“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 – several washtubs 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.
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.
Note: I showed this blog post 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…………