A Fish Tale

bass

I caught a fish when I was a kid.  A big fish.  A really big fish.

I caught him, but not in the sense you might think.

I am not a fisherman by any stretch of the imagination.  I have landed some fish over a lifetime, but barely enough to mention.  If fishing is a gift, then I must have been standing in the wrong line that day.

Truth is, I am a lousy fisherman. I once stood between two men on the State Pier at Gulf Shores, Alabama.  I had the same gear and bait and fished in the exactly the same manner.  Both were pulling them in as fast as their bait hit the water.  Me?  Not a nibble.

It was not from lack of effort.  I grew up just down the road from a small lake where I fished as a kid.  Mostly with a cane pole, but later with a small rod and a “Zebco 202” reel, which was the ‘70’s version of a poor man’s gear.  I would occasionally catch a few, but not enough to have a decent fish fry.

My frustration must have shown, because one day my dad said “You really want to catch some fish?  I’ll show you how.”

He went down to our old shed and returned with a roll of chicken wire.  He cut a piece and fashioned a cylinder about two feet in diameter.  Wired up the back end with a flat piece and made an inverted cone for the other end.  Cut a little door on the top just big enough to stick a hand through.  Tied a cotton rope to it to throw it out and retrieve it.

“Now here’s the secret,” he said.  He hung a little bag made from a nylon stocking from the top.  It was filled with dry dog food. “Fish just love that smell.”

This was how his contraption worked:  a fish pushed its way in through the small end of the cone.  Once in, it could not get back out.

It is called a “fish trap,” and it was illegal in Alabama.

We made a path through the woods from our house to the back end of the lake.  Cut the bushes back just enough to put the basket in and out.

The next day we went back.  I pulled it in and there were four decent-sized shell crackers.  I was elated.  I could finally catch fish.

I checked the trap every day when I got home from school.  Some days there would be a few, other days none.  I threw them all back, because there was never enough to make a “mess of fish,” which means enough to clean and eat.

One afternoon about two weeks later dad got home early.  “Let’s go down and check the basket.”

When I pulled the basket in there was only one fish.  A really big fish.  A ten-pound Largemouth Bass.

I’ll never forget the sight of my daddy reaching down into that basket, grabbing that big bass by the mouth, and throwing him as far as he could back into the woods so that he couldn’t flop back in the water.

We headed to the taxidermist to have him mounted, but first we stopped off at the local newspaper to have my picture made holding up that big bass.  The caption something like “Local Boy Snags Trophy Bass.”

But there was a small problem.  I did not catch it.  I trapped it.

I had to think up a tale.

When the paper came out, everyone congratulated me, but that was always followed by the inevitable fishing questions: “Where did you catch it?  What time of day?  What bait did you use?” How did you land it?”

And the answers were “At my secret fishing spot, just before sunset, with a purple artificial worm.  I put it down nice and easy next to a snag about three feet off the bank.  He hit it fast.  Took me 15 minutes to land him.  He put up a fight like you wouldn’t believe.”

The story got a little better every time I told it.  Before long it was good enough to be in Field and Stream magazine.

Funny thing was, the more I told that story the more I started to believe it myself.  Whenever I told it I could feel the pull as it leapt out of the water.  See the glistening colors framed against that orange sunset.  Sense the fear that it would break my line before I landed it.

If I had a dollar for every time I told that lie you wouldn’t be reading this, because I’d be spending all my time fishing for trout in the stream behind my cabin in Montana.

I kept that mounted bass on my wall wherever I lived for at least 30 years.  I told my story every time a visitor admired it.

Eventually the mount became so yellowed and cracked that I threw it away.  Or maybe the Redhead did.  She never really liked it to begin with.

So, the tale finally came to an end.

But before you go, hang on a second.  Did I ever tell you about the time I caught a monster bass when I was just ten years old?  Man, did he ever put up a fight.  You see I was fishing right about sunset one afternoon…”

The Art of the Deal

ford

Somebody told me this story years ago.  I do not know if it is true, but if it isn’t, it ought to be.

There once was a forester who lived in the little timber-town of Grove Hill, Alabama.  As you might guess, most foresters drive pick-up trucks, and he was no exception.  He had two, one that he used for work in the woods during the week and one that he drove mostly to town on Saturday and to the Grove Hill First Baptist Church on Sunday.

The work truck was kind of beat-up.  Some dents and scratches on the outside and some stains of unknown origin on the upholstery.  This is typical of forester pickups.  Which is why I will mention to you at this point in the story that you should never buy a used pickup from a forester.  They will clean it up real nice inside and out and make it look good, but trust me, they have got about all the ‘goody’ out of it or it would not be for sale.

But I digress.

This other truck, the Sunday-go-to-meeting one, was in pristine condition.  Although it was nearly 20 years old, he had treated it with kid gloves, so much so that he wouldn’t even let his rather large wife Nelda eat her ice cream cone in it on the way home from Sunday dinner at the Dairy Bar, a matter that she still holds ill-feelings towards him to this very day.

Although he loved that truck, his neighbor down the road a piece had recently purchased a brand new ’72 Ford with air conditioning.  It was the first pickup he had ever seen with that feature, and it caused him to covet.  Ironically, the preacher at F.B.C. Grove Hill had preached on not coveting your neighbor’s something or other just that past Sunday.  He could not remember all the details of the sermon, because truthfully, he was half-asleep through most of it.  He just knew that coveting was something he ought not do.

The very next Saturday he drove up the road to the Ford dealership in Thomasville.  And there she sat – the pickup of dreams—an orange F-150 with pearl white side panels.  Air conditioning so cold that he might even consider letting Nelda have that cone on the way home from dinner, even in August.

The dealer put the hard sales pitch on him, but he remained stoic.  He had been up and down the road quite a few times over the course of his career as a forester and he knew how to trade, be it timber or trucks.  He knew he could buy that new truck at the price he wanted to pay, but the problem was that he was not going to get a fair price on his trade-in.  After all, his truck was immaculate.  He was not going to just give it away.

So, he did what all country folk did back in the day.  He parked the truck out in his yard with a “For Sale” sign that he had bought at the Thomasville Western Auto right after he left the dealership.  He did not post a price on the sign, but he knew what he would take — $500 cash money.

Now at this point in the story you may have noticed that the forester has not spoken. There is a reason for that.  He did not talk much because he stuttered.

If I may pause here, let me say that I am quite sure that I just lost a few readers (particularly the young ones) because I just wrote a word that is probably no longer politically correct.  I am sorry about that, I truly am.  But the word “stutter” was still a perfectly good word in 1972, so some newer phrase like “speech impairment” would be out of place in the chronological sense since it did not exist then.   Besides, ‘stutter’ is still a solid word.  A word like that is called “onomatopoeia.”  Look that up, youngsters.

Now as I said, the forester stuttered.  Badly.  It was a condition he was born with, but a kindly second grade schoolteacher, Mrs. Pope, had taught him a technique to deal with it.  Whenever he had to speak (and he tried to keep this at a minimum) he was to take a long pause, look at the person’s eyebrows, and concentrate on the sentence before he attempted to say it.  “Don’t flinch,” she said.  “Stay in control.”

He did not know what the word “flinch” meant because it was not on his second-grade vocabulary list, but he got the gist of it.  “Gist” was on the second-grade vocabulary list at Grove Hill Elementary.

He used this technique for years with great success.  For example, when Nelda was ready to leave the Dairy Bar and go home to spend a quiet Sunday afternoon on the couch watching “Hawaii Five-O” reruns (Jack Lord, now there’s a good-looking man, she’d think), she would say “Horace, let’s go home.”

And he would say “…..Nelda…..Finish…..your…..cone.”

This took a great deal of concentration.  His brow would furrow.  His eyes squint.  His lips thin.  Anyone who did not know him might confuse all that facial contortion for anger or at least agitation, but it was nothing of the sort.  It was, as I have already mentioned, simply a mental device Mrs. Pope had taught him to overcome his affliction.

About a week after he had parked the truck in the yard, gleaming in the south Alabama sunshine, a city fellow from Mobile happened to drive by and see it.  He couldn’t slow his ’69 Mustang down fast enough to stop, so he drove on to the first place he could turn around (which happened to be the driveway to the Johnson place about a half-mile up the road).  He was not French, but he considered himself a connoisseur of Fords of any kind, and he recognized a Sunday-go-to-meeting truck at first glance.

He hurried to the door and knocked.  From somewhere inside he heard a woman shriek “Horace, will you answer the dadgum door.  You know I am right in the middle of my show.  I think this is the one where Steve says ‘Book ‘em, Danno.’

Truth be told she was not going to get up for Horace if Jesus himself was at the door.  She was still aggravated about having to eat her cone faster than she would have liked.

The city-fellow wanted that truck.  A Baptist might even say he ‘coveted it.’  He started nervously yapping before Horace had even stepped off the porch.

“That’s a fairly nice truck to be so old,” he said.  “What will you take for her?”

Horace just looked at him.  He wanted to say $500, but he just stood there, trying to get the words out.

After about 30 seconds of silence, the city fellow decided to make the first parley.  “How about $250?”

Horace just looked at him.  He concentrated.  Stared at his eyebrows just like Mrs. Pope had taught him.  But before he could counter the man said “okay, how about $400.”

Again, silence.

The city fellow was starting to sweat.  To be fair, everyone in Grove Hill, Alabama is either currently sweating or starting to sweat.

“Okay,” he said.  “How about $700.  That’s my final offer.”

Horace said “Suh…suh…suh…sold.”

Now as you may know, most stories are “cautionary tales,” which means they have been written to advise us ‘what to do’ or more likely ‘what not to do’ in any given situation.  As such, there is always a moral of the story.

This is, indeed, that kind of story.

You, dear reader, may be scratching your head at this point.  There are, after all, several possibilities.  Which should you choose?

One is “the first person to name a price always loses in a business transaction.”  This of course is true.

Another is “Be wary of buying a used pickup truck from a forester.”  This one I have already mentioned.  It rings just as true at the end of the story as it did near the beginning.

A third might be, seek out a kindly second grade teacher like Mrs. Pope if you have an affliction.  She may have an answer that will serve you well for a lifetime.  Also valid.

But the real moral of the story, as I see it, is much simpler and will be easier for you to follow as you travel life’s backroads.

It is this: “Never buy a used pickup truck from a stuttering forester on a Sunday afternoon in Grove Hill, Alabama.  You’ll end up getting skinned.”

Consider yourself warned.  Or at least ‘cautioned.’

“The Moving Finger Writes…*

keyboard

In my previous post I mentioned that it takes hours to write one of these little stories.  That’s not exactly true.  It takes minutes to write a story but hours to edit it.  Editing is the real challenge of “trying to get the words right.”

But I confess I have another reason it takes me so long to write a story.  I can’t type.

I am embarrassed to admit that I am strictly a one finger hunt-and-peck man.  Occasionally my left index finger will get involved, but it usually doesn’t get past the “D.”

Then there’s that nasty business with the “Caps lock” key.

It’s not that I am ignorant or untrained.  I took a typing class in high school.  My friend Winfred and I were unfortunate enough to sit front and center in Mrs. Kidd’s little shop of horrors.  Winfred was a great defensive tackle who played some college ball and then went on to become a preacher.  He was my salvation at the time, because he was as bad a typist as I.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager old Winfred writes his sermons by hand.

Mrs. Kidd stood directly in front of us (actually, more like over us) as she gave instructions.  I don’t remember much about her except that she was rather stern and had big nostrils.  Added pressure there.  Ever try to concentrate while looking up at the business end of a double barrel twelve-gauge shotgun?  To make matters worse, she always carried a big wooden ruler, which she regularly applied to my hands when they were in the wrong position.

I went through that entire school year with bruised knuckles.  Told my daddy I got them at football practice.

Once a week we had the dreaded “words per minute” test.  On a good day I might manage 20, and five of those would be misspelled.  But those tests were really the only reprieve I ever got from the tyranny of Mrs. Kidd.   You couldn’t cheat front and center, but a scatterling of cheaters were behind me.

The test would go something like this: “Limber up your fingers.  Type what I’ve written on the board.  We’ll start on my mark in 30 seconds.”

Then, ever so faintly, I’d hear it.  Chick.  Chick.  Chick.  Mrs. Kidd heard it too.  It sent her charging to the rear like a rhino, ready to administer a little corporal punishment to someone else for a change.

I managed to make it through the year.  Think I made a “C” by the skin of my teeth.  But I never attempted to type again.

The other night I asked the Redhead if I was too old to learn to type.  She told me that there were plenty of internet sites that might help.  I looked at a few and thought “maybe I can still do this.”

Then I remembered what a college professor once told me.  “Research has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill.”

If my math is right, that’s 417 days, nonstop.  If I subtract hours for leisure activities like work and sleep, I’d be looking at about five years.

That’s a big commitment.  The way I feel most mornings when I get out of bed, I’m just hoping I live another five years.

I think I’ll just stick with hunt-and-peck typing.  With the time I save I might be able to get that left finger nimble enough to reach the “F.”

 

*and having writ, moves on.”  Omar Khayyam.

 

Tender Things

I once helped a friend mark timber on his client’s small ownership near Auburn, Alabama.  Timber marking is forester lingo for painting a mark on each tree to be cut from a designated area of a forest.  It is a select cut or partial harvest, as opposed to a clear cut in which all trees are removed before reforestation.

The middle-aged landowner lived alone in a rustic cabin that he had designed and built himself.  He was a factory worker by day and a musician in a local band by night.  I would describe him as an “artsy” type, but I could just say he was an old hippie.  He gave us a quick tour of the cabin’s interior which was decorated with framed concert posters from the ’60’s and ’70’s, some of his own original paintings, and even handmade furniture.  I thought it was all pretty amazing, but I excused myself to walk the woods while my friend discussed business with his client.

Against my friend’s counsel, this nice man insisted that he wanted to sell only the largest, most valuable pine trees on his land.  He wanted none of the other trees cut or damaged in any way.

I suppose he was a gentle spirit with an empty wallet.

My friend chuckled a little as he gave me my instructions. “He wants you to mark the pines so that they can be cut tenderly. Those were his exact words. “I’d like it cut tenderly.'”

Now I am a forester by profession but I’m also a word-man, and though I wasn’t a part of the conversation with the owner, I would been compelled to teach a brief lesson in semantics.

Allow me to explain, dear reader.

Some tender things:

  • a mother’s touch;
  • a baby’s bottom;
  • a lover’s caress;
  • a butterfly kiss;
  • a nice filet;
  • a sprained ankle;
  • a broken heart.

Some things that are not so tender:

  • a cockfight;
  • a right uppercut to the chin;
  • a grizzly bear with cubs;
  • a T-bone steak at Waffle House;
  • a hornet’s nest;
  • a half-time speech when you’re down by three touchdowns;
  • a hickory switch;

And most importantly, a 90 foot tall pine tree when it is severed from the stump.

A pine tree this large will break, smash, cripple, maim, annihilate, or otherwise destroy anything it touches as it proceeds from the vertical to horizontal.  Don’t blame the logger, blame gravity — it’s the law, you know?

I have a feeling the musician sang the blues when his trees were cut.

I, however, sang a little tune as I marked them.  It went:

“Softly and tenderly
timber is falling,
Falling for you and for me…”

You have to be an old Baptist to get that joke.

 

A version of this story appeared here in 2009.

This Little Light of Mine

flashlight

Let’s just say I’m lacking.

My dad could fix almost anything mechanical.  His degree came from the School of Necessity, a university a lot of men attended in the mid-20th century South.  We were not poor by standards then or now, but there wasn’t a lot of cash lying around to spend on things like eating out or buying new cars.  I think dad only had one new vehicle, a Chevy pickup that he managed to keep running for the last 15 years of his too-short life.

Some traits are genetic.  Mechanical ability apparently is not.  Or perhaps it just skips a generation every now and then.  I am mechanically-challenged.  My youngest son is not.  He simply clicks-up YouTube, watches a couple of videos, then proceeds to do things like rebuild the front end of a wrecked motorcycle he bought at a good price.

I watch the videos too.  All they do for me is remind me that I am a mechanical doofus.

It’s not that I didn’t have my chances to learn.  My dad worked on that aforementioned  pickup almost as frequently as he stopped to put gas in it.  I remember replaced starters, water pumps, radiators — even a transmission.  I was the assistant for all these repairs, but I didn’t learn the skills to actually do them.

I was standing right there.  But my mind was not.  It was always somewhere else, like on that girl in seventh grade homeroom, the skinny one with the big brown eyes and the double railroad track braces.

I did develop a specialty, however, one that I am skillful at even today.  It’s called “HOLD THE LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I don’t know why that old pickup had a tendency to break down in darkness, or maybe we just didn’t get finished before sunset.  But dad was going to finish.  Not finishing meant not having a way to get to work the next day.  Not working meant not getting paid.  Not getting paid meant not — well, you get the picture.

My skill at “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE” was developed through a rigorous training system that usually went something like this:

“Hold that light over here on the bolt.”

“Yes, April, I would like to hold your hand.”

“What?”

“Uh, um, yessir.”

“No son, on the bolt, not on my hand.  I can see my hand.  Shine it on the bolt.”

“Yessir.”

“On the bolt, son.  HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

It took years to master.

A few nights ago the Redhead called me from a gas station.  “I just filled-up, and now it won’t start.  All the indicator lights are flashing on the dashboard, but it won’t turn over.  Not even a click.”

“Ah,” I said.  “The battery is dead.  I’ll grab some tools and a flashlight and be there in a few.”

Fortunately, there was an Advance Auto Parts right across the highway.  I managed to get the battery out.  Ran over and bought the replacement.  Dropped it right back in.  But the cables would not fully-tighten on the posts.

“This must be the wrong battery,” I said.  “They’re on well enough to get us over to the store.  Follow me.”

There was no look of skepticism or disappointment.  The Redhead knows my limitations.

Parts Guy immediately diagnosed the problem.  “These new batteries are made so that the cables won’t fit tight on the terminals.  You need sleeves.  We have those.  Let me grab a set and I’ll help you hook it up.”

No, I did not ask why he didn’t sell me the sleeves when he sold me the battery.  But I sure thought it.

Parts Guy had trouble with the installation too.  After twenty minutes of wriggling, cussing and finagling he finally got that battery installed properly.  I just stood there, flashlight in hand.

Not once did he say “HOLD THAT LIGHT OVER HERE.”

I told you I had skills.

 

Author’s note:  This is not a Christmas story per se, as you might have expected.  But in a way it is, at least in a metaphorical sense.

A lot of people will have difficulty seeing the light today in a sea of darkness.

If you have the light, try to shine it in some way that may help them see it too.