Welp, Remi/Judy over at LifeLessons just posted about murdering a cricket (Oh, yes, I nudged her! (To blog it, not to the insecticide itself.)), and that stirred my recollections of going fishing with Dad when I was a kid, since we often murdered live crickets for bait. (Update: her post was
days weeks ago. I started writing this post that night, but it has taken me this long to finish. I should not try writing a novel. I’m 68. I’d never finish.)
So, on to my story:
Dad and I were apparently very close when I was a baby, based on the photos my mom took. But the disengagement came later, when I was about three, when Mom took control. Control.
I grew up right here where I type this, in this very house. Playing outside here as a kid there were always summer crickets to be found, to be chased and caught, and to be kindly released. Occasionally, one would make his way inside the house, but his song made it easy for us to track him down, to catch him, and to release him outside. It’s different today.
In the summer of 1960 I was eight years old. I was a smart kid but (therefore?) floundering in what to make of life, of family. One day Dad mentioned he and his buddy Carmack were going fishing Saturday at Duck Creek (not really a creek, but rather a man-made cypress swamp created by the Missouri Conservation Department). Somehow, he gauged me and decided to ask if I’d like to join them on the excursion. I nervously accepted. I had never been fishing before.
I had already disappointed him, and he had disappointed me. When I was four I was thrilled when he promised he’d take me the next day to pick up our new 1955 Chevy Bel Air at the car dealer, but he “let” me sleep in instead. (I still can’t forgive him, though he is ten years gone. I was devastated.) A few years later he would take me to little league baseball sign-up night, but I couldn’t get up the nerve to go inside. A few years after that he stormed out at me when I relayed a message from Mom that made him mad – and she made him apologize to me when he returned. I knew early I wasn’t the son he had hoped for. I know now that I never would be, exactly, although we would eventually, um – accommodate. But Dad invited me to go fishing with him that day in 1960, and that moment was perfect.
I didn’t get much sleep that Friday night, and he shook me awake at 5 a.m. Saturday to start the 45-minute drive to Duck Creek. The early worm catches the fish. Just as dawn was breaking we pulled into the store/cafe adjacent to the Creek to eat breakfast and buy live bait: earthworms, minnows, and those crickets. We also got Wheaties to make into little balls as bait. (Wheaties as bait? Yeah, that still seems weird.) And we had small shiny metallic and jiggly rubber jigs. Dad explained that you never know what the fish want to dine on going in, so we need to be prepared. We also bought our lunch and snacks: crackers, bread, bologna, boiled ham, American cheese, Vienna sausage, cookies. Just nothing that might melt as the sun rose high on that summer day. Oh, and bagged ice for the chest, wherein would lie our bologna, ham, cheese, the soon-to-be-caught fish, and the beer. Lots of beer. (No, I did not partake. Jeez – I was eight! We had Pepsi for me.)
And then we ordered breakfast. I think Dad ordered eggs over easy, toast, and bacon. His friend Carmack ordered oatmeal. (I’m amazed I recall those details, even if they are false memories.) And I, my eight-year-old self, ordered a hamburger. Dad laughed and made some comment indicating that a hamburger was somewhat – inappropriate – for breakfast. But Carmack interjected. “If the boy wants a hamburger, let the boy have a hamburger.” Dad kinda paused, cocked his head, then nodded. “Ok,” he appeased, “bring him a hamburger.” (I will forever cherish Carmack’s intervention there!)
Bellies full, we drove down to the dock and rented a 12-foot jon boat. (This was early in Dad’s fishing career. He would later have his own 14-foot jon boat, with both a gas motor and an electric trolling motor.) I had only been in/on a boat once: the Tiptonville Ferry on the Mississippi River going to and returning from Dad’s company picnic over in Tennessee with Dad, Mom, and my younger sister. You can’t reach your hand down and let your fingers rake the water on the Tiptonville Ferry. You can in a 12-foot jon boat in Duck Creek. My little heart was pounding, but I tried not to let it show. The sun was up now, trying to burn off the low fog patches and clinging dew and morning chill. As we motored into the swamp, that sun soon succeeded.
Duck Creek was a lovelier place back then – a forest of mantled cypress trees standing confidently in six feet of stagnant tea-colored water with the scent of sweet decay. Cypress knees popped up above the surface, and the canopy kept us mostly in the shade as the sun burned higher into the day. It was a true swamp, albeit artificial. Canada geese honking and feeding in tiny gaggles. The occasional bald eagle dropping from the treetops to snag a fish foraging too near the surface. Frogs and turtles sunning on the downed tree trunks, plopping loudly into the water when we wandered too close. Dragonflies swarming. The occasional water moccasin curling his way across the surface in search of prey.
But below the surface stirred our quarry: bluegill, crappie, red-ear, smallmouth bass. I didn’t know the names of those panfish then. Dad would teach me how to recognize them, beginning that day. We motored slowly out into a secluded area, and Dad shut off the motor. No anchor. We’d let the breeze drift us. He showed me how to grab a cricket from the box without releasing any potential escapees, and how to skewer it onto the barbed hook at the end of the 10-foot fishing line attached to my 10-foot cane pole. (He and Carmack used 14-foot lines/poles.) He showed me how to set the floater that would keep the baited hook, weighted with a split-shot lead sinker, at a precise depth. He showed me how to swing it out easy, making sure I didn’t snag the line in any low-hanging cypress branches. How to drop it down straight in, so as to not collect any of the dread moss that blanketed the water just under the surface. He showed me how to not immediately jerk the line when a fish nibbled, tipping the floater just a bit. I had to be more patient, waiting until the cautious fish committed to taking the bait. He showed me how to jerk easy then, to set the hook in the fish’s mouth as it tried to snag the drowning cricket on the hidden barbed hook.
Dad and Carmack were catching fish immediately. I tried to emulate their technique, but nope. No fish seemed drawn to my cricket-baited hook, but that seemed appropriate, as I was the rookie. After an hour or so, with the sun climbing higher and defining the outlines of the cypress shadows deeper, I elected to try a different tack. I’d ordered a hamburger for breakfast. I was a rebel, though small and young. I took a piece of white sliced bread and squished it into a small dough-ball and affixed it to my hook. Dad was puzzled. “What are you doing?!” I didn’t reply, but I was thinking “You never know what the fish want to dine on going in, so we need to be prepared.”
I dropped my dough-ball baited hook into the water as Dad said, with a condescension that still rattles in me to this day, “Son, you can’t catch anything with that!” A couple minutes later my floater didn’t just twitch – it disappeared under the water with a resounding plop! I pulled up hard, and there, risen on the end of my line, was a nine-inch plump black catfish, a real keeper! I’d like to remember that Carmack snickered, or coughed, but I don’t recall. It doesn’t matter. Dad had challenged my choice of meals twice in two hours, and I’d won both rounds. I had a delicious breakfast hamburger in my belly, and a catfish thrashing on my line. And to his credit Dad did not begrudge me either. Ever.
There’s more to the story of this day, but Remi/Judy has convinced me that I should share this now, as my procrastinating self may never finish the story of this day.