Since I am in “Peanut Mode” tonight, I thought I would post this excerpt from a very ‘early-in-my-blogging days’ post regarding same, in the vain hope some would read the bits in their entirety:Sharking, Campin’, Bow-Fishin’.
Seems to me we sometimes realize far too late the true value of friends had and lost.
There is a scene in “Tombstone” where Wyatt Earp hands a smallish book over to a bed-ridden Doc Holiday, entitled:
“My Friend: Doc Holiday.”
Here is to wishing Peanut could receive same from me.
Alas, he cannot.
Jimmy ‘Peanut’ Piland was a character like none other: Possessing a smallish frame, medium blond hair always askew and asunder, Paul Newman blue eyes, a perpetual boyish ‘possum’ grin, and a wiry build replete with a hard-wired energy. Yet looks can be somewhat deceiving: he was tough as nails and feared nothing, or no one.
There was no Brahma bull he wouldn’t attempt to ride, no man he wouldn’t attempt to fight (if provoked—him usually doing the ‘provokin’—“That sonuvabitch done pissed me off…”), no tractor, truck, nor heavy machinery he wouldn’t attempt to operate, instructed or not. Good that he never had access to an airplane, for he would have, no doubt, tried to fly it.
I post a lot of shit. I post a lot of off the wall shit. If you have read my ‘By Way of Introduction’ page you will know this. But, OK, most of you have not (read that). Therefore, I will be brief here (“More matter and less art,” Yeah yeah yeah…) More matter below:
I stole this from Sam Clemens. I hope you like it a lot. (I do)
I don’t know how long I was asleep, but all of a sudden there was an awful scream and I was up. There was pap looking wild, and skipping around every which way and yelling about snakes. He said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek–but I couldn’t see no snakes. He started and run round and round the cabin, hollering “Take him off! take him off! he’s biting me on the neck!” I never see a man look so wild in the eyes. Pretty soon he was all fagged out, and fell down panting; then he rolled over and over wonderful fast, kicking things every which way, and striking and grabbing at the air with his hands, and screaming and saying there was devils a-hold of him. He wore out by and by, and laid still a while, moaning. Then he laid stiller, and didn’t make a sound. I could hear the owls and the wolves away off in the woods, and it seemed terrible still. He was laying over by the corner. By and by he raised up part way and listened, with his head to one side. He says, very low:
“Tramp–tramp–tramp; that’s the dead; tramp–tramp–tramp; they’re coming after me; but I won’t go. Oh, they’re here! don’t touch me –don’t! hands off–they’re cold; let go. Oh, let a poor devil alone!”
Then he went down on all fours and crawled off, begging them to let him alone, and he rolled himself up in his blanket and wallowed in under the old pine table, still a-begging; and then he went to crying. I could hear him through the blanket.
By and by he rolled out and jumped up on his feet looking wild, and he see me and went for me. He chased me round and round the place with a clasp-knife, calling me the Angel of Death, and saying he would kill me, and then I couldn’t come for him no more. I begged, and told him I was only Huck; but he laughed SUCH a screechy laugh, and roared and cussed, and kept on chasing me up. Once when I turned short and dodged under his arm he made a grab and got me by the jacket between my shoulders, and I thought I was gone; but I slid out of the jacket quick as lightning, and saved myself. Pretty soon he was all tired out, and dropped down with his back against the door, and said he would rest a minute and then kill me. He put his knife under him, and said he would sleep and get strong, and then he would see who was who.
So he dozed off pretty soon. By and by I got the old split-bottom chair and clumb up as easy as I could, not to make any noise, and got down the gun. I slipped the ramrod down it to make sure it was loaded, then I laid it across the turnip barrel, pointing towards pap, and set down behind it to wait for him to stir. And how slow and still the time did drag along.
Confession: I lost a day somewhere, probably my clothes dryer ate it. (along with my sock) All day long I have been happily thinking it Wednesday. Just now realized, it’s Thursday… Well, I guess shit happens.
This little saga of a post should’ve been broken down into ‘chapters’. Alas, I never got to it. Oh well, if you have twenty or so minutes to invest, you might just like it. (And someday, I just may finish it.)
The original title was: “Not Like Going Down The Pond Chasing Blue Gills Or Tommy Cats”–Quint
A quote from the movie, Jaws
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.”
― Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
Galveston! Oh Galveston!
Many times during my life Galveston has been my ‘stomping grounds’ and remains to this day one of my most favored places on Earth, even though it has been “cleaned up” and my favorite sleazy bar now just an empty spot on the beach and a vacant void in my heart.
My step-father took me to Galveston in late summer 1969 on a fishing trip, and I have loved Galveston ever since. Mike was a good stepfather who loved fishing and some of my happiest memories of him are the many times just the two of us would spend the day fishing in Santa Cruz, California or in this case, Galveston.
Leaving Houston, we rambled down Interstate 45 coming upon more and more water, (canals), as we approached Galveston. Seeing houses built over water without garages, but with little piers and small boats tied up in lieu of cars, I said to Mike, “That’s how I would like to live.”
Crossing the big bridge over to Galveston Island afforded a magnificent view. It was a beautiful bright clear day and I could see the fishing boats and sailboats in Galveston Bay. Over the bridge and driving through Galveston City we intersected Seawall Boulevard and the Gulf of Mexico appeared abruptly as if from nowhere and that overpowering first sight of it absolutely blew me away.
We went to the fishing pier which was connected to The Flagship Hotel and even though I caught nothing noteworthy, I had one of the best times of my young life. The smells of the sea, the fresh cut bait, the salt spray were all things familiar to me from so many trips to Santa Cruz. I love the sea, to be sure.
Many years later, after having read Peter Benchley’s Jaws and becoming obsessed with the idea of fishing for something that held the very real possibility of turning the tables and making me the “bait,” I decided Galveston was the place to explore the potential of this heady new-found avocation.
After high school graduation and a couple of semesters attending college in Commerce I moved to La Porte, which is about an hour from Galveston and there developed a plan for my first shark-fishing expedition. Since sharks, big sharks, the kind I was after, could not generally be found by fishing from the beach or even from the many fishing piers which run out from Seawall Boulevard, and since I had no boat, the South Jetty which runs almost two miles out into the Gulf from the eastern tip of Galveston Isle would be my causeway to deep water, no boat required. All it would take is a little forethought, some equipment, and some brass balls. I had all three available to me.
I spent the better part of my first paycheck (I was working for Gulf States Asphalt Company in Pasadena.) on a six-aught saltwater fishing reel and a very large study rod to mount it on. Now this rig was designed to be used from a fishing boat, i.e., could not ‘cast’ the bait with it. Therefore the biggest problem I faced was getting the bait out far enough away from the jetty to be clear of the huge blocks of granite of which the jetty was constructed (begun in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century) and closer to where I presumed the sharks would congregate. Not relishing the idea of swimming the bait out (I had also seen themovieJaws) I decided a small inflatable boat would be the ideal and affordable and safe way for me to deliver the bait. I purchased a small orange ‘boat’ just large enough for one ‘sharker’ and his rig. I spent several hours one Friday night preparing all my gear for the initial test run.
Peanut was with me during this time and we both worked the same shift at the asphalt factory. He and I were living there in La Porte with the parents of three of our old high school buddies. The father had decided they move to La Porte after his children graduated as the job situation was quite a lot better in the Houston area than in Honey Grove. Go figure.
Peanut did not share my new-found passion for shark fishing and flatly vetoed my suggestion that he accompany me on my first foray into this brave new endeavor.
“I ain’t fixin’ to be studyin’ ‘bout no damn sharks.” I believe that to be an accurate quote.
No problem. Actually I was relieved, so that in the off-chance my plan failed and I remained ‘shark-less’ there would be no witnesses to any folly I might become the star of.
Part of the gear I had purchased was one very large hook. I’m talking large. Amazing to me now how stupid I was back then. (Still stupid today, but in different arenas) This hook was probably a good twelve inches long, made of steel over a quarter of an inch in diameter and the gap, the distance between the point and the shank, was five or six inches The damn thing probably weighed a pound and a half. As I believe was mentioned, I was after one big mo’ fo’ of a shark. I found out later that one does NOT use such a hook for shark fishing, much smaller actually. Anyway, I felt so proud of myself for even finding such a prize. (I’m quite certain the salesman at the bait store had a great deal of fun at my expense, telling all his co-workers of the stupid kid he had sold what was better suited as a gag gift, a ‘big-ass hook’ for the purpose of catching JAWS.)
On the question of what to use for bait, I was stumped. I needed something large enough to cover the entire hook, and juicy enough to attract my quarry. This much I knew instinctively. Now in Jaws, they used an unborn baby porpoise to lure the Great White from the depths. I had no way to procure such a treasure. Therefore I settled on a whole roaster chicken, (a rump roast probably would have been somewhat better, but I was on a budget) purchased from the local Winn-Dixie. I only bought one. I figured, one chicken, one shark: simple mathematics. I surmised that after fighting for hours one very large shark to the edge of the jetty I would be spent of energy and besides, one set of shark jaws, cut out right there on the jetty, and worn around my neck like Caesar returning from Gaul, would be all I needed to flaunt before my Doubting Thomas back home: Mr. Peanut Piland. He would be begging me to take him on the next sharking expedition.
The Beginning of the Jetty from the beach, about one hundred yards before the granite part begins.
I arrived at the jetty mid-morning and set about my trek seaward (Ok, Gulf-ward) full of adrenalin and anticipation. After humping the boat, the rig, and all the other gear I could carry what seemed like ten miles (in reality, about one-half mile) over precariously slippery granite boulders which became more ‘un-navigate-able’ the further I got away from the beach. I picked my spot and started readying my rig. This I took great pains with: inflating the boat, rigging my line, sharpening the barb of the hook on the granite, and finally baiting her up, all with the calm, cool, steely-eyed, rock-steady demeanor of “The Serious Shark Hunter” I had become. Wedging the pole securely between two boulders, playing out the line, and placing the hook avec dead chicken ever so carefully inside the boat, I got in and shoved off. As I was paddling out I could just barely see the lighthouse that was at the end of the jetty. Looked miles away, but actually it lies about two miles out, about three hundred yards from the very end of the jetty. “Someday,” I said, “Someday.”
After I had paddled out about fifty or sixty yards, I slipped the package overboard and made my way back to the jetty. Once there, nothing to do but wait for Jaws to grab the bait and the surprise concealed inside.
About three hours later, and now sporting a pretty good sunburn, I grew weary and decided to check my line. Reeling it in, I noticed it felt rather light; no drag for what should have been a four–pound chicken, uneaten, at the end of it. The reason became quite evident when I brought in the end of the line and discovered, to my horror that nothing was left of my shark bait but the picked clean skeleton of my chicken. Shit! I sat there staring at this mockery, pondering where I had gone wrong. After surveying my surroundings and knitting my brow I decided that crabs had been the only thing interested in my fresh chicken. Obviously the sharks had been unstirred by my sumptuous offering.
To tell you I was embarrassed and feeling as the complete fool and idiot would be over-stating the obvious, but I was feeling that way and cursed myself roundly for my stupidity.
Since it was getting late in the afternoon and since I was fresh out of chickens, and since I felt so utterly defeated, I decided to head home, puzzle things out, and try to come up with a new plan. Just did not know what I was going to tell Peanut when I arrived sans shark jaws…
“I don’t see no Jaws,” were the first words out of his mouth as soon as I got out of my orange Chevy Monza and began unloading my gear.
“He escaped,” was all I said and all I wanted to say.
“Escaped? Ha! You never did see no Jaws, did ya?”
“Peanut, fuck off and die.”
“C’mon man! What happened?”
“Gimme one of those beers and maybe I’ll tell you.”
I acquiesced and told him everything and naturally he burst out laughing—continuously and annoyingly.
“You one dumb sumbitch, ain’t ya?”
“Once again, Peanut, I invite you to fuck off. What’s for supper?”
“Crow. And humble pie for dessert.”
“You so damn smart.”
“Guess I might have to come with you next time and show you how to fish.”
“Listen Asshole, I have a plan for ‘next time’ if you care to join me.”
“And what’s your ‘lame-ass plan’?” he asked.
“You know that lighthouse at the end of the jetty?”
“Well, I’m gonna hike out there and spend the weekend. Deep water out there. Lots of sharks.”
“You go out there looking for shark; you prolly just gonna drown, or knowing you, get lost.”
I just glared at him.
“Must be two mile to that lighthouse,” he continued. “How you gonna get all your shit out there?”
“You’ll be with me.”
“You will come… and you will help.”
Early the next Saturday morning Peanut and I were loading up the Monza with all the gear and bound for Galveston.
“What?” I said.
“We need beer.”
“What for?” I asked.
“Goddamn it Peanut, we got enough shit to tote out there. We can’t be carrying beers as well.”
“No beer. No Peanut.”
“Okay. We can grab some Coors on the way, but you have to carry it.”
“Since I am ‘much man’ no problem,” he said.
“Fine. Cans or bottles?”
“Coors in the botella” (Peanut had learned the important Spanish: ‘Cerveza pour some more’—‘Buenas crotches’, et cetera.)
Since Galveston was at least an hour from La Porte, Peanut and I had time enough to fight and argue along the way. This was always our wont while on road trips, however long or short. We could get into an argument over anything and everything, and naturally we would feel compelled to slap the shit out of each other to punctuate our disparate viewpoints. This trip was no exception. At least twice during our journey I had to remove my hands from the steering wheel to slap the shit out of him and he reciprocated. Traveling down Interstate 45 at seventy miles per hour is not a good venue to have a slap fight, but we did it. It was our custom, you see…
Arriving at Galveston somewhat unscathed, we set out toward the lighthouse, which, in fact, was no less than two miles away over precariously placed Texas granite—took us about two hours to arrive at our weekend home.
The South Jetty, with the Lighthouse near to the end.
We dropped our backpacks and the rods and reels and decided to explore the lighthouse before beginning our “sharkin’.” There was a rusty ladder to the first deck and yet another to the second. We ascended to the second deck. There was an old generator and some other derelict machinery. This deck is actually the platform upon which the lighthouse proper was constructed. There was a narrow bridge, for lack of a term, to a small building mounted on another platform next to the main lighthouse one. It looked as if it had been added some years after the first. We entered the first floor of the lighthouse and found more old machinery and not much else.
The Lighthouse during more prosperous times.
Up one more floor were the living quarters of the ghosts of the men who actually lived in the lighthouse back in the Thirties and Forties, and I think maybe into the Fifties. There was one ‘stateroom’, a galley, and a head. In one corner there was a spot where a boxing speed bag had once hung. This is where we would bring our ‘comfort’ items, as this was also where we would sleep. Strewn about everywhere was trash, some of it quite old, some more recent. A small amount of graffiti adorned the walls, but nothing I would call poetic, or even original, so I took out the Marks-A-Lot I had brought along, having anticipated just such an opportunity, and added my own contribution:
Here lies the body of Mary McGee. Died at the age of a hundred and three. For fifteen years, she kept her virginity. Not a bad record for this here vicinity–Cap’n Quint of The Orca
“Kinda has that homey lived-in look about it, don’t it?” Peanut observed as he slowly walked around the place.
“Yeah, and I think the maid is off on vacation.” I responded.
Peanut flashed an old “Hustler” magazine he found in the shitter. He said, “Just in case the sharks don’t show…”
“Just great. If the sharks don’t show, I can fall asleep listening to you jerk off. Perfect.”
Moving up to the third floor, we discovered two more bedrooms similar to the other one below. We couldn’t easily discern what the fourth story was for, but there was a very cool spiral stairway to the fifth (and last) level. This was where we found the raison d’être for all that was below us: The Light. We wondered aloud how long it had been since it had been lit up.
“Probably been about fifty year,” Peanut ventured.
Fresnel Lens from Galveston Jetty Lighthouse Galveston County Historical Museum
“Naw, I think maybe only fifteen or twenty,” I said.
We must have been at least one hundred feet over the Gulf. The view was absolutely fantastic! We could see (just barely) the Monza parked on the beach and all the ships navigating the Ship Channel.
“Damn waste is what it is,” Peanut said after a few moments.
“Waste of what?”
“Damn waste of this here beautiful sight, as I should be sharin’ it with some luscious cowgirl and not your smelly ass.”
“Aw shucks, Peanut,” I said in my best faux hurt voice, “Why ya wanna go an’ hurt my feelin’s that-a-way?”
“Many-Feet, if’n you got any feelin’s worth hurtin’, I sure ain’t never seen ‘em.”
“Ya got me there, ‘Nut,” I said, slapping him on the back, “Ya sure got me there.”
Having finished our tour, it was time to ‘git on wid it’ to use the Peanut vernacular. We returned to the foundation, sorted out our stuff and schlepped the food, some of the beer, and some other sundry items to the second floor of the lighthouse. After consuming a few of the “Coors-in-the-botella”, we proceeded to ‘git on wid it’ in earnest.
We had brought some light rigs (Zebco 33 reels and light rods) for the purpose of catching “trash fish” croakers and the like, for bait. They were easy to catch using the freshly dead bait shrimp we had picked up at a bait shop just before arriving at the jetty. We caught a few and put them on a stringer. After that I inflated the orange dingy; rigged everything up and proceeded to bait my hook, instructing Peanut on how this was all going to work. (According to my new plan.)
“I’ll get in the boat and you play out the line as I make my way out clear of the rocks. Once I get far enough out, I’ll signal you to brake the reel, and I’ll pull myself back in to the jetty along the line. All you gotta do is hang on to the rod.”
Should have been.
I got into the little boat and cast off. I did not realize that the tide was going out strong along the ship channel and was immediately caught up in it. Didn’t take long to discover I was in deep shit (and deep water). The lighthouse is about three hundred yards from the end of the jetty where the real Gulf of Mexico begins. As I was approaching same, I signaled Peanut to “throw on the brakes” so I could begin pulling myself back to the lighthouse. Tried this. Didn’t work. I actually broke the 110 pound test line and was now adrift, heading out to sea. The sky was blue and cloudless. The waves were knocking me seriously about. Life was a gift and precious. I did not want to die. Not one prone to panic, I quickly explored my options. (There weren’t many) I could see the end of the jetty. A wave hurled me out of my little rubber boat and took her away.
Serious situation now.
The tip of the jetty was now in my rear-view “mirror” and I had horrible thoughts of being swept out into the gulf, never being seen nor heard from again. Trying to tread water and all the while keeping my eyes on the jetty, I tried to swim. The swells and the waves were thrashing me roundly. I decided that if I didn’t do something in earnest, I would drown.
So I did something in earnest:
I swam. For my life.
Like I had never swum before—hit a troop of jellyfish—strung repeatedly and badly, fighting through them and the waves and tide and swells, I managed to finally make the end of the jetty and started navigating, staggering, (and somewhat swaggering) back toward the lighthouse and my best friend, Peanut Piland.
Exhausted, I found him there packing up (mostly the beers) and seemingly nonchalant.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Well, sheeeit! I figgered you for drown’d. So, I was gonna go home and to Gilley’s this eve’n.”
“Well, weren’t nothin’ I could do for ya anyhow.”
“I lost the boat.”
“Yeah, I can see you ain’t got no boat. ‘less it’s in your pocket.”
“We’ll continue this expedition without that boat. Gimme a beer. I’m parched.”
“How the fuck we gonna do that? You lost the damn boat.”
“Swim the bait out.”
“Swim it out where?”
“Away from the jetty.”
“Swim the bloody bait out? To shark-land? Where the bull sharks live?”
“Yep. To ‘shark-land’”
“You one crazy sumbitch.”
“Who gonna swim it out there?”
“Yeah. Goddamn right ‘you’.”
“Unpack your shit. I need to rig up some more line for this rig.”
New Plan: I would swim the ‘package’ out to the sharks, drop it and swim like hell back to the lighthouse. “Trepidation” is just a scare word, invented by the brave to intimidate the not-brave.
Who cares? I was a bona fide “sharker” now. Wasn’t I?
Fortunately, I had only lost about twenty feet of my 110 pound test line from the break. The bad news was I had lost my 10 feet of steel leader-line and one of my hooks. (I was no longer using the gag-gift big-ass hook from my initial foray into sharkin’, having learned that sharks will not approach such a ludicrous offering—I now had “proper shark hooks” much smaller, but more lethal) An old fisherman had told me that the steel leader needed to be longer than the shark because once hooked, a shark will thrash about and inevitably cut the monofilament line with its rough hide. Now I didn’t expect to hook a ten-footer, but one never knows when fishing in the ocean. The magic of this kind of fishing is that you never know what you may hook into and how large it might be. Fishing for bass, or crappie, or bluegill (called “brim” or “goggle-eye” in Texas) you could pretty much bet anything you hooked would not be 10 feet long: eight or ten inches was usually more the case.
Dealing with the ‘re-rigging’ of my rig proved to be tedious and time-consuming, (I was impatient to get a line back in the water), but dealing with Peanut proved to be irritating and infuriating.
“Man! What the hell happened out there?”
“You saw it. I got caught in the outgoing tide. I didn’t figure on that. The damn boat was a bad idea. It just sits on top of the water and it’s like you’re on a white-water river.”
“Yeah, you didn’t figure on a lotta things. I’m done with this business. I wanna go honky-tonkin’ at Gilley’s.”
“’Nut, all you ever wanna do is go honky-tonkin’.”
“Yeah, so what?” All you ever wanna do is fill my head with shark-fishin’ or some other lame-ass shit.”
“Listen, we made a deal, remember?”
“Nope, I don’t.”
“We agreed that every other weekend we would come here and chase sharks and every other weekend we would go and honky-tonk and chase women. Ring any bells?”
“Good. Now go in that tackle box; I need a new hook. I ‘bout got this new leader on. Oh, and hand me a couple of those two-ounce weights. And shut up about Gilley’s. As I recall, last time we were there we got thrown out ‘cause of your getting into a fight with some dude. Over what? ‘He was tryin’ to steal my woman’…Let me dial you in Peanut: she weren’t your woman and in fact, as I remember, she wouldn’t even dance with you. At least out here there is no one to fight with ‘cept me, and we can’t get thrown out of here unless we get caught by the Coast Guard which, if we’re stealthy, is unlikely.”
“What do you mean, ‘Coast Guard’?”
“Sorry. Forgot to tell you. The Coast Guard patrols the jetty at night looking for boats or ships run into it or for idiots stupid enough to ‘trespass’ here. Didn’t you see the sign nailed up on the second deck? The one that says ‘Government Property—Condemned—Stay Out’.”
“Didn’t see it.”
“Well, if we get caught, we’re gonna have a bad day.”
“Why do you s’pose it’s condemned?”
“Look up. You see that big-ass fuel tank up there, the one bigger than a whale looks like it could fall on us with any wind blown its way? The one hanging at a forty-five and only one remaining metal hoop to hold it?”
“Jeezus! Didn’t notice,” he said as he moved over and out from underneath it.
“Peanut, you miss a lot.”
“Oh yeah? Well I didn’t miss the fact that you fucked up and almost drown, and the fact that we’re out here two mile offshore, all beat up and bleedin’ from navigatin’ and totin’ all this shit over all that granite, and we ain’t got nothin’ to show for our troubles ‘cept some dead croakers, warm beer, and some Spam and Vi-enner sausages. Oh and one lost boat. I could be drunk and dancin’ at Gilley’s in a few hours wearin’ my new boots, my new shirt, my new Stetson, and talkin’ to the cowgirls. That, I noticed.”
“We’re stayin’ the weekend. We gonna continue this fight physically, or are you gonna help me?”
“Here,” he said, handing me the hook and the weights. “What did you mean by ‘stealthy’?”
“When night falls, we just hide all our gear, don’t light no cigs where they can see the light, and move up into the second floor of the lighthouse and wait ‘em out.”
“How do you know they patrol the lighthouse?”
“You don’t know shit from tuna fish and I ain’t studyin’ ‘bout no Coast Guard.”
I finished my rigging and was preparing to swim the bait out. Peanut gave me his ‘Peanut stare,’ which was similar to looking into a black kettle of black-eyed peas: lots of eyes all staring at you, while they swirled around.
“You really fixin’ to swim that bloody bait out from the jetty?”
“Yep. That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”
“I saw some jelly fish floating around out there. Lots of ‘em.”
“Yeah, we’ve met already.”
“Well, you might think about how you gonna navigate through them. Oh, and maybe there’s a bull shark out there what hasn’t had lunch yet. Ever think ‘bout that?”
“I’m countin’ on it. You just hold the rig and as soon as I drop the bait, you set the brake and I will swim back. I’m only going out about 50 yards. Don’t worry.”
“Sheeit! I ain’t worried. You go right on ahead with yer bad self. I’ll wait for you right here.”
I lowered myself into the water and holding the dead and bleeding croakers over my head (I had strung up two on my hook) and swimming with the other arm I proceeded to backstroke away from the lighthouse. The waves weren’t bad and I discovered that since I was actually ‘in’ the water and not ‘on top’ of it, the tide was not really a factor anymore. I was making good progress when I felt a sharp sting on my leg. It hurt. Then another and another and it hurt some more. Must be the damn jelly fish Peanut had warned me of. Sure enough I was caught up in a herd of them. Again. They were the softball-size ones, with that pulsating propulsion method of travel. Well, I had swerved into a whole cattle trail of them. They were just minding their own business, I’m sure, and I was in their way. They stung me mercilessly. The only thing to do was swim out of them. I was now about thirty yards from the light house, not far enough out to clear the base of the jetty which I estimated was about forty yards from its dry apex.
I swam on.
Finally I got shed of the jelly fish herd and at about 50 yards out, dropped the bait. I felt something rough and unseen brush against my leg. Could have been a bull shark. Could have been driftwood. Could have been a mermaid. Could have been my imagination. I don’t know, but it did unnerve me. A little.
I swam like hell back to the lighthouse, feeling right proud of myself for at least getting the package out to where the sharks must roam. I was concerned about swimming through the jelly fish again, but they (thankfully) had drifted on by…
Once I got back ‘on board’ the lighthouse and drawn a warm Coors from one of the back packs, I sat down with my rig and waited for…for a while.
Peanut was getting bored.
I said, “’Nut, why don’t you grab that Zebco and try to catch us up some more croakers?”
“I ain’t studyin’ ‘bout no croakers.”
“You ain’t ‘studyin’ ‘bout much today, are ya? Why don’t you explore some more of the lighthouse; it will be dark soon and we need to know if there be any demons here tonight. Find us a spot we can sleep out of view of the Coast Guard, but be able to keep an eye on ‘em. How much beer we got left?”
“Ok. I’ll do that, and we got ‘bout a six or eight.”
“Didn’t bring no pot.”
“You insisted on totin’ pounds of beer and didn’t bring no ounce of pot?”
“Didn’t have none.”
“Just as well.”
Peanut proceeded to mount the ladders into the lighthouse and finally I had some peace. I sat there, watching some of the small boats bobbing up and down in the ship channel for their weekend outing, and waited for my line to go taut with some leviathan on the other end, wagging its tail.
After about an hour or so of this wonderful solitude Peanut came bounding down the ladders and was about to say something I’m sure would have been piercingly eloquent when the line started flying off my reel. With a six-aught salt-water rig, you set the ‘clicker’ on to alert you of line being taken out. My ‘clicker’ had suddenly come alive! And vociferously.
“Peanut! I got one!” I yelled.
“No shit! Let it feed out then slam it!”
“I know! I know!”
I let it take about thirty feet of line and then I set the brake and slammed into it, setting the hook. There was a slight hesitation and then I had the rod nearly jerked out of my hands.
“Whoa! We got us something here now!” I yelled over my shoulder to Peanut.
I had set the ‘drag’ on the reel to ‘medium’ not wanting to have my line broken. This fish or whatever it was, was not impressed. It continued on taking line as if I had never set the brake at all.
“’Nut! This one big sumbitch!”
“Fight it!” he yelled.
“What the hell do you think I’m doin’!?”
I fought it for about five minutes when suddenly it stopped. Stopped? I tried to retrieve some line. No luck. Wouldn’t budge. At first I thought the line had been snagged on some jetty rock. But then I felt some slight movement, ever so slowly it took more line out to sea, and then it stopped again.
Frustrated, I sat there like a spring wound too tight and about to violently uncoil when a small boat of weekend fishermen noticed me holding earnestly and fervently onto my rig.
They brought their small boat close to the lighthouse and an old gray geezer yelled at me:
“Hey Boy! You got sumthin’ on that line?”
“Yessir. I believe I do, but it’s stalled.”
“You need to get over the top of it.”
“How am I’m gonna do that?” I asked.
“We’ll come in close as we can and you swim out here with your rig and we’ll get on over it.”
Since my fish was obviously taking a break and not making one, I agreed.
“Peanut, I’m gonna get in this boat and get over this thing and bring her in.”
“Go ahead on ‘Feet. I’ll hold down this fort.”
I waited for them to get their boat within about twenty feet of the light house and then I slid into the water and managed to swim one-handed over to them while holding onto my rig. They pulled me on-board and we proceeded to the spot where my fish was certainly underneath. The fish woke up and began swimming in circles, pulling the small boat with it as it did so.
Then it stopped.
“Manta.” One guy on the boat said.
“Manta?” I asked.
“You got yerself hooked into a manta ray—they common here. This one probably a ten or twelve-footer.”
“What do I do?”
“Nothin’ you can do; they use them wings they got and suck to the bottom and won’t budge. If they move, you can wear ‘m out and haul ‘em in. But the only way to get ‘em to move is to attach a blue crab to the line and snake it on down to ‘em. That’ll make him move. We got no blue crabs here at this moment.”
“So, I’m screwed?”
“Yep. You have to gig ‘em up with a crab. Otherwise, forget it. This fish weighs ‘bout six hundred pounds. You cain’t horse ‘im up. Impossible. Ya got to get him swimmin’ Might as well cut your line and give up Son.”
“Nope. I’ll force him up.”
And then I proceeded to try. I gigged, I swerved, I pulled, I cajoled… Nothing seemed to work. Finally after all the gigging, swerving, pulling, and cajoling, I broke my line and in so doing fell backward into their Styrofoam beer cooler, shattering it and scattering their beer and ice all over the deck.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” I said.
“No worries Son; ain’t ever’day one hooks a big manta.”
They took me back to the vicinity of the lighthouse; I slid over the side and swam back.
“What was it?” Peanut asked, now deadpan, since the excitement was over.
“A manta ray.”
“Oh. No shark?”
“Lost another leader and some more line…”
“Seems to be a pattern here ‘Feet.”
“Shut up and hand me the tackle box.”
“’Cause I’m going again.”
“For sharks, for fuck’s sake, you asshole.”
“Oh yeah, guess I dun forgot what the fuck we be doin’ out here.”
The sun was setting as were my hopes for a shark that day. Little did I realize, sharks are mainly nocturnal. I would soon discover this fact. I was not anxious to swim into the gulf after dark, so I hurried along, rigging up a new line. I took the biggest croaker off our stringer, and this time, drawing on my bass fishing experience, hooked him up through the lips—like a big minnow—“See what that does,” I muttered under my breath.
With Peanut’s assistance, I lowered myself into the water and got smacked around by the swells before I got shed of the jetty. Once away from the rocks, I calmed a bit. But I must say, swimming bait, any kind of bait, out into the gulf, made me apprehensive at best and damn scared at worst.
I swam on into the pre-dusk Gulf of Mexico.
Happily, there were no jelly-fish to contend with. I swam about fifty yards out and dropped the croaker. Swimming back using an improvised side-stoke, I thought about my folly and wondered too much what possessed me to be doing this. It would have been pleasant to be warm and dry at Gilley’s, sippin’ a cold one and Cowgirl-Watchin’. Maybe Peanut was right. Maybe, (Oh horror!) I was wrong! Maybe, there was more to life than sharkin’. Jaws was just a movie, after all, or was it?
No matter. I approached the lighthouse.
“Many-Feet, I might-ah have said this before, but you one crazy son of a bitch.”
“’Nut, you need some new material,” I said, as I accepted his help, helping me out of the water.
To get out of the wind and salt spray, Peanut and I retired to the living quarters in the lighthouse. Sipping on Coors and munching on Vienna sausages, I kept my ear tuned to below decks for the sound of my reel’s clicker. There was nothing much for us to do now but wait.
“Kinda remote out here, ain’t it?” Peanut said.
“Yep. Kinda,” I said back.
“Listen to that wind,” he said. “Spooky.”
“Kinda,” I agreed.
“Wonder who’s playin’ at Gilley’s tonight?”
“’Nut, I don’t care who’s playin’ at Gilley’s tonight,” I said, digging another sausage out of the can.
“Well, next week, gonna be Ronnie Milsap, and we goin’. Milsap draws the women, ya know?”
“Yep. He sure does. Too bad he can’t see ‘em.”
“’Feet,” he said, “Don’t be talkin’ no shit ‘bout Milsap. The man is a fuckin’ legend.”
“Sorry ‘Nut. I suppose you’re right. A ‘Legend’.”
Even though it was summertime, there was a bit of a wet chill in the air. Peanut and I were both exhausted and were soon curled up on the deck fast asleep.
I awoke with a start, and sensed something was amiss. I had not meant to fall asleep, and still in that groggy just awake state, I heard something which didn’t seem to go with the endemic noise of the environment.
Then I realized what I was hearing.
“Peanut! Wake up!” I yelled at him as I shot to my feet.
“Somethin’s on the line! Listen!”
I could hear the six-aught reel clicking its ass off down below and I dashed down the stairs and the two ladders to the main deck.
I had laid the rig down pointing straight out to sea, and had tied the butt end of the rod to one of the stanchions for insurance. The reel was singing. I picked up the rig and slammed into whatever was out there stealing my line. It was as if I had set the hook into an oak: solid–a slight pause–then the thing violently lurched forward almost pulling my arms out of their sockets.
“Goddamn it Peanut! Get down here!” I yelled.
I heard Peanut’s boots clanging down the ladders, but did not look around. I was certain I had a bull shark by the horns this time, no manta ray this. He was taking line fast and I became afraid he would just run it all out and snap it once he emptied my reel. I had to wear him down somehow.
I grabbed the star shaped drag and tightened it a half-turn. The fish lurched again and kept taking line. I wanted to get closer to the edge of the deck but the rod was still tied to the stanchion, not allowing me to maneuver. Not wanting to risk taking one hand off the rod to untie it, I yelled over my shoulder,
“’Nut! Cut that rope!”
“What rope?!” he yelled back.
“The one tied to this rod!”
He cut it and I carefully made my way to the edge of the lighthouse foundation. The concrete was slick and I didn’t want to have myself pulled down, (or in) but felt I needed to be closer to the edge and away from the cables that crisscrossed between the stanchions.
With more room now to work the rod, I began trying to regain some of my line. The fish did seem to be slowing. I heaved back, pulling hard and managed to horse in about three feet, lowering the rod as I reeled in.
‘This just might work’, I remember thinking at the time.
Although it was now about ten o’clock, there was enough light from a half-moon and the lights from Galveston to see some of what was going on. I could make out where my line entered the water and I could plainly see the swells around the rocks of the jetty. We had not brought along a lantern, but we had a flashlight—somewhere.
Peanut was yelling at me, “You gotta get back some of your line! He’s takin’ too much!”
“I know!” I yelled back, as I tried to horse in another three feet.
I pulled back on the rod, managed to regain a few more feet of line, then the fish took off again in earnest.
Peanut was beside me now, yelling in my ear over the complaining sound of the reel as more line spun off. “You ain’t got much line left! Tighten that drag some more! He gonna break the line anyway! GO FOR IT!”
He was right. I had been too cautious and had squandered too much line that the fish didn’t earn. I tightened the drag some more and heaved back on the rod, expecting the line to go limp with a snap somewhere along the length of it.
It did go limp, but not like I’d expected. It wasn’t the sudden, quick limp one gets when the line snaps, but more of a ‘slow limp’ if that makes any sense. Greedily I began recovering lost line, still unsure if I had lost the fish or not.
“You lost him!” Peanut yelled in my ear.
“Dunno yet…wait a sec… He’s still there! I can feel him. He musta changed direction.”
“Maybe he just gonna surrender and come in all peace-able an’ shit.” Peanut mocked.
“I think he’s swimming this way,” I said as I struggled to take up the slack that was still coming to me.
The fish did appear to have ‘surrendered’ but appearances and assumptions have always been problematical for me. If he were spent, and I was certain he was not. And if, by some miracle I got him to the edge of the lighthouse, the dangerous task would become getting him on-board. I had read somewhere that the best thing to do with a shark in these situations was to throw a noose around his tail (Tiger Shark by the tail?) and hang on until he drowns. Since I had no real experience at any of this, I had relied upon literature to guide me and had brought along a broom handle with a wire noose attached…just in case. Well this just in: I think my case was next on the docket.
“’Nut! I think he’s comin’ in! Grab that noose I rigged up!”
“I told you about it yesterday! Go get it! Now!”
“Oh, you mean that broom handl’ with the bailin’ wire?”
“Yeah! That! Get it!”
Looking down at my reel, I estimated I had recovered most of the line, meaning the shark (at least I hoped it was a shark) must be very close now. I studied the point where my line entered the water, but couldn’t discern any clue. While watching, it began to trail left and right and I saw the shark break the surface.
“Peanut!! Get over here with that noose!” I yelled.
He came scurrying over, ‘noose’ in hand.
“Look there!” I screamed and pointed. “He’s just about ten feet out!”
“I don’t see nothin’.”
And the shark was suddenly within spitting distance.
“Holy Shit!” Peanut yelled.
I couldn’t tell, but the thing (now definitely a bull shark) looked to be about six foot at least. Realizing it was no longer freely in the depths; it came alive with new found determination and was not going to be easily subdued. Holding the rod with every bit of strength and courage I could muster, I attempted to wear it down to the point where Peanut could attempt to slip the ‘noose’ over that tail. I do believe it would have been easier to pin the tail on the donkey at this point—a real, really pissed off donkey.
By some miraculous miracle, Peanut had managed to get the ‘noose’ over the shark’s tail.
The shark, desperate for its self-preservation (and really, really pissed off now) joined the battle in earnest.
Peanut yelled at me:
“’Feet! I cannot hold him! Come help me out!”
I dropped my fishing rig and joined the battle, jumping in front of Peanut and grabbing the broomstick.
Together we tried desperately to hang on.
We were losing.
I managed to slip on the wet concrete of the lighthouse and fall headlong into The Gulf.
With the pissed off shark.
Bad for me.
I yelled at ‘Nut: “Drop the damn stick and pull me out!”
He did. (And the shark took his exit, stage right, dragging the broomstick, it on the surface, leaving a wake in the water)
Happily (and apparently) the shark had chewed through the line and thus did not drag my expensive “Sharkin’ Rig” out to sea with him as well. It remained on the Lighthouse floor.
I flopped onto the pavement like some kind of beached whale.
Peanut pulled me to my feet.
“’Feet,” he said. “Can we go home now?”
“Not until tomorrow,” I said back.
“Well, next week, Gilly’s?”
“Yeah, and the week after that and the week after that and the week after that. I am done with this folly.”
I was lying of course.
Two weeks later, we were back at the Lighthouse
A little bit of added value in honour of my too soon lost great good friend: Jimmy ‘Peanut’ Piland
“Peanut, I am so sorry. You were right: we shoulda spent more time at Gilley’s and less time on the jetty. I was wrong. Wherever you are, I hope you will read this.
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.
It’s been a while since I have written about Peanut, but he has been on my mind of late. A few of us in Honey Grove during the Seventies, not being afraid of hard work and also not being afraid of making good money would haul hay during the summers, brutal hot honest work. This was back when those infernal ‘round bales’ were just making their appearance, threatening to put all the ‘square bale’ haulers out of business. (The bales were not geometrically square of course, but ‘rectangular bales’ just didn’t have a ring to it.)
Hauling hay was a two-man operation: one man would drive the truck guiding the hay loader along the rows of bales. The other would stand on the back of the flatbed and stack. Once the truck was loaded the duo would head to the barn (or more often than not, an old depression era house which served as a hay barn.) One guy would throw the bales off the truck and the other would drag and stack. Return to the hay field and repeat, but with the rolls reversed for fairness.
Generally, but not always, one guy would be the truck owner and the other just a hired hand. I was a hired hand behind a famous hay-hauler named Nubbin. He paid me a nickel a bale; not bad money considering hauling a thousand bales a day (our usual goal) would net me fifty bucks tax free. If we hauled in prairie grass fields (which always had bumble bees) he would pay me two cents extra to stack every load. Nubbin was frightened of bumble bees. I wasn’t.
If the ‘haul’ was from a hay field close to a proper drive through hay barn, we could sometimes haul fifteen hundred bales a day. But more often we had to drive a few miles and stack hay in an old house, dragging the bales through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, past the old bathroom, the wasp nests, dead skunks, eventually stacking hay in the back bedroom and filling up the place as we worked forward through what was once the pride and joy of some dirt farmer from the Dust Bowl days.
Peanut was hauling using his uncle Hungry’s truck. Hungry was the most celebrated hay hauler in North East Texas, a real legend. Even Nubbin would admit this. There was no man had hauled more hay than Hungry. Memory fails as to when Hungry actually hung up his hay hooks for the last time, but Peanut was eager to take up The Legend (and the truck).
A word about your average hay truck in the fleet back then: There were none younger than about Nineteen Forty Eight. Most had gone through a several overhauls or downright re-building with new engines—well new to the truck anyway–held together with spit and bailing wire, and they did just fine.