In a galaxy far away, when I was in my 40s, I would fish with my son, my brother, and friends on the Big Piney River in east central Missouri. This was not a glam-intensive fishing experience with guides in $250 Orvis and Patagonia outfits and a 5-star lodge featuring rib eye steaks with red-wine reduction sauce. Think more the Tarry Inn in downtown Licking, MO, population 1800 (3600 now that they have the South-Central MO Correctional Center) and the Sonic Drive-In in nearby Houston. Our guides on the Big Piney were the Claytons, a family of farmers and winter-time logging truck drivers, or whatever else it took to put bread on the table. They were “good ol’ boys,” the highest accolade available in rural Missouri. Ray Dow “Ray” Clayton, the patriarch, was solid as an oak door, had a crew cut and wore zippered, faded blue Walmart jumpsuit overalls open at the chest. At one time he had been the sheriff of Texas County.
We would drift down the river in two 18-foot Jon boats, two paying cargo up front, each on a bench seat, and a guide aft, with a paddle and, if in operating condition, a much-abused electric motor. Tree-shrouded bluffs loomed hundreds of feet above us as we passed over rapids and deep runs, water so clear we could see the Fall leaves coating the pebbled bottom like Mexican tiles. The objects of our interest were the rowdy, bronze-backed smallmouth bass, as well as a motley collection of less respectable fish – bluegill, rock bass and warmouth. These panfish, however, were considered by local folks to be the best eating.
As the morning wore on, Ray, Ramon, or Tom, whichever two of the Claytons were guiding, would attach fish after fish to metal stringers clipped to the sides of their boats. Around noon, they would beach the boat on a shoal and the shore lunch ritual would commence. One guide would reach for a gunny sack stashed under his seat, pile it atop a battered, metal cooler and step ashore. He was the chef de cuisine. The other guide was charged with food prep. He would sit in the sand, feet out in the water, take a sharp Barlow folding knife out of his pocket, and one by one gut each fish with two deft cuts. He would then cradle the palm-sized panfish in a callused hand and scale them, sluicing out the body cavity in the stream. River otters, raccoons and mink provided clean-up service.
Meantime, the chef de cuisine had pulled a battle-scarred kerosene Coleman stove and a large fry pan out of the gunny sack. He would set the stove on the pebbled shoal, squatting, and fire it up. From the cooler came: a gallon can of vegetable oil; a plastic bag filled with a breading of flour, corn meal, and salt and pepper; a bag of potatoes; four or five large yellow onions; and a loaf of Sunbeam bread like we used to soak with water, ball up, and throw at friends in the elementary school cafeteria.
The breaded panfish would brown in the fry pan, hot oil snapping and crackling, as we waited, beers in hand, like dogs hovering around a kitchen table. The prep man would busily slice up potatoes and the onions. When the fish were done, draining on a brown paper bag, the potatoes and onions followed into the fry pan. On one of our earliest trips, a fisherman looked around and asked, “Where are the plates?” The chef responded, “Over there,” and pointed to the loaf of Sunbeam bread. Big Piney etiquette required that you plop a fried fish, together with a slice of onion and a slice of potato, on a piece of bread and pick from there, with your fingers. There was an occasional “ouch” when a particularly delectable morsel proved too hot. On his first trip, a newbie started to nosh his piece of bread. Ray exclaimed, “He’s eatin’ his plate!” Some things are just not done up the Big Piney.
If life were particularly good that day, one of us might have brought along a bag of double-stuffed Oreos. Oreos, of course, are best paired with a cold Budweiser. The cumulative effect of fried fish, potatoes, onions, double-stuffed Oreos, and a beer is a gratifying sense of well-being coupled with the vitality of a slug. This leads to an after-lunch meditative experience best enjoyed in the shade while the guides clean up, scouring the fry pan in the gravel and returning the Coleman stove to its home in the gunny sack.
Drifting down the Big Piney in the late afternoon, approaching the take-out point, some of us would be thinking about dinner. Maybe a stop at the Sonic Drive-In in Houston, 20 minutes south of Licking. Maybe a SuperSONIC Bacon Double Cheeseburger paired with an Oreo Peanut Butter Shake or an Oreo Cheesecake Shake. We wonder, did the Walgreens in Houston carry Pepto Bismol?
My Life’s Editor rose from the couch where we eat ice cream (Trader Joe’s Mint Chocolate Chip) and split chocolate bars (Moser Roth Dark Sea Salt Caramel) on alternate nights while we watch Judy Woodruff chat up the day’s notables. She got close to the 50-inch screen, squinted and said, “I can’t tell. It looks like Worms and Peas.” I got up from the couch, put on my 2.25 magnifiers, stared closely at the screen and pronounced, “No, it’s War and Peace.” Each evening a stream of learned and worthy types looks out at us from the TV, interlocutors as well as interviewees live streaming from their abodes. On one side of the split screen we see Jeffrey, Lisa, or Bill; on the other side we see the interviewee. Everyone is frowny because things are dire in this time of mass self-incarceration. Faces swell and produce a googly-head E.T. affect if they are too close to the computer. Gesturing hands up close look like giant mutant crabs. What interests My Life’s Editor and me are the bookshelves behind the talking heads. We peer closely at the books behind the good and great, trying to see what they read. Was that Team of Rivals behind Amy Walter? Elements of Style behind Yamiche Alcindor? Hornblower and the Hotspur behind Admiral Mike Mullen? 50 Shades of Grey behind Janet Yellin? We believe someone’s books are the measure of the man or woman. We assume these folks have read the books behind them or intend to do so at a future date, pandemic allowing. When My Life’s Editor and I were first married, we lived on East Elm in downtown Chicago and would close out an evening on Rush Street by stopping at a used book store at the southwest corner of State and Elm. It was owned by a crabby, unkempt guy who sat in the back, surrounded by his dusty inventory, desk littered with scraps of paper, Post-It notes and one cold cup of black coffee. He would look up from his reading, exposing the gravy stain on his shirt, and growl when I brought up a book that I wanted to buy. On one occasion, I was stunned when an interior decorator appeared next to me at the grouch’s desk and said he wanted to purchase ten feet of “good-looking books” for his customer’s library. What? Who buys books by the foot, like sausage links?
I came to books late as a kid. I was an Army brat; books were a luxury since we moved every two years and had to travel light. What furniture and possessions we had were slowly demolished by movers, assignment to assignment. Family goods would sit on a crate in Bremerhaven, marinating in the rain until making the trek to Stuttgart. Crate opening was like “Wheel of Fortune.” What would we find in this box? Didn’t we used to have a coffee table? With water stains from my parents’ martinis? I read AC Comics – “Battle Action” and “War Comics” – until I found the post library, a bicycle ride away. After that, it was start with the farthest book on the left and read until I hit the end of the shelf, go down one shelf, repeat.
Over the years, wherever My Life’s Editor and I traveled we visited used book sellers, checking out their shirt fronts to see what they had eaten for lunch. We learned to extract books from a book store shelf not by tugging at the spine, damaging it, but by pushing in the two books beside our target to grip it and slide it out. More and more books came home with us, like stray dogs from the pound, many battered, now treasured, all with the dust patina that the book trade calls “the real estate.” Each of our homes has required construction of built-in bookshelves, involving many trips to Home Depot, much swearing, and application of bourbon lubricant. My Life’s Editor was our first construction casualty. She came down with lumbago while painting bookshelves, something that sounds like an affliction of 19th century dowagers, only exceeded in popularity by dropsy.
Consider for a moment: books versus a digital device. An iPad lying doggo on a kitchen table may have twenty books inside but says zip about that fact. Same twenty books on a shelf, in the flesh, screams what a prodigious reader you are. Try to use an iPad to support the broken leg of a couch. Not much good. Three 500-word books, no problem. Want to get the glue to set on a project? Press a flower? Don’t reach for an iPad. Try to flatten a roach with an iPad, the roach sneers. Try a book, and the average palmetto bug is a grease spot. Put an iPad down as a door stop, the door just pushes it aside. Finally, an epic, 700-page book is a world-class sleep aid. That reminds me. It is 3:00 in the afternoon on this 30th day of house arrest …. I think I’ll pull out The Wealth of Nations and toddle off to the couch.
Steve, the goateed one from Ohio, and I, the Old Road Peddler, waited on the Maximo Park boat ramp. We were tight, nervous – two guys inhaling their last smokes in a WWI trench, ready to go over the top. We had assembled our fly rods from the tip section down. Check. We had lined up the ferrules with the little dots. Check. Our reels weren’t on backward. Check. “Think It’ll be rough out there?” asked Steve. I, the more battle-scarred, responded “Yeah, but we can do the job.”
We had prepared for this moment. I had taken Steve out to North Shore Park and watched him practice his fly casts as people stared at us, waiting for their dogs to poop, wondering what, exactly, we were doing. I knew that practice was important. My mind reeled back to age 14. I was on my first date with a female person – the beautimous Linda. We were at the movies, watching Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. I had seen older guys make this excellent move where they pretended to yawn and casually (note that word) dropped their arm around their date’s shoulders. Totally cool. It had to be easy. I judged the right moment was reached when Linda leaned forward in her chair over her popcorn. I did the yawn thing, extending my right arm up. It was only a glancing blow, but enough to knock her glasses off and send the popcorn flying.
The cause of our nerves came swinging into view around the mangrove point where Frenchman’s Creek opens out into the bay. It was Capt. Pat Damico in his Maverick Master Angler. In an earlier life, Capt. Pat had been a dentist, out of Hazelton, PA, via Villanova and Temple Universities. He tossed his lidocaine syringe aside 20 years ago and retired to Tampa Bay. He became a Certified Casting Instruction Master, a respected guru of fly fishing and a wordsmith for the Tampa Bay Times. Capt. Pat could tie a Homer Rhodes loop knot in a raging storm, in the dark, using only his toes. He was the real deal and now would check out our fly casting. It was Steve’s virginal experience; for the Old Road Peddler, it would be only the latest public display of his so-called fly flinging technique.
Adding to the tension was the fact that Steve and I were determined to score the much-sought-after Inshore Trash Grand Slam, catching three of Tampa Bay’s most infamous fish: the teeth-intensive and ferocious lizardfish; the googly-eyed, acrobatic, leader-fraying ladyfish; and the Bucky the Beaver- toothed pufferfish that lives entirely on eating the tails off rubber jigs.
Capt. Pat took on his paying cargo and we proceeded to a flat with a four-foot drop-off. He tied rust-colored Clousers to our leaders, and Steve and I lurched into action, fore and aft. On Steve’s third cast a young and impressionable sea trout gobbled his slow and deep offering. A Chinese fire drill ensued as Steve tried to figure how to deal with the slack line at his feet. He hadn’t read the memo with “How to Actually Land Fish” on the subject line. Capt. Pat coached Steve. “Keep your line tight!” “How, how?” “Pinch the line!” “Where, where?” etc. The trout was considerate and hung around long enough to be swung on board and then released with a sore lip.
As the morning progressed, Capt. Pat held class: we learned to cast backwards in order to go forward into the wind; we learned how to retrieve our line, stripping direct to the fly; we learned to tie Mr. Rhodes’ loop knot. Trout interfered with lessons, kept getting themselves on the ends of our lines. Where were the lizardfish, ladyfish and pufferfish? Happily, a pod of ladyfish came careening through like commuters trying to catch the last bus out and noshed on the Clousers.
We saw less and less of Capt. Pat as he eased into full fishing burka mode, only his eyes appearing. You will not find Capt. Pat in a dermatologist’s waiting room soon. The sun got up, the wind got up and the fishing got skinnier. Time to head for the barn. It was true that we had fallen short of accomplishing the legendary Inshore Trash Grand Slam. But we had learned at the feet of the sensei and there would be other opportunities to go mano a mano with the ferocious lizardfish and the cruel-toothed puffer.
My college classmate Jeff called from California. He was coming to Florida with his wife Diana to compete in a croquet tournament in Venice. We offered to provide a pull-out and relatively clean sheets at Casa Craig for a few nights. When I hung up, I thought “A croquet tournament?” Croquet was something we used to do on a slow Sunday afternoon when the kids had been inside, getting squirrelly. I would fetch the moldy, water-stained box of croquet implements from off a shelf in the garage. When the box came open, cockroaches the size of Volkswagens would clamber out from the tangle of hoops, stakes, balls and mallets. Rules of engagement were made up on the fly. Direction of ball travel was arguable, clockwise people holding out against counterclockwise people. Before we started, the field of play had to be sanitized by removing goodies left in the back yard by Molly and Bingo, our dogs. On one occasion this resembled an Easter egg hunt since they had eaten an entire box of multi-colored Crayolas the day before. The fun part of play was holding down your ball with your foot right up against the opponent’s ball and then whacking your ball, sending the opponent across the backyard to land under the air conditioning unit.
On the Saturday we went to see Jeff compete, there was no whacking being done, no poops being removed. The Sarasota County Croquet Club was part of a county sports complex. Frisbee golf competitors and baseball players practiced nearby as a crowd of white clad, suburban types went about their business on a manicured greensward. A bevy of BMWs, Audis, Mercedes and similarly upscale motoring plunder was in the car lot. The event was the “USCA Florida Golf Croquet Regional Tournament.” Jeff said there were at least 50 competitors. His home club logo, “Sonoma Croquet Club,” stitched on his white Polo shirt, Jeff anchored the west coast representation.
Six croquet courts were laid out at the SCCC over a green expanse of Bermuda grass, about two thirds of a football field. Players were scattered everywhere, bending, stooping, lining up hits, chatting in clubby clumps. At one side was the SCCC club house, buzzing quietly as folks went in and out. A homemade lunch buffet and beer drew my attention.
The “Golf” Croquet business puzzled me. I saw no putters or sand wedges on the upright racks that held the mallets. The mallets were three-feet long with three-pound block heads that looked like something a medieval serf would use to clobber a knight from off his horse. Jeff said there were two types of croquet, Association (or International) and Golf. With the former, the player has two balls in play at a time, with the latter, one ball. Turns out that Golf Croquet is a newbie upstart. Old-school Association players are in a snit. Zoning laws and cross words have not prevented the infiltration of Golf Croquet into dignified Association Croquet neighborhoods.
Croquet is not a spectator sport. No stands, no beer vendors. A scattering of spouses stood or sat in folding chairs and looked upon the field of play, each watching quietly as their player attempted to thrash someone else’s player by being the first to get through seven wickets (seven points). No fist bumps or shouts of encouragement. Other than hearing Jeff’s wife Diana emitting an “Oh no!” or an “Oh my!” I was clueless as to whether Jeff was the thrasher or the thrashee in the moment. He played thoughtfully, pondering his strokes. Jeff is a very organized guy, right down to his sock drawer. He started out as an engineer in college, as did I. He continued in engineering; I did not. I got on the Dean’s List, but not the one you might think of. Sophomore year, the Dean suggested I move my major to some area where numbers were not key to success, like finger painting.
The player who got through a wicket first, earning a point, attached a little colored clip, like you use on potato chip bags, to the wicket. We watched a lanky guy in a ball cap getting industriously hammered by an efficient, no-nonsense lady who was applying clip after clip to the wickets. He reversed his ball cap for rally mojo but in the end went down like a heavyweight with a glass jaw. This being a sport introduced by the Brits, who invented civility, play ended with hugs and handshakes. I thought of rugby, also a Brit sport, where opponents assault each other, pad-less, producing gushers of blood and broken noses, then shake hands when the mayhem is done, clap shoulders and go off to drink beer and get smashed together.
I pondered if NFL end zone dances would make croquet more attractive to modern folk as a spectator sport. I pictured a rhythm-challenged portfolio owner, doing hip thrusts and booty shakes over his winning wicket. The world is not ready for this. The world did take a gander at croquet as an Olympic sport in 1900 in Paris. The French teams crushed everyone. It was Olympic croquet’s swan song.
I saw that there was no winner’s trophy displayed on a stand outside the clubhouse, no three-foot tall sculpted rendition of a rampant mallet, done in bronze, suitable to be admired on an end table. I figured that a handshake and a “Well done” offered by the Prexy of the SCCC sufficed for the winner. I asked Jeff how he did. “OK, reasonably well,” he said, shrugged his shoulders. As my Life’s Editor and I drove away from the parking lot, I spotted a Miata with a “Coexist” bumper sticker and a Prius with a “Proud Democrat” bumper sticker.
My people had infiltrated.
My father, Bill Craig, was the personification of Lt. Col Bull Meecham, crack jet pilot and man’s man, in Pat Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” The difference being that my father was an army infantryman and, having two stars on his shoulders, outranked Bull. My father preferred bourbon, loved attractive women, could dance, fish and shoot equally well. Each week he balanced the books by kneeling at the 8:00 AM Sunday Eucharist, clutching his personal Book of Common Prayer. Like Strom Thurmond, a kindred Dixiecrat, he valued masculine grit; a set of barbells graced my father’s closet floor until he was in his seventh decade.
The crack in the granite wall came on a fishing expedition to Missouri. I invited him, in his 75th year, to join some friends and me on a trip to fish the Big Piney for smallmouth bass, his favorite prey. We flew to Missouri, and in the course of hustling along airways, moving bags, renting cars and driving for miles to get to our fishing camp, I saw my father stop occasionally and take a breather. Was that a puff of relief as he let a bag down? When we clambered into the Jon boats, streamside, he moved carefully, unsteadily, being sure to set his weight before hazarding another step. Evenings, as we gathered in the motel room to sip whiskey, the Great Santini’s eyes slipped shut, his mouth gaping slightly in that old man way. As night follows day, the inevitable occurred. He waved off my extended hand in getting out of the Jon boat at day’s end, mis-stepped and fell back with a crash against a cross support. He lubricated himself with Jim Beam that evening, nursing his sore ribs. I looked at him as he sat, eyes lidded, breathing labored, and heard the faint strain of Taps.
Press the fast forward button, advance twenty-five years, and my son Hutch and I were driving to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. We booked a day’s fly fishing with professional guide Scott Owens. I had fished with Scott for a half day, several years prior, when My Life’s Editor and I had gone with pals to an Elderhostel retreat to take painting lessons. In between trying to coax my inner Picasso into making an appearance and swilling wine secretly with pals in our guest rooms (where adult beverages were not allowed), I wedged in a few hours with Scott. I did catch a young, impetuous redfish on a fly. www.craiglit.life features the photo proof.
Hutch and I were after a specific fishing experience. Coastal flats north of the last mangrove in Florida are marked by spartina alterniflora. The slim green, tough, salt-tolerant grass rises to several feet, growing thickly in meadows over mud flats, broken by tidal creeks. At the base of the grass is a universe of crustaceans and bivalves – shrimps, crabs, mussels and oysters. When tide rises to envelop the spartina, redfish cruise in to graze a supermarket of snacks. Fly fishermen follow, quietly gliding in on flats boats.
Around four o’clock the next day, Scott smoothly poled us into a flooded meadow of grass. From his vantage point on the poling platform, four feet above the deck of the boat, he scanned the water’s surface for the bronze gleam of redfish tails as the fish moved to slurp up shrimp. I pulled out my eight-weight fly rod rigged with one of Scott’s hand-tied flies. To my eyes, it was a woolly blob. To the redfish, it looked like dinner. A casting platform was mounted on the front deck, a triangular affair about 24 inches to a side, 12 inches off the front deck of the boat. I stepped up on it, pumped that I was now as tall as an NBA player, yet nervous at the new experience of a platform. Within fifteen minutes, Scott spotted a fish. “At 2:00, thirty feet out.” I looked, saw a swirl. “Cast it just in front of him, maybe a foot.” The problem was with the term “front.” The redfish refused to hold still, moving ahead, then backing up, then turning around. I cast. “No, you’re behind him.” And so it went. I took a twenty-minute slot of missed shots and turned, saying “Come on, Hutch, you get up here.”
The next thing I knew, I lay in dead cockroach mode in the bottom of the boat, feet up in the air, my rod waving in one hand like an antenna. Two faces peered down at me. “You OK?” they asked. I had forgotten about the raised platform, stepping off into space. I had collapsed to the front deck and slid with a crash to the bottom of the boat. Hutch reached for me, eyes filled with concern for a seventy-four year old guy who had just taken a hell of a fall. They helped me to my feet, and I allowed that I was just fine. Not true. I ached. Scott shook his head, sure that the noise had caused all the fish within a quarter mile to scram. But we got back to business and by the end of the afternoon had boated four redfish in the six to eight-pound category. A good time fishing, made more interesting by the sight of enormous container vessels navigating down the main channel, stacked to the level of the rising moon.
Hutch drove us home the next morning. I snoozed, fortified by ibuprofen. Maybe I drooled a little. Was that a bugle I heard in the distance?