Flower Moons, Bream Beds, and Cooter Soup

The May, full “Flower Moon” had risen just above the tree line along my southeast horizon. Big with a pinkish tint, I watched it rise although the warm pre-dawn felt more like July or August in the foothills of the Blue Ridge than May.  Temperatures climbing to the low nineties didn’t sound bad if you live in south Texas or Arizona but as you are aware, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity”. The humidity seemed to be building despite there being little chance of rain. 

It has been drier than my first wife’s sense of humor for most of May and the weather liars allowed there would be no relief soon…maybe the early June weekend.  They predicted wide spread showers by Thursday but we’ll see…they have been known to lie before.

My garden is suffering despite the hose and sprinkler I pulled from my house.  Even my crabgrass seems droopy, and the row middles are harder than baked brick.  My tiller bucks and kicks up dust but doesn’t dig deeply enough to remove the crabgrass. Dry, windy air is not good for my garden…or my psoriasis…or my mood.

Not too dry or hot to walk.  It is a habit I look forward to and the world might quit spinnin’ if I were to miss a day.  I have three routes I use but recently I’ve have stuck to my lake route.  The three and a half mile trek is cooler and there is plenty of shade…and plenty to see.

I paused on the lake bank and watched the activity ten or twenty feet from the shoreline.  Dozens of pothole bream beds were visible in the shallow water.  Dark torpedo shapes darted in and out.  The bream seemed to be playing a child’s game of chase.

Full moon, wind favorable.  Might be time to dust off the rod and reel.  It has been a while.  This lake is catch and release but that’s okay.  My freezer is full of food, I don’t think I’ll starve. I’m also not fond of cleaning fish.

I used to fish every chance I got until I lost my fishing partner.  I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head, “Can’t you smell ’em? They’re here close by.”  She’d drop a squirming worm on a number six, gold hook from a cane pole and be rewarded.  I couldn’t smell them then…still can’t but I could see them guarding their beds, dark shapes silhouetted against the sandy bottom.

My grandmother taught me about fishing.  How to tie on a hook and work the worm on to it.  “Make sure you get the tip covered. The breams is smart.”  “Fish facin’ the sun, so they don’t get spooked by your shadow.”  Except when they are on the bed.  They’ll bite about anything on the bed and don’t really care about shadows…mostly out of anger, I think.  Once she ran out of bait and used a flower blossom successfully to catch “just one more.” I’m reminded of “shooting fish in a barrel.” Don’t rightly seem fair but then my grandmother didn’t fish for sport, she fished to eat.

Nannie fished without a bobber mostly and only the smallest split shot weight.  Slowly moving the pole tip back and forth, changing the depth up and down.  Moving up and down the bank until she locked herself in mortal battle with a warmouth or bluegill bream.  She didn’t throw any away.  The smaller ones made it to the garden as fertilizer, the “eatin’ size” into a frying pan.  I’ve tried pan frying and can’t seem to get it right. I’ve just about quit trying.

I walked out before sunrise the next morning carrying an old Zebco 33, a pail with redworms, and a pocket filled with a few extra number six hooks, red and white bobbers, and split shot weights.  The Flower Moon was still visible in the dark western sky. A mile and a half there and a mile and a half back, I could have been ten years old again walking down the river road toward Bower’s Lake, my grandmother and Trixie the puppy leading the way.  Maybe Miss Maggie would be with us too.

The Zebco wasn’t much different than the one I saved up for and bought at Pettus’ store sixty years ago.  If memory serves, it’s my fourth 33.  It’s a cheap, no frills reel perfect for a cheap, no frills guy. It is also beat up despite not having been used much in the past decade.  The cork handle of the rod is peeling, and I noticed I had made a hasty repair on an eyelet with electrician’s tape.  Whatever works.

The fish were active and the action swift.  Pumpkinseed and blue gills, some bigger than my hand, battled for the opportunity to hang themselves on my hook.  In an hour I probably caught two dozen keepers, some I probably caught more than once.  I know my grandmother was spinning in her grave as I let everyone of them go. 

An alligator snapping turtle paid a visit as did several Eastern water turtles.  I’m sure they were looking for a free meal from a stringer that wasn’t there. We called them cooters back in the day, from the West African word kuta.  With a modern change in usage I have to be careful when using the name.

The beast’s shell was as big around as an old-fashioned Caddy hubcap.  Again my grandmother spoke in my head, “Don’t let a snapping turtle bite you ’cause it won’t let go till it thunders.” I don’t know about that Nannie, but I know he’ll take a finger off.

I made the mistake of casting near him trying to scare him away.  Despite his size he was quick in the water.  He submerged and took the worm and hung himself on the hook.  I tried to keep him from heading to the bottom expecting him to break my line.  The line didn’t break, instead he stripped the gears in my old reel and hunkered down on the bottom to wait me out.  Looks like I’m in the market for a fifth Zebco. 

My grandmother would make cooter soup from the turtles she caught or those that happen to wander through her yard.  During those days, Southern farmers who survived the depression days still prepared cooter soup, or catfish stew, or fried rabbit. I think they did it to remind themselves of the bad, old times…the “worser times.” At least she stopped short of possum. She said it was too greasy. I’ll have to take her word that it is.

I understand turtle soup is now considered a delicacy. Don’t believe my grandmother would agree. To her it was a free meat when times were hard.

I remember a big iron pot on an outdoor fire boiling water to dip the cooter in to loosen its shell and skin. It was a lot of work to crack open the shell and skin and bone the meat, being careful to remove the eggs and liver. Rich looking dark meat ground like hamburger, sautéed with onion before being cooked like vegetable soup.  Soup heavy with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, and okra to thicken. Maybe celery or carrots thrown in for good measure. Basic soup with a twist.  Everything harvested from her garden, sometimes even the turtle.  The old cooter tasted like chicken with the consistency of beef…or was it the other way around?

How long can a cooter stay down? Still waiting after a half hour, I tugged on the line and felt the load on the end move. Hand over hand I hoped the line wouldn’t cut me if he ran. He didn’t run and I took out my MacGyver knife and waited to get him close. I cut my line as close as I dared and watched my line and the old mossback disappear into deep water.

Walking back home I carried no fish but there was a spring in my step as I thought the best of life has to offer sometimes requires a lot of work…and provides sweet memories too. An evening in late summer came to my mind. Two old women in flour sack dresses and wide straw hats and a small boy sharing a load. Carrying three stringers full of hand sized or better home and sitting out under the privet bushes and stars next to the garden cleaning them all. Nannie, Miss Maggie Cureton, and a young boy. Listening to them laugh and tell stories of the “worser” old days that didn’t seem so bad. Enough fish for three families to feast on the next day. A memory to feast on for life.

Don Miller writes about various subjects, nonfiction, fiction and some with elements of both. His author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3MGRivTC9YRWjMTAbB1FsY7cD3V0OLEHDQLxd3M7T2ka0A4gkmY5YWW-g

“SOUTH WACKO-LAKI”

 

An early morning thunderstorm has jarred me out of a sound sleep.  Sleeping soundly is unusual for me lately.  My sleep seems pain-filled, both from arthritis making its presence know if I lay in one position too long and from the dreams tormenting my mind.  Don’t feel too much concern and it’s not the point of this post.  Compared to many of my friends and family my age, physically I’m doing quite well.

The dreams…the dreams are due to my fragmented mind, torn asunder by depression and anxiety.  Some chemical in my brain has gone wacko, taking the rest of me with it.  I now reside in the state of “South Wacko-Laki” just across the river from “A-Kook-Among-Us.”

Could it have been triggered by diet; the sausage biscuits I should ‘never’ eat, the bee sting or a thousand other triggers that may or may not be the reason?  God how I hate asking, “Why?”  Maybe it’s just getting old.  Maybe there is no reason.  It is what it is…I hate ‘it is what it is’ too.

Anxiety is a new adversary while the depression an old enemy.  I have too much going on, too many things I need to be doing.  Plenty to be anxious about…but I’m retired, I have plenty of time to go forth and be productive…NOT.

My retirement has taught me one life lesson.  I am not a very good steward of my own time.  My lack of self-discipline explains why I’m failing in my early morning attempts at writing while simultaneously NOT really watching a rerun of Bobby Flay, staring at my computer screen wondering where my last thought came from or went to, all the while worrying about the lightning, thunder, and rain washing away my plans for the day.  What plans?

A checklist…that’s what I need.  Little square boxes to check as I complete small tasks.  I wonder how many trees would have to give their lives to create my checklist.  Okay, a few easy things to begin with like “Just get out of bed!”  Sometimes, even that is not easy.  “Walk three miles.”  Why has my walking become so much harder?  Not physically…MENTALLY!

A harder one, “Stay away from social media!”  Scrolling through Twitter or Facebook along with WordPress fits nicely with my fragmented mind…and probably contributes…not probably.  I can’t totally stay away because I use social platforms to advertise my books to people who are NOT buying them.  I must come up with a better plan.  Maybe write something people WANT to buy?  Purchase an advertising service? Quit entirely?

I have four stories I should be working on.  Should be an indication of how fragmented my dried up gourd of a head is.  If I shake my gourd does it rattle with dried seeds?  The seeds are not germinating, I can’t finish the stories.  I’ve reached a point in each…a barrier of some sort.  I can imagine the end but can’t quite find the rain-shrouded path to take me there.

Maybe a hiatus is in order.  Something to recharge my over-used but underutilized brain.  Go hide in a dark cave for a while…no, I’m already in a cave it seems, and the light from the computer screen doesn’t seem to be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Buffett’s lyrics echo in my fragmented head, “but I got to stop wishing, got to go fishing, down to rock bottom again.”  Could it be as simple?  Well, wishin’ sure ain’t gettin’ it done!  Fishing…maybe.  Probably should wait until the storms pass or maybe just embrace being at rock bottom in the state of “South Wacko-Laki.”

For a saner Don Miller, one should probably go to https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B018IT38GM?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true

If interested in “Mommy Porn” with a twist, you might also consider Lena Christenson at  https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B07B6BDD19?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true

The image is from “Rule the Wasteland”  http://rulethewasteland.com/?page_id=28

 

FISHIN’

For some reason, I awoke from a dream about fishing. I saw an old cane pole bending from the strain of a double hand size blue gill, it’s blue, green and silver body causing the line to sing from the strain the fish was putting on it. After awakening I realize it is still cold and December, rain is pelting on the metal roof and I really don’t know why I’m dreaming about blue gills and the grandmother who taught me to catch them. I may have already shared this story but felt the need to share it again. I hope you enjoy.

My grandmother had what I would describe as a single mindedness about her work ethic. Little would get in the way of what she had scheduled to do. Monday was wash day no matter how cold it was just to get it out of the way. The only exceptions were on rainy days or during harvest season. During the late summer, Monday was also preparation day for Tuesday – CANNERY DAY. Tomatoes were peeled, okra cut, beans shelled or soup mix was readied to be canned the next day. Wednesdays and Thursdays were copies of Monday and Tuesday. One day was set aside to sweep the backyard under the privet, another to weed the rock garden and others to do what she hated most – house cleaning. Early, early mornings were spent milking the cow and some days, work was rearranged to accommodate for the churning of butter and making buttermilk. During the early summer, EVERYDAY was weed the garden and pick the “critters” that might be chewing on plants. Nothing interfered except the meal preparations and finally the harsh late afternoon midsummer sun that would drive her into the shade…of her front porch to start processing vegetables. There was no rest for the weary.

I can see her distinctly in my mind’s eye standing in her garden and clearly hear the “clinking” sound of her hoe contacting the few small rocks that remained in her garden. She is wearing a cotton “sack” dress handmade from last year’s feed sacks, a broad-brimmed straw hat and old lady loafers that had been slit to accommodate corns and bunions. That was pretty much all she wore as I found out one day when a hornet flew up her dress causing her to strip in the middle of the bean field. There is no modesty when being stung by a hornet but young eyes should not see these things. Her face, arms and legs were as brown as the leather harnesses that PawPaw used to hook his old horse to the wagon and the rest of her…obviously had rarely seen the light of day. I think now how old I thought she was but she was just forty-eight when I was born. I was forty-nine when she died.

There were only two things that would drive her out of her garden – rain and fishin’. Fishing was something that she discovered after PawPaw died. I do not have one memory of her going fishing prior to his death although I remember hearing stories about trips to the river, a mile or so distant as the crow flies. I don’t think this was an example of “sport” fishing but was the setting and checking of trotlines in hopes of supplementing table fare…cheaply. Pan-fried catfish and catfish stew would replace the canned salmon that we often ate in the winter. Well, she made up for lost time as she entered her “semi-retirement” after moving in with us and then later with Aunt Joyce after my Dad remarried. It also did not help keep her in her garden that H.L. Bowers built nine or ten ponds and lakes between us and the river…and gave Nannie free entry…and me with her.

I was not her only fishing partner and she would not overuse the Bower’s lakes. I think she feared that the invitation might be revoked if she caught too many fish. There were a plethora of people who would line up to go with her, many who would just call volunteering to take her to the lake of her choice. Some would call days ahead to make “reservations” to go fishing. The reason was simple. The Lord had blessed her with the ability to find and catch large quantities of fish. Miss Maggie would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or might have practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. Full moon, wind from the south or south-east with a rising barometer…time to go fishing. There were times Nannie ignored the signs and, likely as not, she would not be shutout.
Her fishin’ was fishing in its purest form. No high-dollar technology was employed. I once gave her a Zebco 33 rod and reel, maybe the all-time easiest reel to use. She never used it; instead, there would be a thin cane pole or three, all strung with heavy twenty-pound test line and a small split shot crimped a foot or more above a small gold hook. Rarely did she fish with a bobber. All of her extra gear, hooks, weights and line were carried in a paper poke. I remember when she graduated from a “croaker” sack to put her fish on to a line stringer and then finally to a metal stringer. An earthworm, cricket or a wasp larva was lightly presented to where she thought bream were bedding, allowed to sink a bit and then moved in a slow side to side arc. Wham! That strike would likely be the resulting outcome and into the croaker sack a fish would go! For those of you too young or too Yankee to know, a croaker sack was a porous burlap feed bag “repurposed” to put fish or frogs in to keep them alive or, in the gigged frog’s case, wet. The bag would be laid into the water. Frogs—croakers. Get it? Yes, frog legs do taste like chicken.

I would ask her “Nannie, how do you know where the fish are?” She would answer “Can you not smell them?” Uh, no I couldn’t but I can now and she taught me to look for the “pot holes” that the bream made when they were on the bed. That doesn’t explain how she caught fish when they weren’t on the bed. Maybe Maggie was right about the voodoo thing but I suspect it was the fact that she had studied fishing the same way she studied her Bible or the almanac.
Nothing was too big to go in her frying pan and, sometimes, nothing too small. I guess it goes back to being poor during the depression. Small fish were brought home and, if not cleaned, became a part of her garden. The two-and-a-half-pound bream or the nearly eight pound largemouth she caught did not go on her wall. No, that was pure foolishness. An eight pounder could have fed a Chinese family for a month and we were not going to waste it. Hand-sized bream were always my favorite to be pan fried in Crisco using corn meal breading…at least I think it was Crisco…it might have been lard. I’ve tried pan frying them and I just can’t seem to get it right.

There was one August afternoon that Nannie decided to take Maggie and yours truly to Bower’s Big Lake. That’s what we called it. The Big Lake was twenty-five acres of fishing heaven. Bream, catfish and largemouth bass seemed to always be hungry and this day all of the signs were in place. We walked the three-quarters of a mile to the lake, scooted under the gate that cut the River Road, and started to fish from the closest access to water. For the next two hours, we did not move and had it not been so late in the day we might not have left then. Seventy-seven double hand-sized “breeeeeems,” as Maggie called them, over filled our stringer. There had to be forty pounds of fish and, for an eight or ten-year-old boy, a near sixty-year-old grandmother and, who knows how old Maggie was, it was a tough trek back to the house…followed by a couple of hours cleaning the fish. It was worth it the next day as the smell of frying fish permeated the air.

I remember the last time I took Nannie fishing. She was in her late eighties and a bit feeble, but not much. Linda Gail and I loaded her up in my old ’72 FJ 40 Land Cruiser and took her to the dock at Bower’s Big Lake. The weather was terrible for fishing. Cloudy and windy, a gale blew from the wrong direction as the barometer plunged but she hung a couple and we have a picture of her holding a “whale” still decked out in her broad-brimmed straw hat. She had at least started to wear pants by this time and I imagine a cotton “sack” dress would have been a little cool. What I remember the most was her laughter, something that I heard so rarely. When I think about Nannie seldom do I see her smiling. This was a special day as were all of the days when we went fishin’.

I miss her terribly and just don’t seem to get the enjoyment from fishing that I did during those days. I still try to get the spark back and will continue to do so. Sometimes I think to do otherwise would somehow be letting her down. The same is true with my garden. I know I could buy more produce from the money I spend on seed and fertilizer than I actually raise. Fishing, even when they are not biting, is a little like therapy or maybe meditation. I have found it to be a pathway that leads me to memories that I sometimes didn’t even know I had.

This story came from the book PATHWAYS. It and my other books may be purchased or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

LITTLE PIECE OF HEAVEN

Paradise was once found on the banks of the Catawba River. It had to be the Garden of Eden. Some three miles by crooked road from the river was my home. I still walk and run the old river road today, although only in my memories and my dreams. In between the river and my home were nearly seven hundred acres of heaven. Seven hundred acres of pastures, forests, fields and ten “fishin’” lakes, one a five-acre “pond” we called the “Pettus Pond” where I caught the biggest blue gill of my life, another, twenty acres of water called the “Bowers Big Lake” where I caught the nearly nine-pound largemouth still adorning the wall in my study. Seven hundred acres of playground nirvana.

H.L. Bowers, my Uncle Hugh Wilson’s former carpenter’s helper and true American success story, had purchased or as the locals said, “bought up” nearly seven hundred acres of forest and pasture land sitting on the east bank of the Catawba. Farther east, the border of his land stopped just short of Highway 521. The reason it stopped short was a cluster of small farm houses, fields, pastures and forest owned collectively by my parents, my grandfather and grandmother along with my grandfather’s brother’s family and their sister and her husband. There were other land owners as well but the main dirt road leading to the old Collins’s house that Bower’s would eventually convert into a lodge ran right through the middle of our property. The Bowers’ “land” and the road to it was where I fell in love for the very first time.

My grandmother taught me to fish, the nuances of tying on a gold number six hook, treading on a wiggling red worm, where to look for fish on the bed and what the signs were. “Can’t you smell ‘um?” “See those pot holes?” “Make sure you keep the tip of your hook covered!” “Look at your shadow! If you can see your shadow so can the fish.” “Keep your pole tip high!” One of her fishing buddies, Miss Maggie Cureton, would say, “She sho’ nuff’ can smell deem fishes.” She also thought Nannie might have sold her soul to the devil or practiced West African Vodun because she fished according to the signs of the moon, wind direction and weather forecast. “East is when fish bite least, west is when fish bite the best, north neither man nor beast go forth, and south blows the worm into the fishes’ mouth.” No it didn’t quite rhyme but a full moon, wind from the south or south-east with a rising barometer…time to go fishing. There were times Nannie ignored the signs and, likely as not, she would not be shutout.

We began to fish the Pettus Pond in the late Fifties or early Sixties. Named for our Aunt Bess’s family, it sat on land purchased from them. We were blessed to fish there. Mr. Bower’s was being neighborly but he was not neighborly to everyone. NO TRESPASSING signs were posted but those signs did nothing to deter the locals who succumbed to the siren’s call of water filled with fat blue gills, large-mouth bass and catfish. Large fines or being escorted off his land at the wrong end of a double barreled shotgun did not seem very neighborly. I heard many people refer to Mr. Bowers in less than glowing terms due to his reluctance to allow fishing on his land. It took me until adulthood to realize why he might not want his ponds over fished and I assure you they would have been.

My grandmother was in hot demand as a fishing partner. Friends from all around called to set up “fishing dates” even though she was careful not to fish the Pettus Pond all of the time. She did not want to “over stay her welcome” so to speak and only trusted partners got to go to the Pettus Pond…and her “fishing crazy” grandson. It wasn’t where she fished, it was how she fished. Rarely did the fish avoid her hook and her “luck” seemed to transfer to those who fished with her regardless of the water she put her hook in.

Nannie was a traditionalist. Cane pole, heavy line, a number six gold hook with a split shot sinker she crimped onto the line. A paper bag inside of a vegetable basket held her fishing gear along with a can of hand dug red worms, a canning jar of water and a handful of individually wrapped hard candy mints that had softened in the afternoon summer sun. Most of the time she chose to fish without a bobber and simply kept her bait moving until something hit it. I remember her battling a seven pounder into submission. Send it to a taxidermist? You must be joking. Weigh it but then filet it, bread it in cornmeal and put it into a cast iron skillet with a half inch of melted lard or Crisco. Fry until crispy and then eat. True to her poor farming background, nothing was too big to eat nor too small to keep. Pan fish deemed too small for the pan were never-the-less hauled home and incorporated into the garden providing nitrogen to help produce her sweet corn and tomatoes. “Waste not, want not.”

We were happy as larks to fish the Pettus Pond until the Bowers Big Lake was built. Situated below the Pettus Pond, looking at it from a distance was like placing fudge brownies in front of a food-a-holic handcuffed to his chair. Despite the big bluegills and largemouth bass we were catching, in my youthful mind, “The River Stix” had to be just below the Pettus dam. Somehow I got into my head, the bigger the water, the bigger the fish. In this case I was correct but as I get older I find I miss the smaller confines of the Pettus Pond or maybe I just miss my grandmother.

Today it is late April and two days past the full moon. It would seem we have had our three days of spring and summer is now upon us despite the early date. I’m probably going fishing tomorrow evening provided I get my honey do list completed. I don’t have the passion for fishing that I used to have and haven’t since 1999 when my favorite fishing partner left this world. Don’t get me wrong. I still fish but it might be for the same reason I have for my much too large garden. I know I could buy more food with what it cost me to raise mine but the food is sweeter because of the memories. I have the same sweet memories when I fish.

Don Miller has also written three books which may be purchased or downloaded at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM