Country Boy Sam we called him, and he grew up in a run-down old insulbrick home on three rocky acres of worthless ground out on Hickory Lane with his two scraggly younger brothers, three crazy older sisters, a mother who was always around and a father who wasn’t.
I was country back then myself. I caught perch and catfish in the lake down the hill and brought them home for fish fries and plucked green onions out of the family garden and ate them raw. 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 game of hide-and- seek with my sisters Lukey and Peet and brothers Earl and Foob.
But Sam was 10 times more country than I was, and at ages 12 to 14, he was my hero and role model and best friend. He could catch a bluegill with no bait on the hook and shinny up a white oak with no branches for the first twenty feet and speak to every neighborhood dog in its own language. You should have seen them following him down the lane toward our minnow-seining creek like he was the pied piper.
He hunted squirrels by climbing trees and yanking them by the tails out of hollows in the wood. And he was kin to every garter snake in Mercer County and often carried two or three of them in the tousled hair under his baseball cap. He’d show up an hour late for a pick-up ball game and take his hat off and introduce his slithery friends. And he could trap muskrats and shotgun rabbits and angle for largemouths like there was no tomorrow. Especially at Old Man Winslow’s big bass pond, where the fishing was both good and also 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 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 days of our blood-brother camaraderie, before I would sadly abandon his friendship for the siren calls of pretty girls and upward striving in school and organized sports. It happened so fast, I didn’t even see it coming.
We hiked two miles 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 killer pack of wild dogs we heard howling in the night and the crazy one-armed stalker that preyed upon innocent youngsters in the dark. Eventually we settled into our damp sleeping bags and fell asleep.
In the pre-dawn dark, we woke and ate cold doughnuts from Sam’s pack and drank tepid water from his thermos and grabbed our fishing gear and set out. We followed the creek back in upstream one hundred yards, listening to the invisible murmuring waters, then slipped under the barbed wire and made our way blind through a mine field of cow patties in Winslow’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 the deep-throated bullfrogs croaking in the background.
Sam moved first, casting a flatfish lure into the still waters and retrieving it just below the surface briefly 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 hula-popper 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 Winslow plodding down the hill toward the pond. You 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 Winslow to find. We tossed the other two back in. Then slipped back down into the woods and away.
We would wait a few days and come back, we told ourselves, having no idea this would be our last fishing trip together. Our future plans were clear, we thought. We were 14 years old. The bass fishing was good. And forbidden.
“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, August 28, 2016.