Tall Tales and Short Stories

These are stories about different events in my life. Some are in fiction form due to the age of the writer at the time of the event in relation to the memory of the writer at the time of writing. Age does that sometimes. Enjoy the stories and provide some feedback.

Location: Fort Smith, Arkansas, United States

July 07, 2006

The Flood of April, 1979

Lightning burst through the bedroom window; illuminating the entire room. A majestic oak from across the driveway cast an eerie shadow across the opposite wall. Seconds later, the house shook as thunder rolled overhead.

Gasping in momentary fear, unaware of my surroundings, I awoke. Though violent claps of thunder shook me awake, I attempted to embrace the slumber that had just escaped. The ting of small pieces of metal from Dad’s belt could be heard through the hallway doors – theirs and mine. Sounds of my father dressing meant it must have been five-thirty.

Lightening. Another thunderclap. Shadows now came through the window from a new angle. The storm had moved, yet the rain still pelted the window and bricks in sheets. Roaring wind rushing through the piney woods sounded like a freight train coming near. Something was different. Sleep finally returned.

I awoke again, this time as the smell of bacon and coffee slithered into my room. Rain still pattered against the window – only lighter now. Who was cooking? Puzzled, I pulled on my jeans. Dad would often cook breakfast on his days off, but Mom never cooked breakfast on a school day. Wandering across the living room, towards the kitchen, Dad’s dark blue fire hat came into view on the counter. Why was he still home? He should have been at work hours ago.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Trees are down across the road by the Inman place,” a grin across his face was offset by his Conway Twitty hair and semi-Elvis sideburns. He still wore his crisp blue Houston Fire Department uniform; his name tag proudly proclaimed “FRIERY” above his left breast pocket; crossed fire nozzles gleaned from the tips of the stiffened shirt collar. “I called in and took a personal day. Breakfast is ready if you are hungry.”

“Yeah, okay,” I yawned back at him.

“That old man’s pond is starting to overflow into the ditches,” his grin broadened.

That old man – that crusty, mean, old man would be more appropriate – had a pond on his property at the front end of our road. He never let anyone fish in his pond; he just sat by the bank, feeding his catfish. Rumor had it he had a metal plate in his head from a Korean War wound. If true, that might explain his strange behavior, but not excuse it. We contracted to mow his property once. He would scream about branches and rocks being thrown into the water by the blades as I passed near the pond. All he cared about were his precious catfish. Every day, we drove past that pond; there he sat, in a lawn chair, casting bread crumbs and corn onto the water. Frenzied catfish churned up the water while they fought over the food.

It took a minute for Dad’s statement to sink in. That’s why he grinned. All of those catfish would be in the ditches, easy prey to be taken. I grinned back at him over a plate of biscuits-and-gravy with bacon.

Paw-paw, or Pop as the grandkids called him, came in from next door; a trickle of tobacco juice ran down his chin and a toothless smile. His damp, disheveled clothes having no color coordination hung lifelessly on his worn frame. I pulled on my waders; he took off his hat. His three or four hairs on top of his otherwise bald head stood straight up from the static electricity in the air.

Matt, my nine year-old brother, wandered in from the other side of the living room. His bright red hair pointed in every direction but down. He was skinny and tall for his age, all legs and arms like Gumby.

“Do I have to go to school?” he asked, anticipation coated every word.

“You can’t. The bus can’t get down the road,” Dad said. “Go get some warm clothes on. We’re going fishing.”

Matt spun around and darted off to his room. An energetic flash of fur replaced him in the kitchen. Somehow, Frito, Mom’s miniature collie, had escaped from the bedroom and wanted in on the action. More to the point, he wanted some of the bacon. Frito jumped up on Pop, begging for food. Pop had an irrational and unexplained fear of dogs. It’s not that he was afraid of dogs; rather he was unable to give them the proper attention they demanded. For some unknown reason, given the choice, dogs would demand his attention before anyone else in the room. So, Pop cursed him in some sort of gibberish he thought was Spanish, while trying to get as far away from Frito as possible.

“Curtis… uh, Matt… uh, Steve, get this thing away from me!” Pop always went through the family names until he got to the one he wanted.

We went out to the truck and loaded up nets, coolers, a chainsaw, and a 410 shotgun – for the snakes. It felt strange to load up for a fishing trip and not bother with poles or tackle boxes. We drove down that narrow, limb-strewn, blacktop road in horror and awe of the transformation the storm had elicited. Trees, laden with the saturation of hours of rain, lay bent across the road from each side forming a pine needle laced tunnel. Areas where water never stood were now submerged. Snakes slithered across the road in search of higher, and dryer, ground. A Timber Rattler stretched completely across the road, the tail and head touched opposite sides. The impact of the truck running over the rattler jarred us. We looked out the back window and saw it writhing in the street, curling up upon itself in pain. Narrower pines leaned over against massive oaks. Ditches, only a foot or two deep when dry, spilled rivulets across the road. A tiny creek, with typically only six inches of water, was a torrential river, funneled through a four foot wide pipe under the road. Much of the water on one side, spewed skyward while the water that made it into the pipe shot out the other end as if under some sort of mechanical pressure. Clay red and loamy brown water then rushed down stream to the San Jacinto River to join up with flood waters from various parts of the county.

On the other side of the creek, the landscape opened up. It looked like a scene from a disaster movie. Water stood above the front steps of elegant houses, plastic toys floated across once pristine pastures, bottom rails of fences had disappeared from sight, horses stood in distress. Down a side road, kids played in rafts that floated in the street. One ran behind a flat-bottom boat, pushing it down the road. Our passing truck sent them in a mad rush to play in the waves. The surreal conditions that existed in the little neighborhood overwhelmed me.

Dad stopped the truck with a squeal. Catfish were in the overflow trench that came from the pond. The trench - deep enough to drain the surrounding ground - wound through an open field, spilling into the ditch along the country road. Catfish looked like massive salmon flunkies, trying to swim upstream, but moving, ever faster, downstream.

“Get in the ditch and start throwing them up here in the street,” Dad said, as he motioned towards the water.

The ditch, normally three feet deep in this area, flowed with water four feet deep. Easing myself into the murky water, “ease” was impossible. My feet slipped out from under me, sending me under. Upward they went while I struggled to keep my head above water. Catfish, from every direction, banged into my legs, my back, even my head. Reaching for anything to stop my progression downstream towards the creek, my hands found a root and grabbed on for dear life.

Gradually regaining my foothold and bracing myself against the rushing water, the stampede of catfish continued to slam against me. Reaching down, I held my arms together, and rose up with a large catfish. He shook violently; the spike in his dorsal fin pierced my arm, drawing blood. My arm jerked away and the whiskered fiend escaped. This method had to be rethought.

So, rather than catching the entire body of a fish, my hands deftly felt under the water for gills. Once found, my bare hands plunged deep in to the coarse gills to gain a firm grasp. Success! Out of the water came the largest catfish I had ever caught – with or without fishing line. I quickly threw him onto the middle of the road. Dad reached down and hooked a scale into the lip of the catfish. As he pulled him up, the fish struggled against the invasive hook. Pop paced up and down the ditch; worried, excited, back to worry.

“Twelve and half pounds,” Dad called out. He turned and threw the fish into the truck bed.
So it went for an hour: grab a fish and throw it on the road, weigh the fish, and throw it in the truck. If it was less than two pounds, Dad threw it back in behind me. An older couple had set up down stream from us and tried to catch anything that got past me. Their laughter sang as they would catch another catfish. Every now and then, I would sneak a peak back at them to see how big a fish they had caught.

Suddenly, the old man came out, a shotgun in hand. Though the gun was never pointed at anyone; the implied threat made us uneasy. He ranted about his catfish. He yelled and screamed that we had to put his fish back in the pond. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared.

Strain of the water and weight of the fish soon tired me, so we exchanged places. The view from the top was better. In the back of the truck, Matt tried to line the fish up, head to tail. He would get a few lined up, and then step over to grab another. Vibrations of the movement in the truck caused the fish to flop all over. Dull “thuds” of their heads banging the bed were offset by the crisp “slap” of their tails. Matt raced back and forth, trying to regain control over the errant fish. This was a new twist on the “herding cats” theme.

A short while later, a sheriff’s patrol pulled up. Slowly, the deputy climbed out of his car, mindful of the slick road and rising water. As he walked over and glanced into the truck bed, his eyebrows rose at the sight in the bottom. Cordially, he asked how we were doing and if we had fishing permits. (Fishing permits were not actually needed because rod and reels were not in use. The law has since changed.) Mostly, the deputy made small talk while we continued. He told us about some of the flooding in other parts of the county. The Governor Clements declared the county a disaster area; President Carter would later issue a disaster declaration for the area. The storm positioned itself over Conroe, in Montgomery County, and then opened up the spigot. Some areas received as much as fourteen inches of rain overnight. Other counties were affected, but we had caught the brunt.

The old man reappeared, though without his shotgun. His attitude chafed the officer; especially when he told the deputy to order us to return his fish.

“Why?” the deputy replied. “They are just going to come back down that outlet, down this ditch, into that creek, and, eventually, end up on someone else’s table. At least your neighbors will have something to eat instead of some stranger.”

“I don’t want anyone eating my fish,” the old man fumed.

“Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. The fish are on public property now. They are free for anyone.”

The rage built up in the old curmudgeon so much his wrinkled mug looked like it would explode. As he stormed off, his hands flailed in all directions and he screamed insults over his shoulder.

By now, the truck bed was covered. We had more fish than we could possibly store. So, discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to take what we had and go home. The officer agreed and he left as well.

When we returned to the house, the catfish were exhausted. Matt finally got them all lined up. The entire bed of the truck was covered. Mom came out and took a Polaroid of Dad squatting down beside the fish. When we started to clean them, Pop kept a tally of the weight: one hundred and ten pounds of filleted catfish.

A few days later, the Polaroid picture appeared in the Conroe Currier, our local paper. Dad invited the firefighters from his station, and others, to come out for a fish fry. Two shifts of firefighters turned out and plates were sent back to the on duty shift that evening. After all of that, we still had a freezer half-full of catfish.

My father worked full time as a firefighter, part time as a painter, and spent his free time helping others. I had school, work, chores, and homework. With our different interests, we did not spend a lot of time together. Although I had to share this moment with other family members, it will always remain one of my more special memories with him. Three years later, at the beginning of my senior year in high school, in 1982, he passed away from cancer.


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