Friday, September 26, 2014

A Visit Back to Wing, edited version

This is the version of my story as I will read it Saturday night, Sept. 27 2014 on Tales From The South in North Little Rock. They have edited it to suit their program. I must read it word for word, because it has been timed down to the minute. The story was written two years or so ago, so some things in it are now out of date somewhat. Fourche Valley folks may notice this.

     I stand on the dirt of our old family farm in Wing, Arkansas, 60 years after my childhood. Back then Dad had me believing that the whole farm would go to Hell, if he was absent from it, even for a day. And he almost never left. Yet here it is, nearly 40 years after Dad had left it forever, looking much the same. New owners now, but they are keeping it up well. The woods have not reclaimed the fields where the cattle contentedly graze, as Dad had always feared. He pushed me to mow every square inch if it each summer. Even in 1954, when those fields were nothing much but dust and a few weeds. Then he would send me out with a chopping ax, to all the spots of persimmon sprouts, to make sure not a single one survived.
As I stand here looking at the old farm, a large part if my childhood passes through my mind.
Right in front of me is where the huge barn had stood. Grandpa John Wesley Gillum used that barn to breed Super Mules.
Right over there, under that giant oak, my great grandpa, James LaFayette Gillum, built his blacksmith shop. That ground was covered with iron scraps when I was a kid. I'll bet I could bring a metal detector up and dig up a ton of old horseshoes and other old Gillum treasures.
     Up on the hill, right there, the old home place stood, now long gone. It was a genuine kit house, ordered from Sears and Roebuck, in the 1920's, by my school teacher aunt, Hallie. But she ran out of lumber, and lumber was taken off the old Gillum home place to finish it up. My aunt Lula Bell had came over and thrown a royal fit when she found out, but the salvaging continued. By the time Hallie's house was built, the old house was not fit to live in, so the whole family made the 20 foot move in with Hallie. Aunt Hallie never lived in her new house alone, dying early, in 1941. I was born in that house in 1944.
           Fifty yards away is The Bluff, where ninety years of Gillums threw ninety years of trash that wouldn't burn. The thick trees below now hide all those glorious piles of Gillum history. A thousand years from now, an archaeologist will dig into that spot, and be filled with wonder. Gillums always produced spectacular trash.

     On out, between The Bluff and Stowe Creek, is the field of Stinging Nettle. Sister Barbara Lou and I always had to walk through it to get to the swimming hole. That's the only place I've ever seen that particular species. Touch it, and you itched for hours. Years later, I remembered this plant, and transplanted one to my biology class room, along with a big sign, DO NOT TOUCH THIS PLANT. But seems like most of my kids eventually just eased by and rubbed against it, just to spite me, when I wasn't looking. But it never went unnoticed by me in the long run. The guilty party always scratched until the bell rang, then walked out scratching. Every kid needs to experience Stinging Nettle, once.
 On the other side of the road is the Big Hill. My nine acres. As a kid, it had huge pines on it. It was cut over after I left Wing. Forty two years ago, I bought it. Thirty four years ago, son Corey and I planted those pines back. They're pretty big now, but nothing like they were when I was a kid. My brother Harold was a Forester at the time. He kept on at me to thin them out, cut out the hardwoods. Maybe I could make some money off them someday.
 But he never understood. I didn't want the money, I just wanted to see those pines like they were when Sammy Turner and I rode those carts we had made, with abandon, down that hill, dodging each big tree. Mine had a genuine B-29 steering wheel on it, and wheels off my little red wagon, removed when it was too tired to go any more. I hope I see those huge pines again before I die.

     Looking off the bridge over the little creek by Uncle Homer's house, I see the little hole of water where as a boy I fished, using grasshoppers or wasp larvae for bait. I could always count on catching four or five big perch or goggle eyes, string them up on a forked stick, and head for home to clean them for supper.
     I get in my car and drive over to see Elois Hunnicutt, now 94. Her sons Grady and Wayne were my good buddies as we grew up. They, Sammy Turner, Jack Larry Gillum and I often skinny dipped in that very cold, very deep hole in the creek down in our pasture. Some of the guys proudly walked the bank most of the time. Personally, I tried to stay in the water. Anyway, I worked in the Mountains for the late Mr. Alja Hunnicutt one summer during college. I got to ride 40 miles in the back of his pickup to Dover and 40 miles back, every day. I totally wore out two good pair of work boots that summer, just trying to keep him in sight in those hard mountains.

     Elois still lives alone on their farm, still has a big garden. Some time back, she fell out there and broke a bone or two. Over several hours, she managed to crawl back to her back door, but that's as far as she could get, alone. She had to lay out a good part of a day and night. Cell phones don't work well in Wing. But she's as lively as ever now, and gets around pretty good with her cane. I know I would be hard pressed to keep up with her now, much less when I'm 94.

     I drive into town and get to meet the Gillilands, the new store owners. There has been only one store in Wing, in my lifetime. I got to tell them about sitting, cluelessly, reading the funnies, throughout the great robbery of that store, 56 years ago. That is the only sure enough crime I ever remember happening in Wing. Effie Turner figured out she had been cleaned out when she came back, called ahead, and they were caught before they could get out of the valley. The robbers got a year and a day. Effie was an older lady at that time, and she died at 100, in 1979. During her lifetime, she rode in a covered wagon pulled by oxen, and saw men walk on the moon.

           I walk over to the old church next door, where the Memorial Service for JR Turner, Effie's son, had just been held. JR died this year at 102. JR fired a wanderlust in me, as a child, telling me stories of his world travels, and showing me gold he had found “1000 miles off the pavement.” Without him, all of my tales of our world travels might never have happened at all.
      I get back in my car, pull out onto the road, and head east. And as I wind out of the hills of Wing I know, as I always know in my heart, though I left these hills 50 years ago, and have never lived here again, I am forever a hillbilly, And proud to say it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Forever A Hillbilly: My Friend Skeet

Forever A Hillbilly: My Friend Skeet: My friend Skeet, (short for Skeeter) is so extremely polite in his driving habits, that it sometimes takes him an hour to get through a ...

My Friend Skeet

My friend Skeet, (short for Skeeter) is so extremely polite in his driving habits, that it sometimes takes him an hour to get through a four way stop. (his words) I suspect he always uses his GPS to get out of a parking lot, and he always strictly follows the parking lot arrows, exactly centered on his little red car or little red truck. I told him yesterday that he follows a very narrow path through life, tightly bordering “A total genius” on the left, even more tightly bordering “Totally crazy” on the right.
     Skeet has not always been so polite. As a boy, he and two of his friends were driving a little too fast, missed a curve, and their car slid through a yard, with the back of the car going under a house. While waiting for the police, one friend checked inside the house to see if anyone was hurt. As the police arrived, he fled the house, screaming, “Get an ambulance! There's a woman dying in here!”  When the paramedics investigated, they found the commode had disappeared  through the floor, and the woman sitting on it had gone crazy, thinking the world was ending. She was physically OK, except for getting two bruises when she hit the floor.
     Skeet and I were once sitting in his big red fishing boat in the middle of Lake Degray. Suddenly, Skeet just up and said, “Let’s go to Wing.” Skeet had never been to Wing, Arkansas, where I grew up. My book, Spreading Wing, was centered around there. I just had to know why Skeet wanted to go to Wing, and why right now. “You’ve been talking so much about Wing, I’ve just got to see it.” So, Skeet fired up his big red boat, and we were soon at his house, with his two little red cars sitting out front, along with his big red pickup. As he started to get into one of his two little red cars, I had decided to use a very special approach to Wing for Skeet’s first trip, so I said, “Take your big red truck.” I knew Skeet’s little red car would never make it over the special approach to Wing I had in mind for Skeet.
     Wing is 100 miles north of Arkadelphia sitting right in the middle of the Fourche La Fave River Valley, The most beautiful little valley on God’s green earth. If there had been a way to make a living in Fourche Valley, I would never have left it as I did 50 years ago. Anyway, we headed across the Ouachita Mountains from Mt. Ida, through Story, Aly, and on into the big mountains. On the south side of Fourche Mountain, I had him take a hard left up Long Hollow, across Barnhart Creek, on a tiny forest service road, and several miles on west. Skeet had me stop at two different places, and after he had explored a little, he announced he wanted to establish a homestead, right here. I had to disappoint him by telling him, "The US Forrest Service just did not allow that any more." Cutting hard right across Scrougeout Mountain, we reached the top. Fourche Valley was spread out below. The rains had been good this year and the valley was very green. We had to stop there and look for a very long time. Fourche Valley is beautiful, any way you enter it.
Dropping off the mountain, Skeet began to notice that every car or truck we met had a smiling face behind the wheel, and they all waved. I had to tell him, “Get used to it. That’s just the way it’s done up here.”
     We soon were heading back south, the normal way. On top of Fourche Mountain on hwy. 27, we stopped for one long, last look at Wing. I pointed out to Skeet where the Gillum house used to be, and that stop gave us our best look at the Valley, up and down.
     Skeet grew up in Pine Bluff. He lived very close a couple of night clubs that were really happenin’ places, back in their day, back in the 50's. Many of the top young musical stars in the country played there, on their way to stardom. Skeet and his dog played in the street late one afternoon with a young man who was going to sing there  that night. The next day, his father asked him if he knew who that young man was. No, skeet replied. His father smiled. “Elvis Presley.” Skeet was not impressed. “So?”
     Skeet’s father was a barber. Once Skeet was in his shop. Three Plain clothes detectives and the police chief were waiting for a haircut. The three barbers always kept a gun at their station.
     Two men walked slowly by, looking in as they walked. Moments later, they again walked back by, again looking in. Skeet’s dad said, “Get in the bathroom, Skeet! Now!” Skeet obeyed, but of course left the door ajar to view the action.
     Moments later, the two men burst in the door, one pointing a gun. The only noise heard was the clicks of seven pistols being cocked. The eyes of the would-be robbers got very big, and the gunman very slowly, very gently lay his gun on the floor, and both ran for their lives. The police chief said, “Aw, let ‘em go. I know who they are, we’ll pick ‘em up tomorrow.”

Nowadays, If I ever want to head up to Wing alone, I have to keep it secret from Skeet. He’s fallen completely in love with Fourche Valley. If Skeet gets the idea I’m headed for Wing, he’s always in my car with me.     
     When I headed up to the Fourche Valley Reunion last year, Skeet just jumped into my car beside me. He wanted to go. I said, “OK Skeet, but you’ve got to behave this time.”  Well, we had not seen some of our classmates in 50 years, and before I realized it, Skeet was passing himself off as somebody’s long lost classmate. I had to stop him, though, when he started hugging people and sobbing. Later, someone reported that an old man was outside the front door, telling all as they came in, “Welcome to Walmart.”

     Skeet has already reserved a meal at the Fourche Valley Reunion this year. Fair warning.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Forever A Hillbilly: My Dogs: Sad Endings

Forever A Hillbilly: My Dogs: Sad Endings: My Dogs: Sad Endings      Contact with dogs came early in my memory. Spot was an aging, cancer-eaten long haired dog, nearing the end, ...

My Dogs: Sad Endings

My Dogs: Sad Endings
     Contact with dogs came early in my memory. Spot was an aging, cancer-eaten long haired dog, nearing the end, faintly recalled in my early recollections. Not so faintly recalled is the rifle shot that ended his suffering existence.

     Snippy was a short haired, black, chunky feist. He was a dandy squirrel dog without a hunter. Harold, my older brother, his hunting partner, had gone off to college. Snippy spent his days, lying in the warm sun, dreaming of days gone by. On cold winter nights, he would jump up through the open crib door into the barn, work his way into the hayloft, and burrow in for the night. One very cold winter morning, with the temperature hovering near the single digits, I approached the barn. Then I saw him. Snippy lay, curled up in the snow, frozen solid. Above him was a closed, and latched, crib door.

      My very first dog of my own was Champ. I built Champ a house, painted his name over the door. We wrestled and played, getting closer daily. As Barbara and I rode to the cucumber patch one morning, Champ followed. When we arrived, I said, “Let me out so I can watch after champ while you make the turn.” I was too late. Bumped and knocked off balance by a front wheel, the rear wheel ran over his snout. Champ got up, walked a few steps, looked at me, and I saw the light fade from his eyes. Slowly he fell. I raced to kneel beside Champ, my shaking hand feeling a faint heartbeat fading away. It was a long time before the memory of Champ began to fade.

     When I got Tooter, he was an eight week old, part German Shepherd pup. He had a black and white cross on his chest. I carried him, resting on my forearm, the two miles back to our farm. As Tooter grew, he learned quickly. He became my constant companion as we hunted, fished, and trapped – or just roamed the bottoms and mountains for the fun of it. He quickly learned to “stand,” “heel,” and “back  up.” Tooter was my best friend as I grew up. Early one summer morning, after my freshman year of college, a loud disruption awoke me one morning at daylight. I ran to the yard wiping the sleep from my eyes. Two large coyotes held Tooter, strung out between them. When I hollered, they dropped him and ran. Tooter chased one of them down, and grabbing him by the throat, began to choke the life from him. I pulled Tooter back, and the coyote melted into the woods.

Over a period of days, Tooter seemed to be getting better. One morning, Tooter leaped from a load of cattle feed in our truck, yelping loudly with pain. He limped to the porch, and lay down. Soon, he was unable to get up. I carried Tooter to the cool cellar. He got worse. As I checked on ;him during the night, he became weaker. At daylight, he was gone. That day, I buried tooter under the large tree overlooking the valley and the bottoms we had roamed so many times. Tooter had seen me through my growing up years. His job was done. Now I was a man. I must go on from here alone.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Forever A Hillbilly: The King of Fayetteville

Forever A Hillbilly: The King of Fayetteville: I read this story on Tales From the South in Little Rock. It was then heard on NPR radio. Affiliates of NPR then broadcast it over most of ...

The King of Fayetteville

I read this story on Tales From the South in Little Rock. It was then heard on NPR radio. Affiliates of NPR then broadcast it over most of the world.

     The year was 1968 and I had just turned 24. I was flipping through the paper one day when I stopped on a picture of an old man with what looked to me like, at the time, an unbelievable large string of catfish. The caption under the picture was, "Dick Dyer Does It Again!" Seems Dick Dyer was about the best cat fisherman around Fayetteville, Arkansas. I wished I could do that, but it seemed out of my reach.
     When I was a kid, growing up in Wing, Arkansas I caught lots of catfish, and we needed them. They sure tasted good, after a diet of salt pork. But they weren't real big. In the early days of Fayetteville, I had access to larger rivers, and I thought more and more about cat fishing.
     Well, as it happened, shortly after seeing that newspaper article, my wife Barbara and I  moved  over to Anderson Place. Would you care to guess who my neighbor, right across the street was? You guessed it. Dick Dyer. I befriended him, I cultivated him, I quizzed him. After a while, Dick's MO began to emerge. I studied his techniques. He even let me go fishing with him, once. Well, he began to see that I could be a competitor somewhere down the line, and Dick dearly relished being the best river catfish catcher around. Maintaining that status consumed his whole life. He pretty well cut me off from any more information.
     But I knew enough. I began to catch more and more fish, emulating his methods. Dick was OK with that, he was catching more, and bigger fish. We went along there, him doing a bit better, for several years. Then I slowly began to catch as many fish as he did, and probably about the same in total weight.  He still had the largest fish, 16 pounds. Every time he saw me, he told me about that 16 pound catfish.. He never let me forget about that 16 pound catfish..
     Barb and I were coming into our last months at Fayetteville. One really deep hole I fished a time or two that spring, with my limb lines probably tied to limbs I know now were too solid, with very little give, just kept breaking. The lines were 120 pound test or so, and I couldn't understand it at the time.
     Barbara and I were walking along the river bank, one day in June, on a picnic. I saw two old watermelon rinds lying on the bank, and they were just covered with hundreds of june bugs. I had never heard of anyone using june bugs to catch catfish, but I knew that in the late summer, they often fed by just skimming along the surface, picking up floating bugs and whatever they could find.  I had seen them doing that at night.
     After Barbara had walked on toward the car, I went back, pitched the rinds in the river, and the June bugs all floated up. I just scooped them all up, put them in a paper bag, and stuck them in the car.
     When we got home, I wrapped them up real tight in a freezer bag, and stuck them way back in the back of the freezer, out of sight. Barbara put no stock in mixing fish bait and food in the freezer.
     Late in the summer, I was watching TV one day, and I heard Barbara scream. I ran to the kitchen. There she was, the bag in one hand, a handful of June bugs in the other. Seems she had been going through freezer bags to find something to cook, stuck her hand in, and pulled out the June bugs. I caught it pretty good over that.
     As Barbara settled down some, a little later, I said, “ I've just got time for one more fishin' trip before we move, and no telling when I'll get to fish again. I'll get every one of those June bugs outta' here then.”  She agreed. Catch Barbara when she's not screaming with a handful of June bugs, and she's a great gal.
      Next week rolled around. I asked John Philpott if he wanted to go with me. Said he guess so, nothing better to do.
     We went back to that hole, where the White River and the West fork of the White River join, where my lines had been broken last spring.
     This time, I had a new idea. We were fishing with cane poles, very limber, and we stuck them way, way back in that mud bank. I floated each hook right on top of the water, with a June bug on it.
     We ran the lines at midnight, and had a couple of ten pounders and a whole passel of smaller catfish. But, right where the two rivers join, that pole was going absolutely crazy! Ever tried to get a lively 25 pound catfish into a small landing net? We finally did. The next morning, we had a couple more ten pounders and another bunch of smaller catfish.
     Then, we approached that last pole, right where the two rivers join. The pole was completely pulled out of the bank,  but it was still laying there, mostly out of the water. Lying in the water, either just too worn out for one more flip of the tail, or having learned from his struggles that was as far as he could go, was the brother to the last big one. He was also 25 pounds.
     Well, when I got home, the first thing I did was take them over to Dick Dyer. Dick came out, I held them up as well as I could. Didn't say a thing, I didn't have to. He never said a word to me. Just turned sorta sick looking, turned around, dropped his head, and walked back  into the house.
     We moved to Hannibal, Missouri a couple of days later.
     I never saw Dick again.
     About two weeks after we got to Hannibal, a letter chock-full of pictures arrived. A 40 pound catfish, and a whole bunch in the 20 pound range. The letter just verified the weights,  And in the picture an old man was smiling.
     Smiling right straight out at me. Thats all. Not another word.
     The return name on the envelope was Dick Dyer.
     I knew Dick didn't have my address. But he managed to find it. And I knew he had found my Glory Hole. All I could figure out was, he must have ragged John Philpott into telling him.
     I was pretty put out by this whole thing for awhile, then after I settled down some, I began to think about it a little differently. I had used Dick's methods, developed through his many years of experience. He used me to locate the Glory hole. Fair's fair.
     I've never been back to that Glory Hole, but someday I will.
     Over the years, I think I've figured it out. There's a dam on the White River, a quarter mile upstream. Catfish naturally swim upstream. Until they're stopped by a dam. The small fish stay there, in that shallow hole at the dam. The big fish must have deep water, and they go back downriver, only as far as they need to, the first very deep hole. Right where the two rivers join. In the Glory Hole. And there they still lie.
    Year after year, just getting bigger and bigger.
    Just waiting for me to come back and challenge them again.
    But Dick Dyer passed away many years ago, and when he died, he was still the King of the Catfish Catchers in Fayetteville---and it just wouldn't be the same. Who else in the world could care as much about the size of the catfish I might catch there as Dick Dyer did? Nobody, thats who.

    For all you fishermen out there, I know you can find my Glory hole from what I've told you here. But where will you be able to find a whole bag full of June Bugs?