It’s Wednesday again, and this week’s writers’ workshop has me thinking of a simpler time when my biggest problems were multiplication tables. It was the best of times without the worst, and I can’t wait to get back. Climb in, sit back and hold on because, in the words of Dr. Emmett Brown, “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious –”
Here we are, in about 1990. That’s Pap-paw, opening the camper on his brown pickup truck and shoving two of his expertly-rigged fishing poles in until the end of the rods strike the truck bed with a thud. He’s packed the long poles this time, so he leaves the camper window ajar while the corks sway in the gentle afternoon breeze. I haven’t seen him since he died of pancreatic cancer in August of 1993, but he looks just like I remember, healthy and smiling.
That high-pitched squeal you hear is five-year-old me, relaxing in the front seat, singing along with the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” and waiting anxiously to hit the road. In a minute, Pap-paw will chuckle at my feeble attempt to hit the low, rumbling, “Giddy Up, Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow” line at the end of the chorus.
He’d be proud to know I can occasionally hit it now.
He’ll manage to compose himself before long, and holler a short goodbye to Mam-maw, who’s perched on the doorstep waving.
By the time we pull up at the lake Pap-paw and I have listened to the whole Oak Ridge Boys tape, and I’ve asked him 200 questions like, “How come you ain’t got no hair on the top of your head?”, “Did you ever spank Mama when she was a kid?” and “Can I have another hard candy?”
Hard candy was the name we gave Werther’s Original caramels, and I still say they’re in a deadlock with M&Ms for best candy ever.
I’m still pouring a never-ending stream of questions from my sugar-rushed brain while he’s unfolding two lawn chairs and setting them under a big oak tree. He pops the top on a Dr. Pepper, then hands me a can.
I pull at the stubborn tab for a while before he chuckles and opens the can on the first try, despite his arthritis.
“Can I have my pole now?” My question echoes over the still water. “I’m gonna catch me a biiiiiggg one.”
The more my hands spread out the louder he chuckles, until soon he’s laughing.
“Here, Case,” is all he can manage after he throws my line in the water.
“I bet I can make them ripples on the water again.”
The reel-and-rod shakes in my small hand, causing the cork to bob and drift off to the left, leaving a small wake behind it.
“Hush, son, or you’ll scare the fish off. Reel it in, and I’ll put you on my best fish-catchin’ spot,” Pap-paw’s voice is barely above a whisper, and he’s no doubt regretting his decision to let me hold the Werther’s bag. “You’re gonna catch that big ‘un right here.”
He’s right, as usual.
Soon after my cork hits the water, it begins to bob and sway again — and this time I’m not the cause.
“Pap-paw, he’s bitin’ it!”
My voice cracks with an excitement I can’t contain.
“I’m gettin’ a bite!”
“Set the –,” he stops short when he realizes I probably have no idea what “set the hook” means. “Yank it to China, and reel him in!”
The words have scarcely left his lips when the water parts, and the biggest thing my young eyes have ever seen breaks the surface.
Sheer terror is etched on my face.
In an instant, my reel-and-rod is sailing through the air, I’m running as fast as my light-up LA-Gear sneakers will carry me, and screaming the only words that I could force from my mouth.
“It’s an ALLIGATOR!”
Suddenly, Pap-paw is beyond composure.
Slumped against a tree and laughing as louder than a pack of overgrown hyenas, he struggles to steady himself when I finally reached him and hid behind his back.
“Pap-paw, help! An alligator ate my cricket!”
He wipes his eyes just enough to see through his still-falling tears, and notices my pole slipping down the bank toward the water, towed by the weight of what he knows is a bass.
“That… ain’t no… alligator, son,” he manages the broken phrases through the increasing volume of his laughter. “That’s a big ol’ bass, and he just stood up on his tail ’cause you hooked him so good.”
Once I gather the courage to approach him, and what part of me still believes is a huge boy-eating monster, Pap-paw hands me my pole and the widest grin I have ever seen stretches across his wise, caring face.
“Reel, Casey! Reel him in, son, reel him in,” he yells loudly until he’s out of breath.
There — on the bank, in the shade of the oak tree beside a can of Dr. Pepper that spilled during all the action — I’m reeling faster than anyone has ever reeled, or ever will.
Ten minutes later, I’m tuckered out.
The monster is too, and Pap-paw — still laughing harder by the minute — approaches the water, grabs my line and tows the large bass to the bank.
“Lookey there, Casey, that fish is big. We’ll have to weigh him.”
He makes a quick trip to his tackle box and returns with his fish scale.
“Five pounds, eight ounces,” he says after removing the fish from the scale.
“I told you I was gonna catch a BIG one! Can we keep him?”
“Yeah, will keep him, son,” Pap-paw’s reply can’t hide the smile overtaking his face.
“That’s the biggest fish I ever seen, Pap-paw. What are you laughin’ at?”
“I’m just waitin’ to get home so I can tell your Mam-maw and your Mama and Daddy you caught a big ol’ alligator fish,” he erupts in a fit of laughter then, and doesn’t stop until we pull in the driveway.
When I climb out of the truck, I’m the happiest boy alive.
I’ve been on a fishing trip with Pap-paw, caught the biggest
alligator fish I’d ever seen and eaten the whole bag of hard candy on the way home.