December, The Friday of Months

For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing, often abbreviated as CQ, is pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring. CQ is a megacity of 30 million people in south-central China, on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones to be exact – from my small hometown in south-central Missouri, on the Little Dry Fork creek. Depending on how loosely you define “city”, one could argue that CQ is the world’s largest city. Yet, in my quest for a simple life, I publish these observations and admonitions from my 18th Floor Homestead. Some would call these articles drivel; I prefer to think of them as words from the future – 13 time zones in the future if anyone in my hometown is reading this.

“December, the Friday of months.” I read that charming phrase online recently and it seems especially apt in the dwindling weeks of 2021. Each week, we look forward to Fridays, the transition day, the day ushering in the weekend, when life will be more carefree and relaxed – in theory, at least. But Fridays, at the end of the traditional workweek, are also synonymous with stress, rushing to complete projects, and exhaustion. This dichotomy is also true for the month of December, we look forward to some time off, perhaps travel, time with friends and family, and the celebrations of the holiday season. Alas, we also associate the month of December with end-of-year reports, project deadlines, seasonal madness events, a long series of cold, grey winter days, final exams at school, and a grim reminder that another whole year has passed without seeing any progress toward writing your novel.

Despite being too full, or perhaps because of it, December is a time for looking ahead to a clean, unsullied new year of fresh beginnings, new opportunities, restarts, resolutions, and a new unmarked calendar to fill up. But December is also the time for looking back to see what we have learned from our experiences. Thus, I will offer three bits of insight and observation condensed from a full year of over-full days. Then, I invite you to escape with me through a time-machine ride back to a simpler life in a pre-pandemic, pre-digital world.

photo by kalhh

The first is a droll observation made by me just before the Surprise Party Fairy suddenly appeared in my life to grant me an unexpected medical vacation that has not completely ended yet: This change will not be the last change. My conclusion: You can save yourself an enormous amount of stress and over-thinking and time spent in responding to the latest-and-greatest minidrama in your life if you make this mantra your background music. Use it to calm yourself as you determine your response to the sudden appearance of one of Life’s Curve Balls. We often think that new policies by government officials, bosses, teachers, or spouses will irrevokably change our lives. However, in most cases, whatever is upsetting us and raising doubts about our goals still being viable under new rules, will turn out to be only temporary, merely a minor bump in a largely unchanged road. Instead of some new dictum being set in concrete, thus fixed and unchallengeable, we find that they are often accompanied by an unspoken executive summary of, “I wonder what will happen if we do this.” I am saying that, instead of getting excited and predicting the end of civilization as we know it, you can just relax and wait for subsequent announcements of adjustments, clarifications, reviews, or cancellations. Put succinctly, the only thing that you can control in this crazy world… is your response to events that are beyond your control.

The second is an astute summarization after a lifetime of avid consumerism: Our possessions gradually come to possess us. I am the father of a young son who has been known to say, “I don’t know what I want; I just want to buy something” and I live with a modern urban wife from whom daily shopping is the breath of life. Personally, I reached the point of diminishing returns long ago concerning the pleasures and benefits of possessions. After we reach a certain level of satisfying our needs, everything else becomes a matter of satisfying our wants – and those wants are generally ephemeral, shallow, unjustifiable, and influenced by outside forces who have an obvious profit motive. We say, “Money can’t buy happiness”… but we keep trying anyway. Yet, all those new possessions demand our time, energy, routine maintenance, repairs, sometimes insurance, keeping up appearances, eventual replacement, and, all too often, monthly payments. Don’t forget learning curves, clutter, depreciation, and duplication. After a lifetime of unrestrained acquisition, I now believe that a better choice is a life with fewer possessions rather than more. (Want to sow confusion in someone’s smug attitude? Just say, “I am rich enough that I don’t need a car.) I have a friend who today lives in Malta; he has espoused this concept. Well able to afford all manner of new things, Marc recently announced that he had moved to a new house with only two suitcases. Furthermore, his goal for his next move in the future is to reduce his possessions to one suitcase. This epitomizes my new financial policy – which my wife and son assiduously ignore – Don’t buy it. 

The third is a corollary to a statement by that venerable Chinese academic and author from the past, Lin Yutang. Stated in Missouri terms: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” In the book, The Importance of Living, he wryly remarks, “The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” His reasoning is clear and irrefutable and has been restated many times, i.e., “Don’t sweat the small stuff”… “It just doesn’t matter”… and “The biggest waste of time is doing something perfectly that shouldn’t have been done at all”. I think we all see his point. To these axioms, I wish to add my own extension. Among those non-essential things that we should be striving to eliminate, we should remember that non-essential can also mean spending time thinking, especially thinking about how to refine a system to go from 95% efficiency to 96%. In summary, don’t squander your precious time on refining something that is already working perfectly satisfactorily.

And now, let’s climb into a time machine and travel back to my youth, an admittedly romanticized time in this retelling, to view a way of life that seems impossibly simple and peaceful to us in modern times. I invite you to accompany me on a brief trip down Memory Lane to revisit the world of my youth “down at the creek”.

As a prelude, I will refer to the observation that, “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” I grew up in the country, several miles outside a small rural town. Yet it was the largest community for 50 miles/80 KM in all directions. I still relish the memories of the isolation, the quietness, and the simplicity of that lifestyle. This morning, on my computer, I have a set of audio recordings of nature sounds – frogs, crickets, birds, etc. – which I am playing as white noise in the background to overcome the sounds of city life outside my window. I call those recordings River Music. My wife, who described her hometown with a population of 800,000 as a “small town” and my young son, he of the digital generation, think it screamingly funny when I talk about going fishing “down at the creek”. They indulge me but they don’t understand me. So, I take refuge in the past. Welcome to join me.

Down At The Creek

Photo by qimono

 “The child is father to the man”; this means that our youthful experiences shape our adult worldview. Here is part of my story. It is centered around an activity – fishing and camping – which seems distant, even unreal in my current life in the megacity of Chongqing. Before – long before – coming to China, my hometown of Rolla, Missouri, a small town in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, was my entire world. This is a tale of one of the most important and formative elements of my youth, fishing and camping… down at the creek.

For those of us lucky enough to grow up in the country, various outdoor activities were a huge part of our youth. For me, it was always fishing. The experiences, the comradeship, the satisfactions, the challenges of the arcane skills involved, and the beautiful, natural surroundings combined to form indelible images that even the passing years have not been able to erase. Truly, you don’t go fishing to catch fish; you go fishing to go fishing.

Every fisherman has memories of a special place, a stretch of water where you fished again and again.  This was a place where you had so many experiences – fishing experiences and life experiences – that they form an entire chapter in your history.  For me, that special place was on a shallow, muddy creek called the Little Dry Fork.  I never knew the Big Dry Fork or even a Little Wet Fork.  We just had the Little Dry Fork; it was my family’s special place.  Years later, looking back, I still miss it.

At one time, the Little Dry Fork was a fine, deep stream and our particular spot was known as “Catfish Lake”.  By the time I was old enough to fish it, however, it was a wading stream at best, and even wading involved cutting across plenty of sand bars and gravel riffles.  Intermittent shallows between the deeper holes did not prevent it from offering a virtual fishing smorgasbord of largemouth bass, flathead catfish, crappie, hordes of willing bluegill and perch, and carp.  We were very democratic in our fishing; we were willing to catch whatever was willing to bite.  We never knew what was taking our lures or bait until we were halfway through the fight.  You might catch five 4-inch perch in a row – “…perfect for branchlines”, Grandpa always said.  But the sixth bite might be something that required tight-lipped, prayerful attention before finally netting it and getting it into the jon boat.

Traditionally in that era, if a stream was not navigable by boat, it was considered private water.  By this definition, ours was certainly “private water”.  We weren’t too concerned with the legal technicalities; neither were the very few local people who fished through our section of the Little Dry Fork without undue concerns about pertinent trespass statutes.  Still, if it wasn’t completely private, it was close enough. Our stretch of the Little Dry Fork could only be reached by walking or wading at least a half-mile from the nearest public road.  That alone was enough to ensure that our spot remained largely undisturbed.

Our family had fished and camped on this tiny speck of the fishing universe since my Dad was a kid.  Every summer in his time, all the men and boys of the family took a few days to go fishing “down at the creek”.  This fishing trip was scheduled around haying, harvesting, the beginning of school, and other major events of the farm family’s year.  Their tent was a heavy, musty brown canvas tarp, with hay or straw still clinging to it from its last use.  The tarp was thrown over a rope which had been strung between two conveniently placed trees.  Hardly Eddie Bauer quality, but it provided all the shelter and comfort needed by this company, who were there just for the fishing and relaxing.  

I grew up hearing tales of these fishing trips.  One story which always fascinated me was of the time their branch lines caught enough catfish to fill – literally – a washtub after a heavy thunderstorm caused the water to rise overnight and triggered a heavy feeding.  While camping at the creek, Nature alternately baked, froze, drowned, and blew them away.  But it also rewarded them handsomely at times.

Photo by depokom

Sometime back in the 1960s or early ’70s, my grandfather arranged to have a bus brought down to the creek and placed on the very spot where the family had camped for years.  Probably from the far-off city of St. Louis, this bus, retired after years of metropolitan duty, was destined to spend its next decades in rustic, rusting splendor on the banks of the Little Dry Fork.  This was a huge, square, steel-bodied city bus.  A distant relative of the M-60 tank, it was well suited for its new role of providing shelter and storage space for the coming years.  Weatherproof, easily locked and secured, with rows of windows providing ample visibility and ventilation, Grandpa’s bus was the ultimate fishing cabin.

How they got that behemoth up and down hills which even today strain a four-wheel-drive vehicle to its limits is beyond my conception. Such were the ways of the Ancients.  When they really wanted to do something, they just did it.  In my youthful oblivion, I was blithely unaware of this Herculean task.  When I was a kid, it seemed that the bus had been there forever.  On a blistering hot August afternoon or a damn-chilly Memorial Day weekend, it was always a welcome sight as we arrived in 4WD vehicles and flatbed pickups.  

They mounted it on blocks and railroad ties, then equipped it with a propane tank – to fuel the gas refrigerator, stove, and lanterns they installed.  The bus seats were removed and replaced with card tables and folding chairs, cots, and piles of old, faded blankets and threadbare quilts.  Dishes, silverware, and cooking supplies were made mouseproof by the simple expedient of placing an upturned galvanized steel washtub over them as they sat on the tables between campaigns.  There was no well, no running water. Water for drinking and cooking was carried in each trip.  

Between the lingering traces of thousands upon thousands of bus passengers and those musty blankets, the air in the bus was not exactly “springtime fresh” but no one ever complained.  Or, maybe it was from the thin film of residue which covered everything after Grandpa fried up some fresh-caught fish and a batch of his hash brown potatoes – called “hash greys” in the family.  One of my uncles commented that we would never eat such glop anywhere else in the world but, down at the creek, we hungrily consumed every hot, limp shred.  If Weight Watchers had existed back then, Grandpa would surely have been on their Ten Most Wanted list.

Decades later, it seems impossible to believe that I had free range of a stream where the only sounds on a hot summer afternoon might be a farmer on his tractor, maybe a mile away, or, far off in the distance, an eighteen-wheeler going through the gears on its way to the outside world.  In the evening, the wind in the trees was the background music for squirrels leaping from one branch to another.  Grandpa’s “six transistor” portable radio, turned on in the evening to listen to the weather forecast, news, and country music, was a tinny and alien intrusion.  

Despite the gas lanterns, the day’s activities usually ended shortly after sundown and – hopefully – a genuine fishfry.  Soon, it would be time for bed, time for last cigarettes and brief wanderings in the nearby darkness, time for stretching out under those funny-smelling blankets which had warmed earlier generations of my family.  About midnight, the crickets would finally quiet down.  Then, except for an occasional watery explosion when a big bass or flathead catfish fetched his dinner from the water’s surface, the silence was perfect.  The new day would begin with a dawn running of the branch lines to see what fortune had delivered to us as we slept.  Life was innocent and simple.  The rest of the world was a distant fiction, easily forgotten.

When you grow up in Paradise, it probably doesn’t seem like Paradise at the time.  We don’t appreciate what is always there.  As little kids, our vision is limited. Later, youths about to graduate from high school and leave for college don’t spend much time contemplating esoteric concepts like “peaceful” and “undeveloped”.  The world was beckoning and I was restless.  How could I be expected to realize that a spot so quiet and isolated was priceless?  More than priceless; such places are virtually extinct in today’s world.  

Resting under those huge old trees at the edge of the creek, Grandpa’s bus represented all that was good and simple and enduring. Perhaps we cannot go home again. We cannot shed the years, the responsibilities, the regrets. But, I can fondly remember what was surely the best fishing and camping spot in the whole world… down at the creek.

Epilogue: I showed this to my uncle who had also grown up “down at the creek”. Here are some of his comments:

No crappie or bluegill as I recall—a lot of carp.  Several things you missed …………… 

There were a few holes that were over your head—one by the big rock that was probably 6-7 feet deep or a little over

Copperhead snakes and an occasional cottonmouth [poisonous snakes, rare but dangerous]

Mosquitos so big they could bite right through that heavy tarp—which was originally the tarp for the thrashing machine

Squirrels we could shoot with our 22 and that were so good to eat

Target practicing with our 22 rifles and pistol

Deep frying fish we just caught—oh they were so good at midnight with a slice of Holsom bread with a big slice of white onion [Holsum bread was the name of the bakery in our town.]

Having a bottle of beer—or two—on a very hot evening

Seining for fish—dragging the large net to catch the fish and then getting them by hand out of the net

Trot lines running all the way across the creek as well as tree lines

Running the lines at midnight or one o’clock—and sometimes on a good fishing night we would have something on almost every hook

How quiet it would get about 3:00 am for a couple hours before daylight—just dead quiet

The frogs croaking up and down the creek

Catching frogs by hand with a flashlight—and they were so good to eat

Catching snapping turtles on your hook that could bit a finger right off

Seeing snake skins and live spiders inside the bus

Getting away from the creek if it started to lightening

How dark it was before we had electricity—only occasional car lights on a distant road

I recall my hunting knife I made from a saw blade; my fishing rod Dad gave me when I was 9-10 years old; the one lure I had that I caught a big bass on near the bus

And most of all, I recall just sitting around and being together…………

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