By A.H. Watson
The poets prepare us for both the soaring compassion of love as well as the depth of despair.
They can well praise thousand year old pottery, yet, grow dim at the slow crumbling of the land on which their roots are firmly planted..
Time is insidious - it moves as we stand - but never see.
And so it is with Hennyville. Its staunchest protectors grow feeble. Its youth not prepared for the task or a task they wish to shoulder ? having shouldered none other in their short, protected lives.
Like massive virulent cancers fast moving tendrils of airline pilots, drummers, and other non-hourly workers, move quickly along the main routs from the cities sucking the very life and beauty from the land.
Hunting birds in the fall you are more likely to kick up braces of illegal aliens from the long abandoned shacks and the woods themselves.
One could not, in good faith, allow the young to picnic alone without the comfort of a loaded pistol nestled close to the egg salad in the basket used for generations of family?a hundred years with no thought of the necessity of a gun since the Indians had embarked on the Trail of Tears?the one true stain upon the national psyche - the one that is never mentioned.
All is lost - "All is lost - all that remains is to die. To that end? each week God has begun to call His soldiers home.
The boys met at Earl's funeral, each of them acutely aware of their own loss, their own lifelong love and aching sense of personal loss. Earl's death had left them despondently mute to their own caring for each other and thoughts of their many good years together.
Silent, in that most personal of griefs ? an awareness of one's own impending slide from the present, the living ? into the maws of history ? unknown, loved less than hoped, far distant from their individual dreams of achievement and youthful goals.
As Doc Dick had said long ago while fishing with the boys - when he should have been at his internship at Atlanta's Grady Hospital ? "Girls I have found out this year that the human learning curve is much steeper than I ever imagined. Unlike I believed last June, there are actually things I didn't already know!"
After the funeral the four of them had lingered at the fresh turned clay. One had but muttered, "By God Ernie, at least now we can find you when we need your good counsel" ? when the rains swept in from the Southwest and gave meaning to the old lament - "And the gods cried."
Standing under dripping umbrellas, and even those being pulled from their hands by a rapidly moving front; they had arranged to meet again at a more auspicious occasion, the long weekend surrounding Confederate Memorial Day.
It had been a good choice; the weather had arrived clear, warm - but not unseasonable.
It was the end of May, the bream were bedding. This made for a fine disposition, at least on the part of the Judge; but not so, those dragooned each morning to paddle him to his favorite beds. Then, later, it was once around the lake with top water plugs chasing Agnes, our 13 lb bass. Agnes seemed to feel almost hurt if some fisherman didn't offer her a few wooden fish or other hardware for her perusal, then quick dismissal.
In the South, we knew Confederate Memorial Day to be a solemn and reflective time. A time of reverence, for not only the past and its heroic deeds, but for the bridge it provided to present day ? and to the better people, we believed in our hearts, those days and relatives have allowed us to become.
Better than others outside the South? Not as a race, for we encompassed many, but as a cohesive society. A society that provided opportunity with maximum freedom, yet, coupled it with the minimum legal constraints necessary for good order ?you can bet we believe that.
One had only to read and compare papers, to see the nightly news, to be aware of that truth. A truth never acknowledged ? but rather derided daily in the national media, and the courts of the land.
Until 1968 Southerners, universally ? black, white, and in-between - operated on the principle that hard work was the key to most success. All knew that some individuals existed that need not follow that constrict. This was the result of fortunate birth or other circumstances. But, they also knew that such examples did not make the rule, that one gained little happiness by constantly bemoaning what was simple fact ? an aberration to the normal life ? but still a fact ? life promised only equal opportunity not equality of life's many wonders and monetary bounty.
Then the government changed those rules. Farmers were paid - not to grow ?the lazy were paid - not to work. And, god as our witness ? worthless women were paid ? to birth illegitimate children in endless numbers, with out question, or moral constraint.
All of this decay was followed, in attempt to widen the 'beholden voter' base, quickly - with payments of all kinds for work not done ? even that for which money had been paid.
Raises for teachers that could not or would not teach; "Professional Educator" salaries above that of President of the Nation or middle sized companies? and that, for buffoons with no skill other than reaching oversized hands into the limited trough of funds, then demanding even MORE, for a job that, by any standard, would require immediate firing in any sane work environment.
It all sapped the national morality and gave birth to the "Gimmie Generation;" a generation of true bastards, sloppy, unprincipled, uncaring - peaking with the election of one of their own in 1992. Recent elections had only added to the dysfunctional leadership with the election of Democratic thugs and trash. Trash, that only a few years ago, would have been long jailed or remanded to mental Institutions for proper care.
Free money for illegal aliens, even as they sucked the lifeblood from local communities in additional jail, hospital, welfare, and a large mix of other social cost.Sex change operations for death row inmates; Payments to trial lawyers for mounting specious suits against individuals, companies and even the government itself! The list is never ending; rather - it expands daily.
People, as well as corporate entities, were no longer tried by Juries of their peers? but by jeers. Uneducated rabble, led by Judges appointed by politicians of even lesser talent or honor, filled the courts. They were all led on by legal whores looking only for the fast dollar or chance to punish the truly effective, or honest.
All of this national destruction in the lifetime of those present at the pond the Friday evening before the Memorial Day picnic - what a short lifetime it now all seemed. How could a Nation move that far toward total destruction in such a quick blink of the cosmic eye?
All assembled knew the answer; there was just little need to continue to bewail the coming doom of a once proud land and people.
The Judge moved across the porch to sit next to Henny and Sam. Doctor Dick, Charleston's renowned cutter, leaned against the doorway nursing a scotch.
"You boys remember that first trip together to Stenhatchie Fla.?"
It was quiet for several beats, there on the porch of pond house. Each of the old friends seemed transported - some forty years, in time and place - to a fishing camp hard by the Crystal River; to a point of land that constricted the river on its relentless drive to the gulf.
Dick laughed, "I can see all of us now, living a week in a small cabin with no air, rusted screens and a fresh quart of Mosquitoes added to the mix every few minutes. It would never happen!"
"I would leave tonight." The Judge spoke quietly to the group. "I think about those trips often. They seem to grow more important in my mind?not less - as the years go by."
America was different then, but so were the boys ? vastly different. The Judge was only four years out of Law School. Henny had just begun - having taken three years to be "Political fodder", as he described his Army days; the few times any of them could get him to speak of that period. Sam had just started at the University of Georgia following in Henny's steps - but making far larger footprints.
The Judges son was but seven years of age; none were to know the dark passage his 17th year would bring to this happy band of near brothers.
This being their youth, none had been ground and shaped to meet the needs of the group. Indeed, none knew that a group, loyal to a fault, would emerge from these sporting weekends.
"Who wants to fish the salt? Henry had inquired at the time.
"Who wants to go up stream for bass and stump knockers?" John asked, almost at the same time.
This was a question always asked the night before, yet, it was seldom settled until the boats were underway. Often you would sense one of them win some final argument. The their boat would then turn and head in the opposite direction ? be it up river, or out toward the salt-water waves and waiting sea trout.
In these early days none had a fixed part in what was to become a sort of forty-year Kabuki Play. But those attitudes were forming and each was beginning to find a place in what was to become a life's long pageant of fun and games.
John had always been serious. He was his father's son.
His father had been the town lawyer, as well as large landholder. The farms worked some twenty-tenant farm families. In his great-grandfathers time, before the War for Independence, some 150 slaves and their kin worked the land.
No one can work tenants or slaves without a large degree of management skills. No matter the thoughts of some liberal confined to the limited space and view of a high rise apartment in some mean and distant city; landowners were close, not only to the land, but also to hard work, and the men and women that labored for them.
When John was thirty-five his father died, crushed by a bale of cotton he was helping move to the warehouse.John made two changes.
Over the next two years he sold off all the outlying farms, keeping only that land close to the city and one piece rented out to a dairy. He had explained to his friend Henny Penny that with all the new Democratic give-away programs it was impossible to get tenant help that would work. Drinking seemed to be their new talent.
The second change John made was to set his personal demeanor for the remainder of his life. In packing his fathers things he had found his cape and bowler on the hall tree stand. The very next morning he had showed up at the new Café in town wearing both!
John was in imposing 6'4." For several weeks locals laughed ? though not in his face - At the end of the month few even noted his dress. John had suggested to Henry that such would be the case.
While this change affected John not in the least, as he continued to be a man of few words in public - it affected Henry greatly.
As the town's only lawyer, John's father had made little in his town practice. But with Henny opening a law office as well, both John and Henny "did well by doing good"?at least to hear them tell it.
John had invested his money from the sale of the farms wisely. The income, while it made him free from financial worry, his being the town lawyer, allowed him little chance to develop the groups many outlandish quests. This was left to Henny by default. Even those situations put forth by John - such as the ghost of Hennyville, - were always laid at Henny's feet.
After John was appointed to a Judgeship, the final change evolved - John became known as "The Judge" and Henry was referred to by most in town, as " Henny."
Sam had become part of the group as both Henny and the Judge considered him as family.
Sam's father, the local black Minister, had been killed trying to protect a young woman of his church from a sorry drunken husband. As happens so many times among the underclass, those trying to help pay the ultimate penalty.
Both of Sam's parents had died on the hard packed dusty clay of a ram-shackled cabin on the edge of town. Hard against the railroad tracks the only witnesses had been the collection of chickens and a raw boned hound gathered under the porch of the cabin, seeking the one cool spot in Christendom that hot summer day.
Sam had come to live with the Penny's. As Henry was in Vietnam at the time Sam took his bedroom and before Henry's tour was over, had even grown into his clothes.
It would be foolish to say, that upon his return, Henry had not been hurt that a stranger ? a black one at that ? had taken both his room and his "stylish" high school clothes.
It was impossible, however, to be mad with Sam. Henny found that unlike many blacks he had known in town and even the Marines, Sam had better qualities that most of his old college and high school mates.
When Sam came to him over the fraternity mess, and the great fun both had in turning the tables on the Frat boys, their friendship was sealed. Both knew they could depend on the other in a tight spot. Along with the Judge, both delighted in Sam's presence. With the death of the Judges son, the last week of that damnable war, they became an inseparable threesome.
Dick, the Charleston cutter of note, and old roomy of Henny's in college, became a member as a result of one insane weekend - and the coolness he showed under pressure at the time.
The first two fishing trips Dick had been impossible. Like most doctors, Dick knew everything. He was good with both kinds of knife. His peers said he could cut out a heart and replace it with an Insinkerator - without the patient being aware. The first notice would be the whirring noise each time the patient ate.
To grind down some of the Doctors more obvious spurs, the other three planed a test for Dick that should, they believed at the time, leave him both a humbler and wiser man.
Well before the next trip to Florida, Sam contacted an old friend in the Louisiana Highway Patrol. Henny and the Judge poured over the map of the Florida County where they fished - and made a few calls.
Doc had just opened his new practice in Charleston and needed to finish morning rounds before leaving for the fish camp. Sam, in his normal decency, drove to Charleston in order to accompany Dick on the long trip.
The Judge and Henny arrived early and set the plan in motion.
First they drove to a long abandoned section of Highway#41 that had been by-passed when the new expressway opened close by. The owner of the long closed Alamo Plaza Motel Court?it, of the small individual cabins, with mattresses that would fight back if the occupant would only deposit a quarter, was there to greet them. For a couple of hundred bucks, he was proud to play a part in boy's short one act play.
Henny had second thoughts about the hurt they were about to inflict on their good friend, Doc Sams. But standing in the gravel parking lot of the Fish Camp his mind reverted to type, and revealed an evil smile - as he suddenly remembered Doc's confession to them on his first trip with the boys.
"Fellows, am I glad to be here ? almost didn't make it. My name came up on the weekend coverage at Grady (the Charity Hospital in downtown Atlanta), but I caught my brother Paul in time to get him to cover for me until late Sunday."
"Got a cold beer?"
The judge squinted into the sun and looking at Henny said," Bubba, knew you had a twin brother ? didn't know he was a Doctor, as well?"
"He's not partner. He is a plumber in Athens. But hell, he owed me one, and can sew as well as I can ? or Henny for that matter."
Several times Henny would go to pick Dick up at Grady and be given a curved needle and told to sew away if they ever hoped to get out of there in time for the ball game or whatever.
"Henny you remember that big Mama that set the Grady record? She had over seven hundred stitches, and not a cut over an inch deep. You remember, sweetie? Your stitches looked like a shift in the tectonic plate; big old red ridges that looked like lava flowing down the black background of a volcano at night."
"Henny, don't look so horrified. That crowd is proud of its scars and I guarantee you none of them will out shine the work you did on big Mama. She told me months later her friends still come by to see them - Said the first couple of weeks she held daily showings."
With those words in mind, Henny found little difficulty in bringing Doctor Dick an open beer.
A couple of beers laced with Nembutal - from Docs own script, and the Doc slept with the giants of medicine, or maybe lose women of the Charleston streets, who's to know?
A light touch of chloroform then the Charleston cutter was dressed in a sports coat, slacks, and $300 dollar loafers. His wallet was removed along with his watch. Eleven dollars and small change was wadded up and placed in his coat pocket. A habit they had all noticed Dick displayed when they were all out pub-crawling.
Using a blanket as a make do stretcher, they carried Doc to the car, and soon had him face down on a bed in the Alamo Plaza cabin #4.
But not before opening a large can of soup, a beer, and a pint of cheap whiskey. All three were spread liberally on the Doc, the bed, and the toilet. Additional empties, empty snack bags and Styrofoam cups with lipstick were on the floor and waste can. The shower wet down and a wet towel on the floor along with dripped water and old cigarette butts.
The three returned to the fish camp, had a few nips and told fibs to each other till the wee hours of the morning ? thought of Doctor Dick was never far from their collective thoughts.
As with most pure stings, what actually happened can only be known by inference, and the words of Doc and others with whom he interacted the following morning.
The Motel owner said the Doc staggered into his office the following morning, around 8 am, puzzled and confused. He had seen the Highway sign saying the road was route # 123 La; with the mileage to Opelousas La. being some 34 miles! (Sam's friends in Lafayette La had been kind enough to send the signs, as well as a La. Highway Patrol shirt)
Doc had borrowed some clothes from the Motel owner as his were covered with throw up from his own evening of misadventure. After asking if the man remembered who had been at the motel with him, Doc dragged himself back to the room to shower and change.
Doc plodded back to the motel office in high rubber boots and bib overalls thinking to himself "all I need now is to run into some Charleston client, or social busybody, and I shall have to change my practice to "Chiropractor"- with slicing and dicing thrown in for free!
When Doc turned the corner to the Motel office, leaning against a white Louisiana Highway Patrol car, drinking an RC Cola was the patrolman.
"You the fellow that caused all the trouble last night? Get in the car ? that was my sister you tried to rape last night !"
In blind panic Doc reached into the pocket of his Jacket. The jacket he had cleaned up and worn to take the edge off the Oysterman look he had so cleverly achieved with the bib overalls and tall muddy rubber boots.
"See my hand? There is a pistol aimed at your belly. Drop your gun belt and pants ? do it NOW! I am a desperate man but I don't want to shoot you."
Doc had watched the panic quickly jump from his shoulders to those of the patrolman standing there in his shirt and "Fruit of the Looms"
"OK, cross the road and run so deep in the swamp I can't see to shoot you."
White of face and stammering, the man complained? "But ?but there are snakes and things in there !"
"You best worry about the things out here"? and with that Doc hit the side of the car hard, with the flat of his hand.
As the pseudo patrolman fled in one direction, Doc started the car and took off in the other.
The fellows at the camp had began to worry around 11am when the play had not ended with Doc being driven back to the Fish Camp for a large dose of ridicule and laughs at his expense.
By noon they knew the action had gone south on them when the motel owner called madder than a Democrat being laughed at. Said his brother wanted more money - didn't know he was being sent to deal with a mad man. He was presently in the motel office having briars removed from his feet as he had run out of his shoes soon after hitting the swamp.
Retiring to their room to discuss the situation, the fellows heard a crunch of gravel and the sharp "thunk" of a door closing. Looking out, they saw the perfected image of a Southern Sheriff as imagined by High Rise Yankees comfortably ensconced in a rent-subsidized apartment in the Gomorrah of the East.
A short, chubby, sheriff - long of hat, and short of toothpick, approached the room attempting the John Wayne walk, but seeming instead in urgent need of a bathroom before he fouled his own "Fruit of the Looms."
"Afternoon boys. Have a man in the car that says he knows all of you and that you will vouch for him. Don't seem likely to me - unless you all are some "Hole in the Wall Gang" type.
I must warn you there are three other units up on the highway waiting for me to call. I told them I would come down and see what's what.
When we arrived at the Patrol car, all scooched down in the rear so's you could only see his hair - was the noted Charleston cutter.
"Caught him trying to rob our restaurant outside Crystal River. Lucky I have breakfast there every morning."
Damn fool said? "He thought he was in Louisiana."
"He asked me how I knew he was about to rob the place. Told him that not many people come into town with bib overalls and a $500 dollar cashmere sport coat, wearing knee high rubber boots that even the locals never take more that 10' from the dock, as they are both hot to wear, and hard to walk in. But when he stammered around when asked what he wanted - and finally requested a "Cinnamon Latte", hell I knew he needed to be arrested for - something."
While Doc remained in the car, the rest of the crowd moved to the confines of the cabin to hear the Sheriff discuss everyone's fate.
"In some ways that bubba is better off. I can't get him for robbery, as he never was caught using, this here gun.
With that the Sheriff removed from a sack a bar of lifebuoy soap with a pencil stuck into one of the long sides. Danny the owner of the restaurant wanted to jam it up his fanny and make him blow bubbles till it were gone. But we can't have our prisoners abused like that can we? Course, there is no telling what he will get up there once in the chain gang up at big stony."
It would make me feel might bad if that happened; so lets see what we can do. If I bound him over on attempted robbery with a bond of say?$1000 would that help?"
"That's mighty white of you Sheriff. I think we cou?."
Breaking into the Judges sentence, an event rare in its self?"Surely you don't think I am black like this coffee colored brother here with you? do you?"
Moving quickly in front of Sam before he could join the fray, the Judge said simply?"that is just an expression "up North" where we come from?you know - up near Savannah."
Continuing,"So that leaves only the gun charge?Suppose we round that one off at a $1000 also just to make things even.
"Damn it, Sheri?"
"That's just fine Sheriff," the Judge interjected before Henny landed them all in jail. I'll just make out one check and I am sure Henry will be happy to write the other one ? WON"T YOU HENRY?"
"Well, you boys have been so reasonable lets see if we can't do a little better and still be in bounds."
"If I accept these checks as bonds and you don't return for trial you will remain wanted in the state of Florida, and unable to participate in the joy of our fishing and women - Ahh?not necessarily in that order, for that chump change in the back of the patrol car. In addition 40% of the money will have to be remitted to the state?by law. We can do better for both of us than that."
Seeing a small light the Judge asked, "What do you suggest?""Instead of a bond, suppose we make it a fine to be paid to the local boys club, and cut the amount to say, $500 each, as none need go to the state. That way there will be no criminal record and you can continue to avail yourselves of Florida's fine hospitality."
The more than fair deal was consummated by Henny and the Judge writing $500 dollar checks, and Doc was then released into their care.
They had fished that afternoon on the high tide and spent the evening pulling Doc's story from him piece by piece.
Though Doc seemed no more humble than in the past all felt the shock to his psyche would eventually take hold, and he would be a better man for the experience.
It never happened.
Thirty days later:
A package arrived from Crystal River thirty days to the date of the boys' trip and their plot to improve the great Charleston cutter for the betterment of, not only the group, but mankind in general.It was sent in care of the Judge but held the names of all three plotters of the " Fish Camp Fandango."
In the package was a check for $100 dollars made out to Doc ? a letter from the president of the CR Bank ? and a videotape of Doc and the bank president taken the morning of the "robbery"
In brief ? Dock had gone to the Sheriffs office and found that he was attending a seminar in Panama City. Then as most people do he sought his own kind by going straight to the office of the Bank President. It seems the rolly polly man was not only a power in town, but had always wished to play Jackie Gleason's part as a Sheriff. The President borrowed not only a uniform but a patrol car from the station and the game was afoot.
They made no plans, other than the bet that the President of the bank and Doc had made on the way out to the fish camp. Doc said he would bet him a $100 bucks they could get $1000 dollars out of the two rascals at the camp - if the didn't - he would pay the $1000 and pay the President $100 dollars.
Then they planned? using the weakness and guilt the boy's must feel if they thought Doc had been arrested because of their fun and games.
From that moment on the man had played it by ear, turning in a performance superior to that damn liberal ass in "Heat of the Night."
In fact, it worked perfectly. That is, until he tried to spit in the dust like Eastwood in "Dirty Harry" and drooled down his chin. Shows you should never mix metaphor, or change acts, in the middle of the play.
The next week in Charleston both Henny and the Judge pleaded to know just when Doc had first known he was being jobbed? and how he knew.
Once they had paid for dinner and an evening of drinks (along with several promises none would admit) Doc told them it was easy but he was lucky to spot the scam.
Turning to the Judge Doc said, "You bought the soup didn't you Judge?"
"Well, I took it from my pantry" so what?"
With that, Doc took a piece of paper from his wallet. He unfolded it to show written in small white pasta letters ?
"You really are three dumb pricks"
"Judge next time don't use Campbell's alphabet soup, you Ninny!"
Doc went on: "When I returned to the room to change into the outfit the two of you no doubt picked, I first noted that my puke contained small letters made of pasta.
Buster - THAT was a first! My many college encounters with the porcelain party buddy never once allowed me to consider looking for vowels.
The real tell was right after that, actually. I returned to the motel office to fine a so-called local policeman standing by his car drinking an RC cola.
Problem was that the sweat from the bottle was making the "Highway Patrol" letters on his car run down the side.
Even Coon Asses are not sufficiently stupid to paint their patrol cars with water-based poster paint. By the time I reached the car - it said, "Hi?.way ..arole."
"The next time you girls want to match wits with me ? hire some."
It was obvious that getting Doc back in the box would take some serious face guarding on our part.
Massive hubris can lead to some very long falls from grace?