The Hannibal Frogs

Well, you know Dim had a fascination for the historical and the picturesque. So he went over to Hannibal and the first thing he did, he went down south of there and toured the cave that Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost in. He went with a group, they had those electric torches, you know, and they got to acertain spot and the guide flashed up on the wall. He said, “You see that name? Well, a grandchild of the man who wrote that name was in this cave and saw it and recognized it. And she was so taken with it that she had her wedding right here on this spot under the name.” Then the guide said, “You might say the marriage got off to a rocky start.” He said that.

Then someone else said, “Well, I hope that marriage did not cave in on them.”

So Dim endured this and watched a couple of bats flying around.

Then on the way back towards Hannibal, Dim went up to this precipice called Lovers Leap. And he got a spectacular view of the river, especially north. He could see all of Hannibal and all up the Mississippi Valley. So while he was there someone said, “Do you suppose anybody ever did leap off this cliff?”

And another fellow said, “Well, yes, everybody was leaping off of it during the Depression.” He said, “They lined up and they paid the city of Hannibal a quarter apiece to jump off. Thatís the way the city government kept going.”

And Dim began to think, “Everybody wants to tell a big story in this town.”

Well, then he went into Hannibal to have some lunch, and there were three or four of the old town guys trying to convince a woman at the next table that they had these handmade cigars in Hannibal -- you know, back before 1900 -- and they made them out of paper with just a Havana wrap, but they were so good that the cigars sold in Chicago as genuine Havanas. People were smoking Hannibal newspapers in Chicago the old men were telling the woman. Can you imagine that? I mean this was Dimís day.

So he wandered the town a little and then he came to a point on the river. It had steel pilings there to hold the bank up, a place for boats to come in. And there was an old fellow sitting there. Of course, Dim was always affable. So he felt that if he were sharing the point with this old man, he should relate. And he said, “How are you?”

And the old man said, “Well, Iím fine.” He said, “I always like it out here on this point.” And, “Are you enjoying the town?”

And Dim said, “Yes, Iíve been to Mark Twainís home and here and there.”

The old man looked at him and said, “Clemens. We always called him Clemens. Sam Clemens.”

Dim was startled a little, so he said, “Twain, Clemens, whatever. Everybody in this town thinks they can stand straight up and tell a big lie.”

“Well,” the old man said, “as to that, Iím going to tell you something about Sam Clemens and others from around here. They didnít go from this valley and learn to be what they were. They had everything they needed right here.” The old man straightened up. “Take Floyd Dell and Suzan Glaspell and George Cram Cook up in the Quad Cities area.”

Dim didnít know who those people were, but he wanted to be polite and so he said, “Oh, yes.”

Well, with that the old man warmed to his argument. “Now take Clemens,” he said. “When he was here, he was just a little fellow and, you know, they had a frog here. This frog had a peculiar name, probably because some child was trying to say something else. The frogís name was Evie Lovey. Everybody liked him.What this frog could do is, he could leap across the Mississippi River. There was a place out there in those days called Glasscock Island and he would have to bounce off if the wind wasnít strong enough. He would just hit with his -- well, you know how frogs go. And that would get him right onto the other side and then he would leap back. Of course, he would have to sort of tack in the wind, but he would get across again -- and that river is really wide there, itís not narrow like it is in front of St. Louis. Huge, huge stream. Yes. And this frog could do that. He could leap all the way across and back. And that was Evie Lovey.”

Well, Dim thought, “All right, I can tolerate this.”

Then the old man said, “Yes, and you know there was another frog. His name was Calvin Neverest.”

Dim said, “Was he a Presbyterian of some kind?” He was being a little witty.

But the old man was very serious. He said, “Not that anyone ever knew. He never professed. Of course, he might have turned up in church in a boyís pocket, but he never showed any signs of piety. And the thing was, this frog only jumped off Loverís Leap up there.” The old man said, “You know about Loverís Leap?”

Dim said, “Yes.” He was getting a little exasperated. “Yes I do,” he bit off.

“So anyway,” the old man went on, “Cal Neverest would leap off Loverís Leap and land over on the other side, just flop there. And the kids like little Sam -- we always called him Sam -- theyíd get a skiff and go over and bring him back and then they would bring him up to Loverís Leap and he would jump across again. It was some kind of game this frog liked.

Dim went along with this, not wanting to offend the old man. Dim figured he had been out in the heat too long.

The old man said, “The other frog, though, Evie Lovey, he had some unfortunate things happen. He leaped back into the middle of a family reunion once and squashed a whole platter of deviled eggs. And another time he landed on the mourners bench when there was a revival meeting. Disturbed everybody because it happened while the preacher was talking about the plagues of Egypt. So it was determined -- what can you do with a frog? They were going to send him to the happy hopping ground, if you know what I mean. In order to prevent Evie from making these leaps anymore, they fed him buckshot so heíd just hop around on the point. The way they did this, they pasted small paper wings on each one of the shots and bounced them up in the air so that Evie thought they were real flies. Evie never knew the difference. And he wasnít sad about not being able to jump across the river anymore because people always came down and petted him and fed him whatever bugs were handy. Thatís how they stopped him from being a nuisance.”

Dim was just sitting there, you know, astonished, and wishing he were somewhere else.

Then the old man said, “See, when Sam Clemens left here he already had everything he needed for that gambling story he wrote.”

Well, Dim -- it was a hot day and he became a little testy. He said, “That is really a lot of baloney and itís an ill-told story. I mean, if youíre going to talk about Mark Twain, you ought at least to be a better storyteller.

The old man was taken back, just kept looking at Dim with a wounded expression.

Dim said, “Frogs jumping across the Mississippi. How could you expect me to believe that?”

At that very moment while Dim was waxing righteous, this back dot came soaring out of the sky from the east and got larger and larger until you could see it was a good-sized frog. It plopped right down in front of the two of them and shook itself off like an Airedale. The old man smiled and patted the frogís head. Dim was just staring speechless.

And then the frog said, “Nedep! Nedep!”

And the old man turned and nudged Dim in the ribs as if Dim were in on some kind of conspiracy. He said, “This frog reports the depth of the water. The only trouble is, it doesnít matter whether weíre in a drought or the whole bottom for six miles over there is in flood 40 feet deep. This frog always comes back and says, ĎNedep! Nedep!í Heís good-natured, but heís not very bright.”

Dim finally found his voice. He said, “Ah, oh, I donít know what to say.”

The old man said, “Thatís all right. This frogís the one we call Hannibal Pete.” Then he opened his big fishing creel and the frog hopped in and the old man closed it and got up and walked away.

So Dim drove back from Hannibal that afternoon. He drove fast through Pittsfield, John Hayís town, and Carlinville where Mary Austin used to live. He was a sadder and a wiser man. You could say that.

—From Dim Tales, Stormline Press, Urbana, Illinois, 1989, 77-81.