The One that Got Away

I know where I am, but I am not sure how I got here.

I am about a half-mile south of Mitchell Dam in Coosa County.  The bridge on Alabama 22 is half again as far away.  Nothing much on that highway but trees on either side.  Forests that would swallow it without a trace in a few years without human intervention.   You break down anywhere on that stretch between Rockford and Verbena and you better pray that you can flag down the occasional log truck, because your cell phone won’t have enough signal to be tracked by the government, let alone make a call.  But I can say that about most of Coosa County.  It is a good place for a person to simply disappear.  Many have.

I have stood on this spot before.  A narrow strip of Bermuda that is outrageously out of place, a little patch of grass that mimics a manicured subdivision lawn.  It is at the river’s edge.  A cabin is perched on the hillside up-slope.  The riverbank on this side of the Coosa is steep but gradual, and a few other cabins squat along the bank back toward the highway.  The one behind me was once a mobile home, but a skillful carpenter framed it in so that it looks like a cabin.  I know this because I tried to sell it for a man once, long ago.  An over-priced cabin with a secret.

The other side of the river is wild and beautiful.  A shear bluff 500 feet down to the waterline.  Limestone outcrops punctuate gnarled and stunted oaks and hickories, their branches heavy with Spanish moss that seems oddly out of place this far from the coast.

The current is swift here. Deceptively so.  The surface is gunmetal gray, but the roiling murky brown water hidden underneath swirls to the surface and then submerges again.

I watch this silently.  Try to read the river like an old manuscript.  In my mind’s eye I can see the Coosa when it ran wild before the dam.  Back when hundred-year floods sent sharecropper’s houses, barns, and livestock rolling past this spot toward the Gulf.

There are fish in this river.  Big fish.  Old men who sit out front of Kelly’s Crossroads store talk about catfish as big as Buicks below the dam, hovering silently in the murky depths.  Big blind yellow-cats that patrol the bottom at depths where no sunlight has ever penetrated.  Some will swear on a stack of Bibles that Alabama Power can’t hire divers to inspect the dam below the surface, because they know what’s down there.  They have heard the old stories of men who went down and never came back up.  About the one who made it back to the surface but spent the rest of his years wide-eyed and silent in a padded room up at the nervous hospital in Tuscaloosa. 

I suddenly realize that I am not alone.  I am standing next to a stranger.  He is casting into the depths with heavy tackle, long stout rod and spinning reel with 100-pound test line, the kind of rig you would see on a charter boat in the Gulf, or fishing for marlin in the Keys.

I watch him silently.  He casts upstream and lets the line run by with the current.  He doesn’t look at me.

“They’re running” he says.

I don’t recognize his accent, but it’s not one from around here.  His weathered face is partially hidden under a faded black Harley Davidson baseball cap.  A skull patch with “Live to Ride – Ride to Live” on the front.  Shirt sleeves rolled up above the elbows exposing tattoos of dark angels in hellish landscapes. 

“You ride?” I ask.  I’m looking for common ground.  “Maybe we can hook-up and ride to…”

He waves me off mid-sentence.

“Today we fish” he says.

In an instant I see something roll up through the surface.  Something big.  Great White shark big.  Flash of white belly in the twilight, the size and color of a beech log.  It is gone in the blink of an eye, slipping back silently below the current.

I wonder if he too saw, but he has turned away from me.  “Pick up that rig and cast upstream.  Let it float with the current.  Let her take it and run, then snatch that pole back with both hands to set the hook.  You best be ready when she hits it.”

I do as he says.  I see the bait plop through the surface and disappear.  I watch the line as it moves with the current and passes where I stand on the bank.  His line is still in the water, but he’s no longer watching it.  His is gaze has turned to me.

I feel the line tug.  Watch all the slack vanish and see the rod tip snap downward.

“Steady… steady… now. Snatch it!”

I feel every muscle in my body tense as I jerk the rod backwards with both hands.  The pull on the line is immovable.  I have hooked something so big that it is pulling me toward the murky water as it moves downstream.  In a millisecond I realize that I am the one who is hooked.  I am the one who is being played.  I am caught.  My mind screams “let go, let go,” but I cannot.

I turn to the man for help, but he is gone.  His voice is a whisper in my ear.  “You want to ride, son?  Let’s ride.  Now taste and see that the Lord is good.”

I begin to scream.

And then I wake up.

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time

I find Twitter to be a waste of consciousness, but the Redhead still frequents it.  She does it with certain Sicilian tendencies: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Occasionally she will read aloud a post that I find interesting.

Last night she asked me “What was the first book you read that changed your life?  The Bible excluded.”

I thought some about that.  Looked at the ceiling.  Stared into space.  A couple of minutes went by.

“I didn’t mean it to be that serious of a question.”

But it was a very serious question, at least to me.  I have read a lot of good books.  But the first that changed my life?  I struggled to recall them all, working backward to childhood.

My first impulse was The Catcher in the Rye.  I read that one in twelfth grade at the urging of my rather eccentric English teacher Mrs. Hammonds.  It is a book that was (and still is) banned in many public schools.  It was on the RESTRICTED list in my school library, which meant it was behind the counter and my momma had to sign a permission slip for me to read it.

Thank God I have a good momma. 

And thank God she never read The Catcher in the Rye.

I can’t say that book changed my life, but it certainly changed my outlook on life.  I knew a lot of characters in that story, especially the narrator.

But I digress.  Read it yourself — but only if your momma allows it.

I knew there had to be a book before that one.  It took another ten minutes or so and I had my answer.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

“What?  I have never even heard of it.  Why?”

I had to admit that I did not recall much about the story, so many years later.  I do remember that it was about a young man who went to a war and came out a very different person.  He had to declare a “separate peace” – a peace with himself.

But that’s not how it changed my life.  It wasn’t the story per se, it was the type – the first “adult” book I remember reading.

If you were properly educated in the English language, you know that all the best childhood stories begin and end with two simple phrases:

“Once upon a time…”

and

“They lived happily ever after.”

There is beauty in that by design.  It is comforting when momma is about to put out the light and you are pretty sure there is a monster under your bed. 

But we soon come to realize that those stories aren’t representative of life in mortal flesh.  At least not the “happily ever after part.”

I had not forgotten how I came to read A Separate Peace.  Miss Klinner, my seventh-grade English teacher, gave our class the book as an assignment.  As incentive, she offered to give a copy to the first student who read it.  I got to keep mine two days later.  It is still in my personal library.  I can put my hands on it right now, with or without the mysterious electrical construct that is “The Cloud.”

Perhaps it was not the book that changed my life so much as it was the teacher.  She taught me the nuts and bolts of a complicated language through diagrammed sentences and conjugated verbs, but she also showed me how to love and appreciate the never-ending pleasure of reading good books.

I have always loved her for that, as I continue to love the written word that imitates life.

And that may be about as close to as “happily ever after” as a man can get.


 [BC1]

Easter Parade

In your Easter bonnet
With all the frills upon it
You’ll be the grandest lady
In the Easter parade

I’ll be all in clover
And when they look you over
I’ll be the proudest fellow
In the Easter parade

We were at the light.  Thirty-five miles away from the church where we would hear the Easter story yet again.

Maybe I should have been thinking holy thoughts on a holy day.  But I wasn’t.  My mind is always in perpetual stream-of-consciousness.  I don’t think that’s “normal,” but then again, it’s the only mind I’ve got, so I don’t know.  I often think I would like to try someone else’s brain for a bit.  Just to see.

What I was thinking at that moment was that I had become complacent.  That I no longer pay attention to life.  Don’t notice that things are going on all around me anymore.  That’s suicide if you write.

She got out on the passenger side and walked in front of the truck.  She didn’t look back.  Started walking back toward town.  Expressionless.

She was wearing white jeans and platform heels.  Blue blouse.  Looked straight out of the ‘70’s.  Out of the every-day fashion then, at least.  Not out of church fashion.  Ladies wore their finery to church in those days.  Pretty spring dresses and hats.  I miss those hats.

But she was dressed for today’s church.  The church that more than half of America doesn’t attend.

I couldn’t help thinking how important it is to always wear comfortable shoes.  Never know when you’ll have to get out and walk away from your family on Easter Sunday.

“I reckon she’s had enough” I say.

“Yep” replied the Redhead.

That’s a benefit of living with someone for nearly forty years.  Economy of words.  Hemingway on steroids.

The man was comical in a dark sort of way.  Looked straight ahead.  Like nothing had just happened.

I look for kids.  Please God, let there be no children in this Easter drama.

“What did you get for Easter? “

“Well I got a chocolate bunny and some colored eggs and mommy jumped out of the truck on the way to church.”

Easter isn’t what it used to be.  But nothing else is either. 

Have you noticed?

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 Warrior

benny pix

The warrior is slain.

Once one of the most feared men in Vietnam, he now rests in Arlington National Cemetery with other men of valor.

You watched “Lone Survivor” and “American Sniper.”  Now read the tale of Bennie Adkins.

I give you the condensed version.*

I met Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Bennie Adkins five years ago at a gathering of about 30 senior citizens when I received an assignment to do a story about him for Lake Martin Living magazine. After a 43-year-old paperwork snafu, he had finally been awarded the  Medal of Honor for Valor in Vietnam.  His story was about to go public, and I had the privilege to be one of the first to hear and write it.

I knew nothing about him or of the story he would tell that day.  Nothing about his appearance gave me any indication of what he had done so long ago.  Although at 83 he still stood ramrod straight like a soldier, his demeanor was that of a kindly old grandfather. He was diminutive, the kind of man you would expect to see surrounded by his grandchildren at the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

As he began to tell his story, I realized the sort of man I had been privileged to meet.

Adkins enlisted in in the Army in 1956. He was initially assigned a desk job as a clerk typist, but he knew that job did not suit his personality.  He applied for and was accepted into the Special Forces. After two years of intensive training, he was ordered to Vietnam.

After some plain clothes Intelligence work in his first tour, Atkins was assigned to replace a wounded man in Detachment A-102, 5th Special Forces Group in the treacherous A Shau Province. The little camp was behind enemy lines in a jungle so dense that it was only accessible by air. His assignment, along with 16 other American soldiers, was to train 420 south Vietnamese civilians to fight the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC).

He thought it would be an easy job, but he soon found out his “trainees” were a collection of convicts – thieves and criminals from prisons in Saigon who had been released and pressed into service.

The first 100 days at A Shau were uneventful – just occasional sniper fire from a passing VC patrol. But that changed when a captured soldier revealed that an NVA Division (4,000 men) were planning to attack the little camp as soon as the weather prohibited U.S. air support.

That attack began in the early morning hours of March 9, 1966. What followed was 36 hours of relentless fighting.

It was the stuff of which movies are made. Adkins fighting, carrying wounded men to the rear, and returning to the front to fight again.  Back and forth all those hours, wounded and bleeding, through exploding shells and rifle fire.

Air support forces made several attempts to defend the camp, but a gunship and an Evac. helicopter were shot down before they could land.

The situation went from bad to worse when many of the trainees decided to “switch sides” during the battle. Adkins and the six remaining Americans then faced fire from inside the camp as well as out.

When it became apparent that the battle was lost and the camp would be overrun, orders arrived to destroy all documents and abandon the post.

The Army sent 18 helicopters to evacuate the survivors. Ten were shot down.  When the remaining ships arrived, Adkins ran back and forth between the battlefield and the helicopters, continuing to fight while retrieving comrades. When he arrived with the final American soldier, he found that they had missed the last flight out.

Only two Americans and five indigenous soldiers remained. Out of options, the group retreated into the jungle and spent 48 agonizing hours evading NVA troops.

Adkins recalled that the first night in the jungle was the hardest of the entire ordeal. The seven survivors were surrounded, forced to huddle in silence and wait for help.

He spent years wondering why the enemy forces did not just rush them and “finish the job.”  After the war he learned the reason:  a tiger was also stalking his little band of bloody men, and the NVA troops were afraid of the tiger.

CSM Adkins and his men were finally rescued by helicopter 72 hours after the battle began.  All were wounded. Adkins bore 18 separate bullet and shrapnel wounds.

He eventually recovered and did another tour. After that war he accepted missions in other locations around the world.  Most are still classified.

CSM Adkins finally retired from the Army in 1978.  He came home to Opelika, Alabama and went to college.  Earned several degrees and opened an accounting business. Taught some classes at Southern Union Community College and Auburn University.

He dressed in plain clothes, but he was always a warrior.

Recently, the President of the United States remarked that “we now face a war with an invisible enemy.”

CSM Adkins met that enemy on a hospital battlefield in east Alabama.

I marvel at the irony.  The warrior who could not be killed by 4,000 men died from a little virus that many still claim is “not as bad as the flu.”

Rest in Peace, CSM Adkins.  You earned your stripes.

 

*I claim no rights to this story.  For a full (and better) account of the life of CSM Bennie Adkins, read “A Tiger Among Us:  A Story of Valor in Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.”