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Robert Hitt Neill Column

Mountain Willy called river cresting correctly before he ‘checked out’

Six weeks ago, I lost a cousin, who had been sort of a big brother to me while we were growing up. Mountain Willy had an incurable illness and chose to tidy up his affairs, say his good-byes, and check out under his own conditions. It was a shock, but understandable from a lifelong comrade, fellow Navy officer, hunter, and shooting enthusiast. I conducted his graveside services.

Having been in three different prisons since that time, I was just now finding time to go back through the correspondence from MW. He didn’t do Internet mailings, so we had been regular almost monthly writers ever since I was at Ole Miss.

He was also an All-State football guard, just across the River, and my Daddy gave him his first gun, just as MW gave my grandson “Sir” his first gun. We had a lot in common; matter of fact, he was also an author, of several works of fiction about the Navy.  So, I had a lot of reading to do, if I wanted to go back through all our meanderings; although I had burnt up the first 30 years of letters.

Here’s an excerpt from MW’s letter of July 7, 2007, that we Delta folks might find interesting right this minute: “On another subject, I guess you have noticed the rain falling in Texas and northward in the Plains. That’s just the sort of situation that produced the Great Flood of 1927. There’s a strong Bermuda High that has developed and is pushing Gulf moisture north onto the Plains.

The persistent rains over Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas will likely move north, but not change very much.  Should a permanent high develop over Colorado, all the pieces will be in place for major flooding of the Mississippi, as with ‘27…. Major flooding of the Mississippi occurs about every 15 years, plus or minus a few. The last one was in 1995, so we’re due for another. Got a boat? You may need an ark!”

Mountain Willy had served a tour as Scientific Officer at the Naval Research Institute, so he knew whereof he spoke, as we are seeing ten months later!

This year looks to be (if the levees hold!) the fourth-highest crest of the Mighty Muddy in 81 years.

In 1927, the estimated crest on the Greenville River Gauge was 64.1 feet; in 1937, it was 61.6; in 1973, it was 58.2 (officially: the reading the next morning was over 59 feet, but they said it was “because the wind was blowing hard.”  Right!); in 1983, it was 55.8 feet. It’s going to be close to 58 feet this month, and we hope that will be the high point, but watch out for May, if it keeps raining up north, like MW says.

But my cousin, though a Naval line officer who served in combat in Vietnam as well as being a competition rifle and pistol shooter, was a scientist. I wanted to re-tell you about another Mighty Muddy Flood prediction, from a veteran Riverman who was by no means a scientist, but was more knowledgeable about the Mississippi than any scientist could hope to be.  He lived on the River!

Mr. J. C. Smith was the King of Woodstock Island when I was growing up, and I considered him one of my Dutch Uncles, the which I was fortunate to have a passel of, thank the Lord.

The Woodstock Hunting Club members had gathered for opening weekend of wild turkey season the third week of March in 1973, when the River was high, and forecast to go higher.  Mr. Jay let all the menfolks talk on about that, then he interrupted with His Opinion, which always silenced everyone else.  “Well, the River’s gonna crest this time at about 56 feet, and then it’s gonna fall about 10 feet. But then it’s gonna come back, and by the second week in May, y’all are gonna see a 60-foot River!  Mark that down, Bob.”

I did.  I went back to my cabin and wrote the Riverman’s predictions down, and sure enough they came true. The Mighty Muddy rose to nearly 56 feet, dropped about 10 feet, then came roaring back, and the official crest was 58.2 on the 12th of May, but like I said, it was over 59 feet on that next day, within inches of what Mr. Jay had forecast on the third weekend in March!

Wonder who is accurately predicting Mississippi River crests today?