Sneaking in at Old Man Critchlow’s pond

Trailer Park Sam we called him, as young teens without empathy or sense are prone to do, although he never lived in a park per se, just in a rundown old mobile home on five worthless rocky acres with three younger brothers, two older sisters, a mother who was always around and a father who wasn’t.

I was country back then myself. I caught suckers and catfish in the river down the hill and plucked green onions out of the family garden and ate them raw, dirt and all. I cleaned chicken crap out of the backyard coop and tended to our beagles and left the house every summer morning to wander the woodlands and countryside all day long, getting back just in time for dinner and a yard game of hide-and-seek with my two sisters Lukey and Peet and my brothers Earl and Foo.

But Sam was 10 times more country than I could ever dream of being, and at ages 12 to 14, I looked up to him as role model and best friend. He could catch a bluegill with no bait on the hook and shinny up a white pine with no branches. He could speak to every neighborhood dog in its own language. They’d stop their home yard frolicking every time he wandered by and saddle up and murmur to him in animal tones.

And he was kin to every garter snake in Mercer County and often carried them in his tousled hair under his baseball cap. He’d show up an hour late for a pick-up ballgame and take his hat off and introduce his slithery friends. And he could trap muskrats and hunt rabbits and angle for largemouths like there was no tomorrow. Especially at Old Man Critchlow’s big bass pond, where fishing was prohibited.

Trespassing wasn’t a crime back in those days, at least not in our simple country-boy minds. It was a challenge and a contest that you could win or lose. Our final visit to the pond, Sam and I were 14 years old, and, although we didn’t know it then, we were in the last months of our bloodbrother camaraderie, before I would — sadly — abandon his friendship for the siren calls of pretty girls and organized sports.

We hiked three miles that evening up Lamor Road to a secluded grassy spot along Clay Furnace Creek and set up the ancient army tent that Sam had dug out of his father’s closet. We built a fire and roasted hot dogs and told stories about the crazy one-armed rural stalker and the killer pack of wild dogs we imagined we heard howling in the night. Eventually we settled into our soggy sleeping bags and fell asleep.

In the pre-dawn dark, we woke and ate cold doughnuts from Sam’s pack and drank warm water from his thermos and grabbed our fishing gear and set out. We followed the creek back in upstream 100 yards, listening to the invisible murmuring waters, then slipped under barbed wire and made our way blind through a minefield of cow patties in Critchlow’s pasture. We plunged into a thicket where briars and branches stung at our knuckles and cheekbones and then crossed into a field just as daybreak lightened overhead.

A short climb up one hill now and we were there. Mist rose off the pure, flat surface of the pond and we paused and stared and listened to the early-morning birdsong and bullfrogs croaking in the background.

Sam moved first, casting a flatfish lure into the still waters and retrieving it just below the surface for five seconds before a big fish exploded out of the water and Sam set the hook and reeled him in, a fine 15-inch largemouth bass. I tossed my hulapopper and caught two 12-inchers in two casts and laid them both out on the rocky shoreline at my feet.

Then a screen door slammed in the distance. We looked up and spotted Old Man Critchlow plodding down the hill toward the pond. We could see puffs of his breath ranting in the air. Sam and I looked at each other and frowned. We had lost the contest this time. I reached down, severed the head of one fish and left it on the bank for him to find. Then we slipped back down into the woods and away.

We would wait a few days and come back, we told ourselves. Our future plans were clear. We were 14 years old. The bass fishing was good. And forbidden.

 “The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, July 11, 2010

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