors. During a time when women were expected to be demure, she was opinionated and profane. She smoked more than 100 Lucky Strikes a day and liked her whiskey straight. She could be a feisty neighbor, assertive to a fault.

Those were only the most obvious of Rawlings' qualities. She was also generous and soft, especially with children. By most accounts, she was a terribly unhappy woman, prone to periods of debilitating self-doubt. When she felt herself slipping into depression, she liked to call on Dessie, who seldom bothered with introspection. Dessie, though 10 years younger, was Marge's rock.

"Young'un," was what Dessie called her volatile friend.

"Near the end of their marriage," Dessie tells me, "she came over to my house on a beautiful, moonlit night. We had a few drinks, and we were talkin'. She said, "Dess, I need to get away to think.' That's when I said we could take a boat trip on the St. Johns.

"Next mornin,' I got all our gear together and canned goods and my pistol and my .22. I went over to get her, but she had sobered up and changed her mind and tried to back out. But I wouldn't let her."

"Hyacinth Drift," about their 10-day journey on a wild Florida river, is the next-to-last chapter in Cross Creek. It would be impossible to improve on Rawlings' beautiful account. But Dessie's story is worth hearing, too.

"Marge's job was to cook; mine was to make and break camp. We set up Army cots with mosquito netting and didn't use a tent. We woke up the first mornin' with frost in our hair. I walked down to the river and killed a duck with my .22. That was the only time in my life I ever hit a flying duck using a rifle. Normally, you'd use a shotgun. We had him for supper.

"Another time we found a couple of netters who were illegally catchin' shad. Marge saw a fisherman drop a pack of cigarettes overboard, and we went over and traded a pack of cigarettes for a shad, fat with roe. If you haven't eaten shad roe, you haven't lived. By the way, you can still catch shad on fly rod in the St. Johns and in the Oklawaha rivers.

"Our boat leaked. I'm not a good caulker, but I did okay. We were dirty and needed baths, but there seemed to be fishermen around every bend so we stayed dirty. Around noon one day Marge really had to wee, and we went ashore, and she found a quiet spot and pulled down her pajama bottoms, but there was a moccasin snake and she had to run off.

"Eventually, we reached the little town of Sanford and stopped at this dock next to a beautiful yacht. We needed gas. I stood and started strippin' off my Bowie knife and my pistol and looked up and there was this rich-looking, well-dressed, gentleman looking down at me. I said to him, "Is it safe to go into this man's town without artillery?' But he didn't laugh.

"He volunteered to take us in his limousine to get gas. Just then his wife, who was dressed entirely in pink, come out. She said, "You can't take them for gas! You got to take me to church!' He looked real embarrassed. He took Miss Pink Panties to church and came back and took us to get gas.

"Later, when we were leavin', he stood on the deck and waved. I said to Marge, "I bet that son-of-a-b__ wishes he was going with us.' "

Neighbors

When Cross Creek was published Marjorie Rawlings was already among the best-known writers in the world. Now she was even more popular. Few of her neighbors were happy to show up as subjects in her autobiographical new book. Still, they accepted that Rawlings was a writer and that writers needed to make a living, too.

One neighbor, Zelma Cason, was furious with Cross Creek. She was the census taker, and an off-and-on friend of the author. Like Dessie, Zelma was a determined woman who took no guff.

Rawlings, in a moment she probably lived to regret, described Zelma in Cross Creek as "an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and county as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided through their troubles."

Zelma Cason sued for invasion of privacy.

The case, which attracted national attention, dragged on five years. Unable to concentrate on her writing, Rawlings produced only one book during the period, Cross Creek Cookery, which was mostly a collection of recipes. She drank even more heavily.

Dessie joined the military. She encouraged Marge to join her as a soldier. But Rawlings had fallen into a funk from which she never truly recovered.

Rawlings' neighbors, despite their reservations at being the focus of her book, testified in her behalf at the trial. Dessie was delighted to be a witness, too. She and Zelma, rivals for Rawlings' friendship, never had gotten along.

"I used to irritate Zelma on purpose," Dessie says, full of mischief even now. "I'd drive by her house before dawn on a fishin' trip and blow my horn just to wake her. When she found out who it was, she called the game wardens on me."

At the trial, the judge asked Dessie whether Rawlings had quoted her accurately, cussing and all, in Cross Creek. Dessie agreed that Rawlings had caught the flavor of their conversations. And Dessie said she was not offended about reading her own four-letter words in print.

Rawlings lost her case. But the judge awarded Zelma only $1. Even so, Rawlings had spent $26,000 in her own defense and virtually had stopped writing. She produced only one other book after the trial, The Sojourner, which was set outside of Florida and considered a literary disappointment.

"Anything you could say about Zelma would be a compliment," Dessie says, still holding a grudge after half a century. "She was a b__."

"I've enjoyed my life'

When Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings died of a stroke in 1953, Dessie was just hitting her prime. She finally found the perfect job, managing the Withlacoochee River Lodge. She had 36 head of hunting dogs, as she puts it, for deer, bear and hogs. She guided hunters to wild hogs, her specialty, and anglers to the trophy bass of their dreams. She'd take them out onto the river and soon have them casting Cripple Creek plugs or a Porter's Special at bucketmouths hiding near the lily pads. Sometimes Dessie cast, too. She could make a lure dance on the water.

She married and divorced frequently _ a husband often turned out to be a disappointing ball and chain for an adventuresome woman. But Dessie is proud she raised three sets of stepchildren and that she gets along well with all of them.

"I've enjoyed my life. I still do. I'm going to try and continue to do what I want to do and have fun as long as I'm able, as long as it's no skin off some other fella's fanny."

We're standing in her kitchen at sundown, drinking apple juice, when I ask whether she has any regrets.

"Not really. When I don't like the scenery, I move on."

Like Old Woman River, she rolls along. But I wonder whether she has grown weary of Florida.

"It's been spoilt, but I like it, except in the summer. Air-conditioning has made me soft, and bottled me up, so I don't want to go outside when it's so hot. But Florida's as good as anywhere I know. I reckon I'm going to die here."

ABOUT THE STORY

This story about Dessie Prescott was written to mark the 100th anniversary of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' birth. Jeff Klinkenberg wrote about neighbor J.T. Glisson (published in Floridian March 31) and maid Idella Parker (May 19).

CROSS CREEK COOKING

From Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1942:

My friend Dessie is one of Florida's most expert campers. Given an axe and a gun, she can make a good living in the woods. I once saw her bring down a duck on the wing with a .22 rifle. As a cook, I should be extremely cautious about turning her loose in my kitchen, but on a camp, I should take her say-so as to the cooking of any game dish.

DESSIE'S RECIPE FOR FRIED VENISON: Cut chops, or backstrap, three-quarters of an inch thick, rub with lemon and sprinkle with flour. In an uncovered Dutch oven or iron skillet melt one tablespoon butter and one tablespoon Crisco. Have pan only medium hot over low coals. Add venison and fry six to ten minutes, turning only once. Salt and pepper when done.

RECOMMENDED READING

Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Touchstone Books, $12.

Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Fireside Books, $12.

Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' "Perfect Maid," by Idella Parker with Mary Keating, University Press of Florida, $13.95.

The Creek, by J.T. Glisson, University Press of Florida, $16.95.

RECOMMENDED VISIT

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site, State Road 325, Cross Creek. Mailing address: Route 3, Box 92, Hawthorne, FL 32640. Telephone: (352-466-3672). Public tours of the house given Thursday through Sunday beginning at 10 a.m.

OTHER INFORMATION

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society, P.O. Box 117310, Gainesville, FL 32611-7310.

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