By A.H. Watson
It was one of those lazy days; a day when the sun's heat reached deep and massaged the bones, leaving one free from the trials of the present life. In a world envisioned more round, one less lumpy than found when actually lived, Earl would have been beside me.
John, Sam, Dick and others from Hennyville would have at some point entered the fray. The running argument with Earl about the vast superiority of the past - the honor and vigor of those that lived it, would have been loud and colored with deeds and events of that superiority. A superiority, not of just Southerners of old, but even the damn Yankees!
But this was not to be. The gods took Earl from us in a hard, tragic, and painful death. A man that could do one armed 'giant swings' in competition - to the gasp of thousands - died unable to raise his head from the pillow. Heaven bodes poorly for any that see such pain as god's love.
To overcome such problems, I stole from the book of Christian outfits and slathered a good portion of "Free Will & Predestination" on my thoughts and slowly drifted back to happier times ? those wonderful summers in Jonesboro, Georgia the home of my mothers parents.
My grandparents were members of the Church of Christ. This was a wacky group that met weekly 50 miles away in Atlanta. A trip that took both grandparents two and one half hours - by train - trolley car - then a short three block walk to the private home in which the service took place. How they even found the religion I shall never know. Over the years they became tired of the infighting between the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterians over every scrap of soul that moved into town - or left by fiery chariot ? potentially un-baptized.
They, of course, were not wealthy or Yankee enough to join the Episcopal Church, of which there was no church.
Had my grandfather realized the many farms he held would be worth more as dirt than crops - within 20 years he could have bought a new three button suit and waltzed to the front pew.
So there, that day, basking in the sun, I drifted back to a similar day long ago - A day with my colored buddy Timmy.
The first thing I remember about that day:
I had been on the screen porch. You remember the kind with the floor of broken, deep red, polished tile set in concrete. What ever happened to that kind of concrete? Concrete so hard and smooth that the tile would break before the grout of cement. Like the dark ages, do we now live in a world that has forgotten the advances in science much as man had done in earlier centuries?
In my present, highly expensive hovel, you can rub the concrete mortar from the brick outside walls with your finger. Walkways crumble on the edges. Did we forget how to mix concrete or are we just a lazy, uncaring people willing like the 'grasshopper' to just make do?
I had been reading a "Big Little Book" about Ally Oop and evidently fallen into a comatose state. I faintly heard Granny say, "I think he is on the porch reading, Timmy."
The next words startled me with their closeness.
"Get up Hen, times awastin. The fish are biting and you are sleeping."
"Well, go get some poles and stuff a?."
"Done got'em, buddy. Even borrowed some worms from my Daddy's private worm bed and some biscuits from yo'Granny's stove to make some dough balls."
"Shake your white fanny and let's go."
The muddy slow moving river was not far in boyhood mileage - only about 2 miles outside town. It dropped some 100 feet or more in the thirty miles from North Atlanta. It changed from a rapid, near clear stream to a red stream carrying not only the detritus of the Atlanta sewers, but the carcass and dregs of the very land. Not topsoil - that had gone with the wind and carpetbaggers some years before, but rather, the silt and sands of the underpinnings of the earth itself - hidden for millenniums. A soil, so packed, so hard and lacking nutrients that water could but wear it away in the shape of steep, nasty gullies. A land so impenetrable to roots it would make Kudzu cry.
Timmy and I followed the south bound morning train only minutes behind it. You could still feel the train's movement in your bare feet as you attempted to walk the track. At the trestle we chose to stay on this side and go down stream.
There was no curve to the Flint River in the mile or so we fished. The river ran slowly, and except for the early fall, was thick enough with red mud that my grandmother said a bean planted at Jonesboro would be ready to pick about the time it reached Macon, some hundred miles down stream.
I said it moved slowly?and except for the middle of the stream, it did. The middle always looked as though fed up with all the waiting around and pushed itself faster toward its eventual home - far south.
Timmy, without a care or worry in the world charged down the railroad embankment to the faint path through the succulent watery plants that grow in wild tangles around all southern streams; tangles replete with snakes of all description and spiders of particular note.
"Come on Hen, I can smell the fish?they out tha' waitin'."
"That ain't fish you dumb nigger ? them's rattlesnakes."
"Ain't no rattlesnakes in this here damp mud, you fool, h'its' them fish just a callin' to us."
The short cane poles with tips the cut back to a stout section ? the cotton line outfitted with the smallest of bream hooks ? were soon in the water. Henny had chosen a worm for bait. Timmy had made a hard ball from a pinch of biscuit by squeezing it on the hook in a sort of flat disk of squashed bread. The only catfish they had ever caught in the river had taken the bread one-day. As Timmy preferred catfish and empirical observation showed them catfish preferred biscuits, Timmy fished with biscuit dough.
Looking back I laugh. Until that day I would guess Timmy spent ninety percent of his time staring at a pole holding an empty hook. But such is the hope and wishes of a child to fulfill his own private desires that such never even occurred to Timmy.
"Hen that was the third time that big ol'catfish done took my bait. He must have a smart mouth don't you reckon? Didn't know the fishing wuz gonna be so good. I would have relieved yo' Nanny of mo'biscuits."
Henny had squatted on his heels at an opening on the bank some ten yards below Timmy. His worm had evidently drawn a crowd of fish. The cork bounced up and down never going all the way under. After re-bating his hook several times, on the next wiggle of the cork, Henny pulled hard. A small fish rocketed from the water and over his right shoulder. Even before Henny had turned he felt the dark visage behind him casting a shadow across the water.
With great trepidation Henny turned and with a start his heart tried to leave without him. There stood a tall thin man, clean shaven but draped in clothes that had not seen an iron in months, yet, surprisingly clean and in good order.
"Well son, I don't know if I caught the fish, or the fish caught me." Smiling the stranger handed back the fish. The small fish was a bream of sorts, but completely devoid of the normal coloring. For all purposes it was white!
Henny removed the hook and tossed the small thing up on the bank. While Henny searched for his bait can, the stranger picked up the small bream and gently returned it to the river.
"You had no call messing with my fish - that might be all I catch today. Why don't you just get out of here and get on down the tracks and mooch off some other town?"
"My name is Jackson Flack, but now that we are friends you may call me Jack. Just suppose I show you how to catch a fish worth keeping? Will that make your lip get off the ground? and back on your mouth?
""We ain't no friends. Come on Timmy lets go home."
"Not right now Hen, Jack's friend Bob is showing me how to get me a catfish. You go on ahead. I'll be along after awhile."
"Well boy you going to just sit there and wait for Timmy and pout or do you want to catch a fat old bream?"
"You reckon you do, you reckon?"
Laughing, "Well, that is a promising start."
"Before we start young man lets establish what and why we are doing this. We are fishing to catch something to eat. Not play with ? not to amuse us ? not to just occupy time and space?right?"
"What would you have done with that fish I put back in the water?'
"That's right, Henny. Takes a good man to admit the truth - nothing - just let it die on the bank. So what made you mad?"
"Well, let me tell YOU then. It was a misplaced sense of ownership. It was your fish to waste if you wished to do so. OK then tell me. Your Granddaddy owns cows, right? Well, lets say I want a round of beef for tonight, so I go and cut the leg off his prized cow and cook it, leaving the remainder to rot in the field. Is that OK, as well?"
"Bad answer Henny. Your "not owning the fish" is not what I was looking for ? what say you sleep on it?"
"Henny, most people don't fish in order to feed themselves though I admit many times Bob and myself do so. It makes you a better fisherman if you have to go to bed hungry because you have not fooled at least one fish."
"Young man you cannot have any fun catching fish on what amounts to a broomstick with rope and a hook so small it could never hold a fish large enough to keep."
Jack then disappeared into the cane break and soon returned with a thin cane some 14 feet in length, broke off the top six inches, attached a thin line the length of the pole. He then searched his jacket until he found a small round white container that said Assorted Hooks. After picking a long shanked hook several times larger than mine, he attached the hook and a small sinker. Moving quickly he turned over a rotten log on which I had sat many a day and scooped up a startled cricket taking its afternoon nap.
Jack handed me the baited pole adding, " OK buster, it is now up to you to catch our lunch. Don't be wasting that good bait on any minnow like that poor thing you caught earlier."
Just as I eased down to the edge of the river and started to place the line near the edge, I heard Jack say, "Come back here Henny if you would. We need to talk."
"Son, have you ever caught a big bream? Then why would you think there would be one there among all the mud and muck; all the little pale minnows and especially the turtles and snakes?"
"Where are they?"
"Hell, Bubba they are right where any good fat bream would be - seeing as they are smarter and not as lazy as some boys I know from Jonesboro ? they are out in the middle of the stream where the food, better water and safety exist."
"Don't look at me young man?I'm your fishing advisor. You can swim - wade out there and see if you can get the bait to the swift run especially that spot in front that looks like a little swirl of water."
Waste deep facing the middle of the stream, I had tossed the cricket up current at about a 2 o'clock angle. The cork moved by me and was close to 6 o'clock when it disappeared with a PLUNK! The line hummed much as a banjo string. I had reacted without thought and jerked back on the cane pole.Thanks to Jack's efforts the new pole, rather than snatching the teeth from the poor fish's mouth, bent in a beautiful arc as the fish ran across the current.
From the bank Jack had offered encouraging advice:
"Easy Son, don't yank on the pole."
"Let the pole play the fish. You just worry about your job." "Damn it boy, don't let that fish near the stream bank."
"That's the ticket Son, Let him play out."
"OK he is on his side, slowly lead him to the bank."
"Are you going to eat him Henny."
I had remembered what Jack had said earlier, but knew my granny wouldn't cook just one bream - even if it were over a pound!
I couldn't look Jack in the eye, but my greed and pride - wanted that fish! Wanted that fish to enable me to show and brag to others.
"Yes Sir, I'll take it home and eat it tonight, for sure."
Jacks face had clouded as though he could read my very thoughts but before he could speak there was a loud shriek from upstream. Timmy yelled, "I got'em! Hen - I got him! Damn his soul ? biggest, fattest, ol'catfish you ever did see!"
"Bob taught me how to make catfish bait that would stay on the line and put a bigger hook on a new fancy cane pole. It wer' fun Henny. I'm telling you. It was the best'est fun I ever did have."
"Bob you think these boys would donate their fish to the pot so we could fix them dinner much like ours most nights? That way our friend Henny wouldn't have to tell a fib about eating his fish?. What say Henny?"
With Timmy dancing at my side squealing, "let's"?"let's," all I could say while pouting about Jack seeing through my lie was ? "I best get home Jack? besides you ain't got no fixings for lunch."
"I don't believe I have ever known a boy that could, in such short order, overload his mouth so many times. If I could stand in this very spot and create a meal fit for kings?well, maybe just Robin Hood and his merry band ? would you bless us with your presence?"
Before I could frame another snarky answer Jack told Bob to go fetch the pot and some paper bowls.
"Timmy, you know ramps when you see them?"
"Sure do Mr. Jack. My granny cooks them with hoe cakes."
"Well, run up to the side of the railway and bring back a handful while I start the fire. Henny don't just stand there, take this can to the spring over on the hill and get some water. Be very slow to fill it or you will get a can of leaves and salamanders. It will take an hour for the spring to settle again if you get it stirred up."
By the time I had returned Jack had gutted and cut the two fish into pieces. He took time to show me how to skin the catfish with one quick pull then we both gathered dry wood for the fire.
"Henny if you want dry wood you won't find it near the river bank, son. Look back on the side of the hill but watch out for copperheads."
Jack showed me that even on rainy days you could get dry wood for starting fires from the dead lower leaves still on the trees and bushes. This day he had broken a small dead branch into sections and placed them on a used paper plate Bob provided.
A quick light to the edge of the paper plate and soon a roaring fire licked around the stew pot that was quickly rending two pieces of fatback that Bob had also brought from the trestle area.
From deep pockets on his army jacket Jack produced two large potatoes and three droopy carrots. Washed and cut into small pieces, the vegetables were added to the pot along with the water and Timmy's collected ramps.
Jack, smiling, and saying that he almost forgot, reached into another opening and fished out a salt and pepper shaker. The top had been removed and a piece of wax paper placed under the top to keep the salt from spilling into the large wool pocket. This he added to the stew.
As the stew bubbled I now clearly remember much of the conversation.
"Yep, Henny, my man, until two years ago I was the best and highest paid bond salesman in Boston. Made good money right through the depression ? It was the Government and all its spending and free loans to business during this horrible war, that did me in. I was on the wrong end of the bond business ? with the government giving money away and all. Got fired. Yes I did. Remember boys you are only as good as your last success ? which is unless you own the company!"
"Bob here? That's another story all together. You should pray there are more Bobs of this old world that will give you the opportunity to be free, and be boys in these perilous times."
Bob had been, it seems, closed up in the overturned bowels of the Battleship Oklahoma for two days at Pearl Harbor and the last man taken alive from the ship!
The Navy, in its entire bureaucratic blunder in trying to help Bob, had given him a private room in the officer's section of the Naval Hospital.
Every night at lights out it all closed in on Bob. He told them - and told them - he could not stay in a dark room as it all came roaring back and filled his brain with the smell of hot steam, the crying of the young men, the rank odor of bunker oil and excrement. The worst of all was the total blackness in a world upside down. One mate died of steam burns whimpering himself into a final silence. Another young man simply died of fright and hopelessness.
When the base hospital finally got tired of looking for Bob every morning and finding him outside asleep under the stars, they shipped him to a psychiatric facility on the mainland which he left the first night.Not wishing to damage the Navy, having given him a Navy Cross and several other awards ? they have simply listed Bob as "Missing in Action."
Jack had found Bob curled up in the rain. It seems the other "travelers" wouldn't let Bob in a culvert because he screamed out at night and would even yell, "Watch out ?Watch out!" Sometimes he would even cry they said, they didn't want to be around no scardy cat.
Then Jack leaned over and placed a whole tomato on a sharpened stick into the lightly boiling water and potatoes. In a few seconds he pulled it out and placed another on the stick and repeated the act. Then, bouncing the fruit like a red ball from hand to hand, he finally held it in one hand and with his fingernail easily stripped the skin from each tomato. He cut them and dropped them in the pot along with the pieces of fish lying on a large green leaf he had me pick.
"Mr. Bob tell Hen about how to make catfish bait that will stay on the hook."
"Well Timmy, now that you know why don't you tell him and I will sit here and see if you get it right - OK?"
"Well, Hen, You go up to the cotton gin and git sum' of that lint on the ol' picker drum. Then you mix it with buttermilk or water and add some chicken blood if you got any handy and add flour or meal till it gets real sticky and put it in a jar in the ice box."
"Bob said that if I couldn't get blood to grab the livers when granny weren't looking and chop them real fine or use bacon fat. Best I use bacon cause if I messed with his livers or gizzard, my grand daddy would whip me good."
Jack then told Henny if he should use meal to be sure and cook it up real stiff first or it would disappear faster than Timmy's biscuit when on the hook.
"Time to chow down," Bob allowed, looking in the pot as he spoke. He then took a tin can he had cut in half while we were talking and dipped the fish stew in to four paper bowls.
As I sit remembering that day - that lunch ? I can still see as clearly as though it was last night. The languid richness of onion, tomato and fish all blended in a fusion that surrounded us. All items cooked to the point of tenderness, yet still distinct individual pieces.
In my later life I have had occasion to eat at many of the finer homes and restaurants here and overseas. Never has fish chowder approached that made by Jack that day on the muddy bank of the Flint River in Clayton County, Ga. that day of our Lord in 1944.
Before we left that day Bob had showed Timmy how to make a fire several different ways, even on a damp day. But when he pulled out a small cheap child's' magnifying glass and lit a growing lump of tan field grass, I asked him why he had not used it to start our fire.
Jack broke in to our conversation and told me that they wished two boys to see what could be done with things at hand. He seemed quite disappointed that we had not seen that for ourselves and suggested that the both of us think more before we acted. He said that doing so not only might save us effort - but one day could even save our life. I think of Jack and Bob often cause it not only could ? but did.
While Bob was teaching Timmy fire techniques, Jack talked to me about fishing.
"Henny when you get older you will find there is other kind of fishing. While not better, there will be fancy fishing rods and reels, but there is no reason you should not avail yourself of some of those pleasures today."
Jack then took a smaller but long shanked hook from his tin of hooks; stuck the sharp point in a piece of bark and settled the bark between his bent knees. He then pulled a string from his somewhat ragged coat and found what looked like sparrow or quail feathers in his pocket, along with that green fluff that always balls up in wool lined jackets. With the addition of some dog or rabbit hairs swooping back from the curve of the hook? Jack had built a bug. A damned BUG!
"Young man," Jack had addressed me exactly that way, " There are two kinds of fishing and fishermen. There is trout fishing ? then there is all the rest."
Jack went on to tell me having not seen a trout or fished for a trout I would have to take his word. He said I could look at is as the difference between a fine neuro-surgeon and say a witch doctor or a hospital orderly.
"Want to make like you are trout fishing Henny?" Jack asked. He then proceeded to show me how to handle the pole and the bug.
"These are flies Henny?flies! Not bugs!"
Jack showed me how to hold the bu?."fly" in the fingers of my left hand while pointing the pole at my intended target.
"Henny, look at my fingers. See! I have none of my own meat between the point of the hook and its intended target. That way, when you let go of the fly, it won't try and pull you with it."
"What difference does THAT make?"
"Well my young friend, it will not only keep you from running forward chasing the fly dug deeply in your thumb. It will keep you from stepping on fish families up and down the stream."
After a few additional admonitions I remember standing at the start of the ripple and aiming my pole at a turning eddy, across, and about 15'feet away. I released the fly tightly pinched between my forefinger and my thumb. With a "twang" the line rolled over and deposited the fly at the edge of the eddy. Two twitches of the rubber band legs on the surface of the water then there was that "cluck" of a sucking sound one hears mostly on ponds. The water erupted in a flash of red, yellow and green. The pole bent mightily at its tip but was handling the large fish well until I made the mistake of trying to lift the fish toward the bank. The cane snapped at the top; with a heavy rush the fish finished the job and headed downstream.
Cursing I headed to the bank blaming the cane as being too weak and my footing as being too poor to land the fish.
"Just bad luck, Henny ? right?" Jack spoke those words as he appeared - coming back up the path with the end of the cane and a bream that must have weighed 2 lbs.
"You are not going to be one of those kinds of men are you Henny; every mistake you make blamed on someone or something else?"
"Gee I hope not young fellow. Life is too short as it is to carry around the knowledge of your blaming others. Be a man, Son, step up and take responsibility when you are at fault. If you do, not only will you learn from it, you will carry the respect of your peers. And that my young friend is the most important thing."
"Incidentally, if you wanted that fish, why didn't you jump after it the moment YOU broke the pole?Know what your goals are in life Henny. Fight for them, you won't have some old broken down bond trader doing the Australian crawl for you every time you fish."
Jack also told me many other things that day. Remember Henny, fishing is for fun. Any time you think about going fishing and on every cast catching a big fish. You would be tired of fishing forever by the end of the second day. He taught me how to really sharpen a knife, find North, sleep dry out side on a rainy night, tell when people were lying to you.
Most of all Jack taught me to plan and think before you have to act. His last act that day was to suggest I take the bream up to Granddaddy's store and put it on ice until tomorrow. Then, it being Saturday, when every one of the old codgers was sitting around the cold stove spitting in the sandbox?start-talking bream - even suggest that you have see some as big as 2 lbs. in the river and one time even caught one. When the bets get big enough at say five to one or better, "Show'em the ham."
When I ask why "ham" Jack just grinned and said he meant fish!
We told our family about the day at the river. The next morning Granny had made two deep-dish apple pies - one for us and one for Jack and Bob. In addition to the pie she had laid out a slab of smoked bacon, six eggs, cabbage and other yard vegetables.
When we arrived at the trestle with all our goodies Jack and Bob were nowhere to be found. Four new arrivals yelled at us across the river and said that the two that left this morning on the 9:12 South said we might be by and to be nice to us or they would hunt us down and get even. He said he had been on the bad side of Bob once and didn't want no part of that.
Timmy and I left them the food with many thanks all around and headed back to town.
I think I begin to understand about then, what I had heard Mr. Carnes once say to a gal in his office:
"You know Morganna there are two things, three if you include food, man should always quit while he still wants more ? sex and friendship."
I had only known Jack for about 6 hours but had learned more things that would make life smoother and more complete than I would ever again. Timmy and I felt a hole in our life. From that day we edged more toward manhood - our childhood seemed behind us. We looked behind the gesture. We measured penalty against reward. We became more secure in our decisions. We made better decisions.
I have often wondered if they left at just the right time? Perhaps they had feet of clay or holes in their psyche that a tank could pass. It seems unlikely but there you are; we had never been to the mat so to speak. The friendship, if it were that on their part, was never tested through a bad patch. Who knows the outcome but the shadow.
Our last bit of conversation had been about advertising about how much more creative it must become now that the troops were home and had actually seen Rome.
There is not a day in the grocery that I see a damn little tag on every tomato in the store that tells you more than you need to know about the little sucker that I don't think of Jack and wonder.
©2008 A.H. Watson, all rights reserved.