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.”

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 Good Life

for Molly

garden

If you live long enough you gain an appreciation for those who came before you.

When COVID-19 hit and everyone was advised to practice “social distancing,” I was indifferent. “Social distancing?” I invented it. Been practicing it for years.

Then came “shelter in place” and “work from home.”

Unlike most, I could not have been happier. Stay home? Well “please don’t throw me in the briar patch Br’er Fox.”  I packed my possibles and headed to our farm.

I take liberties with the word “farm.”  Not the image the word conjures. Really just woods and a few open acres. The crops are trees and wildlife, not corn and livestock.

Finally, a chance for the good life. The life of my ancestors. A life for which I was surely born.

Now to be clear, I do not have an upper-class pedigree. I did the research. My kin were Irish immigrants and poor white sharecroppers. No royal sap in the family tree. Mostly poor folks who eked out a living with whatever they had on hand.

But I had more.  The pandemic did not take me by surprise. The farmhouse was fully stocked before the initial panic hit. While many rushed to the stores, I just sat back and watched from a distance. I am, after all, a smart man (just ask the Redhead and she will tell you “oh yes, he certainly thinks he’s a smart man”). I am forward-looking. A visionary even. I was never a Boy Scout, but I lived their motto — “Be prepared.”

I had food. I had medicine. I had gas and diesel. Masks, antibacterial wipes, and toilet paper to spare.

I might have even had a gun or two.

I also had creeks for water, trees for firewood, and wild animals for meat.

But most importantly of all, I had seeds for a garden.

I was dug-in like an Alabama tick. Ready for the long haul.

The first three weeks were blissful. I was finally able to get my work done. Almost no calls, no emails, and no visits from anyone to break my chain of thought.

My plan was executed to perfection. I put in my office hours, then headed outside to take leisurely walks and tend my tomato plants.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning I climbed aboard the big John Deere and plowed and planted my garden. It was the same kind of worn-out rocky ground that my ancestors plowed with mules, but no matter.  I could coax that sorry dirt to yield more than they ever dared to dream.

Then came Sunday morning. The storms hit at sunrise. Hail. High winds. Rain by the bucket-load. The lights flickered, then went out.

No worries. I had candles and flashlights with extra batteries. Who needs television or the internet? I had shelves of good books and plenty of paper and pens with which to write.

Paradise.

That night I laid down in sweet solitude. The bedroom windows were open, and the light breeze and the dripping rain the only sounds. My sleep was deep and filled with contented, peaceful dreams.

Monday morning, I decided to take a stroll to survey my kingdom.

Trees down. Trails blocked.  Garden mostly washed away. Creeks out of the banks. Dead battery on the Deere.

Rugged independence? Gone.

That night I blew out the candles and lay in the darkness again. You know you really cannot appreciate true darkness until you are way back in the woods with no lights on a cloudy night. I struggled to find sleep with my troubled thoughts.

As my mind raced through the stillness of that long night it finally hit me. There was nothing romantic about the way my ancestors lived. They could not run to the grocery store when the crops washed away. No cash to buy more seed or supplies or even pay back their shares. No hiding from a pandemic. If the Spanish flu did not kill their children, then cholera just might.

I understand them now. Why they left the “good life” for jobs in the cotton mill towns. Why they traded idyllic farm living for a hot, dusty job where a man might lose a hand in a second or his lungs to the lint in a matter of a few years.

I have no worries. I can start again. I have the means to replant the garden, and the grocery store is only five miles away. I still have my masks and wipes, so I will probably stay untouched by the virus, at least for a while.

I added something to my supplies. Respect for my ancestors.

The “good life” is all high cotton and buttermilk cornbread when you are playing a role in the theater of your mind.  But when you live off the land to survive it is not all it is cracked-up to be.

“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.