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Valley Center, Kansas
This is the first of my collection of non-fiction stories about the most memorable period of my life. The late 30s and early 40s were rough times for everyone. However, close family ties, good moral values, and a desire to make the most of what we had (which wasn't much in material wealth), stern discipline and allowing kids to be kids, soon made a kid a man. Born and raised in Mineral Wells, Texas, fortunate to have farmers as Grandparents, I had many an opportunity as a youngster to roam the country along the Brazos River. My intention is to leave the short stories for my grandkids. Perhaps they will provide an insight to the family values of yesteryear--values that seem to have escaped a majority of this younger generation.
I received overwhelming support for this story when posted on the Internet. I have been encouraged to write more. This short story has been republished, with my permission, in several foreign countries and in various fishing club newsletters across the United States. It's evident I'm not a professional writer and don't pretend to be, never tried my hand at it, but what the heck, maybe someone will get a kick out of the stories, and bring back a few precious memories of their own.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
Four a.m. and Granny is calling softly, "Son, it's time to get up if you're goin' fishin' today."
Tough crawling out from between the warmth of down quilts--it's only fall, but cold at 4 a.m. A quick walk outside to the outhouse will wake me up.
Gotta watch out for that danged old Dominick rooster. He always ambushes me on the way or traps me inside and then flogs me on the way back to the house. I heard him crowing earlier. Gonna knock the blue blazes out of him one of these days….
Then there's that blamed old screech owl, the one who always manages to screech just about the time you get halfway to the outhouse, and can cause you to go before you get to where you were going. Makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck and gives you a shiver down your spine. But Granny always says, "There's nothing in the dark that'll hurt you but yourself." Easy for her to say as I now begin to run.
It's still dark and I ain't got no time to look at the girls' underwear ads in the Sears Roebuck catalog this morning. For some reason those pages never get torn out of the catalog, not by me anyway. Need to tell PaPa we need some more corncobs in the bucket.
Business taken care of and back to the wash basin to clean up. Brrr, that danged well water coming from the outside water tank above the well is cold this mornin'. That old well has never run out of water in 50 years my PaPa says.
"Yes Granny, I'm brushin' my teeth." Although I don't know why, as I'm only goin' fishing' and the blamed fish don't know the difference. Dang woman is always reminding me to do this, or to do that… Repeating PaPa's words, "Women, humph..."
Back in the kitchen and sitting beside the old wood cook stove with hot coffee perking, slab bacon frying and hot biscuits in the oven. I'm thinking that no one can make biscuits like my Granny can in that old wood cookstove, as I scoot away from the stove because my britches are smoking. Nothing hotter than an old wood cookstove if you sit too close.
PaPa (pronounced pawpaw) comes in for his breakfast and asks, "Whatcha' goin' to do today boy?"
"Goin' fishin' PaPa," I reply.
"Humph, be better off in the field helpin' me plow with that team of old hardheaded mules. Don't know why I let your granny talk me into lettin' you off today. Gotta get my peanuts out of the ground. Boys need to be kept busy to keep out of mischief," he gruffly says with a twinkle in his eye and giving Granny a wink.
Granny replies, "Now Buster, boys have to have some fun, don't they?" She then hands me a cup of steaming coffee (mostly milk with two tablespoons of coffee), served with her million-dollar smile.
I noticed he didn't argue with Granny. Like PaPa says, "No one argues with Granny, not if they got any common sense at all. She's only 5'3", but she can reach up all the way to heaven to smack you one." She rules the roost around here.
It's tough being the only grandson among a half-dozen or more granddaughters. Spoiled no, pampered, yes.
"Granny, nothing beats your pancakes, hot sorghum syrup, eggs, bacon, sausage, and hot biscuits to get my day started," I said with syrup running down my chin and getting a big hug from her.
Granny has already fixed me a sack lunch of leftover biscuits, bacon, and a biscuit dripping with homemade pear preserves. Corn meal, a little piece of salt pork, and an old iron skillet are already packed in a tow sack (along with a salt shaker). Tow sack full, I'm ready to go fishin'.
Fishin' tackle is all ready from the night before.
Trusty old Calcutta flyrod. For those of you not familiar with the "Calcutta," you could buy a Calcutta pole for a nickel at the feed store in town. Cut off the top eight feet and you got a dandy custom-made bamboo flyrod. Make the guides out of a few scraps of baling wire, twenty-five feet of fishing string, tie on the hook (one size fits all) and you're in business. No fancy reel, just tie the end of the line to the butt of the rod.
Caught the flies the night before (hoppers we call them), and I have two cans of them, along with a few crickets. Too dry behind the barn to dig worms (my favorite bait). Good, with this dry spell the river will be lower and make for better wading.
Can't forget the two buttons and 25 feet of extra string for the empty bean cans, comes in handy later on for communication!
It's still dark out, but I'm on my way. Gotta meet my cousin Billy near the watermelon field and make the trip to the river together.
As I stumble off the back porch, trying not to drop my old coal oil lantern, with dawn just crackin', Granny shouts, "Now don't get wet, boy, and watch out for snakes, you hear? And you and Billy don't go throwin' rocks at those range bulls, either!"
How's a man gonna go fishin' and not get wet, and who knows if you're gonna get bit by a snake while walkin' through a peanut field in head-high grass and wading around barefoot in the river? But me, messin' with range bulls, no way. I ain't that brave, unless of course there's a handy tree to climb.
"Yes'um, be home before dark, Granny."
"Better. Remember PaPa's razor strap hanging by the fireplace," Granny again reminds me.
Granny sounds just like my mom saying, "Son, make sure your underwear is clean in case you get hit by a car on the way to school."
"Good grief Mom, my underwear ain't gonna stay clean if I do get hit by a car. They'll be full of crap," I always reply.
"Watch your smart mouth, boy," Mom replies. "Or get your mouth washed out with soap." Hmm, had that treatment with lye soap more than once. Mom says I wouldn't pick up such words if I didn't hang out at the feed store so much.
It's kinda scary walking through the pecan grove in the sandy soil in the dark, with only a dim light from the old coal-oil lantern. Sand feels cool and good to my bare feet, though.
Quick stop for a few persimmons (making sure they're ripe, if not I'll pucker for an hour). "Lamp, don't fail me now," I thought. There might be a possum in the tree, and I sure don't wanna get bit. Them ole possums love persimmons even more than I do.
Halfway to the river and in the watermelon field. "The devil made me do it," I say to myself, giggling, as I picked up a cold watermelon and dropped it to bust, eating only the heart (all the while remembering PaPa's razor strap hanging on the chimney wall, which has been known to be used for something besides sharpening a razor). A little sand made it taste even better, forgetting the salt shaker in the tow sack.
"Hi, peckerwood," Billy says, sneaking up behind and slapping me on the back, causing me to swallow a mouthful of watermelon seeds. Darn him. He sampled one or two himself. As we amble on down toward the river, evil thoughts cross my mind on how to get even with him. I could holler, "Snake!" but Billy's much bigger than I am, and there would be the dickens to pay later on. Don't need my Granny's lecture about another black eye.
I always let Billy lead the way. I'd rather him step on a snake than me and he's never figured out why he always gets to lead the way. He's older and braver (braver or dumber, I sometimes wondered which) by a year. I'm always teasing him about his red hair, freckled face and his missing front tooth, "A pitiful site," I tell him. Smack, "ouch," guess I'll never learn to keep my big mouth shut. Red hair and freckles are typical in our family.
Sun is just peeking over the trees and the river is quiet and peaceful. Good holes in the river that always holds fish. Perfect!
Billy and I rigged up our Calcutta flyrods and commenced chunking hoppers. (Notice I said chunking, not casting).
"Hey Billy, time's awastin'," I hollered, as he was still tying on a hook. Turtles and snakes along the bank are sliding into the water as I approach the river. Gotta be careful not to step in a hole and get in over my head, which doesn't take much, as short as I am.
Wham! Boy, that one hit hard. Puts a good bend in my Calcutta. Don't need a net, just swing 'er back on the bank. Nice 5-inch trout (perch). Billy has a whopper on, another trout about 14 inches. Puts a good bend in that old Calcutta.
Caught at least a half dozen more trout, some smaller, some bigger. This continued off and on until about mid mornin', and then they quit biting.
Time to clean fish and make dinner. (We eat dinner at lunch, and supper at night.) Got out the old trusty Boy Scout knife (it's so dull it won't cut butter) and cleaned the fish.
Billy has already got the fire goin' and the bacon grease hot in the old iron skillet. Rolled the fish in cornmeal, threw them in the pan and in a few minutes they were well-burnt and ready to eat. Along with the fixin's Granny packed, it made a mighty hearty meal for both of us. Billy's eatin' faster than I can cook.
"Hey Billy, don't forget, save some of that salt for the watermelon patch on the way home."
Nap time now, under a shade tree and then skinny-dipping, remembering that Granny had said, "Don't get wet." Well, at least not all over, I thought. I gotta learn to swim sometime.
What a fishin' trip. In 1942, if you were 7 years old and fishing the Brazos River in Palo Pinto County Texas, all fish were trout. There weren't such things as 'catch and release', it was 'ketch and eat'.
You've been wondering what the two buttons and extra string were for? Cellular phones, what else? Punch a hole in the bottom of the two bean cans, poke the string through and tie it to a button (do this at both ends). Stretch the string tight between the two cans and you got as fine a cellular phone as any boy could wish for.
Although PaPa and Granny have been gone for many years, the old farmhouse no longer stands, and the simple life is gone, these memories will linger with me forever. How rich in the simple pleasures of life I had in my formative years.