My daddy was fond of taking me fishing on Stone Lake, where we’d fish for bluegill, bream, and catfish. I had to be real quiet, though. I couldn’t scuffle my feet in the boat. And I couldn’t talk either. A whisper every now and again was alright, but it had to be about fish. And not just any fish. I liked sharks, but those were off limits while freshwater pole fishing. I told everybody I wanted to be a chondrichthyologist when I grew up. They usually just smiled and looked over at whatever parent was present, usually my mama, who would smile back and roll her eyes and shrug her shoulders and bask in the bookworminess of her weird little boy.
Daddy was a hunter, even when he was fishing. The strong, silent type. (I take after my soft, chatty mother.) Once we had slipped out over the weedy green waters and were stalking our unseen prey, there was no horseplay or idle chit-chat allowed. We were there to fish – to master the elements, to bring home not one or two denizens of those murky waters, but a whole string, a freezer full, which we would clean and freeze in plastic milk cartons against the unforgiving Winter months when cold showers are preferred to fishing on cold, windy lakes .
One cool October morning, daddy and I went without a boat, so we ‘borrowed’ one from a fisherman who wasn’t there. I was really worried about that, but Daddy said it was okay, as long as we brought it back in the same condition we had found it in, or better. Or better? He taught me to scull that day, and said I did real good. I felt proud.
The next weekend, we took a long road-trip out to an old well which Daddy had drunk out of when he was a boy. I felt excited about that. The way he painted the good old days, I longed to go back and spend time with him when he was a boy – run through the woods with him, hop trains with him, work at the docks, heading shrimp with him. Anything. I didn’t care. Just as long as I could spend time with him.
When we got to the wooded area where the well was, we realized we hadn’t brought anything to drink out of. But on the rim of the well sat a tall wax paper cup somebody had left. Daddy said the sulfur in the water would kill the germs, if there were any to kill. That sounded right to me. When I think of those moments in the cool “fishing weather” breeze of that morning, I can still feel the icy water burbling down my throat. I can still smell the strong scent that was a little like rotten eggs, but not too much. That day we also found some wild scuppernongs. While we sucked the meat out, we checked to see how far we could spit the skins and the seeds. Daddy won, but he was a lot taller than me. His went soaring yards away. Mine only went a few feet.
Not long after my sculling adventure on Stone Lake, I learned how to drive in our brand-new ‘74 Impala. Daddy took me to part of the Old Spanish Trail. Daddy was long-suffering with me as we sped along haphazardly in that 400-horse power monster across big clumps of grass and uneven red bricks which I imagined were being quickly lain down in front of us by Spanish soldiers who hoped we would be patient enough for them to finish their job. Decades later, I was to read somewhere that the road was actually begun in 1915 to connect New Orleans to Florida. Sometimes it’s just better to never learn the truth.
A year earlier, to the day (it was my birthday), Daddy had taken me to a 19th-century farmhouse ruin in the backwoods of railroad and steamboat town of Pollard, Alabama. There, as we moved carefully through the old boards with nails in them, I found a hand-made brick. Daddy said I could take it with me as a souvenir. I proudly covered my birthday surprise in cellophane paper so it wouldn’t wear away. For years, I used this brick as a doorstop in my bedroom. The last time I ever saw it, sometime in the mid-Eighties, the paper had been taken off it, and it lay next to the house in the back yard.
A few months after my driving escapade along the Old Spanish Trail, we went to another part of the woods near Holt, Florida and stumbled across a briary pig-trail running through a tract of land filled with long-leaf pine and oak. That day, Daddy showed me the difference between water, white, red, live, scrub, and Spanish oaks, and taught me how to call like a bobwhite and a whippoorwill. We also found an old door laying over a pile of sticks and trash.
“Hey, hey! Will ya look at that! Wonder what’s under that!” Daddy cried out. He was always a little boy again when we went out on adventures in the woods. We had stopped bringing my little sister, Pat, after the very first time. She hated the woods and stood at the head of the trail and cried until Daddy got so disgusted with her that we got back in Daddy’s fishing truck and drove straight home... at least 60 miles.
“Careful about snakes, Daddy,” I warned him as I stood frozen, waiting for him on the very safe pig-trail. I just knew he was going to get bit. I wasn’t about to go out in that jungle! He kicked at the old rotten door, stomped on it a few times, and then stood up and waited.
“See. That’s what you do,” he said. “It’ll run any ol’ snake outta there, but you gotta make some noise.”
“What kinda noise, Daddy?”
I was imagining the biggest rattlesnake in the world. Fangs as big as the fingers Daddy playfully jabbed at all us kids, pretending his hand was a snake head, calling his fingers ‘fangers’.
“Noise like I just made. Weren’t ya watchin’ me?”
His voice was serene. Very kind.
“Now, them ol’ water moccasins,” he said, “they’re another story altogether. They won’t move when you make noise. No, sir. You have to get a ol’ stick or somethin’ to move ‘em with. A long one, though. They won’t just bite you once. They’ll bite you ‘til you’re dead.”
My Adam’s apple was stuck in my throat, and I didn’t even have a fully grown one yet. BITE YOU ‘TIL YOU’RE DEAD. BITE YOU ‘TIL YOU’RE DEAD.
“Hey-hey! Look-a’here! Look what we got here!”
I was half way back to the car.
“Where you goin’?” Daddy asked me. “Come on back here! Look what we found!”
What WE found? Hmmmmm...
I crept gingerly back down the shady path until I got just behind my daddy. I was still expecting a snake, a dead snake, a thousand baby snakes, a snapping turtle... something dangerous.
But no. Daddy had found us a 1920’s typewriter. Man, he was so proud of that thing! So while I watched out for rattlesnakes, Daddy moved all the debris and sticks and the door which had been used to cover the machine. We loaded it up in the trunk, took it home, and cleaned it up with some of Daddy’s brushes he had gotten from NASA when he had worked for them as an aerospace engineer.
The next day, we drove into Downtown Pensacola and ran down a ribbon at an out-of-the-way typewriter shop. This was one of those places where the friendly men talk about fishing and cars and the good ol’ days. I breathed in the clean, rustic scent of lubricating oil and leather. The store smelled like the barber shop and the shoe repair store in Flomaton, but nothing like my Uncle Paul’s bait shop in South Flomaton where we got earthworms and crickets and blood bait.
The men working at the repair shop were nice. One of them showed me the inside workings of a typewriter. The flywheel. The gadget flip. The jam-keys. The thumb-snap. The finger-pinch. The paper-rip. And, of course, the ribbon we had come to buy. Daddy laughed good-naturedly. The men all smiled and called me a fine young man.
As I would sit pecking away on that machine into the wee hours of the morning, typing up my poetry and stories, I knew that I would make my living as a writer one day.
Not only did my daddy give me a love for people, he also gave me a burning desire for exploration which has taken me around the world, and through many a forest. I hope he is proud of the woodsman I have become; that he always hoped I would be.
Not long ago, Daddy went fishing with some of his boyhood buddies. He’ll be back for me one day, though. He needs me to scull the boat.
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