The downpour finally stopped. It had been raining heavily for most of the morning—buckets of rain—‘A tall cow pissin’ on a flat rock.’—‘Rainin’ cats and frogs’, a real ‘chunk-floater’.
Then suddenly the clouds parted and a brilliant sun emerged. The air was now still and clean-smelling. The thunderstorm had been about average for Texas, which meant tumultuous, fast, and furious. I stared out the window of the senior English classroom where I was imprisoned, listening to Mrs. Whitley drone on about dangling participles, comma splices, bibliographies, or some such. It was early spring. I checked the clock on the wall: Five minutes until the bell rang, ending my boredom and releasing me for the lunch period. I love northeast Texas in springtime. Springtime in Texas is no time to be stuck in a moldy old High School classroom; not when there are fish to be caught, baseball to be played, or especially cheerleaders to be lured into road trips to the lake or anywhere away from ‘civilization’:
“Let’s get out of here Baby! Let’s go to The Lake! We can score some Boone’s Farm and have ourselves a blast!”
Daydreams, about afternoon things…
The bell rang and I bolted. Since my house was just on the opposite side of the Honey Grove High School parking lot, I mostly went home for the short lunch break.
Walking briskly and heading toward the side entrance of the building, jostling my peers in my haste to get out of there, I ran into Jimmy ‘Peanut’ Piland. He grabbed my arm abruptly.
“Where you goin’ in such a hurry?”
“Peanut, you damn well where I’m goin’. Home for lunch.”
“No, you ain’t,” he said with a goofy grin.
“Yes, I am. Now let go my arm. I’ve only got so much time to have a grill-cheese sandwich, listen to a little Led Zep, get my mind right, and get back here.”
“Your folks’re outta town right now, yeah?”
“Yeah, it’s just me and Madelyn, ‘mindin’ the fort.”
“Well,” he said, “Then you don’t need to be going home for no lunch.”
“Ok then, where do I ‘need’ to be goin’ then?”
“Bow fishin’. I done invented a way to do it.”
“Well, I ain’t got no bows and arrows, and where the hell does someone bow fish around here? I don’t know about any salmon rivers close by,” I said, not just a little sarcastic, but Peanut, then a wiry, blond-headed, fiery blue-eyed sophomore with attitude, was often difficult to ignore.
Pulling me toward the exit, he said, “Just let’s git outside. I ‘borrowed’ one’a Daddy’s old junk cars this mornin’, and got everything already loaded up.”
Peanut’s daddy (and I suppose an uncle or two) did seem to have more than a few ‘old clunkers’ about their place. This particular one looked to be circa 1959; a Plymouth I do believe, but honestly, I don’t know a Plymouth from a Volkswagen. This one was painted some gawd-awful turquoise or maybe it used to be blue, but just sun-bleached out to look turquoise. Peanut climbed into the helm and I jumped into the ‘shotgun’ seat. (Sure enough, there was a 12-guage propped up on the floorboard.) Piled in the back seat were a couple of bows, some arrows, a tackle box, beer cooler, some rods and reels (Zebco 33 reels), and myriad and sundry other items, some of which I recognized, some of which I did not. The car had a ‘wonderful earthy’ smell. Imagine six-days-worn socks, twelve pair of them, which if dropped would break into pieces. What this car needed was Hercules, diverting a river through it, just like the Aegean Stables…
“Peanut,” I asked (though I already knew the answer), “when did you get your license?”
“Hahahah! Ain’t got n’eirn!”
“What I thought,” I said, and laughed too.
He cranked her up and obviously a muffler was not part of the standard package for this vehicle. She sounded not unlike what I would imagine an Abrams Tank, or a hay bailer with a bovine stuck in it, could sound like—in an echo chamber—a very small echo chamber.
“’Nut,” I said, “If we’re goin’, let’s get goin’ now before we, uh, you, get busted.”
“Gotta let ‘er warm up a minute.”
“She’s warm enough. It ain’t wintertime; c’mon! Let’s get outta here!”
“Sounds good, don’t she?”
“Yeah, good enough to maybe get us half-way out of this parking lot.”
He threw ‘her’ into reverse and with a violent jolt backward, damn near ran over some student walking behind us.
“Damn it Peanut! Watch where the hell ya goin’ in that wreck! Said student yelled.
He ‘navigated’ us, squealing tires, out of the parking lot (which was quite smallish as parking lots go), and we were off, and now officially “Playin’ Hooky.”
After we had gotten a few blocks away from HG High, I said, “Peanut, you gonna explain this ‘expedition’ to me now?”
“Yeah, sure. You know we done had a lot of rain past few days?”
“Yeah, kinda hard to miss, so what?”
“Well, you know that spillway behind Lake Coffeemill, right under the dam, and that concrete wall there, making a little, uh, kinda swimming pool before the water goes over it and down to the creek?”
“Yeah, you know damn well I do,” I said, growing impatient.
“What you don’t know is that big-ass carp get washed over the damn somehow when the lake is overflowin’ and they get trapped in that spot.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’m listening.”
“Go into that cooler and reach me a Coors.”
I reached back over my shoulder, opened the cooler, and sure as shit, there were about ten Coors beers in it, all iced down. I grabbed two, opened them and handed one to him.
“Where’d you get these beers?”
“They came with the car.”
“Ok, so explain to me this ‘bow fishin’.”
“It’s too easy. That water in the pool behind the dam ain’t but about two-foot deep. The carp swim around with their backs out of the water, some of ‘em a good eighteen pounds. We duck-tape the Zebcos to the bows, tie the line to the arrow shaft; shoot ‘em and reel ‘em in. I got special ‘bow-fishing’ arrowheads; got prongs on ‘em, so they won’t come outta the fish when we’re reeling them in. Like shooting fish in a barrel! Hahaha!”
“Clever, Peanut,” I said dryly. “…It does sound like good sport though, but I got one question: What’re we gonna do with an eighteen pound carp? I don’t think I’d much care for eating carp.”
“We sell ‘em.”
“Sell ‘em?! To who? Who eats carp?”
“All them black folks ‘cross the tracks, that’s who. Can get two bits a pound.”
“You’re shittin’ me!”
“No I ain’t,” he said, grinning, as we too fast approached the twenty-mile-per-hour ‘S’ curve going past the Oakwood Cemetery, doing about fifty.
“Damn it Peanut! Slow down!” I yelled over screeching tires.
“I got this. Relax.”
*Screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber*
Safely through the ‘S’ curve, Peanut lit a Marlboro and tried to reach the cooler in the back seat while holding the empty beer can and the steering wheel in the other, not an easy (or safe) feat.
“Peanut,” I said, “Relax; I got this,” and handed him another Coors (after I opened it for him; didn’t really trust in his ability to multi-task that much.)
“Damn! That be some good cold beer, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, yeah, so tell me, how do you know those folks pay two-bits a pound for carp?”
“Just know,” he said. “And if we shoot fifty or sixty pounds of them, hell! That’s beer money.”
“Well, I’ll take your word on it,” I said, as I looked out the window, pleased at what a fine, beautiful day it had turned out to be. I was damn happy to be riding along that stretch of road with my best friend, playing hooky, just like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
The northbound farm to market (FM 100) two-lane to the lakes (there are two actually: Lakes Crockett and Coffeemill) winds through some slightly hilly, well, hilly for Fannin County–nice looking land–especially in springtime. I had hauled hay all over that part of the county during the previous two summers. It was much finer-looking land than east or west of Honey Grove, and that is for sure. Lake Crockett is about fifteen miles down that road and we would be driving past it to get to Coffeemill. Bois d’Arc creek runs between the two lakes and eventually empties itself into the Red River. The whole area around the lakes is heavily wooded and all of it is part of the Caddo National Grasslands, a Federal Park, a rarity in Texas, as Texas kept most of her public lands when she entered the Union. Why it is called a ‘grasslands,’ I have no idea, since it is all mostly forest. Peanut and I, and most of the crowd we hung out with, spent much of our time in this region. The fishing was decent, the hunting too, although I had given up hunting years before. Not because I was averse to slaughtering wild game. It just didn’t interest me any longer. Mostly what we did at the lakes was fish, camp, drink beer, smoke pot, and usually (but not always) mind our own business. It was damn difficult during The Seventies to get busted in that area for anything; so naturally that was a major drawing point for us.
Just before the turnoff to Lake Crockett there is a small ‘Mom & Pop’ gas station – grocery store, (We didn’t really call them ‘Convenience Stores’ back then, but this one had always been convenient for us.), and Peanut pulled into its parking lot.
“What’re you doing? I asked.
“Need somethin’,” was all he said, as he opened the car door.
“I think you should tell ‘em to check the gas, and fill her with oil.”
“You wanna walk the rest of the way, or do you wanna stop insultin’ my daddy’s car?”
“Peanut, she do smoke some, ya gotta admit,” I said, and slightly sorry for ‘slightly’ hurtin’ his feelings, but only slightly on both accounts. From the first day we met and became instant fast friends Peanut and I had always sparred verbally and more often than not, physically as well.
“Keeps the skeeters away,” and with that, he headed to the store.
I fished another beer out of the cooler while I waited for him to return from his mission, whatever it may have been. The old gas station and store had been there probably since the late Fifties, without much modernization since its founding. The two gasoline pumps were probably upgraded maybe once or twice, but still looked ‘old-timey’ to me and actually, there was a hand-drawn sign on them saying “Double the Amount.” This was common after the oil embargo and the per gallon gas prices went higher than the old pumps could be set for. The building itself was just a wooden structure which had probably not felt the wet kiss of a paint brush in twenty-odd years. The place sat at the intersection of FM 100 and FM 2216. There were some ancient trees behind the store and two tall oaks on the eastern side, providing welcome shade during the long, hot Texas’ summers. Under the two oaks were the remains of what once looked to be a decent gazebo, but long-neglected, its only purpose now just a photo opportunity to document the degradation of more prosperous (or carefree?) times. There was a bit of ancient pavement in spots, mostly around the gas pumps, but mostly gravel everywhere else. But still, I liked the look of the place; it had an air of nostalgia to it.
About the time I had finished my beer, Peanut reappeared, jumped in and tossed a small brown paper bag into my lap. Opening it, I discovered a half-pint of Wild Turkey.
“’Nut, they don’t sell booze here.”
“Nope, they don’t; I ‘traded’ for it. Got me a friend in there. We might need that whiskey in case you get snake-bit. Lot of moccasins down in that spillway.”
“I also got a couple of sandwiches; don’t want you fallin’ out on me,” he smirked as he threw another sack into the back seat.
“What, no chocolate Similac for you?” I threw back at him.
“Many-Feet, did I ever tell you, you was a smart ass?”
“Yeah, back during the Great Depression, yours.”
Everyone in Honey Grove knew Jimmy as ‘Peanut,’ but only our clique ever called me ‘Many-Feet.’ I was christened, (or perhaps, ‘reborn’ is a better word) such by Monsieur Le Peanut one night as we were all sitting around a campfire, Indian style, passing around a mason jar of fire-water. While throwing good-natured insults at each other over the smoke and crackling of the fire, Peanut, looking at me through somewhat bleary eyes said,
“Marcom, where’d you get them big-ass boats you’re wearin’? Look at them shoes Y’all! They look like canoes! Your name should be ‘Grandpa Many-Feet!’ (I seemed to always be the ‘elder.’) I never seen such feet!”
Everyone (including yours truly) laughed hysterically. Mainly because it was true (I wear a size thirteen), and it was uniquely ‘Peanut.’ He had a way of coining phrases no one would else could afford. From that night forward I was ‘Grandpa Many-Feet’ but usually shortened to ‘Many-Feet,’ or just ‘Feet’ for the familiar, informal settings, or when circumstance required economy of language. ‘Grandpa Many-Feet’ was only used when decorum and formality dictated.
Having accomplished Peanut’s ‘mission,’ we pulled out and headed on toward the turn-off to Lake Crockett. After the turn, about a mile or so down the oil top road, we came upon the old boat house/bait shop/tackle store/restaurant. One could get everything there one needed for fishing and or picnic excursions. Small boats with ten horse power out-boards could even be rented. It was a fine establishment, but mainly for tourists: Nice & Clean, Proper, and Sanitized for Your Protection–Not our kind of place and in fact, Lake Crockett was not really our kind of lake. We drove on past.
About a mile further down, the road began to deteriorate and in some places mud became an issue. At one particularly ‘issue-laden’ spot we had to get a good running start to get through it. I was certain we were going to become mired in mud and stranded, but Peanut, always fearless, slammed the car into the gooey mess that a week before would have been a semi-passable road. We slid a good ways: left ways, right ways, sideways, and fish-tailing all the time, mud flying everywhere, but we made it through. Call it ‘on-road off-roading.’ We whooped and hollered.
The only major obstacle left was the crossing over Bois d’Arc creek. The old gray wooden bridge, well ‘she ain’t what she used to be…’ Coming upon the bridge, I suggested we get out and reconnoiter it for structural integrity and more than ‘potential’ hazards’: real ones. Of course Peanut was having none of that. So, with the not generally ‘Mighty Bois d’Arc’ now high and mighty and enraged from the recent deluge, we slowly bumped over the ancient heavy planks and I was expecting something to give way at any moment plunging us into the surging waters below. The planks creaked and complained as the tires hit each one in succession and in one spot there was no plank at all and Peanut had to gun the car a bit in order to get over the gap. Not exactly an ‘Evil Knievel Leap’ of faith and daring, but nonetheless, slightly dangerous and slightly thrilling. Not many I knew then or now would ever attempt that bridge, even during the summer when the Bois d’Arc is just a trickle. Historically in that part of the county, Bois d’Arc creek has claimed many lives. Not over the bridge I am speaking of, but over better bridges, flooded and someone making the final and fatal mistake of tempting them anyway, getting swept off and…
Now, please understand, there is an alternate route to Lake Coffeemill; a much easier and better and safer route, but we never took that route. I guess the ‘road less travelled’ would always be our wont. We were, after all, young and bullet-proof.
We successfully crossed the bridge without serious incident, and once again, felt brave and full of ourselves for the doing of same.
We drove on down the sometimes gravel, sometimes blacktop, usually mud road and arrived at a picnic grounds and crude concrete boat launch. The grounds were decent and there were even bathroom facilities there. These grounds are easily accessible via the alternate route coming from the opposite direction as mentioned above. The dam is clearly visible from this spot, but not easily accessible. To get to the dam and to the spillway beneath it involved hiking a good half-mile through heavy woods, brambles, an occasional copper-head, and more often than not, mosquitos, lots of mosquitos. Not too many folks were that curious or enamored with the spillway. All the better as far as we were concerned. In fact, we would have to cross over a barb-wire fence just to begin our hike. In Texas, barb-wire fences always indicate private property and from my earliest recollections, I knew that one just does not casually cross onto and certainly not through private property without permission. In those days there was still much private land around the two lakes, so we can add ‘trespassing’ to our list of transgressions that day.
We parked the car and began the triage of our gear. We certainly did not want to make two trips down to the spillway, unless of course we intended to spend the night, but this was no camping trip. Some items obviously had to be schlepped to the spillway: bows, arrows, the Zebco reels, the whiskey (for potential medicinal purposes of course), but the heavy twelve gage, the beer cooler, the casting net, buckets, hand nets, the sandwiches—all these I protested we did not need. We argued a bit, and finally decided to eat the sandwiches, drink the beers, and leave the rest.
Laden with only the necessary gear, we set out.
We soon discovered that the one thing we really needed, but didn’t bring was a machete. I am not Briar Rabbit; I don’t like briar patches–too late now anyway.
On the way to the Coffeemill Lake spillway is a small stock pond. Now that is not uncommon in Texas, but the uncommon thing about this particular stock pond is that it somehow got to be ‘stocked’ with gar and more than a few snapping turtles (mean bastards, those), and more still cotton-mouths (meaner still). Peanut and I had discovered this one summer afternoon when we thought we’d try it for bass, or bream, (‘Brim’ in the Texan vernacular) or crappie. Gar don’t typically lend themselves to be lured by a bass lure, or by a red-worm, or by a minnow. Okay, perhaps a minnow, but it must not be minnow in size; it must be a big minnow; kinda like a jumbo shrimp. We finally caught ‘something’ and it was a gar, smallish one.
“Well, that ‘bout ruins this as a bass pond,” Peanut had said.
“How come? I asked.
“’Cause any fool knows that gar eat up everything else, especially the bass.”
“Thank you, ‘Henry David Thoreau.’”
The Gar Pond & Spillway
We took the time to stop at this pond for a break (it lies about three-quarters the distance to the spillway), and to check it out again to see if we could discern if the fauna and flora had changed. Neither had. We spotted several turtles and saw a small gar dash away from the bank. It was a damn shame because that pond would have been great for stocking with bass and I suppose it could be drained (When you are up to your ass in alligator gar it is sometimes difficult to remember your initial intent was to drain the swamp) and then stocked with buckets full of young bass from a hatchery. But that would have been a shame too. Truthfully, I liked that pond just as it was. There was a peninsula jutting out from west to east which would have been perfect to camp on. The atmosphere was primordial; almost inaccessible in most parts due to the multitudinous willow trees and vines and the steep banks most of the way around. So in retrospect, I’d say if it had belonged to me, I’d have left it the same.
After our brief survey of the pond, we soldiered on. Approaching the dam and the spillway, I could hear rushing waters. Magical. Calling to me like the Sirens of The Odyssey.
In Texas, we don’t often hear the Siren’s Song, but the sound of rushing waters, well, that is as close as it got for me back then. There are precious few opportunities to hear rushing waters in Fannin County, and once heard, one is surely drawn toward them.
We marched on with a new-found determination.
The spillway lay about fifty feet below our embarkation point. No matter. We made our way down. It is a magical place when the water is running over the dam all frothy and angry. The last little bit of navigation is a mite treacherous, very steep and unforgiving. Woe to he who slips and falls the remainder of the way down to the spillway. Scrapes and Bruises at best; broken legs at worst.
There was a small shaded clearing one could find aside the spillway. We unpacked our gear and Peanut showed me how to rig the Zebcos to the bows. The concrete barrier which makes the ‘swimming pool’ was about nine inches wide. Peanut instructed me:
“You just walk on that ‘crete’ and look for carp. Then you shoot ‘em. Then you reel ‘em in. Easy, yes?”
I was game though, and after I had my ‘rig’ rigged up, did as instructed. I saw a carp’s back surface. Shot at it. Missed. (Peanut laughed). Saw another one. Shot at it. Hit! Then the fun began. The carp (a big one) was not going quietly into that good night. He/She fought like blue blazes. Picture this: A bow with a Zebco 33 duct-taped to it, and a schmuck trying to reel in an eighteen-pound carp. No leverage from a proper rod, no ability to ‘horse’ him up, and on less than firm footing…
I ended up in the ‘pool’ wet all over and pissed off.
But, I ‘beached’ the carp.
Peanut was having some success as well. After two hours we had (by my estimation) one hundred pounds of carp, read, ‘twenty-five dollars’ for beer. But of course, beer was not the issue, nor the harvest. It was all in the fun of doing it with a friend and playing hooky.
We had piled all the dead and dying carp on the bank (in the corner of the spillway mentioned above), and sat there studying them and sipping on the whiskey.
“Now what?” I asked, in earnest.
“Well, looks like the rest of them carp got smart; ain’t seen one come up for over an hour now.”
“We got to wade in and flush out the rest of ‘em.”
“’Nut, gonna take us at least four trips now to tote all what we got back to your La Bomba.”
“Still some carp in there.”
“I want ‘em, that’s what.”
“It’s getting late and I have homework to do for school.”
We looked each other dead in the eye.
Then we burst out laughing. Belly laughter. Hard-core laughter. Hysterical laughter.
“Ok,” I said. “We’ll get even wetter and flush ‘em, out. Why not?” I asked rhetorically.
We proceeded to wade into the ‘swimming pool’ to flush out the remaining carp. Honestly, I do believe we looked like a couple of wanna-be Navy SEALs, wading through the Mekong Delta, looking for Charlie. Slowly look this way; look that way, bow and arrow ever at the ready.
We flushed and shot two more carp (they must have been sleepers), when Peanut said casually over his shoulder,
“Hey, I think I stepped on a moccasin.”
“So…?” I said.
“It bit me.”
“Stop bullshitting me Peanut.”
“No, serious. It bit me.”
I looked back at him and for a very brief instant; I saw a strange boyish fear come over his face. He suddenly looked to be about eight years old.
Then I believed him. This now became a game changer. Strong men don’t usually die from the bite of a cotton-mouth, but that same bite will seriously ruin one’s day, especially when one finds one’s self a long way from home. And unknown to me at that time, Peanut was a free-bleeder. (Hemophiliac) Glad I did not know that over all the years I did not know it, but that, I suppose is beside the point now.
“Hang on. Don’t move” was the brilliant response I shot back.
“Like I’m gonna move…” was his brilliant retort.
“Peanut, seriously, did you get bit?”
“’Feet’, yep. Seriously, I been bit.”
“Goddamn it!” I screamed at him and then calmed, “Okay; let’s get you over to the bank.”
“I don’t feel so good,” was all he said right before he passed out and melted into the water.
I dropped my bow and arrow, and as fast as I could, elephant-walked through the knee-deep water and pulled him up. Dragging his unconscious body back to the spot where we had piled all the carp, I began having flashbacks of the day his uncle had drown in the very same lake whose spillway we had been exploiting until two minutes ago. Suddenly, I did not feel so damn good either.
I slapped him a few times and grabbing his jaw, moved his face back and forth, slapping him again.
“Peanut! Goddamn you! It’s just a snake! Wake up! Wake the fuck up! Now! Goddamn it!”
His eyes opened slightly and he tried to say something, but I could not make it out.
“Just shut the hell up,” I said. Then I looked over his ankles and bare legs for the bite. Found it, just over his left ankle. I ain’t no Boy Scout, and had never been trained in the art of fixing snake bites, so I just cradled his head in my lap and said,
“Here, drink this,” offering him some Wild Turkey.
“Yaaa…that’s good,” was what he said. All he said; then passed out again.
I threw him over my shoulder, fireman carry style and tried to get us up the stiff bank so I could get him to the car. Couldn’t do it, so I grabbed his arms over his shoulder and dragged him. The bruises that came from that, I was certain he would forgive.
Once I got us out of the spillway, I fire-man carried him to the car. Seemed to take five hours, but in reality, probably thirty minutes. I threw him into the passenger side and as I was getting into the driver’s seat, he woke up.
“Did you fetch along the carp?” He asked, too nonchalantly.
“Fuck you! I’m taking you to town.” Was all I could say.
“Whut for? He slurred at me.
“’Cause you got snake-bit, that’s what for.”
“Ah…forget it; I feel Okay”
“Well, you look like shit,” I said as I cranked the car.
“Seriously, I’m fine; go back and get them carp.”
So, I gave him the half-full or half empty (depending upon one’s perspective) bottle of Turkey, and went back and ‘fetched’ the carp. Took me three or four trips, and every time I brought a load of carp, I enquired after his health. He seemed fine, well, sorta. But he was adamant; so I kept schlepping the damn carp and finally got all the gear as well.
I took him to my father (The Doctor; he had just returned from his trip to Dallas). He gave him a ‘once over,’ checking his vitals, and asked the question I was dreading: “What the hell were you two doing at the lake on a school day?”
I said something clever like, “Uh, it was a field trip for biology class.”
He glared at me over his glasses and said nothing.
Then Peanut said to him,
“Doc, it hurts when I do this,” as he wiggled his leg around.
“Well then don’t do that,” my father said.
He was given a shot of something, probably penicillin, but I don’t know. He recovered and we did sell the carp for about twenty bucks and bought some beer from a local bootlegger.